Jan 182018

Today is the birthday (1779) of Peter Mark Roget FRS, noted popularly for the creation of the first thesaurus, but who spent most of his life as a physician, and published works in medicine and natural theology before he became a lexicographer. Roget was born in London. His obsession with list-making was well established by the time he was 8 years old. Roget was the son of a Swiss clergyman, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, receiving his degree in 1798. His life was marked by several depressing incidents. His father and his wife died young, and his favorite maternal uncle, Sir Samuel Romilly, committed suicide in his presence. Romilly was distraught at the death of his wife, and in a fit of delirium he sprang from his bed and slashed his throat with a straight razor. Roget was powerless to save him. Subsequently, Roget struggled with depression for most of his life, presumably resulting from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and his work on the thesaurus arose partly from an effort to battle his depression.

Roget retired from professional life in 1840, and in about 1848 began preparing for publication the work that was to perpetuate his memory. For some reason he decided to build a catalogue of words organized by their meanings, starting in 1805. This was apparently an avocation bordering on obsession. I know how that goes. Its first printed edition, in 1852, was called Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. During his lifetime the work had 28 printings. After his death it was revised and expanded by his son, John Lewis Roget (1828–1908), and later by John’s son, Samuel Romilly Roget (1875–1952).

Roget was greatly concerned with medical education, but the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester was not established until 1874. He was also one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine, and he was a secretary of the Royal Society. In 1815, he invented the log-log slide rule, allowing a person to perform exponential and root calculations simply. This was especially helpful for calculations involving fractional powers and roots. In 1834 he became the first Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution, and he was examiner in physiology in the University of London.

On 9 December 1824, Roget presented a paper entitled “Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel when seen through vertical apertures.” This article is often incorrectly referenced as either “On the Persistence of Vision with Regard to Human Motion” or “Persistence of Vision with regard to Moving Objects,” likely due to erroneous citations by film historians Terry Ramsaye and Arthur Knight. While Roget’s explanation of the illusion was probably wrong, his consideration of the illusion of motion is seen as an important point in the history of film, and possibly influenced the development of the Thaumatrope, the Phenakistiscope, and the Zoetrope.

He wrote numerous papers on physiology and health, among them the fifth Bridgewater Treatise, Animal and Vegetable Physiology considered with reference to Natural Theology (1834), a two-volume work on phrenology (1838), and articles for several editions of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Roget also played a role in the establishment of the University of London. He was a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and wrote a series of popular manuals for it. He showed remarkable ingenuity in inventing and solving chess problems and designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard.

Roget died while on holiday in West Malvern, Worcestershire, aged 90, and is buried there in the cemetery of St James’s Church.

The word “thesaurus” in English originally meant a “treasure” or “storehouse,” but now it means a dictionary of synonyms due to Roget’s use of the word for his book. It can also be used figuratively as in a Cook’s Thesaurus where “synonyms” means “substitute ingredients.” Just as you can use “tome” or “volume” in place of “book” (under the right conditions), you can substitute spinach for cabbage (also under the right conditions). I have found this online cook’s thesaurus quite useful on occasion: http://www.foodsubs.com/ . As the URL suggests, the site is about finding substitutes for ingredients in recipes, and here I am of two minds. If I am making a gravy using Worcestershire sauce and I am out of it, I can’t make the gravy. There is no substitute for Worcestershire sauce. A cook’s thesaurus will tell me to substitute soy sauce, and I am sure the resulting gravy will be good, but it’s not what I want. I put cilantro in my guacamole, but if I don’t have cilantro, I can use parsley, but it will not be the same. I can also use lemon juice instead of lime juice. It will prevent the avocado from turning brown and will give a citrus tang, but it will not be the same. Longtime readers of this blog know that I am adamant about using indigenous ingredients wherever I am in the world. In Myanmar they use an aquatic species in the convolvulus genus, related to morning glory, called rwat, in many dishes. In English they call it watercress, but it is nothing like European watercress. Trying to make these dishes without rwat is a waste of time.

All that said, there can be a great deal of creativity in changing one ingredient for another if you are not trying to make a dish in a particularly authentic or local way. A few posts ago I talked about taking the basic recipe for eggs Benedict and changing out one of the ingredients:  http://www.bookofdaystales.com/benedict-arnold/  Now we are in vastly different territory. Substituting for the sake of novelty or creativity is a completely different ball game, and I’m down with it. A thesaurus for cooks is not the only tool in the box, but it’s a good start. Flour is an excellent place to start. There are many different types of wheat flour and replacing one with another can be great or can be dangerous. I’m talking about replacing wheat flour with flour from another grain, or even a non-grain. Here you do have to be very careful because things can go horribly wrong. But you can try barley flour or oat flour in bread, for example. Or you can be even more adventurous and use almond flour instead of wheat flour in cakes or pancakes. It’s not a bad idea to substitute half and half (half wheat flour, half other flour) first, to see how it goes. Here’s a recipe for almond flour brownies. It’s not just good for people with wheat allergies; it is delicious. The quality of the cocoa powder you use is very important; also the almond flour. I generally make my own, but it is easy to find in health food stores or online.

Almond Flour Brownies


5 tbsp butter, melted

1 ¾ cups sugar

½ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

¾ cup cocoa powder

3 large eggs

1 ½ cups almond flour

1 tsp baking powder

butter for greasing


Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Use butter to grease an 8″ square pan that is at least 2″ deep.

Stir together the melted butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, cocoa, and eggs in a mixing bowl. Stir in the almond flour and baking powder, and mix well so that there are no dry pockets, but do not beat vigorously.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, using a spatula to make sure that it is spread evenly in the pan and the top is flat and smooth.

Bake the brownies for about 35 minutes. The top should be set, and a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. It is all right if the toothpick is a little moist or if there is a speck of chocolate at the edge.

Let the brownies cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, then cut them into squares and serve immediately. If you are not ready to serve them straightaway, store them in an airtight tin at room temperature. They also freeze well.

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