Feb 092016
 

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Today is the birthday (1737) [O.S. January 29, 1736] of Thomas Paine, an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. He was one of the so-called Founding Fathers of the United States, primarily because he published the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, and he inspired the rebels in 1776 to declare independence from Britain. His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era rhetoric of transnational human rights. He has been called “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.” The “corsetmaker” piece was a deliberate slur by opponents. He was a “stay” maker, for sure, but the stays he made were not the whalebone stiffening of corsets, but thick ropes used on sailing ships.

Paine was born in Thetford, in the county of Norfolk, and emigrated to the British North American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the American Revolution. Virtually every rebel read (or listened to a reading of) his powerful pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which crystallized the rebellious demand for independence from Great Britain. His The American Crisis (1776–83) was a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

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Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote Rights of Man (1791), in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics. His attacks on British writer Edmund Burke led to a trial and conviction in absentia in 1792 for the crime of seditious libel. In 1792, despite not being able to speak French, he was elected to the French National Convention. The Girondists regarded him as an ally. Consequently, the Montagnards, especially Robespierre, regarded him as an enemy (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/death-of-marat/ .

In December 1793, he was arrested and imprisoned in Paris, then released in 1794. He became notorious because of his pamphlets The Age of Reason (1793–94), in which he advocated deism, promoted reason and free thought, and argued against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. He also published the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1797), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. In 1802, he returned to the U.S. where he died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral partly because he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity, but also because in the 18th century funerals were small affairs for close intimates only.

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Paine’s Common Sense was influential and incendiary for many reasons. Most importantly, it was written in language that common people could easily grasp. Paine’s ideas were not remotely original, but the arguments of the social philosophers of the day, on which he based his writings, were not widely known outside elite circles. He thus popularized growing revolutionary and democratic sentiments. It must be noted, however, that his words met with some resistance from the elite of the colonies, some of whom, such as John Adams, president after Washington, were opposed to democracy as tantamount to rule by the uneducated.

His arguments against British rule of the colonies may be summarized:

It was absurd for an island to rule a continent.

The North American colonies were not a “British nation,” but composed of influences and peoples from all of Europe.

Even if Britain were the “mother country” of North America, that made her actions all the more horrendous, for no mother would harm her children so brutally.

Being a part of Britain would drag the colonies into unnecessary European wars, and impede international commerce.

The physical distance between the two nations made governing the colonies from England unwieldy. If some wrong were to be petitioned to Parliament, it would take a year or more before the colonies received a response.

The New World was discovered shortly before the Reformation. The Puritans believed that God wanted to give them a safe haven from the persecution of British rule.

Britain ruled the colonies for her own benefit, and did not consider the best interests of the colonists when making laws.

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On February 19, 1768, he was appointed excise officer to Lewes in Sussex, on the south coast of England. You can’t visit the town without immediately seeing evidence of his presence there from plaques to place names. Lewes is a town with a tradition of opposition to the monarchy and pro-republican sentiments going back to the revolutionary decades of the 17th century. Paine lived above the 15th century Bull House, the tobacco shop of Samuel Ollive and Esther Ollive. In Lewes Paine first became involved in civic matters, and he appears in the Town Book as a member of the Court Leet, the governing body for the town. He was also a member of the parish vestry, an influential local church group whose responsibilities for parish business would include collecting taxes and tithes to distribute among the poor. On March 26, 1771, at the age of 34, he married Elizabeth Ollive, his landlord’s daughter.

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Paine is known to have attended meetings and dined at the White Hart Inn whose chef/owner, William Verrall, recorded all of his recipes in a book that is still in print. Verrall decried the plain eating habits of the English at the time and trumpeted the tastes of the French. At this time the English gentry had mixed feelings about Frenchified “made” dishes – stews, ragouts, complex sauces &c – preferring steaks, chops, and roasts. What we might call a meat and potatoes diet these days. Verrall advocated fricassees and casseroles as well as delicate pairings of ingredients. Well, Paine, being a common man, loved mashed potatoes. Not much scope there for a recipe of the day. Instead I turn to Anglo-French cooking of the 18th century. Here is a typical recipe for an omelet stuffed with poached sorrel – an underused green vegetable these days. It’s easy to grow, and can get out of hand if you do not watch out. It looks a bit like spinach, but is a perennial. Because of the high oxalic acid content it’s a little sour. To make a ragout, poach shredded sorrel leaves in light stock, then drain it and squeeze out excess liquid.

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Here’s the French recipe for omelette à la gendarme taken from Les Soupers de la Cour, Menon (1755) found here http://18thccuisine.blogspot.it/2015/02/omlette-la-gendarme-military-omelette.html .

Omelette à la Gendarme.

Ayez un petit ragoût de farce d’oseille bien fini & bien lié; ajoutez-y du Parmesan rapé & mies de pain; faites une omelette naturelle, un peu mince; dressez-la dans le plat; mettez dessus le ragoût de farce; couvrez avec une autre omelette; garnissez tout autour avec des filets de pain frit que vous collez avec dublanc d’oeuf, de façon que les deux omelttes n’en fassent qu’une, sans que l’on voie la farce; arrosez le dessus avec du beurre; pannez moitié mies de pain & Parmesan; faites prendre couleur au four.

Loosely translated: Make a little sorrel stew (well finished and well appointed) and add some grated Parmesan and breadcrumbs. Make an omelet, a little thin. Put it in a dish, spread on the sorrel stew, and cover cover with another omelet. Garnish around with slices of fried bread that you stick with down with egg white. Sprinkle the top with butter, and a mix of breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Put it in the oven to give it a little color.

I’d make the omelet first, dot the top with butter, breadcrumbs and cheese, and slip it under the broiler for a minute or two. Then garnish with fried bread or toast.

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