Dec 262020

Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration of African-American culture that is held from December 26th to January 1st, culminating in a communal feast called Karamu, usually held on the 6th day. It was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa, including West and Southeast Africa. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966.

Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 during the aftermath of the Watts riots as a specifically African-American holiday. Karenga said his goal was to “give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday [of Christmas] and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” For Karenga, a major figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the creation of such holidays also underscored the essential premise that “you must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution. The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose, and direction.”

According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits”. First fruits festivals exist in Southern Africa, celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice, and Karenga was partly inspired by an account he read of the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama. It was decided to spell the holiday’s name with an additional “a” so that it would have a symbolic seven letters.

During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas. He believed Jesus was psychotic and Christianity was a “White” religion that Black people should shun. As Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so practicing Christians would not be alienated, stating in the 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture that “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday.” Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.

Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba – the seven principles of African Heritage). They were developed in 1965, a year before Kwanzaa itself. These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili word meaning “common”. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, as follows:

Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Kwanzaa celebratory symbols include a mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed: a Kinara (candle holder for seven candlesticks), Mishumaa Saba (seven candles), mazao (crops), Mahindi (corn), a Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) for commemorating and giving shukrani (thanks) to African Ancestors, and Zawadi (gifts). Supplemental representations include a Nguzo Saba poster, the black, red, and green bendera (flag), and African books and artworks – all to represent values and concepts reflective of African culture and contribution to community building and reinforcement. Ears of corn represent the children celebrating and corn may be part of the holiday meal.

Every tradition that we follow was invented at some point in history but some are more durable than others.  These days it is estimated that between 1% and 3% of the African-American community celebrates Kwanzaa.  It did have quite a following in the 1970s but in the following decades the custom dwindled in popularity.  I expect there are multiple reasons for fading interest.  The thing is that you cannot create unity among people by simply asking for it.  There has to be a unifying principle.  Right now I would say that racism and racist violence against African-Americans is the single most prominent unifying factor, and it has caused large demonstrations in multiple cities in the US of late.  But protest, while unifying, is not celebratory.  There is a deep cultural lesson in there.

This video highlights some of the dishes from the African-American community that could be part of a karamu feast with a recipe for succotash. I already gave a recipe for succotash here but it bears repeating.

Dec 242020

Today is Juleaften in Denmark, the main event of Jul (Yule), which spans most of December, and dates back centuries to old Nordic customs.  Before I get into Yule traditions in Denmark – and today’s recipe – I will celebrate one of the most famous Danish painters of the Danish Golden Age, Nicolai Wilhelm Marstrand who was born on this date in 1810.

Marstrand studied at Copenhagen’s Metropolitan School (Metropolitanskolen), but had little interest in books, and left around 16 years of age. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, painter and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Art (Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi) in Copenhagen, was a close friend of Wilhelm’s father, and it was to all appearance Eckersberg who recommended an artistic career for young Wilhelm. Wilhelm had already shown artistic talent, tackling difficult subjects such as group scenes with many figures and complicated composition.

At 16 years of age Marstrand thus began his studies at the Academy under Eckersberg, attending the school from 1826 to 1833. Although his interests had a firm hold in genre themes – depiction of the daily life he observed around him in Copenhagen’s streets, especially middle-class society – he would soon reach for the pinnacle of Academic acceptability: the history painting.

In August 1836 he began the first of his many travels, going by way of Germany to Rome, stopping on the way at Berlin, Dresden, Nuremberg and Munich. In Italy, where he stayed for four years, he painted many idealized depictions of daily life, especially festivities. He returned to Italy several times, the last visit being in 1869, and when in Rome he spent summer months each year in the hill towns Olevano Romano, Civitella and Subiaco. He was enchanted with Italy and with the ways of life of the Italian people. He portrayed a colorful, joyous, and romantic view of them, infused with a newfound ideal of beauty.

He also painted a number of portraits during this first stay in Italy. Among these are portraits of other travelling Danish artists, such as Christen Købke and traveling partner Johan Adolph Kittendorff.

Marstrand returned to Denmark at the end of 1841, stopping in Munich and Paris on the way. In Denmark he strove to bring back that which he learned in Italy, and allow it to develop in his home culture. He became a member of the art Academy on 19th June 1843, after submitting the painting “Erasmus Montanus” as his admissions piece. He became a professor at the Academy in 1848. He endeavored to let his students evolve according to their own skills and interests. Among these were the two most renowned Skagen painters Peder Severin Krøyer and Michael Ancher, as well as Carl Bloch and Kristian Zahrtmann. Marstrand continued to travel regularly around Europe throughout his life, to (London, Vienna, Belgium, but especially to Italy and Rome), at times in the company of such fellow artists such as P. C. Skovgaard and Johan Adolph Kittendorff, or of art historian and critic Niels Lauritz Høyen.

History painting displayed what was grand – classical themes from mythology and history, rather than daily life. The traditions, and the taste of traditional art critics, strongly favored it. It was therefore something to strive for, in spite of Marstrand’s equal skill at depicting more modest themes, and of the enjoyment he had in portraying the crowds, the diversions of the city, and the humor and story behind the hustle and bustle. Marstrand’s creative production, throughout his life, never abandoned this inclination toward displaying the simple life of his times.

In the evening of Juleaften Danes traditionally eat a family meal consisting of roast pork, roast duck, or – more rarely – roast goose, with caramelized potatoes, red cabbage and brown gravy. The dessert should be risalamande, a cold rice pudding dish, with a hot cherry sauce. The name is based on French riz à l’amande meaning “rice with almonds,” although the dessert has a Danish origin (copying French styles of cuisine in the 19th century). Rice pudding is a favorite dessert in Denmark throughout the year, but risalamande is reserved for Juleaften.  A whole almond is added to the dessert, and the person who finds it wins a small prize such as a marzipan pig, a chocolate heart or a small board game. The finder may conceal their discovery as long as possible, so that the rest of the company is forced to eat the entire dish of risalamande, even after they have already eaten a large dinner.

After the meal is complete, (or sometimes before) the family dances around the Juletræ singing Christmas carols and hymns like “Nu er det jul igen” (Now it is Yule again) and “Et barn er født i Bethlehem” (A child has been born in Bethlehem). Thirty years ago I was invited to a Juleaften dinner by some Danes and we all joined hands in a circle around the tree, which was lit exclusively by candles (superb sight, but a fire hazard), and danced while singing.  After the singing the presents are handed out in turn, followed by more snacks and sweets and the traditional Gløgg.

This video gives the general idea of making risalamande, followed by a more detailed recipe:



2.25 dl short-grained white rice
1 dl water
1 l milk
2 vanilla beans
150 g almonds
2 tbsp sugar
5 dl heavy cream
1 can cherry sauce


In a saucepan; add the rice and water. Heat it up and let it boil for about 2 minutes.  Add the milk to the pudding and heat until boiling, stirring constantly. Cut open the vanilla beans, scrape out the seeds and add them to the pot. This is done by slicing the vanilla beans and scrape out the seeds using a knife. Also add 2 tablespoons of sugar and the empty vanilla bean skins.

Cover and simmer on low heat for about 35 minutes. The rice has a tendency to burn to so to stir regularly. Remove the empty vanilla beans. The rice pudding part is now done. Let it cool in the refrigerator before you proceeding.

Heat some water until boiling point and pour it in a small bowl. Add the almonds and let them soak in the hot water for about 5-7 minutes. One-by-one take the almonds up and press them between two fingers so that the peel separates from the almond.  Coarsely chop the almonds and mix them with the cold rice pudding. In a separate bowl, whisk the heavy cream and gently mix the it with the rice pudding. Refrigerate until serving.

Heat cherry sauce in a saucepan until it is warm (not hot).  Divide the rice pudding between bowls and pour the cherry sauce over the top. (The video shows how to make the cherry sauce if you prefer it to readymade).



Nov 142020

Today is the main day of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, usually lasting five days and celebrated during the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika (between mid-October and mid-November). Diwali symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. The festival is widely associated with Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, with many other regional traditions connecting the holiday to Sita and Rama, Vishnu, Krishna, Yama, Yami, Durga, Kali, Hanuman, Ganesha, Kubera, Dhanvantari, or Vishvakarman. Furthermore, it is, in some regions, a celebration of the day Lord Rama returned to his kingdom Ayodhya with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana after defeating Ravana in Lanka and serving 14 years of exile.

In the lead-up to Diwali, celebrants prepare by cleaning, renovating, and decorating their homes and workplaces with diyas (oil lamps) and rangolis. During Diwali, people wear their finest clothes, illuminate the interior and exterior of their homes with diyas and rangoli, perform worship ceremonies for Lakshmi, light fireworks, and partake in family feasts, where mithai (sweets) and gifts are shared. Diwali is also a major cultural event for the Hindu and Jain diaspora from the Indian subcontinent.

The five-day long festival originated in the Indian subcontinent and is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. Diwali is usually celebrated twenty days after the Dashera (Dasara, Dasain) festival, with Dhanteras, or the regional equivalent, marking the first day of the festival when celebrants prepare by cleaning their homes and making decorations on the floor, such as rangolis. The second day is Naraka Chaturdashi. The third day is the day of Lakshmi Puja and the darkest night of the traditional month. In some parts of India, the day after Lakshmi Puja is marked with the Govardhan Puja and Balipratipada (Padwa). Some Hindu communities mark the last day as Bhai Dooj or the regional equivalent, which is dedicated to the bond between sister and brother, while other Hindu and Sikh craftsmen communities mark this day as Vishwakarma Puja and observe it by performing maintenance in their work spaces and offering prayers.

Some other faiths in India also celebrate their respective festivals alongside Diwali. The Jains observe their own Diwali which marks the final liberation of Mahavira, the Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas to mark the release of Guru Hargobind from a Mughal Empire prison, while Newar Buddhists, unlike other Buddhists, celebrate Diwali by worshiping Lakshmi.

Regional traditions for Diwali are extremely diverse. One tradition links the festival to legends in the Hindu epic Ramayana, where Diwali is the day Rama, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman reached Ayodhya after a period of 14 years in exile after Rama’s army of good defeated demon king Ravana’s army of evil. As per another popular tradition, in the Dwapara Yuga Period, Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, killed the demon Narakasura, who was evil king of Pragjyotishapura, near present-day Assam and released 16000 girls held captive by Narakasura. Diwali was celebrated as a significance of triumph of good over evil after Krishna’s Victory over Narakasura. The day before Diwali is remembered as Naraka Chaturdasi, the day on which Narakasura was killed by Krishna.

Many Hindus associate the festival with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and wife of Vishnu. In some popular contemporary sources the start of Diwali is the day Lakshmi was born from Samudra manthan, the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk by the Devas (gods) and the Asuras (demons), a Vedic legend that is also found in several Puranas such as the Padma Purana, while the night of Diwali is when Lakshmi chose and wed Vishnu. Along with Lakshmi, who is representative of Vaishnavism, Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Parvati and Shiva of Shaivism tradition, is remembered as one who symbolizes ethical beginnings and the remover of obstacles.

Hindus of eastern India associate the festival with the goddess Kali, who symbolizes the victory of good over evil. Hindus from the Braj region in northern India, parts of Assam, as well as southern Tamil and Telugu communities view Diwali as the day the god Krishna overcame and destroyed the evil demon king Narakasura, in yet another symbolic victory of knowledge and good over ignorance and evil.

Trade and merchant families and others also offer prayers to Saraswati, who embodies music, literature and learning and Kubera, who symbolizes book-keeping, treasury and wealth management. In western states such as Gujarat, and certain northern Hindu communities of India, the festival of Diwali signifies the start of a new year.

Tales shared on Diwali vary widely depending on region and even within Hindu tradition, yet all share a common focus on righteousness, self-inquiry and the importance of knowledge, which is the path to overcoming the “darkness of ignorance”. The telling of these tales is a reminder of the Hindu belief that good ultimately triumphs over evil.

Sweet treats are common snacks and offerings in households on Diwali.  These four are typical, although the 40 minute claim is a bit of an exaggeration:

Oct 162020

Today is the birthday (1854) of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, noted poet and playwright. Although he wrote in in different forms throughout the 1880s, the early 1890s saw him become one of the most popular playwrights in London. Wilde’s parents were Anglo-Irish intellectuals in Dublin. The young Wilde learned to speak fluent French and German, and at university he proved himself to be an exceptional classicist, first at Trinity College Dublin, then at Oxford. He became associated with the emerging philosophy of aestheticism, led by two of his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin.

After university, Wilde moved to London and was successful in fashionable cultural and social circles (which he savagely lampooned in his plays). As a principal spokesman for aestheticism, he engaged in various literary activities including publishing poetry, and was then invited to tour the United States in 1882. Aestheticism was sufficiently in vogue to be caricatured by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience (1881). Richard D’Oyly Carte, a Gilbert and Sullivan’s impresario, invited Wilde to make a lecture tour of North America, simultaneously priming the pump for the US tour of Patience and selling Wilde as a most charming aesthete to the American public. The tour was originally planned to last four months, but continued for almost a year due to its commercial success

Wilde then returned to London where he worked prolifically as a journalist where he became known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and conversational skill, transforming into one of the best-known personalities of his day. At the turn of the 1890s, he refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporated themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into what would be his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, and combine them with larger social themes, drew Wilde to write drama. He wrote Salome (1891) in French while in Paris but it was refused a license for England due to an absolute prohibition on the portrayal of Biblical subjects on the English stage. Instead, Wilde produced four society comedies – Lady Windemere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband –  in the early 1890s, which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late-Victorian London.

At the height of his fame and success, while The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was still being performed in London, Wilde prosecuted the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel. The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The libel trial unearthed evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with men. After two more trials he was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour, the maximum penalty, and was jailed from 1895 to 1897.

During his last year in prison, he wrote De Profundis (published posthumously in 1905), a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. On his release, he left immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.

Bankrupted by his trials and broken by his imprisonment, Wilde left England for Paris where he died at the age of 46.

The sparkle of his wit lives on in his writing.  These are just a small sampling:

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.
It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

You can never be overdressed or overeducated.

Here is my small self-condemnation for quoting Wilde at all:

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Wilde’s eating habits were not remarkable. He is said to have enjoyed roast duck in particular, but was not inordinately fond of food.  He was more consumed with the conversation at table than with the food itself:

A man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.

After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.

But . . .

I can’t stand people who do not take food seriously.

On that note, the obvious choice of dish to celebrate Wilde is cucumber sandwiches.  If you do not know why read The Importance of Being Earnest. At my college at Oxford, cucumber sandwiches were the afternoon tea staples in Trinity term (anchovy toast for Michaelmas and Hilary). They were a great Victorian favorite, although, strangely, I could not find them listed in Mrs Beeton.  Also, in looking up recipes on the internet, all I could find were concoctions that included cream cheese and other outlandish fillers.  Nonsense.  My recipe is traditional.

Cucumber Sandwiches.

Slice white bread thinly and cut off the crusts.

Peel a cucumber and use a mandolin to make paper thin slices. (Your choice whether you remove the seeds).

Lightly butter one piece of bread, layer on the cucumber slices and cover with an unbuttered slice (or buttered if you want to be indulgent). Cut diagonally on both diagonals to form small triangles, and arrange decoratively.

Jul 242020

Today is the birthday (1895) of Robert von Ranke Graves, an Anglo-Irish poet, historical novelist, critic, and classicist. His father was Alfred Perceval Graves, a celebrated Irish poet and figure in the Gaelic revival. Graves produced more than 140 works in his lifetime. His poems, his translations and innovative analysis of Greek legend, his memoir of his early life—including his role in World War I—Good-Bye to All That, and his speculative study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess, have never been out of print. For most of his life Graves earned his living from writing, particularly popular historical novels such as I, Claudius; King Jesus; The Golden Fleece; and Count Belisarius. He was also a respected translator of classical Latin and Greek texts. His versions of The Twelve Caesars and The Golden Ass remain popular for their clarity and entertaining style.

From my teenage years I have been aware of Graves in various guises.  I owned copies of Greek Myths I & II as well as I, Claudius, all of which I read avidly, and in my college years, when I read as many first-hand accounts of World War I as I could, I was absorbed by Good-Bye to All That. The latter captures, for me, the tangled and complex emotions of watching all that you have cherished, admired, and clung to, torn into a million pieces, never to be relived.  For Graves, as for so many youths of his generation, the War was both a coming of age and a shattering of carefully crafted illusions.  I was a Classicist in the 6th form of my grammar school, so I was deeply engaged in Greek and Latin poetry, and was intrigued by the many stories of the classical pantheon.  In that world, Graves’s erudition was helpful.  Greek Myths helped me pick my way through the endless, fragmented source material in Greek, and gave a satisfying coherence to works that were otherwise disjointed and hard to interpret.

Where Graves and I part company is in his analysis of the culture of ancient Greece.  The disagreement arises from two areas.  First, his intellectual inspiration was the anthropology and folklore of the 19th century which is hopelessly outdated (and just plain wrong).  Second, his interpretation of ancient texts is in the service of poetry and poetic inspiration, whereas mine is anthropological.  As I get longer in the tooth, I am less inclined to criticize Graves for his academic point of view, but I, nonetheless, find it grating. By the same token, I am also more inclined to cut him some slack for his academic crimes. He was on the trail of poetic honesty, not prosaic truth.

You can read his biography on Wikipedia if you want the details: .  Here I’ll indulge in some of my favorite quotes followed with a recipe.

There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.

The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat.

One gets to the heart of the matter by a series of experiences in the same pattern, but in different colors.

This seems to me a philosophical question, and therefore irrelevant, question. A poet’s destiny is to love.

The gift of independence once granted cannot be lightly taken away again.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

Graves spent many years of his life living in Mallorca (to escape English culture), and, in fact, died there.  The ensaïmada is a pastry product from Mallorca, now found, in different variants, in southwestern Europe, Latin America and southeast Asia (mainly the Philippines). The first written references to the Mallorcan ensaïmada date back to the 17th century. At that time, although wheat flour was mainly used for making bread, there is evidence that this typical pastry product was made for festivals and celebrations. The ensaïmada de Mallorca is made with strong flour, water, sugar, eggs, mother dough and a kind of reduced pork lard named saïm. The name comes from the Catalan word saïm, which means ‘pork lard’ (from the Arabic shahim, meaning ‘fat’). Here is a video (in Spanish):



Jul 102020

Today is the birthday of Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen, July 10, 1904 or 1907), a Piedmont blues guitarist and singer who was one of the most popular recorded musicians of his era. He was born in Wadesboro, North Carolina, one of ten children of Calvin Allen and Mary Jane Walker. After the death of his mother, he moved with his father to Rockingham, North Carolina. As a boy he learned to play the guitar and also learned from older singers the field hollers, country rags, traditional songs, and blues popular in poor rural areas of North Carolina.

In his teens he worked as a laborer when began to lose his eyesight. By 1928 he was completely blind, and a 1937 eye examination attributed his vision loss to the long-term effects of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis. He turned to whatever employment he could find as a singer and entertainer, often playing in the streets. By studying the records of country blues players like Blind Blake and live performances by Gary Davis, Allen became an accomplished guitarist, playing on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Danville, Virginia; and then Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, playing around the tobacco warehouses, he developed a local following, which included the guitarists Floyd Council and Richard Trice, the harmonica player Saunders Terrell (better known as Sonny Terry), and the washboard player and guitarist George Washington.

In 1935, James Baxter Long, a record store manager and talent scout in Burlington, North Carolina, secured Allen a recording session with the American Recording Company (ARC). Allen, Davis and Washington recorded several tracks in New York City, including the traditional “Rag, Mama, Rag”. To promote the records, Long credited Allen as Blind Boy Fuller and Washington as Bull City Red.

Over the next five years Fuller recorded over 120 records, which were released by several labels. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics were explicit and uninhibited, drawing on every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind African-American man on the streets—pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death—with an honesty that lacked sentimentality.

In 1938 Fuller, who was described as having a fiery temper, was imprisoned for shooting a pistol at his wife, wounding her in the leg. His imprisonment prevented him from performing in “From Spirituals to Swing”, a concert produced by John Hammond in New York City that year. Sonny Terry performed in his place and was the beginning of Terry’s long career in folk music. After Fuller was released from prison, he held his last two recording sessions, in New York City in June 1940, but by then he was increasingly physically weak, and much of the material did not match the quality and energy of his earlier recordings.

Fuller’s repertoire included a number of popular double-entendre “hokum” songs, such as “I Want Some of Your Pie”, “Truckin’ My Blues Away” (the origin of the phrase “keep on truckin'”), and “Get Your Yas Yas Out” (adapted as Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out for the title of an album by the Rolling Stones), and the autobiographical “Big House Bound”, about his time in prison. Much of his material was culled from traditional folk and blues songs. He possessed a formidable fingerpicking guitar style. He played a steel National resonator guitar. He was criticized by some as a derivative musician, but his ability to fuse together elements of traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them in his own performances attracted a broad audience, best remembered for his up-tempo ragtime hits, including “Step It Up and Go”. At the same time he was capable of deeper material, such as, his versions of “Lost Lover Blues”, “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” and “Mamie.” Much of his repertoire and style is kept alive by other Piedmont artists to this day.

Fuller died at his home in Durham, North Carolina, on February 13, 1941 (aged, maybe, 33 or 36).

I have given many North Carolina recipes that I like, and because I lived and did fieldwork in the state for 5 years I have numerous favorites (usually brought out on New Year’s Day): hush puppies, pot-likker soup, greasy greens, hoppin’ John etc. all of which you can search for on this site and will work as a celebratory dish. For me, the dish has to be North Carolina BBQ. Unlike elsewhere in the South it is made with slow-cooked pork, seasoned with a sauce made with apple-cider vinegar, crushed red peppers, and sugar (plus other “secret” ingredients). It is known as “pulled pork” because you can just pull it off the roasting pig in delicious juicy shreds. There are several videos showing North Carolina BBQ pits available, but they are all made by white good ol’ boys who are probably as racist as they come, so I have selected a video from South Carolina. Most South Carolina BBQ is quite different from North Carolina varieties, but this one seems close to me, and is hyper-traditional.

Jul 082020

Today is the birthday (1882) of Percy Aldridge Grainger (born George Percy Grainger), an Australian-born composer, arranger, and pianist who, in the course of a long and innovative career, played a prominent role in the revival of interest in English folk music in the early years of the 20th century. Although much of his work was experimental and unusual, the piece with which he is most generally associated is his piano arrangement of the morris dance tune “Country Gardens” (which was later set to words). Sales of “Country Gardens” music and recordings alone produced a lifetime income for Grainger.  Here he is playing one of his many versions:

Grainger left Australia at the age of 13 to attend the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Between 1901 and 1914 he was based in London, where he established himself first as a society pianist and later as a concert performer, composer, and collector of original folk tunes. As his reputation grew, he met many of the significant figures in European music, forming friendships with Frederick Delius and Edvard Grieg. He became a champion of Nordic music and culture, and this preoccupation with Nordic culture led him to develop a form of English which, he maintained, reflected the character of the language before the Norman conquest. He replaced words of Norman or Latin origin with supposedly Nordic word-forms, such as “blend-band” (orchestra), “forthspeaker” (lecturer) and “writ-piece” (article). He called this “blue-eyed” English. His convictions of Nordic superiority eventually led Grainger, in letters to friends, to express his views in crudely racial and anti-Semitic language. The music historian David Pear describes Grainger as, “at root, a racial bigot of no small order.”

Grainger had an “interesting” relationship with his mother, Rose – one that was often (falsely) seen as incestuous, yet was certainly strangling in many ways. For example, Rose savagely berated any woman who showed interest in Percy, and he made little effort at forming relationships until after her death. Indeed, she committed suicide in 1922 because of persistent rumors of incest. Rose raised Percy alone (because she separated from her philandering husband), taught him at home (as well as hiring private tutors), and traveled the world with him. Some music historians have suggested that he would have been more creative without her early influence, but such counter-factual speculations are worthless.

In 1914, Grainger moved to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life, though he traveled widely in Europe and Australia. His move was almost certainly triggered by a desire to avoid service in the trenches, although he claimed he was concerned about his mother’s health. Regardless, he was roundly condemned in the press for dodging service, but between 1917 and 1918 he served as a bandsman in the US army – playing saxophone and causing a certain amount of hilarity in music circles.
In 1918, Grainger took U.S. citizenship, and in 1921 moved to White Plains, where he lived for the rest of his life.

The music conservatory at my college, Purchase College, SUNY, which is near White Plains, had a small collection of his papers and unusual music machines, but by the 1980s, when I began as an assistant professor, Grainger had fallen from vogue, and there was little interest in celebrating him. Perhaps one day I will indulge in a major rant on how narcissistic and egocentric the academic music world is, and how it drifts constantly with the tide of ephemeral fads. I have yet to meet a professional performer, composer, theorist, or historian who is not utterly self-absorbed. [correction – I know one concert pianist who is a thoroughly decent human being]. Meanwhile, I feel a certain (distant) kindred with Grainger because of his interest in morris dance tunes, along with his Australian heritage, and his residence in White Plains. Inadvertently, I have followed him from Australia to England to New York.

Grainger used to provoke his vegetarian friend, composer Cyril Scott, by eating huge slices of roast beef in his presence. But in 1924, Percy gave up meat entirely and labelled himself a ‘meat-shunner.’ He did not like vegetables, however, and mostly ate fruit pies, boiled rice, ice cream, oranges, and cream cakes. Cream cakes can be made in all manner of ways, but one of the most standard is to make a sponge cake and then fill (and top) it generously with cream:

Jul 072020

Today is the birthday (1860) of Gustav Mahler, an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect, which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 his compositions were rediscovered by a new generation of listeners. Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position he has sustained into the 21st century.

Mahler displayed his musical gifts at an early age. After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of conducting posts of rising importance in the opera houses of Europe, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera (Hofoper). During his ten years in Vienna, Mahler—who had converted to Catholicism to secure the post—experienced regular opposition and hostility from the anti-Semitic press. Nevertheless, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest of opera conductors of all time, particularly as an interpreter of the stage works of Wagner, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Late in his life he was briefly director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

Mahler’s œuvre is relatively limited; for much of his life composing was necessarily a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor. Aside from early works such as a movement from a piano quartet composed when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler’s works are generally designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses and operatic soloists. These works were frequently controversial when first performed, and several were slow to receive critical and popular approval; exceptions included his Second Symphony, Third Symphony, and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony in 1910.

Mahler’s First Symphony has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and was probably also a favorite of Mahler himself, given that he conducted it more often than any other of his works. In fact, he conducted 10 premières in 10 different countries from 1889 (world première) to 1909 (U.S. première). Here is a passable version: The opening is virtually impossible to capture adequately because it is so quiet and yet so complex, but once it gets going the performance is not bad.

Mahler, in his younger days, was a vegetarian. There’s a story, recounted by one of his biographers, about how he was teased by fellow musicians in a restaurant when he refused meat, instead asking for spinach and apples. Mahler might have become vegetarian after reading an essay by Richard Wagner. In 1880 — the same year Wagner published an essay endorsing vegetarianism — Mahler wrote to a friend:

For the last month I have been a total vegetarian. The moral effect of this way of life, with its voluntary castigation of the body, is enormous. I expect nothing less than the regeneration of mankind. I advise you to eat suitable food (compost-grown, stone-ground, wholemeal bread) and you will soon see the fruit of your endeavors.

Eventually, Mahler gave up his vegetarian diet, but a string of health issues meant that he always watched what he ate. We do know, also, that his sister, Justine, baked a prize Marillenknoedel — traditional Viennese apricot dumplings. One of Mahler’s friends, Ludwig Karpath, recalled the composer’s shock at finding out that Karpath wasn’t a fan of Marillenknoedel. “What!” Mahler shouted, “is there a Viennese to whom Marillenknoedel means nothing? You will come with me right away to eat the heavenly dish. My sister Justi has her own recipe for it, and we will see if you remain indifferent.”
There are numerous ways to make Marillenknoedel dough. I have no idea about Mahler’s sister version, but this one is serviceable:

Jul 062020

Córdoba, a city in central Argentina, in the foothills of the Sierras Chicas on the Suquía River, about 700 km (435 mi) northwest of the Buenos Aires, was founded on this date in 1573 by Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, who named it after Córdoba in Andalucia. It was one of the first Spanish colonial capitals of the region that is now Argentina (the oldest city is Santiago del Estero, founded in 1553). The National University of Córdoba is the oldest university of the country and the seventh to be inaugurated in Spanish America. It was founded in 1613 by the Jesuit Order. Because of this, Córdoba earned the nickname La Docta (“the learned”).

Córdoba has many historical monuments preserved from Spanish colonial rule, especially buildings of the Roman Catholic Church. The most recognizable is perhaps the Manzana Jesuítica, declared in 2000 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, consisting of a group of buildings dating from the 17th century, including the Colegio Nacional de Monserrat and the colonial university buildings. Córdoba is also known for its historical movements, such as Cordobazo and La Reforma del ’18 (known as University Revolution in English).

In 1570, Viceroy Francisco de Toledo entrusted Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, with the task of populating and founding a settlement in the Punilla Valley. Cabrera sent an expedition of 48 men to the territory of the Comechingones. He divided the principal column that entered through the north of the provincial territory at Villa María. The expedition set foot on what today is Córdoba on 24th June 1573. Cabrera called the nearby river San Juan (today Suquía). The settlement was officially founded on 6th July of the same year and named Córdoba de la Nueva Andalucía. The foundation of the city took place on the left bank of the river on Francisco de Torres’ advice.

The settlement was inhabited by Comechingones people, who lived in permanent communities called Ayllus. After being consistently attacked by indigenous warriors for four years, the settlement’s authorities moved the town to the opposite bank of the Suquía River in 1577. The lieutenant governor at the time, Don Lorenzo Suárez de Figueroa, planned the first layout of the city as a grid of seventy blocks. Once the city core had been moved to its current location, it acquired a stable population and its economy blossomed due to trade with the cities in the north.

In 1599, the religious order of the Jesuits arrived in the settlement. They established a Novitiate in 1608 and, in 1610, the Colegio Maximo, which became the University of Córdoba in 1613 (today National University of Córdoba), the fourth-oldest in the Americas. The local Jesuit Church remains one of the oldest buildings in South America and contains the Monserrat Secondary School, a church, and residential buildings. To maintain such a project, the Jesuits operated five Reducciones in the surrounding fertile valleys, including Caroya, Jesús María, Santa Catalina, Alta Gracia and Candelaria.
The farm and the complex, started in 1615, had to be vacated by the Jesuits following the 1767 decree by King Charles III of Spain that expelled them from the continent. They were then run by the Franciscans until 1853, when the Jesuits returned to the Americas. However, the university and the high-school were nationalized a year later. Each Estancia has its own church and set of buildings, around which towns grew, such as Alta Gracia.

Córdoba is well known in Argentina for its colaciones, a sweet butter cookie filled with dulce de leche and iced with a lemon glaze. Brush up your Argentine Spanish for this video.

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.