Aug 032022

Today marks the anniversary of the independence of Niger from colonial rule by the French in 1960.  Niger or the Niger, officially the Republic of the Niger (French: République du Niger), is a landlocked country in West Africa. It is a unitary state bordered by Libya to the northeast, Chad to the east, Nigeria to the south, Benin and Burkina Faso to the southwest, Mali to the west, and Algeria to the northwest. It covers a land area of almost 1,270,000 km2 (490,000 sq mi), making it the second-largest landlocked country in West Africa, after Chad. Over 80% of its land area lies in the Sahara. Its predominantly Muslim population of about 25 million live mostly in clusters in the further south and west of the country.

The capital Niamey is located in Niger’s southwest corner. Some non-desert portions of the country have undergone periodic drought and desertification. The economy is concentrated around subsistence agriculture, with some export agriculture in the more fertile south, and export of raw materials, including uranium ore. It faces challenges to development due to its landlocked position, desert terrain, historical political shifts, and a population growth that cannot be supported by its shallow economy. Niger society reflects a diversity drawn from the independent histories of a number of ethnic groups and their regions given that the country borders a number of states all of which have had a cultural influence. Since independence, Nigeriens have lived under 5 constitutions and 3 periods of military rule. After the military coup in 2010, Niger became a democratic, multi-party state.

The territory of Niger has a long history, but the country’s existence as a nation does not (and its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual composition reflects that reality.  By at least the 5th century BCE the territory of what became Niger had become an area of trans-Saharan trade, led by Tuareg from the north (using camel caravans). This regional mobility which continued in waves for centuries was accompanied with further migration to the south and intermixing between sub-Saharan African and North African populations, and the spread of Islam. It was aided by the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century CE, which resulted in population movements to the south. Many empires and kingdoms existed in the Sahel during this era, and I cannot get into all of them in any great detail.

The Mali Empire (13th to 15th centuries)

The Mali Empire was a Mandinka empire founded by Sundiata Keita (r. 1230–1255) in c. 1230 and existed up to 1600. As detailed in the Epic of Sundiata, Mali emerged as a breakaway region of the Sosso Empire which itself had split from the earlier Ghana Empire. Thereafter Mali defeated the Sosso at the Battle of Kirina in 1235 and then Ghana in 1240. From its heartland around the later Guinea-Mali border region, the empire expanded under successive kings and came to dominate the Trans-Saharan trade routes, reaching its greatest extent during the rule of Mansa Musa (r. 1312–1337). At this point parts of what are now Niger’s Tillabéri Region came under Malian rule. A Muslim, Mansa Musa performed the hajj in 1324–25 and encouraged the spread of Islam in the empire, although most locals continued to practice some form of animism along with Islam. The empire began a steady weakening in the 15th century due to a combination of internecine strife over the royal succession, weak kings, the shift of European trade routes to the coast, and rebellions in the empire’s periphery by Mossi, Wolof, Tuareg and Songhai peoples. Even so a rump Mali kingdom continued to exist until the 17th century.

Songhai Empire (1000s–1591)

The Songhai Empire was named for its main ethnic group, the Songhai or Sonrai, and was centered on the bend of the Niger River in Mali. Songhai began settling this region from the 7th to 9th centuries. By the 11th century Gao (capital of the former Kingdom of Gao) had become the empire’s capital. From 1000 to 1325, the Songhai Empire managed to maintain peace with the Mali Empire, its neighbor to the west. In 1325 Songhai was conquered by Mali, but then regained its independence in 1375. Under king Sonni Ali (r. 1464–1492) Songhai adopted an expansionist policy which reached its apex during the reign of Askia Mohammad I (r. 1493–1528). At this point the empire had expanded from its Niger-bend heartland, including to the east where most of later western Niger came under its rule, including Agadez which was conquered in 1496. The empire was unable to withstand repeated attacks from the Saadi Dynasty of Morocco and was decisively defeated at the Battle of Tondibi in 1591. It then split into a number of smaller kingdoms.

Sultanate of Aïr (c.1449 – 1906)

Around 1449 in the north of what is now Niger, the Sultanate of Aïr was founded by Sultan Ilisawan, based in Agadez. Formerly a trading post inhabited by a mixture of Hausa and Tuareg, it grew as a strategic position on the trans-Saharan trade routes. In 1515 Aïr was conquered by Songhai, remaining a part of that empire until its collapse in 1591. In the centuries that followed, the sultanate was marked by internecine wars and clan conflicts. When Europeans began exploring the region in the 19th century most of Agadez lay in ruins and was taken over by the French, marking the beginning of the nation of Niger (sort of).

In the 19th century some European explorers traveled in the area of what later is Niger, such as Mungo Park (in 1805–06), the Oudney-Denham-Clapperton expedition (1822–25), Heinrich Barth (1850–55; with James Richardson and Adolf Overweg), Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs (1865–67), Gustav Nachtigal (1869–74) and Parfait-Louis Monteil (1890–92). Some European countries already possessed scattered colonies in Africa, and in the latter half of the century they began to turn their eyes towards the interior of the continent. This process, known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, culminated in the 1885 Berlin conference in which the colonial powers outlined the division of Africa into spheres of influence. As a result of this, France gained control of the upper valley of the Niger River (roughly equivalent to the areas of what later is Mali and Niger). France then set about making a reality of their rule on the ground. In 1897 the French officer Marius Gabriel Cazemajou was sent to Niger; he reached the Sultanate of Damagaram in 1898 and stayed in Zinder at the court of Sultan Amadou Kouran Daga—he was later killed as Daga feared he would ally with the Chad-based warlord Rabih az-Zubayr. In 1899–1900 France coordinated three expeditions—the Gentil Mission from French Congo, the Foureau-Lamy Mission from Algeria and the Voulet–Chanoine Mission from Timbuktu—with the aim of linking France’s African possessions. The three eventually met at Kousséri (in the further north of Cameroon) and defeated Rabih az-Zubayr’s forces at the Battle of Kousséri. The Voulet-Chanoine Mission was noted for pillaging, looting, raping and killing local civilians on its passage throughout southern Niger. On 8 May 1899, in retaliation for the resistance of queen Sarraounia, captain Voulet and his men murdered all the inhabitants of the village of Birni-N’Konni in what is regarded as one of the worst massacres in French colonial history. The subsequent scandal forced the French government in Paris to intervene, and when lieutenant-colonel Jean-François Klobb caught up with the mission near Tessaoua to relieve them of command he was killed. Lt. Paul Joalland, Klobb’s former officer, and lt. Octave Meynier eventually took over the mission following a mutiny in which Voulet and Chanoine were killed.

The Military Territory of Niger was subsequently created within the Upper Senegal and Niger colony (what later split into Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) in December 1904 with its capital at Niamey. The border with Britain’s colony of Nigeria to the south was finalized in 1910, a rough delimitation having already been agreed by the two powers via treaties during the period 1898–1906. The capital of the territory was moved to Zinder in 1912 when the Niger Military Territory was split off from Upper Senegal and Niger, before being moved back to Niamey in 1922 when Niger became a fully-fledged colony within French West Africa.The borders of Niger were drawn up in stages and had been fixed at their later position by the 1930s. Territorial adjustments took place in this period: the areas west of the Niger river were attached to Niger in 1926–27, and during the dissolution of Upper Volta (modern Burkina Faso) in 1932–47 most of the east of that territory was added to Niger; and in the east the Tibesti Mountains were transferred to Chad in 1931. Post-war realties led to Niger declaring independence from France in 1960.

This complex and tumultuous history makes sense of the cuisine of the region, or, rather, explains why the cooking styles are so varied – so many influences. Typical Nigerien meals start with a salad of seasonal vegetables, and the main courses consist of a starch (commonly rice) paired with a sauce or stew. Staple foods include millet, rice, cassava, sorghum, maize and beans, with couscous saved for special occasions. Many parts of the moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) are used in local cooking. The fruit pods (“drumsticks”) of the tree are a common ingredient in Niger dishes as are the leaves.  The festive dish dambou combines couscous and moringa leaves into a main starch to which some meat or fish can be added.  The recipes I found are all lyrics in my ear – basically, “take this stuff and do something with it.” No quantities, cooking times, etc. etc.  Just get on with it.



Moringa leaves (or spinach)
Aji dulce pepper
Spices (optional) e.g. ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, and cloves.
Stock cubes (Maggi seasoning)


Steam the quantity of couscous you desire then add the other ingredients into the pot as desired.  Look at the photos to get a general idea.  Spinach is a common substitute for moringa, and many cooks do not use any spices.  It’s all cook’s choice.

Jul 302021

Today is the birthday (1751) of Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart, called “Marianne” and nicknamed Nannerl, the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) and daughter of Leopold (1719–1787) and Anna Maria Mozart (1720–1778). She and Wolfgang were the only 2 of 7 children of their parents who survived infancy.

Marianne Mozart was born in Salzburg. When she was seven years old, her father Leopold Mozart started teaching her to play the harpsichord. Leopold took her and Wolfgang on tours of many cities, such as Vienna and Paris, to showcase their talents. In the early days, she sometimes received top billing, and she was noted as an excellent harpsichord player and fortepianist. However, owing to the gender biases of the time it became impossible as she grew older, and reached what was considered marriageable age (i.e. menarche) for her to continue her public career any further.

There is evidence that Marianne wrote musical compositions, as there are letters from Wolfgang praising her work, but the voluminous correspondence of her father never mentions any of her compositions, and none have survived. In contrast to her brother, who quarreled with their father and eventually disobeyed his wishes with respect to career path and choice of spouse, Marianne remained entirely subordinate to her father. She fell in love with Franz d’Ippold, who was a captain and private tutor, but was forced by her father to turn down his marriage proposal. Wolfgang attempted, in vain, to get Marianne to stand up for her own preference. Eventually, Marianne married a magistrate, Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg (23 August 1783), and settled with him in St. Gilgen, a village in Austria about 29 km east of Salzburg (and where her mother had been born). Berchtold was twice a widower and had five children from his two previous marriages, whom Marianne helped raise. She also bore three children of her own: Leopold Alois Pantaleon (1785–1840), Jeanette (1789–1805) and Maria Babette (1790–1791).

An unusual episode in Marianne’s life occurred when she gave birth (27 July 1785) to her first child, a son who was named Leopold after her father. Marianne had traveled from her home in St. Gilgen to Salzburg for the birth. When she returned to St. Gilgen, she left the infant in the care of her father and his servants. The elder Leopold stated (by a letter that preceded Marianne back to St. Gilgen) that he would prefer to raise the child for the first few months himself. In 1786, he extended the arrangement to an indefinite term. Leopold continued to care for his grandson, taking delight in his progress (toilet training, speech, and so on), and commencing with the very beginnings of musical training. Marianne saw her son on occasional visits, but in general was not involved in his care. The arrangement continued until the death of her father, on 28 May 1787.

Biographers differ on the reasons for this arrangement. Little Leopold was ill in his infancy, and perhaps needed to be kept in Salzburg for this reason, but this does not explain why he was still kept there after his recovery. Another possibility attributes the arrangement to Marianne’s delicate health or her need to take care of her stepchildren. Biographer Maynard Solomon attributes the arrangement to Leopold’s wish to revive his skills in training a musical genius, as he had done with Wolfgang.

When Wolfgang was a toddler, Nannerl (four and a half years older) was his idol. At age three, Mozart was inspired to study music by observing his father’s instruction of Marianne, and he wanted to be like her. The two children were very close, and they invented a secret language and an imaginary “Kingdom of Back” of which they were king and queen. Wolfgang’s early correspondence with Marianne is affectionate, and includes some of the scatological and sexual word play in which Wolfgang is known to have routinely indulged in with intimates. Occasionally Wolfgang wrote entries in Marianne’s diary, referring to himself in the third person. Wolfgang wrote a number of works for Marianne to perform, including the Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394 (1782) and the four Preludes K. 395/300g (1777). Until 1785, he sent her copies of his piano concertos (up to No. 21) in St. Gilgen.

Authorities differ concerning the precise relationship between Wolfgang and Marianne in adulthood. It seems likely that they drifted apart but it is not clear why nor the extent of the distance between them. After Wolfgang’s visit to Salzburg in 1783 (with his new wife Constanze), Wolfgang and Marianne never visited each other again, they never saw each other’s children, and their correspondence diminished to a trickle, ceasing entirely in 1788. Wolfgang died on 5 December 1791. Sometime around 1800, Marianne encountered Franz Xaver Niemetschek’s 1798 biography of Wolfgang. Since this biography had been written from the perspective of Vienna and of Constanze, much of its content was new to Marianne. In an 1800 letter, she wrote:

Herr Prof. Niemetschek’s biography so completely reanimated my sisterly feelings toward my so ardently beloved brother that I was often dissolved in tears, since it is only now that I became acquainted with the sad condition in which my brother found himself.

When Marianne’s husband died in 1801 she returned to Salzburg, accompanied by her two living children and four stepchildren, and worked as a music teacher. In her old age, Marianne had her first encounter in person with Wolfgang’s widow Constanze since the visit of 1783. In 1820, Constanze and her second husband Georg Nikolaus von Nissen moved to Salzburg. Although Marianne had not even known that Constanze was still alive, the encounter was apparently “cordial”, though not warm. Eventually, Marianne did the Nissens a great favor: to help them write a biography of Wolfgang, Marianne lent the Nissens her collection of family letters, including Wolfgang and Leopold’s correspondence up to 1781.

In 1821, Marianne had a visit from Wolfgang’s son, Franz Xaver Mozart, whom she had never met during her brother’s lifetime. The son had come from his home in Lemberg to conduct a performance of his father’s Requiem in remembrance of the recently deceased Nissen. In her last years, Marianne’s health declined, and she became blind in 1825. Mary Novello, visiting in 1829, recorded her impression that she was “blind, languid, exhausted, feeble and nearly speechless” as well as lonely. She mistakenly took Marianne to be impoverished, though in fact she was frugal and left a large fortune.

Marianne died on 29 October 1829, at 78 years, and was buried in St Peter’s Cemetery, Salzburg.

I have already given regional recipes for others in the Mozart family, so here I thought I would be slightly sideways in my reasoning by including a recipe for St Giles gingerbread – St Giles being the English name for the town where Marianne lived most of her life, and where her mother was born. I am a big fan of gingerbread, and this recipe is suitably rich and spicy.  The quantities of the various spices are suggestions only.  Alter as you see fit.

St Giles Gingerbread


3 eggs, beaten
1 cup honey
½ cup chopped suet or lard
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp ground ginger (or more to taste)
1 tbsp fruit-based hot sauce
2 tsp baking powder
2 cups flour
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1 apple, peeled and grated
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
½ cup fresh grated ginger


Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F

Grease and flour a bundt or ring pan, or regular cake tin.

Mix the eggs and honey together in a small bowl.

Place the remaining ingredients together in a large mixing bowl, and stir well to mix all the ingredients thoroughly. Add the eggs and honey mixture, and combine to form a thick batter.

Pour the batter in the prepared pan and bake for about one hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Turn out on to a cake rack and serve warm or cool with whipped cream or butter cream.

(Note: You can also make the batter into a steamed pudding if you wish. Place the batter in a greased and lined pudding basin or mold, cover tightly, and steam for about 3 hours).

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 122021

Today is the birthday (1895) of Richard Buckminster Fuller, who styled himself R. Buckminster Fuller but preferred to be called Bucky, which I will here. He was, without doubt, the quirkiest individual I have ever come across and it is my great misfortune never to have met him, although I did have some dealings with his daughter, Allegra, who has been hailed in circles that focus on the ethnography of dance – my specialty. I’ll let that connexion lie – it was disturbingly fraught – and concentrate, instead, on Bucky’s eccentricities.

Bucky himself recounted how 1927 was a pivotal year of his life. His daughter Alexandra had died in 1922 of complications from polio and spinal meningitis just before her fourth birthday. Bucky dwelt on his daughter’s death, suspecting that it was connected with the Fullers’ damp and drafty living conditions. This provided motivation for his involvement in Stockade Building Systems, a business which aimed to provide affordable, efficient housing. In 1927, at age 32, Bucky lost his job as president of Stockade. The Fuller family had no savings, and the birth of their daughter Allegra in 1927 added to the financial burdens. Fuller drank heavily and reflected upon the solution to his family’s struggles on long walks around Chicago. During the autumn of 1927, Bucky contemplated suicide by drowning in Lake Michigan, so that his family could benefit from a life insurance payment. Bucky said that he had experienced a profound incident which would provide direction and purpose for his life. He felt as though he were suspended several feet above the ground enclosed in a white sphere of light. A voice spoke directly to Fuller, and declared:

From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.

Bucky often talked about how this experience led to a profound re-examination of his life. He ultimately chose to embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” Later commentators have doubted the authenticity of this experience, but I see no reason to doubt it.  The human mind is capable of extraordinary things.  He did achieve great things and his ideas did benefit humanity.

He appears to have re-invented the geodesic dome, with which his name is most closely associated, and he did popularize its use in architecture. It had originally been created, built and awarded a German patent on June 19, 1925 by Dr. Walther Bauersfeld. Bucky was awarded the United States patent in 1954, and his patent application made no mention of Bauersfeld’s self-supporting dome built 26 years prior. One of his early models was first constructed in 1945 at Bennington College in Vermont, where he lectured often. Although Bauersfeild’s dome could support a full skin of concrete it was not until 1949 that Fuller erected a geodesic dome building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. It was 4.3 meters (14 feet) in diameter and constructed of aluminum aircraft tubing and a vinyl-plastic skin, in the form of an icosahedron. The U.S. government recognized the importance of this work, and employed his firm Geodesics, Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina to make small domes for the Marines. Within a few years, there were thousands of such domes around the world.

Bucky was a Unitarian, like his grandfather Arthur Buckminster Fuller who was a Unitarian minister. He was also an early environmental activist, aware of the Earth’s finite resources, and promoted a principle he termed “ephemeralization,” which, according to futurist and Fuller disciple Stewart Brand, was defined as “doing more with less.” Resources and waste from crude, inefficient products could be recycled into making more valuable products, thus increasing the efficiency of the entire process. Fuller also coined the word synergetics, a catch-all term used broadly for communicating experiences using geometric concepts, and more specifically, the empirical study of systems in transformation; his focus was on total system behavior unpredicted by the behavior of any isolated components.

Though Bucky was concerned about sustainability and human survival under the existing socio-economic system, he remained optimistic about humanity’s future. Defining “wealth” in terms of knowledge, as the “technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life,” his analysis of the condition of “Spaceship Earth” caused him to conclude that at a certain time during the 1970s, humanity had attained an unprecedented state. He was convinced that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of major recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level, such that competition for necessities had become unnecessary. Cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy. He declared: “selfishness is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable … War is obsolete.” He criticized previous utopian schemes as too exclusive, and thought this was a major source of their failure. To work, he thought that a utopia needed to include everyone. In his 1970 book I Seem To Be a Verb, he wrote: “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.”

His use of language was idiosyncratic and imaginative.  Bucky Fuller spoke and wrote in a unique style and said it was important to describe the world as accurately as possible. He often created long run-on sentences and used unusual compound words (omniwell-informed, intertransformative, omni-interaccommodative, omniself-regenerative) as well as other single words he invented (which give my spell-checker a headache). His style of speech was characterized by progressively rapid and breathless delivery and rambling digressions of thought, which he described as “thinking out loud.” My students will attest that I can relate well to this style. He used the word Universe without the definite or indefinite articles (the or a) and always capitalized the word. He wrote, “by Universe I mean: the aggregate of all humanity’s consciously apprehended and communicated (to self or others) Experiences.”

The words “down” and “up”, according to Fuller, are awkward in that they refer to a planar concept of direction inconsistent with human experience. The words “in” and “out” should be used instead, he argued, because they better describe an object’s relation to a gravitational center, the Earth. “I suggest to audiences that they say, ‘I’m going “outstairs” and “instairs.”‘ At first that sounds strange to them; They all laugh about it. But if they try saying in and out for a few days in fun, they find themselves beginning to realize that they are indeed going inward and outward in respect to the center of Earth, which is our Spaceship Earth. And for the first time they begin to feel real ‘reality.'”

“World-around” is a term coined by Fuller to replace “worldwide”. The general belief in a flat Earth died out in classical antiquity (except with the lunatic fringe), so using “wide” is an anachronism when referring to the surface of the Earth—a spheroidal surface has area and encloses a volume but has no width. Fuller held that unthinking use of obsolete scientific terms detracts from and misleads intuition. Other neologisms collectively invented by the Fuller family, according to Allegra Fuller Snyder, are the terms “sunsight” and “sunclipse”, replacing “sunrise” and “sunset” to overturn the geocentric bias of most pre-Copernican celestial mechanics.

Bucky also invented the word “livingry,” as opposed to weaponry (or “killingry”), to mean that which is in support of all human, plant, and Earth life. “The architectural profession—civil, naval, aeronautical, and astronautical—has always been the place where the most competent thinking is conducted regarding livingry, as opposed to weaponry.” As well as contributing significantly to the development of tensegrity technology, he invented the term “tensegrity”, a portmanteau of “tensional”and “integrity.” “Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder.”

Bucky also helped to popularize the concept of Spaceship Earth: “The most important fact about Spaceship Earth: an instruction manual didn’t come with it.” In the preface for his “cosmic fairy tale” Tetrascroll: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Fuller stated that his distinctive speaking style grew out of years of embellishing the classic tale for the benefit of his daughter, allowing him to explore both his new theories and how to present them. The Tetrascroll narrative was eventually transcribed onto a set of tetrahedral lithographs (hence the name), as well as being published as a traditional book.

We cannot speak about Bucky’s books without mentioning a cookbook written for him: Synergetic Stew — Explorations in Dymaxion Dining. It was originally presented to him as a gift on his 86th birthday, in 1982, by the staff of the Fuller Institute in Philadelphia. It’s not the sort of cookbook you’d buy — then or now — for the recipes, unless you’re desperate for dated instructions for shrimp salad or chocolate mousse. Synergetic Stew is instead a document of a magical, idiosyncratic life with contributions by a rainbow of celebrities.  It has been re-issued and you can find it in various places.  Here’s a sample:

(click to enlarge)

Otherwise, Bucky lived on gallons of strong black tea, steak, spinach, and Jell-o.

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: 

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:”


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:


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.


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.


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


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:

Jul 102021

Today is the birthday (1509) of John Calvin (born Jehun Cauvin), a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology now called Calvinism, which includes the doctrines of predestination and of God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. While Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the foundation of the Lutheran church, it was Calvin’s ideas which really set the Christian world ablaze, leading to, among other things, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and numerous Reformed denominations.  As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a professor of Church History at a Theological College in Phnom Penh, you are in danger of a mammoth post on Calvin.  But I will spare you.  Just some highlights – and a recipe from Picardy, his birthplace. He does, of course, also lend his name to my favorite cartoon character, Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes (not to mention my favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin).

Calvin was a tireless polemicist and apologetic writer who generated considerable controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters with many reformers, including Philipp Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to his seminal Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, confessional documents, and various other theological treatises.

Calvin was originally trained as a humanist lawyer. He broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. After religious tensions erupted in widespread deadly violence against Protestant Christians in France, Calvin fled to Basel in Switzerland, where in 1536 he published the first edition of the Institutes. In that same year, Calvin was recruited by Frenchman William Farel to join the Reformation in Geneva, where he regularly preached sermons throughout the week. However, the governing council of the city resisted the implementation of their ideas, and both men were expelled. At the invitation of Martin Bucer, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, where he became the minister of a church of French refugees. He continued to support the reform movement in Geneva, and in 1541 he was invited back to lead the church of the city. Following his return, Calvin introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite opposition from several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority. Following an influx of supportive refugees and new elections to the city council, Calvin’s opponents were forced out. Calvin spent his final years promoting the Reformation both in Geneva and throughout Europe.

Let’s talk briefly about the doctrine of predestination which lies at the heart of Calvinist theology, and is certainly the most debated of all of Calvin’s theology.  Among other things, this doctrine appears to fly directly in the face of the doctrine of free will, and is a key pillar in Max Weber’s argument that Protestantism leads to the development of capitalism (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  While I take issue with much of Weber’s thought, he is correct in his assertion that Catholic doctrine is cyclic – sin, confess, repent, salvation, then sin again (and repeat) – whereas Calvin’s doctrine is linear – you find out your fate on Judgment Day and not before, so you have to live as sinlessly as possible every minute of every day all of your life in the hope that you got it right.

Calvin’s logic is really straightforward.  God is all-knowing and all-powerful. Therefore, he knows the past, present, and future – otherwise he is not God.  If he knows the future, he knows YOUR future – all of it.  Therefore, he knows your ultimate fate: Heaven or Hell.  Not complicated.  There are many ways to challenge the doctrine, and many have using philosophy, Biblical criticism, or just through simple reasoning.  It’s not hard.  You can challenge the definition of God, which forces you to part company with the Bible, and probably with theism in general.  If your conception of God is little more than an invisible superhero with all the faults and shortcomings of a human, then you are not left with much, and you do not have Biblical support. If you accept the Biblical view of an all-powerful, all-knowing God, you still have some options to allow for peace of mind.

First, you can try to live as sinlessly as possible – even building a wall around the law so that you have little chance to stumble. Live a simple life, wear unadorned, modest clothes, use plain language, eat plain food and do not drink alcohol, and avoid frivolous spending. That way you end up as a Puritan, which has a built-in safety net but is not much fun. Second, you can reconsider all the components of the definition of God. This does not mean challenging the all-powerful and all-knowing parts, but, rather, adding the all-merciful piece. If God is all-loving and all-forgiving, then maybe the concept of Hell and damnation are misguided.  Maybe we are all destined for ultimate salvation through God’s infinite mercy.  After all, the idea of souls suffering in Hell for all eternity does not mesh with the notion of God’s perfection. How can a God of perfection countenance a world where suffering never ends? The danger here is, of course, that such a theology gives people free rein to do as they please in life knowing that they will ultimately be forgiven. Third, the route that a great many modern theologians follow, and which I agree with, simply dispenses with logic altogether.  This line of attack simply says that the spiritual realm is not open to human reasoning. God is inscrutable and unknowable – end of story.  So, instead of worrying about Heaven and Hell, concentrate on the present and follow the most basic of precepts as laid out in the gospel – namely, love God and love your neighbor – also end of story.  “Who is my neighbor?” is answered by the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the definition of love can be found in 1 Corinthians 13.  Easy-peasy.

For Calvin’s birthday I have chosen a recipe from Picardy, leek tart, that is more or less a quiche (a very common dish in that general region) using leeks, which are among my favorite vegetables.

Picardy Leek Tart


shortcrust for a 25 cm/9 in pie dish

75g/2 ½ oz butter
1kg/ 2lb leeks, cut in half lengthways, washed and cut into 1 cm/ ½ in pieces
300g/10 ½ oz full-fat crème fraiche
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and black pepper


Heat the oven to 200°C/400°F.

Line a 25cm/9 in pie dish with short crust.  Flute the edges, and prick the bottom with a fork.  Cover with cling wrap and keep refrigerated until ready for baking.

Melt the butter over low heat in a large skillet.  Add the leeks and cook gently for about 20 minutes until they are soft, but not browned.  Add the crème fraiche and eggs.  Stir gently to combine and turn off the heat.  Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Blind bake the pastry shell. Line it with baking parchment and fill it with dried beans, and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove the parchment and beans, and cook for another 5 minutes.

Lower the heat to 190°C/375°F

Take the shell out of the oven and fill it with the leek mixture. Return to the oven and bake until the filling is completely set (25 – 30 minutes).

Can be eaten hot or cold.

Jul 072021

Today is the birthday (1752) of Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French weaver and merchant responsible for the refinement of the programmable loom, using punched cards, that was the predecessor to using punched cards for other programmable machines, including the earliest IBM digital computers.  His invention is usually called the Jacquard loom, but it is more accurate to say that he invented the Jacquard machine which drove a kind of loom that was already in use. Also, his birth name was actually Joseph Marie Charles. In his grandfather’s generation, several branches of the Charles family lived in Lyon’s Couzon-Au-Mont d’Or suburb (on Lyon’s north side, along the Saône River). To distinguish the various branches, the community gave them nicknames; Joseph’s branch was called “Jacquard” Charles. Thus, Joseph’s grandfather was Bartholomew Charles dit [called] Jacquard, and he was J.M. Charles dit Jacquard.

Joseph Marie Charles dit Jacquard was born into a conservative Catholic family in Lyon. He was one of nine children of Jean Charles dit Jacquard, a master weaver of Lyon, and his wife, Antoinette Rive. However, only Joseph and his sister Clémence (born 7th November 1747) survived to adulthood. Although his father was a man of property, Joseph received no formal schooling and remained illiterate until he was 13. He was finally taught to read by his brother-in-law, Jean-Marie Barret, who ran a printing and book selling business. Barret also introduced Joseph to learned societies and scholars. Joseph initially helped his father operate his loom, but the work proved too arduous, so Jacquard was placed first with a bookbinder and then with a maker of printers’ type.

His mother died in 1762, and when his father died in 1772, Joseph inherited his father’s house, looms and workshop as well as a vineyard and quarry in Couzon-au-Mont d’Or. Joseph then dabbled in real estate. In 1778, he listed his occupations as master weaver and silk merchant. Jacquard’s occupation at this time is problematic because by 1780 most silk weavers did not work independently; instead, they worked for wages from silk merchants, and Jacquard was not registered as a silk merchant in Lyon.

By 1800, Joseph began inventing various devices. He invented a treadle loom in 1800, a loom to weave fishing nets in 1803, and starting in 1804, the “Jacquard” loom, which could weave patterned silk automatically. His early inventions did not operate well and were unsuccessful. In 1801, Jacquard exhibited a loom at the Exposition des produits de l’industrie française in Paris, where he was awarded a bronze medal. In 1803 he was summoned to Paris and attached to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. A loom by Jacques de Vaucanson on display gave him ideas for various improvements in his own, which he gradually perfected to its final state. The loom was declared public property in 1805, and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension and a royalty on each machine. His invention was fiercely opposed by the silk-weavers, who feared that its introduction, owing to the saving of labor, would deprive them of their livelihood. But its advantages secured its general adoption, and by 1812 there is a claim that there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in use in France. This claim has been challenged, however.  Initially few Jacquard looms were sold because of problems with the punched card mechanism. Only after 1815 — once Jean Antoine Breton had solved the problems with the punched card mechanism — did sales of looms increase.

I am not going to launch into a mammoth technological analysis of weaving and loom design, but I do want to mention some details to add some nuances to the history.  Inventions are not made in a vacuum.  All inventions build on the work of others, but frequently popular history forgets these “others” without whom the “great inventor” would not have achieved greatness.  Let’s talk about the “others” in the history of loom manufacture.

A loom has a series of longitudinal warp threads that can be raised or lowered in various configurations to make patterns as a shuttle is run back and forth along the line of warp threads to form a weft that binds them together.  Changing the configuration of the warp threads on a manual loom requires operating a series of pedals, and to weave a complex design requires exceptional skill.  Mechanizing the process was a huge technological leap of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1725 Basile Bouchon invented an attachment for looms which used a broad strip of punched paper to select the warp threads that would be raised during weaving. Bouchon’s loom was unsuccessful because it could handle only a modest number of warp threads. By 1737, a master silk weaver of Lyon, Jean Falcon, had increased the number of warp threads that the loom could handle automatically. He developed an attachment for looms in which Bouchon’s paper strip was replaced by a chain of punched cards, which could raise and lower multiple warp threads simultaneously. Thus, Falcon is the inventor of punched cards for data input, not Jacquard. Falcon used a “cylinder” (actually, a four-sided perforated tube) to hold each card in place while it was pressed against the rows of hooks that raised and lowered the warp threads. His loom was modestly successful; about 40 such looms had been sold by 1762.

In 1741, Jacques de Vaucanson, a French inventor who designed and built automated mechanical toys, was appointed inspector of silk factories. Between 1747 and 1750 he tried to automate Bouchon’s mechanism. In Vaucanson’s mechanism, the hooks that were to lift the warp threads were selected by long pins or “needles”, which were pressed against a sheet of punched paper that was draped around a perforated cylinder.  The main improvement that Vaucanson made to Bouchon’s loom was to relocate the punched paper mechanism above the loom so that it could control the threads from above.  Bochon’s mechanism was situated below the loom where the foot pedals had been on manual looms, meaning that a complicated system of pulleys and levers had to be used to transfer the information from the punched paper running under the loom to the system that controlled the threads over them.  Vaucanson’s loom was not successful because, like Bouchon’s mechanism, it could not control enough warp threads to make sufficiently elaborate patterns to justify the cost of the mechanism. Enter Jacquard.

To stimulate the French textile industry, which was competing with Britain’s industrialized industry, Napoleon Bonaparte placed large orders for Lyon’s silk, starting in 1802. In 1804, at the urging of Lyon fabric maker and inventor Gabriel Dutillieu, Jacquard studied Vaucanson’s loom, which was stored at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. By 1805 Jacquard had eliminated the paper strip from Vaucanson’s mechanism and returned to using Falcon’s chain of punched cards. That is, Jacquard did not invent the automated loom from scratch; he took existing ideas and improved upon them.

The potential of Jacquard’s loom was immediately recognized. On April 12th, 1805, Napoleon and Josephine visited Lyon and viewed Jacquard’s new loom. On April 15th, 1805, Napoleon granted the patent for Jacquard’s loom to the city of Lyon. In return, Jacquard received a lifelong pension of 3,000 francs; furthermore, he received a royalty of 50 francs for each loom that was bought and used during the period from 1805 to 1811.

Lyon has featured many times in my posts, so it is getting harder and harder to find a new recipe.  This one is refreshing for a summer’s day.  The greens are not lettuce but endive or escarole.

Jul 062021

Today is Independence Day in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa that was formerly known as Nyasaland. It is bordered by Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and northeast, and Mozambique to the east, south and southwest. Malawi spans over 118,484 km2 (45,747 sq mi) and has an estimated population of 19,431,566 (as of January 2021). Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa, takes up about a third of Malawi’s area.

The part of Africa that is now Malawi was inhabited by a very small population of hunter-gatherers dating back to the Paleolithic. Then, in the 10th century, waves of Bantu peoples began emigrating from the north.  Although most of these peoples continued south, some remained and founded ethnic groups based on common ancestry. By 1500, the Bantu peoples had established the kingdom of Maravi that reached from north of what is now Nkhotakota to the Zambezi River and from Lake Malawi to the Luangwa River in what is now Zambia.

Soon after 1600, with the area mostly united under one local ruler, the population began encountering, trading with and making alliances with Portuguese traders and members of the military. By 1700, however, the empire had broken up into areas controlled by many individual ethnic groups. The Indian Ocean slave trade reached its height in the mid-19th century, when approximately 20,000 people were enslaved and transported yearly from Nkhotakota to Kilwa where they were sold.

Missionary and explorer David Livingstone reached Lake Malawi (then Lake Nyasa) in 1859 and identified the Shire Highlands south of the lake as an area suitable for European settlement. As the result of Livingstone’s visit, several Anglican and Presbyterian missions were established in the area in the 1860s and 1870s. The African Lakes Company Limited was established in 1878 to set up a trade, working closely with the missions, and a small mission and trading settlement was established at Blantyre in 1876. A British Consul took up residence there in 1883. The Portuguese government was also interested in the area so, to prevent Portuguese occupation, the British government sent Harry Johnston as British consul with instructions to make treaties with local rulers beyond Portuguese jurisdiction.

In 1891, the area was colonized by the British and became a protectorate of the United Kingdom known as Nyasaland. In 1953, it became a protectorate within the semi-independent Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The Federation was dissolved in 1963. In 1964, the protectorate was ended: Nyasaland became an independent country under Queen Elizabeth II, and was renamed Malawi. Two years later it became a republic. It gained full independence from the United Kingdom, and by 1970 had become a totalitarian one-party state under the presidency/dictatorship of Hastings Banda, who remained in this role until 1994.

Today, Malawi has a democratic, multi-party republic headed by an elected president. Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party led the Tonse Alliance grouping of nine political parties and won the court-mandated Presidential Election rerun held on 23rd June 2020 after the May 2019 Presidential Election was annulled due to massive electoral irregularities.

The cuisine of Malawi is dominated by fish from Lake Malawi including chambo (similar to bream) usipa (similar to sardine), mpasa (similar to salmon) and kampango (a species of catfish) with maize and cassava as staples.  Here is a method of cooking chambo influenced by Indian cooking.

Jul 042021

Today is Independence Day in the United States, one of the big holidays of the summer sandwiched between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September.  July 4th is notable for three things: town parades, backyard barbecues, and evening fireworks.  Wherever I lived in the U.S. I had access to all three, and got involved in various ways over the years.  Sometimes I simply watched a local parade for no other reason than that I love a parade, sometimes I was in one with my fire company, and sometimes my son was playing in the town band. I’ll talk more about barbecues at the end. The endless production of hot dogs and hamburgers on propane grills that is the typical fare for most people was never my thing.  I was more inclined to build a giant fire and use the coals for something a great deal more adventurous.  Personal fireworks were illegal in New York, so attending a local town display was more common for us – although there were ways around the ban which I worked on once in a while.  All reasonably enjoyable even though this was not a tradition I grew up with, so it did not thoroughly resonate with me.

I have celebrated a great many national days in this blog over the years – almost all of them associated with a significant anniversary, such as the date on which a nation was formally separated from its colonial master (perhaps Spain, or France, or England).  The 4th of July is not especially noteworthy in US history.  The Declaration of Independence was generally approved (with reservations) by the Continental Congress on July 2nd, 1776, by which time the colonies were already at war with Britain. The Revolutionary War began on April 19th,1775 and concluded on September 3rd, 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The original Declaration contained the following savage condemnation of slavery written by Thomas Jefferson:

He [George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people [slaves] to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

The Southern states objected to this provision in the Declaration, holding up full congressional approval for two days.  John Adams had written to his wife, Abigail:

The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Generally accurate, but off by two days. Whether anyone actually signed the Declaration on July 4th is still debated.  Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all later claimed that they did, but the formal signing took place on August 2nd.

On July 4th, 1777, thirteen gunshots were fired in salute, once at morning and once again as evening fell,in Bristol, Rhode Island. An article in the July 18, 1777 issue of The Virginia Gazette noted a celebration in Philadelphia: an official dinner for the Continental Congress, toasts, 13-gun salutes, speeches, prayers, music, parades, troop reviews, and fireworks. Ships in port were decked with red, white, and blue bunting.

In 1778, from his headquarters at Ross Hall, near New Brunswick, New Jersey, General George Washington marked July 4th with a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute.

In 1779, July 4th fell on a Sunday. The holiday was celebrated on Monday, July 5th.

In 1781, the Massachusetts General Court became the first state legislature to recognize July 4th as a state celebration.

In 1870, the U.S. Congress made Independence Day an unpaid holiday for federal employees.

In 1938, Congress changed Independence Day to a paid federal holiday.


So, let’s talk about backyard barbecues. I’m not opposed to hamburgers and hot dogs, but there are plenty of alternatives for a change of pace.  I was often inclined to grill chicken pieces that had been marinated in a hot sauce.  A more participatory approach is to assemble the ingredients for vegetable skewers for grilling and let guests assemble them themselves.  Prepare bowls of chunks of corn, zucchini, bell pepper, onion, mushroom, etc. (see photo), have a set of skewers handy, and let guests build their own to suit their tastes.  The vegetables are perfectly fine for grilling plain, but you can also marinate them in olive oil plus fresh herbs ahead of time if you want to perk things up a bit.  These vegetables cook fairly quickly, and you need to turn the skewers regularly so that they cook evenly.  Serve with crusty bread (which can be toasted on the grill) and a variety of salads – including potato salad, mixed tomatoes and onions, and leafy greens.  If you are a confirmed carnivore, I’d suggest lamb chops as a change from hamburgers.




Jul 032021

Today is the birthday (1518) of Li Shizhen (李时珍), a Chinese acupuncturist, herbalist, naturalist, pharmacologist, physician, and writer of the Ming dynasty. He is known chiefly as the author of Compendium of Materia Medica (本草綱目) which for 400 years was the cornerstone of Chinese medicine.  Traditional medicine is still of major importance in China to this day, although it does not get much attention in the West. In addition to Compendium of Materia Medica, Shizhen wrote eleven other books, including Binhu Maixue (湖脈學; “A Study of the Pulse”) and Qijing Bamai Kao ( 奇經八脈考; “An Examination of the Eight Extra Meridians”). He lived during the Ming Dynasty and was influenced by the Neo-Confucian beliefs of the time. He was born in what is today Qizhou, Qichun County, Hubei and died 75 years later, in 1593.

Shizhen’s grandfather was a doctor who traveled the countryside and was considered relatively low on the social scale of the time. His father was a traditional physician and scholar who had written several influential books. He encouraged his son to seek a government position. Li took the national civil service exam three times, but after failing each one, he turned to medicine and his father took him on as an apprentice. When he was 38, and a practicing physician, he cured the son of the Prince of Chu and was invited to be an official there. A few years later he got a government position as assistant president at the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing. However, even though he had climbed up the social ladder, as his father had originally wanted, he left a year later to return to being a doctor.

In his government position, Li was able to read many rare medical books. He began correcting some of the mistakes and conflicting information found in them. He soon began the book Compendium of Materia Medica to compile correct information with a logical system of organization. A small part was based on another book which had been written several hundred years earlier, Jingshi Zhenglei Beiji Bencao (“Classified Materia Medica for Emergencies”) – which, unlike many other books, had formulas and recipes for most of the entries. In the writing of the Compendium of Materia Medica, he travelled, gaining first-hand experience with many herbs and local remedies and is said to have consulted over 800 books. Altogether, the writing of Compendium of Materia Medica took 27 years, which included three revisions. Ironically, writing the book allegedly took a considerable toll on his health. It was rumored that he stayed indoors for ten consecutive years during the writing of the Compendium of Materia Medica. After he had completed it, a friend reported that Li was emaciated. Li died before the book was officially published, and the Ming emperor at the time paid it little regard.

The Compendium of Materia Medica is full of recipes, most of which are extracts or decoctions for medicinal purposes. The following recipe, quoted by Li from Beiji qianjin yaofang (北京千金药房) to cure xiong bi (pressure in the chest) is a decoction that is more like a concentrated soup stock than a medicinal preparation. On the other hand, the ingredients are processed by biting and chewing, a method from the repertoire of drug manufacture.  Pinellia produces a tuber that is toxic when raw because of high concentrations of oxalates.  Snake gourd is Trichosanthes cucumerina, a common vegetable throughout south and southeast Asia

Pinellia and scallion decoction

Use: 4 liang scallion bulbs, 1 ge (decilitre) pinellia, ½ liang zhishi (trifoliate orange), 1 liang fresh ginger, ½ snake gourd. Bite and chew. Boil with 3 sheng of “plain minced meat sauce” until reduced to 1 sheng. Administer warm, 3 times a day.