Jun 182017

Today is the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, arguably one of the key defining moments in European and world history – inasmuch as any single day or battle can be said to be such. Longtime readers know that I don’t like to celebrate battles in and of themselves, but I do take note of a few that stood at turning points in history. I don’t want to talk about the battle itself, you can look those details up. I want to talk about the implications of the decisive victory of the Seventh Alliance (United Kingdom, Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, Brunswick, and Prussia) under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, over Napoleon’s French Empire which put paid to the Napoleonic Wars once and for all, but led to a slew of problems, many of which are still with us 200 years on.

Let’s dispense with a bit of English jingoism first. Wellesley was in charge and the honor of the victory was given to him in England, launching a political career that landed him as Prime Minister – reminiscent of Eisenhower in the U.S. To set the record straight, the army that Wellesley commanded at Waterloo was an ALLIED army that consisted of approximately 73,000 troops, 26,000 of whom were from the UK, approximately 30% of whom were Irish conscripts who were probably more sympathetic to Napoleon than to England. So around 18,200, that is, about 25%, were English, Scots, and Welsh volunteers. They would not have been much use by themselves against Napoleon, but if you study history in England you get the impression that the English won the battle of Waterloo with a little help from the Prussians. The battle of Waterloo was, in actual fact, the culmination of the Waterloo Campaign in which 116,000 Prussian troops were deployed.  The Prussians didn’t just help out a little. Without them the English would have been destroyed.

Popular history is marvelously myopic. Washington got a tiny bit of help from the French and Spanish empires in the American Revolution, and Eisenhower had a few allies to “help” him as he stormed the beaches of Normandy; but to hear tell of these famous engagements in the US you’d believe that the US secured victories all alone. In fact, at the beginning of the American Revolution, the Colonial troops were seriously outnumbered, underequipped, and poorly trained until the French joined in (purely to weaken England). The notion that savvy backwoods militias from the colonies won the day due to their cunning and experience as skilled hunters who knew how to attack stealthily and handle a musket, is pure modern-day patriotic nonsense, but it is incredibly widespread (not least because it fuels a rampant desire to keep gun ownership alive via the 2nd Amendment).  But . . . I digress.

The Congress of Vienna had actually begun in September 1814, after Napoleon had been defeated and exiled to Elba, but was interrupted when he escaped and returned to France to take up arms again. The final Treaty of Vienna was actually signed on 9th June 1815, 10 days before Waterloo, but took effect in practical terms (with a few minor revisions), after Waterloo.  I’ve discussed the century-long (and more) ramifications of this treaty in another post: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/  No need to repeat myself. Europe (and the rest of the world with it) took a marked left turn after Vienna, leading to ethnic conflicts, revolutions, tyrannical governments, the unification of Italy and Germany, and a near-maniacal concern with radical Industrialism within Europe which, coupled with Colonialism, fueled major trade wars, as well as real wars between European powers outside of Europe – notably in Asia and Africa.

Waterloo left an indelible mark on popular consciousness in Britain spawning tales and ballads.  Here is an old favorite ballad of mine, “The Plains of Waterloo,” which I first heard sung by June Tabor around 1970 at Oxford’s Folk Club, Heritage. She was a relatively unknown librarian who liked to sing in the clubs in those days.  Here she is:

She self-parodied this ballad some years later with “The Trains of Waterloo” (Waterloo is a well-known commuter station in London), on the hilarious album Oranges and Lemmings.

Trains of Waterloo
(Les Barker)

As I was a-walking one midsummer’s evening,
All among the brick-red of surburbian sprawl,
I met a young maid making sad lamentation,
And it seemed all Basingstoke heard her sad call,

She walks the street lined with small maisonettes,
The semi-detatched, the town houses too.
Crying day it is over, executives come home again,
But my Nigel’s not returned upon the Trains of Waterloo.

I stepped up to this fair maid and said my fond creature
Oh, May I make so bold as to ask your true love’s name
It’s I have done battle in the Cannon Street rattle
And by some strange fortune I might have known the same

Nigel Clegg’s my true loves name, Merchant Banker of great fame
He’s gone to the wars out on platform two
No-one shall me enjoy but my own darling boy
No Milkman, and the Postman, and the Man from the Pru

If Nigel Clegg’s his name a commuter of great fame
Then we fought together the daily campaign
His brave brolly poking invaders at Woking
He was my loyal comrade on the five-thirty train

We fought with our Guardians we fought with our Filofax
Our rolled umbrellas our telegraphs too
We fought every evening all down the platform
And back through the night on the Trains of Waterloo

Dear lady I bring you the saddest of tidings
The five-thirty train it was cancelled you see
And Nigel not looking he went to step onto it
Straight into the path of the five-thirty-three

Your poor Nigel Clegg I have brought you his leg
And so sadly she gazed at the limb she once knew
And fondly she browsed on one half of his trousers
Oh My Nigel’s not returning on the trains of Waterloo

The suffix /-loo/ got detached from /Water/ and applied to other bloody events – in particular the Peterloo massacre in Manchester http://www.bookofdaystales.com/peterloo/   –  much as /-gate/ has been detached from Watergate in the US and applied to various political scandals.

I’ll give you beef Wellington for today’s recipe, not because it was named in honor of Wellington and Waterloo, but because everyone thinks it is, and they are wrong. It’s my tribute to false history. By the time Wellington became famous, meat baked in pastry was a well-established part of English cuisine. Some claim that the dish’s similarity to the French filet de bœuf en croûte (fillet of beef in pastry) was renamed “beef Wellington” as a “timely patriotic rebranding of a trendy continental dish.” There are, however, zero records of a dish called beef Wellington throughout the 19th century. The name first appears in the early 20th century.

I’m just going to give you some pointers here but I’ll start with a video of Gordon Ramsay giving a fairly standard treatment (with a few twists):

Some of the tips here are fine; some I diverge from. The essence of beef Wellington is layers of flavor so choose the layers to suit your palate (not someone else’s):

  1. Choose the most succulent filet of tenderloin of beef you can find.
  2. Sear it quickly in a very hot, dry pan. I don’t like to use oil at this stage. You are looking for a good sear for flavor, not fat.
  3. Slather with prepared horseradish. I just love the combination of beef and horseradish. English mustard is OK too, but for me, horseradish is king.
  4. A duxelles of mushrooms is pretty standard. Ramsay’s chestnuts are a distraction for me. Make a paste of crimini (or other well-flavored mushrooms) with a little garlic, and fry it off in a dry pan to remove the moisture.
  5. An Italian ham, such as prosciutto, is a common final layer, but pâté (conventionally pâté de foie gras) is more classic. I have moral objections to foie gras so I use a highly seasoned pâté (sometimes of my own making).
  6. You’ll occasionally see recipes with a crêpe as the final layer before the pastry goes on, “to seal in moisture.” In my humble opinion this is a complete waste of time. The crêpe gets soggy, and seals in nothing.
  7. Use cling wrap to encase the beef in the same way Ramsay does but spreading a layer of pâté down first instead of the ham. Using the cling wrap is essential to get the layers all around the beef. Chilling afterwards is also essential to set up the roll for encasing in pastry.
  8. Using cling wrap for the puff pastry is also useful, but I make a regular parcel of the pastry (like wrapping a package), not Ramsey’s toffee roll. Refrigeration overnight is also key to setting up the shape.
  9. I too bake at 200°C/400°F for about 30 minutes, because I like the beef to be rare. If you want it more well done you well have to cover the pastry with foil after it has browned and lower the oven temperature. If you do that don’t expect me to show up for dinner.
Oct 162016


On this date in 1906 Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt (13 February 1849 – 3 January 1922), a Prussian shoemaker, masqueraded as a Prussian military officer, rounded up a number of soldiers under his “command,” and “confiscated” more than 4,000 marks from a municipal treasury. Although he served two years in prison, he became a folk hero as The Captain of Köpenick. Later he was pardoned by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Voigt was born in Tilsit which was then in Prussia (now Sovetsk, Kaliningrad Oblast). In 1863, aged 14, he was sentenced to 14 days in prison for theft, which led to his expulsion from school. Subsequently he learned shoemaking from his father. Between 1864 and 1891, Voigt was sentenced to prison for a total of 25 years for thefts, forgery and burglary. The longest sentence was a 15-year conviction for an unsuccessful burglary of a court cashier’s office. He was released on 12 February 1906.

Voigt drifted from place to place until he went to live with his sister in Rixdorf near Berlin. He was briefly employed by a well-reputed shoemaker until the local police expelled him from Berlin as an undesirable, based solely on the fact that he was an ex-convict, on 24 August 1906. Officially he left for Hamburg, although he remained in Berlin as an unregistered resident.


On 16 October 1906 Voigt performed his famous hoax. He had purchased parts of used captain’s uniforms from different shops and tested their effect on soldiers. He had resigned from the shoe factory ten days previously. He took the uniform out of baggage storage, put it on and went to the local army barracks, stopped four grenadiers and a sergeant on their way back to barracks and told them to come with him. Indoctrinated to obey officers without question, they followed. He dismissed the commanding sergeant to report to his superiors and later commandeered six more soldiers from a shooting range. Then he took a train to Köpenick, east of Berlin at that time, occupied the local city hall with his soldiers and told them to cover all exits. He told the local police to “care for law and order” and to “prevent calls to Berlin for one hour” at the local post office.

He had the treasurer von Wiltberg and mayor Georg Langerhans arrested, supposedly for suspicions of crooked bookkeeping, and confiscated 4002 marks and 37 pfennigs – with a receipt, of course (he signed it with his former jail director’s name). Then he commandeered two carriages and told the grenadiers to take the arrested men to the Neue Wache in Berlin for interrogation. He told the remaining guards to stand in their places for half an hour and then left for the train station. He later changed into civilian clothes and disappeared.

In the following days the German press speculated on what had really happened. At the same time the army ran its own investigation. The public seemed to be positively amused by the daring of the culprit.


Voigt was arrested on 26 October and on 1 December sentenced to four years in prison for forgery, impersonating an officer and wrongful imprisonment. However, much of public opinion was on his side. German Kaiser Wilhelm II pardoned him on August 16, 1908. There are some claims that even the Kaiser was amused by the incident, referring to him as an amiable scoundrel, and being pleased with the authority and feelings of reverence that his military obviously commanded in the general population.

The British press was also amused, seeing it as confirmation of their stereotypes about Germans. In its 27 October 1906 issue, the editors of The Illustrated London News noted gleefully:

For years the Kaiser has been instilling into his people reverence for the omnipotence of militarism, of which the holiest symbol is the German uniform. Offences against this fetish have incurred condign punishment. Officers who have not considered themselves saluted in due form have drawn their swords with impunity on offending privates.

In that same issue G. K. Chesterton pointed out:

The most absurd part of this absurd fraud (at least, to English eyes) is one which, oddly enough, has received comparatively little comment. I mean the point at which the Mayor asked for a warrant, and the Captain pointed to the bayonets of his soldiery and said, ‘These are my authority’. One would have thought anyone would have known that no soldier would talk like that.


Voigt capitalized on his fame. His wax figure appeared in the wax museum in Unter den Linden four days after his release. He appeared in the museum to sign his pictures but public officials banned the appearances on the same day. He appeared in small theaters in a play that depicted his exploit and signed more photographs as the Captain of Köpenick. In spite of the ban he toured in Dresden, Vienna and Budapest in variety shows, restaurants and amusement parks. In 1909, he published a book in Leipzig, How I became the Captain of Köpenick, which sold well. Although his United States tour almost failed because the immigration authorities refused to grant him a visa, he arrived in 1910 via Canada. He also ended up in Madame Tussaud’s museum in London.

In 1910, he moved to Luxembourg and worked as a waiter and shoemaker. He received a life pension from a rich Berlin dowager. Two years later, he bought a house and retired although post-World War I inflation destroyed his wealth. Voigt died in Luxembourg in 1922.

In 1931, German author Carl Zuckmayer wrote a play about the affair called The Captain of Köpenick, which shifts the focus from the event at Köpenick itself to the prelude, showing how his surroundings and his situation in life had helped Voigt form his plan. An English language adaptation was written by John Mortimer, and first performed by the National Theatre company at the Old Vic on 9 March 1971 with Paul Scofield in the title role.


Various movies were produced about Wilhelm Voigt (most of them based on Zuckmayer’s play), among them Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (1931); The Captain from Köpenick (1945), starring Albert Bassermann; Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (1956), with Heinz Rühmann; the 1960 TV movie Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, featuring Rudolf Platte; and the 1997 TV movie Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, starring Harald Juhnke. The basic line of stageplays and movies was the pitiful catch-22 situation of Voigt trying to earn his living honorably in Berlin: “No residence address – no job. No job – no residence (rented room). No residence – no passport. No passport – getting ousted.”


I am a big fan of hoaxes, especially when they make a point. Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group are famous for the Dreadnought Hoax when they dressed as “Abyssinian” ambassadors and fooled the London establishment. Such hoaxes are much harder to pull off in these days of heightened awareness of terrorist threats, of course, and could be dangerous. Food hoaxes, however, are still fair game. Presenting one food as another is a trick that dates to antiquity. The ancient Romans were famous for disguising one food as another. In modern times we still have pranksters:

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I’ve mentioned several possibilities before – notably cutting pound cake to resemble French fries and serving them with raspberry jam “ketchup.” Making desserts look like savory dishes is not complicated – it just requires a little imagination. The opposite – savories masquerading as desserts – is a little harder to pull off successfully, but some ideas spring to mind. It would be easy enough, I suspect, to make a “trifle” using mayonnaise colored with saffron for the “custard” and smoked haddock for the “cake” with various pickles for the “crystallized fruit.” In fact, I think this would make a delicious dish. You could use whipped sour cream for the topping.  Have at it.

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.

Apr 212016


Today is the birthday (1864) of Karl Emil Maximilian “Max” Weber, Prussian-German social theorist who was a major figure in the development of social research. Weber is sometimes grouped with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx as the founders of sociology. I could quibble about how sociology got created, but I won’t argue about Weber being a towering figure.  His work has had a lasting influence on mine. It’s impossible for me to summarize his work adequately in a short post, but I’ll try to keep it simple – which means, inevitably, simplistic.

Weber was a key proponent of methodological antipositivism, that is, he believed that social action cannot be understood empirically (scientifically) but must be delved through interpretive means (what he called Verstehen), based on understanding the purpose and meaning that individuals attach to their own actions. Unlike Durkheim, he did not believe in monocausality but proposed that for any outcome there can be multiple causes.

Weber is best known for his thesis combining economic sociology and the sociology of religion, as exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he proposes that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major “elective affinities” associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state. He argues that it was the basic beliefs of Protestantism that led to capitalism, and that, in fact, the spirit of capitalism is spawned by, and identical with Protestant religious values.


Weber was born in Erfurt, Province of Saxony, Prussia. He was the oldest of the seven children of Max Weber Sr., a wealthy and prominent civil servant and member of the National Liberal Party, and his wife Helene (Fallenstein), who partly descended from French Huguenot immigrants and held strong moral absolutist ideas. Weber Sr.’s involvement in public life immersed his home in both politics and academia, as his salon welcomed many prominent scholars and public figures. The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Weber’s 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled “About the course of German history, with special reference to the positions of the Emperor and the Pope”, and “About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations.” I just love it.

In class, bored and unimpressed with the teachers – who in turn resented what they perceived as a disrespectful attitude – he secretly read all forty volumes of Goethe, a major influence on his later thought and methodology. Before entering university, he devoured classical works. Over time, Weber was also significantly affected by the marital tension between his father, “a man who enjoyed earthly pleasures,” and his mother, a devout Calvinist “who sought to lead an ascetic life.” How many great thinkers were moved to greatness by the dysfunction of their parents? Freud for starters !!!


Weber’s main intellectual concern was understanding the processes of rationalization, secularization, and “disenchantment” that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity, and which he saw as the result of a new way of thinking about the world. Continuing my journey into mind-numbingly simplistic analysis, Weber and Marx can be seen as polar opposites: Marx saw evolving intellectual developments in society as the product of changing material circumstances historically, whereas Weber saw the evolution of intellectual processes as primary and material circumstances as secondary. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg affair, I’m afraid. Was Protestantism the outgrowth of the development of capitalism, or the other way around? I’m not going to take sides; I see them as co-evolving processes.

But then we come to a more intriguing question: was the rise of rational science in the 17th century a good thing or a bad thing? From a strictly technological point of view, it had numerous benefits: improved medicine, efficient transport, computers, iPhones . . . etc. etc. etc. But what was the cost? Well, we can start with pollution and move on from there. But for Weber the cost was catastrophic intellectually and, hence, socially. The monolithic faith in science as the answer to ALL problems led to the “disenchantment” of the West. The word “disenchantment” does not do justice to the original German word “Entzauberung” which we can translate literally as “un-magic-ing” or “despiritualizing.” In this case we should think of “enchantment” as equivalent to “full of magic” – where “magic” is the opposite of “natural.” The modern, secular, scientific mind dismisses prayer, God, elves, fairies, spirituality, and all the rest of it, and, according to Weber, we are the poorer for it. I agree.

Western science can do many great things, but it goes too far when it claims to be the sole guardian of THE TRUTH, and that in time science will solve all of our problems. There are vast realms of human experience that cannot be understood by the scientific method – love, art, beauty . . . what have you. The general public in the West tends to be torn in this area. Some reject the rational completely, some the spiritual. But most sit somewhere in the middle. People happily use laptops and go to the doctor if they feel sick, but they also love Harry Potter, use tarot cards, and visit ashrams.


The problem, as Weber sees it, is that rational science has overplayed its hand, so that the rational has crept into the fundamental fabric of society – and we don’t like it. Efficiency has become our god. From an industrial point of view, if we can turn out billions of identical, cheap, affordable smartphones we all benefit because we can chat to friends all over the world, look up arcane information whenever we want, listen to endless stores of music, play games . . . and so forth. But in the process we are increasingly dehumanized. The phones themselves are mass produced in factories by workers who have no identity or individuality, and who work for slave wages. Furthermore the phones themselves suck us into a world where individuality is also lost. OK – being simplistic once more, but you get the point.

So let’s turn to cooking. In a recent post I gave this recipe for eierstich, an egg custard from Weber’s native Saxony, that is often cut into fancy shapes as a garnish for soups:


You can make the eierstich, egg custard, in several ways. Beat together 1 cup of milk or cream, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, plus a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and salt. Don’t be so vigorous that a froth forms. Pour the mix into sealable plastic pouches, close them tightly, and place in boiling water for 10 minutes, or until the custard is firm. Unseal the pouches and cut the custard into small pieces. I have little decorative cutters for this job. Keep warm.

I call this kind of recipe “heuristic” as opposed to “scientific.” “Scientific” recipes are what you find in standard cookbooks, where each begins with a list of ingredients with precise measurements (often in Imperial and metric), given in the order in which they are used, followed by careful, step-by-step instructions. Such recipes can be useful, but they do not replicate real, human, flesh-and-blood process. This example of mine doesn’t either but it’s a bit closer.

Several years ago my son decided to roast a goose for Christmas dinner.  I had moved to Argentina and he was alone in our house in New York. I had roasted a goose every single Christmas up to that point, and he did not want to miss out just because I was away. So he asked me for the “recipe.” How do you explain how to roast a goose when you’ve got 35 years of experience behind you? I tried to write down the instructions for him and wrote 3 pages (single spaced), and still felt my description was inadequate.  It was.  He followed my instructions, but then called me three times on Christmas Day with additional questions as the goose was cooking.


A recipe assumes a wealth of knowledge that is not captured by the mere wording. We also know that two people can follow the same recipe with identical ingredients and equipment, and come up with vastly different products. Over and over again I showed my girlfriend (now my ex) how to make an Argentine tortilla, and supervised her many times as she made them herself. I also made instructional videos for her – all to no avail. She can make something edible, but her tortillas are nothing like mine – same ingredients from the same store, same kitchen – different spirits.