Sep 122017
 

Today is another coincidence day.  On this date in 1634 a Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta on Malta accidentally blew up, killing 22 people and causing severe damage to a number of buildings. On this date in 1940 297,000 pounds of gunpowder blew up in a series of explosions at the Hercules Powder Factory of Kenvil, New Jersey, killing 51 workers and leveling a wide area. I guess that makes today a good day to talk about gunpowder.

There’s no doubt that gunpowder transformed the world and I’ve written about one aspect of this transformation: gunpowder put an end to fighting in heavy armor which, ironically, led to a glorification of the armor-clad knight in chivalric tales that were a nostalgic look back at a golden age that almost certainly never existed. All the tales of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, etc. are pure inventions of imagination with nothing whatsoever to do with historical reality. Seemingly people are constantly in search of an imaginary simpler and better world from the past – now out of reach. My academic interest, once upon of time, was with the invention of the Robin Hood legend which grew out of the same false nostalgia for a simpler age when a man of strong moral fibre, armed with only a bow and arrow (and occasionally sword or quarter staff) could right the wrongs of the world. Despite much historical wishful thinking, neither Robin Hood nor anyone like him ever existed. He is pure fiction emerging from the age of gunpowder in Europe.

There’s also a misguided belief, perpetrated by pseudo-historians, that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese for fireworks and other pleasures, but Europeans turned it into weapons of war.  Nope.  The Chinese used gunpowder in war for centuries as well as for fireworks. Gunpowder is now classed as one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China: the magnetic compass, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. These inventions were ascribed to Europeans in the Renaissance as evidence of their superiority over the Greeks and Romans of the ancient world, but now we know better. The Chinese got there first.

Gunpowder was the first chemical explosive and propellant to be invented. Gunpowder is the first physical explosive and propellant. Before its invention, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire but they were not explosive. The invention of gunpowder is usually attributed to experimentation in Chinese alchemy by Taoists in the pursuit of immortality. It was invented during the late Tang dynasty (9th century) but the earliest record of a written formula appeared in the Song dynasty (11th century).

Knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly throughout the Old World possibly as a result of the Mongol conquests during the 13th century, with the earliest written formula for it outside of China contained within the Opus Majus, a 1267 treatise by the English friar Roger Bacon. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 12th century in weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance before the appearance of the gun. While the fire lance was eventually supplanted by the gun, other gunpowder weapons such as rockets continued to be used in China, Korea, India, and eventually Europe. Bombs too never ceased to develop and continued to progress into the modern day as grenades, mines, and other explosive implements.

Rather than give you a long, dreary historical account, here’s a gallery of Chinese gunpowder weapons from the 12th and 13th centuries, consisting mostly of fire arrows (arrows with flaming gunpowder attached), hand-held cannons, and grenades.

 

Here then is a gallery of European gunpowder weapons, mostly cannons, showing that there was actually a fairly smooth evolution from China to Europe.

The two explosions that occurred on this date were both in munitions factories: a constant hazard in the manufacture of gunpowder. The thing about gunpowder is that the ingredients – charcoal, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and sulfur – are not especially harmful by themselves. They are particularly inflammable when combined but also not especially harmful, certainly not explosive, unless they are confined in a tight space. I’ve made gunpowder since I was a small boy just for the fun of seeing it fizzle and burn. When gunpowder is tightly confined, the copious hot gases that are produced when it burns are deadly as a propellant or an explosive. The exact mixture of the three ingredients is very important, and was the subject of experiments for centuries. For example, the saltpeter is necessary to produce oxygen for the burning of the sulfur and charcoal, but too much saltpeter reduces the explosive effect of the gunpowder (as does not enough). Munitions factories generally have their gunpowder packed tightly, so it’s important to be very careful near it. A careless spark can be fatal.

The Hospitaller gunpowder factory in Valletta was built some time in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, replacing an earlier one in Fort St. Angelo in Birgu. It was located in the lower part of Valletta, close to the Slaves’ Prison. The explosion in 1641 damaged the nearby Jesuit church and college. The church’s façade was rebuilt in around 1647 by the architect Francesco Buonamici, while the damaged parts of the college were also rebuilt after the explosion.

The gunpowder factory was not rebuilt. In around 1667, a new factory was constructed in Floriana, far away from any residential areas. This factory was incorporated into the Ospizio complex in the early 18th century

The explosion at the Hercules Powder plant in Kenvil, New Jersey in 1941 leveled over 20 buildings. The explosions shook the area so forcefully that cars were bounced off the roads, most windows in homes miles away were broken and articles flew off shelves and walls. The explosions were felt as far away as Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and were picked up by the seismograph at Fordham University in New York, about 50 miles east of Kenvil. Not only were windows broken, but telephone wires were torn apart from their poles. Many windows in both Roxbury and Wharton high schools were shattered.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new.  Was the explosion an industrial accident or Nazi sabotage ?????? I don’t know enough about the event to draw an educated conclusion, but my money is on it being an accident. In war time fears are heightened, and it’s an easy cop-out to blame the enemy for catastrophic events rather than take responsibility yourself. The latter takes more spine than most people possess.

For a recipe I could go two ways, and I will take both paths.  There are actual recipes that use gunpowder. I imagine that they’re pretty unsavory (because of the sulfur), but they do exist. In fact sulfur does have various culinary uses. I used to be able to buy it in bulk for my home chemistry experiments from the grocery in South Australia as a boy in the early 1960s. Sulfur is actually a critical nutrient, found particularly in strong onions, to aid in vitamin D absorption and in the correct glucose metabolism. There are records of soldiers through history using gunpowder to add taste to field rations when they had no salt. But there’s also this one from the Old Foodie found here — http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2011/11/gunpowder-in-kitchen.html

Tongues, to cure. No. 1.

Take two fine bullocks’ tongues; wash them well in spring water; dry them thoroughly with a cloth, and salt them with common salt, a quarter of a pound of saltpetre, a quarter of a pound of treacle, and a quarter of a pound of gunpowder. Let them lie in this pickle for a month; turn and rub them every day; then take them out and dry them with a cloth; rub a little gunpowder over them, and hang them up for a month, when they will be fit to eat, previously soaking a few hours as customary.

The lady’s own cookery book, and new dinner-table director (1844) by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury

Try it at your peril. Actually, I don’t suppose it’s all that bad.

Then there’s ingredients or dishes called “gunpowder” because they resemble it.  There is Chinese gunpowder tea of course.  In Chinese it’s called 珠茶(zhū chá), literally “pearl tea.” Each leaf is rolled into a small round pellet which English colonists thought resembled grains of gunpowder. This rolling method of shaping tea is most often applied either to dried green tea (the most commonly encountered variety outside China) or oolong tea.

I’ll go with a south Indian dish which is called gunpowder in English, also known as chutney podi, a ground, powdered mix of toasted urad dal, chana dal, toor dal, grated coconut, dried red chiles,curry leaves, tamarind, jaggery, and salt, which can also be seasoned with mustard seeds, turmeric, and asafetida. It is mixed with oil or ghee and eaten with flatbread, rice, idli, or whatever. It can also be made with peanuts in place of some of the dal.  It is considered comfort food in many parts of south India.

Gunpowder or Chutney Podi

Ingredients:

250gm chana dal
250gm toor dal
6 dried red chiles
1 tbsp roasted Bengal gram (putana)
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tbsp black sesame seeds

Instructions

Dry roast all the ingredients separately. There are various ways to do this.  I use a dry cast-iron skillet on medium heat. You have to stir the ingredients frequently making sure that they toast and become fragrant, but do not burn.

Let each of the ingredients cool, then mix them all together. Grind them to a powder, in batches if necessary.  I use a coffee grinder for this step (not one I use for coffee).

Serve with ghee or oil to accompany idli, flatbread, or rice.

Feb 102016
 

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Today is the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck (San Pawl Nawfragu) which is a public holiday in Malta, especially in Valletta, Marsalforn, and Munxar. I am not sure why this date was chosen. The event is described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27:27-28:5), the tail end of the book. The chronology of events in Paul’s life is endlessly disputed by scholars because what facts can be gleaned from letters that we are reasonably certain were written by Paul are not always in agreement with Acts. According to Acts Paul arrived in Jerusalem on his fifth and final visit in 57 with a collection of money for the community there. Acts reports that he was warmly received, but goes on to recount how Paul was warned by James and the elders that he was gaining a reputation for being against the Law, saying “they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” (Acts 21:21) Paul underwent a purification ritual in order to give the Jews no grounds to bring accusations against him for not following the law. But he then caused a stir when he appeared at the Temple, and he escaped being killed by the crowd only by voluntarily being taken into Roman custody. When a plot to kill Paul on his way to an appearance before the Jews was discovered, he was transported by night to Caesarea Maritima. He was held as a prisoner there for two years, until a new governor reopened his case in 59.

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When the governor suggested that he be sent back to Jerusalem for further trial, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar, so he was transported to Rome. During the journey, vividly described in Acts, the shipwreck occurs. This passage is notable in that it is one of the so-called “we” passages – written in the 1st person plural. There is no scholarly consensus concerning these passages. They could be a deliberate forgery to suggest that the author of Acts was an actual eyewitness, or they could be redactions based on older, fragmentary primary material written by an eyewitness. I incline towards the latter, but this is more of an educated guess than anything else. Here’s the passage:

27:27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

28:1 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.

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There is a special celebration in Valletta on Malta at the Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck on this day. The church hosts fine artistic works, including the magnificent altarpiece by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, as well as paintings by Attilio Palombi, and Giuseppe Calì. The wooden titular statue of St Paul was carved in 1659 by Melchiorre Cafà, the brother of Lorenzo Gafà who designed the dome. The statue is paraded through the streets of Valletta on the feast day of St Paul’s Shipwreck even (and appropriately) during heavy rain One can also view the relic of the right wrist-bone of St Paul, and part of the column from San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, on which the saint was reputedly beheaded in Rome.

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For this feast day I have chosen the unofficial national dish of Malta, rabbit braised in red wine and garlic. Given the name, you scarcely need a recipe, but here goes. The trick is to use A LOT of garlic. This recipe calls for three BULBS, not cloves – whole bulbs.

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Rabbit with garlic & wine (Fenek fit-tewm u l-inbid)

Ingredients

1 rabbit cut into 6 or 8 pieces
500ml red wine
3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 bay leaves
salt and pepper

Instructions

Place the rabbit pieces in an earthenware pot and cover with the wine. Refrigerate overnight.

In a large, heavy skillet gently sweat the garlic in the olive oil. Do not let it take on color.

Remove and reserve the garlic, leaving the oil in the pan. Heat the oil on medium-high, remove the rabbit pieces from the wine, and brown them in the oil on all sides – reserving the wine.

Place the rabbit, garlic and bay leaves in an ovenproof casserole. Cover with the wine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and bake at around 375°F for an hour or until the meat is tender. Check the liquid level periodically to make sure that the wine is reducing to a thick sauce, but not drying out. Uncover towards the end if it is not reducing sufficiently.

Serve with boiled new potatoes and marrowfat peas.

Serves 4