Jul 212021
 

Today is the birthday (1911) of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher whose work is one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. McLuhan coined the expression “the medium is the message” and he was a fixture in media discourse in the late 1960s, though his influence began to wane in the early 1970s. In the years following his death, he continued to be a controversial figure in academic circles. However, with the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web, interest was renewed in his work and perspective. I am not going to indulge in a big song and dance number about his life’s work – which was profoundly influential – nor talk about his background. Look them up if you are interested. I am going to concentrate on “the medium is the message” and then give some amusing quotes before looking at how the medium impacts the recipe.

McLuhan’s most widely-known work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), is a seminal study in media theory. McLuhan famously argues that in the modern world “we live mythically and integrally…but continue to think in the old, fragmented space and time patterns of the pre-electric age.” He proposed that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study—popularly quoted as “the medium is the message.” McLuhan’s concept was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” More controversially, he postulated that content had little effect on society—in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming—the effect of television on society would be identical. He noted that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it. This dates his work, because, of course, now with streaming movies we can pick any bit we want and watch it over and over.

Let’s put things in personal (and contemporary) perspective. In 1960 the Olympics were held in Rome and I was living in South Australia. The only way we could watch anything newsworthy at that time was to view a newsreel at the cinema which was projected before the feature film. Television was not available then. Newsreels of the Olympics were weeks out of date, and contained no more than short clips of someone winning a race or making a spectacular jump. A week’s events were compressed into 2 or 3 minutes. Turn the page to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

The 1964 Olympics were Japan’s opportunity to showcase its post-war culture and to emphasize its superior command of electronic technology. They were the first Olympics to be televised live – and by then South Australia had a television system, and we had a TV. Everything had changed. We used to go to the cinema once a week – a family outing. Now we had movies (old ones) every day. Our living room where the seating used to be roughly circular was now arranged to that all the seating faced the television in the corner. From then on, no matter the style of house, the seating was always focused on the television. In this respect, television transformed our living space much as McLuhan’s example of the light bulb. But there was more.

My world was completely turned upside down by this television window into the hyper-technologized Japan of the new decade. It was not simply that I was able to watch the whole of a 10 km race in real time (Ron Clarke of Australia won bronze), as opposed to just the last few seconds on a weeks-old newsreel, but I could also absorb the distinctive flavor of Japanese culture. I got completely carried away by what I saw – so much so that I began a scrapbook and journal of images of the games and of Japan, and spent many idle hours dreaming about going there (which it took me 50 years to accomplish). I also began training in sprinting, leading to a secondary school career as a track athlete. Life altering.

All that said, I am not willing to acknowledge the value of McLuhan’s analysis in any bold sense. I very much agree with Umberto Eco who argued that McLuhan’s definition and treatment of the word “medium” was simplistic and that McLuhan’s term conflates channels, codes, and messages under the overarching term of the medium, confusing the vehicle, internal code, and content of a given message in his framework. In like manner, Régis Debray takes issue with McLuhan’s envisioning of the medium. Like Eco, he too is ill at ease with this reductionist approach, summarizing its ramifications as follows:

The list of objections could be and has been lengthened indefinitely: confusing technology itself with its use of the media makes of the media an abstract, undifferentiated force and produces its image in an imaginary “public” for mass consumption; the magical naivete of supposed causalities turns the media into a catch-all and contagious “mana”; apocalyptic millenarianism invents the figure of a homo mass-mediaticus without ties to historical and social context, and so on.

Glib wordiness of this passage aside, we agree that we cannot ignore the content of a message independently of the medium. As a friend of mine in graduate school noted – in a course on symbols (paraphrased) – Hamlet is Hamlet whatever the medium. Whether in a book on a stage or in a movie, he is still that ‘to be or not to be’ guy.”

McLuhan in Annie Hall

McLuhan himself, in his own defense, argued that his words were more poetic than discursive, and should be springboards for discussion. Fine – here’s some springboards:

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say.”

“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!”

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a hallucinating idiot…for he sees what no one else does: things that, to everyone else, are not there.”

“There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

“Many a good argument is ruined by some fool who knows what he is talking about.”

“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery.
The politician will be only too happy to abdicate
in favor of his image, because the image will
be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
[For the era of Reagan and Trump]

“the only people who have proof of their sanity are those who have been discharged from mental institutions”

Let’s be McLuhan-esque with today’s recipe. How do you prefer to learn a new recipe – orally from a friend? from a cookbook? or from a YouTube video? Here’s two of the three for Mrs Beeton’s tea-cakes.

Which one works for you? Note that the video has no spoken words. How does it make you feel?

Jul 112021
 

Today is the birthday (1603) of Sir Kenelm Digby whose name may not ring a bell with you.  In his day he was a noted courtier and diplomat, for both Charles I and II, and was a noted astrologer and natural philosopher.  Or, as he is described in John Pointer’s Oxoniensis Academia (1749), he was the “Magazine of all Arts and Sciences, or (as one stiles him) the Ornament of this Nation.” Not faint praise by any means.  But, like so many of his contemporaries who had their time in the sun when they were alive, his sun has now set. He might even be completely forgotten nowadays were it not for the volume, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, published from his notes after his death by his servant.  The book is a great lens into cooking styles of the seventeenth century, not only in England but also across Europe.  Fans of this blog will remember it from past posts.

Digby was born at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire. His father, Sir Everard, who owned Gayhurst Manor, was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. Digby was raised Catholic, which hindered some of his political ambitions in life, but his father’s deeds did not adversely affect his career given that he was only 3 years old at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. In fact, he was sufficiently in favor with James I to be proposed as a member of Edmund Bolton’s projected Royal Academy (with George Chapman, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, John Selden and Sir Henry Wotton). He went to Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College), Oxford, in 1618, where he was taught by Thomas Allen, but left without taking a degree. In time, Allen bequeathed to his library to Digby, which he eventually donated to the Bodleian Library.

He spent three years on the Continent between 1620 and 1623, where Marie de Medici fell madly in love with him (according to his journal !!). Around 1625, he married Venetia Stanley. He had also become a member of the Privy Council of Charles I. Due to his Roman Catholicism being a hindrance in being appointed to government office, he converted to Anglicanism.

Digby became a privateer in 1627. Sailing his flagship, the Eagle (later renamed Arabella),[8] he arrived off Gibraltar on 18th January and captured several Spanish and Flemish vessels. From 15th February to 27th March he remained at anchor off Algiers due to illness among his crew, and extracted a promise from authorities of better treatment of the English ships. Among other things, he persuaded the city governors to free 50 English slaves (yes, indeed, White slavery was alive and well in the 17th century). He seized a Dutch vessel near Majorca, and after other adventures gained a victory over the French and Venetian ships in the harbor of Iskanderun on 11th June. His successes, however, brought upon the English merchants the risk of reprisals, and he was urged to depart. He returned to become a naval administrator and later Governor of Trinity House.

His wife Venetia died suddenly in 1633, prompting a famous deathbed portrait by Van Dyck and a eulogy by Ben Jonson. (Digby was later Jonson’s literary executor. Jonson’s poem about Venetia is now partially lost, because of the loss of the center sheet of a leaf of papers which held the only copy.) Digby, stricken with grief, secluded himself in Gresham College and attempted to forget his personal woes through scientific experimentation and a return to Catholicism. At Gresham College he held an unofficial post, receiving no payment from the College. Digby, alongside Hungarian chemist Johannes Banfi Hunyades, constructed a laboratory under the lodgings of Gresham Professor of Divinity where the two conducted botanical experiments.

After becoming a Catholic once more in 1635, he went into voluntary exile in Paris, where he spent most of his time until 1660. He did return to England to support Charles I in his struggle to establish episcopacy in Scotland (the Bishops’ Wars), and, in response, found himself increasingly unpopular with the growing Puritan party. He left England for France again in 1641. Following an incident in which he killed a French nobleman, Mont le Ros, in a duel, he returned to England via Flanders in 1642, and was jailed by the House of Commons. He was eventually released at the intervention of Anne of Austria, and went back again to France. He remained there during the remainder of the English Civil War.

Queen Henrietta Maria had fled England in 1644, and he became her Chancellor. He was then engaged in unsuccessful attempts to solicit support for the English monarchy from Pope Innocent X. His son, also called Kenelm, was killed at the Battle of St Neots, 1648. Following the establishment of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, Digby was received by the government as a sort of unofficial representative of English Roman Catholics, and was sent in 1655 on a mission to the Papacy to try to reach an understanding. This again proved unsuccessful.

At the Restoration, Digby was also restored to favor with the new regime due to his ties with Henrietta Maria. However, he was often in trouble with Charles II, and was once even banished from Court. Nonetheless, he was generally highly regarded until his death in 1665.

Digby’s Closet Opened is a treasure trove of recipes for the historical enthusiast.  The complete book can be found here:

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16441/16441-h/16441-h.htm 

Browse at your leisure.  There are no illustrations nor lengthy introductions – just recipe after recipe, many of which are for alcoholic drinks (over 100 pages at the beginning).  Foreign influence can be seen in recipes such as “Pan Cotto, as the Cardinals use in Rome” and “A savoury and nourishing boiled Capon, Del Conte di Trino, a Milano:”

A SAVOURY AND NOURISHING BOILED CAPON DEL CONTE DI TRINO, À MILANO

Take a fat and fleshy Capon, or a like Hen; Dress it in the ordinary manner, and cleanse it within from the guts, &c. Then put in the fat again into the belly, and split the bones of the legs and wings (as far as you may, not to deface the fowl) so as the Marrow may distil out of them. Add a little fresh Butter and Marrow to it; season it with Salt, Pepper, and, what other Spice you like, as also savoury herbs. Put the Capon with all these condiments into a large strong sound bladder of an Ox (first well washed and scoured with Red-wine) and tie it very close and fast to the top, that nothing may ouse out, nor any water get in (and there must be void space in the bladder, that the flesh may have room to swell and ferment in; therefore it must be a large one). Put this to boil for a couple of hours in a Kettle of water, or till you find by touching the Bladder, that the Capon is tender and boiled enough. Then serve it up in a dish, in the Bladder (dry wiped) which when you cut, you will find a precious and nourishing liquor to eat with bread, and the Capon will be short, tender, most savoury and full of juyce, and very nourishing.

I conceive, that if you put enough Ox-marrow, you need no butter; and that it may do well to add Ambergreece, Dates-sliced and pithed, Raisins, Currants, and a little Sugar.

Peradventure this might be done well in a Silver-flagon close luted, set in Balneo bulliente, as I make the nourishing broth or gelly of Mutton or Chickens, &c.

I find his reflections on mince pies to be especially fascinating given that in modern times cooks occasionally wonder why the filling is called mincemeat.  This is why:

MY LADY OF PORTLAND’S MINCED PYES

Take four pounds of Beef, Veal or Neats-Tongues, and eight pounds of Suet; and mince both the meat and Suet very small, befor you put them together. Then mingle them well together and mince it very small, and put to it six pounds of Currants washed and picked very clean. Then take the Peel of two Limons, and half a score of Pippins, and mince them very small. Then take above an Ounce of Nutmegs, and a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, some Cloves and Cinnamon, and put them together, and sweeten them with Rose-water and Sugar. And when you are ready to put them into your Paste, take Citron and Orangiadoe, and slice them very thin, and lay them upon the meat. If you please, put dates upon the top of them. And put amongst the meat an Ounce of Caraway seeds. Be sure you have very fine Paste.

My Lady of Portland told me since, that she finds Neats-tongues to be the best flesh for Pies. Parboil them first. For the proportion of the Ingredients she likes best to take equal parts of flesh, of suet, of currants and of Raisins of the Sun. The other things in proportion as is said above. You may either put the Raisins in whole, or stone the greatest part, and Mince them with the Meat. Keep some whole ones, to lay a bed of them at the top of the Pye, when all is in. You will do well to stick the Candid Orange-peel, and green Citron-peel into the meat. You may put a little Sack or Greek Muscadine into each Pye. A little Amber-sugar doth well here. A pound of flesh, and proportionably of all things else, is enough for once in a large family.

Here are two more recipes for mince pies, in case the first does not suit you.

ANOTHER WAY OF MAKING EXCELLENT MINCED PYES OF MY LADY PORTLANDS

Parboil Neats-tongues. Then Peel and hash them with as much as they weigh of Beef-suet, and stoned Raisins and picked Currants. Chop all exceeding small, that it be like Pap. Employ therein at least an hour more, then ordinarily is used. Then mingle a very little Sugar with them, and a little wine, and thrust in up and down some thin slices of green Candyed Citron-peel. And put this into coffins of fine light well reared crust. Half an hour baking will be enough. If you strew a few Carvi comfits on the top, it will not be amiss.

MINCED PYES

My Lady Lasson makes her finest minced Pyes of Neats-tongues; But she holdeth the most savoury ones to be of Veal and Mutton equal parts very small minced. Her finest crust is made by sprinkling the flower (as much as it needeth) with cold water, and then working the past with little pieces of raw Butter in good quantity. So that she useth neither hot water, nor melted butter in them; And this makes the crust short and light. After all the meat and seasoning, and Plums and Citron Peel, &c. is in the Coffin, she puts a little Ambered-sugar upon it, thus; Grind much two grains of Ambergreece and half a one of Musk, with a little piece of hard loaf Sugar. This will serve six or eight pyes, strewed all over the top. Then cover it with the Liddle, and set it in the oven.

amber sugar

ambergris

Amber(ed) sugar is brown rock sugar in crystals which is quite different from ambergris – both of which are mentioned in these recipes. Ambergris is extremely expensive because it is rare – produced occasionally in the digestive system of sperm whales, and highly prized by perfume makers.

Meanwhile — here is a modern attempt at making Digby’s tosted cheese:

Jun 272021
 

On this same date in both 1806 and 1807 British forces attempted the capture of Buenos Aires, a chapter in the 6 – yes SIX – Anglo-Argentine wars up to that point. If nothing else does, these wars prove that British worldwide imperial aggression was not about “civilizing” other nations or any other such nonsense. It was outright territorial expansion – something they decried in Napoleon, yet had no trouble doing themselves. On the second attempt, the heavily armed and disciplined British army was beaten back by Argentinos armed with sticks. When we drink mate we have to change the yerba when it gets weak and mate palitos (little sticks) rise to the surface. We say at that point, “the British are coming.” I rarely post about battles on this blog, but as a proud Argentino I feel the need to make a point about British colonialism in the region.

There were many Anglo-Spanish Wars between 1585 and 1808, most of which lasted for several years with Britain harboring interests in taking control of Spanish colonies in South America. Many attempts had been made by the British in past conflicts to establish a foothold in South America such as in the disastrous battle of Cartagena de Indias (1740-41).

As early as 1711, the British colonial administrator, John Pullen, had sent a memorandum to Whitehall stating that the Río de la Plata, the estuary on which Buenos Aires was located, was the best place in the world for making a British colony. His proposal also included Santa Fe and Asunción, and would have generated an agricultural area with Buenos Aires as the main port. Admiral Vernon also declared the benefit of opening markets in those areas in 1741. By 1780 the British government approved a project of colonel William Fullarton to take the Americas with attacks from both the Atlantic (from Europe) and the Pacific (from India), but this project was cancelled.

In 1789 war between Britain and Spain seemed imminent after the Nootka Crisis of 1789 involving clashes between British and Spanish colonists in the Pacific Northwest of North America. The Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda took the opportunity to appear before prime minister William Pitt with his proposal to emancipate the New World territories under Portuguese and Spanish rule and turn them into a giant independent empire governed by a descendant of the Incas. Not sure how well this plan would have gone down in indigenous South America! The plan presented in London requested the assistance of the United Kingdom and the United States to militarily occupy the major South American cities, ensuring that the people would greet the British cordially and would be rushing to organize sovereign governments. In return for this help, Britain would receive the benefits of unrestricted trade and usufruct of the Isthmus of Panama, in order to build a channel for the passage of ships. Pitt accepted the proposal and began to organize the expedition. The Nootka Convention in 1790 ended hostilities, and the Miranda mission was canceled.

Chancellor of the exchequer, Nicholas Vansittart, made a new proposal in 1796: the plan was to take Buenos Aires, then move to Chile and attack from there the Spanish stronghold of El Callao in Peru. This proposal was canceled the following year, but was reinvigorated by Thomas Maitland in 1800 as the Maitland Plan. The new plan was to seize control of Buenos Aires with 4,000 soldiers and 1,500 cavalry, move to Mendoza, and prepare a military expedition to cross the Andes and conquer Chile. From there, the British would move to seize Peru and then Quito.

All these proposals were discussed in 1804 by William Pitt, Lord Henry Melville, Francisco de Miranda and admiral Home Riggs Popham. Popham did not believe a complete military occupation of South America was practical but argued for taking control of key locations to allow the main objective, to open new markets for the British economy. Although there was consensus for weakening Spanish control over its South American colonies, there was no agreement as to how and when to take such action. For instance, it was not even agreed whether the cities be turned into British colonies after their capture or just be made into British protectorates.

In 1805 Popham received orders to escort a military expedition against the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which was allied with Napoleon. With nearly 6,300 men they took it in January 1806. Popham received new orders from the admiralty to patrol the east coast of South America, from Rio de Janeiro to the Río de la Plata, in order to detect any attempt to counterattack the Cape. However, Popham had the idea of taking the Río de la Plata with a military action similar to the one made at the Cape. His agent William White had informed him about the local politics of the region, such as the discontent among some groups about the restrictive regulations enforced by Spain concerning international commerce. Popham took the 71st Regiment of Infantry, artillery and 1,000 men, to attempt the invasion. On the way, the expedition got reinforcements of 300 men from the St Helena Regiment.

Sobremonte

The Spanish Viceroy, Rafael de Sobremonte, had asked the Spanish Crown for reinforcements many times, but received only a shipment of several thousand muskets and instructions to form a militia. Buenos Aires was then a large settlement housing approximately 45,000, but the Viceroy was reluctant to give weapons to the Criollos (Spanish colonists born in South America). His best troops had been dispatched to Upper Peru, now Bolivia, to guard the frontiers from Túpac Amaru II’s revolt, and when Sobremonte learned of the British presence in the area he dispatched the remaining troops to Montevideo, considering that the main attack would be in that city. Thus, the British found Buenos Aires almost defenseless.

The British took Quilmes, near Buenos Aires, on 25 June 1806, and reached and occupied Buenos Aires on 27 June. Initially the British forces were met with a somewhat lukewarm welcome by the residents of the city, with some wealthy families throwing feasts in honor of the British officers. Nevertheless, some political figures remained antagonistic. Manuel Belgrano said “Queremos al antiguo amo o a ninguno” (we want the old Master or none at all) before leaving for Uruguay. Religious leaders swore loyalty as well, after the promise that the Catholic religion would be respected. Some merchants were displeased by the repeal of the Spanish monopoly and the opening to British trade, as it harmed their interests.

Liniers

Juan Martín de Pueyrredón organized a militia near Buenos Aires, but was discovered before being ready, and his troops were defeated. Santiago de Liniers, who was assigned to guard a nearby coast defense, got into the city and weighed the situation. He convinced Spanish merchant, Martín de Álzaga, to continue resistance to the British plans, and moved to Montevideo. The governor Ruiz Huidobro gave him command of 550 veterans and 400 soldiers to return to Buenos Aires and attempt the re-conquest. On 4 August 1806, Liniers landed at Las Conchas, north of Buenos Aires, and advanced with a mixed force of Buenos Aires line troops and Montevideo militia toward the city. On 10 August he took control of the strategic points of Miserere and El Retiro, holding the north and west entries to the city. The British finally surrendered on 14 August.

On 3 February 1807, the British attacked the region again.  They conquered Montevideo and then, under the command of general John Whitelocke, 13,000 troops sailed to Buenos Aires, landing on June 27 (fateful anniversary !!). On 1 July, a Spanish force led by Liniers fought but was overwhelmed by superior numbers in the city environs. At this crucial moment, Whitelocke did not attempt to enter the city, but twice demanded the city’s surrender. Meanwhile, Buenos Aires’ mayor Martín de Álzaga organized the defense of the city by digging trenches, fortifying buildings and erecting fences with great popular support from the Criollos who by this time were seeking their independence from Spain and were not interested in being colonized by Britain. Finally, 3 days after forcing the troops under Liniers to retreat, Whitelocke resolved to attack Buenos Aires. Trusting in the superiority of his soldiers, he divided his army into 12 columns and advanced without the protection of the artillery. His army was met on the streets by a militia, including 686 African slaves, stiffened by the local 1st Naval Infantry Battalion and 1st ‘Los Patricios’ Infantry Regiment (still the elite guard of Argentina) and fighting continued on the streets of Buenos Aires on 4 July and 5 July. Whitelocke underestimated the difficulty of urban combat, in which the inhabitants threw cooking pots filled with burning oil and boiling water from rooftops, injuring many soldiers of the 88th Regiment. Meanwhile the locals fought hand to hand in the streets with rakes, clubs, sticks, and whatever else they could find, eventually overwhelming the British troops.

By the end of 5 July, the British controlled Retiro and Residencia at the cost of about 70 officers and 1,000 other ranks killed or wounded, but the city’s center was still in the hands of the defenders, and the invaders were now demoralized. At this point, a counter-attack by the militias and colonial troops present, defeated many British commanders, including Robert Craufurd and Denis Pack. Then Whitelocke proposed a 24-hour truce, which was rejected by Liniers, who ordered an artillery attack. After suffering 311 killed, 679 wounded and 1,808 captured or missing, Whitelocke signed an armistice with Liniers on 12 August. Whitelocke left the Río de la Plata basin taking with him the British forces in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Colonia, but leaving behind 400 seriously wounded. On his return to Great Britain, he was court-martialed and cashiered.

My “recipe” of the day has to be yerba mate with paulitos (little sticks).  Mate (note the spelling – no accent) is the national drink of Argentina, and has been since even before Spanish colonization.  Yerba mate was first consumed by the indigenous Guaraní people and also spread among the Tupí people that lived in the departments of Amambay and Alto Paraná in the territory of Paraguay. Its consumption became widespread during European colonization, particularly in Paraguay in the late 16th century, among both Spanish settlers and indigenous Guaraní, who had drunk it, to some extent, before the Spanish arrival, more for medicinal purposes than as a social drink. This widespread consumption turned mate into Paraguay’s main commodity with the labor of indigenous peoples being used to harvest wild stands.

In the mid-17th century, Jesuits managed to domesticate the plant (Ilex paraguariensis) and established plantations in their Indio “reductions” in Misiones, Argentina, sparking severe competition with the Paraguayan harvesters of wild stands. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in the 1770s, their plantations fell into decay, as did their domestication secrets. The industry continued to be of prime importance for the Paraguayan economy after independence, but development in benefit of the Paraguayan state halted after the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) that devastated the country both economically and demographically. Some regions with mate plantations in Paraguay became Argentine territory, and Argentina took over as the major producer. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, domestication of mate was reinvented, with Misiones as the center of production – and remains so to this day.

Different countries process yerba mate in different ways — and for me the Argentine way is the only way!  In Argentina, the best mature leaves are picked by hand, dried in a special oven under high, dry heat, left to mature in flavor, then milled into a mix of leaves and stems (paulitos). An average supermarket in Buenos Aires has at least one aisle devoted exclusively to brands of mate from strong to mild, and with or without other flavorings.  I drink Rosamonte (strong) most of the time, when I can get it, or Cruz de Malta (mild). Importing supplies into Cambodia during the pandemic is a sore trial.  But . . . I drink around 1 kilo per month (from early morning to late evening).

In Argentina mate is normally shared.  The designated host boils water. Loads a gourd or container (also called a mate) about ¾ full of yerba, adds hot, not boiling, water, tests for taste, and then refills the mate with hot water and begins sharing.  The mate gets handed to the person on the left of the server who drinks and hands it back to the server, who refills it and hands it around the guests – clockwise.  Holding on to the mate too long is likely to elicit “no es microfono” (it is not a microphone) from one of the impatient guests.  While drinking the host will also serve little biscuits (galletas) or pastries (facturas). My friends in Argentina get a doleful tone when I tell them I drink my mate alone these days – se tiene compartir los mates, gitano (mate must be shared, gypsy – my nickname).

 

Jun 262021
 

Today is the birthday (1824) of William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin OM, GCVO, PC, PRS, FRSE, mathematician, mathematical physicist and engineer born in Belfast, and professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow for 53 years, he did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and did much to unify the emerging discipline of physics in its modern form. He received the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1883, was its President 1890–1895, and in 1892 was the first British scientist to be elevated to the House of Lords.

Absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in his honor. While the existence of a lower limit to temperature (absolute zero) was known prior to his work, Kelvin is known for determining its correct value as approximately −273.15 degrees Celsius or −459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. The Joule–Thomson effect is also named in his honor. He also had a career as an electric telegraph engineer and inventor, which propelled him into the public eye and ensured his wealth, fame and honor. For his work on the transatlantic telegraph project he was knighted in 1866 by Queen Victoria. Today is also World Refrigeration Day as a salute to Kelvin’s researches into cold temperatures.

I am not going to spill a whole lot of ink on Thomson accomplishments – actually I am not going to use any real ink at all – because I want to devote most of this post to ice cream making, which was once a passion of mine, courtesy of my late wife.  We had four ice cream makers – one, an old-fashioned, hand cranked bucket machine (that was great), and three that were electrically operated (not nearly as satisfactory).  All are long gone.

By 1847, Thomson had already gained a reputation as a precocious and maverick scientist when he attended the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Oxford where he heard James Prescott Joule making yet another of his, so far, ineffective attempts to discredit the caloric theory of heat (the theory that heat was a fluid that passed from hotter to colder bodies). Joule argued for the mutual convertibility of heat and mechanical work and for their mechanical equivalence. In 1848, Thomson proposed an absolute temperature scale (now called the Kelvin scale) in which a unit of heat descending from a body A at the temperature T° of this scale, to a body B at the temperature (T−1)°, would give out the same mechanical effect [work], whatever the number T. Such a scale would be quite independent of the physical properties of any specific substance. Thomson and Joule  began a fruitful collaboration, mostly via letters, from 1852 to 1856, making a number of discoveries including the Joule–Thomson effect, sometimes called the Kelvin–Joule effect, and the published results did much to bring about general acceptance of Joule’s work and the kinetic theory of heat.

Thomson next, in 1854, became involved in the development of cables laid under the ocean to carry telegraphic signals, and with some experiments that Michael Faraday (needs his own blog post) had conducted on a proposed transatlantic telegraph cable. Faraday had demonstrated how the construction of a cable would limit the rate at which messages could be sent – in modern terms, the bandwidth. Thomson jumped at the problem and published his response that month. He expressed his results in terms of the data rate that could be achieved. Thomson contended that the signaling speed through a given cable was inversely proportional to the square of the length of the cable. Thomson’s results were disputed at a meeting of the British Association in 1856 by Wildman Whitehouse, the electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Whitehouse had possibly misinterpreted the results of his own experiments but was doubtless feeling financial pressure as plans for the cable were already well under way. He believed that Thomson’s calculations implied that the cable must be “abandoned as being practically and commercially impossible.”  Thomson defended his own calculations and ended up spending many years sailing on cable-laying vessels and advising companies worldwide.

In December 1856, he was elected to the board of directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Thomson sailed on board the cable-laying ship HMS Agamemnon in August 1857, with Whitehouse confined to land owing to illness, but the voyage ended after 380 miles (610 km) when the cable parted. Thomson contributed to the effort by publishing in the Engineer the whole theory of the stresses involved in the laying of a submarine cable, and showed that when the line is running out of the ship, at a constant speed, in a uniform depth of water, it sinks in a slant or straight incline from the point where it enters the water to that where it touches the bottom. Thomson developed a complete system for operating a submarine telegraph that was capable of sending a character every 3.5 seconds. He patented the key elements of his system, the mirror galvanometer and the siphon recorder,in 1858. Cable laying was completed 5th August 1858 despite numerous mishaps – including storms and cable breaks – and in the end the cable failed when Whitehouse sent 2000 V through it.

In July 1865, a new cable was authorized and Thomson sailed on the cable-laying expedition of the SS Great Eastern. The voyage was dogged by technical problems, and the cable was lost after 1,200 miles (1,900 km) had been laid, and so the project was abandoned. A further attempt in 1866 laid a new cable in two weeks, and then recovered and completed the 1865 cable. The enterprise was now feted as a triumph by the public and Thomson enjoyed a large share of the adulation.

Thomson took part in the laying of the French Atlantic submarine communications cable of 1869, and was engineer of the Western and Brazilian and Platino-Brazilian cables, assisted by James Alfred Ewing. He was present at the laying of the Pará to Pernambuco section of the Brazilian coast cables in 1873.

Thomson’s wife died on 17th June 1870, and he resolved to make changes in his life. Already addicted to seafaring, in September he purchased a 126-ton schooner, the Lalla Rookh, and used it as a base for entertaining friends and scientific colleagues. His maritime interests continued in 1871 when he was appointed to the board of enquiry into the sinking of HMS Captain. His interest was roused by the fact that new metal-hulled ships experienced compass errors that wooden-hulled ships were not prone to, and so he developed an improved compass that corrected for the errors. He also introduced a method of deep-sea depth sounding, in which a steel piano wire replaces the ordinary hand line. The wire glides so easily to the bottom that “flying soundings” can be taken while the ship is at full speed. In addition he added a pressure gauge to the sinker to register its depth.

For brevity I will pass over Thomson’s contributions to atomic theory, geology, and atmospheric electricity, and turn my attention to ice cream. Ice creams and sorbets were being produced by Persians and Mongols at least 2000 years ago.  The theory of making ice cream is not complicated.  Place the materials you want frozen into a metal container, submerse it in a mix of ice, salt, and water, and stir the mixture (in some fashion) until it freezes. The salt and water reduce the temperature of the ice to below that of the freezing temperature of the ice cream mix, and the constant stirring breaks up ice crystals as they form, so that the resultant product is smooth.  Easy-peasy. The issue is getting the ice in summer.

If you are a rich Persian prince you can pay workers to journey to the mountains, cut huge blocks of ice, wrap them in massive insulating layers of hay or straw, carry them back to your palace and use them for ice cream making, or bury them deep underground for later use.  This was the method used worldwide until the invention of the electric freezer at the beginning of the 20th century.  Once ice was more readily available, ice cream making became increasingly popular.

I will give you a recipe for mango ice cream, but with severe caveats. A lot hinges on ambient temperature and humidity when making the ice cream, and you need to experiment again and again with the proportions of ingredients to suit your tastes.  One of the tricks my wife discovered – based on recipes by Gaston Lenôtre – is that the butterfat content of the ice cream is most easily increased by adding a stick of butter to the custard before freezing it.  Using nothing but heavy cream simply makes the product gummy.  There is also the question of overrun – the amount of air trapped into the ice cream when churning it.  Some is necessary for a smooth texture, but too much makes the ice cream lose flavor and richness.  You have to make batch after batch after batch.  No worries – it’s all good.  Unless you stop me I will go on and on . . . and on about the difference between ice cream and Italian gelato, the wonders of Indian kulfi, the joys of sorbets, and so on. Here is a simple example of mango ice cream that most people with a freezer can enjoy. Replace the mangoes with peaches if you like.

Mango Ice Cream

Ingredients

2 large well-ripened mangoes, peeled and cut in small dice.
1 can (14 fl. oz) sweetened condensed milk
2 cups heavy cream

Instructions

Place the mango chunks in a food processor or blender, and process until they are the consistency of apple sauce (about 1 cup).

Place the mango pulp, condensed milk, and cream in a bowl and whisk on low speed until the mixture starts to thicken.  Then increase the speed to medium and whisk until stiff peaks form.

Transfer the mixture to a loaf pan, cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap down on to the surface of the mixture, and freeze for a minimum of 6 hours, or (preferably) overnight.

If you prefer, you can eliminate the second whisking and, instead, place the mixture in the freezer container of an ice-cream churn and process.  The resultant product tends to be rather soft, and does best if placed in a freezer for a few hours to set up fully.

Jun 152021
 

Today is the birthday (1479) of Lisa del Giocondo an Italian noblewoman and member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany whose portrait was commissioned by her husband from Leonardo da Vinci, and is now known in English as Mona Lisa (in Italian it is called La Gioconda).

On March 5th 1495, 15-year-old Lisa Gherardini married Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a modestly successful cloth and silk merchant, becoming his third wife. Lisa’s dowry was 170 florins and a farm near her family’s country home, which lies between Castellina and San Donato in Poggio, near two farms later owned by Michelangelo. The modest dowry may be a sign that the Gherardini family was not wealthy at the time and lends reason to think she and her husband loved each other. Neither poor nor among the most well-to-do in Florence, the couple lived a middle-class life. Lisa’s marriage may have increased her social status because her husband’s family may have been richer than her own. Francesco is thought to have benefited because Gherardini is an “old name.” They lived in shared accommodation until 5th March 1503, when Francesco was able to buy a house next door to his family’s old home in the Via della Stufa. Leonardo is thought to have begun painting Lisa’s portrait the same year.

Lisa and Francesco had five children: Piero, Camilla, Andrea, Giocondo, and Marietta, four of them between 1496 and 1507. Lisa lost a baby daughter in 1499. Lisa also raised Bartolomeo, the son of Francesco and his first wife Camilla di Mariotto Rucellai, who died shortly after the birth. In June 1537, in his will – among many provisions – Francesco returned Lisa’s dowry to her, gave her personal clothing and jewelry and provided for her future. Upon entrusting her care to their daughter Ludovica and, should she be incapable, his son Bartolomeo, Francesco wrote, “Given the affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife; in consideration of the fact that Lisa has always acted with a noble spirit and as a faithful wife; wishing that she shall have all she needs…” Touching.  He probably died of plague the following year.

The Mona Lisa fulfilled late 15th and early 16th century requirements for portraying a woman of virtue. Lisa is portrayed as a faithful wife through gesture—her right hand rests over her left. Leonardo also presented Lisa as fashionable and successful, perhaps more well-off than she was. Her dark garments and black veil were Spanish-influenced high fashion; they are not a depiction of mourning for her first daughter, as some scholars have proposed. The painting is large in comparison with similar portraits of the era, although to the modern eye it seems small.  Visitors to the Louvre frequently comment on how small it is in comparison with what they imagined.

Lisa del Giocondo was always suspected to be the sitter in the portrait, but there was always a degree of doubt until 2005 when an expert at the University Library of Heidelberg discovered a margin note in the library’s collection that established with certainty the traditional view that the sitter was Lisa. The note, written by Agostino Vespucci in 1503, states that Leonardo was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

The Mona Lisa now has its own dedicated room in the Louvre which is always packed with people.  Before the room was set aside for the painting it could take hours standing in line to get a glimpse.  Getting to the front of the crowd is hard work, but not nearly as long as lines in the past, and the painting is up high enough that you can see it even from the back of the room.  It has always bemused me that the Mona Lisa is called “the most famous painting in the world” and, in consequence, is always mobbed, while thousands upon thousands of great works of art displayed in the Louvre go virtually unnoticed. What are people expecting when they see “the most famous painting in the world”? I suspect it’s more like “the most recognizable painting in the world” – and almost no one who visits it has the slightest idea why.  It’s popular because it’s popular.

Mona Lisa has been the subject of endless parodies because it is so recognizable.  Marcel Duchamp’s Dada-esque LHOOQ (a crude pun if you know French) is one of the most well known, but there are plenty of others.

I discovered a dish online called fettucine Mona Lisa which you can find also if you care to.  It’s neither Italian nor 15th century, so I passed on it for this post.  Instead, here is a chickpea soup from libro de arte coquinaria by maestro Martino de Como, written some time in the late 15th century. It is called red chickpea soup because the raw chickpeas are red, not the resultant soup.  Thanks to Franco Cattafesta on Facebook for helping me sort out what cioè del fiore means (highly refined flour), as well as a couple of other puzzles.  Otherwise, the clumsy translation is my own.  Parsley root may need a bit of explaining for Anglos.  It is a version of parsley, Petroselinum crispum, with a tuberous root that looks like parsnip, but tastes quite different.  I always buy it whenever I see it in the market. I would be inclined to use a meat broth rather than water to cook the chickpeas, and make sure you have enough — three “bocali” is probably somewhat over three liters, but the measure varied from city to city.  Make sure the soup is not watery, though, when cooked. It should be hearty.

Brodo de ciceri rosci

Per farne octo menestre: togli una librra et meza di ciceri et lavali con acqua calda et poneli in quella pignatta dove gli vorrai cocere et che siano sciutti et mettevi meza oncia di farina, cioè del fiore, et mettevi pocho olio et bono, et un pocho di sale, et circha vinti granelli di pepe rotto, et un pocha di canella pista, et mena molto bene tute queste cose inseme con le mani. Dapoi ponivi tre bocali d’acqua et un pocha di salvia, et rosmarino, et radici di petrosillo, et fagli bollire tanto che siano consumati a la quantitade di octo menestre. Et quando sono quasi cotti mitivi un pocho d’oglio. Et se lo brodo si facesse per ammalati non gli porre né spetie.

Red chickpea soup

To make eight portions: take a pound and a half of chickpeas and wash them in hot water, drain them, then put them in the pot they will be cooked in. Add half an ounce of very fine flour, a little good oil, a little salt and about twenty crushed peppercorns and a little ground cinnamon, then mix all these things very well together with your hands. Then add three measures of water, a little sage, rosemary, and parsley root, and boil until it is reduced to the quantity of eight portions. When they are almost cooked, add a little garlic. If you prepare this soup for invalids, add neither oil nor spices.

Jul 052020
 

Spam was introduced by Hormel on this date in 1937. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America states that the product was intended to increase the sale of pork shoulder which was not a very popular cut. Ken Daigneau, brother of a company executive, won a $100 prize that year in a competition to name the new item. Hormel claims that the meaning of the name “is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives”, but it is a common belief that the name is an abbreviation of “spiced ham”. The difficulty of delivering fresh meat to the front during World War II saw Spam become a ubiquitous part of the U.S. soldier’s diet. It became variously referred to as “ham that didn’t pass its physical”, “meatloaf without basic training”, and “Special Army Meat”. Over 68,000 tonnes (150 million pounds) of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end.


During World War II and the occupations which followed, Spam was introduced into Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and other islands in the Pacific. Spam was Immediately absorbed into local recipes and has become an important part of the history and effects of U.S. influence in the Pacific islands.

As a consequence of World War II rationing and the Lend-Lease Act, Spam also gained prominence in the United Kingdom. In addition to increasing production for the U.K., Hormel expanded Spam output as part of Allied aid to the similarly beleaguered Soviet Union. In his memoir Khrushchev Remembers, Nikita Khrushchev declared: “Without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.” Throughout the war, countries ravaged by the conflict and faced with strict food rations came to appreciate the contribution Spam made to survival. The billionth can of Spam was sold in 1959, and the eight billionth can was sold in 2012.


Beginning in 1940, Spam sponsored George Burns and Gracie Allen on their radio program. During WWII, Spam was not only eaten but was also incorporated into many other aspects of the war (grease for guns, cans for scrap metal, etc.); it was so prominent that Uncle Sam was nicknamed “Uncle Spam”. Other terms influenced by the product’s name include the European invasion fleet, or the “Spam Fleet”. Furthermore, the United Service Organizations (USO) toured the “Spam Circuit”. In the United States in the aftermath of World War II, a troupe of former servicewomen was assembled by Hormel Foods to promote Spam from coast to coast. The group was known as the Hormel Girls and associated the food with being patriotic. In 1948, two years after its formation, the troupe had grown to 60 women with 16 forming an orchestra. The show went on to become a radio program where the main selling point was Spam. The Hormel Girls were disbanded in 1953.


Spam has long had a somewhat dubious reputation in the United States and (to a lesser degree) United Kingdom as a poverty food. The image of Spam as a low cost meat product gave rise to the Scottish colloquial term “Spam valley” to describe certain affluent housing areas where residents appear to be wealthy but in reality may be living at poverty levels.

Spam was featured in an iconic 1970 Monty Python sketch called “Spam”. Set in a café which mostly served dishes containing Spam, including “egg and Spam, egg bacon and Spam, Spam egg sausage and Spam, Spam egg Spam Spam bacon and Spam “, the piece also featured a companion song. (I like the Portuguese subtitles in this version). Because of its use in a line of a song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the title of the musical version of the film became Spamalot.

By the 1990s, Spam’s perceived ubiquity led to its name being adopted for unsolicited electronic messages, especially spam email.

Spam is the subject of the “Weird Al” Yankovic song “Spam”, which is a parody of the R.E.M. song “Stand”.

Other offshoots of Spam in popular culture include a book of haikus about Spam titled Spam-Ku: Tranquil Reflections on Luncheon Loaf. There is also a mock Church of Spam, and a Spam Cam which is a webcam trained on a can of decaying Spam.

This video gives 5 recipes for cooking Spam: 1. Spam and egg sandwich 2. Spam Musubi 3. Spam fried rice 4. Egg and Spam ramen noodles 5. Buddea jjigae (Korean hotpot). I’ll leave you to decide which ones work. The direction is obviously mostly Asian, as befits the popularity of Spam in Asian countries.

Jun 262020
 

Today is the birthday (1817) of Patrick Branwell Brontë, better known as simply Branwell Brontë, an English painter and writer. He was the only son of the Brontë family, and brother of the writers Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Branwell Brontë was the fourth of six children and the only son of Patrick Brontë (1777–1861) and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë (1783–1821). He was born in Thornton, near Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, and moved with his family to Haworth when his father was appointed to the perpetual curacy in 1821.

While four of his five sisters were sent to Cowan Bridge boarding school, Branwell was educated at home by his father, who gave him a classical education. Elizabeth Gaskell, biographer of his sister, Charlotte Brontë, says of Branwell’s schooling “Mr. Brontë’s friends advised him to send his son to school; but, remembering both the strength of will of his own youth and his mode of employing it, he believed that Branwell was better at home, and that he himself could teach him well, as he had told others before.” His two elder sisters died just before his eighth birthday in 1825, and their loss affected him deeply.

Branwell’s map of Angria

Even as a young boy Brontë read extensively, and was especially fond of the “Noctes Ambrosianae”, literary dialogues published in Blackwood’s Magazine. He took leadership role with Charlotte in a series of fantasy role-playing games which they jointly wrote and performed about the “Young Men” — characters based on a set of wooden soldiers. The plays evolved into an intricate saga based in West Africa about the fictitious Glasstown confederacy. From 1834, he both collaborated and competed with his sister Charlotte to describe another imaginary world, Angria. Branwell’s particular interest in these invented worlds were their politics and wars, including the destructive rivalry between their heroes, Charlotte’s Arthur Wellesley, duke of Zamorna, and his Alexander Percy, earl of Northangerland. At age 11 in January 1829 he began producing a magazine, later named Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine which included his poems, plays, criticisms, histories and dialogues.

Unlike his sisters, Branwell was not prepared for a specific career. In his only real attempt to find work, on the death of James Hogg, a Blackwood’s writer, the 18-year-old Branwell wrote to the magazine suggesting himself as a replacement. Between 1835 and 1842, Brontë wrote a total of six times to the magazine, sending poems and  offering his services. His letters were left unanswered.

In 1829–30, Patrick Brontë engaged John Bradley, an artist from neighboring Keighley, as drawing-master for the children. Bradley was an artist of some local repute, rather than a professional instructor, but he may well have fostered Branwell’s enthusiasm for art and architecture. Bradley emigrated to America in 1831, and Branwell continued his studies under the portrait painter William Robinson. In 1834 he painted a portrait of his three sisters. He included his own image but became dissatisfied with it and painted it out. This portrait is now one of the best-known images of the sisters and hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

In 1835, he wrote a letter to the Royal Academy of Arts seeking to be admitted. Earlier biographers reported a move to London to study painting, which quickly ended following Brontë’s dissolute spending on drink. Other biographers speculated that he was too intimidated to present himself at the Academy. More recent scholarship suggests that Brontë did not send the letter or even make the trip to London. According to Francis Leyland, Brontë’s friend and a future biographer of the family, his first job was as an usher at a Halifax school. More certainly, Brontë worked as a portrait painter in Bradford in 1838 and 1839. Though certain of his paintings, for example that of his landlady Mrs. Kirby and a portrait of Emily show talent for comedic and serious styles, other portraits lack life. He returned to Haworth in debt in 1839.

With his father, Branwell reviewed the classics with a view to future employment as a tutor. At the beginning of January 1840, he started employment with the family of Robert Postlethwaite in Broughton-in-Furness. During this time he wrote letters to his pub friends in Haworth which give “a vivid picture of Branwell’s scabrous humour, his boastfulness, and his need to be accepted in a man’s world”. In his own words he started the job off with a riotous drinking session in Kendal.

During this employment he continued his literary work, including sending poems and translations to Thomas De Quincey and Hartley Coleridge who both lived in the Lake District. At Coleridge’s invitation, he visited him at his cottage and encouraged him to pursue his translations of Horace’s Odes. In June 1840 he sent the translations to Coleridge, despite having been sacked by the Postlethwaites. According to Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontës, he may have fathered an illegitimate child during time in the town, but others suspect that it may be more of his boasting.

Branwell portrait of Anne or Emily

Coleridge began an encouraging letter about the quality of the translations in November–December 1840 but never finished it. In October 1840, Branwell moved near to Halifax, where he had many good friends including the sculptor Joseph Bentley Leyland and Francis Grundy. He obtained employment with the Manchester and Leeds Railway, initially as ‘assistant clerk in charge’ at Sowerby Bridge railway station. Later, on 1 April 1841, he was promoted to ‘clerk in charge’ at Luddendenfoot railway station in West Yorkshire. In 1842 he was dismissed due to a deficit in the accounts of £11–1s–7d. This had probably been stolen by Watson, the porter, who was left in charge when Branwell went drinking, but was attributed to incompetence rather than theft and the missing sum was deducted from his salary. A description by Francis Leyland of Branwell at this time described him as “rather below middle height, but of a refined and gentleman-like appearance, and of graceful manners. His complexion was fair and his features handsome; his mouth and chin were well-shaped; his nose was prominent and of the Roman type; his eyes sparkled and danced with delight, and his forehead made up of a face of oval form which gave an irresistible charm to its possessor, and attracted the admiration of those who knew him.” Another described him less flatteringly as “almost insignificantly small” and with “a mass of red hair which he wore brushed off his forehead – to help his height I fancy… small ferrety eyes, deep sunk and still further hidden by the never removed spectacles.”

In January 1843, after nine months at Haworth, Branwell took up another tutoring position in Thorp Green, where he was to tutor the Reverend Edmund Robinson’s young son. His sister Anne had been the governess there since May 1840. As usual, at first things went well, with Charlotte reporting in January 1843 that her siblings were “both wonderously valued in their situations.” During his 30 months service Branwell corresponded with several old friends about his increasing infatuation with Robinson’s wife Lydia. He wrote, perhaps unreliably, to one of his friends that “my mistress is DAMNABLY TOO FOND OF ME” and sent him a “lock of her hair, wch has lain at night on his breast – wd to God it could do so legally !” In July 1845, he was dismissed from his position. According to Gaskell, he received a letter “sternly dismissing him, intimating that his proceedings were discovered, characterizing them as bad beyond expression and charging him, on pain of exposure, to break off immediately, and for ever, all communication with every member of the family.” For several months after his dismissal, he regularly received small amounts of money from Thorp Green, sent by Lydia Robinson herself, probably to dissuade him from blackmailing her husband (or herself).

Branwell returned home to his family at the Haworth parsonage, where he looked for another job, wrote poetry and attempted to adapt Angrian material into a book called And the Weary are at Rest. During the 1840s, several of his poems were published in local newspapers under the name of Northangerland, making him the first of the Brontës to be a published poet. Soon however, after Rev. Robinson’s death, Lydia Robinson made clear that she was not going to marry Branwell, who then “declined into chronic alcoholism, opiates and debt”. Charlotte’s letters from this time demonstrate that she was angered by his behavior. In January 1847, he wrote to his friend Leyland about the easy existence he hoped for: “to try and make myself a name in the world of posterity, without being pestered by the small but countless botherments.” His behavior became increasingly impossible and embarrassing to the family. He managed to set fire to his bed, after which his father had to sleep with him for the safety of the family. Towards the end of his life he was sending notes to a friend asking of “Five pence worth of Gin”. It is not known whether he was even informed of the 1847 debut novels of his three sisters.

Branwell’s caricature of his own death.

On 24 September 1848, Branwell Brontë died at Haworth parsonage, most likely due to tuberculosis aggravated by delirium tremens, alcoholism, and laudanum and opium addiction, despite the fact that his death certificate notes “chronic bronchitis-marasmus” as the cause. Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte reports an eye-witness account that Brontë, wanting to show the power of the human will, decided to die standing up, “and when the last agony began, he insisted on assuming the position just mentioned.” On 28 September 1848, he was interred in the family vault.

Some of Branwell’s art is reproduced in this post, and if you care to you can examine his poetry here https://allpoetry.com/Patrick-Branwell-Bronte   I am not going to excerpt any of it here because it is mediocre – at best.  That may well sum up his life.  His sisters showed much more imagination, creativity, and sheer effort in their literary productions.  I do not believe that Branwell had less potential, but he certainly lacked dedication and application.  A cautionary tale.

I have mentioned some of the dining habits of the Brontë household at Haworth here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/emily-bronte/ which includes a recipe for a pie that Emily enjoyed making.  On 24th November 1834, Emily writes, “we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips, potato’s and applepudding the kitchin is in a very untidy state.” Boiled beef with turnips and potatoes would seem to me to be a hearty but basic recipe which you could make in celebration.  Or you might try this richer version from Mrs Beeton. The “ketchup” she is referring to is mushroom ketchup, not the tomato version that is common these days.  You can find it in some supermarkets, or order it online.

STEWED BEEF or RUMP STEAK (an Entree).

INGREDIENTS.—About 2 lbs. of beef or rump steak, 3 onions, 2 turnips, 3 carrots, 2 or 3 oz. of butter, 1/2 pint of water, 1 teaspoonful of salt, 1/2 do. of pepper, 1 tablespoonful of ketchup, 1 tablespoonful of flour.

Mode.—Have the steaks cut tolerably thick and rather lean; divide them into convenient-sized pieces, and fry them in the butter a nice brown on both sides. Cleanse and pare the vegetables, cut the onions and carrots into thin slices, and the turnips into dice, and fry these in the same fat that the steaks were done in. Put all into a saucepan, add 1/2 pint of water, or rather more should it be necessary, and simmer very gently for 2-1/2 or 3 hours; when nearly done, skim well, add salt, pepper, and ketchup in the above proportions, and thicken with a tablespoonful of flour mixed with 2 of cold water. Let it boil up for a minute or two after the thickening is added, and serve. When a vegetable-scoop is at hand, use it to cut the vegetables in fanciful shapes, and tomato, Harvey’s sauce, or walnut-liquor may be used to flavour the gravy. It is less rich if stewed the previous day, so that the fat may be taken off when cold; when wanted for table, it will merely require warming through.

 Time.—3 hours. Average cost, 1s. per lb.

 Sufficient for 4 or 5 persons.

 Seasonable at any time.

 

Jun 122020
 

Today is a curious coincidence day called Loving Day in the US and Dia dos Namorados (Lovers’ Day) in Brazil.  The coincidence is an odd one because the “Loving” in Loving Day refers not to the act of loving, but to a married couple called Mildred and Richard Loving who were convicted and sentenced to prison for violating Virginia’s miscegenation laws.  On this date in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), which struck down laws banning interracial marriage as violations of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The decision was followed by an increase in interracial marriages in the U.S. and is remembered annually on Loving Day. It has been the subject of several songs and three movies, including the 2016 film Loving. Beginning in 2013, it was cited as precedent in U.S. federal court decisions holding restrictions on same-sex marriage in the United States unconstitutional, including in the 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges.

The case involved Mildred Loving, who was defined by Virginia state law as a woman of color, and her white husband Richard Loving. In 1958 they were sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other. Their marriage violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which criminalized marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored”. The Lovings appealed their conviction to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which upheld it. They then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear their case.

On June 12, 1967, the Court issued a unanimous decision in the Lovings’ favor and overturned their convictions. The Court struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. Virginia had argued that its law was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause because the punishment was the same regardless of the offender’s race, and thus it “equally burdened” both whites and non-whites. The Court found that the law nonetheless violated the Equal Protection Clause because it was based solely on “distinctions drawn according to race” and outlawed conduct namely, getting married that was otherwise generally accepted and which citizens were free to do.

Dia dos Namorados (Lovers’ Day) is celebrated on June 12 in Brazil, due to the date’s proximity to Saint Anthony’s Day on June 13. The date is celebrated in a manner similar to the way that Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14 in many other parts of the world, with gifts, romantic activities, decorations and festivities. The term “Dia dos Namorados” is also used in other Portuguese-speaking countries to refer to the Valentine’s Day.

Anthony of Padua, died on June 13, 1231, in Padua in Italy and, therefore, that date is the day on which he is especially venerated. In addition to having been canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, Anthony of Padua is recognized as a general in the Brazilian Army. In Brazil, the Dia dos Namorados is celebrated on June 12, that is, Saint Anthony’s Eve. Saint Anthony is recognized for blessing young couples with happy and prosperous marriages. Celebrations for Dia dos Namorados in Brazil and those for Valentine’s Day in most other countries are similar. Typically, couples exchange romantic gifts, such as chocolates or flowers, and they may also share a date night. Additionally, beautifying home decorations are common as a part of the celebration. The day is festive, with colorful street decorations, parades and carnivals. Single women perform popular rituals, called simpatias, in order to find a good husband or boyfriend. In addition to prayer on the Eve, one might conceal a love letter in a pot of basil to pass to a prospective suitor.

Chocolate is, of course, called for on Lover’s Day, and the great Brazilian treat is the brigadeiro.  It is a ball of special chocolate ganache rolled in something delectable, and is a staple sweet throughout Brazil.  There are numerous videos on YouTube, so take your pick.

 Posted by at 7:21 am
May 282020
 

The eclipse of Thales was a solar eclipse that was, according to Histories of Herodotus, accurately predicted by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus. If Herodotus’ account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence. Many historians believe that the predicted eclipse was the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE. How exactly Thales predicted the eclipse remains uncertain; some scholars assert the eclipse was never predicted at all. Others have argued for different dates, but only the eclipse of 28 May 585 BCE matches the conditions of visibility necessary to explain the historical event. I have mentioned this eclipse before https://www.bookofdaystales.com/solar-eclipses/ but in that post I was more interested in eclipses in general as ways of dating ancient events.

Herodotus’ Histories 1.73-74 states that a war started in the period between the Medes and the Lydians. There were two reasons for the war: the two sides had clashing interests in Anatolia, but also there was a motive of vengeance: some Scythian hunters employed by the Medes who once returned empty-handed were insulted by king Cyaxares. In revenge the hunters slaughtered one of his sons and served him to the Medes. The hunters then fled to Sardis, the capital of the Lydians. When Cyaxares asked for the Scythians to be returned to him, Alyattes refused to hand them over; in response, the Medes invaded.

Afterwards, on the refusal of Alyattes to give up his suppliants when Cyaxares sent to demand them of him, war broke out between the Lydians and the Medes, and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes. Among their other battles there was one night engagement. As, however, the balance had not inclined in favor of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on. [Histories 1:74]

As part of the terms of the peace agreement, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis was married to Cyaxares’ son Astyages, and the Halys River (now known as the Kızılırmak River) was declared to be the border of the two warring nations.

An alternate hypothesis regarding the date of the battle argues that Herodotus was carelessly recounting events that he did not personally witness, and that the solar eclipse story is a misinterpretation of his text. According to this view, what happened could have been a lunar eclipse right before moonrise, at dusk. If the warriors had planned their battle activities expecting a full moon as in the previous few days, it would have been quite a shock to have dusk fall suddenly as an occluded moon rose. If this hypothesis is correct, the battle’s date would be not 585 BCE (date given by Pliny based on the date of solar eclipse), but possibly 3 September 609 BCE or 4 July 587 BCE, dates when such dusk-time lunar eclipses did occur. Generally speaking, I find this argument unconvincing. It is hard to confuse lunar and solar eclipses, and their effects on armies would have been radically different.

While doubt has been cast on the truth of the story, there are other accounts of it besides that of Herodotus. Diogenes Laërtius says that Xenophanes, who lived in the same century as Thales, was impressed with the prediction, and he also gives additional testimonies from the pre-Socratics, Democritus and Heraclitus. At the time of Thales’ purported prediction it was not yet known that eclipses were caused by the Moon coming between the Earth and the Sun, a fact that would not be discovered until over a century later by either Anaxagoras or Empedocles.

If the account is true, it has been suggested that Thales would have had to calculate the timing of any eclipse by recognizing patterns in the periodicities of eclipses. It has been postulated that Thales may have used the Saros cycle in his determination, or that he may have had some knowledge of Babylonian astronomy. However, Babylonians were far from being able to predict the local conditions of solar eclipses at that point, which makes this hypothesis highly unlikely. In fact, there is no known cycle that can be reliably used to predict an eclipse for a given location and, therefore, any accurate prediction would have been pure luck.

The eclipse peaked over the Atlantic Ocean at 37.9°N 46.2°W and the umbral path reached south-western Anatolia in the evening hours, and the Halys River is just within the error margin for delta-T provided.

On the whole, I do not think that emulating the Scythians’ dish of serving up the king’s son on a platter would be a suitable way to celebrate the day, but there are alternatives.  One is mare’s milk cheese.  The Scythians were noted for this cheese by Herodotus:

Now the Scythians blind all their slaves, because of the milk they drink; and this is how they get it: taking tubes of bone very much like flutes, they insert these into the genitalia of the mares and blow into them, some blowing while others milk. According to them, their reason for doing this is that blowing makes the mare’s veins swell and her udder drop. When done milking, they pour the milk into deep wooden buckets, and make their slaves stand around the buckets and shake the milk; they draw off what stands on the surface and value this most; what lies at the bottom is less valued. This is why the Scythians blind all prisoners whom they take: for they do not cultivate the soil, but are nomads.

Herodotus Histories 4:2

The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the 5th century BCE or the beginning of the 4th) compares the physiological process whereby a bad humor is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese by the Scythians:

If the man is not purged, as the humor is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Mare’s milk is fairly commonly available in central Asia (even in supermarkets) and I was offered it several times when I was in Kyrgyzstan 2 years ago.  Kyrgyz nomads are also known for making cheese from mare’s milk although the process is a bit tricky because the milk will not coagulate using cow rennet.  You can use camel rennet and maybe yak rennet also.  But there are other processes that can be employed as well, as in the above quote.  I doubt you will find mare’s milk cheese outside of central Asia, but give it a try.  It is a little reminiscent of goat’s milk cheese.  If not, maybe you can find mare’s milk.  It is normally called kumis (Russian term).

May 232020
 

Today is the birthday of Sir Charles Barry FRS RA (1795 – 1860) who is not exactly a household name these days, but it ought to be if for no other reason than that he designed many landmarks in London that are now iconic (including the tower that houses Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament).  As such we can say that he rivals Christopher Wren in his legacy. He was also notable for designing numerous other buildings and gardens around England. He is applauded by cognoscenti for his major contribution to the use of Italianate architecture in Britain, especially the use of the Palazzo as the basis for the design of country houses, city mansions and public buildings. He also developed the Italian Renaissance garden style for the many gardens he designed around country houses.

Barry’s first commissions were churches in neo-Gothic style:

 

After that he was commissioned to design public buildings in urban settings:

Eventually he was involved in numerous projects in London – more than the Houses of Parliament.  He redesigned Trafalgar Square, for example, so that how it appears today is mostly attributable to Barry.

Barry was also celebrated for his designs of country houses including Cliveden which was very close to where I went to school as a teenager, and where I occasionally took walks.

Mrs Beeton is called for when it comes to a suitable recipe, and I spotted this quote as I was thumbing through (incidental homage to Trafalgar and the Houses of Parliament):

The ministers of the Crown have had a custom, for many years, of having a “whitebait dinner” just before the close of the session. It is invariably the precursor of the prorogation of Parliament, and the repast is provided by the proprietor of the “Trafalgar”

So . . . fried whitebait it is.  Mrs Beeton continues:

WHITEBAIT.—This highly-esteemed little fish appears in innumerable multitudes in the river Thames, near Greenwich and Blackwall, during the month of July, when it forms, served with lemon and brown bread and butter, a tempting dish to vast numbers of Londoners, who flock to the various taverns of these places, in order to gratify their appetites. The fish has been supposed be the fry of the shad, the sprat, the smelt, or the bleak. Mr. Yarrell, however, maintains that it is a species in itself, distinct from every other fish. When fried with flour, it is esteemed a great delicacy.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—A little flour, hot lard, seasoning of salt.

Mode.—This fish should be put into iced water as soon as bought, unless they are cooked immediately. Drain them from the water in a colander, and have ready a nice clean dry cloth, over which put 2 good handfuls of flour. Toss in the whitebait, shake them lightly in the cloth, and put them in a wicker sieve to take away the superfluous flour. Throw them into a pan of boiling lard, very few at a time, and let them fry till of a whitey-brown colour. Directly they are done, they must he taken out, and laid before the fire for a minute or two on a sieve reversed, covered with blotting-paper to absorb the fat. Dish them on a hot napkin, arrange the fish very high in the centre, and sprinkle a little salt over the whole.