Mar 122018

Today is the birthday (1685) of George Berkeley — generally known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne) — an Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called “immaterialism” (later referred to as “subjective idealism” by others). This theory denies (in qualified form) the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers and, as a result, cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

Berkeley was born at his family home, Dysart Castle, near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, the eldest son of William Berkeley, a cadet of the noble family of Berkeley. Little is known of his mother. He was educated at Kilkenny College and attended Trinity College, Dublin, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1704 and completing a master’s degree in 1707. He remained at Trinity College after completion of his degree as a tutor and Greek lecturer. His earliest publication was on mathematics, but the first that brought him notice was his An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, first published in 1709. In the essay, Berkeley examines visual distance, magnitude, position and problems of sight and touch. While this work raised much controversy at the time, its conclusions are now accepted as an established part of the theory of optics. The next publication to appear was the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710, which had great success and gave him a lasting reputation, though few accepted his theory that nothing exists outside the mind. This was followed in 1713 by Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in which he propounded his system of philosophy, the leading principle of which is that the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived. One of his main objectives was to combat the prevailing materialism of his time. The theory was largely received with ridicule, while even those such as Samuel Clarke and William Whiston, who did acknowledge his “extraordinary genius,” were nevertheless convinced that his first principles were false.

According to Berkeley there are only two kinds of things: spirits and ideas. Spirits are simple, active beings which produce and perceive ideas; ideas are passive beings which are produced and perceived. The use of the concepts of “spirit” and “idea” is central in Berkeley’s philosophy. As used by him, these concepts are difficult to translate into modern terminology. His concept of “spirit” is close to the concept of “conscious subject” or of “mind”, and the concept of “idea” is close to the concept of “sensation” or “state of mind” or “conscious experience”.

Thus, Berkeley denied the existence of matter as a metaphysical substance, but did not deny the existence of physical objects such as apples or mountains:

I do not argue against the existence of any one thing that we can apprehend, either by sense or reflection. That the things I see with mine eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. The only thing whose existence we deny, is that which philosophers call matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this, there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it. (Principles #35)

This basic claim of Berkeley’s thought, his “idealism”, is sometimes and somewhat derisively called “immaterialism” or, occasionally, subjective idealism. In Principles #3, he wrote, using a combination of Latin and English, esse is percipi (to be is to be perceived), most often if slightly inaccurately attributed to Berkeley as the pure Latin phrase esse est percipi.  Hence, human knowledge is reduced to two elements: that of spirits and of ideas (Principles #86). In contrast to ideas, a spirit cannot be perceived. A person’s spirit, which perceives ideas, is to be comprehended intuitively by inward feeling or reflection (Principles #89). For Berkeley, we have no direct ‘idea’ of spirits, albeit we have good reason to believe in the existence of other spirits, for their existence explains the purposeful regularities we find in experience. “It is plain that we cannot know the existence of other spirits otherwise than by their operations, or the ideas by them excited in us” (Dialogues #145). This is the solution that Berkeley offers to the problem of other minds. Finally, the order and purposefulness of the whole of our experience of the world and especially of nature overwhelms us into believing in the existence of an extremely powerful and intelligent spirit that causes that order. According to Berkeley, reflection on the attributes of that external spirit leads us to identify it with God. Thus, a material thing such as an apple consists of a collection of ideas (shape, color, taste, physical properties, etc.) which are caused in the spirits of humans by the spirit of God.

Other than philosophy, Berkeley also influenced modern psychology with his work on John Locke’s theory of association and how it could be used to explain how humans gain knowledge in the physical world. He also used the theory to explain perception, stating that all qualities where, as Locke would call them, secondary qualities therefore perception laid entirely in the perceiver and not in the object. These are both topics today studied in modern psychology.

In the period between 1714 and 1720, Berkeley interspersed his academic endeavors with periods of extensive travel in Europe, including one of the most extensive Grand Tours of the length and breadth of Italy ever undertaken. In 1721, he took Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland, earning his doctorate in divinity, and once again chose to remain at Trinity College Dublin, lecturing this time in Divinity and in Hebrew. In 1721/2 he was made Dean of Dromore and, in 1724, Dean of Derry. In 1725, he began the project of founding a college in Bermuda for training ministers and missionaries in the colony, in pursuit of which he gave up his deanery.

In 1728, he married Anne Forster, daughter of John Forster, Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas, and his first wife Rebecca Monck. He then went to North America in pursuit of his goal to found a college. He landed near Newport, Rhode Island, where he bought a plantation at Middletown – the famous “Whitehall.” In 1732 he left North America and returned to London. He and Anne had four children who survived infancy: Henry, George, William and Julia, and at least two other children who died in infancy. William’s death in 1751 was a great cause of grief to Berkeley.

While living in London’s Saville Street, he took part in efforts to create a home for the city’s abandoned children. The Foundling Hospital was founded by Royal Charter in 1739, and Berkeley is listed as one of its original governors. In 1734, he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland, a position he held until his death. Soon afterwards, he published Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher, directed against both Shaftesbury and Bernard de Mandeville; and in 1735–37 The Querist. His last two publications were Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tarwater, And divers other Subjects connected together and arising one from another (1744) and Further Thoughts on Tar-water (1752). Pine tar is an effective antiseptic and disinfectant when applied to cuts on the skin, but Berkeley argued for the use of pine tar as a broad panacea for diseases. His 1744 work on tar-water sold more copies than any of his other books during his lifetime. He remained at Cloyne until 1752, when he retired. With his wife and daughter Julia he went to Oxford to live with his son George and supervise his education. He died soon afterward and was buried in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.

The University of California, Berkeley, was named after him, although the pronunciation has evolved to suit American English: (/ˈbərkliː/ BURK-lee). The naming was suggested in 1866 by Frederick Billings, a trustee of the then College of California.

The potato was the great staple of the Irish as early as the 17th century and was well established in Berkeley’s day. There are various Irish recipes for potatoes that I have given already. Champ, sometimes called poundies, is a common Irish country dish similar to colcannon. You don’t really need a recipe because it is basically mashed potatoes with additions. Cook diced potatoes in the usual way until they are soft enough to mash. Drain the cooking water and mash with the addition of butter, milk, cheese, and, most important, chopped green onions. In the past chopped nettles were sometimes used in place of the green onions. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Dec 122017

Today is the birthday (1821) of Gustave Flaubert a highly influential French novelist who has been considered the leading exponent of literary realism in France. His name was a source of amusement in my household years ago because of a tale told by my late wife. When my wife (DB) was about 3 years old she had this exchange with her mother (EB) who was a French teacher at the time. They were tidying the living room:

EB: Deb, can you hand me Flaubert?

DB: Flo Bear ?????? (Eyes glistening, and voice ecstatic).

Since she told me that tale, I cannot think of Flaubert without imagining a teddy bear in a chequered gingham dress. I am sure he would not be amused – though, maybe he would, given the French/English play on words.

Flaubert was born in Rouen, the second son of Anne Justine Caroline (née Fleuriot; 1793–1872) and Achille-Cléophas Flaubert (1784–1846), director and senior surgeon of the major hospital in Rouen. He began writing at an early age, as early as 8 according to some sources. He was educated at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, and did not leave until 1840, when he went to Paris to study law. In Paris, he was an indifferent student and found the city distasteful. He made a few acquaintances, including Victor Hugo. Toward the end of 1840, he traveled in the Pyrenees and Corsica. In 1846, after an attack of epilepsy, he left Paris and abandoned the study of law.

From 1846 to 1854, Flaubert had a relationship with the poet Louise Colet, and his letters to her have survived. It is frequently claimed that this was his only real love affair, and afterwards his relationships with women were either Platonic, or for sex only (usually with prostitutes, that he made no secret of). After leaving Paris, he returned to Croisset, near the Seine, close to Rouen, and lived there for the rest of his life. He did however make occasional visits to Paris and England, where he apparently had a mistress. With his lifelong friend Maxime Du Camp, he traveled in Brittany in 1846. In 1849–50 he went on a long journey to the Middle East, visiting Greece and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis. He spent five weeks in Istanbul in 1850. He visited Carthage in 1858 to conduct research for his novel Salammbô. Flaubert never married and never had children. His reason for not having children is revealed in a letter he sent to Coulet, dated December 11, 1852. In it he revealed that he was opposed to childbirth, saying he would “transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.”

Flaubert was a tireless worker and often complained in his letters to friends about the strenuous nature of his work. He was close to his niece, Caroline Commanville, and had a close friendship and correspondence with George Sand. He occasionally visited Parisian acquaintances, including Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.

Prussian soldiers occupied Flaubert’s house during the War of 1870, and his mother died in 1872. After her death, he fell into financial difficulty. His health declined, and he died at Croisset of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1880 at the age of 58. He was buried in the family vault in the cemetery of Rouen.

Flaubert famously avoided the inexact, the abstract, the vaguely inapt expression, and scrupulously eschewed the cliché. In a letter to George Sand he said that he spends his time “trying to write harmonious sentences, avoiding assonances.” Flaubert believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding “le mot juste” (“the right word”), which he considered as the key means to achieve quality in literary art. He worked in sullen solitude—sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page—never satisfied with what he had written

In Flaubert’s correspondence he intimates this, explaining correct prose did not flow out of him and that his style was achieved through hard work and constant revision. Flaubert’s output over a lifetime was minuscule in comparison with his contemporaries, such as Balzac or Zola. Walter Pater famously called Flaubert the “martyr of style.”

Here’s some pithy quotes:

Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.

Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.

At the bottom of her heart, however, she [Madame Bovary] was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.”

Are the days of winter sunshine just as sad for you, too? When it is misty, in the evenings, and I am out walking by myself, it seems to me that the rain is falling through my heart and causing it to crumble into ruins.

One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels.

Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.

Doubt … is an illness that comes from knowledge and leads to madness.

I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.

It’s hard to communicate anything exactly and that’s why perfect relationships between people are difficult to find.

The last quote leads directly to my recipe du jour. Flaubert was very good friends with George Sand who held frequent dinner parties in the 1860s and 70s with guests like Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix and Chopin. But Flaubert was her favorite dinner guest for a number or reasons, and they wrote quite often to one another about food. Sand had a number of digestive problems as did Flaubert, which they corresponded about . She wrote, “In giving up trying to eat REAL MEAT, I have found again a strong stomach . . . I drink cider with enthusiasm, no more champagne! … I live on sour wine and galette.” Guy de Maupassant observed of Flaubert, “Almost never did he eat meat; only eggs, vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a cup of cold chocolate, finding that too much nourishment made him heavy and unfit for work.” Sand wrote to Flaubert often about her meals, and they frequently planned meals together. Once she wrote, “I lunch on two eggs made into an omelet or shirred, and a cup of coffee.”  Flaubert wrote, “I don’t like to eat alone. I have to associate the idea of someone with the things that please me. But this someone is rare. What is certain is that I experience a particular sentiment for you and I cannot define it.”

Christiane Sand, descendant of George Sand, collaborated with Pascal Pringarbe and Muriel Lacroix to produce À la table de George Sand, which they believe reflect recipes for dishes she prepared for family and guests even though we have no direct knowledge of her actual recipes, and not much to go on concerning what she actually cooked. She does say that she loved galettes, and this is the recipe (in translation and slightly emended) from the book. Fromage blanc is a creamy soft cheese made with whole or skimmed milk and cream. It is similar to some kinds of quark. It has the consistency of cream cheese, but contains much less fat. Pure fromage blanc is virtually fat free. Boiling the potatoes for only 10 minutes, hoping they will be soft enough to mash is ridiculous. Allow 20 minutes, and test after that time.

Potato Galette


2 cups flour
1 egg (plus extra for egg wash)
4 oz butter, cut into small cubes
1½ lb potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
½ cup fromage blanc
½ cup grated gruyère
salt and pepper
1 tbsp fresh thyme or sage, chopped


  1. On a clean surface, make the flour into a mound with a well in the center. Crack 1 egg into the well, along with a pinch of salt and 1 cup of cold water. Knead the dough until smooth, and let sit for 2 hours.
  2. Put a large covered pot of water on medium-high heat. When the water is boiling, add the potatoes and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Mash with a potato masher, then run through a fine sieve or potato ricer. Put in a large bowl with fromage blanc and gruyère, mixing well to combine. Season generously with thyme, salt and pepper.
  3. While the potatoes cook, roll the dough to ¼-inch thick. Cover half the dough with ¼ of the butter cubes, then fold in half and roll out to the same thickness. Repeat with the remaining butter, then chill in the freezer 30 minutes. [I presume “repeat” means that you do this a total of 4 times].
  4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the dough into two 10-inch circles. Spread the potato mixture on one circle, leaving a ½-inch border, then cover with the second circle, crimping the edges closed.
  5. Lightly beat the remaining egg in a small bowl and brush over the top of the galette. Bake 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the potato is cooked.
Aug 312016


Today is the birthday (1821) of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz a Prussian physician and physicist who made significant contributions to several widely varied areas of modern science. In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism. In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics. As a philosopher, he is known for his philosophy of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature, the science of aesthetics, and ideas on the civilizing power of science. Some of his ideas are a bit spaced out and are not widely supported, or even known, any more. But there’s no question that Helmholtz had a fertile mind.

Helmholtz’ father, Ferdinand, had been in the Prussian army fighting against Napoleon, but, despite an excellent university education he preferred to teach in a secondary school in Potsdam, which left the family struggling financially.  Ferdinand was an artistic man and under his influence Hermann grew up to have a strong love of music and painting, which he then put to use in his contemplation of the unity of a number of investigations, especially physics and aesthetics. It’s in this area that I most know his work.

Hermann attended Potsdam Gymnasium where his father taught philology and classical literature. His interests at school were mainly in physics and he would have liked to have studied that subject at university. But the financial position of the family, however, meant that he could not go to university unless he received a scholarship. Financial support of this kind was not available for physics so his father persuaded him to study medicine which was supported by the government.


In 1837 Helmholtz was awarded a government grant to enable him to study medicine at the Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute of Medicine and Surgery in Berlin. He did not receive the money without strings attached, however, and he had to sign a document promising to work for ten years as a doctor in the Prussian army after graduating. In 1838 he began his studies in Berlin. Although he was officially studying at the Institute of Medicine and Surgery, being in Berlin he had the opportunity of attending courses at the University. He took this chance, attending lectures in chemistry and physiology.

Given Helmholtz’s contributions to mathematics later in his career it would be reasonable to have expected him to have taken mathematics courses at the University of Berlin at this time. However he did not, rather he studied mathematics on his own, reading works by Laplace, Biot and Daniel Bernoulli. He also read philosophy works at this time, particularly the works of Kant. His research career began in 1841 when he began work on his dissertation. He rejected the direction which physiology had been taking which had been based on “vital forces” which were not physical in nature. Helmholtz strongly argued for founding physiology completely on the principles of physics and chemistry, and ultimately this approach led to his contemporary fame.

Helmholtz graduated from the Medical Institute in Berlin in 1843 and was assigned to a military regiment at Potsdam, but spent all his spare time doing research. His work concentrated on showing that muscle force was derived from chemical and physical principles. If some “vital force” were present, he argued, then perpetual motion would become possible. In 1847 he published his ideas in his paper “Über die Erhaltung der Kraft” which laid down the mathematical principles behind the conservation of energy.


Helmholtz argued in favor of the conservation of energy using both philosophical and physical arguments. He based many ideas on earlier works by Sadi Carnot, Clapeyron, Joule and others. That philosophical arguments came right up front in this work was typical of all of Helmholtz’s contributions. He argued that physical scientists had to conduct experiments to find general law. In that way science

 … endeavours to ascertain the unknown causes of processes from their visible effects; it seeks to comprehend them according to the laws of causality. … Theoretical natural science must, therefore, if it is not to rest content with a partial view of the nature of things, take a position in harmony with the present conception of the nature of simple forces and the consequences of this conception. Its task will be completed when the reduction of phenomena to simple forces is completed, and when it can at the same time be proved that the reduction given is the only one possible which the phenomena will permit.

He then showed that the hypothesis that work could not be continually produced out of nothing inevitably led to the principle of the conservation of kinetic energy. This principle he then applied to a variety of different situations. He demonstrated that in various situations where energy appears to be lost, it is, in fact, converted into heat energy. This happens in collisions, expanding gases, muscle contraction, electrostatics, galvanic phenomena and electrodynamics. The paper was quickly viewed as an important contribution and played a major role in Helmholtz’ career. The following year he was released from his obligation to serve as an army doctor so that he could accept the vacant chair of physiology at Königsberg.


His career progressed rapidly in Königsberg. He published important work on physiological optics and physiological acoustics. He received great acclaim for his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851 and rapidly gained a strong international reputation.  In 1855 he was appointed to the vacant chair of anatomy and physiology in Bonn, but because his approach to physiology as a matter of physics and chemistry and not “magic,” he got a lot of complaints from traditionalist students, and wound up at Heidelberg University in 1858 where they promised to set up a new physiology institute for him.

Some of his most important work was carried out while he held this post in Heidelberg. He studied mathematical physics and acoustics producing a major study in 1862 which looked at musical theory and the perception of sound. In mathematical appendices he advocated the use of Fourier series. In 1843 Ohm had stated the fundamental principle of physiological acoustics, concerned with the way in which one hears combination tones. Helmholtz explained the origin of music on the basis of his fundamental physiological hypotheses. He formulated a resonance theory of hearing which provided a physiological explanation of Ohm’s principle. He also explained why you get a note when you blow across the neck of a bottle, and why the note changes depending on how much liquid is in the bottle. Technically this is called a Helmholtz resonator.


From around 1866 Helmholtz began to move away from physiology and move more towards physics. When the chair of physics in Berlin became vacant in 1870 he indicated his interest in the position and in 1871 he took up this post. He had begun to investigate the properties of non-Euclidean space around the time his interests were turning towards physics in 1867. This led Helmholtz to question the adequacy of Euclidean geometry to describe the physical world, and, in general, broadened his thinking into the realms of philosophy.

There’s more but I’ll stop. I’ve probably already caused a few glassy eyes. On the one hand, Helmholtz revolutionized many scientific fields because he was a true polymath at a time when scientific fields were becoming narrower and narrower in their focus. Many would do well to follow his lead, but this is virtually impossible in today’s highly professionalized and specialized world. Occasionally these days physicists stumble on ancient Chinese philosophy and the like, and you get a bit of playful synthesis. But it does not to amount to anything of any importance. A person of Helmholtz’ stature might do better nowadays, but with so much technical matter to cover this may be impossible. Pity. Helmholtz was driving down a path to show that the natural science of the physical would eventually explain EVERYTHING from the motion of objects to the aesthetic appreciation of color and sound. Good luck with that. The science of the 19th century is simply not up to the task; nor that of the 21st century in my oh so humble opinion. I believe we need a new paradigm, which I doubt will be forthcoming in my lifetime. I will give Helmholtz A++ for effort though (generous of me, I know).

Potsdam, Helmholtz’ birthplace, was the capital of Prussia, but ceded its central place to neighboring Berlin when Germany was unified in Helmholtz’ lifetime, although Potsdam remained the residence of the Kaisers until 1918. As with other manufactured nations, we can speak of German cuisine as a whole, which notion has some merit, but also blurs over regional distinctions. The fact is, though, that certain dishes are universal, and the potato, which was popularized by Frederick the Great of Prussia dominates to this day. So, I suggest German potato pancakes, Kartoffelpuffer, which are widespread in German cuisine. I’ve never used a recipe, but I’ll give you one for completeness. The main issue is that the potatoes are grated raw, so you need the right quantity of egg and flour to bind the potatoes together, otherwise they will fall apart when cooked. Trust me – I know this. In Prussia they are served as a side dish with meat or with applesauce as a sweet dish.




1 kg/2 lb potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
1 onion, peeled and grated
2 large eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
2 tbsp flour
vegetable oil


Drain all excess moisture from the potatoes but do not squeeze them dry. This will ruin the taste.

Mix the potatoes, onion, and egg together in a bowl, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Add enough flour, a little at a time, to absorb any excess moisture in the potatoes.

Divide the mixture into 8 and shape each portion into flat, round patties. Place the patties individually on trays, and  let them rest in the refrigerator for at least 30-45 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the kartoffelpuffer in small batches, flipping once so that they are golden brown on both sides and cooked through. This part takes some practice. Don’t be tempted to cook them too quickly, or they will not cook all the way through.

Aug 082016
Dr Bob

Dr Bob

Today is the birthday (1879) of Robert Holbrook Smith,  also known as Dr. Bob, a U.S. physician and surgeon who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) with Bill Wilson, more commonly known as Bill W. Bill W. is much better known both inside and outside AA because he is credited as the author of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism), in which all manner of AA philosophies are expounded, especially the 12 Steps. But it was the meeting of Bill W with Dr Bob that set the whole process of AA in motion, and without the collaboration of Bill W with Dr Bob it is unlikely that AA would have existed.

Dr Bob was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where he was raised. His parents took him to religious services four times a week, and in response he determined he would never attend religious services when he grew up. Smith began drinking at university, attending Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Early on he noticed that he could recover from drinking bouts quicker and easier than his classmates and that he never had headaches, which caused him to believe he was an alcoholic from the time he began drinking. Smith was a member of Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity at Dartmouth. After graduation in 1902, he worked for three years selling hardware in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal and continued drinking heavily. He then returned to school to study medicine at the University of Michigan. By this time drinking had begun to affect him to the point where he began missing classes. His drinking caused him to leave school, but he returned and passed his examinations for his sophomore year. He transferred to Rush Medical College, but his alcoholism worsened to the point that his father was summoned to try to halt his downward trajectory. But his drinking increased and after a dismal showing during final examinations, the university required that he remain for two extra quarters and remain sober during that time as a condition of graduating.

After graduation Smith became a hospital intern, and for two years he was able to stay busy enough to refrain from heavy drinking. He married Anne Robinson Ripley on January 25, 1915, and opened up his own office in Akron, Ohio, specializing in colorectal surgery and returned to heavy drinking. Recognizing his problem, he checked himself into more than a dozen hospitals and sanitariums in an effort to stop his drinking. He was encouraged by the passage of Prohibition in 1919, but soon discovered that the exemption for medicinal alcohol and bootleggers could supply more than enough to continue his excessive drinking. For the next 17 years his life revolved around how to subvert his wife’s efforts to stop his drinking and obtain the alcohol he wanted while trying to hold together a medical practice in order to support his family and his drinking.

In January 1933, Anne Smith attended a lecture by Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group. For the next two years she and Dr Bob attended local meetings of the group in an effort to solve his alcoholism, but recovery eluded him until he met Bill Wilson on May 13, 1935.

Bill W

Bill W

Bill W was trying to stay sober by helping other alcoholics through the Oxford Group in New York, but was in Akron on a business trip that had proven unsuccessful, and was in fear of relapsing. Recognizing the danger, he made inquiries about any local alcoholics he could talk to and was referred to Dr Bob by Henrietta Sieberling, one of the leaders of the Akron Oxford Group. After talking to Bill W, Dr Bob stopped drinking and invited Bill W to stay at his home. This was the seminal moment in the founding of AA.


Bill W and Dr Bob discovered a key ingredient in recovery at that time, namely, one’s sobriety can be bolstered constantly by listening to the stories of other alcoholics in a non-judgmental way. You might call it the “listening cure,” a sort of mirror of Freud’s talking cure. Bill W listened to Dr Bob, and vice versa, and both were helped by simply listening to the story of the other. This became the heart of AA, although it has been subverted in many ways since.

Generally speaking, AA is now known for the 12 steps, which have been incorporated into numerous programs of aid for addicts of all stripes, and which were originally devised by Bill W and Dr Bob in the course of their work together and with other alcoholics — and enshrined in the Big Book.  The 12 steps have their supporters and their detractors, without doubt. They require a spiritual awakening, self analysis, confession and so forth, that mimic certain aspects of puritan Christianity, even though the overtly Christian, even theistic, rhetoric was eventually toned down. The part of AA that too often gets underplayed is the listening cure. The most important point about the listening cure is that it is not about giving or receiving advice: it is about the simple acts of talking and listening. One alcoholic tells his story and another listens. The listener does not offer advice, but simply absorbs the story. Nor does the person telling the story offer any advice either. The story is usually some version of, “I did that and things got worse; I did this and things got better.” The listener is then left to absorb and interpret the story in any way that suits — in common AA parlance, “take what is useful, and leave the rest.”


Bill W’s great insight was that he benefited from hearing Dr Bob’s story, pure and simple. No advice or commentary was necessary. In this sense we can speak of Bill W and Dr Bob as co-founders of AA, even though Bill W became the poster boy, and Dr Bob tends to be forgotten. In Gregory Bateson’s terms (I’ll write a post on his work at some time), Bill W and Dr Bob were a dyad: each needed the other. Each needed a listener, and each needed to listen. The essential message, all too often forgotten nowadays, is, “don’t judge, don’t offer advice, just listen.” In my oh so humble opinion, the world would be a lot better place if everyone learned to listen more and talk less.

My recipes are a little like AA talks in that I tell you what I do and what I like, but you can do what you want. In fact, I’m not sure how many readers have actually tried any of my recipes. I do know that a friend used one of them once, and modified it to his own tastes. As far as I am concerned that’s the best way to use any recipe. I tell you what I do; you decide what you want to do. As long as it works, we are both fine.

With cooking for recovering alcoholics there is a rule of sorts, but it’s not hard and fast. AA recommends that you not cook with alcohol for two reasons. First, not all alcohol always cooks away when you use alcoholic drinks in recipes. Second, the taste of the alcoholic drink remains even if all or almost all of the alcohol burns off. In either case, the alcoholic in recovery can be reminded of drinking by the dish and may be, consciously or unconsciously, encouraged to pick up a drink. But you can’t really call this a rule. Active alcoholics vary greatly in the their habits, and so do those in recovery. Some, for example, are so sensitive to reminders of drinking that they will avoid drinking any liquid straight from a bottle (in the way they used to drink beer or whisky), others can cook with wine or spirits and not be fazed.

To be safe I’ll give you a summer lunch idea that I use for guests once in a while. It does not involve alcohol. Take from it what you want and leave the rest.  August in Mantua is hot and humid, so if I want to entertain guests it’s a good idea not to cook for them immediately before or during the meal because the kitchen gets really hot and spills over into the dining area. Besides hot dishes do not always go down well in the summer. So sometimes I make a lunch or dinner of different salads. The idea is to give diners an extensive choice of vegetables, carbs, and protein and let them choose how to make up a plate. This is a lunch of five salads I made in Argentina in the height of summer some years ago.


Green Salad


This is a blend of endive, fennel, and roquette (arugula). The idea was to have pronounced flavors and crunchiness.

Cabbage and Caper Salad


I’ve always been a fan of making salad from fresh cabbage, by cutting the cabbage into shreds and macerating it overnight in the refrigerator with some kind of vinegar.  In this case I used capers with all their juice. Shred the cabbage fine, put it into a bowl, dump a whole bottle of capers over it, mix well, and refrigerate overnight.

Fish Salad


Cooked fish and shellfish, served cold, work well as the protein element. This one was halibut, sea legs (imitation crab), and calamari.

Pasta Primavera


Pasta salad is a common summer favorite of mine. Cook the pasta al dente the day before. Drain it well and refrigerate it overnight. Next day add your choice of vegetables. In this case I used tomatoes, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Toss with extra virgin olive oil and oregano.

Potato Salad


I wash potatoes thoroughly and then dice them without peeling, and boil them until they are cooked but not too soft. Whilst the potatoes are cooking I sauté some ham or bacon until it is crisp. Then I drain the potatoes and refrigerate them, and break the cooked ham into pieces over the top. When cool I add mayonnaise and toss. Then I decorate with sliced boiled egg.

Make up a plate of these salads any way that you want.