May 182017
 

Today is the birthday (1919) of Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE, prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet, for whom she danced her entire career. Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham in Reigate, Surrey. Her father was a British engineer, and her mother was the daughter of Brazilian industrialist Antonio Fontes. Very early in her career Margaret took the name by which she was known all her life, Margot Fonteyn, with the surname derived from “Fontes,” also adopted by her brother—Portuguese “fonte” is “fountain” in modern English, “fonteyn” in Middle English. Her later formal married name was Margot Fonteyn de Arias in the Spanish-language tradition.

At 4 years of age her mother signed her and her elder brother up for ballet classes. At age 8, Margot travelled to China with her mother and father, who had taken employment with a tobacco company there while her brother Felix remained at his school. For six years Margot lived in TianJin, then in Shanghai, where she studied ballet with Russian émigré teacher George Goncharov. Her mother took her back to London when she was 14, to pursue a ballet career. Her father continued on in Shanghai and was interned during World War II by the invading Japanese.

In 1933 Fonteyn joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, the predecessor of today’s Royal Ballet School, training under the direction of Ninette de Valois and such teachers as Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska [Krzesinska]. After starting with the Vic-Wells Ballet, she rose quickly through the ranks of the company. By 1939 Fonteyn had performed principal roles in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty and was appointed prima ballerina. She was most noted in the ballets of Frederick Ashton, including Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. She was especially renowned for her portrayal of Aurora in Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Fonteyn also worked with choreographer Roland Petit and, later in life, Martha Graham. When the Royal Ballet toured the United States in 1949, Fonteyn instantly became a celebrity for her performances.

In the 1940s she and Robert Helpmann formed a very successful dance partnership, and they toured together for several years. In the 1950s she danced regularly with Michael Somes. In 1955, the year in which Fonteyn married a Panamanian diplomat, they danced together in the first color telecast of a ballet, NBC’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. In 1958 they appeared together in the first British televised version of The Nutcracker.

Fonteyn began her greatest artistic partnership at a time when many people, including the head of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, thought she was about to retire. In 1961 Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West, and on 21 February 1962 he and Fonteyn first performed together in Giselle. She was 42 and he was 24. Their performance was a great success; during the curtain calls Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Fonteyn’s hand. They created an on-and-offstage partnership that lasted until her retirement in 1979 at age 61, and were lifelong friends. Fonteyn and Nureyev became known for inspiring repeated frenzied curtain calls and bouquet tosses. Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for them, which no other couple danced until the 21st century. They debuted Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, although MacMillan had conceived the ballet for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. Fonteyn and Nureyev appeared together in the filmed versions of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and the pas de deux from Le Corsaire.

Despite differences in background and temperament, and a 19-year gap in ages, Nureyev and Fonteyn became close lifelong friends and were famously loyal to each other. Fonteyn would not approve an unflattering photograph of Nureyev. He said about her:

“At the end of ‘Lac des Cygnes’ when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world.”

The extent of their physical relationship remains unclear. Nureyev said that they had one, while Fonteyn denied it. Her biographer Meredith Daneman agreed with Nureyev. The pair remained close even after she retired to a Panama cattle farm with her husband. She talked with Nureyev by phone several times a week, although her farmhouse did not have a telephone. When she had to be treated for cancer, he paid many of her medical bills and visited her often, despite his busy schedule as a performer and choreographer. In a documentary about Fonteyn, Nureyev said that they danced with “one body, one soul” and that Margot was “all he had, only her.”

In 1955 Fonteyn married Dr Roberto Arias, a Panamanian diplomat to London. Their marriage was initially rocky because of his infidelities. She was arrested in Panama when helping Arias to attempt a coup d’état against the government in 1959. Confidential British government files released in 2010 showed that Fonteyn knew of and had some involvement in the coup attempt. In 1964 a rival Panamanian politician shot Arias, leaving him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

After her retirement she spent all her time in Panama, and was close to her husband and his children from an earlier marriage. She had no pension, and had spent all her savings looking after her husband.[6] Shortly before her husband’s death, in 1989, Fonteyn was diagnosed with cancer, and she died on 21 February 1991 in a hospital in Panama City, Panama, aged 71.

Reigate in particular, where Fonteyn was born, and Surrey in general, is pretty much a wasteland when it comes to old traditional recipes. This may be due to the fact that Surrey is little more than a suburb of London – Reigate certainly, these days. Yet all is not lost. Surrey tea rooms are noted now, and have been for over a century, for the classic English afternoon tea “cake” (or tart), maids of honour. Tradition has it that they were first baked by a maid of honour at Henry VIII’s court, some versions even suggesting the maid in question was Anne Boleyn. Legend also has it that Henry prized them so much that he kept the recipe locked away. Who knows? What we do know is that you will find them served in Kew, Richmond, and other landmark towns in Surrey.  There are something like a custard cheesecake inside a pastry shell.Sometimes you will find recipes for them that are cake and jam inside a pastry shell. These are not traditional. A tea room in Kew in Surrey, “The Original Maids of Honour,” dates back to the 18th Century and was set up specifically to sell these tarts. Dainty and royal morsels for a world renowned ballerina.

Surrey Maids of Honour

Ingredients

Pastry

2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter
⅓ cup vegetable shortening
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tsp lemon juice
⅛ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
1 pinch salt

Custard Filling

1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
½ cup heavy cream, plus 2 tbsp
¼ cup unsalted butter
2 tbsp granulated sugar
¼ cup ground almonds
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp finely minced fresh lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp rose water or orange flower water (optional)
fresh ground nutmeg

powdered sugar (for dusting)
butter (for greasing)

Instructions

Dice the butter. Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl. Add in the diced butter, plus very small scoops (teaspoon sized) of shortening. Mix together, cover, and place the bowl in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.

In another bowl, place the eggs, lemon juice, rosewater (or orange-flower water), and a pinch of salt and put in the refrigerator.

Using a food processor pulse the chilled fats and flour until the mix is coarse and crumbly (8 to 10 pulses). Do not over process. Slowly add the liquids (while pulsing more) until the pastry has almost come together. Scoop out the pastry on to a floured surface and knead until it is completely combined. Only a few times should be needed. Cut into two discs, wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To make the filling, cut lengthwise down the vanilla bean with the tip of a sharp knife. Put the vanilla bean and cream into a saucepan, and heat to just below boiling over medium heat. DO NOT BOIL. Remove from the heat. Take out the bean and scrape the seeds into the cream (or simply use vanilla extract). Add the butter, sugar, ground almonds, egg, lemon zest and juice, and the rosewater (or orange-flower water), stirring well to combine. Let stand for about 10 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 425˚F

Grease very well 2 12-hole tart or muffin pans. If you have only one (as I do now), you’ll have to make two batches, each as follows. Roll out half the pastry, cut out 12 rounds with a 3” round cutter, and carefully press them into the tart pan. Spoon half the filling into the pastry cases. Leave about 1 inch below the rim because the custard rises as it bakes. Dust lightly with fresh nutmeg and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the custard is golden and puffy.

Let the tarts sit in the pan for a few minutes before unmolding on to a wire rack to cool. Dust the tops with powdered sugar.

You can leave the tarts to cool a little before serving, but they are best eaten still slightly warm.

May 072017
 

Today, the first Sunday in May, is World Laughter Day. The first celebration was actually on January 10, 1998, in Mumbai, and was arranged by Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of the worldwide Laughter Yoga movement. Now there are special World Laughter Day events in at least 105 countries worldwide. Kataria, a family doctor in India, was inspired to start the Laughter Yoga movement in part by the facial feedback hypothesis, which postulates that a person’s facial expressions can have an effect on their emotions. There is also some scientific evidence that laughter is medically helpful. Kataria’s speculation is that it does not matter whether laughter is forced or natural to have a beneficial effect. I can understand the hypothesis although I have no evidence to support it other than anecdotal. It is, of course, fundamental to yoga that body posture influences mental state. I think that this is unquestionably true, but whether it applies to deliberate laughter is not clear to me. However, I see no reason why we can’t deliberately provoke actual laughter. If I want to laugh I can watch this video, for example. It cracks me up – every single time.

Why this particular cat fail clip should make me laugh so reliably is not clear, and brings up the whole question of the nature of humor which has been studied endlessly and with little profit. Incongruity is one facet of humor, as in this case. The cat so clearly wants to jump up on the shelf, and fails. But . . . it does not jump and miss; its “jump” is not even worthy of the name. It just falls off the table. It is the combination of obvious desire and epic failure that appeals to me; that, and the fact that I know cats and their desires very well.

As a graduate student I wrote a paper on incongruity in comic strips for my sociolinguistics class. My (lame) hypothesis involved showing that sometimes cartoonists tried to be funny by making their characters say things that were grossly out of characters, such as, children being wise well beyond their years, or, conversely, adults talking like children. The latter is the stock in trade of the immensely popular television series The Big Bang Theory, which I detest precisely for that reason. The premise that highly intelligent men typically act like children in their social lives annoys me beyond words. First, the premise is demonstrably false, and, second, seeing grown men acting like boys does not amuse me.

Although some animals, especially non-human primates, exhibit physical behaviors that look like laughter, I find it highly unlikely that animals are capable of actual laughter. Chimpanzees and orangutans sometimes display laughter-like behavior when they are enjoying themselves, but human laughter extends well beyond simple enjoyment. It is much more complex. Much of human laughter comes from language, and this is outside of non-human capability.

There is no question that laughter can be infectious. This classic English music hall song, The Laughing Policeman, relies on infection for success (or failure):

I’ve always enjoyed provoking laughter from my students when I teach. It’s not a deliberate strategy; I can’t help myself. I see the funny side of things. In fact I see the funny side of just about everything when I am with other people. But there’s the thing. For me laughter is sociable. If I watch a movie by myself that amuses me, I don’t laugh, but if I am with other people, I do. Back in my college days no one had a television, but we had a television room and we would pack it on certain occasions, such as when Monty Python came on. The place would be in hysterics from start to finish, and I would laugh along with the others.

This point reminds me that laughter is intensely culturally specific. I had many colleagues in the US who did not find Monty Python funny in the slightest. On the other side of the coin, when I was in China I could not for the life of me figure out what Chinese jokes were all about, and they were perplexed at my humor. There was also the complication that Chinese university students generally think it is impolite to laugh out loud in class.

I had two separate ideas for recipes today. The first was to talk about “joke” dishes, that is, dishes that look like one thing but are actually another. Here, for example, is a “grilled cheese” sandwich that is actually toasted pound cake slices with a yellow icing for filling:

However, I’ve covered this idea before several times. So, instead I want to look at amusing recipes. I found this online (click to enlarge).

It’s a recipe generated by a computer program trying to emulate the activity of neural networks – that is, getting a computer learn how to think the way humans think. They were produced  by Janelle Shane using char-rnn, an open-source program on GitHub that she (and others) can customize to build their own neural networks. She gave it a cookbook to analyze and then asked it to produce new recipes. Granting computers human intelligence has a long way to go. I think we’re safe from a robot takeover for a while. Or . . . maybe they are already ingenious enough to know how to chop beer. Frightening.

Here’s another recipe that will keep you guessing:

Pears Or To Garnestmeam

meats

¼ lb bones or fresh bread; optional
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon vinegar
¼ teaspoon lime juice
2  eggs

Brown salmon in oil. Add creamed meat and another deep mixture.

Discard filets. Discard head and turn into a nonstick spice. Pour 4 eggs onto clean a thin fat to sink halves.

Brush each with roast and refrigerate.  Lay tart in deep baking dish in chipec sweet body; cut oof with crosswise and onions.  Remove peas and place in a 4-dgg serving. Cover lightly with plastic wrap.  Chill in refrigerator until casseroles are tender and ridges done.  Serve immediately in sugar may be added 2 handles overginger or with boiling water until very cracker pudding is hot.

Yield: 4 servings

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.

 

Dec 012016
 

al3

According to some sources, the world’s first moving assembly line began operation at the Henry Ford Company in 1913.  The actual date of initial operation is subject to debate, but I’ll use this one. The moving assembly line was a monumental revolution in the production of cars, and, ultimately in mass production in general. On the positive side, I suppose, the moving assembly line was a giant leap forward in producing relatively inexpensive cars for the masses, and his methods were known at the time as Fordism. On the not-so-positive side, Ford’s innovation spawned repetitive, dull labor, mass consumption of identical cars, and traffic jams. I’m a colossal fan of handmade goods and public transport.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T

The main point to understand is that Ford did not invent the assembly line; that has a very long history. He invented the moving assembly line. The assembly line in general is practically as old as civilization. Any system in which a product moves from one person to the next for the addition of components is an assembly line. So, for example, in a professional kitchen a plate can move from the roast station to the vegetable station to the sauce station and then out to the diner. Three different chefs have added a component to make the plate complete. Ford made several changes to increase efficiency and speed in assembly. First, he standardized the components; second he standardized the actions on the assembly line; and third he created a constantly moving conveyer belt so that the cars moved from one assembly point to the next. His innovation cut the assembly time for a car from about 12 hours by hand to about 2½ hours on the moving line.

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With mass produced standard parts there was no time wasted getting components to fit, as there is in hand manufacture. Building a car using Ford’s method is just like building a house using lego blocks. Every component fits where it should on the car because the car has a completely uniform construction, which means that every car is identical and all the parts are interchangeable. The components are fitted together in carefully regulated steps. Ford had time and motion experts calculate the precise number of steps (87) needed to construct a car, as well as the order and most efficient way to organize the construction. The moving conveyer belt meant that the cars under construction moved from station to station where workers had the parts ready to attach. The workers were trained in the one task each had to manage so they could perform it quickly. In consequence a car rolled off the assembly line every 3 minutes. That’s great for mass production, but not so great in other ways.

al5

Assembly line production in this manner has two major flaws, in my opinion. First, it produces endless copies of the original model. Ford is famous for saying that you could have the model-T in any color you wanted as long as it’s black.  Nowadays assembly line production has some variety built in but in Ford’s day it was the continual production of identical models that was one key to low cost. In addition, Ford’s innovation made labor repetitive (that is, boring). If you are trained to fit driver-side doors on the cars, that’s all you do 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. That reduced Ford’s labor costs, because such work is not skilled labor, and, like parts, one line worker can easily be replaced by another if one gets sick or is inefficient. Ford paid decent wages and the work was steady because demand for his cars was high. But the work itself was dehumanizing.

Ford’s production methods not only revolutionized production, but revolutionized culture in general. You have to decide whether the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa. I’ve done assembly-line work and it’s not for me. The job was well paid, but the days at work robbed my soul of creativity and dignity. I became a slave to production at the expense of my humanity. The inhumanity of the moving assembly line is famously parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times:

Like industrial production, assembly-line cooking has its pluses and minuses. At its worst we end up with mass-produced fast food that may be cheap but has few redeeming features beyond filling an empty belly. But assembly-line cooking is not all bad, and sometimes results in something special. As the name implies a line cook is a cook working on a culinary assembly line, and busy restaurants, even the fanciest, cannot always produce every dish, one plate at a time assembled by a single cook.

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At home I occasionally need to use assembly line techniques, especially when I am cooking for a crowd, and pretty much always when I am having a dinner party. Cooking shows on television often make a big deal out of plating a meal. I don’t do that at home. I do not assemble plates in the kitchen and then bring them to the dining table ready to eat. My guests have empty plates and I bring all the dishes to the table. They then circulate, and guests help themselves as the different components pass. So it’s like an assembly line except in this case it is the components that move and the finished product stays in one place. The finished product is not as elegant as it would be if I made each dish in the kitchen, but the seeming paradox here is that by using a moving assembly line for all the components, each diner’s plate is unique. Assembly lines do not have to result in identical products.

There is also a certain amount of efficiency to using assembly line methods in the kitchen. So, for example, if I have 4 apples to peel, core, and slice. I could peel, core and slice the first, then the second, and so on, and that’s what I used to do for a long time. But now I peel all 4, then core all 4, then slice all 4. When I managed a catering company and when I directed church suppers, we always had assembly lines.

Here’s a very efficient assembly line in Thailand:

Oct 132016
 

dtm1

Today is the beginning of土居太鼓祭り—Doi Taiko Matsuri. Let me break down the Japanese for you (not that I speak Japanese). Doi is a place on Shikoku Island in Japan, Taiko is a traditional Japanese drum, and Matsuri means festival. So, Doi Drum Festival.  It runs for three days from the 13th to the 15th of October annually. Drum festivals in Japan these days are fairly common in a number of locations but they are not all the same.  Some drum festivals are what you might expect – groups of men, or men and women, in special costume drumming out traditional rhythms on sets of specially made drums.  Doi Drum Festival is not one of these, but its form is also common. It involves processions of太鼓隊 – Taiko Tai – literally meaning “drum squad,” that is, large troupes of men who accompany (and sometimes carry) a large, very heavy, ornate platform carrying a “drum” through the streets of the town, with men standing on the platform barking orders and supervising events.

I have not been to Doi, but I’ve attended festive processions in other parts of Japan and pretty much have the overall impression – hoards of people, lots of food, manic performers, colorful costumes, rafts of men carrying heavy platforms . . . etc. This video (and the photos) make the point. I’m sure the Doi festival has its peculiarities; you’ll pardon my ignorance of the finer details, I hope.

Doi is now a district in Shikokuchūō (四国中央市),  a port city located in Ehime Prefecture on the northern shore of Shikoku – the smallest of the main islands that make up Japan, located south of the main island of Honshu and northeast of Kyushu. Shikokuchūō is a city created in 2004 out of 2 neighboring cities, and 2 smaller towns. Doi was one of the towns. The merger was a political move to establish a worthy capital should Shikoku become an island province, and the name Shikokuchūō (Shikoku Central City) was chosen to reflect this aspiration. It has been roundly condemned by locals as a name that is both unoriginal and uninspiring. Within this conurbation localities still strive to maintain their distinctiveness. Doi Taiko Matsuri helps Doi in this regard.

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If you watch the video you’ll see that there are certain basic elements to the Doi Taiko Matsuri processions. First, let’s consider the floats. They are large platforms on top of heavy wooden poles carrying an ornate “drum.” These platforms weigh around 3 or 4 tons apiece and can either be lifted in the air using the poles, or rest on a wheeled carriage. The “drum” is now an elaborately decorated centerpiece which I am assuming would have been a container for a real drum or drums at some point (based on processions I have seen elsewhere in Japan where drummers sit inside this centerpiece and knock out rhythms on drums inside). In Doi there appear to be no actual drums although they could be inside the towers – as they are in other parts of Shikoku. In some cases there are men sitting on top of the towers and might be drummers. There are, however, men standing on the platform directing the movements of the drum squad with hand gestures and whistles. All the actions of the drum squad are rhythmic.

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Second, the thrill of the procession is in the dexterity of the squads who are in competition with one another. For most of the procession the squads merely guide the float on its carriage as they work their way through the streets (you can’t see the carriages in the video because they are obscured by the men in the squads). But periodically they stop and, under the direction of the men on the platform, turn the float, and lift it above their heads. This action requires both strength and coordination. Speed, dexterity, strength, and agility are all judged critically by the onlookers – mostly Japanese, but with some foreign tourists mixed in (very few, because such events are not widely touted).

The Doi procession is relatively sedate in comparison with some I have seen, notably in Osaka. Some of these processions pull and push the floats at running speed through the streets with the men on top having to hold on tight as they careen around corners at breakneck speed. Others are carried on the men’s shoulders for long distances and then periodically shaken and tilted violently. These more active processions are potentially quite dangerous and there are records of the platforms falling over because of poor coordination of the squads, or runners being trampled. The energy and enthusiasm of the men in the squads is electric. It’s not hard to imagine them being carried overboard in the heat of the moment.

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Festival food is available everywhere on these days, of course. There’s really no way to replicate local specialties, so, instead, I’ll mention a famous one – Jakoten. Jakoten (じゃこ天) is a special product of Uwajima in Southern Ehime prefecture, but can be found at many festivals because it is good finger food. Jakoten was supposedly invented in the early 17th century and was originally a kind of steamed fish paste cake ordered by daimyo Date Hidemune to be made by his craftsman using fishes of Uwajima when he lived there. According to legend, he loved steamed fish cakes when he was in Sendai so he wanted to eat them also in Ehime.

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Hotarujako, which are small white fish, are common for making Jakoten. Hotarujako is the Japanese name for Acropoma japonicum, a member of the Acropomatidae family of bioluminescent fish, called, in English, glowbelly or lanternbelly. Hotarujako is also called Haranbo in Uwajima. First, the heads, viscera and scales of the fish are removed. Then, the remaining parts are minced including the bones. Seasoning is added and the minced fish is ground into a paste. Next, it is shaped into rectangular patties by using a wood frame. The patties are fried several minutes until they become brownish color.

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Jakoten are usually eaten with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and daikon. You can buy them on Shikoku cooked to eat immediately, or fresh to take home and cook. I couldn’t find an online source. They wouldn’t be any good anyway. They’d have to be frozen and shipped overnight. Just get on a plane and visit Doi.

Oct 062016
 

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Today is the anniversary of several significant events in the development of motion pictures.  On this date in 1889 Thomas Edison gave a public display of his first motion picture and in 1893 on this date he received the first copyright for a motion picture filmed with his Kinetograph camera. Edison’s contribution to the motion picture industry has been highly exaggerated and disputed, but the events are milestones of a sort. What cannot be disputed is that the first “talkie” which completely revolutionized motion pictures, The Jazz Singer premiered on this date in 1927 at the Warner Theater in New York.  Let’s dispense with Edison first.

Although Edison’s tireless self promotion and business acumen have left a permanent legacy in the U.S., and the world, of him as a genius inventor – the light bulb, the phonograph, etc. etc. – with his name permanently enshrined in place names and business enterprises, modern historians have picked apart the legend, showing that others who preceded him in fields that he claimed credit for have, until recently, languished in obscurity, and that even in his own laboratories other scientists and inventors were ultimately responsible for inventions which Edison patented and took credit for. What he was undeniably a genius at was funding and selling commercially viable products, using his name as a selling point (remind you of anyone currently in the public eye?), and profiting from the work of others. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Edison’s promotion of motion pictures.

In the late 1880s a number of people were working on ideas pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/eadweard-muybridge/ ) to take multiple still photographs in rapid sequence and string them together so that, when projected, they become “motion pictures.” That concept is still, in essence, the basis of celluloid movies. In the mid-19th century, inventions such as Joseph Plateau’s phenakistoscope and the later zoetrope demonstrated that a carefully designed sequence of drawings, showing phases of the changing appearance of objects in motion, would appear to show the objects actually moving if they were displayed one after the other at a sufficiently rapid rate. Each sequence was limited to a small number of drawings, usually twelve, so it could only show endlessly repeating cyclical motions. By the late 1880s, the last major device of this type, the praxinoscope, had been elaborated into a form that employed a long coiled band containing hundreds of images painted on glass and used the elements of a magic lantern to project them on to a screen.

The use of sequences of photographs in such devices was initially limited to a few experiments with subjects photographed in a series of poses, because the available emulsions were not sensitive enough to allow the short exposures needed to photograph subjects that were actually moving. The sensitivity was gradually improved so that in the late 1870s Eadweard Muybridge created the first sequences of  images photographed in real-time which could be animated. He used a row of cameras, each in turn capturing one image on a photographic glass plate, so the total number of images in each sequence was limited by the number of cameras, about two dozen at most. Hand-painted images based on the photographs were projected as moving images by means of his zoopraxiscope.

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By the end of the 1880s, the introduction of lengths of celluloid photographic film and the invention of motion picture cameras, which could photograph an indefinitely long rapid sequence of images using only one lens, allowed several minutes of action to be captured and stored on a single compact reel of film. Edison was granted a patent for his motion picture camera or Kinetograph. He helped with the electromechanical design, while his employee W. K. L. Dickson, a photographer, worked on the photographic and optical development. The bulk of the credit for the invention belongs to Dickson.

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The Kinetograph was used initially with a Kinetoscope for viewing motion pictures made by the Kinetograph. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. The Kinetoscope was not a movie projector but introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. A process using roll film was first described in a patent application submitted in France and the U.S. by French inventor Louis Le Prince. The concept was copied by Edison in 1889, and subsequently developed by Dickson between 1889 and 1892.

This video gives a little bit of the history, and at the end shows what is claimed to be the first motion picture – a quick, blurry clip of a woman twirling.

It is not undisputably the first motion picture, although it is probably the first that Edison’s company produced. It does give the basic idea from which Edison and others developed short movies. Claims about dates of production and priority are murky at best.

In 1893, what is sometimes claimed as the world’s first film production studio (it isn’t), the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, was completed on the grounds of Edison’s laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope. Construction began in December 1892 and was completed the following year at a cost of $637.67 (around $18,000 in current dollars). In early May 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Edison conducted his first public demonstration of films shot using the Kinetograph in the Black Maria, with a Kinetoscope viewer. The exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths.

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The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. In early January 1894, The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Fred Ott’s Sneeze) was one of the first series of short films made by Dickson for the Kinetoscope in Edison’s Black Maria studio with fellow assistant Fred Ott. The short film was made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper’s Weekly.

It was the earliest motion picture to be registered for copyright — composed of an optical record of Ott sneezing comically for the camera. While Edison was not a great inventor, he was a shrewd enough businessman to know that copyright was important for his commercial success. Patenting and copyrighting of inventions can most definitely be attributed to him.

The first films shot at the Black Maria, which Edison had little to do with other than financing, included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances (with dancers and strongmen), acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women. Many of the early Edison moving images released after 1895, however, were non-fictional “actualities” filmed on location: views of ordinary slices of life — street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train.

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In April 1896, Thomas Armat’s Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in Edison’s name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City. Later he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film. Some of the early Kinetoscopes also had synchronized sound which could be heard through earphones. So, “talkies” had been around since the beginning of motion pictures. But until the 1920s they had mechanical problems and were not commercially viable.

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The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized sound; its release on this date in 1927 heralded the commercial ascendance of the “talkies” and the decline of the silent film era. It was directed by Alan Crosland and produced by Warner Bros. with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.  The film, featuring six songs performed by Al Jolson, is based on a play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, adapted from one of his short stories “The Day of Atonement.”

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The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family. After singing popular tunes in a beer garden he is punished by his father, a cantor, prompting Jakie to run away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

The premiere was set for October 6, 1927, at Warner Brothers’ flagship theater in New York City. The date was chosen to coincide with Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday around which much of the movie’s plot revolves. The buildup to the premiere was tense. Beside Warner’s precarious financial position at the time, the physical presentation of the film itself was remarkably complex:

Each of Jolson’s musical numbers was mounted on a separate reel with a separate accompanying sound disc. Even though the film was only eighty-nine minutes long…there were fifteen reels and fifteen discs to manage, and the projectionist had to be able to thread the film and cue up the Vitaphone records very quickly. The least stumble, hesitation, or human error would result in public and financial humiliation for the company.

None of the four Warner brothers was able to attend: Sam Warner— the strongest advocate for Vitaphone—had died the previous day of pneumonia, and the surviving brothers had returned to California for his funeral.

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According to Doris Warner, who was in attendance, about halfway through the film she began to feel that something exceptional was taking place. Jolson’s “Wait a minute” line had prompted a loud, positive response from the audience. Applause followed each of his songs. Excitement built, and when Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” After the show, the audience turned into a “milling, battling, mob”, in one journalist’s description, chanting “Jolson, Jolson, Jolson!” Among those who reviewed the film, the critic who foresaw most clearly what it presaged for the future of cinema was Life magazine’s Robert E. Sherwood. He described the spoken dialogue scene between Jolson and Besserer as “fraught with tremendous significance…. I for one suddenly realized that the end of the silent drama is in sight.”

Critical reaction was generally, though far from universally, positive. The sound quality was fine for the songs, but critics complained that it was not able to capture the nuances of dialog as effectively. For the film to be shown nationwide theaters had to be modified at considerable expense. The Jazz Singer was certainly a commercial success, but its impact was not felt immediately. Silent films continued to be popular for some time for many reasons. One that tends to be forgotten these days is that large, cosmopolitan cities, such as New York, had sizeable immigrant populations who did not speak English, and they preferred silent movies where the main action was visual.

Here’s the famous, or infamous, conclusion to the film.

This leads me to a discussion of racism in the film. Nowadays minstrelsy and blackface are universally condemned as racist holdovers from vaudeville and earlier, and people without any knowledge of the era or Jolson simply dismiss The Jazz Singer as one more chapter in perpetual racism. In fact film historians see the film quite differently. Jazz historians have described Jolson’s blackface and singing style as metaphors for Jewish and black suffering throughout history. Historian Michael Alexander describes The Jazz Singer as an expression of the liturgical music of Jews with the “imagined music of African Americans,” noting that “prayer and jazz become metaphors for Jews and blacks.” Playwright Samson Raphaelson, after seeing Jolson perform his stage show Robinson Crusoe, stated that “he had an epiphany: ‘My God, this isn’t a jazz singer’, he said. ‘This is a cantor!'” The image of the blackfaced cantor remained in Raphaelson’s mind when he conceived of the story/play which eventually led to The Jazz Singer.

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Jolson first heard music from the African-American community, such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, played in the back alleys of New Orleans, and he enjoyed singing the new jazz-style of music. He often performed in blackface, especially in the songs he made popular, such as “Swanee”, “My Mammy”, and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”. Jolson’s black stage persona, called “Gus” was a wily and wise-cracking servant who was always smarter than his white masters, frequently helping them out of problems they created for themselves. In this way, Jolson used comedy to poke fun at the prevalent idea of white supremacy. In most of his movie roles, however, including a singing hobo in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum or a jailed convict in Say It With Songs, he chose to act without using blackface. In The Jazz Singer, he performed only a few songs, including “My Mammy”, in blackface, but the film is concerned in part with the experience of “donning a mask” that the young Jewish singer embraces in performing popular songs onstage.

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As a Jewish immigrant and the most famous and highest-paid entertainer in the U.S. at the time, he may have had the incentive and resources to help break down racial attitudes. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during its peak in the early 1920s, included about 15% of the nation’s eligible voting population, 4–5 million men. While The Birth of a Nation glorified white supremacy and the KKK, Jolson chose to star in The Jazz Singer, which defied racial bigotry by introducing African-American music to audiences worldwide.

While growing up, Jolson had many African-American friends, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who later became a prominent tap dancer. As early as 1911, at the age of 25, Jolson was already noted for fighting discrimination on the Broadway stage and later in his movies. At a time when African-American people were banned from starring on the Broadway stage, he promoted a play by African-American  playwright Garland Anderson, which became the first production with an all-Black cast ever produced on Broadway. In addition he brought an all-Black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to feature in his Broadway show (without success); he demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie The Singing Kid; and he was supposedly “the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem.”

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Al Jolson once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner, “insisting he’d punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!” Subsequent to their meeting, according to biographer Al Rose, Jolson and Blake became friends. Rose writes:

This didn’t have anything to do with the theater, because they never worked together. Rather, they both had a love of prize fighting and used to go to boxing matches together, engaging in jocose discussion of the relative merits of Negro with Jewish pugilists. They would occasionally wager a bottle of whisky on these bouts.

Film historian Charles Musser notes that “African Americans’ embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures. In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend.” There’s plenty of racism to go around these days; I’d advise not pointing fingers because of current sensitivities. Attention to context goes a long way.

Popcorn is the obvious recipe to go along with the movies although it’s hardly gourmet fare and you don’t really need a recipe in these days of popcorn machines and microwave bags. Movie theater popcorn tends to range from mediocre to barely edible, but you can do a better job at home even without special equipment. When I was a boy we made popcorn once in a while using a heavy lidded skillet. It’s a matter of greasing the skillet well, adding a small amount of popcorn, covering, and heating over medium-high heat whilst shaking vigorously until the popping has stopped. This type of popcorn was not popular or common in cinemas in Australia or England when I was growing up. Packaged caramel corn was the norm. You can make this yourself if you wish.

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Caramel Popcorn

Ingredients

10-12 cups freshly popped popcorn
1 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp kosher salt (or to taste)
¼ tsp baking soda

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 250°F.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

To make the caramel sauce, melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Mix in the sugar until the sugar is completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, boil for 3-4 minutes while stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously.

The exact cooking temperature is not absolutely critical with this recipe, but ideally you should use a sugar thermometer and let the sugar mixture reach between 250°F and 300°F. The higher the temperature, the crunchier the popcorn, but do not let it go over 300. At this point smoke will appear.

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla, salt, and baking soda and stir until combined. The sugar mixture will bubble up violently. Continue stirring until you have thick, glossy sauce.

Slowly pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn while stirring the popcorn and continue stirring the sauce into the popcorn until all of the kernels are coated.

Divide the popcorn between two baking sheets, spreading the popcorn out into an even layer. Bake for one hour, checking and stirring every 15 minutes and breaking up any clumps.

Let the popcorn cool completely on the baking sheets. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Oct 022016
 

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Today is the birthday (1890) of Julius Henry Marx known professionally and ubiquitously as Groucho. His absolutely unmistakable appearance, carried over from his days in vaudeville, included quirks such as an exaggerated stooped posture, glasses, cigar, and a thick, black greasepaint mustache and eyebrows. These exaggerated features resulted in the creation of one of the world’s most recognizable novelty disguises, known as “Groucho glasses”: a one-piece mask consisting of horn-rimmed glasses, large plastic nose, bushy eyebrows and mustache.

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I don’t think there’s any great sense in rehashing Groucho’s career. If you don’t know him, a simple biography won’t help. If you do know him you don’t need me telling you about him. Let’s start instead with a compilation of some of his famous lines.

Groucho’s life before Hollywood is the part most fans don’t know. He was born in a room above a butcher’s shop on East 78th Street in New York City between Lexington and 3rd” and grew up on East 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At the time the area was dominated by European immigrants, mostly artisans.

This 1915 photo of the Marx brothers with their parents in New York City is extraordinary because the family resemblance of the brothers, masked by the vaudevillesque makeup on film, is so evident. From left to right they are, Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Frenchie (father), Chico, and Harpo.

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Groucho’s family was Jewish. Groucho’s mother was Miene “Minnie” Schoenberg, whose family came from Dornum in northern Germany when she was 16 years old. His father was Simon “Sam” Marx, who changed his name from Marrix, and was called “Frenchie” by his sons throughout his life because he and his family came from Alsace in France. Minnie’s brother was Al Schoenberg, who shortened his name to Al Shean when he went into show business as half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century. According to Groucho, when Shean visited he would throw the local street waifs a few coins so that when he knocked at the door he would be surrounded by adoring fans. Groucho and his brothers respected his opinions and asked him on several occasions to write some material for them.

Minnie Marx did not have an entertainment industry career but had intense ambition for her sons to go on the stage like their uncle. While pushing her eldest son Leonard (Chico Marx) in piano lessons she found that Julius/Groucho had a pleasant treble voice and the ability to remain on key. Groucho’s early career goal was to become a doctor, but the family’s need for income forced him out of school at the age of twelve. By that time young Groucho had become a voracious reader, particularly fond of Horatio Alger. Groucho continued to overcome his lack of formal education by becoming very well read.

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After a few stabs at entry-level office work and jobs suitable for adolescents, Groucho started on the stage as a boy singer with the Gene Leroy Trio, debuting at the Ramona Theatre in Grand Rapids, MI on July 16, 1905. Marx reputedly claimed that he was “hopelessly average” as a vaudevillian. By 1909 Minnie Marx had assembled her sons into a forgettable-quality vaudeville singing group billed as “The Four Nightingales.” The brothers Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx) and Arthur (originally Adolph, from 1911 Harpo Marx) and another boy singer, Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little acclaim. After exhausting their prospects in the East the family moved to La Grange, Illinois, to play the Midwest.

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After a particularly dispiriting performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius, Milton, and Arthur began cracking jokes onstage for their own amusement. Much to their surprise, the audience liked them better as comedians than as singers. They modified the then-popular Gus Edwards comedy skit “School Days” and renamed it “Fun In Hi Skule”(reminds me of Molesworth). The Marx Brothers performed variations on this routine for the next seven years.

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For a time in vaudeville all the brothers performed using ethnic accents. Leonard, the oldest, developed the Italian accent he used as Chico Marx to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Arthur, the next oldest, put on a curly red wig and became “Patsy Brannigan”, a stereotypical Irish character. His discomfort speaking on stage led to his uncle Al Shean’s suggestion that he stop speaking altogether and play the role in mime. Groucho’s character from “Fun In Hi Skule” was an ethnic German, so he played him with a German accent. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Groucho’s German character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise-guy character that became his trademark.

Consequently the Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre in New York City, which billed itself as the “Valhalla of Vaudeville.” Chico’s deal-making skills resulted in three hit plays on Broadway. No comedy routine had ever so captured the Broadway circuit. All of this predated their Hollywood career. By the time the Marx Brothers made their first movie, they were major stars with sharply honed skills. That’s why at the heart of their movies they are still vaudevillians. Here’s the crowded cabin scene from A Night at the Opera. Pure vaudeville.

After his movie career Groucho was relaunched to new stardom on You Bet Your Life, now with a genuine moustache but still wisecracking – often ad-lib. Here’s a reel of outtakes that were too racy to air in the 1950s.

Groucho’s quotes are famous, so there is no need to list them in quantity. Here are some that are not especially wisecracks.

Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

A woman is an occasional pleasure but a cigar is always a smoke.

My favorite poem is the one that starts ‘Thirty days hath September’ because it actually tells you something.

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We know a great deal about Groucho’s eating preferences. He loved chocolate, for example, and when on a strict diet towards the end of his life he limited himself to two only which he ate first thing, remarking, “Well, I’ve had my chocolates. Now there’s nothing to do but wait for tomorrow.” Groucho had a lifelong love of clam chowder. In his youth, his Aunt Hannah would cook up batches of the soup for the Marx family using the same pot the family used to do their laundry. Groucho claimed the dual-purpose pot enhanced both the wash and the flavor of the chowder. “I wish I could remember what it tasted like,” Groucho later recalled when he was in his 80s.

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I have no idea what it tasted like. I’m fairly certain it was not classic New England Chowder. That recipe is here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ship-ahoy/ Here is Manhattan clam chowder instead. People are really divided between the two chowders. I’ll take either, but I prefer Manhattan style because of the contrast of the sweetness of the clams and the acidity of the tomatoes. If you are a decent cook, all you need is the list of ingredients. Proportions and quantities, as always, are really up to the cook.

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Manhattan Clam Chowder

Ingredients

24 cherrystone clams, rinsed
1 tbsp butter
¼ lb slab bacon, diced
1 white onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 large ribs celery, cleaned and diced
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
red pepper flakes, to taste
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed or roughly diced
freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped parsley
oyster crackers

Instructions

Put the clams in a large, heavy Dutch oven, add about 4 cups water, then set over medium-high heat. Cover, and cook until the clams have opened, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. (Clams that fail to open after 15 to 20 minutes should be discarded.) Strain the clam broth through a sieve lined with cheesecloth, muslin, or doubled-up paper towels, and set aside. Remove the clams from their shells, discard the shells and set aside the clams.

Rinse out the pot, and return it to stove. Add the butter, and turn the heat to medium-low. Add the bacon, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the pork has started to brown, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the meat from the fat, and set aside.

Add the onions, garlic, celery, green pepper, potatoes and carrots to the fat, and sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened but not brown, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Add 4 cups of clam broth. Add the sprigs of thyme and the bay leaf.

Partly cover the pot, and simmer gently until potatoes are just tender, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Using the back of a wooden spoon, smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot to release their starch and help thicken the broth.

When the potatoes are tender, stir in the tomatoes, and heat them through. Add the and reserved bacon, stirring to combine. Add black pepper to taste. Let chowder come to a simmer, and remove from the heat. Remove the thyme and the bay leaf.

The chowder should be allowed to sit for a while to cure. You can refrigerate it overnight if you like.

Reheat the chowder before serving, then garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with oyster crackers.

 

Sep 082016
 

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September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO on November 17, 1965. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities, and societies. On International Literacy Day each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. Celebrations take place around the world. About 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills. According to statistics that are not especially reliable because what counts as “minimally literate” varies from culture to culture, one in five adults is not literate and two-thirds of them are women. The fact that twice as many women as men are illiterate is largely attributable to gender inequities in education in many regions of the world.

I have many thoughts about this subject, some of which will not be popular. At the outset I would like to challenge the unthinking notion that literacy is universally a GOOD THING. Obviously, in the modern developed world being literate has many more advantages than being illiterate. Even so, at what age and in what manner children should be taught to read is an ongoing debate. The great educator Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf schools, felt that 7 was soon enough for children to start learning how to read. He wanted them to experience purely oral culture first. That way they could enjoy the sheer pleasure of language – songs, poetry tales etc. – in oral form only. Therein lies the rub. Cultures that are literate gain something and lose something. Cultures that are non-literate (have no system of writing), are not inferior to ones that are literate; they are different.

There are things that non-literate cultures can do that literate ones cannot. It is believed, for example, that Homer (if he actually existed) was a bard who could not read or write. His epics were probably composed orally and subsequently written down by scribes.  Compare his epics with, let’s say, Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil is all right, but the Aeneid is scholarly and stuffy, whereas the Iliad and Odyssey are free flowing and imaginative. To compose an epic orally you have to have the kind of memory that is rare in literate people.

Literacy is thought to have first emerged with the development of numeracy and computational devices as early as 8,000 BCE. Script developed independently at least four times in human history in Mesopotamia, Egypt, lowland Mesoamerica, and China.

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The earliest forms of written communication probably originated in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, about 3500-3000 BCE. During this era, literacy was the product of expanding empires that required permanent records of laws and finances. Later, the notable accomplishments of the elite were recorded by scribes.  Writing systems in Mesopotamia first emerged from a recording system in which people used impressed token markings to manage trade and agricultural production. The token system served as a precursor to early cuneiform writing once people began recording information on clay tablets. Proto-cuneiform texts exhibit not only numerical signs, but also ideograms depicting objects being counted.

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Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged from 3300-3100 BCE and focused on the activities of power elites. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was the first notation system to have phonetic values.

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Writing in lowland Mesoamerica was first put into practice by the Olmec and Zapotec cultures around 900-400 BCE. These cultures used glyphic writing and bar-and-dot numerical notation systems for purposes related to royal activities and calendar systems.

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The earliest written notations in China date back to the Shang Dynasty in 1200 BCE. These systematic notations were found inscribed on bones and recorded sacrifices made, tributes received, and animals hunted, which were activities of the elite. These oracle-bone inscriptions were the early ancestors of modern Chinese script.

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There are three basic systems of writing that vary in their difficulty in learning and usage — alphabetic, syllabic, and logographic. Alphabetic systems developed early in Mesopotamia, and are now extremely widespread because of their ease of use. A mere 26 letters give you the whole English language. The Roman alphabet used for English is not as phonetic as one might like. This is the fault of history not of the alphabet per se. English has never had an official academy to govern spelling so that it accurately mirrors standard pronunciation. Thus we end up with spellings like “was” “knight” “aisle” and “thorough” which give no clue as to proper pronunciation.  The spellings reflect archaic pronunciations and have never been corrected. Most European languages do better, but they need accents and other diacritics for assistance.

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At the other end of the scale is Chinese which is commonly known as a logographic writing system (although this is misleading). Chinese characters stand for morphemes, units of meaning that can be concepts or words. Learning to read them takes a very long time, as I can personally attest. After 2 years of study (1 in China), I know about 1,000 characters. Defining basic literacy in Chinese runs into political arguments. Are you basically literate if you know 2,000 or 5,000 characters? The upper number is probably the more accurate, but the government likes the lower one. By a personal estimate I’d say it takes about 10 years to be minimally competent in reading Chinese – and I mean minimally. Scholars in imperial China are known to have learned in excess of 50,000 characters. This leaves aside the even more vexing point that knowing how to pronounce the characters is no guarantee that you have a clue what the writer is saying. There is a system of writing Chinese, known as Pinyin, that uses the Roman alphabet, that comes in handy for phone texts or beginners. But no one in China wants Pinyin to replace characters. Too much meaning would be lost. Take the pronouns “he” and “she” for example. They are both pronounced /ta/ and written tā  in Pinyin. But the characters are different 他 (he) 她 (she) reflecting the unspoken, but implied, gender difference.

So . . . is learning how to read a universally GOOD THING? If you want to survive in the modern, developed world it is.  What it comes down to is whether the modern, developed world is a GOOD THING. Great minds differ on this. It’s certainly not obvious that Western culture and its values should be adopted universally. Children in non-Western, non-literate cultures, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are increasingly forced to go to school “for their own good.” Is it, though? Enforced schooling radically disrupts traditional cultures – permanently. There is ample evidence that such enforced enculturation leads to an impoverished life, both materially and socially. You may say that it’s all well and good for me, a white, educated, privileged male to decry such things. Fair comment. It may well be that traditional cultures are doomed anyway. At least I am asking the question: “What have we done?”

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I could write a whole lot more but you get the point. I can’t complain too much about literacy because it allows me to write this blog. At least I’ve given you food for thought. And speaking about food, let’s talk about recipes. The survival of written recipes from a vast array of historical periods and cultures is a great boon, but it is also limited. If you are a long-time reader you’ll be familiar with my constant complaints about problems in interpreting old recipes, based on only the written word. Too much information is missing. What is more, you really can’t learn how to cook from books alone. Somewhere along the line you need to watch other people cooking and/or take instruction from someone else – orally.  The written word is a supplement. There’d be no need for cooking classes if you can get all you need from books. I’ll readily admit that books are extremely useful for ideas, but I rarely follow a recipe directly.

So here I face a quandary. Do I celebrate literacy by writing down a recipe for you? Or do I indicate the limits of literacy by using a video? I’m going to go with the latter. Here are three instructional videos I made to demonstrate the preparation of an Argentine tortilla – so you’ll get to hear my voice.

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Part 1 is the most useful because it concerns making a basic egg batter for a variety of dishes such as English pancakes, Yorkshire pudding, and a whole lot more. This recipe is so useful that I’ve included it in my HINTS section (upper tab). Here’s the thing. I’ve made 100s of tortillas over the years. They are one of my favorites because they are quick, easy, and immensely versatile. I can make a perfect tortilla in a heartbeat without thinking. But communicating my knowledge is very difficult. I cooked dozens for my ex-girlfriend in her kitchen with her watching, and supervised her in cooking them several times. Hers were then, and still (as far as I know), awful – edible, but hardly worth the effort. She’s a good cook, but there’s a skill she’s missing and I can’t convey in words spoken or written.  You have a try.

Part 1 (The batter)


Part 2 (The filling)


Part 3 (The tortilla)

Sep 012016
 

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Johann Pachelbel, composer and organist in what is now known as the South German school, was baptized in Nuremberg (Nürnberg) on this date in 1653. His birth date is unknown. His is often considered to have brought this school of organ composition to a peak, although he is now chiefly remembered popularly for the canon in D major which was written as a chamber piece.  He composed a large body of sacred and secular music, and his contributions to the development of the chorale prelude and fugue have earned him a place among the most important composers of the middle Baroque era. Pachelbel’s music enjoyed enormous popularity during his lifetime. He had a great many pupils (including Johann Sebastian Bach’s elder brother, Johann Christoph), and his music became a model for the composers of south and central Germany.

Pachelbel’s music was influenced by the southern German school, as well as by Italian, and French composers. He preferred an uncomplicated contrapuntal style that emphasized melodic and harmonic clarity. His music is less virtuosic and less adventurous harmonically than his contemporaries but he experimented with different ensembles and instrumental combinations in both his chamber and vocal music, much of the latter featuring exceptionally rich instrumentation.

I’ll leave you to explore his music beyond the (in)famous canon. I don’t have space here, but you should find it rewarding. This link, for example, gives you a 90 minute sampling of his organ compositions:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twrYmpY-7sM

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Pachelbel’s Canon is part of what is more completely titled Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo (Kanon und Gigue für 3 Violinen mit Generalbaß) (PWC 37, T. 337, PC 358). It is sometimes referred to as the Canon in D, which drives many musicians mental because it is in the key of D MAJOR, not D. I suppose a linguistic argument can be made for “major” being the “unmarked case.” That is, it does not have to be “marked” as major because it is assumed. Just as “nurse” assumes “female” (unmarked), so the “marked case” is “male nurse.” I’d call this quibbling. Call it the Canon in D major and there’s no confusion.   Neither the date nor the circumstances of its composition are known, and the oldest surviving manuscript copy of the piece dates from the 19th century.

OK, let me get my prejudices out of the way first. You’ll know from previous posts that I greatly value the formulaic and predictable aspects of ritual. They are the whole point of ritual. Weddings are no exception. I am a pastor and I have officiated at dozens of weddings. I want traditional words from the officiant and traditional responses from the couple. I’ll even tolerate some common music and readings, although 1 Corinthians 13 is completely misplaced because it’s about general Christian kindness, not the love between a man and a woman. Pachelbel’s Canon as the entry music for the bridal party, sometimes the bride, sets my teeth on edge. It was a fad that caught on in the 1980s and has persisted. First, it has no connexion with weddings whatsoever. Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” were at least written with weddings in mind. Second, it is a chamber piece, not an organ composition. Third, it is always played in a slow lugubrious style that cloys like syrup in my ears.

One can never be sure how the Canon was played in Pachelbel’s day, but this seems like a reasonable reconstruction:

The tempo is brighter than the usual dirge, and there’s a feeling of energy and exuberance.

The Canon (without the accompanying gigue) was first published in 1919 by scholar Gustav Beckmann, who included the score in his article on Pachelbel’s chamber music. His research was inspired and supported by early music scholar and editor Max Seiffert, who in 1929 published his arrangement of the Canon and Gigue in his Organum series. However, that edition contained numerous articulation marks and dynamics not in the original score. Furthermore, Seiffert provided tempi he considered right for the piece, but that were not supported by later research. The Canon was first recorded in 1940 by Arthur Fiedler.

In 1968, the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra made a recording of the piece that changed its fortunes in the popular mind in perpetuity. This rendition was done in a more Romantic style, at a significantly slower tempo than it had been played at before, and contained obligato parts, written by Paillard, that are now closely associated with the piece. The Paillard recording was released in France by Erato Records as part of an LP that also included the Trumpet Concerto by Johann Friedrich Fasch and other works by Pachelbel and Fasch, all played by the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra. The canon was also included on a widely distributed album by the mail-order label Musical Heritage Society in 1968.

In 1970, a classical radio station in San Francisco played the Paillard recording and became inundated by listener requests. Hence the piece gained growing fame, particularly in California. In 1974, London Records, aware of the interest in the piece, reissued a 1961 album of the Corelli Christmas Concerto performed by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, which happened to contain the piece, now re-titled as Pachelbel Kanon: the Record That Made it Famous and other Baroque Favorites. The album was the highest-selling classical album of 1976. By the early 1980s its presence as background music was inescapable. Pachelbel is sometimes called the “Godfather of Pop” because the harmonic progression of the Canon is used in any number of pop music songs.

The Canon in D major was originally scored for three violins and basso continuo and paired with a gigue. Both movements are in the key of D major. Although a true canon at the unison in three parts, it also has elements of a chaconne. All right, bear with me for a little analysis. The Canon combines the techniques of canon and ground bass. Canon is a polyphonic device in which several voices play the same music, entering in sequence. In Pachelbel’s piece, there are three voices engaged in canon, but there is also a fourth voice, the basso continuo, which plays an independent part. The bass voice keeps repeating the same two-bar line throughout the piece. The common musical term for this is ostinato, or ground bass. I pity the ‘cellist. In Germany, Italy, and France of the 17th century, some pieces built on a ground bass were called chaconnes or passacaglias. Such works sometimes incorporate some form of variation in the upper voices.

Now we get to the fun part. Somebody, as sick as I was of the dreary background music version of the Canon came up with the Taco Bell Canon:

Hilarious, and more in keeping with the original than most modern renditions. Scan YouTube and you’ll find a host of variants.

This brings me to tacos, also sadly misunderstood. In the US, the Tex-Mex version of the hard-shell, corn-tortilla stuffed with ground beef and salsa has become synonymous with “taco.” The Mexican taco is, in reality, a corn or flour tortilla wrapped around just about any filling you want. I gave a recipe for my favorite deep-fried tripe tacos here, http://www.bookofdaystales.com/%ef%bb%bfalexis-st-martins-stomach/  Let’s go with tacos al pastor instead, a central Mexican favorite. If you want the best go to a Mexican taqueria. Otherwise, this recipe is all right. A charcoal grill with a spit is best but you can make do with a broiler.

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Tacos al Pastor

Ingredients

10 guajillo chiles, seeds removed
2 chiles de árbol
3 lb boneless pork shoulder, sliced thick
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup sugar
3 tbsp prepared or fresh achiote paste
3 oz kosher salt, plus a little extra
1 pineapple, peeled, cored, cut into ½” rings
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 red habanero chiles, seeds removed, finely chopped
¼ cup fresh mint, chopped
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
16 flour tortillas
lime wedges

Instructions

Bring the guajillo chiles, chiles de árbol, and 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cover, remove from heat, and let sit 30 minutes to let the chiles soften.

Place the pork slices in large ziplock bags so that they can lie flat.

Purée the chiles and soaking liquid, garlic, vinegar, sugar, achiote paste, 3 ounces of salt, half of the pineapple, and half of the onion in a blender until smooth. Pour the mixture over the pork, divided evenly among the bags. Close each top except for a small hole. Squeeze out all the air and completely seal the top. Shake each bag to distribute the marinade, then refrigerate overnight.

Using a charcoal grill or a broiler, grill the remaining pineapple over medium-high heat, turning once, until charred. Finely chop the pineapple and combine it with the habanero chiles, mint, lime juice, and remaining onion in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste, cover, and chill until ready to use.

Remove the pork from the marinade and grill slowly until the marinade remaining on the pork has begins to caramelize and char on both sides. Transfer the cooked pork to a cutting board and let rest for  10 minutes. Meanwhile, grill the tortillas until they begin to char.

Slice the pork against the grain into ¼” strips. Top each tortilla with a few pieces of pork and some pineapple salsa. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze on top. You may also serve chopped fresh cilantro to add as a garnish.

Apr 132016
 

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Messiah (HWV 56) by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer, was first performed in Dublin on this date in 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Handel’s reputation in England, where he had lived since 1712, had been established through his compositions of Italian opera. He turned to English oratorio in the 1730s in response to changes in public taste. Works such as John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/john-gay/ )signaled a general move away from Italian opera in England. Messiah was Handel’s sixth work in this genre. Although its structure resembles that of opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennens’ text is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah. The text begins in Part I with prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds, the only “scene” taken from the Gospels. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part III he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.

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Charles Jennens was born around 1700, into a prosperous landowning family whose lands and properties in Warwickshire and Leicestershire he eventually inherited. His religious and political views—he opposed the Act of Settlement of 1701 which secured the accession to the British throne for the House of Hanover—prevented him from receiving his degree from Oxford University, or from pursuing any form of public career. His family’s wealth enabled him to live a life of leisure while devoting himself to his literary and musical interests. He was devoted to Handel’s music, having helped to finance the publication of every Handel score since Rodelinda in 1725. By 1741, after their collaboration on Saul, a warm friendship had developed between the two, and Handel was a frequent visitor to the Jennens’ family estate at Gopsall.

Jennens’ letter to Holdsworth of 10 July 1741, in which he first mentions Messiah, suggests that the text was a recent work, probably assembled earlier that summer. As a devout Anglican and believer in scriptural authority, part of Jennens’ intention was to challenge advocates of Deism, who rejected the doctrine of divine intervention in human affairs. There is no evidence that Handel played any active role in the selection or preparation of the text, such as he did in the case of Saul.

The music for Messiah was completed in just 24 days. Having received Jennens’ text some time after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed Part I in outline by 28 August, Part II by 6 September and Part III by 12 September, followed by two days of “filling up” to produce the finished work on 14 September. The autograph score’s 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors.

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At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters “SDG”—Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory”. The effort of writing so much music in so short a time was not unusual for Handel and his contemporaries; Handel commenced his next oratorio, Samson, within a week of finishing Messiah, and completed his draft of this new work in a month. In accordance with his frequent practice when writing new works, Handel adapted existing compositions for use in Messiah, in this case drawing on two recently completed Italian duets and one written twenty years previously. Thus, Se tu non lasci amore from 1722 became the basis of “O Death, where is thy sting?”; “His yoke is easy” and “And he shall purify” were drawn from Quel fior che alla’ride (July 1741), “Unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” from Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi (July 1741). Handel’s instrumentation in the score is often imprecise, again in line with contemporary convention, where the use of certain instruments and combinations was assumed and did not need to be written down by the composer; later copyists would fill in the details.

Before the first performance Handel made numerous revisions to his manuscript score, in part to match the forces available for the 1742 Dublin premiere; it is probable that his work was not performed as originally conceived in his lifetime. Between 1742 and 1754 he continued to revise and recompose individual movements, sometimes to suit the requirements of particular singers. The first published score of Messiah was issued in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death, though this was based on relatively early manuscripts and included none of Handel’s later revisions.

Handel’s decision to give a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 arose from an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. A violinist friend of Handel’s, Matthew Dubourg, was in Dublin as the Lord Lieutenant’s bandmaster; he would look after the tour’s orchestral requirements. Whether Handel originally intended to perform Messiah in Dublin is uncertain; he did not inform Jennens of any such plan, for the latter wrote to Holdsworth on 2 December 1741: “… it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it.” After arriving in Dublin on 18 November 1741, Handel arranged a subscription series of six concerts, to be held between December 1741 and February 1742 at the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street. These concerts were so popular that a second series was quickly arranged; Messiah figured in neither series.

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In early March Handel began discussions with the appropriate committees for a charity concert, to be given in April, at which he intended to present Messiah. He sought and was given permission from St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion. These forces amounted to 16 men and 16 boy choristers; several of the men were allocated solo parts. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio, who had sung the main soprano roles in the two subscription series, and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto who had sung in the second series. To accommodate Cibber’s vocal range, the recitative “Then shall the eyes of the blind” and the aria “He shall feed his flock” were transposed down to F major. The performance, also in the Fishamble Street hall, was originally announced for 12 April, but was deferred for a day “at the request of persons of Distinction”. The orchestra in Dublin comprised strings, two trumpets, and timpani; the number of players is unknown. Handel had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performances; a harpsichord was probably also used.

The three charities that were to benefit were prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter described the oratorio as “… far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom”. Seven hundred people attended the premiere on 13 April. So that the largest possible audience could be admitted to the concert, gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earned unanimous praise from the assembled press: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crouded Audience”. A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber’s rendering of “He was despised” that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” The takings amounted to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.

Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual pieces. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by (among others) Mozart. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the trend has been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions, although “big Messiah” productions continue to be mounted.

Here’s two of my favorite selections from a “period” performance led by Stephen Cleobury who at the time was the musical director at King’s College Cambridge.  The full performance is here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTMJVvld9ok&nohtml5=False

Whilst we are in the mood for recreating the feeling of Georgian music recitals, here’s a period piece in food – skirret pie. Sium sisarum, commonly known as skirret, is a perennial plant of the family Apiaceae once grown as a root vegetable. The English name skirret is derived from the Middle English ‘skirwhit’ or ‘skirwort’, meaning ‘white root’. In Scotland it is known as crummock. Its Danish name sukkerrod, Dutch name suikerwortel and German name “Zuckerwurzel” translate as ‘sugar root’. Skirret has a cluster of bright white, sweetish, somewhat aromatic roots, each approximately 15-20 cm in length. They were once commonly used as a vegetable in the same manner as the common salsify, black salsify and the parsnip, but eventually they were surpassed by potatoes. I have no idea if you could ever find skirrets for sale in a market, but you can buy the seeds online.

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I’m giving two period recipes here. They are similar in that they are both quite sweet and laden with sweet spices and candied fruits, as was customary for Georgian savory dishes. The second recipe calls for another obsolete vegetable – eryngo. Eryngium campestre, known as field eryngo, is a species of Eryngium, which was used medicinally. The basal leaves are long-stalked, pinnate and spiny, and can be made into an herbal tea. The roots were usually candied.

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Skirret Pie

Boil your biggest skirrets and blanch and season them with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a very little ginger and sugar. Your pye being ready lay in your skirrets; season also the marrow of three or four bones with cinnamon, sugar, a little salt and grated bread. Lay the marrow in your pye and the yolks of hard eggs, a handful of chestnuts boiled and blanched, and some candied orange-peel in slices. Lay butter on the top and lid your pye. Let your caudle be white wine and sugar, thicken it with the yolks of eggs, and when the pye is baked pour it in and serve it hot. Scrape sugar on it.

Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, (1727)

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A Skirret Pye

Take the largest skirrets you can get & parboyle them & peel them & season them with cinnimon & powder sugar & put them in a dish with a good deal of fresh butter & some sliced citron & candid orange peel & candid eringoroot, 3 spoonfulls of rose water, 4 of white wine, some Jerusalem hartichokes boyled & sliced. Make it with cold butter paste. When it coms out of the oven, have ready a caudle made of half a pint of sack, some sugar & nutmeg & the yolks of 4 eggs & a print of butter poured on it very hot & the lid laid on it again.

Cookbook of Unknown Ladies (c. 1761)