Apr 282017
 

Today is the birthday (1926) of Nelle Harper Lee who was known to friends and family as Nelle, but more widely known as Harper Lee, author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. I count her among some distinguished “one hit wonders” of the literary world, such as J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye) and Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind). They all had odds and ends published in their lifetimes, but their most famous novels are far and away their signature works. Of all three only To Kill a Mockingbird interests me at all. I found Catcher in the Rye tedious, and could not finish Gone With the Wind. On the other hand, I found To Kill a Mockingbird mesmerizing: book and film. It’s possible that these interests of mine are a function of the time of my life when I read the books.  I was a young schoolteacher in England when I read Salinger and Mitchell, but I was a graduate student in anthropology in North Carolina when I tackled Harper Lee, so I was sensitized to the book’s themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, burst on the scene right at the time that the Civil Rights movement in the US was uncovering the blatant racism of the American South (not that other parts of the US were guiltless). Segregation, poverty, and injustice were the social norms throughout the South, but were unparalleled in Deep South states such as Alabama and Mississippi. To Kill a Mockingbird could be said to have been as instrumental in vitalizing sentiments towards Civil Rights in the U.S.in the 1960s as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a century earlier, in the movement to abolish slavery.  Mississippi did not get around to ratifying the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, until 2013 !!! Of course, it was a completely symbolic gesture because the Amendment was passed by enough states to make it law in 1865.  Rather surprisingly, of the 4 states that rejected ratification 2 were northern (New Jersey and Delaware) and 2 were Southern (Kentucky and Mississippi). Kentucky ratified in 1976 and Mississippi began the process in 1995.

The plot and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird are loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family and neighbors in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.  Truman Capote was a childhood friend and is the basis for the boy Dill in the book. The novel deals with the irrationality of adult attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s, as depicted through the eyes of two children, especially 6-year-old Scout Finch. The lead character, Atticus Finch, is still frequently upheld as an absolute model of honesty and integrity in the face of social injustice, not only by lawyers, but by the general public as a whole. Many people who knew him said that Gregory Peck was perfect to play the role in the movie, because he was the living embodiment of these values in his personal life.

Various federal laws passed in the 1960s, and afterwards, ended many of the overtly racist practices of Southern (and other) states, almost like a reprise of the Civil War a century earlier. But what was ended de jure continued de facto, and still continues, in many regions of the U.S. in full force. The 2016 presidential election highlighted this fact, which many open-minded people wanted to believe was a thing of the past, and which many closed-minded people did not want to acknowledge.  For this reason alone I would vote for To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the greatest 20th-century novels if not the greatest. It captures the spirit of its time perfectly, and represents ongoing realities across the U.S.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success both critically and as a publication. Yet, some critics treated it with some disdain, not because of the racial themes, but because they felt it had confusing themes: the unjust trial of an African-American man, on the one hand, and the narrative thread of the strange and reclusive “Boo” Radley, on the other. I don’t see this at all. The novel is a comprehensive view of the many complexities, involving race and class, among other things, of a rural Southern town in the 20th century. It is a small ethnography, in fiction, of the stark truth.

Some critics, including modern ones, object to the language, notable the use of the word “nigger.” People in the US are still frightened to say the word, even when all they are doing is quoting someone. Of course, actually using the word against someone is deeply offensive, but reporting what someone else said (perhaps indicating their racism), ought to be allowed. Instead EVERYONE in the media reports something like, “He used the N-word . . .” as if saying the word itself (even though you are reporting the speech of others), somehow includes you in its racism. Harper Lee used the word in the mouths of racists because it was true to life.  In 1966, Lee wrote a letter to the editor of the Richmond News Leader in response to the attempts of a Richmond, Virginia, area school board to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as “immoral literature” (not least because she used the word “nigger” 48 times). It is a priceless gem:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of the Richmond News Leader, started the Beadle Bumble fund to pay fines for victims of what he termed “despots on the bench” (named for a famous Dickens character). He built the fund using contributions from readers, and later used it to defend books as well as people. After the board in Richmond ordered schools to dispose of all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Kilpatrick wrote, “A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined.” In the name of the Beadle Bumble fund, he then offered free copies to children who wrote in, and by the end of the first week, he had given away 81 copies.

The book was turned into a movie in 1962 and was unfortunate to run up against Lawrence of Arabia for the Oscars that year, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Score. Peter O’Toole had been nominated for Best Actor for his performance as T. E. Lawrence, but Peck won for Mockingbird. The movie also won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is, indeed, a faithful rendering of the book in many important ways, and Harper Lee approved of its translation from book to film and consulted on the set.

The choice of black and white for the film, instead of the more popular color at the time, may have been a budgetary decision, but I think that it would have been ruined by color. It could also be said that black and white was the inherent message of the film (and book). Hands down the following clip is my favorite from the movie, and still brings tears to my eyes:

The film also marked the screen debut of Robert Duvall as Arthur “Boo” Radley, who before working on the film was a stage actor.

Just about every line of To Kill a Mockingbird is quotable. This is a very small sample of my numerous favorites, most obvious first:

Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.

I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.

Finding a recipe to celebrate Harper Lee is a piece of cake – literally. The book, especially in the opening chapters, is laden with references to food, but mentions of Lane cake are classic. Scout reports, “Miss Maudie baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.” “Shinny” is a slang term for liquor. Also, Miss Maudie bakes a Lane cake for Mr. Avery, who was severely injured in an attempt to put out a fire in her home. “Mr. Avery will be in bed for a week—he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that and I told him so. Soon as I can get my hands clean and when Stephanie Crawford’s not looking, I’ll make him a Lane cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her she’s got another think coming.”

Lane cake, also known as prize cake or Alabama Lane cake, is a bourbon-laden baked cake traditional in the American South. According to food historian Neil Ravenna, the inventor was Emma Rylander Lane, of Clayton, Alabama, who won first prize with it at the county fair in Columbus, Georgia. She called it “Prize Cake” when she self-published a cookbook, A Few Good Things to Eat in 1898. Her published recipe included raisins, pecans, and coconut, and called for the layers to be baked in pie tins lined with ungreased brown paper rather than in cake pans.

This recipe is from Emma Rylander Law, Mrs. Lane’s granddaughter, and was published in an article by Cecily Brownstone for the Associated Press on Dec. 19, 1967. I’ve edited it very slightly and added a recipe for boiled white frosting which is missing from the original.

Lane Cake

Cake

Ingredients

3 ¼ cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 1/6 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 egg whites
1 cup milk

Instructions

On wax paper sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla. Add egg whites, in four additions, beating thoroughly after each addition.

Fold in flour mixture alternately with milk; begin and end with dry ingredients. Batter should be smooth but look slightly granular.

Turn into 4 ungreased 9-inch round layer-cake pans lined on the bottom with wax paper.

Bake in a 375-degree oven until edges shrink slightly from sides of pans and tops spring back when gently pressed with finger, or cake tester inserted in center comes out clean — about 20 minutes. Place pans on wire racks to cool for about 5 minutes.

Turn out on wire racks; remove wax paper; turn right side up; cool completely.

Put layers together (on a cake plate) with Lane Cake Filling, stacking carefully; do not spread filling over top. Cover top and sides with swirls of Boiled White Frosting.

Cover with a tent of foil or a cake cover; or cover tightly in a large deep bowl in tin box. Store in a cool place; if refrigerated, allow to stand at room temperature for half a day before serving because cake texture is best when cake is not served chilled

Filling

Ingredients

8 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup seedless raisins, finely chopped
1 – 3 cup bourbon or brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions

In a 2-quart saucepan, beat the egg yolks well; beat in sugar and butter. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly until quite thick. Remove from heat; stir in raisins, bourbon and vanilla. Cool slightly; use as directed.

Boiled White Frosting

Ingredients

1 cup white sugar
⅓ cup water
1 tbsp light corn syrup
⅛ tsp salt
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp confectioners’ sugar

Instructions

Combine sugar, water, corn syrup, and salt in a saucepan and stir with a wooden spoon to mix completely. Boil the mixture over medium-high heat without stirring until  it reaches 238 – 242˚F (114 – 117˚C), or will spin a long thread when a little is dropped from a spoon held above the pan (see HINTS tab on sugar).

It is best to use a mixer for this step. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff but still moist. Then pour the hot syrup slowly over the beaten egg whites while continuing to beat. Continue until the mixture is very fluffy, and will hold its shape. Add the vanilla and keep beating until blended. If the icing does not seem stiff enough, beat in 2 or 3 tablespoons of confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time until stiff enough to hold its shape. Spread immediately on your cake.

Apr 262017
 

Today is celebrated in parts of Russia as Old Permic Alphabet Day. The Old Permic script (Komi: Важ Перым гижӧм), sometimes called the Abur or Anbur after the first two letters (an + bur), is an idiosyncratic adaptation of the Cyrillic script once used to write medieval Komi (Permic). It was created by St Stephen of Perm (Russian : Стефан Пермский, also spelled “Stephan”, Komi: Перымса Стефан, a 14th-century painter and missionary credited with the conversion of the Komi to Christianity and the establishment of the Bishopric of Perm. Because today is his saint’s day, it was chosen as the date to celebrate the alphabet he created.

Stephen was probably from the town of Ustiug. According to a church tradition, his mother was a Komi woman. Stephen took his monastic vows in Rostov, where he learned Greek and learned his trade as a copyist. In 1376, he traveled to lands along the Vychegda and Vym rivers, and it was there that he engaged in the conversion of the Zyriane (Komi peoples). Rather than imposing Latin or Church Slavonic on the indigenous populace, as all the contemporary missionaries did, Stephen learnt their language and traditions and worked out a distinct writing system for their use, creating the second oldest writing system for an Uralic language. Although his destruction of some non-Christian religious symbols earned him the wrath of some Permians, he became the first bishop of Perm, and was very popular.

Stephen’s conversion of the Vychegda Perm threatened the control that Novgorod had had over the region’s wealth and tribute payments, so in 1385, the Archbishop of Novgorod Aleksei (r. 1359-1388) sent a Novgorodian army to remove the new establishment. But the new bishopric, with the help of the city of Ustiug, was able to defeat it. In 1386, Stephan visited Novgorod, and the city and its archbishop formally acknowledged the new situation. Subsequently, the region’s tribute money went to Moscow. These events had immense repercussions for the future of northern Russia, and was one part of a larger trend which saw more and more of the Finnic North and its vital fur trade passing from the control of Novgorod to Moscow, and the general consolidation of Russia as a nation.

The Komi are a Uralic ethnic group whose homeland is around the basins of the Vychegda, Pechora and Kama rivers. They mostly live in the Komi Republic, Perm Krai, Murmansk Oblast, Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in the Russian Federation. They belong to the Permian branch of the Finno-Ugric peoples, divided into eight sub-groups. Their northernmost sub-group is also known as the Komi-Izhemtsy (from the name of the river Izhma) or Iz’vataz. This group numbers 15,607 (2002 census). This group is distinct for its more traditional, strongly subsistence based economy which includes reindeer husbandry. Komi-Permyaks (125,235 people) live in Perm Krai and Kirov Oblast of Russia.

There have been at least three names for the Komis: Permyaks, Zyrians (Russian: пермяки, зыряне) and Komi, the last being the self-designation of the people. The name Permyaks firstly appeared in the 10th  century in Russian sources and came from the ancient name of the land between the Mezen River and Pechora River – Perm – often called “Great Perm” (Russian: Пермь Великая). There are several possible etymologies for the Russian term, but the most commonly accepted amounts to, “the back of beyond.” The name Komi is the endonym (a group’s name in its own language) for all groups of the peoples of the region. It was first recorded by ethnographers in the 18th century. It originates from the Finno-Ugric word meaning “man, human”: Komi kom, Udmurt kum, Mansi kom, kum, Khanty xum.

Komi is a member of the Uralic family of languages, sometimes called the Finno-Ugric family whose better known members are Finnish and Hungarian. Komi can be considered either a single language with several dialects, or a group of closely related languages, making up one of the two branches of the Permic branch of the Uralic family. The other Permic language is Udmurt, to which Komi is closely related.

Of the several Komi dialects or languages, two major varieties are recognized, closely related to one another: Komi-Zyrian, the largest group, serves as the literary basis within the Komi Republic; and Komi-Permyak (also called Permyak), spoken in Komi-Permyak Okrug, where it has literary status. A third variety, Komi-Yodzyak is spoken by the Komi to the north-west of Perm Krai and south of the Komi Republic.

The alphabet developed by Stephen of Perm shows some similarity to medieval Greek and Cyrillic. In the 16th century this alphabet was replaced by the Russian alphabet with certain modifications. In the 1920s, the language was written in Molodtsov alphabet, also derived from Cyrillic. In the 1930s it was switched to the Roman alphabet. In the 1940s the Komi alphabet was simply changed to the Russian alphabet, with the addition of І, і and Ӧ, ӧ. Letters particular to the Molodtsov alphabet include ԁ, ԃ, ԅ, ԇ, ԉ, ԋ, ԍ, ԏ, where the hooks represent palatalization.

I won’t stray into the technicalities of linguistics too much (and will be annoyingly simplistic for those who know the subject), but let’s talk a little about alphabets. When it comes to learning how to read and write, alphabets are the most basic way to represent sounds in writing, and are, therefore, the simplest to learn. At one end of the scale are pictograms, pictures representing basic ideas as in this photo:

Pictograms of this sort are independent of language, so they can be very useful, but they have limited linguistic utility. Next are logograms, such as Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphs, which use a symbol to represent a word or idea. They can be used to express complete thoughts, but in consequence are restricted in their language use. But the restriction is not total. Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible when spoken but both can use the same traditional Chinese characters, and speakers of either language can read them with equal fluency.  Even when the Japanese use Chinese characters to write Japanese (kanji) a Chinese speaker can understand the writing to a degree – not perfectly because Japanese has altered some characters.

Next along the line are syllabaries, which break the sounds of a language into syllables (often consonant + vowel) for writing. Many Asian languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Burmese, now use syllabaries because they are simpler to learn than systems of characters. You may need to know a mere 40 characters in a syllabary to be literate, but in Chinese, for example, knowing 2,000 characters makes you barely literate; 10,000 is normal for educated readers. Scholars and bureaucrats in imperial China were expected to know around 50,000.

Alphabets simplify reading down to its most basic sounds, and some languages, such as Italian and Spanish, can be pronounced with reasonable accuracy, through reading out loud, by people who do not even know the languages as long as they know the relationship between letters and sounds. Sadly, English is not in this group because it has never had an academy to enforce basic (and simple to understand) rules, so that the jumbled history of the language is reflected in the convoluted spelling. If every language in the world used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), pronunciation of the written word would be a snap. You would not have to learn the whole alphabet, just the letters that represent the sounds of your own language. It’s never going to happen though, not least because a culture’s way of writing is a very basic aspect of its identity. Chinese, for example, can be written in Pinyin, which is based on the Roman alphabet, and makes reading quite simple. But it obscures the depth and complexity of meaning that Chinese characters convey, and Westernizes writing the language. Some Chinese use Pinyin on cell phones, but most smartphones nowadays can send in Chinese characters, which the Chinese prefer.

When Stephen developed an alphabet for the Komi his first intention was to develop literacy among the people so that they could read the Bible (which, of course, had to be translated into Komi). If you can’t write the language, you can’t translate anything into the language that is as long and complex as the Bible.

Komi cuisine is varied region by region. In the northern reindeer-herding and hunting areas, meat is eaten daily, but not in the more agricultural south, where fish holds a more important place on tables. Pigs and poultry are kept, but are eaten less often. The Komi are fond of baking fish pie (черинянь)” on festive family occasions. The highly popular “Fish Pie Festival” (Черинянь гаж) is held annually on the last Sunday of June in the village of Byzovaya, Pechora Raion. Komi fish pie is a lot like some fish pies that I make – a cooked fish mixture, topped with a mix of mashed potatoes and other vegetables that is baked. Here’s a fairly standard recipe which incorporates leeks into the potato topping: a real favorite of mine. The filling uses a mix of fresh and smoked fish which is delightful.

Komi Fish Pie

Ingredients

600ml milk
300ml heavy cream
450g white fish fillets
225g smoked fish fillets (haddock or cod)
3 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and roughly chopped
100g butter, plus a little extra (as needed)
45g plain flour
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1kg floury potatoes, peeled and diced.
1 leek, washed well and thinly sliced (green and white parts)
75g melting cheese, coarsely grated
salt and pepper

Instructions

Put 450ml of the milk and the heavy cream into a large saucepan and bring to a low simmer (boiling will cause the mixture to rise and spill over the pan. Add the white and smoked fish and cook gently for 5-6 minutes, until the fish is just cooked through. Don’t overcook. Using a slotted spoon, remove the fish from the liquid and let it cool slightly on a platter. Strain the liquid and let it cool.

Using a fork or wooden spoon, break the fish into large flakes, and discard any skin and bones. The smoked fish may need careful inspection for small bones, which you need to remove with tweezers. Spread the fish over the base of an ovenproof dish and scatter the chopped eggs over the top.

Melt 50g of the butter in a pan and make a blond roux with the flour, cooking and stirring, for about 1 minute. Take the pan from the heat and, using a whisk, gradually stir in the cooking liquid making sure there are no lumps remaining. Return to the heat and slowly bring back to a simmer, stirring all the time. Cook until the sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Season to taste, stir in the parsley, and pour the sauce over the fish. Leave to cool to room temperature.

Boil the potatoes until they are soft enough to mash (25 to 35 minutes). Meanwhile, melt the remaining 50g butter in a skillet, add the sliced leek and cook gently until tender.

Drain the potatoes and mash them. How smooth you want them is up to you. I usually leave them a bit lumpy, but this is cook’s choice. You can also add a little butter as you mash, if you like. Stir in the leeks with their butter and the cheese. Season to taste, and spread over the top of the fish in an even layer.

Preheat the oven to 400˚F/200˚C. Dot the top with a little butter, and bake until the potato topping is crisp and golden, by which time the filling will be heated through and bubbling (15 to 20 minutes).

 

Apr 222017
 

Today is the birthday of Isabella I (Ysabel I) of Castile (1451 – 1504). She married Ferdinand II of Aragon and their marriage became the basis for the political unification of Spain under their grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After a struggle to claim her right to the throne, she reorganized the governmental system, brought the crime rate to the lowest it had been in years, and unburdened the kingdom of the enormous debt her brother had left behind. Her reforms and those she made with Ferdinand had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are well known for completing the Reconquista, ordering the conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects under the legendary Spanish Inquisition, and for supporting and financing Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage that led to the colonization of huge parts of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century. The phrase “the sun never sets on the empire” was coined to describe the Spanish empire under Isabella’s great-grandson, Felipe II, and inherited only much later by the British.

With many celebrated (larger than life) historical figures such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. I always ask my students the deathless question: “(Fill in the blank); ‘Good Thing’ or ‘Bad Thing’?” I’m stealing from 1066 And All That, of course, and on the surface it’s a silly question. History is not black and white. I’m asking them to give considered answers in the vein of, “On the one hand . . . . on the other hand . . .” Well what about Isabella? Good Thing or Bad Thing? Your answer probably depends on your ethnic origins. If you’re Hispanic you’ll probably lean in favor of Good Thing, if you’re Jewish, Indigenous American, or Moorish – not so much. The thing is that Isabella is a towering figure in world history. She was not only tough minded, independent, and politically astute, she was also the progenitor of numerous monarchs and dynasties.

The most famous living descendants of Isabella I (and Ferdinand II) are probably the current European monarchs. First of all, the Kings of Spain are descended from their union, with their current major dynastic heir being King Felipe VI of Spain. However, it is also the case that all the other monarchs currently reigning in Europe – King Albert II of Belgium, Grand-Duke Henri of Luxembourg, Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K., Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Harald V of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands – descend in some way or another from Isabella and Ferdinand. This is also true of the Sovereign Princes of Europe: Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein. That’s leaving a pretty significant mark.

From the point of view of English history, Isabella’s daughter, Katherine, was first married to Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, and then, when he died, was remarried to his second son Henry who became Henry VIII. Henry’s divorce from Katherine was, of course, the immediate cause of the English Reformation, and the ascent of their daughter, Mary I, Isabella’s granddaughter, the precipitating event leading to the bloody Counter-Reformation in England. Mary married Isabella’s great-grandson Felipe II (Mary’s first cousin once removed) but they had no children, hence that bloodline vanished. It’s always struck me as a tad ethnocentric (or xenophobic) of English history text books that Felipe is rarely acknowledged as an ACTUAL king of England. Admittedly he was king by marriage, and his reign lasted only whilst Mary was alive. But he was king – not royal consort, like Victoria’s Albert, or royal hanger-on like the current Greek guy. He was genuinely king of England (jure uxoris), and tried to make the title stick after Mary’s death by launching the famous Armada which came to a well-known miserable end. The current Elizabeth II is descended from Isabella via a different bloodline. And . . . just to muddy the waters further, Isabella was a direct descendant of the kings of England (including king John) via John of Gaunt. Not much hybrid vigor in the bloodlines in those days.

Isabella was first betrothed to Ferdinand at the age of 6, but subsequent complex royal machinations scotched that deal as she was offered around to numerous princes until, as an adult and heir presumptive, she got a (wobbly) agreement from her brother, Henry, king of Castile at the time, that she would not be forced to marry against her will.  In 1468 after Isabella refused a marriage proposal from Alfonso V of Portugal (backed by brother Henry), Isabella made a secret promise to marry her cousin and very first betrothed, Ferdinand of Aragon. On 18 October 1469, the formal betrothal took place. Because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins, they stood within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and the marriage would not be legal unless a dispensation from the Pope was obtained. With the help of the Valencian cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Alexander VI), Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with a supposed papal bull by Pius II (who had actually died in 1464), authorizing Ferdinand to marry within the third degree of consanguinity, making their marriage legal. Afraid of opposition, Isabella eloped from the court of Henry with the excuse of visiting her brother Alfonso’s tomb in Ávila. Ferdinand, on the other hand, crossed Castile in secret disguised as a servant. They were married immediately upon reuniting, on 19 October 1469, in the Palacio de los Vivero in the city of Valladolid. It was both a successful union politically, and, by all accounts, a happy one – although one never really knows about such things. I’d (modestly) characterize the marriage as an uncharacteristically (for the time) equal partnership. It’s vital to remember that this was an era of very powerful female rulers in a patriarchal world. Many men found this out to their peril.

You can catch up on Isabella’s numerous achievements in standard histories.  How about her personality? Here we must be careful not to be anachronistic. For starters, Isabella was short but stocky with a very fair complexion, and had a hair color that was between strawberry-blonde and auburn. Some portraits, however, show her as a brunette. Her daughters, Joanna and Catherine, were thought to resemble her the most. Isabella maintained an austere, temperate lifestyle, and her devotion to Catholicism was the hallmark of her life. In spite of her political hostility towards the Muslims in Andalusia, she developed a taste for Moorish decor and style.

Her contemporaries were more or less unanimous concerning her temperament. Andrés Bernáldez said, “She was an endeavored woman, very powerful, very prudent, wise, very honest, chaste, devout, discreet, truthful, clear, without deceit. Who could count the excellences of this very Catholic and happy Queen, always very worthy of praises.” Hernando del Pulgar wrote, “She was very inclined to justice, so much so that she was reputed to follow more the path of rigor than that of mercy, and did so to remedy the great corruption of crimes that she found in the kingdom when she succeeded to the throne.” This is a telling quote. Obviously she was not an advocate of “the quality of mercy.” This point is echoed in the writings of     Lucio Marineo Sículo: “[The royal knight Alvaro Yáñez de Lugo] was condemned to be beheaded, although he offered forty thousand ducados for the war against the Moors to the court so that these monies spare his life. This matter was discussed with the queen, and there were some who told her to pardon him, since these funds for the war were better than the death of that man, and her highness should take them. But the queen, preferring justice to cash, very prudently refused them; and although she could have confiscated all his goods, which were many, she did not take any of them to avoid any note of greed, or that it be thought that she had not wished to pardon him in order to have his goods; instead, she gave them all to the children of the aforesaid knight.” There you go !!! Justice trumps mercy (even fiscal pragmatics). Quite the stalwart woman.

Here’s a recipe from a 15th century Catalan cookbook, Libre Del Coch by Mestre Robert. I know I’m being a bit free and easy with my regional recipe idea here. If I were an idiot I could claim that Catalonia is part of Spain these days, as is Castile and Aragon, and, therefore, this is an old “Spanish” recipe. I’m not that stupid. But Isabella’s marriage did lead to the unification of Spain, and when I look over historic recipes I see a great deal of overlap from region to region, not least because European royalty moved all over the place when they married and took their cooks and culinary ideas with them. At the aristocratic level, the household cuisines showed a great deal of homogeneity, with variations due in large part to the availability of ingredients. This recipe is for a casserole/stew of meat (probably lamb or mutton) with oranges. Bitter oranges were brought to Spain from China by the Moors and were (and are) prolific throughout Iberia. They are a common flavoring ingredient.  This kind of recipe is ancestral to a host of Spanish meat casseroles.

Naturally the recipe is completely vague as to quantity of ingredients, and even as to their precise nature. What do you make of “totes salses fines” for example? Fine herbs/spices? I’m thinking pepper, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, allspice – the usual suspects. Medieval linguistic skills are not my strong suit to begin with, let alone interpreting vague instructions in the dialect (that seems to drift between Old French and Old Spanish). Agresta was a type of verjuice (unripe grape or apple juice) used as a strong acidifier (you’ll note that the recipe suggests vinegar as an alternative), intensified further by the orange juice. I’ve given translating a go. My translation is extremely loose partly because I don’t recognize all the vocabulary, and partly for ease of reading.

Casola de Carn

Pren la carn e talla-la menut a troços axf com una nou. E çoffregiràs-la ab bona grassa de carnsalada. E quant sia ben çoffredida, met hi de bon brou e vaja a coure en una casola. Emet-hi de totes salses fines e çaffra e un poch de such de toronge o agresta, de manera que coga molt bé, fins a tant que la carn se commence a desfer e que y romanga solament hun poch de brou, pendràs tres o quatre ous debatuts ab such de toronges o agresta. E met-ho dins en la cassola. E quant ton senyor se volrà aseure en taula, dona-li quatre o sinch voltes girades, e tantost se espessirà. E quant sia bé espès, leva-u del foch e fes escudelles e damunt cada una met-hi canyella.

Emperò alters són qui no.y volen metre ous ni salsa sinó sola canyella e girofle. E coguen en la carn, com dit he damunt.

E met-hi vinagre, perquè tinga sabor. E per lo semblant molts fan açò que us dire, que tota la carn posen en una peça farcida de canyella e girofle sencer y en lo brou ben picades les salses, emperò far a girar adés adés, perquèno coga més d’una part que d’altra e axf no.y cal metre sinó girofle e canyella, emperò com dit he de bona manera.

Meat Casserole

Cut the meat into pieces the size of a nut and fry it in pork fat. When it is well fried put in some good broth and set it to cook in a casserole. Add all the fine flavorings and saffron and a little orange juice or agresta, and cook well until the meat begins to fall apart and only a small amount of broth remains. Add three or four eggs beaten with orange juice or agresta. When your master is ready at table, turn the meat four or five times to let the sauce thicken. When it is thick, take it from the fire and serve it in bowls, sprinkled with a little cinnamon on each.

There are some people who do not add eggs, or spices except cinnamon and cloves. The meat is cooked as stated above.

They add vinegar, for the flavor. It appears that many people do it in the following manner: the meat is left whole stuffed with cinnamon and cloves, and with the other spices in the broth. The meat has to be turned from time to time so that it doesn’t cook more in one part than in any other. You can leave out the cloves and cinnamon, as long as you follow the other directions correctly.

Have fun. When I get round to experimenting with this recipe I’ll do it in a big covered skillet on the stove top rather than in a casserole, because I have more control that way. Besides, even the word “casserole” gives me nightmares because as a teenager my mother used to make a week’s worth of casseroles on Sundays, because she got home late from work and did not have time to cook in the evenings, and my father, who was an excellent cook, never lifted a finger. I was just learning at that stage and might have contributed something if I had known what I was doing, and did not feel the constant need to play the indolent adolescent. No matter what went into each casserole they all came out the same – and all tasting a bit burnt from being in the oven too long. Scalded and burnt dish rag is about how I would describe the taste. Admittedly oven versus stove top is a tough call. Oven braising works well enough if you know what you are doing.

Mar 302017
 

My birthday has rolled around again – 66 this year.  Here are posts from previous years.

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/juan-alejandro/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/juan-alejandro-2/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/vincent-van-gogh/

Between them are all the birthdays and anniversaries I think worthy of note. This year I’ll note some people who died on this date.  It might sound a bit depressing but we all die and I would really like it (I think) if I joined the illustrious company who died on their birthdays – but not quite yet. I mentioned 3 last year but left off:

1986 James Cagney

2002 Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

2004 Alistair Cooke (2004).

I’ll also mention that it is the feast days of Blessed Amadeus IX of Savoy, John Climacus, Mamertinus of Auxerre, Quirinus of Neuss, Tola of Clonard, as well as Shouter Liberation Day in Trinidad and Tobago.

What has amused me for some time now is that of all the semi-serious food days (most from the US) today is a WORLD food day – World Idli Day.  Why, I have absolutely no idea, and I do not intend to make them today. Idli is a traditional breakfast in South Indian households, a slightly savory puffy cake that is popular throughout India and Sri Lanka. The cakes are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils and rice.  There are also numerous regional varieties presented in this gallery.

A precursor of the modern idli is mentioned in several ancient Indian works. Vaddaradhane, a 920 CE Kannada language work by Shivakotiacharya mentions “iddalige”, prepared only from a black gram (urad dal) batter. Chavundaraya II, the author of the earliest available Kannada encyclopaedia, Lokopakara (c. 1025 CE), describes the preparation of this food by soaking black gram in buttermilk, ground to a fine paste, and mixed with the clear water of curd and spices. The Western Chalukya king and scholar Someshwara III, reigning in the area now called Karnataka, included an idli recipe in his encyclopedia, Manasollasa (1130 CE). This Sanskrit-language work describes the dish as iḍḍarikā. The food prepared using this recipe is now called uddina idli in Karnataka.

The recipe mentioned in these ancient Indian works leaves out three key aspects of the modern idli recipe: the use of rice (not just urad dal), the long fermentation of the mix, and the steaming for fluffiness. The references to the modern recipe appear in the Indian works only after 1250. Food historian K. T. Achaya speculates that the modern idli recipe might have originated in present-day Indonesia, which has a long tradition of fermented food. According to him, the cooks employed by the Hindu kings of the Indianised kingdoms might have invented the steamed idli there, and brought the recipe back to India during 800-1200.  Achaya refers to an Indonesian dish called “kedli”, which he claims is similar to idli. However, Janaki Lenin was unable to find any recipe for an Indonesian dish by this name. I see no reason to doubt that idli is Indian in origin.

To make Idli, four parts uncooked rice (Idli rice or parboiled rice) to one part whole white lentil (urad dal, vigna mungo) are soaked separately for at least four hours to six hours or overnight. Optionally spices such as fenugreek seeds can be added at the time of soaking for additional flavor. Once done soaking, the lentils are ground to a fine paste and the rice is separately coarsely ground, then they are combined. Next, the mixture is left to ferment overnight during which its volume will more than double. After fermentation some of the batter may be kept as a starter culture for the next batch. The finished idli batter is put into greased moulds of an idli tray or “tree” for steaming. The perforated molds allow the idlis to be cooked evenly. The tree holds the trays above the level of boiling water in a pot, and the pot is covered until the idlis are done (about 10–25 minutes, depending on size). A more traditional method is to use leaves instead of molds. Idli can be rather bland and are usually served with chutneys or sambar, a vegetarian curry.

This instructional video gives the basics:

Mar 162017
 

Today is commemorated in Lithuania as Knygnešio diena (Book Smugglers Day). The book smugglers were an important part of the Lithuanian National Revival. Book smuggler Jurgis Bielinis, who created a secret distribution network for banned Lithuanian books, was born on 16 March 1846, hence the date of commemoration.

In the late 19th century, smugglers transported Lithuanian language books printed in the Latin alphabet into Lithuanian-speaking areas of the Russian Empire, defying a ban on such materials in force from 1864 to 1904. The book smugglers (Lithuanian: knygnešys, or plural knygnešiai, Polish: kolporterzy książek) opposed imperial Russian authorities’ efforts to replace the traditional Latin orthography with Cyrillic, and transported printed matter from as far away as the United States to do so, becoming a symbol of Lithuanians’ resistance to Russification.  A want to salute them today as a general tribute to ALL people who resist tyranny, especially attempts to control ethnic populations through policies of enforced homogeneity.

After the Polish-Lithuanian insurrection of 1863, the Russian Imperial government intensified its efforts to Russify the Lithuanian population and alienate it from its historic roots, including the Roman Catholic faith, which had become widespread during the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the summer of 1863 Tsar Alexander II issued Temporary Rules for State Junior Schools of the Northwestern Krai, ruling that only Russian-language education would be allowed there. In 1864, the Governor General of the Vilnius Governorate, Mikhail Muravyov, ordered that Lithuanian language primers were to be printed only in the Cyrillic alphabet. Muravyov’s successor, Konstantin Kaufman, in 1865 banned all Lithuanian-language use of the Latin alphabet. In 1866, the Tsar issued an oral ban on the printing or importing of printed matter in Lithuanian. Although de jure the order had no legal force, it was executed de facto until 1904. During this time, there were approximately 55 printings of Lithuanian books in Cyrillic.

Most of the Latin-alphabet Lithuanian-language books and periodicals published at the time were printed in Lithuania Minor and then smuggled into Lithuania. When caught, the book smugglers were punished by fines, banishment, and exile, including deportation to Siberia. Some were simply shot in the head while crossing the border or executed on the spot.

In 1867, Motiejus Valančius, the Bishop of Žemaitija, began to covertly organize and finance this printing abroad and sponsored the distribution of Lithuanian-language books within Lithuania. In 1870, his organization was uncovered with the help of Prussian authorities, and five priests and two book smugglers were exiled to remote areas of Russia. Other book smugglers carried on his work.

During the final years of the ban, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 books were smuggled in annually. About one-third of them were seized by authorities. Lithuanian books reached every settlement in Lithuania, and many legal institutions served as undercover transfer points for the books. A number of secret organizations distributed the books throughout Lithuania, including Sietynas, Atgaja, Teisybė, Prievarta, Aušrinė, Atžala, Lizdas, Akstinas, Spindulys, Svirplys, Žiburėlis, Žvaigždė, and Kūdikis.

The ban’s lack of success was recognized by the end of the 19th century, and in 1904, under the official pretext that the minorities within the Russian Empire needed to be pacified after the Russo-Japanese War, the ban on Lithuanian-language publications was lifted. In 1905, soon after the ban was lifted, one of the book smugglers, Juozas Masiulis, opened his own bookstore in Panevėžys. This bookstore is still operational, and a chain of bookstores operates in Lithuania under his name.

This historical episode was widely suppressed during the years when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, book smugglers were honored in Lithuania with museums, monuments, and street names. A statue dedicated to “The Unknown Book Smuggler” stands in Kaunas.

Cepelinai (lit. ‘zeppelins’; singular: cepelinas) or didžkukuliai is a traditional Lithuanian dish of stuffed potato dumplings. The dumplings are made from grated and mashed potatoes and stuffed with ground meat or dry cottage cheese (curd) or mushrooms. They are often served with a cream sauce and bacon bits. It is sometimes called the national dish of Lithuania. Brown button mushrooms have various names throughout the world. I call them crimini mushrooms but they are also known as Swiss brown mushrooms, Roman brown mushrooms, Italian brown mushrooms, brown cap mushrooms, or chestnut mushrooms.  They are used in this recipe but it’s no great disaster to use white button mushrooms instead. A normal Lithuanian main dish would be two dumplings, plus sauce, plus vegetables, plus bread. One dumpling is enough for me.

Cepelinai

Ingredients

400g waxy potatoes
1 large egg, beaten
3 shallots, peeled and chopped
250g  ground pork
½ tsp ground caraway seeds
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
plain flour
2 tbsp dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp butter
200g crimini mushrooms, sliced
200g crème fraîche
2 strips streaky bacon
fresh dill, chopped
salt

Instructions

Divide the potatoes into 2 batches. Peel one batch and dice them small. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes until they are tender. Drain and mash them.

Peel and finely grate the remaining potatoes. Place them in a large bowl lined with a clean tea towel. Bring the edges of the tea towel together and squeeze tightly to expel any liquid.  Keep 2 tablespoons of this juice and discard the rest.

In another large mixing bowl, add the reserved potato juice, the grated potato, mashed potato, and half of the beaten egg. Beat everything together well and season to taste with salt. Set aside to cool, then chill while you prepare the filling.

Mix together the one-third of the shallots, ground pork, caraway seeds, garlic, remaining egg and salt to taste.

Mix 1 tablespoon of flour into the potato mixture and divide it into 8. Dust the work surface and your hands with flour. Lightly shape the potato dough into flat, round patties, approximately 1cm thick. Divide the pork filling into 8. Put 1 portion of the pork filling in the middle of each patty, then gently pull the dough up and around to encase the pork and form a dumpling. Roll them in your hands to achieve the signature zeppelin shape.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Carefully lower in the dumplings, cover and cook gently for 30 minutes.  If you do not have a large enough pot you will have to do this step in batches. It is crucial to keep the water at a gentle simmer and not to let it boil, otherwise the dumplings will disintegrate.

Grill or fry the bacon until it is crisp then chop it into bits and set aside.

Pour 100ml of boiling water over the dried porcini and leave them to stand for 5 minutes. Heat the butter over medium heat in a saucepan and add the remaining shallots.  Cook them gently until they are translucent. Add the crimini mushrooms and cook for 5 more minutes. Pour in 1 tablespoon of the water from the porcini mushrooms. Chop the porcini mushrooms and add them to the pan. Fold in the crème fraîche, bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste.

Put 1 or 2 dumplings on each plate and pour over the mushroom sauce. Sprinkle the dill and bacon pieces over just before serving.  Serve with a green vegetable and crusty bread.

Yield: 8 dumplings

 

Mar 082017
 

Today’s post is unusual it that I was asked to write it, as opposed to coming up with the idea myself.  My former student, James Knight, asked me to celebrate Jan Potocki on his birthday, so here is my effort James. I will confess that I am mostly flying in the dark. At minimum I expect a comment in the comment section below !!

Count Jan Potocki, nascent ethnologist, traveler, Polish nobleman, captain of army engineers, Egyptologist, linguist, adventurer and popular author, was born on this date in 1761. Potocki is not exactly a household name outside of Poland.  If he is known at all it is chiefly for his novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. A complex work that is somewhat comparable to Arabian Nights or Decameron. The book is unusual in that the original French version is lost and has had to be reconstructed by back translation from a Polish language translation made after his death.  Almost sounds like a Borges novel. In recent years the French edition has been supplemented by early drafts in French found in manuscript collections of his heirs. There are now two French versions because Potocki revised his ideas several times over the years that he was constructing the novel, hence the tone of the two versions is quite different.

Potocki was born into an aristocratic family, that owned vast estates across Poland. He was educated in Geneva and Lausanne, served twice in the Polish Army as a captain of engineers, and spent some time on a galley as novice to the Knights of Malta. He journeyed across Europe, Asia and North Africa, where he got involved in political intrigues, and secret societies, and contributed to the birth of ethnology with his travel diaries. He also investigated the precursors of the Slavic peoples from a linguistic and historical standpoint.

Potocki married twice and had five children. His first marriage ended in divorce, and both marriages were the subject of scandalous rumors. In 1812, disillusioned and in poor health, he retired to his estate at Uładówka in Podolia, suffering from “melancholia” (which today would probably be diagnosed as depression), and during the last few years of his life he completed his novel. Believing he was becoming a werewolf, Potocki committed suicide by fatally shooting himself with a silver bullet that he had blessed by his village priest in December 1815, at the age of 54.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a collection of intertwining stories, set in whole or in part in Spain, with a large and colorful cast of gypsies, thieves, inquisitors, a cabbalist, a geometer, the cabbalist’s beautiful sister, two Moorish princesses (Emina and Zubeida) and others. The book’s outer frame tale is narrated by an unnamed French officer who describes his fortuitous discovery of an intriguing Spanish manuscript during the sack of Zaragoza in 1809, in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. Soon afterwards the French officer is captured by the Spanish and stripped of his possessions. But a Spanish officer recognizes the manuscript’s importance, and during the French officer’s captivity the Spaniard translates it for him into French. The manuscript has been written by a young officer of the Walloon Guard, Alphonse van Worden. In 1739, while en route to Madrid to serve with the Spanish Army, he is diverted into Spain’s rugged Sierra Morena region. There, over a period of sixty-six days, he encounters a varied group of characters who tell him an intertwining series of bizarre, amusing and fantastic tales which he records in his diary.

The bulk of the stories revolve around the gypsy chief Avadoro, whose story becomes a frame story itself. Eventually the narrative focus moves again toward van Worden’s frame story and a conspiracy involving an underground — or perhaps entirely hallucinated — Muslim society, revealing the connections and correspondences between the hundred or so stories told over the novel’s sixty-six days.

The stories cover a wide range of genres and subjects, including the gothic, the picaresque, the erotic, the historical, the moral and the philosophic; and as a whole, the novel reflects Potocki’s far-ranging interests, especially his deep fascination with secret societies, the supernatural and Oriental cultures. The novel’s stories-within-stories sometimes reach several levels of depth, and characters and themes — a few prominent themes being honor, disguise, metamorphosis and conspiracy — recur and change shape throughout.

The national dish of Poland is bigos and I gave a decent commentary and recipe here when celebrating another Pole with a French connexion: Marie Curie — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/marie-curie/  Another great Polish soup/stew is flaki or flaczky which gives me the opportunity to indulge my tripe obsession.  Modern Poles who don’t care for tripe substitute chicken or rabbit, which I consider intolerably craven.  The main seasoning is marjoram, which is an underused herb in most parts these days.  You really need to use it fresh for maximum flavor. It’s hard to find fresh in stores, but easy to grow.

 Flaki

Ingredients

1 lb parboiled tripe, cut into 1½-inch by ¼-inch pieces
1 meaty beef shank
1 stalk celery, chopped small
1 cup chopped leeks (white parts only)
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of marjoram, leaves only
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups beef stock or use canned
½ teaspoon allspice
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp paprika

Instructions

In a heavy 8- to 10-quart soup pot place the tripe, beef shank, celery, leek, garlic, bay leaves, freshly ground black pepper to taste, beef stock, and water. Simmer partially covered for about 1 to 2 hours.  The time depends on how soft you want the tripe.

Remove the beef shank and chop the meat. Discard the bone and return the meat to the pot.

Add the marjoram, tomato paste, and salt to taste. Simmer for an additional ½ hour, covered.

Prepare a roux by melting the butter in a small frying pan and stirring in the flour and paprika. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the roux is light brown. Whisk the roux into the pot a small piece at a time and continue to simmer until the flaki thickens.

Serve in deep bowls with rye bread.

Jan 152017
 

mol3

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.

mol1

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.

mol2

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.

mol5

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…”

mol4

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.

Jan 132017
 

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Today may, or may not be the birthday of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, also commonly referred to as Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff and G. I. Gurdjieff, an influential early 20th-century mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher, and composer of Armenian and Greek descent, born in Armenia under Russian rule. Both the day of his birth and the year are mysteries. He once wrote that he was born on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day according to the Julian calendar which people infer is January 13th but a passport states that his date of birth was November 28th 1877.  People close to him (and his grave marker give 1872 as the year, and other sources say 1866. Given his penchant for inventing stories about himself and the people he met, there is no way of knowing, but today’s date is as good as any to celebrate a great man, and one of my heroes.

For me the most important aspect of Gurdjieff’s philosophy was that he believed in developing a kind of deep spirituality that was available to people in all walks of life, not just to those – such as monks or Sufis – who devoted all their lives to spirituality. Gurdjieff taught that most humans do not possess a unified mind-body consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. Gurdjieff described a method attempting to do so, calling the discipline “The Work” (that is, “work on oneself”) or “the Method.”

Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connexion with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result, humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as World War I. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could provide only a one-sided development, which did not result in a fully integrated human being.

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According to Gurdjieff, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person— the emotions, or the physical body or the mind—tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or “centers,” as Gurdjieff called them. As a result, these paths fail to produce a properly balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three— the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a “Fourth Way” which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and the US. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, Gurdjieff’s discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development.

All I can do here is give a brief glimpse at the man and his teaching. You’ll have to read his works to get a better understanding, although they may not help much either. I first read his Meetings with Remarkable Men not long after it was published in English in 1963, and it took me a fair way into the book before I realized that rather than being what it claimed to be – namely, an autobiography and a description of profoundly spiritual men – it was mostly a series of tall tales, and nothing in it revealed anything directly about his philosophy or of the people he met. Every chapter ends with more or less the same ways – to the effect: “he told me the deepest thoughts which profoundly moved me, and which I will explain later.” I finally twigged that much of what he had written was a spoof when he described a trip across the Gobi desert which was obviously, and laughably, false.  Gurdjieff was nothing more or less than a complete paradox of a man, but he had many devoted disciples, as well as many students who fell away from him for one reason or another: usually his quixotic temperament and ideology. What I have gleaned of his philosophy over the years has left a lasting impression on me.

Gurdjieff (Russian: Гео́ргий Ива́нович Гурджи́ев, Greek: Γεώργιος Γεωργιάδης, Armenian: Գեորգի Գյուրջիև) was born to a Caucasus Greek father, Ἰωάνης Γεωργιάδης (Yiannis Georgiades), and an Armenian mother, Evdokia, in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire in the Transcaucasus. The name Gurdjieff represents a Russified form of the Pontic Greek surname “Georgiades” (Greek: Γεωργιάδης).

Gurdjieff spent his childhood in Kars, which, from 1878 to 1918, was the administrative capital of the Russian ruled Transcaucasus province of Kars Oblast, a border region recently captured from the Ottoman Empire with extensive grassy plateau-steppe and high mountains with a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population that had a history of respect for travelling mystics and holy men and for religious syncretism and conversion. Both the city of Kars and the surrounding territory were home to an extremely diverse population: Armenians, Russians, Caucasus Greeks, Georgians, Turks, Kurds and smaller numbers of Christian communities from eastern and central Europe such as Caucasus Germans, Estonians and Russian sectarian communities like the Molokans and Doukhobors. Gurdjieff makes particular mention of the Yazidi community. Growing up in a multi-ethnic society, Gurdjieff became fluent in Armenian, Pontic Greek, Russian, and Turkish, speaking the latter in a mixture of elegant Osmanli and some dialect. He later acquired “a working facility with several European languages.” Early influences on him included his father, a carpenter and amateur ashik or bardic poet, and the priest of the town’s Russian church, Dean Borsh, a family friend. As a boy Gurdjieff avidly read Russian-language scientific literature. Influenced by these writings, and having witnessed a number of phenomena that he could not explain, he formed the conviction that there existed a hidden truth not to be found in science or in mainstream religion.

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In early adulthood, according to his own account Gurdjieff’s curiosity led him to travel to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet, and Rome before he returned to Russia for a few years in 1912. He was always unforthcoming about the source of his teachings. The only account of his wanderings appears in Meetings with Remarkable Men, which is not reliable – at all. He claims to have met dervishes, fakirs and descendants of the extinct Essenes, whose teaching had been, he claimed, conserved at a monastery in Sarmoung. The book also has an overarching quest narrative involving a map of “pre-sand Egypt” and culminating in an encounter with the “Sarmoung Brotherhood”, an organization that has never been definitively identified.

Gurdjieff wrote that he supported himself during his travels with odd jobs and trading schemes (one of which he described as dyeing hedgerow birds yellow and selling them as canaries). In the book he says that it’s always possible to make money in business if one is shrewd.  On his reappearance after his travels, as far as the historical record is concerned, the ragged wanderer had transformed into a well-heeled businessman. His only autobiographical writing concerning this period is Herald of Coming Good, a work, if anything, even less reliable than Meetings.

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From 1913 to 1949, the chronology appears to be based on material that can be confirmed by primary documents, independent witnesses, cross-references and reasonable inference. On New Year’s Day in 1912, Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow and attracted his first students, including his cousin, the sculptor Sergey Merkurov, and the eccentric Rachmilievitch. In the same year, he married the Polish Julia Ostrowska in Saint Petersburg. In 1914, Gurdjieff advertised his ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians,” and he supervised his pupils’ writing of the sketch “Glimpses of Truth.” In 1915, Gurdjieff accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil, and in 1916, he accepted the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife, Olga, as students. At the time he had about 30 pupils. Ouspensky already had a reputation as a writer on mystical subjects and had conducted his own, ultimately disappointing, search for wisdom in the East. The Fourth Way taught by Gurdjieff during this period was complex and metaphysical, partly expressed in scientific terminology.

In the midst of revolutionary upheaval in Russia, Gurdjieff left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he set up temporary study communities in Essentuki in the Caucasus, then in Tuapse, Maikop, Sochi and Poti, all on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia, where he worked intensively with many of his Russian pupils. In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, settling in England and teaching the Fourth Way in his own way and attracting his own students. Subsequently the two men had a highly ambivalent relationship.

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Four months later, Gurdjieff’s eldest sister and her family reached him in Essentuki as refugees, informing him that Turks had shot his father in Alexandropol on 15 May (as a part of the long-forgotten Armenian genocide). Posing as a scientist, Gurdjieff left Essentuki with fourteen companions and travelled by train to Maikop, where hostilities delayed them for three weeks. In spring 1919, Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne and accepted them as pupils. Assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his “Sacred Dances.”

In 1919, Gurdjieff and his closest pupils moved to Tiflis. There, Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Ostrowska; the Stjoernvals; the Hartmanns and the de Saltmarsh gathered the fundamentals of his teaching. Gurdjieff concentrated on his still unstaged ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians.” Thomas de Hartmann (who had made his debut years ago, before Czar Nicholas II of Russia) worked on the music for the ballet, and Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg (who years later married the architect Frank Lloyd Wright) practiced the ballet dances. In 1919, Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

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In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, his party travelled to Batumi on the Black Sea coast and then took ship to Istanbul. Gurdjieff rented an apartment on Koumbaradji Street in Péra and later at 13 Abdullatif Yemeneci Sokak near the Galata Tower. The apartment is near the kha’neqa’h (monastery) of the Molavieh Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul, Gurdjieff also met his future pupil Capt. John G. Bennett, then head of British Military Intelligence in Constantinople, who describes his impression of Gurdjieff as follows:

It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey, where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength

In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff travelled around western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities, including Berlin and London. He attracted the allegiance of Ouspensky’s many prominent pupils (notably his eventual editor and translator, A. R. Orage). After an unsuccessful attempt to gain British citizenship, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau. The once-impressive but somewhat crumbling mansion set in extensive grounds housed an entourage of several dozen, including some of Gurdjieff’s remaining relatives and some White Russian refugees.

New pupils included C. S. Nott, René Zuber, Margaret Anderson and her ward Fritz Peters. The generally intellectual and middle-class types who were attracted to Gurdjieff’s teaching often found the Prieuré’s spartan accommodation and emphasis on hard labor in the grounds disconcerting. Gurdjieff was putting into practice his teaching that people need to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually, hence the mixture of lectures, music, dance, and manual work. Older pupils noticed how the Prieuré teaching differed from the complex metaphysical “system” that had been taught in Russia. In addition to the physical hardships, his personal behavior towards pupils could be ferocious:

Gurdjieff was standing by his bed in a state of what seemed to me to be completely uncontrolled fury. He was raging at Orage, who stood impassively, and very pale, framed in one of the windows…. Suddenly, in the space of an instant, Gurdjieff’s voice stopped, his whole personality changed, he gave me a broad smile—looking incredibly peaceful and inwardly quiet— motioned me to leave, and then resumed his tirade with undiminished force. This happened so quickly that I do not believe that Mr. Orage even noticed the break in the rhythm.

Starting in 1924, Gurdjieff made visits to North America, where he eventually received the pupils taught previously by A.R. Orage. In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, he had a near-fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery against all medical expectation. Still convalescent, he formally “disbanded” his institute on 26 August (although he dispersed only his “less dedicated” pupils), which he explained as an undertaking “in the future, under the pretext of different worthy reasons, to remove from my eyesight all those who by this or that make my life too comfortable.”

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After recovering, he began writing Beelzebub’s Tales, the first part of All and Everything in a mixture of Armenian and Russian. The book was deliberately convoluted and obscure, forcing the reader to “work” to find its meaning. He also composed it according to his own principles, writing in noisy cafes to force a greater effort of concentration.

In 1925, Gurdjieff’s mother died, and his wife developed cancer; she was to die in June 1926. Gurdjieff was in New York from November 1925 to the spring of 1926, when he succeeded in raising over $100,000. In all he made six or seven trips to the US. During them, he alienated a number of people with his brash and undisguised demands for money which some have interpreted in terms of his following the Malamatiyya technique of the Sufis, that is, deliberately attracting disapproval.

Despite his fund-raising efforts in the United States, the Prieuré operation ran into debt and was shut down in 1932. Gurdjieff constituted a new teaching group in Paris. Known as The Rope, it comprised only women, many of them writers, many of whom were lesbians. Members included Kathryn Hulme, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson and Enrico Caruso’s widow, Dorothy. Gurdjieff became acquainted with Gertrude Stein through Rope members, but she was never a follower.

In 1935, Gurdjieff stopped work on All and Everything. He had completed the first two parts of the planned trilogy but only started on the Third Series (later published under the title Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’.) In 1936, he settled in an apartment at 6, Rue des Colonels-Renard in Paris, where he was to stay for the rest of his life. In 1937, his brother Dmitry died, and The Rope disbanded.

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Although the apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels-Renard was very small for the purpose, he continued to teach groups of pupils throughout World War II. Visitors recalled the pantry, stocked with an extraordinary collection of eastern delicacies, which served as his inner sanctum, and the suppers he held with elaborate toasts to “idiots” in vodka and cognac. His teaching was now far removed from the original “system”, being based on proverbs, jokes and personal interaction, although pupils were required to read, three times if possible, copies of Beelzebub’s Tales.

After the war, Gurdjieff tried to reconnect with his former pupils. Ouspensky was reluctant, but after his death (October 1947), his widow advised his remaining pupils to see Gurdjieff in Paris. J. G. Bennett also visited from England, the first meeting for 25 years. Ouspensky’s pupils in England had all thought that Gurdjieff was dead. They discovered he was alive only after the death of Ouspensky, who had not told them that Gurdjieff was still living. They were overjoyed to hear so, and many of Ouspensky’s pupils including Rina Hands, Basil Tilley and Catherine Murphy visited Gurdjieff in Paris. Hands and Murphy worked on the typing and retyping of the forthcoming All and Everything.

Gurdjieff suffered a second car accident in 1948 but again made an unexpected recovery:

With iron-like tenacity, he managed to gain his room, where he sat down and said: “Now all organs are destroyed. Must make new”. Then, he turned to Bennett, smiling: “Tonight you come dinner. I must make body work”. As he spoke, a great spasm of pain shook his body and blood gushed from an ear. Bennett thought: “He has a cerebral haemorrhage. He will kill himself if he continues to force his body to move”. But then he reflected: “He has to do all this. If he allows his body to stop moving, he will die. He has power over his body”.

Gurdjieff died at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His funeral took place at the St. Alexandre Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 12 Rue Daru, Paris. He is buried in the cemetery at Avon (near Fontainebleau).

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Eating was a supremely important act for Gurdjieff.  He insisted that, “Man should eat, not as an animal, but consciously.” He chose eating as the one experience that all human beings share:

When you do a thing, do it with the whole self, one thing at a time. Now I sit here and I eat. For me nothing exists in the world except this food, this table. I eat with the whole attention. So you must do—in everything. To be able to do one thing at a time—this is the property of man, not man in quotation marks.

If one knows how to eat properly, one knows how to pray.

It is important to compose a dish in its correctly-blended elements as a composition of music or the colors in painting. Harmony in scale. Must have much knowledge to be a good cook. A culinary doctor.

When I eat, I self-remember.

Thomas de Hartmann also tells us that:

To taste life fully was one of Mr. Gurdjieff’s principles. During our life with him we tried every sort of eastern dish, some very exotic. He told us that in the East they have always paid particular attention to the refinement of food elements. The aim is not to gorge oneself under the table, but rather to sample, in tiny portions, all kinds of variation of taste experiences. I can still see him vividly, his muscles completely relaxed as always. Slowly he lifts to his mouth a very good pear, not peeled. Unhurried, he takes a bite of it as if striving to absorb its entire aroma, it’s entire taste.

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Given the foregoing it’s a bit difficult to suggest a single recipe to celebrate Gurdjieff’s life. Anything from an unpeeled apple to an enormous Chinese banquet would work because it’s less in what you eat as in how you eat it that is the key to Gurdjieff’s method. In that light I will give you some insight into Armenian cuisine, since Gurdjieff was Armenian.  I have mentioned Armenian cooking once before: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/jude-the-obscure/

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Armenians will stuff just about anything (with anything). This recipe is for a stuffed leg of lamb, but you can just as easily use lamb breast. The array of herbs, spices, and other flavors meets Gurdjieff’s desire for richness of cuisine. You should probably drink lots of vodka, brandy, or calvados with the meal if you want to follow in Gurdjieff’s footsteps.

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Armenian Stuffed Lamb

Ingredients

1 (5 -6 lb) leg of lamb, semiboned (shank bone left in,)

Marinade

3 garlic cloves, cut into 12 slivers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp dried mint
2 tsp dried oregano
salt and freshly ground pepper

Stuffing

3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup minced celery
1 cup long-grain rice
3 tbsp pine nuts
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 cups chicken broth
3 tbsp dried currants
freshly ground pepper
¼ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp cinnamon

Instructions

Marinate the lamb by first making 12 small incisions on the outside surface and inserting the garlic slivers. Then combine the oil, lemon juice, mint, oregano, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Place the lamb in a non-reactive dish and spread the marinade evenly over the inside and outside surfaces. Let the meat stand covered at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight.

Make the stuffing about an hour or so before roasting the lamb. Melt the butter in large saucepan or deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and sauté until soft but not browned. Stir in the rice, pine nuts and parsley. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice turns opaque (2-3 minutes). Gradually stir in the broth then add the currants and pepper to taste. Heat to boiling over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer covered until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the allspice and cinnamon while fluffing the rice with a fork. Let the stuffing cool at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 475°F/250°C.

Stuff the open pocket of the lamb with about 2 cups of stuffing. Press the open ends together and tie at 1-inch intervals with kitchen string. Place the lamb on a rack in roasting pan. Spoon the remaining stuffing into a small casserole and set aside.

Roast the lamb until browned (about 15 minutes) then reduce the heat to 350°F/175°C. Carefully pour 1½ cups of water into the pan. Continue to roast, basting every 15 minutes, for about 45 minutes. Fifteen minutes before the lamb is done, spoon 2 tablespoons of pan juices over the stuffing in the casserole and bake in the oven until heated through. Transfer the lamb to carving board and let stand covered with a tent of foil for 15-20 minutes.

Spoon the fat from the pan juices, then heat the to a rapid boil, scraping loose the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Strain into a sauceboat.

Slice the lamb into ½” thick slices and serve with the stuffing and pan juices.

Jan 072017
 

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In his compendious Book Of Days (1869) – from which title this blog gets its name – Robert Chambers asserts that 7th January, the day following Epiphany, was called St Distaff’s Day from time immemorial and was a day of merriment for women much as Plough Monday was for men. We have to take all of Chamber’s pronouncements with a large pinch of salt because his writings are not particularly scrupulous or scholarly. He gathered his material from hither and yon, and it’s a grave mistake (repeated endlessly by half wits) to assume that what he reports concerning one particular time and place was in any sense universal. Such a bad habit is the bane of English social history. Nonetheless, he quotes Herrick’s poem on St Distaff’s Day, and this poem leads me to believe that the day’s activities had some currency for a time.  This comes from the anthology, Hesperides, published in 1647:

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Saint Distaffs day, or the morrow after
Twelfth day.

Partly worke and partly play
Ye must on S. Distaffs day:
From the Plough soone free your teame;
Then come home and fother them.
If the Maides a spinning goe,
Burne the flax, and fire the tow:
Scorch their plackets, but beware
That ye singe no maiden-haire.
Bring in pailes of water then,
Let the Maides bewash the men.
Give S. Distaffe all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good-night;
And next morrow, every one
To his owne vocation.

Given that the poem is set in imperatives it’s difficult to assess whether Herrick is recommending these activities, or describing a known state of affairs.  The general suggestion seems to be that men and women should go back to work after the Christmas break but should do so lightly and with some playfulness thrown in before settling in for the long haul.  I’d say that ploughmen burning women’s flax and their clothes, and women drenching men with water for revenge – all as a jolly jape, or as a routine sport – is unlikely. But the command ”Partly worke and partly play/ Ye must on S. Distaffs day” is probably a fair observation on the actual state of affairs, given that Plough Monday games (on the Monday after Epiphany) are well attested in many rural areas, especially East Anglia http://www.bookofdaystales.com/plough-monday/ .

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Chambers has nothing to add of substance about observing the day but does note:

This mirthful observance recalls a time when spinning was the occupation of almost all women who had not anything else to do, or during the intervals of other and more serious work—a cheering resource to the solitary female in all ranks of life, an enlivenment to every fireside scene. To spin—how essentially was the idea at one time associated with the female sex! even to that extent, that in England spinster was a recognized legal term for an unmarried woman—the spear side and the distaff side were legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of male from that of female children—and the distaff became a synonym for woman herself: thus, the French proverb was:

‘The crown of France never falls to the distaff.’

Now, through the change wrought by the organised industries of Manchester and Glasgow, the princess of the fairy tale who was destined to die by a spindle piercing her hand, might wander from the Land’s End to John O’ Groat’s House, and never encounter an article of the kind, unless in an archaeological museum.

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A distaff is a rod that holds the material to be spun, either by spinning wheel or spindle, and was in use from ancient Egyptian times until the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The word “distaff” is still sometimes used for the maternal line or side of a family, given that using a distaff was largely (but not exclusively) women’s work.  Thus playfulness on St Distaff’s Day would seem to signify disrupting women’s work, whereas Plough Monday disrupted men’s activities. I find zero evidence for the belief that this was a Medieval custom or even that it was a particularly widespread one. Herrick’s poem seems to be the sole source and it is 17th century, and of dubious reliability. Nonetheless, you’ll read endless nonsense from spinners and weavers guilds about how the day was commonly observed throughout Medieval Europe, usually in promotional literature advertising their events in early January.

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For a recipe I’ve chosen fried apple pies from the 1653 cookbook A True Gentlewomans Delight

To fry Applepies.

Take Apples and pare them, and chop them very small, beat in a little Cinnamon, a little Ginger, and some Sugar, a little Rosewater, take your paste, roul it thin, and make them up as big Pasties as you please, to hold a spoonful or a little lesse of your Apples; and so stir them with Butter not to hastily least they be burned.

It’s fairly straightforward.  They are really a version of empanaditas. You have to be careful to fry them slowly so that the apples cook fully in the process and so that the butter does not burn.  Here is my version in pictures.

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Jan 042017
 
 © Bettmann/CORBIS

© Bettmann/CORBIS

On this date in 1948 Myanmar, then known as Burma, became independent of British rule, and so today is Independence Day in Myanmar. British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese wars through the creation of Burma as a Province of British India to the establishment of an independently administered colony, and finally independence. Various portions of Burmese territories, including Arakan, Tenasserim were annexed by the British after their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War. Lower Burma was annexed in 1852 after the Second Anglo-Burmese War. The annexed territories were designated the minor province (a Chief Commissionership), British Burma, of British India in 1862.

After the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, Upper Burma was annexed, and the following year, the province of Burma in British India was created, becoming a major province (a Lieutenant-Governorship) in 1897. This arrangement lasted until 1937, when Burma began to be administered separately by the Burma Office under the Secretary of State for India and Burma. British rule was disrupted during the Japanese occupation of much of the country during the Second World War.

During the 18th century Burmese rulers, whose country had not previously been of particular interest to European traders, sought to maintain their traditional influence in the western areas of Assam, Manipur and Arakan. The British East India Company, however, was expanding its interests eastwards over the same territory. Over the next 60 years, diplomacy, raids, treaties and compromises continued until, after three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–1885), Britain proclaimed control over most of Burma.

With the fall of Mandalay on 1 January 1886, all of Burma came under British rule. Throughout the colonial era, many Indians arrived as soldiers, civil servants, construction workers and traders who, along with the Anglo-Burmese community, dominated commercial and civil life in Burma. Rangoon became the capital of British Burma and an important port between Calcutta and Singapore.

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Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralyzed Yangon (Rangoon) on occasion all the way until the 1930s. Some of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions such as the British refusal to remove shoes when they entered pagodas. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement. U Wisara, an activist monk, died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest against a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.

On 1 April 1937, Burma became a separately administered colony of Great Britain and Ba Maw the first Prime Minister and Premier of Burma. Ba Maw was an outspoken advocate for Burmese self-rule and he opposed the participation of Great Britain, and by extension Burma, in World War II. He resigned from the Legislative Assembly and was arrested for sedition. In 1940, before Japan formally entered the Second World War, Aung San formed the Burma Independence Army in Japan.

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Burma was a major battleground and was devastated by World War II. By March 1942, within months after the British began the war in Burma, Japanese troops had advanced on Rangoon and the British administration had collapsed. A Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw was established by the Japanese in August 1942. Wingate’s British Chindits were formed into long-range penetration groups trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. A similar US unit, Merrill’s Marauders, followed the Chindits into the Burmese jungle in 1943. Beginning in late 1944, allied troops launched a series of offensives that led to the end of Japanese rule in July 1945. The battles were intense with much of Burma laid waste by the fighting. Overall, the Japanese lost about 150,000 men in Burma. Only 1,700 prisoners were taken.

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Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese as part of the Burma Independence Army, many Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, served in the British Burma Army. The Burma National Army and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944 but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945. Under Japanese occupation, 170,000 to 250,000 civilians died.

Following World War II, Aung San negotiated the Panglong Agreement with ethnic leaders that guaranteed the independence of Myanmar as a unified state. Aung Zan Wai, Pe Khin, Bo Hmu Aung, Sir Maung Gyi, Dr. Sein Mya Maung, Myoma U Than Kywe were among the negotiators of the historical Panglong Conference negotiated with Bamar leader General Aung San and other ethnic leaders in 1947. In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Myanmar, a transitional government. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members.

On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, Burma did not become a member of the Commonwealth. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities, and multi-party elections were held in 1951–1952, 1956 and 1960.

The geographical area Burma encompasses today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British. In 1961, U Thant, then the Union of Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, a position he held for ten years. Among the Burmese nationals to work at the UN when he was Secretary-General was a young Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of Aung San), who went on to become the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and ultimately leader of Myanmar.

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Mohinga is the national dish of Myanmar. In Burmese it means snack (mo) soup (hinga) and is ubiquitous in Myanmar. It is a breakfast dish traditionally, but, like eggs and bacon in the West, it is now a breakfast food served ALL DAY. Mohinga is also served with all the trimmings at formal functions and nowadays it is also sold in dry packets as a ready-made powder that is used for making the broth.

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Street hawkers are the original purveyors of mohinga doing the rounds through neighborhoods where they have regular customers. They carry the soup cauldron on a stove on one side of a shoulder pole and rice vermicelli and other ingredients along with bowls and spoons on the other. It used to be available only early in the morning and at street pwès or open air stage performances and zat pwès or itinerant theatres at night. Trishaw peddlers began to appear in the 1960s and some of them set up pavement stalls making mohinga available all day.

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There are different varieties of mohinga in various regions of Myanmar, of course. Rakhine mohinga has more fish paste and less soup. Its ingredients depend on their availability. However, the standard dish comes from southern Myanmar, where fresh fish is more readily available. The main ingredients of mohinga are chickpea flour and/or crushed toasted rice, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce, and catfish in a rich broth cooked and kept on the boil in a cauldron. It is served with rice vermicelli, dressed and garnished with fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, crisp fried onions, coriander, spring onions, crushed dried chillis, and, as optional extras, crisp fried fritters such as split chickpeas (pè gyaw), urad dal (baya gyaw) or gourd (bu thee gyaw) or even sliced pieces of Chinese donuts, as well as boiled egg and fried nga hpè fish cake.

Mohinga

Obviously you are not going to be able to create mohinga at home in anything like an authentic way, but I’ll tackle the problem two ways. First a video:

Next, a recipe. Some of the ingredients are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to find in Western markets. Rotsa ruck !!

Mohinga

Ingredients

½ cup peanut oil
1 tsp turmeric powder
½ red onion, finely sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, white part only, finely sliced
2 cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
2 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp sweet paprika
3 tbsp cooked, crushed chickpeas
85 g toasted rice powder
4 tbsp fish sauce
2 red Asian shallots, peeled
2 hardboiled eggs, sliced
100 g boiled banana trunk or banana blossom
600 g cooked thin rice noodles
4 sprigs coriander, to garnish
4 snake beans, finely sliced
dried chile flakes

Broth

1 whole catfish, cleaned
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 litres cold water

Chile paste

3 lemongrass stalks, white part only, finely sliced
4 whole dried chiles
4 red Asian shallots, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
2 cm ginger, finely sliced

Instructions

To make the broth, add the catfish, lemongrass, garlic, turmeric and water to a large saucepan or stockpot. Bring to the boil over high heat and skim any impurities that rise to the surface. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the broth then remove the fish meat from the bones. Set aside and reserve the broth.

Meanwhile, to make the paste, pound the lemongrass, chiles, red shallots, garlic and ginger to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Heat the peanut oil in a saucepan over low-medium heat and add the turmeric. Next, add the chile paste. Add the red onion, lemongrass, ginger and garlic. Cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the flaked fish and coat in the paste. Sauté over low-medium heat for 20 minutes. Add the shrimp paste and paprika. Continue to cook, over low heat, for a further 5 minutes to infuse flavors.

Return the broth to the stockpot, place over medium heat. Add the crushed chickpeas, rice powder, fish sauce and flaked fish mixture. Season with salt and black pepper. Reduce heat simmer for 30 minutes. Add the red shallots and boiled egg. Add the banana trunk.

Divide the vermicelli noodles among 4 bowls. Pour the broth over the noodles. Garnish with coriander, snake beans and chile flakes to serve.