Jan 072018
 

 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Zora Neale Hurston, African-American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist who is known not only for her contributions to African-American literature, but also for her portrayal of racial struggles in the American South, and works documenting her research on African-American folk traditions in Florida, and voodoo in Jamaican and Haiti. She is probably best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. . Her novels went relatively unrecognized by the literary world for decades, but interest revived after author Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine.

Hurston was the sixth of eight children of John Hurston and Lucy Ann Hurston (née Potts). All of her four grandparents had been born into slavery. Her father was a Baptist preacher and sharecropper, who later became a carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, where her father grew up and her grandfather was the preacher of a Baptist church. When she was three, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida which later became the location of several of her important works. Eatonville was one of the first all-African-American towns to be incorporated into the United States (1887). Hurston said she always felt that Eatonville was “home” to her because she grew up there, and sometimes claimed it as her birthplace. Her father later was elected as mayor of the town in 1897 and in 1902 became minister of its largest church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.

Eatonville was a place where African Americans could live as they desired, independent of White society, and this upbringing undoubtedly influenced Hurston’s political outlook. She often sided with Southern conservatives who opposed integration, seeing “separate but equal” as a positive value, given that integration inevitably exposed African-Americans to racism and discrimination. The problem, of course, as was made clear by the Civil Rights movement is that the “separate” part is easy to accomplish, the “equal” part is not.

In 1917, Hurston began attending Morgan College, the high school division of Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland. At this time, apparently to qualify for a free high-school education (as well, perhaps to reflect her literary birth), the 26-year-old Hurston began claiming 1901 as her year of birth.[12] She graduated from the high school of Morgan State University in 1918. In 1918, Hurston began her studies at Howard University, where took courses in Spanish, English, Greek and public speaking and earned an associate degree in 1920. In 1921, she wrote a short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” which qualified her to become a member of Alaine Locke’s literary club, The Stylus. Hurston left Howard in 1924 and in 1925 was offered a scholarship by Barnard trustee Annie Nathan Meyer to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she was the college’s sole African-American student.

Hurston received her B.A. in anthropology in 1928, when she was 37. While she was at Barnard, she conducted ethnographic research directed by Franz Boas. She also worked with Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead was a fellow student. After graduating from Barnard, Hurston spent two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University. Living in Harlem in the 1920s, Hurston befriended the likes of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Her apartment, according to some accounts, was a popular spot for social gatherings.

In later life, in addition to continuing her literary career, Hurston served on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham, North Carolina. Hurston traveled extensively in the Caribbean and the American South and immersed herself in local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research. Based on her work in the South, sponsored from 1928 to 1932 by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy philanthropist, Hurston wrote Mules and Men in 1935. In 1936 and 1937, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti for research, with support from the Guggenheim Foundation. She drew from this for her anthropological work, Tell My Horse (1938). From October 1947 to February 1948, she lived in Honduras, at the north coastal town of Puerto Cortés. While in Puerto Cortés, she wrote much of Seraph on the Suwanee, set in Florida.

Hurston never had much income from her writing and so later in life she took a number of poorly paid odd jobs to make ends meet. She worked at the Pan American World Airways Technical Library at Patrick Air Force Base in 1957, but was fired for being “too well-educated” for her job. Subsequently she moved to Fort Pierce, taking jobs where she could find them. She worked occasionally as a substitute teacher. At age 60 she was helped by public assistance, and at one point she even worked as a maid on Miami Beach’s Rivo Alto Island

During this period of financial stress and medical difficulties, Hurston was forced to enter St. Lucie County Welfare Home, where she suffered a stroke. She died of hypertensive heart disease on January 28, 1960, and was buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her remains were in an unmarked grave until 1973. Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte D. Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried, and decided to mark it as hers.

Hurston has two distinct voices in her writing: one was a standard literary voice; the other was an attempt to capture the sounds and rhythms of Southern African-America speaking style. Here’s some examples of both:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place

Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep.

At the beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the lead character, Janie Crawford, returns from the Everglades, where she has shot her husband and been acquitted, to Eatonville, in ragged overalls, where all the women are gossipy and unwelcoming. The one exception is her best friend Phoeby, who brings her a “heaping plate of mulatto rice.” Phoeby notes that it “ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease . . . but it’ll kill hongry.”

The Savannah Cook Book: A collection of old fashioned receipts from Colonial kitchens by Harriet Ross Colquitt contains this recipe for mulatto rice:

Fry squares of breakfast bacon and remove from the pan. Then brown some minced onion (one small one) in this grease, and add one pint can of tomatoes. When thoroughly hot, add a pint of rice to this mixture, and cook very slowly until the rice is done. Or, if you are in a hurry, cold rice may be substituted, and all warmed thoroughly together.

Seems simple enough. I’m assuming that you use the bacon in another dish but keep the rendered fat for flavoring. On the other hand, I see no reason not to include the fried bacon in the dish.

Dec 262017
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Henry Valentine Miller, a US writer who often lived in Paris, and known for breaking with existing literary forms, developing a new type of semi-autobiographical novel that blended character study, social criticism, philosophical reflection, explicit language, sex, surrealist free association, and mysticism. He was inspiration for the beat generation writers, among others. His most characteristic works are Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, which are based on his experiences in New York and Paris (all of which were banned in the United States until 1961). Miller went through much the same accusations of obscenity as D.H. Lawrence did in Britain over Lady Chatterley. Small minds simply cannot distinguish descriptions of (loving) sex and pornography. In fact, to many, sex is, by definition, obscene. This very notion is the true obscenity, and I suspect stems from lascivious minds. Miller also wrote travel memoirs and literary criticism, and painted watercolors.

Miller was born at his family’s home, 450 East 85th Street, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, New York City. He was the son of Lutheran German parents, Louise Marie (Neiting) and tailor Heinrich Miller. As a child, he lived for nine years at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known at that time (and referred to frequently in his works) as the Fourteenth Ward. In 1900, his family moved to 1063 Decatur Street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. He attended the City College of New York for one semester only.

Miller married his first wife, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, in 1917. They divorced in 1923. Together they had a daughter, Barbara, born in 1919. They lived in an apartment at 244 6th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn.[14] At the time, Miller was working at Western Union, where he worked from 1920-24. In March 1922, during a three-week vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings. It has never been published, and only fragments remain, although parts of it were recycled in other works, such as Tropic of Capricorn. Clipped Wings was a study of twelve Western Union messengers, which Miller called “a long book and probably a very bad one.”

June

In 1923, while he was still married to Beatrice, but in the process of divorcing, Miller met and became enamored of a mysterious dance hall dancer who was born Juliet Edith Smerth but went by the stage name June Mansfield. She was 21 at the time. They began an affair, and were married on June 1, 1924. In 1924 Miller quit Western Union in order to dedicate himself completely to writing. Miller later describes this time – his struggles to become a writer, his sexual escapades, failures, friends, and philosophy – in his autobiographical trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.

Miller wrote his second novel, Moloch: or, This Gentile World, in 1927–28, initially under the guise of a novel written by June. A rich older admirer of June, Roland Freedman, paid her to write a novel. She would show him pages of Miller’s work each week, pretending it was hers. The book went unpublished until 1992. Moloch is based on Miller’s first marriage, to Beatrice, and his years working as a personnel manager at the Western Union office in Lower Manhattan. A third novel written around this time, Crazy Cock, also went unpublished until after Miller’s death. Initially titled Lovely Lesbians, Crazy Cock (along with his later novel Nexus) told the story of June’s close relationship with the artist Marion, whom June had renamed Jean Kronski. Kronski lived with Miller and June from 1926 until 1927, when June and Kronski went to Paris together, leaving Miller behind, which upset him greatly. Miller suspected the pair of having a lesbian relationship. While in Paris, June and Kronski did not get along, and June returned to Miller several months later. Kronski committed suicide around 1930.

In 1928, Miller spent several months in Paris with June, a trip which was financed by Freedman. One day on a Paris street, Miller met another author, Robert W. Service, who recalled the story in his autobiography: “Soon we got into conversation which turned to books. For a stripling he spoke with some authority, turning into ridicule the pretentious scribes of the Latin Quarter and their freak magazine.” In 1930, Miller moved to Paris unaccompanied. Soon after, he began work on Tropic of Cancer, writing to a friend, “I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!” Although Miller had little or no money the first year in Paris, things began to change after meeting Anaïs Nin who, with Hugh Guiler, went on to pay his entire way through the 1930s including the rent for an apartment at 18 Villa Seurat. Nin became his lover and financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer in 1934 with money from Otto Rank. She wrote extensively in her journals about her relationship with Miller and his wife June. A great deal of what we know about Miller’s personal life comes from Nin’s journals, and the two continued a (now famous and celebrated) relationship for many years. Late in 1934, June divorced Miller by proxy in Mexico City.

In 1931, Miller was employed by the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune as a proofreader, thanks to his friend Alfred Perlès who worked there. Miller took this opportunity to submit some of his own articles under Perlès’ name, since at that time only the editorial staff were permitted to publish in the paper. This period in Paris was highly creative for Miller, and during this time he also established a significant and influential network of authors circulating around the Villa Seurat. At that time a young British author, Lawrence Durrell, became a lifelong friend. Miller’s correspondence with Durrell was later published in two books. His first published book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), was published by Obelisk Press in Paris and banned in the United States on the grounds of obscenity. The dust jacket came wrapped with a warning: “Not to be imported into the United States or Great Britain.” He continued to write novels that were banned.  Along with Tropic of Cancer, his Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) were smuggled into the US, building Miller an underground reputation. In 1939, New Directions published The Cosmological Eye, Miller’s first book to be published in the US. The collection contained short prose pieces, most of which originally appeared in Black Spring and Max and the White Phagocytes (1938).

In 1939 Durrell, who lived on Corfu, invited Miller to Greece. Miller described the visit in The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), which he considered his best book. One of the first acknowledgments of Henry Miller as a major modern writer was by George Orwell in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, where he wrote:

Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.

In 1940, Miller returned to New York; after a year-long trip around the United States, which was to become material for The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, he moved to California in June 1942, initially living just outside Hollywood in Beverly Glen, before settling in Big Sur in 1944. While Miller was establishing his base in Big Sur, the Tropic books, then still banned in the USA, were still being published in France by the Obelisk Press and later the Olympia Press. There they were acquiring a slow and steady notoriety among both Europeans and the various enclaves of US ex-pats. As a result, the books were frequently smuggled into the States, where they proved to be a major influence on the new Beat Generation of American writers, most notably Jack Kerouac, the only Beat writer Miller truly cared for. By the time his banned books were published in the 1960s and he was becoming increasingly well-known, Miller was no longer interested in his image as an outlaw writer of “dirty” books, but he eventually gave up fighting the image.

In 1942, shortly before moving to California, Miller began writing Sexus, the first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, a fictionalized account documenting the six-year period of his life in Brooklyn falling in love with June and struggling to become a writer. Like several of his other works, the trilogy, completed in 1959, was initially banned in the United States, published only in France and Japan. In other works written during his time in California, Miller was widely critical of consumerism in the US, as reflected in Sunday After The War (1944) and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). His Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957, is a collection of stories about his life and friends in Big Sur.

In 1944, Miller met and married his third wife, Janina Martha Lepska, a philosophy student who was 30 years his junior. They had two children: a son, Tony, and a daughter, Valentine. They divorced in 1952. The following year, he married artist Eve McClure, who was 37 years his junior. They divorced in 1960, and she died in 1966, likely as a result of alcoholism. In 1961, Miller arranged a reunion in New York with his ex-wife and main subject of The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, June. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly three decades. In a letter to Eve, he described his shock at June’s “terrible” appearance, as she had by then degenerated both physically and mentally.

In February 1963, Miller moved to 444 Ocampo Drive, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California, where he would spend the last 17 years of his life. In 1967, Miller married his fifth wife, Hoki Tokuda. After his move to Ocampo Drive, he held dinner parties for the artistic and literary figures of the time. His cook and caretaker was a young artist’s model named Twinka Thiebaud who later wrote a book about his evening chats. Thiebaud’s memories of Miller’s table talk were published in a rewritten and retitled book in 2011.

Only 200 copies of Miller’s 1972 chapbook On Turning Eighty were published by Capra Press, in collaboration with Yes! Press, it was the first volume of the “Yes! Capra” chapbook series and is 34 pages long. The book contains three essays on topics such as aging and living a meaningful life. In relation to reaching 80 years of age, Miller explains:

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power.

Miller died of circulatory complications at his home in Pacific Palisades on June 7, 1980.

Here’s some quotes, some from Miller’s novels and some personal. It’s hard to tell the difference anyway. I’ve interspersed a few of his watercolors.

Without a Coca-Cola life is unthinkable.

To be joyous is to be a madman in a world of sad ghosts.

I have found God, but he is insufficient.

There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy.

What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse.

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

Finding a recipe for Miller is no small matter. Miller himself, and others, mentioned repeatedly how much he loved eating. Here’s Miller:

‘Life,’ said Emerson, ‘consists in what a man is thinking all day.’  If that be so, then my life is nothing but a big intestine. I not only think about food all day, but I dream about it at night.

Nin wrote in her diary that Miller had two primal needs: sex and food. They were, indeed, famous for frequenting the cafes of Paris, and nowadays you can go on a tour of their most popular haunts – many decorated with their photos and other memorabilia. Miller was also legendary in giving dinner parties.

The biographer of Miller’s last years, Barbara Kraft wrote:

The house bore the face of the man. The walls were covered with his paintings, posters, memorabilia, photographs of friends and the famous framed lists. Lists of places he had been, list of places he hadn’t been, lists of all the women he never slept with — but no lists of those he had, lists of favorite foods, of favorite piano music — Ravel’s virtuosic Gaspard de la nuit comes to mind . . .

All good to know. But, what about the actual food in his list of favorites? Or what he ate when dining with Nin? Nothing. Not a word. I’ve gleaned her diaries, as well as Miller’s writings and come up empty – except for this:

Henry was eating red beans for lunch. Heavy red beans. When I met Betty Ryan at the Dôme I told her about the red beans and ordered Vichy. How we laughed!

It’s a start, I suppose, but not much of one. She might have been talking about a cassoulet or a hundred other ways of cooking beans. Why did they laugh? Anyway, you can go with a dish of red beans if you wish, but make it heavy. Here’s a recipe for croque Monsieur which has been a popular favorite in Parisian cafes for many years. If you are a good cook you don’t need a recipe, just the idea. Croque Monsieur is a grilled sandwich of Parisian ham and Gruyere cheese, smothered in a cheesy béchamel and baked. I expect Miller enjoyed it on occasion.

Croque Monsieur

Ingredients

2 tbsp unsalted butter, plus extra
2 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese, plus 8 slices
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 thick slices crusty bread
12 slices Parisian ham
Dijon mustard

Instructions

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and whisk in the flour to make a blond roux. Add the milk slowly, stirring all the time. Bring to a simmer, whisking all the time until the sauce thickens. Add the grated cheeses and remove from the heat. Keep whisking until the cheeses are completely melted and the sauce is smooth.

Generously butter the bread slices on one side only. Put half the slices, buttered side down, in a heavy skillet. Layer each bread slice with 2 slices of Gruyere and 3 slices of ham, with the Gruyere on the outside. Spread the Dijon mustard on the unbuttered sides of the remaining bread slices, and put each on top of a sandwich, buttered side up.

Put the skillet over medium-high heat and cook the sandwiches until golden on each side. If the cheese melts well, flipping them with a spatula should be easy. I help the melting process along by covering the pan, or weighting down the sandwiches with a large plate.

Place the sandwiches in a baking dish and divide the béchamel evenly between them, spooning it generously over the top. Broil the sandwiches until the sauce is bubbling and golden.

Serve immediately. I like to serve this sandwich with buttered, steamed asparagus spears.

Serves 4

Jul 102017
 

Today is the birthday (1856) of Nikola Tesla (Никола Тесла) a Serbian inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist who was virtually unknown to the general public from the time of his death to the 1990s when he achieved a kind of semi-mythic status in the science fiction, comic book, and fantasy realms. Tesla is one of the numerous real scientists who worked for Thomas Edison who reaped both the credit and profit for things they invented. Tesla is now best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system although he made many other discoveries in, and improvements to, electrical systems.

Tesla was born and raised in the Austrian Empire to Serbian parents in what is now Croatia. He received an advanced education in engineering and physics in the 1870s and gained practical experience in the early 1880s working in telephony and at Continental Edison in the new electric power industry. He emigrated to the United States in 1884, and eventually became a naturalized citizen. He worked for a short time at the Edison Machine Works in New York City before he struck out on his own because of severe disagreements with Edison who continued to hold high hopes for the commercial possibilities of direct current even though Tesla’s alternating current was clearly superior for transmitting electricity over long distances. With the help of partners to finance and market his ideas, Tesla set up laboratories and companies in New York to develop a range of electrical and mechanical devices. His alternating current (AC) induction motor and related polyphase AC patents, licensed by Westinghouse Electric in 1888, and became the cornerstone of the polyphase system which Westinghouse marketed and is to this day the industry standard.

Tesla also conducted a range of experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and early X-ray imaging. Even though he was quite deliberately asocial (anti-social is too strong), Tesla became well known as an inventor and demonstrated his achievements to celebrities and wealthy patrons at his lab, and was noted for his showmanship at public lectures.

Throughout the 1890s Tesla pursued his ideas for wireless lighting and worldwide wireless electric power distribution in his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments in New York and Colorado Springs. I’m a little surprised he didn’t electrocute himself along the way. In 1893, he made pronouncements on the possibility of wireless communication with his devices. Tesla tried to put these ideas to practical use in his unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project, an intercontinental wireless communication and power transmitter, but ran out of funding before he could complete it.

After Wardenclyffe, Tesla went on to try and develop a series of inventions in the 1910s and 1920s with varying degrees of success. Having spent most of the money he earned from the AC patents, he lived in a series of New York hotels, leaving behind unpaid bills. The nature of his earlier work and the pronouncements he made to the press later in life earned him the reputation of an archetypal “mad scientist” in US popular culture. Tesla died in New York City in January 1943. His work fell into relative obscurity following his death, but in 1960, the General Conference on Weights and Measures named the SI unit of magnetic flux density the tesla in his honor.

I strongly urge you to look up more details about this man who was an intriguing personality. He stood 6’2” tall and weighed a scant 142 lbs all of his life: quite noticeably tall and thin for his era. He was also notably reclusive when not conducting experiments or giving public lectures. Here’s some of my favorite quotes from Tesla:

My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.

Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.

The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane

The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.

What we now want is closer contact and better understanding between individuals and communities all over the earth, and the elimination of egoism and pride which is always prone to plunge the world into primeval barbarism and strife… Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment.

I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success . . . Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.

If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have the key to the universe.

From childhood I was compelled to concentrate attention upon myself. This caused me much suffering, but to my present view, it was a blessing in disguise for it has taught me to appreciate the inestimable value of introspection in the preservation of life, as well as a means of achievement.

Tesla was Serbian although born in what is now Croatia. Serbs and Croats share many cultural similarities with minor differences, although it’s probably a good plan to keep this idea to yourself when traveling in the region. Serbian and Croatian languages, for example, are mutually intelligible, but Serbs use Cyrillic script and Croats use the Roman alphabet. Their cuisines are also quite similar although the Dalmatian coast of Croatia has a distinctive set of dishes relying on seafood. Both Serbs and Croats historically were fond of tripe, especially goat and lamb tripe, but these dishes are falling into disfavor nowadays. Oh well !!! Here’s a classic recipe found in both Serbia and Croatia.

Škembići

Ingredients

2 lbs cooked tripe cut in bite-sized pieces
1 lb onions, peeled and sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
vegetable oil for frying
ground black pepper
powdered red paprika
2 bay leaves
⅓ cup dry white wine
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp vinegar

Instructions

Heat a little vegetable oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and then sauté the onions, stirring frequently until they are a deep golden.

Place the tripe, onions, ground pepper to taste, bay leaves, paprika to taste, crushed garlic, and white wine in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes.  At this point I like to let the pot rest and cool for several hours. It can also be refrigerated overnight to marry the flavors.

Reheat the pot when about ready to serve and add the tomato puree and vinegar towards the end, stirring well to combine thoroughly.

 

May 202017
 

Today is the birthday (1799) of legendary French author Honoré de Balzac.  His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 he set off for Paris with only a Louis coin in his pocket, intent on improving his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason (he had also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac,” his son later adding—without official recognition—the nobiliary particle: “de”). After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), François Balzac was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army. Balzac’s mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was 18 at the time of the wedding, and François Balzac, 50

Honoré (named after Saint-Honoré of Amiens http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/ ) was the second child born to the Balzacs. Exactly one year before, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a distance from their parents. At age 10 Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for 7 years. His father intentionally gave him little spending money to try to instill in him a sense of a hardscrabble upbringing but it primarily served to make him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the “alcove”, a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: “Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!”) His time alone, however, gave Balzac the opportunity to read voraciously.

Like Dickens (sometimes called the “English Balzac”), Balzac used scenes of his boyhood in his writing, especially La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : “He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.”

Balzac often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a “sort of a coma.” In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River. In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous teachers: François Guizot, who later became Prime Minister, Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne who lectured on French and classical literature, and, his favorite, Victor Cousin, who strongly encouraged independent thinking.

After the Sorbonne Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law. For three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to delve the vagaries of human behavior. In Le Notaire (1840), he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.”

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but he had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” In consequence he determined to become a writer.

Balzac’s work habits are legendary, he wrote from 1 am to 8 am every night and sometimes even longer. Balzac could write very rapidly; some of his novels, written with a quill, were composed at about thirty words per minute. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, drinking innumerable cups of strong black coffee. He would often work for 15 hours or more at a stretch, and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only 3 hours of rest in the middle.

Balzac revised obsessively, covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product quite often was different from the original text.

Balzac died in Paris in 1850, 5 months after marrying Ewelina Hańska, widow of count Hańska, in Russia.  He had never enjoyed good health, but the journey to Russia to finalize his courtship with Ewelina (who was also being courted by Franz Lizst), and his persistent overeating, along with his generally poor personal habits, weakened his system fatally. He showed all the symptoms of heart failure in his final year.

The day he died he had been visited by Victor Hugo, who later served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At his memorial service, Victor Hugo said, “Today we have people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.” The funeral was attended by the literary elite of Paris”, including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils,[84] as well as representatives of the Légion d’honneur and other dignitaries. Later, Auguste Rodin created the Monument à Balzac in his honor, and featured him in several smaller busts.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.

First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint a second time.

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

If you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again.

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.

And he, like many jaded people, had few pleasures left in life save good food and drink.

Cruelty and fear shake hands together. An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.

Hatred is the vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their littleness, and make it the pretext of base tyrannies.

After Balzac had closeted himself away for lengthy creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs, he would take a break and wolf down vast quantities of food. Once he asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch between writing bouts. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d’oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc.”

Balzac sometimes gave dinner parties with a theme. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favorite onion puree, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. His idea, apparently, was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests got sick. Maybe if you just make French onion soup you can avoid this fate. I’ve been making classic French onion soup since I was a novice cook, which, if made well, is superb. But you must get  it right. It takes time and patience. This is my recipe from memory which I have played with over the years. It makes about 8 servings, so I don’t make it very often these days. You really shouldn’t make small quantities.

French Onion Soup

Peel 10 sweet white onions, halve them, and finely slice them. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy Dutch oven, over low heat and layer in the onion slices sprinkling salt between each layer. Let the onions sweat down, undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes.  After that, stir the onions occasionally until they take on a dark, even, mahogany color. This is the absolutely critical step, and requires patience and attentiveness. You don’t want any of the onions to burn but they must be dark brown. Eventually the onions will reduce to about 2 cups. Ignore cookbooks that say you can brown the onions in 10 minutes or so. This is complete nonsense. Slowly cooked onions take an hour (sometimes longer) to reach this stage.

Add a cup (or more) of dry white wine to cover the onions and turn the heat to high. Reduce the wine to a syrup, then add 5 cups of beef consommé. See the HINTS tab for my recipes. You want this consommé to be of the highest quality. Also add a cup of good quality farm apple cider, and a bouquet garni (your choice of herbs; I use thyme, parsley, marjoram, and bay leaf). Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

Heat the broiler. Cut day old baguette slices into rounds to fit the  mouths of oven-safe soup crocks. Very lightly toast the bread under the broiler on one side only.

Add a little cognac to the soup, and ladle it into the crocks, leaving space for the bread. Place the bread, toasted side down, on top of the soup and spread it with grated Gruyère. Place the crocks under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and toasted.

May 082017
 

Today is the birthday of Edward Gibbon FRS, English historian famous for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 and is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion. Gibbon traces the trajectory of Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. The work covers the history, from 98 to 1590, of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity and then of the Roman State Church, and the history of Europe, and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West. Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first “modern historian of ancient Rome”

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duty to defend their empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, were unwilling to live a tougher, military lifestyle. Furthermore, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity’s comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the “Age of Reason,” with its emphasis on rational thought, he believed, that human history could resume its progress.

He compared the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and Charles V (1519–1556), noting some similarities. Both, for example, were plagued by continual war and compelled to excessive taxation to fund wars. We might do well to compare these two reigns with the US of our own times.

Gibbon’s style is frequently distinguished by an ironically detached and somewhat dispassionate yet critical tone. He occasionally lapses into moralization and aphorism. He is so eminently quotable:

History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.

If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [of gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:
Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
Increased demand to live off the state.

 I make it a point never to argue with people for whose opinion I have no respect.

Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.

Corruption, the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.

I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.

The history of empires is the history of human misery.

The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

Gibbon succumbed, as did many writers of his age (and later), to the debatable notion that a culture’s base temperaments are heavily influenced by the foods they eat:

THE CORN, or even the rice, which constitutes the ordinary and wholesome food of a civilized people, can be obtained only by the patient toil of the husbandman. Some of the happy savages, who dwell between the tropics, are plentifully nourished by the liberality of nature; but in the climates of the north, a nation of shepherds is reduced to their flocks and herds. The skilful practitioners of the medical art will determine (if they are able to determine) how far the temper of the human mind may be affected by the use of animal, or of vegetable, food; and whether the common association of carnivorous and cruel deserves to be considered in any other light, than that of an innocent, perhaps a salutary, prejudice of humanity. Yet if it be true that the sentiment of compassion is imperceptibly weakened by the sight and practice of domestic cruelty, we may observe that the horrid objects which are disguised by the arts of European refinement are exhibited in their naked and most disgusting simplicity in the tent of a Tartarian shepherd. The ox, or the sheep, are slaughtered by the same hand from which they were accustomed to receive their daily food; and the bleeding limbs are served, with very little preparation, on the table of their unfeeling murderer.

Anthropologists and archeologists (including myself) have long argued that the people who herd (and slaughter) animals are the ones to fear, over the long run, more than the farmers. I don’t believe it’s so much a matter of diet as of lifestyle. Herders are mobile whereas farmers are sedentary. Farmers, therefore, are more prone to armies of defense, whereas herders can be actively aggressive. Who are the warrior heroes of the Hebrew Bible? Abraham, David etc. – all herders. Of course, this is grossly simplistic, and things change over time, especially with the rise of empires.  But it does give me a segue into a recipe for the day.

I’ll resort to Hannah Glasse for an 18th century recipe, and I’ll choose a rice dish to favor Gibbon’s notion of a peaceable diet. I used to be very fond of rice in broth (my daily starter on board an Italian ship going from Australia to England), but Glasse’s rice soup is closer to rice pudding than to soup. (Be careful of the long “s” – which ignorant people mistake for “f”).

To make a rice ſoup.

TAKE two quarts of water, a pound of rice, a little cinnamon; cover it cloſe, and let it ſimmer very ſoftly till the rice is quite tender: take out the cinnamon, then ſweeten it to your palate, grate half a nutmeg, and let it ſtand till it is cold; then beat up the yolks of three eggs, with half a pint of white wine, mix them very well, then ſtir them into the rice, ſet them on a ſlow fire, and keep ſtirring all the time for fear of curdling. When it is of a good thickneſs, and boils, take it up. Keep ſtirring it till you put it into your diſh.

If you’re more in the mood for conquering Rome, have a steak.

Jan 182017
 

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Today is the birthday (1882)  of Alan Alexander “A.A.” Milne best known for his books about the teddy bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, and also for various poems. Milne actually thought of himself primarily as a playwright but the huge success of Pooh overshadowed all his previous work. Both he and his son, Christopher Robin, spent much of their lives trying to escape the fame of Pooh (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/christopher-robin/ ).

Milne studied mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge graduating in 1903. He collaborated with his brother Kenneth on humorous pieces whilst at Cambridge and their articles appeared over the initials AKM. Milne’s work came to the attention of the magazine Punch, where Milne was to become a contributor and later an assistant editor. He also played for the amateur English cricket team, the Allahakbarries, alongside the likes of J. M. Barrie, P.G. Wodehouse, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Milne joined the British Army in World War I and served as an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and later, after a debilitating illness, the Royal Corps of Signals. He was commissioned into the 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 17 February 1915 as a second lieutenant. On 7 July 1916, he was injured while serving in the Battle of the Somme and invalided back to England. Having recovered, he was recruited into Military Intelligence to write propaganda articles for MI 7b between 1916 and 1918. He was discharged in 1919.

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Milne married Dorothy “Daphne” de Sélincourt in 1913 and their son Christopher Robin Milne was born in 1920. In 1925, Milne bought a country home, Cotchford Farm, in Hartfield, East Sussex. During World War II, Milne was Captain of the British Home Guard in Hartfield & Forest Row, insisting on being plain “Mr. Milne” to the members of his platoon. He retired to the farm after a stroke and brain surgery in 1952 left him an invalid, and by August 1953 “he seemed very old and disenchanted”. Milne died in January 1956, aged 74.

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Milne is most famous for his Pooh books inspired by his son and his stuffed animals, most notably the bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. Christopher Robin Milne’s stuffed bear, originally named “Edward”, was renamed “Winnie-the-Pooh” after a Canadian black bear named Winnie (after Winnipeg), which was used as a military mascot in World War I, and left to London Zoo during the war. “The pooh” comes from a swan called “Pooh”. E. H. Shepard illustrated the original Pooh books, using his own son’s teddy, Growler (“a magnificent bear”), as the model. The rest of Christopher Robin Milne’s toys, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger, were incorporated into Milne’s stories, and two more characters – Rabbit and Owl – were created by Milne’s imagination. Christopher Robin Milne’s own toys are now under glass in New York where 750,000 people visit them every year.

Here’s a little selection of Milne’s quotes: some from Pooh, others from elsewhere.  I could have chosen dozens of others, of course. If you are a Milne fan you’ll know these and many more. It’s just a reminder.

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If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.

Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?

People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.”

If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.

I’m not lost for I know where I am. But, where I am may be lost.

The things that make me different are the things that make me.

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.

Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

Christopher Milne noted that his father was something of a nostalgic eater; he savored food for the memories it brought back to him as much as for their present flavors. However, he does not say what these dishes were. Various cooks have fancifully created Milne’s non-existent Cottleston pie:

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken, I don’t know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Well, Milne lived most of his life in Sussex, so maybe this old-fashioned Sussex recipe will suit.

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Sussex Churdle Pie

Ingredients

1 oz butter
1 onion, peeled and finely-chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely-chopped
1 lb lambs liver, chopped
2 oz streaky bacon, rind removed and chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
salt and pepper
2 oz fresh breadcrumbs
4 oz Cheddar, shredded
10 oz puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten

Instructions

Pre-heat the oven to 400°F.

Gently melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, then add the garlic, bacon and liver. Raise the heat to medium-high and sauté, while stirring constantly, until the liver has browned. Add the sage, apple, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another minute and then remove from the heat.

Roll out the pastry and cut it into 7” rounds.  It should make from 4 to 6.

Divide the meat mixture between the pastry circles, and top each one with some cheese and breadcrumbs.

Gather the pastry around to form a purse shape, with the opening at the top.  Squeeze together to form a seal, using a little of the beaten egg to form a seal. Paint the remaining egg wash over the pastry.

Bake the pies, in the oven, for 18-20 minutes or until the pastry is golden.

Jan 152017
 

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Today is the birthday (1622) of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, a French playwright and actor who is generally considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature, although he is not very well known, popularly, these days in the English-speaking world (largely because intelligence and wit are unfashionable).  I’ll give you a snippet of his biography (the rest you can find for yourself). Then I will give you some of my favorite quotes.

Molière was born into a prosperous family and having studied at the Collège de Clermont (now Lycée Louis-le-Grand) he worked for 13 years as an itinerant actor. Then he began writing plays combining Commedia dell’arte elements with the more refined French comedy of his day.

Through the patronage of aristocrats including Philippe I, Duke of Orléans—the brother of Louis XIV—Molière procured a command performance before the King at the Louvre. Performing a classic play by Pierre Corneille and a farce of his own, The Doctor in Love, Molière was granted the use of salle du Petit-Bourbon near the Louvre, a spacious room appointed for theatrical performances. Later, Molière was granted the use of the theater in the Palais-Royal. In both locations he found success among Parisians with plays such as The Affected Ladies, The School for Husbands and The School for Wives. (Sorry – I am going to use the English translations). This royal favor brought a royal pension to his troupe and the title Troupe du Roi (“The King’s Troupe”). Molière continued as the official author of court entertainments.

Though he received the adulation of the court and Parisians, Molière’s satires attracted criticism from moralists and the Catholic Church. Tartuffe and its attack on perceived religious hypocrisy roundly received condemnations from the Church, while Don Juan was banned from performance. This social ambivalence was summed up in an anecdote that is probably apocryphal, but makes the point, and was immortalized in a classic painting.

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One day Louis XIV was informed that certain members of the court refused to invite Molière to join them for a meal because he was just a playwright and, therefore, beneath their dignity. One morning, as the king sat down for breakfast, he invited Molière to join him at the table and enjoy the meal. Conventionally Louis invited the rich and famous to watch  him eat, but they had to remain silent as he ate. Louis reportedly kept up a conversation with Molière over the meal and called in to the room everyone who normally attended his breakfast. Supposedly after this royal lesson, no one ever had qualms again about inviting Molière for a meal.

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Molière’s hard work in so many theatrical capacities took its toll on his health and, by 1667, he was forced to take a break from the stage. In 1673, during a production of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid, Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, was seized by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage while playing the hypochondriac Argan. He finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later.

Here’s a smattering of Molière’s quotes (they are by no means all meant to amuse, and the English translations fail to capture the original French – my apologies again):

It is a folly second to none; to try to improve the world.

It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.

Some of the most famous books are the least worth reading.

The only people who can be excused for letting a bad book loose on the world are the poor devils who have to write for a living.

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.

Love is a great master. It teaches us to be what we never were.

All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.

Unbroken happiness is a bore: it should have ups and downs.

I want people to be sincere; a man of honor shouldn’t speak a single word that doesn’t come straight from his heart.

I have the fault of being a little more sincere than is proper.

Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.

The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.

One ought to look a good deal at oneself before thinking of condemning others.

We must take the good with the bad because the good when it’s good is so very good, that the bad when it’s bad isn’t so bad!

There is something inexpressibly charming in falling in love and, surely, the whole pleasure lies in the fact that love isn’t lasting.

So that we can transition into talk about food I will add:

I live on good soup, not on fine words.

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It’s often said that fine French cuisine began in the time of Molière with the publication of Le cuisinier françois by Pierre François La Varenne in 1651.  The full text in the original can be fond here — http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k114423k/f1.image  It’s not that hard to read if your French is halfway decent, and there are hundreds of recipes to choose from that look a lot like modern French recipes.  La Varenne’s work was the first to set down in writing the considerable culinary innovations achieved in France in the 17th century, particularly in the court of Louis XIV, while codifying food preparation in a systematic manner, according to rules and principles. He introduced the first bisque and Béchamel sauce, for example, he replaced crumbled bread with roux as the base for sauces, and lard with butter. You can also find the first usage of terms such as bouquet garni, fonds de cuisine (stocks) and reductions, and the use of egg-whites for clarifying stocks. It also contains the earliest recipe in print for mille-feuille. The cooking of vegetables is considered at some length, which was unusual for the times because vegetables previously were not popular. In a fragrant sauce for asparagus there is evidence of an early form of hollandaise sauce: “make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn’t curdle…”

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Here’s my adaptation of Varenne’s recipe for garden peas, which were a fad in 17th century France. This makes an excellent side dish. The peas should be seasonal and freshly shucked.

Varenne’s Garden Peas

Ingredients

3 cups freshly shucked garden peas
3 tbsp butter
2 oz rendered pork fat or bacon fat
1 head of lettuce
finely chopped chives
1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves separated from the staly
salt and pepper
fresh nutmeg
2 tbsp rich beef broth
¼ cup crème fraîche

Instructions

Break off the tough outer leaves of the lettuce and plunge the head in boiling water for a few seconds to blanch it. Immediately drain it and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Then chop it to a size that suits you.

Heat the butter and pork fat (or bacon fat) in a large skillet over medium-low hear until the butter has melted. Add the peas and stir them so that they are all covered in butter and fat. Add the other ingredients, except for the crème fraîche, and simmer, covered, until the peas are just cooked. Uncover, stir in the crème fraîche, heat for a minute, and serve.

Nov 302016
 

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Today is the birthday (1835) of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, U.S. writer, entrepreneur, publisher and lecturer. Among his most acclaimed novels are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often cited as one of a genre: “The Great American Novel.” Many, many U.S. giant authors, such as Faulkner and Hemingway, saw Twain as an eternal inspiration. There’s not much I can add. My favorite of his is  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) which launched the literary genre sometimes known as alternate history. I’ll give a short appraisal followed by a few poignant quotes. These days I find Twain a bit leaden to read in full, but his pithy aphorisms never fail to please me.

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Twain was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. After an apprenticeship with a printer, Twain worked as a typesetter and contributed articles to the newspaper of his older brother, Orion Clemens. He later became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before heading west to join Orion in Nevada. He referred humorously to his lack of success at mining, turning to journalism for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. In 1865, his humorous story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published, based on a story he heard at Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, California, where he had spent some time as a miner. The short story brought international attention, and was even translated into classic Greek. His wit and satire, in prose and in speech, earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

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Though Twain earned a great deal of money from his writings and lectures, he invested in ventures that lost money, notably the Paige Compositor, a mechanical typesetter, which failed because of its complexity and imprecision. In the wake of these financial setbacks, he filed for protection from his creditors via bankruptcy, and with the help of Henry Huttleston Rogers eventually overcame his financial troubles. Twain chose to pay all his pre-bankruptcy creditors in full, though he had no legal responsibility to do so.

This movie of Twain, now famous, was shot by Edison in 1909:

Twain was born shortly after a visit by Halley’s Comet, and he predicted that he would “go out with it”, too. He died the day after the comet returned.

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Limiting myself to just a few quotes from Twain is pure torture. There are thousands of gems. I don’t like his full prose, but pithy aphorisms poured from his pen:

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.

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Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

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Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.

Golf is a good walk spoiled.

When Twain traveled in France and Italy he yearned for U.S. food. This strikes me as absurd, but I understand. This quote from A Tramp Abroad sums it up. Take your pick:

It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one — a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive — as follows:

Radishes. Baked apples, with cream

Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.

American coffee, with real cream.

American butter.

Fried chicken, Southern style.

Porter-house steak.

Saratoga potatoes.

Broiled chicken, American style.

Hot biscuits, Southern style.

Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.

Hot buckwheat cakes.

American toast. Clear maple syrup.

Virginia bacon, broiled.

Blue points, on the half shell.

Cherry-stone clams.

San Francisco mussels, steamed.

Oyster soup. Clam Soup.

Philadelphia Terapin soup.

Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.

Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.

Baltimore perch.

Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.

Lake trout, from Tahoe.

Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.

Black bass from the Mississippi.

American roast beef.

Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.

Cranberry sauce. Celery.

Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.

Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.

Prairie liens, from Illinois.

Missouri partridges, broiled.

‘Possum. Coon.

Boston bacon and beans.

Bacon and greens, Southern style.

Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.

Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.

Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.

Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.

Mashed potatoes. Catsup.

Boiled potatoes, in their skins.

New potatoes, minus the skins.

Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.

Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.

Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.

Green corn, on the ear.

Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.

Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.

Hot egg-bread, Southern style.

Hot light-bread, Southern style.

Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.

Apple dumplings, with real cream.

Apple pie. Apple fritters.

Apple puffs, Southern style.

Peach cobbler, Southern style

Peach pie. American mince pie.

Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.

All sorts of American pastry.

Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.

Ice-water—not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.

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I will admit that Georgia peach pie is hard to beat. But as always, go to Georgia for the best. This will do in the meantime:

Georgia Peach Pie

Ingredients

2 flaky pie crusts (see Hints)

Filling

3 tbsp butter, cut in small pieces
5 lbs peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ tsp. salt

Wash

1 egg, beaten with a little milk

Instructions

Line a pie dish with pastry.

Toss all the pie filling ingredients in a bowl and pour them in the pie dish.

Top with a second pie crust. Cut a few holes to vent the steam, and brush with egg wash.

Bake at 400°F for about 1 hour. Cover the pastry with foil if it is browning too quickly.

Oct 102016
 

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Today is the birthday (1901) of Alberto Giacometti, Swiss sculptor, painter, draughtsman and printmaker. Giacometti was born in Borgonovo, now part of the Swiss municipality of Bregaglia, near the Italian border. He was a descendant of Protestant refugees escaping the inquisition. Alberto attended the Geneva School of Fine Arts. His father, Giovanni Giacometti, was a well known post-Impressionist painter and his brothers, Diego (1902–85) and Bruno (1907–2012), went on to become artists as well. Additionally, Zaccaria Giacometti, later professor of constitutional law and chancellor of the University of Zurich grew up together with them, having been orphaned at the age of 12 in 1905.

In 1922 Giacometti moved to Paris to study under the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, an associate of Rodin. It was there that Giacometti experimented with cubism and surrealism and came to be regarded as one of the leading surrealist sculptors. Among his associates were Miró, Max Ernst, Picasso, Bror Hjorth and Balthus.

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Between 1936 and 1940, Giacometti concentrated his sculpting on the human head, focusing on the sitter’s gaze. He preferred models he was close to: his sister, Ottilia, and the artist Isabel Rawsthorne (then known as Isabel Delmer). This was followed by a phase in which his statues of Isabel became stretched out; her limbs elongated. He often carved until his sculptures were as thin as nails and reduced to the size of a pack of cigarettes, much to his own consternation. A friend of his once said that if Giacometti decided to sculpt you, “he would make your head look like the blade of a knife.” After his marriage to Annette Arm in 1946 his tiny sculptures became larger, but the larger they grew, the thinner they became. Giacometti said that the final result represented the sensation he felt when he looked at a woman.

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His paintings underwent a parallel procedure. The figures appear isolated and severely attenuated, as the result of continuous reworking. Subjects were frequently revisited: one of his favorite models was his younger brother Diego.

In 1958 Giacometti was asked to create a monumental sculpture for the Chase Manhattan Bank building in New York, which was beginning construction. Although he had for many years “harbored an ambition to create work for a public square”, he “had never set foot in New York, and knew nothing about life in a rapidly evolving metropolis. Nor had he ever laid eyes on an actual skyscraper,” according to his biographer James Lord. Giacometti’s work on the project resulted in the four figures of standing women—his largest sculptures—entitled Grande femme debout I through IV (1960). The commission was never completed, however, because Giacometti was unsatisfied by the relationship between the sculpture and the site, and abandoned the project.

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In 1962, Giacometti was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale, and the award brought with it worldwide fame. Even when he had achieved popularity and his work was in demand, he still reworked models, often destroying them or setting them aside to be returned to years later. The prints produced by Giacometti are often overlooked but the catalogue raisonné, Giacometti – The Complete Graphics and 15 Drawings by Herbert Lust (Tudor 1970), comments on their impact and gives details of the number of copies of each print. Some of his most important images were in editions of only 30 and many were described as rare in 1970.

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In his later years Giacometti’s works were shown in a number of large exhibitions throughout Europe. Riding a wave of international popularity, and despite his declining health, he traveled to the United States in 1965 for an exhibition of his works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As his last work he prepared the text for the book Paris sans fin, a sequence of 150 lithographs containing memories of all the places where he had lived.

Giacometti died in 1966 of heart disease (pericarditis) and chronic bronchitis at the Kantonsspital in Chur in Switzerland. His body was returned to his birthplace in Borgonovo, where he was interred close to his parents.

Normally I end my posts on artists with a gallery (before my recipe), but for Giacometti I’m going to give you some of my favorite quotes of his. I look at his art better through them.

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What I am looking for is not happiness. I work solely because it is impossible for me to do anything else.

The more you fail, the more you succeed. It is only when everything is lost and – instead of giving up – you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling – be it an illusion or not – that something new has opened up.

When I make my drawings… the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extent, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness.

In a burning building I would save a cat before a Rembrandt.

The one thing that fills me with enthusiasm is to try, despite everything, to get nearer to those visions that seem so hard to express.

Failure is my best friend. If I succeeded, it would be like dying. Maybe worse.

The head is what matters. The rest of the body plays the part of antennae making life possible for people and life itself is inside the skull.

I don’t know who I am or who I was. I know it less than ever. I do and I don’t identify myself with myself. Everything is totally contradictory, but maybe I have remained exactly as I was as a small boy of twelve.

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The cooking of the Italian Graubünden or Italian Grigioni (Grigionitaliano or Grigioni italiano) where Giacometti was born and lived for some time is very much like the cuisine of Lombardy because most of the Swiss Italians of that region came originally from Lombardy. Milanese-style saffron risotto is a popular dish and I gave a recipe for it here on Verdi’s birthday which happens to be today also — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/giuseppe-verdi/ . In fact pretty much any dish from Lombardy would work.

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Turkey with chestnut stuffing is popular in this region at this time of year. Italian turkeys are usually smaller than the U.S. monsters which I think is great deal better from a culinary standpoint. For me an 8 to 10 pound turkey is more than adequate for a family meal and if you have a large number of guests (at Thanksgiving for example) cook two, rather than one giant bird. That way you stand a chance of the meat tasting of something other than cardboard. Here’s the classic Lombardy chestnut stuffing for a turkey that is no more than 5 pounds:

Chestnut Stuffing

Ingredients

250g chestnuts
2 eggs, hard boiled
125ml white wine
50ml milk
30g butter
4 fresh Italian sausages,
salt and black pepper,
100g sliced white bread, diced

Instructions

Preheat oven to 425°F/220°C with the rack in the middle.  Cut an X in the rounded side of each chestnut with a small sharp knife. Roast the chestnuts, cut side up, in a shallow baking pan until the shells curl away from the nut meat (20 to 30 minutes). Wrap the hot chestnuts in a kitchen towel and squeeze gently to further loosen shells. Whilst still warm, peel off the shells.

Soak the bread in milk.

Chop the chestnuts and eggs coarsely.

Heat the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat and, when melted, add all the other ingredients. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for 5-10 minutes stirring frequently so that the ingredients do not stick and so that they are all combined thoroughly.

Stuff the cavity of the turkey and roast.

Aug 292016
 

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Today is the birthday (1632) of John Locke FRS, an English philosopher and physician, one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy, and in particular, influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, along with many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and North American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke’s theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau, and Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa), and that contrary to Cartesian philosophy which postulated the existence of innate ideas, Locke proposed instead that knowledge is determined only by experience derived from sense perception.

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Locke’s professional trajectory is indicative of how different the 17th century was from the modern era. Locke was born in a small thatched cottage by the church in Wrington, Somerset, about 12 miles from Bristol. Soon after Locke’s birth, the family moved to the market town of Pensford, about seven miles south of Bristol, where Locke grew up in a rural Tudor house in Belluton. In 1647, Locke was sent to  Westminster School and then was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford in the autumn of 1652 at the age of 20. Although a capable student he was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum that focused on the classics, and preferred the works of contemporary philosophers, such as René Descartes. Through his friend Richard Lower, whom he knew from the Westminster School, Locke was introduced to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member.

After taking a bachelor’s degree in he was awarded a bachelor of medicine in February 1675, having studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford and having worked with the likes of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. In 1666, he met Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who had come to Oxford seeking treatment for a liver infection. Cooper was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue. Locke’s medical knowledge was put to the test when Shaftesbury’s liver infection became life-threatening. Locke coordinated the advice of several physicians and was probably instrumental in persuading Shaftesbury to undergo surgery (then life-threatening itself) to remove the cyst. Shaftesbury survived and prospered, crediting Locke with saving his life. Locke had been looking for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury’s home at Exeter House in London, to serve as Lord Ashley’s personal physician. In London, Locke resumed his medical studies under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham who encouraged his philosophical bent.

I consider the so-called “Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” to be a productive turn for philosophy and science in some respects, but probably ultimately a fatal one for Western civilization. Time will tell. The trajectory we are on looks decidedly abysmal. Locke was a leader in this march of “progress.” He was a champion of using experience to guide reason, but he was unaware of the hopeless limits of his own experience. You can’t just reason your way into any valuable insights into humans in the “state of nature,” for example. You need some concrete evidence. Making extrapolations from the social and political world around you won’t tell you about the distant past, no matter how precise your “reason” is.

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Locke led Western philosophy down a path I have been skeptical of since I was an undergraduate. That’s why I became an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Ethnocentrism is the great curse of Locke’s path, as it is of so many Westerners in general, now as then. Pondering the social and political realities of 17th century Europe may have led to some useful outcomes in terms of reform and rebellion against the old order. But it was hopeless in the service of wider causes. Within the limits of his own experience, Locke was a decent philosopher. Here’s some quotes:

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

This is that which I think great readers are apt to be mistaken in; those who have read of everything, are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.

I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.

The necessity of believing without knowledge . . .  should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others.

There is reason to think, that, if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.

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Locke died on 28 October 1704, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of High Laver, east of Harlow in Essex, where he had lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. He never married nor had children. His epitaph is in Latin, but was translated thus:

Stop Traveller! Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspect praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee), thou hast one here and everywhere.

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As a good demonstration of my general attitude that we cannot assume that we know other cultures just by employing rational thought to limited evidence, I give you this recipe from A True Gentlewomans Delight, (1653) – maybe the kind of broth that Locke supped on in the rich households in frequented.

To make stewed Broth.

Take a neck of Mutton, or a rump of Beef, let it boyle, and scum your pot clean, thicken your pot with grated bread, and put in some beaten Spice, as Mace, nutmegs, Cinnamon, and a little Pepper, put in a pound of Currans, a pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun, two pounds of Prunes last of all, then when it is stewed, to season put in a quart of Claret, and a pint of Sack, and some Saunders to colour it, and a pound of Sugar to sweeten it, or more if need be, you must seeth some whole Spice to garnish your dish with all, and a few whole Prunes out of your pot.

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The language is more or less clear. You just need to know that sack is fortified wine imported from Spain or the Canary Islands, one style of which we now call sherry. Saunders is a food dye made from red sandalwood. The quantities are reasonably precise, so have at it. Or maybe a soup of mutton, spices, currants, raisins, prunes, wine, and sugar is not to your tastes. Why not? Locke was human and so are you. Surely you like similar things? Christmas mincemeat is about the last vestige in modern British cuisine of this style of cooking. The “meat” part of “mincemeat” is your hint that it was once made with real meat and not just suet. I’ve made it with venison, in fact, according to a 19th century recipe. But I served it in a pie as dessert, not as a main course. Sweet mutton soup is not appearing on my table any time