Jul 022021
 

Today is the birthday (1923) of science fiction writer Cyril Kornbluth whose name probably draws a blank for most people because he died of a heart attack at age 35 in 1958.  I first came across his work when I found a copy of Gladiator-at-Law (co-authored with Fred Pohl) in the flat I was renting in Oxford as an undergraduate, at a time when I thought reading sci-fi was more useful than slogging through Hebrew or Greek Bible texts.  Later I found the rest of his limited oeuvre and lapped it up. He used a variety of pen-names, including Cecil Corwin, S. D. Gottesman, Edward J. Bellin, Kenneth Falconer, Walter C. Davies, Simon Eisner, Jordan Park, Arthur Cooke, Paul Dennis Lavond, and Scott Mariner, but tracking down his short stories is not too difficult these days because they have mostly been collected under his real name.

Kornbluth was born and grew up in the uptown Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, in New York City. He was of Polish Jewish descent, the son of a World War I veteran and grandson of a tailor, a Jewish immigrant from Galicia. According to his widow, Kornbluth was a precocious child, learning to read by the age of three and writing his own stories by the time he was seven. He graduated from high school at thirteen, received a CCNY scholarship at fourteen, and was “thrown out for leading a student strike” without graduating.

As a teenager, he became a member of the Futurians, an influential group of science fiction fans and writers. While a member of the Futurians, he met and became friends with Frederik Pohl, Donald A. Wollheim, Robert A. W. Lowndes, and his future wife Mary Byers. He also participated in the Fantasy Amateur Press Association.

Kornbluth served in the US Army during World War II. He received a Bronze Star for his service in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was a member of a heavy machine gun crew. Upon his discharge, he returned to finish his education at the University of Chicago under the G.I. Bill. While living in Chicago he also worked at Trans-Radio Press, a news wire service. In 1951 he started writing full-time, returning to the East Coast where he collaborated on novels with his old Futurian friends Frederik Pohl and Judith Merril.

Kornbluth began writing for publication at 15. His first solo story, “The Rocket of 1955”, was published in Richard Wilson’s fanzine Escape (Vol. 1, No 2, August 1939); his first collaboration, “Stepsons of Mars,” written with Richard Wilson and published under the name Ivar Towers, appeared in the April 1940 Astonishing. His other short fiction includes “The Little Black Bag”, “The Marching Morons”, “The Altar at Midnight”, “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”, “Gomez” and “The Advent on Channel Twelve”.

“The Little Black Bag” was first adapted for television live on the television show Tales of Tomorrow on May 30, 1952. It was later adapted for television by the BBC in 1969 for its Out of the Unknown series. In 1970, the same story was adapted by Rod Serling for an episode of his Night Gallery series. This dramatization starred Burgess Meredith as the alcoholic Dr. William Fall, who had long lost his doctor’s license and become a homeless alcoholic. He finds a bag containing advanced medical technology from the future, which, after an unsuccessful attempt to pawn it, he uses benevolently.

Many of Kornbluth’s novels were written as collaborations: either with Judith Merril (using the pseudonym Cyril Judd), or with Frederik Pohl. These latter include Gladiator-At-Law and The Space Merchants. The Space Merchants contributed significantly to the evolution of the genre of science fiction from a teenage and young adult audience to a broader and more mature fan base, partly because it was a massive jab in the eye for rabid consumer culture and its devastating effects on the environment – and this was first published sixty years ago !! One wonders what he might have produced had Kornbluth lived longer.  His collaboration with Pohl, Wolfbane (1959), reads like a prequel to The Matrix, and may well have been an inspiration. Dunno. First thing I thought when I saw The Matrix was, “This is a ripoff of Wolfbane” (and I have never seen any credits in this regard). The only problem a modern reader may have with his writing is Kornbluth’s aw-gee-shucks cornball 1950s writing manner. Men piloting rockets to the moon in the 23rd century sound like 1940s Brooklyn street hustlers. Besides collaborations, Kornbluth also wrote several novels under his own name, including The Syndic and Not This August.

The delectable New York pastry of Polish-Jewish origin (like Kornbluth himself) are rugelach. I used to buy them at New York bakeries, but you can make them yourself:

 

Jul 012021
 

Today is Canada Day, once called Dominion Day, celebrating the enactment of the British North America Act in 1867, which confederated Canada, and which was publicly announced with the ringing of the bells at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto and “bonfires, fireworks and illuminations, excursions, military displays and musical and other entertainments.” On June 20 of the following year, governor general, viscount Monck, issued a royal proclamation asking for Canadians to celebrate the anniversary of Confederation, but the holiday was not established statutorily until May 15, 1879, when it was designated as Dominion Day, alluding to the reference in the British North America Act to the country as a dominion. The holiday was initially not dominant in the national calendar, with no large celebrations being held until 1917, and then none again for a further decade—the gold and diamond anniversaries of Confederation, respectively.

In 1946, Philéas Côté, a Quebec member of the House of Commons, introduced a private member’s bill to rename Dominion Day as Canada Day. The bill was passed quickly by the lower chamber but was stalled by the Senate, which returned it to the Commons with the recommendation that the holiday be renamed The National Holiday of Canada, an amendment that effectively killed the bill.


Beginning in 1958, the Canadian government began to orchestrate Dominion Day celebrations. That year, then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker requested that Secretary of State Ellen Fairclough put together appropriate events, with a budget of $14,000. Parliament was traditionally in session on July 1, but Fairclough persuaded Diefenbaker and the rest of the federal Cabinet to attend. Official celebrations thereafter consisted usually of Trooping the Colour ceremonies on Parliament Hill in the afternoon and evening, followed by a mass band concert and fireworks display. Fairclough, who became Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, later expanded the bills to include performing folk and ethnic groups. The day also became more casual and family oriented.

Canada’s centennial in 1967 is often seen as an important milestone in the history of Canadian nationalism and in Canada’s maturing as a distinct, independent country, after which Dominion Day became more popular with average Canadians. Into the late 1960s, nationally televised, multi-cultural concerts held in Ottawa were added and the fête became known as Festival Canada. After 1980, the Canadian government began to promote celebrating Dominion Day beyond the national capital, giving grants and aid to cities across the country to help fund local activities.

Some Canadians were, by the early 1980s, informally referring to the holiday as Canada Day, a practice that caused some controversy. Proponents argued that the name Dominion Day was a holdover from the colonial era, an argument given some impetus by the patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982, and others asserted that an alternative was needed as the term does not translate well into French (jour de domination). Conversely, numerous politicians, journalists, and authors, such as Robertson Davies, decried the change at the time and some continue to maintain that it was illegitimate and an unnecessary break with tradition. Others claimed Dominion was widely misunderstood and conservatively inclined commenters saw the change as part of a much larger attempt by Liberals to “re-brand” or re-define Canadian history. Columnist Andrew Cohen called Canada Day a term of “crushing banality” and criticized it as “a renunciation of the past [and] a misreading of history, laden with political correctness and historical ignorance.”

Canada Day has attracted a negative stigma among First Nations communities and non-Indigenous allies, who feel that it is a celebration of the colonization of Indigenous land. Criticism of Canada Day celebrations were particularly prominent during Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017, with allegations that the commemorations downplayed the role of Indigenous peoples in the country’s history, and the hardships they face in the present day. In 2020, the Indigenous rights group Idle No More organized a series of peaceful rallies on Canada Day against the “ongoing genocide within Canada against Indigenous people”, citing hardships such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, birth alerts, substandard drinking water supplies on First Nations reserves, police brutality, and compulsory sterilization.

In May and June 2021, following the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the site of an Indian residential school in British Columbia, calls for Canada Day festivities to be cancelled or modified out of respect for truth and reconciliation intensified, including discussion on social media using the hashtag “#CancelCanadaDay”. If not already cancelled or modified due to COVID-19 restrictions, Canada Day festivities were cancelled in various communities in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Northern Saskatchewan, while Idle No More announced its intent to again organize peaceful rallies in multiple major cities. Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett stated that she would wear an orange shirt on Canada Day, and acknowledged the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation that will be commemorated as a statutory holiday for the first time on September 30.

Leader of the NDP Jagmeet Singh stated that “While there’s things that we can be proud of, absolutely, there are things that are really horrible, and that are a part of our legacy. It does us a disservice when we ignore the injustice, we ignore the bad parts of our history and the ongoing legacy and the impact of those horrible things that have happened, and continue to happen.”

Genuine Canadian recipes are as hard to find as Australian ones (if you think in terms of immigrants only). Here’s one that works– Nanaimo bars:

Jun 282021
 

 

Today is the feast day of St Vitus, sometimes rendered Guy or Guido, a Christian martyr from Lucania. His surviving hagiography is pure legend and the dates of his actual life are unknown. He has for long been tied to the Sicilian martyrs Modestus and Crescential but in the earliest sources it is clear that these were originally different traditions that later became combined. The figures of Modestus and Crescentia are probably fictitious.

According to his legend, Vitus died during the Diocletianic Persecution in 303. In the Middle Ages, he was counted as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. In Germany, his feast was celebrated with dancing before his statue. This dancing became popular and the name “Saint Vitus Dance” was given to the neurological disorder Sydenham’s chorea. (see also https://www.bookofdaystales.com/dancing-mania/ ) When I was a small boy in South Australia I had to fill out a medical history form each year at school, and one of the illnesses listed that I could check was St Vitus Dance. The connexion with dance led to Vitus being considered the patron saint of dancers and of entertainers in general. He is also said to protect against lightning strikes, animal attacks, and oversleeping. His feast day is celebrated on 15th June where the Julian calendar is used, and on 28th June on the Gregorian calendar.

The veneration of Vitus appeared very early in Rome. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) mentions a shrine dedicated to him. In AD 756, it is said that the relics of St. Vitus were brought to the monastery of St-Denis by Abbot Fulrad. They were later presented to Abbot Warin of Corvey in Germany, who solemnly transferred some of them to this abbey in AD 836. From Corvey the veneration of St Vitus spread throughout Westphalia and in the districts of eastern and northern Germany. His popularity grew in Prague,  when, in 925, king Henry I of Germany presented as a gift the bones of one hand of St. Vitus to Wenceslaus, duke of Bohemia. Since then, this relic has been a sacred treasure in the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

The veneration of St. Vitus became very popular in Slavic lands, where his name (Sveti Vid) is reminiscent of the old god of light, Svetovid. In Serbia his feast day, known as Vidovdan, is of particular historical importance. The day is part of the Kosovo Myth (a founding legend of the country) — the Battle of Kosovo occurred on that day. It was also the day in 1914 when archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated, leading to the First World War (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-great-war/ ). Vitus was the patron saint of the kingdom of Serbia. In Hungary he has been venerated as Szent Vid since the early Middle Ages. In Bulgaria,  is called Vidovden (Видовден) or Vidov Den (Видов ден) and is particularly well known among the Shopi, in the western part of the country. In Croatia, 123 churches are dedicated to St. Vitus.

In the Netherlands, Vitus is the patron saint of Winschoten, as well as of the region of the Gooi, where in each of the three largest towns (Hilversum, Bussum and Naarden), the main Catholic Church is dedicated to St Vitus.

Vitus is represented as a young man with a palm-leaf, in a cauldron, sometimes with a raven and a lion, his iconographic attribute because according to the legend he was thrown into a cauldron of boiling tar and molten lead, but miraculously escaped unscathed.

I am looking to Serbia today for a recipe, partly because Vitus is popular there, and also in remembrance of the assassination there in 1914 (which I did not peg to a specific recipe on that post).  Sarma is Serbian stuffed cabbage. The interesting aspect of the Serbian style is that the cabbage leaves are pickled first, rather than parboiled.

Jun 272021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sobremonte

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

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

Liniers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jun 262021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mango Ice Cream

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

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

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

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

Jun 152021
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brodo de ciceri rosci

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

Red chickpea soup

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

May 122021
 

Today is the birthday (1925) of Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, a legendary baseball catcher, who later took on the roles of manager and coach. He got his nickname when a friend, Jack Maguire, supposedly noticed a resemblance between him and some “yogi,” that is, a person who practiced yoga onscreen. Seems a bit farfetched to me, but that is the story that circulates.  It is also said that he contemplated suing Hanna-Barbera when they came out with the Yogi Bear character in 1958, but dropped the idea after the company claimed the similarity was simply a coincidence. Seems like a stretch to me. It should also be noted that when Berra died in 2015 the original AP obituary copy said that Yogi Bear had died, and AP did not correct the error before a few outlets had printed the mistaken copy.

Berra played 19 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) (1946–1963, 1965), all but the last for the New York Yankees. He was an 18-time All-Star and won 10 World Series championships as a player—more than any other player in MLB history. Berra had a career batting average of .285, while hitting 358 home runs and 1,430 runs batted in. He is one of only six players to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.

Berra was a native of the Hill, an Italian immigrant neighborhood in St. Louis, and signed with the Yankees in 1943 before serving in the United States Navy as a gunner’s mate in the Normandy landings during World War II, where he earned a Purple Heart. He made his major-league debut at age 21 in 1946 and was a mainstay in the Yankees’ lineup during the team’s championship years beginning in 1949 and continuing through 1962. Despite his short stature (5 feet 7 inches [1.70 m]), Berra was a power hitter and strong defensive catcher. Berra played 18 seasons with the Yankees before retiring after the 1963 season. He spent the next year as their manager, then joined the New York Mets in 1965 as coach (and briefly a player again). Berra remained with the Mets for the next decade, serving the last four years as their manager. He returned to the Yankees in 1976, coaching them for eight seasons and managing for two, before coaching the Houston Astros. He was one of seven managers to lead both American and National League teams to the World Series. Berra appeared as a player, coach or manager in every one of the 13 World Series that New York baseball teams won from 1947 through 1981. Overall, he played or coached in 21 World Series, 13 on the winning side. Berra caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series (leading to the iconic photo below). He also holds the all-time record for shutouts caught, with 173.

The Yankees retired his uniform number 8 in 1972; Bill Dickey had previously worn number 8, and both catchers had that number retired by the Yankees. The club honored him with a plaque in Monument Park in 1988. Berra was named to the MLB All-Century Team in a vote by fans in 1999. For the remainder of his life, he was closely involved with the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, which he opened on the campus of Montclair State University in 1998.

Berra quit school after the eighth grade, and has always been known for his malapropisms as well as pithy and paradoxical statements, such as “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” At the time he said this, in July 1973, Berra’s Mets trailed the Chicago Cubs by 9½ games in the National League East. The Mets rallied to clinch the division title in their second-to-last game of the regular season, and eventually reached the World Series. In this context the saying is actually less apt than in an actual game of baseball where the losing side can theoretically make up a deficit in runs, even if it seems impossible, before the game ends.  This is because baseball is measured in outs not by a clock, so that, until the last out is recorded anything can happen.  For example, on June 8, 1989 the Phillies pulled off a memorable comeback win against the Pirates. The Pirates jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the top of the first, prompting announcer Jim Rooker to tell his audience that if the club didn’t win, he would walk back to Pittsburgh. Unfortunately for Rooker, the Phillies, who were having a terrible season, chipped away, pulled to within 11-10 in the sixth, then scored five in the bottom of the eighth to pull off a 15-11 win. Rooker didn’t actually do his cross-state walk that night, but he did make the trip after the season, raising money for charity.

Berra said on several occasions, “I really didn’t say everything I said” which we can all understand as meaning, “not all statements attributed to me are things I actually said” – and which is certainly true.  But . . . as far as I can tell, the following Yogi-isms were things he actually said:

“If you see the fork in the road, take it” Yogi’s explanation was, “It doesn’t matter whether you go left or right at that point because you will wind up at my house either way.” He was giving directions to Joe Garagiola Sr. to his New Jersey home, and it was accessible by two routes.

“It’s déjà vu all over again.” Berra explained that this quote originated when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hitting back-to-back home runs in the Yankees’ seasons in the early 1960s.

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

On why he no longer went to Rigazzi’s, a St. Louis restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” This one makes sense to me when paraphrased: “No one that I know goes there . . .”

“Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”

“Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” This one almost makes sense to me.  Does that mean Yogi’s logic is rubbing off on me?????

Berra’s parents were from Lombardy which means that it is little surprise that he liked tripe, and claimed that tripe salad was his favorite dish. Well, there’s bit of Yogi mixed in here – as well as my justification for this post as a certified tripe afficionado.  Lombardy is not noted for cold tripe dishes, but it does have some famous ones including trippa alla milanese or busecca, and trippa alla lombarda.  You have to head farther south for tripe salad, the most noted being the Sicilian trippa all’insalata (in standard Italian) or trippa a’nzalata (in Sicilian dialect). This recipe assumes that you are starting with the bleached, parboiled tripe you typically get in US and UK stores.

Trippa a’nzalata

Ingredients

2 lb. tripe

For cooking

1 bay leaf
1 whole clove
½ onion
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
1 stalk of celery, cut in 3 pieces
1 carrot, cut in big pieces
skin of ½ lemon
springs of fresh parsley

For serving

juice of 2 medium lemons
1 red onion finely sliced
1 celery heart cut into small pieces
2 small baby carrots finely sliced
5 tablespoons of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
chopped parsley

Instructions

Cut the tripe in strips, about 1 ½ by ½ inch and place in a pot with an abundant amount of lightly salted water with the bay leaf, clove, whole onion, garlic cloves, celery, carrot, few springs of fresh parsley, the lemon skin and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 25 minutes. Check to see if it is cooked to your liking.  This is a crucial step. The tripe needs to be al dente and this stage cannot be achieved with even a rough estimate of cooking time.  It all depends on the quality of the tripe, cooking temperature, humidity, and a host of other variables.  Taste, taste, taste is the only option.

Drain the pot using a colander and discard the bay leaves, cloves, lemon skin, onion, garlic, celery, carrot and parsley springs. Let the tripe cook to room temperature.

Blend the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

In a large bowl mix together the cooled tripe, the finely sliced red onion, celery and carrots, and the vinaigrette. Garnish with some freshly chopped parsley and serve with fresh crusty bread.

Yogi said that he drank cold water with the salad.

May 102021
 

Today is the 8th birthday of this blog – time to reflect on where it’s been and where it’s going.

Two years ago I stopped posting daily, and, curiously enough, the stats have remained fairly stable.  At the outset, back in 2013, daily posting was important for improving the average daily hits, but nowadays whether I post or not has little impact on the number of hits I get.  I passed the 1 million mark last year, but did not feel it was an important enough milestone to celebrate because popularity is not important to me.  I don’t advertise or make money off my posts. I write them to amuse (and inform) myself, and, with any luck, to amuse and inform others.  I get almost no feedback – also fine.  The occasional comment I receive usually has to do with a reader writing to talk about their personal relationship to someone I have highlighted.  My post on Thomas Rolfe, son of Pocahontas, is the most prolific in this regard: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/thomas-rolfe-son-of-pocahontas/  If you pull it up you will see long and detailed comments.

Otherwise, Arthur Rackham https://www.bookofdaystales.com/arthur-rackham/ still occupies the #1 spot for all time hits.  The top 10 does not change much over the years, Cleopatra and Coca-Cola being perennial favs.  Not sure why any of the top 10 merit more hits than others.  Like a good parent, if asked which of my children I like the most I will reply that I love them all.  Well . . . some could be better, I admit, but I would not post about a person or an event if I did not care about them (and I do still tinker with old posts to either correct mistakes, or add a little something extra).  This was one of many reasons why I stopped posting daily: there were a number of days, after 6 years of posting, when I could not find something of interest to write about for that particular day (and others where there were, and are, too many).

Keeping the site running without glitches is a constant challenge.  I have to update plugins and widgets all the time, as well as fix broken links and outdated apps – and also pay for my server and domain name annually – not to mention the occasional headaches associated with the server going down, or else some new technical problem which has to be looked into (requiring more knowledge of IT than is good for me).  All goes to show that the blog is a labor of love. Many thanks to my loyal readers. I intend to post occasionally for the indefinite future, but only sporadically.  I would appreciate it if you would subscribe to the blog (if you have not already) so that you will get notified when I post something new.

When I stopped posting daily, I started a YouTube channel which I post to twice weekly. On Tuesdays I post a video of a recipe that appeals.  Here is my video dealing with Chinese/Cantonese master sauces which had a decent viewing when I put it up:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN_UrpBgIv8

 

May 092021
 

Today is the birthday (1800) of John H. Brown, well known abolitionist activist and martyr. Brown felt that violence was necessary to end slavery, given that years of speeches, sermons, petitions, and moral persuasion had failed. Although he died in the cause, he was proven correct in that it took a civil war to end slavery in the US. Brown was a deeply religious man more than anything else, believing he was raised up by God to strike the death blow to slavery.  He said on many occasions:  “I am an instrument of God.”

Brown first gained national attention when he led anti-slavery volunteers and his own sons during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of the late 1850s, a state-level civil war over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. He was dissatisfied with abolitionist pacifism: “These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!” On May 24th, 1856, Brown and his sons killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces (May 21), and possibly also to the caning of the Free Kansas supporter, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner (May 22). Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack (June 2) and the Battle of Osawatomie (August 30th , 1856).

In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south through the mountainous regions of Virginia and North Carolina, and he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about. He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but very few slaves joined his revolt. Within 36 hours, those of Brown’s men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2nd, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States. Brown said repeatedly that all of his anti-slavery activities, both in Kansas and Harpers Ferry, were in accordance with the Golden Rule. He declared that the most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal—”meant the same thing.”

Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown’s trial (Virginia v. John Brown), both covered extensively by the national press, escalated tensions that led a year later to the South’s long-threatened secession and the United States’ Civil War. Southerners feared that others would soon follow in Brown’s footsteps, encouraging and arming slave rebellions. In the North Brown was a hero and an icon.  From 1859 until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he was the most famous North American. Union soldiers marched to the new song “John Brown’s Body”, that portrayed him as a heroic martyr whose “truth is marching on,” which evolved into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Newly-freed African-Americans walked to the same song, and they lowered their voices speaking of Brown, as if he were a saint. As Brown’s son, John Brown, Jr., told a visitor just before the raid on Harpers Ferry, “as only force and fire-arms kept slavery outta Kansas, so nothing else will overthrow it in the Southern states.” The visitor added that this was a belief that was “daily gaining adherents.” The violence Brown used makes him a controversial figure even today. He is both memorialized as a heroic martyr and visionary, compared sometimes with Moses or Christ, and vilified as a madman and a terrorist.

Brown was born and raised in Connecticut, although he spent most of his life after the age of 16 in various parts of the U.S.  He was a 4th generation descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrim Peter Brown, making him a New Englander with deep roots. In the 19th century, it was common to bake a special cake on elections days, and also for soldiers in militias when they were assembling for muster.  There is a famous election cake from Hartford, Connecticut in the late 19th century (see photo) whose list of ingredients and recipe looks like something out of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management – enough to feed an army. Suitably scaled down it would work for a celebratory dessert.

Apr 262021
 

Today is Visakh Bochea (វិសាខបូជា), a major Buddhist holy day and a public holiday in Cambodia. The day celebrates three events in the life of the Buddha (Siddhattha Gotama): birth, enlightenment, and death.  These events are commemorated in Buddhist countries, and other nations in Asia, on a variety of days, such as, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/buddhas-birthday/ but in Cambodia, and elsewhere (Sri Lanka, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia), they are all collapsed into one day – the full moon of the lunar month of vesākha. The generic name Vesak, from the Sanskrit Vaiśākha, is used to designate the festival worldwide, and it falls on different days in April or May depending on local custom. This year (2021) the vast majority of Asian countries will celebrate Vesak on May 26th, but, for reasons that are not clear to me, Cambodia is the odd one out. May is more usual: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/may-full-moon/

The actual dates of any events in the Buddha’s life are, of course, completely unknown.  Best guess by modern scholars is that he was active in the 5th century BCE, but pinning down the years, let alone the dates, of his birth and death are impossible at this point. Conflating them together with his day of enlightenment is merely a convenience of observance, and many Buddhist cultures separate out the events for individual celebration.

On Vesak Bochea, devout Buddhists and monks assemble in local temples before dawn with candles for the ceremonial hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers and incense. They are reminders that all things decay or burn out just as life is subject to decay and destruction. Devotees are also encouraged to partake only of vegetarian food for the day and to avoid alcohol. Here in Phnom Penh, stores owned by the devout do not sell alcohol for several days prior to Vesak.  Also, birds, insects, and animals are released by individuals on this day in a symbolic act of liberation – giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. While I understand the symbolism, I have always been troubled by the sight of scores of people lining the Mekong river front, and outside pagodas, selling caged wild birds to be set free.  It’s not so much the caged birds themselves, but the paradoxical karma involved in trapping them in order to liberate them.  Doesn’t it just balance out? (“Here little birdie – I am going to trap you so that I can set you free.”)

Celebrating Vesak also involves making a special effort to bring happiness to the unfortunate such as the aged, the handicapped, and the sick. The devout distribute gifts in the form of cash and food, or volunteering in various charitable homes throughout the country. Vesak is a time of joy and happiness expressed in simple pleasures, and not the great blowout feasts common at other festivals, such as New Year. Vegetarian cooking is the norm. Here is a video giving a recipe for Khmer សម្លម្ជូរ គ្រឿង (samlar machu kreung), a sour lemongrass soup.