Jan 072019

Today is the birthday (1502) of Ugo Boncompagni who became pope Gregory XIII in 1572. He is best known for commissioning his namesake Gregorian calendar, but his influence in his day was much more widespread. Remember, his lifespan covered the major upheaval in Europe of the Protestant Reformation.

Gregory was the son of Cristoforo Boncompagni (1470 – 1546) and Angela Marescalchi, born in Bologna, where he studied law, graduating in 1530. Later he taught jurisprudence for some years. He had an illegitimate son, Giacomo, after an affair with Maddalena Fulchini, before he took holy orders. At the age of 36 he was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul III (1534–1549), under whom he held successive appointments as first judge of the capital, abbreviator, and vice-chancellor of the Campagna. Pope Paul IV (1555–1559) attached him as datarius to the suite of cardinal Carlo Carafa, Pope Pius IV (1559–1565) made him cardinal-priest of San Sisto Vecchio basilica and sent him to the Council of Trent, which met from 1545 to 1563 to address the crisis in the Catholic church created by the Protestant Reformation and to launch the Counter Reformation.

He also served as a legate to Philip II of Spain (1556–1598), being sent by the Pope to investigate the cardinal of Toledo. It was there that he formed a lasting and close relationship with Philip, which was to become a key component of his foreign policy as Pope, especially in his dealings with England and Ireland.

Upon the death of Pius V (1566–1572), the conclave chose Boncompagni as pope, who assumed the name of Gregory XIII in homage to the great reforming Pope, Gregory I (590–604), surnamed the Great. It was a very brief conclave, lasting less than 24 hours. Many historians have attributed this to the influence and backing of the Spanish king. Gregory XIII’s character seemed to be perfect for the needs of the church at the time. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was to lead a faultless personal life, becoming a model of simplicity. Additionally, his legal brilliance and management abilities meant that he was able to respond and deal with major problems quickly and decisively, although not always successfully.

Once he came pope, Gregory XIII’s rather worldly concerns became secondary and he dedicated himself to reform of the Catholic Church. He committed himself to putting into practice the recommendations of the Council of Trent. He allowed no exceptions for cardinals to the rule that bishops must take up residence in their sees, and designated a committee to update the Index of Forbidden Books. He was the patron of a new and greatly improved edition of the Corpus juris canonici. In a time of considerable centralization of power, Gregory XIII abolished the consistories of cardinals, replacing them with colleges, and appointing specific tasks for these colleges to work on. He was renowned for having a fierce independence; some confidants noted that he neither welcomed interventions nor sought advice. The power of the papacy increased under him, whereas the influence and power of the cardinals substantially decreased.

A central part of the strategy of Gregory XIII’s reform was to apply the recommendations of Trent. He was a liberal patron of the recently formed Society of Jesus throughout Europe, for which he founded many new colleges. The Roman College of the Jesuits grew substantially under his patronage, and became the most important center of learning in Europe for a time. It is now named the Pontifical Gregorian University. Pope Gregory XIII also founded numerous seminaries for training priests, beginning with the German College at Rome, and put them in the charge of the Jesuits.

In 1575 he gave official status to the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of priests without vows, dedicated to prayer and preaching (founded by Saint Philip Neri). In 1580 he commissioned artists, including Ignazio Danti, to complete works to decorate the Vatican and commissioned The Gallery of Maps. Also noteworthy during his pontificate as a further means of putting into practice the recommendations of the Council of Trent is the transformation in 1580 of the Dominican studium founded in the 13th century in Rome into the College of St. Thomas, the precursor of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum.

Pope Gregory XIII is best known for his commissioning of a new calendar started by the Calabrian doctor/astronomer Aloysius Lilius with the aid of Jesuit priest/astronomer Christopher Clavius who made the final modifications. The reason for the reform was that the average length of the year in the Julian calendar was too long. It treated each year as 365 days, 6 hours in length, whereas calculations showed that the actual mean length of a year is slightly less (365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes). As a result, the date of the actual vernal equinox had slowly (over the course of 13 centuries) slipped to 10th March, while the computus (calculation) of the date of Easter still followed the traditional date of 21st March.

This was verified by the observations of Clavius, and the new calendar was instituted when Gregory decreed, by the papal bull Inter gravissimas of 24th February 1582, that the day after Thursday, 4th October 1582 would be not Friday, 5 October, but Friday, 15 October 1582. The new calendar duly replaced the Julian calendar, in use since 45 BCE, although it took centuries to come into universal use, particularly because of resistance in Protestant countries.

Though he expressed the conventional fears of the danger from the Turks, Gregory XIII’s attentions were more consistently directed to the dangers from the Protestants. He also encouraged the plans of Philip II to dethrone Elizabeth I of England, thus helping to develop an atmosphere of subversion and imminent danger among English Protestants, who looked on any Catholic as a potential traitor (right through the reigns of all the Stuart monarchs).

In 1578, to further the plans of exiled English and Irish Catholics such as Nicholas Sanders, William Allen, and James Fitzmaurice FitzGerald, Gregory outfitted adventurer Thomas Stukeley with a ship and an army of 800 men to land in Ireland to aid the Catholics against the Protestant colonies. To his dismay, Stukeley joined his forces with those of king Sebastian of Portugal against Emperor Abdul Malik of Morocco instead.

Another papal expedition sailed to Ireland in 1579 with only 50 soldiers under the command of Fitzmaurice, accompanied by Sanders as papal legate.[citation needed] All of the soldiers and sailors on board, as well as the women and children who accompanied them, were beheaded or hanged on landing in Kerry, in the Smerwick Massacre. Gregory’s greatest success came in his patronage of colleges and seminaries which he founded in continental Europe for expatriate Irish and English Catholics, among others. In 1580 he was persuaded by English Jesuits to moderate or suspend the Bull Regnans in Excelsis (1570) which had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England. Catholics were advised to obey the queen outwardly in all civil matters, until such time as a suitable opportunity presented itself for her overthrow.

After the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of Huguenots in France in 1572, Gregory celebrated a Te Deum mass. However, some hold that he was ignorant of the nature of the plot at the time, having been told the Huguenots had tried to take over the government but failed. Three frescoes in the Sala Regia Palace of the Vatican depicting the events were painted by Giorgio Vasari, and a commemorative medal was issued with Gregory’s portrait and on the obverse a chastising angel, sword in hand and the legend UGONOTTORUM STRAGES (“Overthrow of the Huguenots”).

In Rome Gregory XIII built the magnificent Gregorian chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter, and extended the Quirinal Palace in 1580. He also turned the Baths of Diocletian into a granary in 1575. He appointed his illegitimate son Giacomo, castellan of Sant’Angelo and Gonfalonier of the Church, and Venice, anxious to please Gregory, enrolled him among its nobles. Philip II of Spain appointed him general in his army. Gregory also helped his son to become a powerful feudatary through the acquisition of the Duchy of Sora, on the border between the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples.

Gregory died on 10th April 1585.

Gregory was born, raised, and practiced law in Bologna before moving to Rome, so that a recipe for ragù alla bolognese is suitable even though the first documented recipe comes from the late 18th century – well after Gregory’s time. Can’t have everything. In Italian cuisine this sauce is customarily used to dress tagliatelle al ragù and to prepare lasagne alla bolognese. In the absence of tagliatelle, it can also be used with other broad, flat pasta shapes, such as pappardelle or fettuccine. Genuine ragù alla bolognese is a slowly cooked sauce, and its preparation involves several techniques, including sweating, sautéing and braising. Ingredients include a characteristic soffritto of onion, celery and carrot, different types of minced or finely chopped beef, often alongside small amounts of fatty pork or pancetta. White wine, milk, and a small amount of tomato concentrate or tomatoes are added, and the dish is then gently simmered at length to produce a thick sauce. What is called Bolognese sauce outside of Italy is usually more akin to southern Italian sauces that are heavy with tomatoes, whereas ragù from Bologna is not. Also, ragù is not served with spaghetti in Italy, where the ubiquitous US and UK “spag Bol” is unheard of and unthinkable (much the same as spaghetti and meatballs is an abomination).

The earliest documented recipe for a meat-based sauce (ragù) served with pasta comes from late 18th century Imola, near Bologna. Pellegrino Artusi published a recipe for a meat sauce characterized as being bolognese in his cookbook published in 1891. Artusi’s recipe, which he called maccheroni alla bolognese, is thought to derive from the mid-19th century when he spent considerable time in Bologna (maccheroni being a generic term for pasta, both dried and fresh). The recipe only partially resembles the ragù alla bolognese that is traditionally associated with tagliatelle. The sauce called for predominantly lean veal filet along with pancetta, butter, onion, and carrot. The meats and vegetables were to be finely minced, cooked with butter until the meats browned, then covered and cooked with broth. Artusi commented that the taste could be made even more pleasant by adding small pieces of dried mushroom, a few slices of truffle, or chicken liver cooked with the meat and diced. As a final touch, he also suggested adding half a glass of cream to the sauce when it was completely done to make it taste even smoother. Artusi recommended serving this sauce with a medium size pasta (“horse teeth”) made from durum wheat. The pasta was to be made fresh, cooked until it was firm, and then flavored with the sauce and Parmigiano cheese.

The trick to cooking ragù alla bolognese traditionally is to take your time. Let the meat and vegetables simmer in broth for hour upon hour until the sauce is thick, rich and flavorful. Then let it sit in the refrigerator overnight to let the taste mature. You can follow Artusi’s directions, or add a little tomato paste to the broth. But do not add too much. This is not a Neapolitan sauce. If you are in any doubt, hop a plane to Italy and head to any trattoria in Bologna. You will not find a bad ragù; you will have to wait, though. This is not fast food.

Apr 012018

Last year when I was celebrating moveable feasts on this blog I appear to have omitted Easter Sunday which is the prime moveable feast in Christianity on which most other moveable feasts hang. A serious omission for an ordained minister. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I will rectify the omission now with some academic stuff about the name Easter and the history of celebration, followed by some thoughts on roast lamb.

The modern English term Easter, cognate with modern Dutch ooster and German Ostern, developed from an Old English word that usually appears in the form Ēastrun, -on, or -an; but also as Ēastru, -o; and Ēastre or Ēostre. The most widely accepted theory of the origin of the term is that it is derived from the name of an Old English goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.”

In Latin and Greek, the Christian celebration was, and still is, called Pascha (Greek: Πάσχα), a word derived from Aramaic פסחא (Paskha), cognate to Hebrew פֶּסַח (Pesach). The word originally denoted the Jewish festival known in English as Passover because the crucifixion happened during that festival in Jerusalem. As early as the 50s of the 1st century, Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, applied the term to the crucifixion and resurrection, and it is unlikely that the Ephesian and Corinthian Christians were the first to hear Exodus 12 interpreted as speaking about the death of Jesus, not just about the Jewish Passover ritual. In most of the non-English speaking Christian world, the feast is known by names derived from Greek and Latin Pascha.

The Greek Bible asserts that the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian faith. According to the Greek Bible, first in Paul’s letters, Jesus gave the Passover meal a new meaning, as in the upper room during the Last Supper he prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He identified the unleavened bread and cup of wine associated with the meal as his body soon to be sacrificed and his blood soon to be shed, inaugurating Holy Communion. The events of the first Easter were probably the first written documents of the early Christian community, although they may have circulated orally for some time before they were codified in writing. The earliest full description is in Mark’s gospel, but snippets can be found in Paul’s letters that pre-date any extant gospel. Unfortunately, Paul was not an eyewitness to the crucifixion, but relied on the testimony of those who were – including the disciples. He knew Peter, James, and John well, and also spoke to dozens of people who were in Jerusalem at the time. None of the gospels was written by an eyewitness, and three of them were written a full generation or more after the first Easter. You can get my full analysis of the original written accounts in my book The Thinking Christian, which is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522616044&sr=8-1&keywords=forrest+thinking+christian&dpID=51CpH0e0zJL&preST=_SY445_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

It is likely that Christians immediately after the first Easter continued to celebrate Passover (because they were Jewish), but did so in a way that celebrated Jesus’s death and resurrection. Direct evidence for a more fully formed Christian festival of Easter begins to appear in the mid-2nd century. Perhaps the earliest extant primary source referring to Easter is a Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis (died c.180), which characterizes the celebration as a well-established one.

The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus (c. 380 – 439) attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of a Jewish Christian custom at Passover, “just as many other customs have been established”, stating that neither Jesus nor his Apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. He describes the details of Easter celebrations as deriving from local customs, but says the feast itself is universally observed.

The First Council of Nicaea (325) established two rules, independence of the Jewish calendar and worldwide uniformity, which were the only rules for Easter explicitly laid down by the Council. No details for the computation were specified; these were worked out in practice, a process that took centuries and generated a number of controversies. In particular, the Council did not decree that Easter must fall on a Sunday, but this was already the practice almost everywhere. The rule of thumb is that Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox (customarily set at March 21st ). If I were to go into detail about how this rule was interpreted, I would be writing all year. It is sufficient to say that many calendar reforms, including the Gregorian calendar, came about in order to assess the dating of Easter. Orthodox and Western Christian Easter (Catholic and Protestant) are almost always on different days, and there is little opportunity for Passover and Easter to coincide, not least because Passover does not have to fall on a particular day of the week.

Sometimes scholars will note that the egg and the hare (not the rabbit) were considered special to the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, Eostre or Ostara (who gives us the English word, Easter), and hence Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are syncretisms, much like the association of trees, mistletoe, and holly with Christmas. This is pure wishful speculation. Ēostre is attested solely by Bede in his 8th-century work The Reckoning of Time. At this point there is no way of knowing how eggs and bunnies got tied to Easter.

How lamb was fixed as a traditional Easter dinner is much more obvious, but a little strange theologically. The gospels not only connect the Last Supper with the Passover meal (with lamb as the centerpiece), but John quite expressly states the Jesus is the lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, in the same way that Passover lambs were sacrificed for individuals’ sins. So, not only are you supposed to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ at Holy Communion, but on Easter Sunday you eat the lamb also (although this is a real lamb, not the mystical one). You can make of this what you will.

My family always had roast lamb on Easter Sunday, but in Australia this was nothing special because we ate roast lamb every Sunday. Lamb was cheap meat in those days, and a shoulder or leg for roasting was affordable. We ate roast chicken for special occasions, such as Christmas and birthdays. My mother would put on the roast with some potatoes before we went to church, and then have our Sunday dinner when we returned. I cannot ask her now but I suspect she roasted it at 325˚F for roughly 2 hours (10:30 am to 12:30 pm), which is overcooking by my current standards. In those days English cooks were not fond of roast meats showing any pinkness. Even nowadays, people not accustomed to cooking lamb, treat it like pork, assuming that it must be cooked all the way through to be healthy. This is rank nonsense. You don’t want to cook lamb as rare as roast beef, but, at minimum, the meat should be pink in the center. This way the whole roast is juicy; not dry as it is of cooked all the way through.

My method of roasting lamb is not very scientific, but I think my dinner guests will attest that it is always good. Begin with the roast – a whole leg is best – at room temperature. Make sure it is as dry as possible by wiping the outer membrane with a paper towel. Take several cloves of garlic, peel them, and slice them thinly. With a very sharp paring knife, make shallow slits in the outer membrane and slide a garlic slice into each one. The slits can be as numerous as you want, but I space mine around ½ to 1 inch apart. Then coat the lamb lightly with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle liberally with freshly ground black pepper. I heat my oven to at least 450˚F, or hotter if I can, and roast the leg for between 1 hour and 90 minutes depending on the size. The outer layer browns, and the garlic suffuses the meat.

When the meat is cooked I remove it from the oven, place it on a carving platter, cover it with a foil tent, and let it rest whilst I make the gravy. This step is essential to distribute the juices throughout the meat. I place the roasting pan directly on the stove over medium heat and add as much flour as there is pan juices. I stir the mix with a whisk until I have a roux, and then add a little stock. As the gravy thickens – which it does very quickly – I add more stock until I have the consistency I like. Then I add fresh rosemary, and let the whole pan simmer for about 10 minutes. For variety I sometimes add grated horseradish in place of the rosemary. (Horseradish is one of the bitter herbs of Passover).

For a complete Easter dinner I serve the roast leg whole and carve it at the table. For accompaniments there is the gravy and roast potatoes, which, cooked at that heat, become crisp and brown on the outside and soft on the inside. I usually also roast some whole onions, and maybe some leeks cut into 4 inch lengths, parsnips, and other root vegetables. In addition I have at least one green vegetable, preferably spinach.

A Happy Easter !!!

Feb 252018

Today is the birthday (1670) of Maria Margaretha Kirch (née Winckelmann), a Saxon astronomer, and one of the most famous astronomers of her time due to her observations of the conjunction of the sun with Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter. She was also the first woman astronomer to discover a comet. Maria Kirch could well serve as the poster child of what women in the 17th and 18th centuries had to endure to be recognized as competent scientists.

Kirch, was born in Panitzsch, near Leipzig, and educated from an early age by her father, a Lutheran minister, who believed that she deserved an education equivalent to that given to young boys of the time. By the age of 13 she was an orphan, but she had received a general education from her brother-in-law Justinus Toellner and the well-known astronomer Christoph Arnold, who lived nearby. Her education was continued by her uncle. She continued studying with Arnold, a self-taught astronomer who worked as a farmer in Sommerfeld, near Leipzig. She became Arnold’s unofficial apprentice and later his assistant, living with him and his family.

Through Arnold, Maria met the famous German astronomer and mathematician Gottfried Kirch, who was 30 years her senior. They married in 1692, later having four children, all of whom followed in their parents’ footsteps by studying astronomy. In 1700 the couple moved to Berlin, because the elector/ruler of Brandenburg, Frederick III, later Frederick I of Prussia, had appointed Gottfried Kirch as his royal astronomer.

Gottfried Kirch gave his wife further instruction in astronomy, as he did for his sister and many other students. Women were not allowed to attend universities in Germany, but the actual work of astronomy, and the observation of the heavens, took place largely outside the universities. Thus Kirch became one of the few women active in astronomy in the early 18th century. She became widely known as Maria Kirchin, the feminine version of the family name. It was not unheard of in the Holy Roman Empire for a woman to be active in astronomy at the time. Maria Cunitz, Elisabeth Hevelius and Maria Clara Eimmart had been active astronomers in the 17th century.

Through an edict, Friedrich III introduced a monopoly for calendars in Brandenburg, and later Prussia, imposing a calendar tax. The income from this monopoly was to pay astronomers and members of the Berlin Academy of Sciences which Friedrich III founded in July 1700. Friedrich III also went on to build an observatory, which was inaugurated in January 1711. Assisted by his wife, Gottfried Kirch prepared the first calendar of a series, entitled Chur-Brandenburgischer Verbesserter Calender Auff das Jahr Christi 1701, which became very popular. Calendars and almanacs were popular, not only because they indicated the dates for Easter and related movable celebrations, but also because they gave astronomical information, as well as general knowledge concerning science and other matters.

Maria and Gottfried worked together as a team. She moved on from her position as Arnold’s apprentice, to become assistant to her husband. Her husband had studied astronomy at the University of Jena and had served as apprentice to Johannes Hevelius. At the academy she worked as his unofficial, but acknowledged, assistant. Women’s positions in the sciences was akin to their position in the guilds, valued but subordinate. Together they made observations and performed calculations to produce calendars and ephemerides. From 1697, the Kirchs also began recording weather information. The data collected by the Kirchs was not only used to produce calendars and almanacs, but was also useful for navigation. The academy in Berlin handled sales of their calendars.

During the first decade of her work at the academy as her husband’s unofficial assistant, Kirch observed the heavens, every evening starting at 9pm. During such a routine observation on 21st April 1702 she discovered the so-called “Comet of 1702” (C/1702 H1). In his notes from that night her husband recorded:

Early in the morning (about 2:00 am) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet. I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before.

Germany’s only scientific journal at the time Acta eruditorum was in Latin. Kirch’s subsequent publications in her own name were all in German. At the time her husband did not hold an independent chair at the academy and the Kirchs worked as a team on common problems. The couple observed the heavens together, he observed the north and she the south. Kirch’s publications, which included her observations on the Aurora Borealis (1707), the pamphlet “Von der Conjunction der Sonne des Saturni und der Venus” (on the conjunction of the sun with Saturn and Venus) (1709), and the approaching conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 1712 became her lasting contributions to astronomy. Before her, the only women astronomer in the Holy Roman Empire that had published under her own name had been Maria Cunitz. The family friend and vice-president of the academy, Alphonse des Vignoles said in Kirch’s eulogy: “If one considers the reputations of Frau Kirch and Frau Cunitz, one must admit that there is no branch of science… in which women are not capable of achievement, and that in astronomy, in particular, Germany takes the prize above all other states in Europe.”

In 1709 academy president Gottfried von Leibniz presented her to the Prussian court, where Kirch explained her sightings of sunspots. He said about her:

She is a most learned woman who could pass as a rarity. Her achievement is not in literature or rhetoric but in the most profound doctrines of astronomy. I do not believe that this woman easily finds her equal in the science in which she excels. She favors the Copernican system, like all the learned astronomers of our time. And it is a pleasure to hear her defend that system through the Holy Scripture in which she is also very learned. She observes with the best observers and knowns how to handle marvelously the quadrant and the telescope.

After her husband died in 1710, Kirch attempted to assume his place as astronomer and calendar maker at the Royal Academy of Sciences. Despite her petition being supported by Leibniz, the president of the academy and the executive council of the academy rejected her request for a formal position saying that “what we concede to her could serve as an example in the future.” God forbid that appointing a woman would set a precedent !! In her petition Kirch set out her qualifications for the position. She argued that she was well qualified because she had been instructed by her husband in astronomical calculation and observation. She emphasized that she had engaged in astronomical work since her marriage and had worked at the academy since her husband’s appointment 10 years earlier. In her petition Kirch said that “for some time, while my dear departed husband was weak and ill, I prepared the calendar from his calculations and published it under his name”. For Kirch an appointment at the academy would have not been just a mark of honour, but was vital in securing an income for herself and her children. In her petition she said that her husband had not left her with means of support. The guild tradition of the time did establish a legitimate claim for Kirch to take over her husband’s position after his death. But these traditions were not followed by the new institutions of science.

While Kirch had carried out important work at the academy, she did not have a university degree, which at that time nearly every member of the academy had. But the academy secretary Johann Theodor Jablonski also cautioned Leibniz,

. . . that she be kept on in an official capacity to work on the calendar or to continue with observations simply will not do. Already during her husband’s lifetime the academy was burdened with ridicule because its calendar was prepared by a woman. If she were now to be kept on in such a capacity, mouths would gape even wider.

Leibniz was the only member of the academy council who supported her appointment. In one of the last council meetings he presided over before leaving Berlin in 1711 Leibniz tried to secure financial assistance for Kirch. Kirch was of the opinion that her petitions were denied due to her gender. This position is supported by the fact that Johann Heinrich Hoffmann, who had little experience, was appointed to her husband’s place instead of her. Hoffmann soon fell behind with his work and failed to make required observations. It was even suggested that Kirch become his assistant. Kirch wrote “Now I go through a severe desert, and because… water is scarce… the taste is bitter”. However, she was admitted by the Berlin Academy of Sciences.

In 1711, she published “Die Vorbereitung zug grossen Opposition,” a well-received pamphlet in which she predicted a new comet, followed by a pamphlet concerning Jupiter and Saturn. In 1712 Kirch accepted the patronage of Bernhard Friedrich von Krosigk, who was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, and began work in his observatory. She and her husband had worked at Krosigk’s observatory while the academy observatory was being built. At Krosigk’s observatory she reached the rank of master astronomer.

After Baron von Krosigk died in 1714 Kirch moved to Danzig to assist a professor of mathematics for a short time before returning. In 1716 Kirch and her son, who had just finished university, received an offer to work as astronomers for the Russian czar Peter the Great, but preferred to remain in Berlin where she continued to calculate calendars for locales such as Nuremberg, Dresden, Breslau, and Hungary.

Kirch had trained her son Christfried Kirch and daughters Christine Kirch and Margaretha Kirch to act as her assistants in the family’s astronomical work, continuing the production of calendars and almanacs as well as making observations. In 1716 her son Christfried and Johann Wilhelm Wagner were appointed observers at the academy observatory following Hoffmann’s death. Kirch moved back to Berlin to act as her son’s assistant together with her daughter Christine. She was once again working at the academy observatory calculating calendars. Academy members complained that she took too prominent a role and was too visible at the observatory when strangers visit. Kirch was ordered to “retire to the background and leave the talking to… her son.” She refused to comply and was forced by the academy to give up her house on the observatory grounds.

Kirch continued working in private and died of a fever in Berlin on the 29th December 1720.

Kirch’s home town, Leipzig, is famous for many dishes including Leipziger Allerei (Leipzig Hodgepodge). It is basically a vegetable stew enriched with crayfish and butter. The latter are often omitted in modern versions. Here is a traditional version.

Leipziger Allerei


9 oz/250 g carrots
9 oz/250 g kohlrabi
9 oz/250 g asparagus
9 oz/250 g cauliflower
9 oz/250 g morels
18 oz/500 g fresh peas in pods
vegetable broth
4 crayfish
10 tbsp/150 g butter at room temperature
3 eggs
⅛ tsp nutmeg (or mace)
dried bread crumbs
1.7 oz/50 g flour
salt and pepper


Clean and peel the carrots and kohlrabi and cut them evenly into long strips. Shell the peas. Cook these three vegetables together in salted water until they are barely al dente.

Peel the white asparagus, cut the spears into pieces about 2”(5 cm) long. Simmer them in a light vegetable broth.

Cut the cauliflower into florets and cook in milk, adding butter and salt to taste.

Cut the morels into halves and sauté in butter.

Boil the crayfish, and split into pieces, carefully removing the meat from the tails. Rub the head of the crayfish with salt.

Whisk about 2 ounces of the butter until light. Separate the eggs. Beat the egg whites until foamy. Fold the egg yolks, egg whites, mace and breadcrumbs into the whisked butter and fill the crayfish head with this mixture. Form the remaining mixture into dumplings and cook these in boiling salt water for 5 minutes.

Put about 3½ ounces of the butter and the flour in a skillet over medium-low heat to make a roux, stirring constantly.  Add a little of the asparagus and cauliflower water, and whisk to make a thick sauce.

Brown the remainder of the butter over medium heat in a small pan, and set it aside.

Place the mixed vegetables, except the morels, into a serving bowl. Add some of the roux sauce, then the crayfish tails and dumplings, sprinkle with browned butter, and add the morels, crayfish legs and heads. Pour the sauce over it. Then add the dumplings and crayfish tails. Drizzle everything with brown butter, and arrange the morels, and crayfish heads and claws on top.

Feb 242018

For religious reasons, when the Romans began to add days to some years to bring their calendar into line with the solar year, some time in the late 8th or early 7th century BCE according to legend, they created an extra month called Mercedonius to insert in their special leap years. They chose not to add Mercedonius after February, which was the final month of their year, but within it. February 24—known in the Roman calendar as “the sixth day before the Kalends of March” (a.d. VI Kal. Mart.) —was replaced by the first day of this month because it followed Terminalia, the festival of the Roman god of boundaries: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/boundary-day/ . After the end of Mercedonius, the rest of the days of February were observed and the new year began with the first day of March.

The Roman religious festivals of February were so complicated that Julius Caesar opted for a compromise to maintain the actual dates in February while still adding a leap day to the year one year in four in his 46 BCE calendar reform. The extra day of Julius Caesar’s leap year system was located in the same place as the old 1st of Mercedonius (after February 23rd) but he opted to ignore it as a date. Instead, the sixth day before the Kalends of March was simply said to last for 48 hours and all the other days continued to bear their original names. (The Roman practice of inclusive counting initially caused the priests in charge of the calendar to add the extra hours every three years instead of every four and Augustus was obliged to omit them for a span of decades until the system was back to where it should have been.) When the extra hours finally began to be reckoned as two separate days instead of a doubled sixth (“bissextile”) one, the leap day was still taken to be the one following directly on from the February 23 Terminalia.

Although February 29th has been popularly understood as the leap day of leap years since the beginning of sequential reckoning of the days of months in the late Middle Ages, in Britain and most other countries, no formal replacement of February 24 as the leap day of the Julian and Gregorian calendars has occurred. The exceptions include Sweden and Finland, who enacted legislation to move the day to February 29. This custom still has some effect around the world, for example with respect to name days in Hungary. Confused yet? Technically, in the Gregorian calendar, in leap years February 24th is the extra day, not the 29th. You are excused if you believe that this point is rather abstractly philosophical. Think of it this way. You have a line of 28 blue counters and you insert a red one in the line in the 24th position. You now have 29 counters, but the inserted one is the 24th and not the 29th.

Numa Pompilius

Mercedonius or Mercedinus was also known as Interkalaris or Intercalaris. The leap year into which it was inserted was either 377 or 378 days long. It theoretically occurred every two (occasionally three) years, but was sometimes avoided or employed by the Roman pontiffs for political reasons regardless of the state of the solar year. This month, instituted according to Roman tradition by Numa Pompilius, was supposed to be inserted every two or three years to align the conventional 355-day Roman year with the solar year. The decision on whether to insert the intercalary month was made by the pontifex maximus (chief high priest), supposedly based on observations to ensure the best possible correspondence with the seasons. Unfortunately the pontifex maximus, who would normally be an active politician, often manipulated the decision to allow friends to stay in office longer or force enemies out early. Such unpredictable intercalation meant that dates following the month of Februarius could not be known in advance, and, in addition to this, Roman citizens living outside Rome would often not know the current date.

The exact mechanism for when to insert Mercedonius, and how long it was, is not clearly specified in ancient sources. I do like to focus on calendars other than our Gregorian calendar once in a while, because ours is generally so regular and predictable (and is corrected every so often by leap seconds to keep it synchronized with the solar year to a degree that ordinary people have no need for). Not to mention the fact that the Gregorian calendar has completely swamped all other calendars in the world, although they still show up – mostly for religious purposes. Easter, and allied celebrations from Lent to Pentecost, does give us one shot at being a little bit fast and loose with dates, but most of our celebrations are a little too routine for my tastes. An orderly calendar is comforting, but I am not unfailingly committed to order.

To help create some uncertainty here is an ancient Roman recipe for fried veal from Apicius:

Vitella fricta: piper, ligusticum, apii semen, cuminum, origanum, cepam siccam, uvam passam, mel, acetum, vinum, liquamen, oleum, defritum.

Fried veal: pepper, lovage, celery seed, cumin, oregano, dried onion, raisins, honey, vinegar, wine, liquamen, oil, defrutum.

Ancient Romans ate with their fingers without knives at the table, so after frying your veal you should cut it in strips, and serve it with the sauce. The ingredients for the sauce are straightforward except for liquamen and defrutum. I use Asian fish sauce for liquamen, which was a salty, fermented fish sauce. Defrutum was made by mixing red wine and fresh fruit (often figs), and boiling until the liquid was reduced by a half, straining and bottling. It is a syrupy sauce.

If you mix all of the sauce ingredients together in proportions of you choosing and then marinate the veal in the sauce before frying, you will have a complex dish. It should have a balance of sour, sweet, and salty along with the complex herb and spice mix.


Oct 042016


The Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on 2 October this year, and continues for 2 days. So today is the second day, which ends at sundown. It is traditionally a 2-day festival, although usually it is celebrated on one day only now, because it is pegged to the rising of the new moon and at one time 2 days were needed in case one were cloudy. The day was set locally by what could be physically observed (and still is in some sects). Nowadays, for the most part, astronomical calculations take the place of physical observation, and so can be made years in advance. Unlike the Islamic calendar, which is strictly lunar (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/islamic-new-year/ ), the Jewish calendar is luni-solar. Intercalary days are added to make sure that the lunar months, hence the High Holy Days, keep correspondence with the seasons.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎‎, lit.”head) of the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎‎), lit.”day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (Hebrew: יָמִים נוֹרָאִים‎‎ Yomim Nora’im, lit. “Days of Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32, which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. According to classic Judaism, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year is explained by it being the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Hebrew Bible.

Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), as prescribed in the Torah, following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to “raise a noise” on Yom Teruah. Among its rabbinical customs, is the eating of symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey (for a sweet year to come) to full Rosh Hashanah meals including foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (“custom”), such as the head of a fish (to symbolize the prayer “let us be the head and not the tail”).


The Yamim Nora’im are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Nora’im beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their “slumbers” and alert them to the coming judgment. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. In the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im “days of awe”), penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.

Rosh Hashanah is also the day of “Yom Hadin” (Judgment day). On Yom Hadin, 3 books are opened, the book of life, for the righteous among the nations, the book of death, for the most evil who receive the seal of death, and the third book for the ones living in doubts with “non-evil” sins. The final judgment is not made from Yom Hadin until the start of Yom Kippur, so it is sometimes possible to receive the seal of life by asking for forgiveness (if you are listed in the third book).

Unlike the denominations of Rabbinical Judaism, Karaite Judaism believes the Jewish New Year starts with the 1st month and celebrate this holiday only as it is mentioned in the Torah, that is, as a day of rejoicing and shouting. Additionally, Karaites believe the adoption of “Rosh Hashanah” in place of Yom Teruah is the result of pagan Babylonian influence on the Jews during the period known as the Captivity or Exile (after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the deportations of Jews to Babylonia – 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581) . The first stage in the transformation was the adoption of the Babylonian month names. In the Torah the months are numbered as First Month, Second Month, Third Month, etc (Leviticus 23; Numbers 28). During the Exile Jews began to use Babylonian month names, a fact readily admitted in the Talmud.

Samaritans, in their strict interpretation of the Torah, preserve the biblical name of the festival celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), namely Yom Teruah, and in accordance with the Torah do not consider it to be a New Year’s day.


Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate “Rosh HaShanah” in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.

The shofar is blown in long, short, and staccato blasts that may follow a set sequence:

Teki’ah (long sound) Numbers 10:3;

Shevarim (3 broken sounds) Numbers 10:5;

Teru’ah (9 short sounds) Numbers 10:9;

Teki’ah Gedolah (very long sound) Exodus 19:16,19;

Shevarim Teru’ah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds).

The shofar is blown at various times during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, with the actual sounds varying considerably according to local custom.

Many communities hold a “Rosh Hashanah seder” during which blessings are recited over a variety of symbolic dishes. The blessings have the incipit “Yehi ratzon,” (“May it be Thy will”). In many cases, the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic represents a play on words, a very important aspect of scriptural language. The Yehi Ratzon platter may include apples (dipped in honey, baked or cooked as a compote called mansanada); dates; pomegranates; black-eyed peas; pumpkin-filled pastries (rodanchas); leek fritters (keftedes de prasa); beets; and a whole fish with the head intact. It is also common to eat stuffed vegetables (legumbres yaprakes).


Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed peas, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud: “Let a man be accustomed to eat on New Year’s Day gourds (קרא), and fenugreek (רוביא), leeks (כרתי), beet [leaves] (סילקא), and dates ( תמרי).” Pomegranates are used in many traditions, to symbolize being fruitful like the pomegranate with its many seeds. The use of apples dipped in honey, symbolizing a sweet year, is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.


I’m really fond of leeks prepared in all kinds of ways (I always have them in my refrigerator). Here’s leek fritters. This recipe is Syrian but you can vary the spices according to taste. Aleppo pepper is a variety of Capsicum annuum used as a spice, particularly in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, also known as the Halaby pepper. It starts as pods, which ripen to a burgundy color, and then are semi-dried, de-seeded, then crushed or coarsely ground. The pepper flakes are known in Turkey as pul biber. The pepper is grown in Syria and Turkey, and can be found in some Western markets or online. You can substitute red pepper. I use butter to sauté the leeks at first because I prefer the taste, but olive oil is fine also.


Keftedes de Prasa


2 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 leeks, white parts only (about 12 oz), washed and sliced thinly
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ tsp allspice
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp Aleppo pepper
vegetable oil for shallow frying


Heat the butter (or olive oil) in a skillet over medium heat until it is melted and sizzling but not brown. Add the leeks and salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, until softened. Do not brown. Remove the leeks and put them in a bowl. Clean out the skillet.

Combine the leeks with salt to taste, eggs, breadcrumbs and the spices. Mix thoroughly. You should have a rather wet batter but with some body. You don’t want it so stiff that you can form a ball, nor so loose that it spreads when fried. Adjust the proportions of egg and breadcrumbs as needed and test fry a small fritter to be sure. You need the fritter to cohere.

Heat vegetable oil for shallow frying in a large skillet over medium-high heat and drop the batter by the ladleful in small batches into the oil. Brown on the bottom and flip to brown on the other side. Drain on a wire rack and serve hot.

Oct 032016


By coincidence today is the beginning of the New Year for both the Jewish and Islamic calendars. This coincidence does not happen too often because the calendars are not calculated in the same way. The Islamic calendar is lunar and does not add extra days to help mesh it with the solar calendar. Consequently it drifts back about 11 days relative to the solar calendar each year, meaning that festivals drift slowly through the solar calendar year by year. The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, is only partly lunar. It still keys its main events to phases of the moon, but it adds days to the year so that festivals keep pace with the seasons. Passover is always in Spring, and Rosh Hashanah (New Year) is always in autumn  This kind of calendar is known as luni-solar. The fact that the two calendars mesh today is very unusual. But . . . to make matters worse, both the Jewish and Islamic calendars mark days from sunset to sunset, not midnight to midnight, so special days in those calendars span two days in the Gregorian calendar. This year that’s good for me. I’ll talk about the Islamic New Year today, and the Jewish New Year tomorrow.

The Hijri New Year, also known as Islamic New Year (Arabic: رأس السنة الهجرية‎‎ Raʼs al-Sanah al-Hijrīyah) is the day that marks the beginning of a new Islamic calendar year, and is the day on which the year count is incremented. The first day of the year is observed on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. The first Islamic year began in 622 CE with the emigration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, known as the Hijra. All religious duties, such as prayer, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage, and the dates of significant events, such as celebration of holy nights and festivals, are calculated according to this calendar.

While some Islamic organizations prefer determining the new month (and hence the new year) by local sightings of the moon, most Islamic institutions and countries, including Saudi Arabia, follow astronomical calculations to determine future dates of the Islamic calendar. There are various schema for calculating the tabular Islamic calendar (i.e. not based on physical observation), which results in differences of typically one or even two days between countries using such schema and those that use lunar sightings. For example, the The Umm al-Qura Calendar used in Saudi Arabia was reformed several times in recent years. The current scheme was introduced in 1423 AH (15 March 2002).

Basing a calendar on local lunar sightings is, to a degree, more sensible than basing it on calculations that hold true for Saudi Arabia, but not for the rest of the world. The Gregorian calendar works that way. Time zones are based on the sun’s relative position, so when it is 4 am on Monday here in Italy it is 10 pm on Sunday in New York. We manage. If the whole world’s calendar were linked to Greenwich Mean Time (in London) the world would be in a royal mess. Beijing is 5 hours ahead of Mecca, so if Chinese Muslims (of which there are millions, courtesy of the Mongols) followed a calendar based on moon sightings in Saudi Arabia, they’d be performing half of their required prayers in the middle of the night. That’s what happens when global telecommunications become normal. I began my birthday celebration at midnight on 30 March in China, even though it was 1 pm on 29 March at that time in Buenos Aires where I was born. When the actual time of my birth rolled around (9 pm) it was already the morning of 31 March in Kunming. My birthday goes from midnight to midnight where I am at the time.

The first day of the new Islamic year is not an especially important day in the calendar, but it is the beginning of the second holiest month (after Ramadan) – Muharram – which is important. The word “Muharram” means “forbidden,” and some Muslims fast during this month. The 10th day of Muharram is the Day of Ashura, which to Shi’a Muslims is part of the Mourning of Muharram.

Sunni Muslims fast on this day, because it is recorded in the hadith that Musa (Moses) and his people gained a victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh on the 10th day of Muharram; accordingly Muhammad asked Muslims to fast on this day (Ashura) and on the day before (Tasu’a). More about those days in other posts.


Shi’a Muslims during Muharram do different things and with different intentions. They observe and respect Muharram as the month when Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet and son of Ali, was killed in the Battle of Karbala. They mourn for Hussein ibn Ali and refrain from all joyous events. Unlike Sunni Muslims, the Shi’a do not fast in this month. In addition there is an important Ziyarat book, the Ziyarat Ashura about Hussein ibn Ali. In the Shi’a sect it is popular to read this ziyarat on the “Day of Ashura”, although many of the Shi’a try to read Ziyarat Ashura every day and they send salutations to Husayn ibn Ali.


Say goodbye to 1437 AH at sundown and hello to 1438. What to do about a recipe? This is a little tricky because for Sunnis this is the beginning of fasting, but for Shi’a it is not. Even so, finding a Shi’a recipe is much like finding a Jewish recipe (tomorrow’s problem). The Shi’a, like Jews, eat what’s common in the culture that is home to them. So, if you search for Shi’a recipes on the internet you’ll find some Iraqi ones, even though the Shi’a/Sunni conflict in that country is well known. Iraqi Shi’a are the majority. But you’ll also find Iranian, Pakistani, and Lebanese recipes. Furthermore, you’ll find Italian and Chinese dishes along with hamburgers and hot dogs. The only common denominator is the avoidance of pork and eating halal meats.  On one Shi’a chat room I found, someone was asking for Shi’a recipes and a member posted this:

get pizza from local store, put it in oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes and then eat it. :!!!

So much for “authentic” recipes. Here is Murtabak (martabak, mutabbaq) (Arabic: مطبق‎‎) a stuffed pancake or pan-fried bread which originated in Yemen but which is now commonly found in Saudi Arabia (especially the Tihamah and the Hejaz regions), India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand, being spread by Muslims. Depending on the location, the name and ingredients can significantly vary. The name mutabbaq (or sometimes mutabbag) in Arabic means “folded.” Sometimes murtabak is served simply as a fried, spicy bread, but most often it is stuffed with a meat and vegetable mixture. I am using a Yemeni spice blend here (hawaij) but you can just see the recipe and add the spices separately. The recipe is a real rigmarole, but not that complex if you read the recipe carefully and follow the steps.





300g all purpose flour
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp salt


300g ground mutton (or beef)
12 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
1 tsp hawaij (see below)
1 onion, peeled and sliced
10 green onions, chopped
extra salt, sugar, white pepper, vegetable oil
4 duck eggs, beaten
3 chicken eggs, beaten


½ cup vinegar
1 cucumber
4-5 shallots

Martabak Sauce

75g palm sugar
25g granulated sugar
10 bird-eye chiles, chopped (or to taste)
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
2 tbsp lemon juice


First make the flour dough. Place the flour in a mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Place ½ teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil into the well, then pour in 190ml of slightly warm water a little at a time, whilst folding in the flour to make a dough. Once you have a firm, slightly sticky ball, knead it with your hands until it is smooth (about 20 minutes). Divide the dough into 8 and roll the pieces into little balls. Immerse the balls in vegetable oil and let them rest and soak for at least 1 hour.

For the pickle, bring ½ cup of vinegar (I prefer rice wine vinegar), 1 cup of water, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, and 3-4 tablespoons of granulated sugar to the boil. Peel a cucumber, remove the seeds, and chop. Peel and chop an equal amount of shallots. Place in a non-reactive bowl and pour over the boiling vinegar mix. Refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight.

For the filling, put a little vegetable oil in a big skillet, heat over medium heat and add the sliced onion and shallots. Sauté until wilted, then add the ground mutton (or beef), Add in ½ tsp of sugar and the hawaij blend, plus salt and pepper to taste. Continue to sauté for a few minutes, then add the green onions. Continue to sauté for an additional minute or two.

For the martabak sauce. Heat 300ml of water in a pan. Add in 75 grams of palm sugar and 25 grams of granulated sugar. Stir to dissolve and add the chile and garlic. Continue to cook over medium heat until thickened. Add the lemon juice at the end and remove from the heat.

To prepare the martabak.  Remove the dough balls from the oil, and heat the oil in a heavy skillet to 160°C. Flatten each dough ball with the palm of your hand and then stretch it out by pulling with your fingers to form thin flat disks. This takes a lot of practice. You can cheat with a rolling pin.

Combine the beaten eggs with the meat and onion filling mix. Divide the filling by eye between the 8  disks (about 2 tablespoons each), and place the filling in the middle of each disk. Fold over the tops then the sides of each disk to form a square package. Press down a little on the package, then fry them in batches until golden on all sides. Serve hot with pickles and sauce (for dipping).



¼ cup ground cumin
1 tbsp ground cardamom
2 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp ground coriander
¼ cup freshly ground black pepper


You can simply mix the ingredients and store them in an airtight jar, or, as some Yemeni cooks do, toast the ingredients first for a few minutes and then store them.

Sep 222016


Today is the September equinox this year (2016). The September equinox (or Southward equinox) is the moment when the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator, heading southward (it’s the earth that is moving – not the sun !!). Due to differences between the calendar year and the tropical year, the September equinox can occur at any time from the 21st to the 24th day of September, so this day counts as a movable feast (sort of). At the equinox, the Sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west. As the Southward equinox approaches, the Sun rises and sets less and less to the north, and afterwards, it rises and sets more and more to the south. Technically the equinox is the precise moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator, but for practical purposes we call the day when this occurs the equinox. It is the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere and the vernal equinox in the southern.

In the northern hemisphere the autumnal equinox is nowhere near as big of a deal as the vernal equinox is. The northern vernal equinox is associated with Passover, Easter, Spring and all of that. The autumnal equinox is loosely associated with harvest festivals in northern Europe, especially Britain, but these are tied more to the full moon in September (the Harvest Moon) than to the equinox per se. The equinox is merely a convenient way of dating the moon as being in September, and has no other significance.


Like most British calendar customs, we know about harvest festivals mostly from the 19th century when they were on their last legs. A play by Thomas Nashe, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, (first published in London in 1600 but believed from internal evidence to have been first performed in October 1592 in Croydon) contains a scene which demonstrates features of a harvest festival that were known down to the 19th century. There is a character personifying harvest who comes on stage attended by men dressed as reapers. He refers to himself as their “master” and ends the scene by begging the audience for a “largesse”. The scene is probably inspired by contemporary harvest celebrations, with singing and drinking prominent. The stage instruction reads:

“Enter Haruest with a sythe on his neck, & all his reapers with siccles, and a great black bowle with a posset in it borne before him: they come in singing.”

Harvest celebrations in the 19th century followed pretty much the same course through rural England. Often the last load brought in from the fields was just a token load and the cart was decorated with ribbons and such, with all the reapers on board. They rode into town and then celebrated with a fair amount of beer. The traditional English song John Barleycorn is a common harvest song, here sung by Steeleye Span:

There are hundreds of versions. I know the song well, partly because my essay on its variants and an analysis of its history was what got me into a Ph.D. program in anthropology. The song is a simple allegory about the growing of barley is if it were a man who is buried (sown), resurrected (sprouts), killed (harvested), and then drowned (brewed into beer). I conjectured back when I was a young folklore student, and still believe, that the story was once a Medieval riddle that was made into a broadside ballad and then passed into oral tradition as a song.

The Southward equinox was New Year’s Day in the French Republican Calendar, which was in use from 1793 to 1805. The French First Republic was proclaimed and the French monarchy was abolished on September 21, 1792, making the following day (the equinox day that year) the first day of the Republican Era in France. The start of every year was to be determined by astronomical calculations following the real Sun and not the mean Sun as in the Gregorian Calendar. So if you are inclined towards old French Republicanism – Happy New Year.


This is Keats’s season:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


So you need to be thinking of grapes, apples, pumpkins, honey and so forth. You know the drill. I’ve just baked an apple crumble for starters. The crumble reminds me a little of shortbread which was a favorite in my family for many years. It was one of the few things my wife knew how to cook. It came to the Appalachians via the so-called Scotch-Irish (Irish Protestants) and she called it Scotch bread. To me it’s a good memory of autumns past. Here’s Mrs Beeton for a good, old-fashioned recipe that still works fine:



  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 lbs. of flour, 1 lb. of butter, 1/4 lb. of pounded loaf sugar, 1/2 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 oz. of sweet almonds, a few strips of candied orange-peel.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream, gradually dredge in the flour, and add the sugar, caraway seeds, and sweet almonds, which should be blanched and cut into small pieces. Work the paste until it is quite smooth, and divide it into six pieces. Put each cake on a separate piece of paper, roll the paste out square to the thickness of about an inch, and pinch it upon all sides. Prick it well, and ornament with one or two strips of candied orange-peel. Put the cakes into a good oven, and bake them from 25 to 30 minutes.

Time.—25 to 30 minutes.

Average cost, for this quantity, 2s.

Sufficient to make 6 cakes.

Seasonable at any time.

Note.—Where the flavour of the caraway seeds is disliked, omit them, and add rather a larger proportion of candied peel.

You can divide the recipe by 4 and make one large shortbread or follow the proportions in general. You can also omit the peel, caraway, and almonds. Plain is just fine.

Jun 072016


Today is the first full day of Ramadan in many parts of the world. The timing of events according to Islamic and Jewish calendars is always a bit tricky for me because this blog uses the Gregorian calendar as its baseline. Not only are Islamic and Jewish calendars lunar rather than solar, making them mesh badly with the Gregorian calendar, but the calculations of when days begin and end is also different. The Gregorian calendar uses midnight as the changeover point, but the Islamic and Jewish calendars use sunset (using several different definitions). Then there’s the question of whether certain times and dates for events are local or universal. You may recall, if you read the post, that Bahá’í’s, who use a calendar similar to the Islamic one, have fixed all their times and dates to local times in Tehran. This practice won’t work for the Islamic calendar because the faithful need to know prayer times in their local times, otherwise their whole daily routine would be thrown off. There is also the slightly arcane, but endless, debate as to whether times based on phases of the moon should be determined by astronomical charts and calculations, or by actual observations.

What this all comes down to is that I cannot exactly pinpoint for you when the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins (and ends). Without going into a whole song and dance about it I can tell you that today is the first full day of Ramadan in northern Italy, where I currently live, hence the first day of a month of fasting. Although Ramadan began yesterday at sunset, fasting does not begin until sunrise today, and will go on for a full lunar cycle.

The Islamic calendar is fully lunar, unlike the Jewish calendar which is partly lunar and partly solar. Lunisolar calendars, such as the Jewish calendar add intercalary days every so often to make sure that they stay reasonably close to the Gregorian calendar, whereas the Islamic calendar does not. Over time, therefore, Ramadan falls at different times of the solar year, moving back in the Gregorian calendar about 10 or 11 days each year. This year (2016) is especially difficult because the faithful have to fast during daylight hours, and in the northern hemisphere this month sees the longest days of the year, including the solstice. Australian Muslims catch a break, on the other hand.  The closer you live to the equator, the less this is a problem from year to year, but the closer you live to the poles, the more it matters. In my neck of the woods Muslims must finish eating and drinking well before 5 am and cannot resume until somewhat after 9 pm.  I am not Muslim, so this is not of concern to me, but I have friends and relatives who are, and they have already anticipated a trying month.


Ramadan ( رمضان) or Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and the month in which the Quran was supposedly revealed to the Prophet. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The month is spent by Muslims fasting during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset. According to Islam, the Quran was sent down to the lowest heaven during this month, thus being prepared for gradual revelation by Jibreel (Gabriel) to the prophet Muhammad. Therefore, Muhammad told his followers that the gates of Heaven would be open for the entire month and the gates of Hell  would be closed. The first day of the next month, Shawwal, is spent in celebration and is observed as the “Festival of Breaking Fast” or Eid al-Fitr . More about that in one month (assuming that I am posting in early July, which is in doubt at this point).

Islamic fasting involves more than just abstaining from eating during daylight hours. Throughout the duration of the fast itself, devout Muslims abstain from certain actions that the Quran has otherwise allowed, including eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse.[Quran 2:187] This is in addition to the standard obligation, generally observed by Muslims, to avoid that which is not permissible under Quranic or shari’a law at any time (for example, ignorant and indecent speech, arguing and fighting, and lustful thoughts). Without observing these standard obligations, fasting (sawm) is rendered useless and is seen simply as an act of starvation and nothing more. Fasting should be a motive to be more than usually benevolent to one’s fellows. Charity to the poor and needy in this month is especially beneficial.

If one is sick, nursing or traveling, one is considered exempt from fasting. Any fasts broken or missed due to sickness, nursing or traveling must be made up as soon as the person is able, and certainly before the next month of Ramadan. According to the Quran, for all other cases, not fasting is only permitted when the act is potentially dangerous to one’s health – for example, for those who are  elderly, and women who are pregnant, or nursing. They are permitted to break the fast, but this breach must be made up later. However, the question of what those suffering a permanent disease should do has not been fully resolved. One view is that they can waive the obligation to fast if advised by a medical expert. In this case some hold that they can provide a poor person with a meal for each day of fasting waived. Nonetheless, such a delinquent person must be willing to fast when healthy if at all possible.

Some important historical events during Ramadan are generally believed to include:

1 Ramadan, birth of Sayyid Abdul-Qadir Gilani

2 Ramadan, the Torah (Tawrat) was bestowed on Moses (Musa)

10 Ramadan, death of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid – first wife of Muhammad

12 Ramadan, the Gospel (Injil) was bestowed on Jesus (Isa)

15 Ramadan, birth of Hasan ibn Ali

15 Ramadan, In the Ottoman Empire, the sultan presented trays of baklava to the Janissaries in a ceremonial procession called the Baklava Alayı

17 Ramadan, death of Aisha bint Abu Bakr – third wife of Muhammad

18 Ramadan, the Psalms (Zabur) were bestowed on David (Dawood)

19 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib was struck on the head by a sword

20 Ramadan, the Conquest of Mecca by Muhammad

21 Ramadan, Ali bin Abu Talib died due to injuries he sustained by a sword

Laylat al-Qadr is observed during one of the last ten days of the month (on an odd night). Muslims believe that this night, which is also known as “The Night of Power,” is better than a thousand months. This is often interpreted to mean that praying throughout this night is rewarded equally with praying for a thousand months (just over 83 years i.e., a lifetime). Many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer. Sects differ as to the most appropriate night, the 23rd and 27th being the two most popular.

You can find any number of Ramadan recipes online. There are no special limitations on what one can eat beyond the regular prohibitions against eating certain foods such as pork, or drinking alcohol. But if you are not going to eat or drink at all during daylight hours it is as well to plan carefully the pre-dawn meal (suhur) and the sunset meal (iftar). Suhur must sustain you through the day, and iftar must not weigh you down before bed. In the evening, dates are usually the first food to break the fast; according to tradition, Muhammad broke his fast with three dates. Following that, Muslims generally adjourn for the Maghrib prayer, the fourth of the five daily prayers, after which the main meal is served. Sunni and Shia traditions vary on this point.


Social gatherings, many times in a buffet style, are frequent at iftar. Traditional dishes are often highlighted, including traditional desserts, and particularly those made only during Ramadan. Water is usually the beverage of choice, but juice and milk are also often available, as are soft drinks and caffeinated beverages. In the Middle East, the iftar meal consists of water, juices, dates, salads and appetizers, one or more main dishes, and various kinds of desserts. Usually, the dessert is the most important part of iftar. Typical main dishes are lamb stewed with wheat berries, lamb kebabs with grilled vegetables, or roast chicken served with chickpea-studded rice pilaf. A rich dessert, such as luqaimat, baklava, or kunafeh (a buttery, syrup-sweetened kadaifi noodle pastry filled with cheese), concludes the meal.

Baklava is good to serve because of its long association with Ramadan. It is not difficult to make, although I’ve usually bought it from pastry shops because they often make it as well, or better, than I can make at home. It is normally prepared in large pans. Many layers of phyllo dough, separated with melted butter and vegetable oil, are laid in the pan. A layer of chopped nuts—typically walnuts or pistachios, but hazelnuts are also sometimes used—is placed on top, then more layers of phyllo. Most recipes have multiple layers of phyllo and nuts, though some have only top and bottom pastry.


Before baking (180 °C, 30 minutes), the dough is cut into regular pieces, often parallelograms (lozenge-shaped), triangles, diamonds or rectangles. After baking, a syrup, which may include honey, rosewater, or orange flower water is poured over the cooked baklava and allowed to soak in.

Baklava is usually served at room temperature, often garnished with ground nuts.

In Turkey, baklava is traditionally made by filling between the layers of dough with pistachios, walnuts, almonds (parts of the Aegean Region) or a special preparation called “kaymak” (not to be confused with kaymak). In the Black Sea Region hazelnuts are commonly used as a filling for baklava. The city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey is famous for its pistachio baklava and it regards itself as the native city for this dish, though it only appears to have been introduced to Gaziantep from Damascus in 1871. In 2008, the Turkish patent office registered a geographical indication for Antep Baklava, and in 2013, Antep Baklavası or Gaziantep Baklavası was registered as a Protected Geographical Indication by the European Commission. In many parts of Turkey, baklava is often topped with kaymak or, in the summer, ice cream (milk cream flavor, called “kaymaklı dondurma”).


In Armenia, paklava is made with cinnamon and cloves.

In Iran, a drier version of baklava is cooked and presented in smaller diamond-shaped cuts flavored with rose water. The cities of Yazd and Qazvin are famous for their baklava, which is widely distributed in Iran. Persian baklava uses a combination of chopped almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and a rose water-scented syrup and is lighter than other Middle Eastern versions. Azerbaijani pakhlava (made with walnuts or almonds) is widely eaten in Iran, especially in Iranian Azerbaijan.

In Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine, baklava is prepared from phyllo dough sheets, butter, walnuts and sugar syrup. It is cut into lozenge pieces.

Here is one of hundreds of recipes. Normally you buy the phyllo dough frozen. Choice of nuts, flavorings, etc. is entirely up to you. I’ve given a few choices.



For the baklava

1 lb walnuts, almonds, or pistachios, coarsely ground, plus more for garnish
½ tsp ground cinnamon, or to taste
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 lb unsalted butter, melted
16 sheets phyllo dough (thawed), cut in half

For the syrup

3 cups sugar
8 oz honey
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice or rosewater


Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350° F.

Combine the nuts, cinnamon, and breadcrumbs in a bowl.

Brush a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with some of the butter. Layer 10 pieces of phyllo in the dish, brushing each piece with butter before adding the next (keep the remaining dough covered with a damp towel).

Sprinkle a quarter of the nut mixture over the dough. Layer 4 pieces of phyllo on top, brushing each with butter before adding the next; sprinkle with another quarter of the nut mixture. Add 4 more phyllo pieces on top, brushing each with butter, then add another quarter of the nut mixture, 4 more pieces of phyllo with butter, and the remaining nuts.

Layer the remaining 10 pieces of phyllo on top of the nuts, brushing each with butter; brush the top piece with extra butter. Cut into the baklava to make strips, about 1 ½ inches wide. Then make diagonal slices, about 1 ½ inches apart, to create a diamond pattern.

Bake until golden, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Bring the sugar, honey, and 1 ½ cups of water to a full boil in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice or rosewater and boil 2 more minutes. Then let the syrup cool slightly.

Pour the syrup over the warm baklava. Let the syrup soak in, uncovered, at least 6 hours or overnight.

Garnish with extra nuts.

Aug 112013


The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is a very long, cyclic, base-20 and base-18 calendar used by several Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, most notably the Maya. For this reason, it is sometimes known as the Maya (or Mayan) Long Count calendar, even though it was also used by the Olmec and Aztec.

Long Count Sites

Long Count Sites

Using a modified base-20 tally, the Long Count calendar identifies a day by counting the number of days passed since a legendary Mayan creation date that corresponds to August 11, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar. On this day, Raised-up-Sky-Lord caused three stones to be set by associated gods at Lying-Down-Sky, First-Three-Stone-Place. Because the sky still lay on the primordial sea, it was black. The setting of the three stones centered the cosmos which allowed the sky to be raised, revealing the sun. Let there be light!


The long count was broken down into five components:  b’ak’tun, k’atun, tun, uinal (sometimes winal), and k’in.  As shown in the table below 1 k’in is equivalent to 1 day, 1 uinal is equivalent to 20 days, and so forth. It is essentially a base-20 system except for the fact that 1 tun is only 18 uinal (approximately a solar year).

b’ak’tun k’atun tun uinal k’in
Equals 20 k’atun 20 tun 18 uinal 20 kin
Days 144,000 7,200 360 20 1


Today’s date (11 August 2013) in long count is meaning that today is 13 b’ak’tun  0 k’atun  0 tun  11 uinal  13 k’in since the beginning of the earth in Mayan terms. There has been a certain amount of debate concerning the correlation between the Mayan Long Count and modern calendars, but the system I am using is the most widely accepted. It is known as the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson, or GMT, correlation, not to be confused with GMT meaning Greenwich Mean Time! (see post 10 August). The numbered Long Count was no longer in use by the time the Spanish arrived in the Yucatán Peninsula, although named uinals (months) and numbered k’in (days) were still used in a system known as haab’ that consisted of a year of 18 months each with 20 days. The haab’ year was 360 days long, so 5 days were added each year to bring the calendar in line with the sun.   You can use this site to convert Gregorian calendar dates to Mayan Long Count (and haab’ dates).

Long Count dates are written with Mesoamerican numerals, as shown on the pictured table. A dot represents 1, a bar equals 5, and these can be combined. The shell glyph was used to represent the zero.


The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder, and represents one of the earliest uses of the zero in history. There was no zero in the Roman numeral system, and that absence seriously hampered computation. Try doing this simple sum in Roman numerals: MCDXCIX – CCCXXVI = ? (The answer is MCLXXIII if you are interested).

On Mayan monuments, the Long Count syntax is complex. The date sequence is given once, at the beginning of the inscription, and opens with the so-called ISIG (Introductory Series Initial Glyph) which reads in translation “the year-count was revered by the patron of [name of the month]”. Next come the 5 digits of the Long Count, followed by the date in two different Short Counts, plus an optional supplementary set of glyphs containing lunar data for the day, such as the phase of the moon. The text then continues with whatever activity occurred on that date.


The earliest contemporaneous Long Count inscription yet discovered is on Stela 2 at Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico, showing a date of 36 BCE, although Stela 2 from Takalik Abaj, Guatemala might be earlier. Takalik Abaj Stela 2’s highly battered Long Count inscription shows a 7 bak’tun, followed by a k’atun with a tentative 6 coefficient, but it could also be 11 or 16, giving the range of possible dates  as falling between 236 and 19 BCE.


Amateur misunderstanding of the Maya Long Count led to ridiculous prophecies of the world ending on 21 December 2012, the date marking the completion of 12 b’ak’tun. Serious Mayanist scholars dismissed these nonsensical predictions on two grounds. First, there is no hint whatsoever in Mayan records that the end of a b’ak’tun cycle portends anything good or bad.  It is simply the end of a cycle and an excuse for a party much like New Year’s or the turning of a millennium in the West.  Second, 2012 marks the end of only 12 b’ak’tun. There are 7 b’ak’tun more to go before the long count reaches That’s about 2761 years from now. Check back in with me then.


As is well known, the encounter of Europeans with Mesoamerican cultures, especially the Maya and Aztec, vastly diversified fruits and vegetables available.  ALL modern cuisines worldwide rely on vegetables domesticated in the New World.  The Mayans gave the West corn, tomatoes, black beans, chiles, avocados, sweet potatoes, squash, papaya, chocolate, and vanilla.  Here’s a dish I created using only indigenous Mayan ingredients. The annatto adds a fine earthy flavor. Adjust the chiles to suit your abilities with hot stuff. Removing the seeds will reduce the heat. You can use store bought corn tortillas of course, but fresh are best.  You will need a tortilla press to make them yourself. I’ve never had much luck with a rolling pin because the dough is so crumbly.


Black Beans in Tortilla Wrappers

Black Bean Filling


1 cup dried black beans
½ cup fresh corn kernels
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 finely chopped habanero chilis (or other hot chiles)
1 chopped green bell pepper
1 tsp powdered annatto
2 cups water

chopped tomato and avocado for topping


Soak the beans overnight, inspecting them to be sure there are no foreign materials such as small stones.

Heat the oil over medium high heat in a heavy saucepan.  Add the chile, bell pepper, annatto, and salt to taste, and sauté briefly.

Add the beans and continue to sauté for 2 minutes.

Add the water and bring to a gentle simmer.  Cook covered for about 40 minutes and add the corn to the pot. Cook for another 20 minutes, or until the beans are soft. When the beans and corn are cooked, the cooking liquid should be reduced to a thick coating. Keep warm.

Yield: about 2½ cups

Corn Tortillas:


2 cups (500 ml) masa harina (treated corn flour)
1 ½ cups  (400 ml) warm water
pinch of salt


Slowly mix the corn flour and salt with the water until you have a soft, smooth dough. Don’t make it too moist. Cover the dough with a damp cloth.

Pinch off a golf ball sized piece of dough, flatten it, place it between two squares of waxed paper, and squeeze it flat in a tortilla press.

Heat an ungreased heavy skillet or non-stick frying pan over medium heat.

Gently remove the tortilla from the waxed paper with wet hands and place it in the skillet. Cook for about a minute per side.  You are looking for the tortilla to brown and take on some speckled darker spots.

Remove the tortilla and start a stack on a plate covered with a damp cloth.  Repeat.

Yield:  about 15 tortillas


Place a tortilla on the palm of your hand.

Place 2 tablespoons of beans in a line down the middle.  Top with chopped tomatoes and avocadoes.

Roll up and eat.


If you want to be fancy you can roll them up in the kitchen and place them on a serving plate.  But, even so, you really must eat them with your hands. If you like you can also add a fresh salsa made of tomatoes, chiles, and bell pepper pulsed in a blender or food processor.