Apr 292017
 

Coincidence Day again. Today is the birthday of Lonnie Donegan (1931), Rod McKuen (1933), and  Willie Nelson (1933). Now . . . let me say at the outset that I am not really a fan of any of them, but they all made waves in their own way, and each represents a strand of music that was popular in certain circles at one time or another.  I’ll go in chronological order, and apologize at the outset for brevity.

Lonnie Donegan, born Anthony James Donegan, is the only one of the three who I have listened to more than casually over the years, not because I like his music, but because there was a time in my life when the radio was relentless, playing “My Old Man’s a Dustman” or “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)” over and over and over. The most important thing to remember about Donegan is that he virtually single handedly created a skiffle style based on recordings from the US, gave the style a (slightly) British flavor, and popularized it to the extent that tens of thousands of British teens wanted to play it. Out of this fad grew the British pop scene of the 1960s. Donegan was the lynch pin of a musical revolution.

Donegan started his musical career as a guitarist and banjo player for jazz bands in his teens. While in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, Donegan sang and played guitar and banjo in their Dixieland set. He began playing with two other band members during the intervals, to provide what posters called a “skiffle” break, a name suggested by Ken Colyer’s brother, Bill, taking the name from the Dan Burley Skiffle Group of the 1930s from the US (American skiffle was an obscure form of country blues). With accompanying music produced by a washboard, tea-chest bass, and a cheap Spanish guitar, Donegan sang classic songs by artists such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. This music proved popular and in July 1954 he recorded a fast version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” featuring a washboard but not a tea-chest bass, with “John Henry” on the B-side. The 1954 version was released as a Ken Colyer Jazzmen record, and Donegan got nothing for it but his session fee. So he released it again in 1956 under his own name. It proved to be a colossal hit. It was the first debut record to go gold in the UK, and it reached the Top Ten in the US.

It was the success of this single and the lack of the need for expensive instruments or high levels of musicianship that set off the British skiffle craze. There were a few bands that enjoyed chart success in the skiffle craze but Donegan remained the king of skiffle. The main impact of skiffle was as a grassroots, amateur movement, particularly popular among working class teens, who could buy or make cheap instruments and use their music to rebel against the drab austerity of post-war Britain.

It has been estimated that in the late 1950s, there were between 30,000–50,000 skiffle groups in Britain. A great many British musicians began their careers playing skiffle in this period, some becoming leading figures in their respective fields. How about Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Mick Jagger, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Ashley Hutchings, Roger Daltrey, Graham Nash and Allan Clarke to hit the tip of the iceberg? The Beatles developed  directly out of John Lennon’s skiffle group the Quarrymen. Here’s a bootleg recording of the Quarrymen singing a cover of Donegan’s “Putting on the Style” on the day in 1957 when Lennon met Paul McCartney. It was #1 on the English charts at the time.

The Beatles still retained elements of skiffle when they first burst on the scene in 1962. I don’t believe that Donegan is ever given enough credit for the revolution he started.

At completely the opposite end of the spectrum is Rod McKuen who, despite being one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s, has had zero influence on music and poetry as far as I can tell. There is a simple reason for this: it is worthless. How he became so popular is a complete mystery to me. Here is an early live version of “Seasons in the Sun” from the 1960s. It is a translation of the Jacques Brel song, “Le Moribond”.

“Seasons in the Sun” is probably McKuen’s best known song, and it has been covered innumerable times. I have no idea why. I’m sure it works well enough in French for a Belgian audience. When I lived for a while in France in 1966 I heard no end of this kind of stuff, and watched movies in the same vein. I suppose it’s cultural.

I’ll give McKuen enormous credit for making a success out of a life with disastrous beginnings. He was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California and never knew his biological father who left his mother before he was born. He was sexually and physically abused by relatives, and raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a violent alcoholic. McKuen ran away from home at the age of 11 and drifted along the West Coast, supporting himself as a ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disk jockey.

To compensate for his lack of formal education, McKuen began keeping a journal, which resulted in his first poetry and song lyrics. After dropping out of Oakland Technical High School prior to graduating in 1951, McKuen worked as a newspaper columnist and propaganda script writer during the Korean War. He settled in San Francisco, where he read his poetry in clubs alongside Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He began performing as a folk singer at the famed Purple Onion, and over time, he began incorporating his own songs into his act. He was signed to Decca Records and released several pop albums in the late 1950s. McKuen also appeared as an actor in Rock, Pretty Baby (1956), Summer Love (1958), and the western Wild Heritage (1958). He also sang with Lionel Hampton’s band. In 1959, McKuen moved to New York City to compose and conduct music for the TV show The CBS Workshop.

In the early 1960s, McKuen moved to France, where he first met the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. McKuen began to translate Brel’s work into English, which led to the song “If You Go Away” – an international pop-standard – based on Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas.” In 1978, after hearing of Brel’s death, McKuen was quoted as saying,

As friends and as musical collaborators we had traveled, toured and written – together and apart – the events of our lives as if they were songs, and I guess they were. When news of Jacques’ death came I stayed locked in my bedroom and drank for a week. That kind of self-pity was something he wouldn’t have approved of, but all I could do was replay our songs (our children) and ruminate over our unfinished life together.

In the late 1960s, McKuen began to publish books of poetry, earning a substantial following among young people with collections like Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows (1966), Listen to the Warm (1967), and Lonesome Cities (1968). His Lonesome Cities album of readings won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968. McKuen’s poems were translated into eleven languages and his books sold over 1 million copies in 1968 alone. McKuen said that his most romantic poetry was influenced by American poet Walter Benton. McKuen has sold over 60 million books and his song titles have sold over 100 million records. I cannot fathom why. The best I can make out is that his poetry and lyrics are simple and sentimental, and this appeals to a segment of the population. I am fully in accord with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Julia Keller when she wrote that his work “drives many people crazy. They find it silly and mawkish, the kind of gooey schmaltz that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class”

The third of our trio, Willie Nelson, is the only one still alive. I’d say he sits somewhere in the middle of the other two in terms of musical impact: not minor, not huge. He started out as a fairly conventional Country singer-songwriter, but over the years has become rather eclectic, but always with a Country bent.  He was born and grew up in Texas, left to be raised by his grandparents after his mother and father left with other partners. His grandparents taught him some music and bought him a guitar when he was 6, and with his sister Bobbie, he sang gospel songs in the local church. He wrote his first song at age 7, and when he was 9, played guitar for the local band Bohemian Polka. During the summers, the family picked cotton but Nelson disliked the job, so he earned money by singing in dance halls, taverns, and honky-tonks from age 13, and continuing through high school.

After high school Nelson bounced around for a while, and in 1956, went from Fort Worth, Texas first to Portland, Oregon, and then on to Vancouver, Washington, where he found a job on KVAN hosting the show The Western Express, and became popular locally, while still doing live performances. During this time he started writing “Family Bible”. His inspiration for the song came from his grandmother, Nancy Elizabeth Smothers, who would sing “Rock of Ages” and read from the Bible after supper. Nelson played the demo of the song that he had recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine for Mae Boren Axton after interviewing her on the show. Impressed by his songwriting, Axton recommended that he go to Nashville and dedicate himself to songwriting full-time. Nelson quit the job at the radio station after being denied a raise in 1957, moving first to Houston and then on to Nashville, joining a long line of aspiring singer-songwriters.

In Houston he sold the rights to “Family Bible” for some quick cash, and it was recorded by Claude Gray in 1959 and released in 1960. It was a modest hit, and, even though Nelson was not credited as the writer, its success persuaded him to move to Nashville, where the song gained him some attention.

Through the first half of the 1960s Nelson had only modest successes. Then he signed with RCA Victor and joined the Grand Ol’ Opry. Although a step up, and his records consistently registered in the Top 25, they always lingered in the low 20s. By 1972 his ranch had burnt down, he had divorced his second wife, and RCA Victor was complaining about the lack of real hits from his records. So he decided to quit the music business and start over. He moved to Austin, Texas, where the burgeoning hippie music scene revived his interest as a singer. His popularity in Austin soared as he played his own brand of country music marked by country, folk and jazz influences. He was transforming into the hippie cowboy.

Nelson signed Neil Reshen as his manager to negotiate with RCA, who got the label to agree to end his contract upon repayment of US$14,000. Reshen eventually signed Nelson to Atlantic Records for $25,000 per year, where he became the label’s first country artist. He formed his backing band, The Family, and by February 1973, he was recording his acclaimed Shotgun Willie at Atlantic Studios in New York City. Shotgun Willie was released in May 1973 and earned excellent reviews. But it did not sell well. The album led Nelson to a new style and he later stated that Shotgun Willie had “cleared his throat”. His next release, Phases and Stages, released in 1974, was a concept album about a couple’s divorce, inspired by his own experience. Side one of the record is from the viewpoint of the woman, and side two is from the viewpoint of the man. The album included the hit single “Bloody Mary Morning.” The same year, he produced and starred in the pilot episode of PBS’s Austin City Limits. From that point on emerged the “Outlaw Country” Willie Nelson we now know.

This trio of singers does not exactly inspire me in the kitchen, not least because their musical ranges and geographic backgrounds are so diverse. The only thing that really ties them together is that they were all making a mark in the early 1960s. Most of what I remember of early 60s party food is rather wretched – cubes of cheese or salami on toothpicks, shrimp cocktail, and the like.  I’ll go with Chicken à la King since it was very popular at the time, and is not desperate. It’s a common standby if you have leftover chicken. It was actually invented some time in the 1880s, and recipes were available in standard cookbooks in the early 20th century. But it became a defining dish in the 1960s. It’s really quick to make. This recipe is my modification from Betty Crocker – which seems appropriate. A cover of a 1960s classic, if you will.

Chicken à la King

Ingredients

3 ½ oz butter
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
3 oz mushrooms, sliced
½ cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
1 ½ cups light cream
1 ½ cups chicken broth
2 cups cooked chicken, cubed
3 oz cooked peas
scallions, sliced (for garnish)

Instructions

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the bell pepper and mushrooms. Sauté until they have softened a little.  Add the flour and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to blend the flour with the butter and continue to sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the broth and cream, whisking to make sure that the flour is combined with the liquids. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly as the sauce thickens. Add the chicken and peas, and heat through. Serve over noodles or plain boiled rice, garnished with scallions.

 

 

 

Apr 232017
 

Today is the first Sunday after Easter, which goes by a wide variety of names depending on ecclesiastical tradition. In Catholic and some Eastern traditions it marks the end of Bright Week during which the resurrection of Jesus is constantly celebrated. In some of those traditions it is called Renewal Sunday, referring to the continual affirmation of the Easter message. It is also called Quasimodo Sunday in some denominations, especially in parts of France and Germany, the name being taken from the day’s introit: — “Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite” (“In the same way that newborn babies long for pure milk”).

In the early church, catechumens were baptized on the Eve of Easter, and on the Sunday following Easter they cast off their white baptismal robes – yet they were still spiritual newborns (needing spiritual milk). In the Anglican tradition it is commonly called Low Sunday which is how I referred to it in church bulletins when I was a pastor. No one knows quite what “Low” refers to – possibly the feeling that the feeling of the celebration of the resurrection is not as great as it was on Easter Sunday. Pastors in general suggest that it refers to church attendance on that Sunday, which is always very low.

In many churches today is called Thomas Sunday following a standard reading of the day John 20:19-31. Here’s the relevant part of the reading:

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I always preached on this passage because there is much more to it than meets the casual reader. First there are a few simple things to elucidate. The name Thomas (Koine Greek: Θωμᾶς) given for the apostle in the Greek Bible is derived from the Aramaic or Syriac: ܬܐܘܡܐ‎ Toma, equivalent to the Hebrew Teom, meaning “twin.” The equivalent term for twin in Greek is Δίδυμος Didymos. So verse 24 is a gloss, not an extension of his name. That is, he was not known as Thomas Didymos, but simply Thomas. A better translation of the verse would be, “Now Thomas . . . which means ‘Twin’ . . .” Giving glosses for Aramaic terms in Greek is very common in the gospels. Verse 26 says that “eight days later” the apostles were gathered again. This uses a standard method of counting days in Aramaic whereby the first and last days are counted. So, Sunday to Sunday is eight days, not seven as we normally count in English.

The crux of the passage for me lies in verses 27 and 28, and, I believe, is mistakenly represented in classic iconography.  Jesus says “Put your finger here . . . etc.” in verse 27 but verse 28 does NOT begin, “So Thomas put his finger in the wounds, and believed . . .” Thomas IMMEDIATELY answers “My Lord and my God.” He not only believes without touching Jesus, but he goes on to assert that Jesus is both his Lord and is God, going beyond the obvious inference that Jesus died and has returned alive. The resurrection was miraculous enough, but one need go no farther than accepting it as proof that Jesus, AS A MAN (only), was killed by the Romans but the grave could not hold him. That’s quite extraordinary enough, and is enough for the other gospel writers. John’s gospel goes a step beyond that inference because of John’s author’s basic belief that Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, setting up the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, in this gospel, Thomas is the first apostle to get the whole story straight. In many traditions, therefore, he is not referred to as “doubting” Thomas, even though at the outset he doubts the testimony of his fellow apostles. Rather, he is seen as a man of extraordinary insight and faith because he goes well beyond what his senses tell him.

Thomas is traditionally believed to have sailed to India in 52 CE to spread the Christian faith, and is believed to have landed at the port of Muziris, (modern-day North Paravur and Kodungalloor in modern-day Kerala state) where there was a Jewish community at the time.He is believed by the St Thomas Christian tradition to have established Ezharappallikal or Seven and Half Churches in Kerala. These churches are at Kodungallur, Palayoor, Kottakkavu (Paravur), Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kollam, and Thiruvithamcode (half church). The 4th century Syriac Christian poet and scholar St Ephrem wrote:

It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India’s painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India.

Thomas is mostly known as the missionary to India through the Acts of Thomas, an early 3rd century work of unknown provenance. The Acts of Thomas connects his Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but Jesus appeared to him in a night vision and said, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.” But the Apostle still demurred, so Jesus overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he put himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares. Thomas’ ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother.

According to the legend, Thomas was a skilled carpenter and was asked to build a palace for the king. However, he decided to teach the king a lesson by devoting the royal grant to acts of charity. Although little is known of the immediate growth of the church, Bar-Daisan (154–223) reports that in his time there were Christian groups in North India which claimed to have been converted by Thomas and to have books and relics to prove it. But at least by the year of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire (226), there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India comprising Afghanistan and Baluchistan, with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity. The Acts of Thomas identifies his second mission in India with a kingdom ruled by King Mahadeva, one of the rulers of a 1st-century dynasty in southern India.

According to the most ancient tradition of the Mar Thoma (“Church of Thomas”) congregations along the Malabar Coast of Kerala State in southwest India, Thomas evangelized this area and then crossed to the Coromandel Coast of southeast India, where, after carrying out a second mission, he was killed in Mylapore near Madras. According to local tradition, Thomas was killed at St.Thomas Mount, near Chennai, in 72 CE and his body was interred in Mylapore. Numerous churches in India claim to possess his relics, and these remains have been moved a number of times.

  

How much of all of this can be taken is legitimate history is open to question. It was certainly quite feasible for Thomas to travel to India, but whether he did or not is another matter. Churches in Cornwall in England claim that both Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea traveled to England (Joseph bringing the Holy Grail with him), but these tales stretch credulity to the breaking point. On the other hand, a trip from the Mediterranean to India was not only possible, but was a regular trade route by sea. The question remains what would have prompted Thomas to make such a trip. The canonical Acts of the Apostles, while not utterly reliable as history gives an account of early evangelizing that accords well with the letters of Paul, who knew the apostles. The narrative in Acts suggests that the apostles, who had been devout Temple-worshipping Jews, were content to remain in Judah and work on proselytizing at home to the Jews, showing that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Jews, whereas Paul, already an itinerant Hellenized Jew, took it as his mission to travel widely outside of Judah, preaching first to Hellenized Jews throughout the Roman empire, and then to Gentiles.  All parties seemed happy with this state of affairs. It, therefore, seems unlikely that Thomas broke ranks and journeyed to India. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries numerous Christian churches sprang up across Europe and Asia and many desired bona fides that they were founded by apostles. Actually, what is astounding to me is that Christianity took firm hold so early in India – certainly by the 2nd century – whether or not Thomas was involved.

Whether or not we can trust the histories, Thomas is most decidedly linked to the region of Kerala, so a local recipe is in order. Kerala is known as the “Land of Spices” because it traded spices with Europe as well as with many ancient civilizations for millennia, the oldest historical records being trade accounts with the Sumerians from around 3000 BCE. Kerala’s cuisine is quite distinctive in India because of the large numbers of both Muslims and Christians living alongside Hindus. Hindus emphasize vegetarian dishes as well as chicken and fish, but Kerala’s large Thomas Christian population has no food restrictions, so meat dishes in the local style are common as well.

Rice and tapioca are the staple foods of Kerala. All lunches and dinners focus on them and they are served with side dishes that can be meat, fish, vegetables, or a mix of all three.A favorite festive dish of Kerala’s Thomas Christians is a well-seasoned chicken stew in coconut milk with cashews. Lamb and duck can replace chicken in the recipe. Coconuts grow in abundance in the region, and both coconut milk and grated coconut flesh are common ingredients and thickeners. Using whole, fresh spices is more traditional than using powdered ones. Sometimes I crush them a little with a mortar and pestle before the cooking process to help release the flavors. In Kerala this would normally be one side dish among many, along with condiments.

Kerala Chicken Stew

Ingredients

1 ½ lb /750 gm chicken with bones (cut into medium size pieces)
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 potato, peeled and cubed
1 carrot, peeled and cubed
1 tbsp thinly julienned, fresh ginger
1 tbsp thinly sliced, garlic
2 or 3 green chiles, cut lengthwise
3 whole black peppercorns
3 whole cardamoms
3 whole cloves
1” cinnamon
3 bay leaves
2 star anise
4 curry leaves
4 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup thick coconut milk
2 ½ cups thin coconut milk
8 cashews
salt to taste
1 tbsp coconut oil

Instructions

Heat the coconut oil over medium heat in a large skillet.  Add the cardamom, cloves, whole peppercorn, cinnamon, star anise and bay leaves and sauté gently for 1 minute.  Add the sliced onion, ginger, garlic, green chiles and curry leaves and sauté until the onion is translucent. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the ingredients to a heavy-bottom saucepan.

Add the chicken pieces, cubed carrots, potatoes, thin coconut milk and salt to taste to the saucepan. Bring to a slow simmer, cover, and cook until the chicken is tender (about 40 minutes).

Meanwhile cover the cashews with hot water and let soak for about 30 minutes. Place them with the water and the thick coconut milk in a food processor or blender, and blend to a smooth paste.

When the chicken is cooked add the cashew and coconut milk paste to the pot, and simmer, uncovered, for a few minutes until the sauce has thickened a little.

Heat the coconut left in the skillet over medium-high heat, add the sliced shallots and curry leaves, and sauté until they are golden. Add them to the stew, simmer an extra minute then serve in a bowl along with plain boiled basmati rice and flat bread.

 

 

Aug 062016
 

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Today is the birthday (1809) of Alfred Tennyson FRS, poet laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, and still one of the most popular of British poets. He was one of the mainstays of my poetry lessons as a teen in Australia – bulwark of empire and British phlegm. A number of phrases from Tennyson’s work have become commonplaces of the English language, including “Nature, red in tooth and claw” ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”, “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” . . . and so forth. However, I sympathize with W. H. Auden’s appraisal of Tennyson even if it is a bit harsh: “There was little about melancholia he didn’t know; there was little else that he did.”

Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. He was born into a middle-class line of Tennysons, but also had a noble and royal ancestry. He and two of his elder brothers were writing poetry in their teens and a collection of poems by all three was published locally when Alfred was only 17. Tennyson was a student at Louth Grammar School for four years (1816–1820) and then attended Scaitcliffe School, Englefield Green and King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827. In the spring of 1831, Tennyson’s father died, requiring him to leave Cambridge before taking his degree. He returned to his father’s rectory, where he was permitted to live for another six years and shared responsibility for his widowed mother and the family.

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Although Tennyson and his family were allowed to stay in the rectory for some time, they later moved to High Beach in Essex in 1837 until 1840. Tennyson then moved to London and lived for a time at Chapel House, Twickenham. In 1842, while living modestly in London, Tennyson published the two volume Poems, of which the first included works already published and the second was made up almost entirely of new poems, which met with immediate success and secured his name.

In 1850, after William Wordsworth’s death and Samuel Rogers’ refusal, Tennyson was appointed to the position of poet laureate. He held the position until his death in 1892, the longest tenure of any laureate before or since. Tennyson fulfilled the requirements of this position by turning out appropriate but often uninspired verse, such as a poem of greeting to Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she arrived in Britain to marry the future King Edward VII. In 1855, Tennyson produced one of his best-known works, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” tribute to the British cavalrymen involved in an ill-advised charge on 25 October 1854, during the Crimean War.

Tennyson initially declined a baronetcy in 1865 and 1868 (when tendered by Disraeli), finally accepting a peerage in 1883 at Gladstone’s earnest solicitation. In 1884 Victoria created him Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth in the County of Sussex and of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight. Tennyson was the first person to be raised to a British peerage for his writing.

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Colonel George Edward Gouraud, Thomas Edison’s European agent, made sound recordings of Tennyson reading his own poetry, late in his life. They include recordings of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and excerpts from “The splendour falls” (from The Princess), “Come into the garden” (from Maud), “Ask me no more” “Ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington” and “Lancelot and Elaine.” Here’s a video of one of his recordings. The animation is awful, as well as being distracting, but if you look away you can get a sense of the man and his poetry in vivo.

Tennyson continued writing into his eighties. He died on 6 October 1892 at Aldworth, aged 83. He was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Though Prince Albert was largely responsible for Tennyson’s appointment as laureate, Queen Victoria became an ardent admirer of Tennyson’s work, writing in her diary that she was “much soothed & pleased” by reading “In Memoriam A.H.H.” after Albert’s death. The two met twice, first in April 1862, when Victoria wrote in her diary, “very peculiar looking, tall, dark, with a fine head, long black flowing hair & a beard, oddly dressed, but there is no affectation about him.” Tennyson met her a second time nearly two decades later, and at that point the Queen told him what a comfort “In Memoriam A.H.H.” had been.

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With Tennyson being the quintessential Victorian it is no surprise that Isabella Beeton mentions him extravagantly:

But Tennyson has ventured beyond dates, and quinces, and syrups, which may be thought easy to be brought in by a poet. In his idyl of “Audley Court” he gives a most appetizing description of a pasty at a pic-nic:—

“There, on a slope of orchard, Francis laid
A damask napkin wrought with horse and hound;
Brought out a dusky loaf that smelt of home,
And, half cut down, a pasty costly made,
Where quail and pigeon, lark and leveret, lay
Like fossils of the rock, with golden yolks
Imbedded and injellied.”

We gladly quote passages like these, to show how eating and drinking may be surrounded with poetical associations, and how man, using his privilege to turn any and every repast into a “feast of reason,” with a warm and plentiful “flow of soul,” may really count it as not the least of his legitimate prides, that he is “a dining animal.”

Tennyson’s poem leads us effortlessly to aspics (Imbedded and injellied), one of the great bulwarks of Victorian fine dining. First I give you Beeton’s basic recipe, which is perfectly serviceable to this day, although a considerable effort.

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Aspic, or Ornamental Savoury Jelly.

  1. INGREDIENTS. — 4 lbs. of knuckle of veal, 1 cow-heel, 3 or 4 slices of ham, any poultry trimmings, 2 carrots, 1 onion, 1 faggot of savoury herbs, 1 glass of sherry, 3 quarts of water; seasoning to taste of salt and whole white pepper; 3 eggs.

Mode. — Lay the ham on the bottom of a stewpan, cut up the veal and cow-heel into small pieces, and lay them on the ham; add the poultry trimmings, vegetables, herbs, sherry, and water, and let the whole simmer very gently for 4 hours, carefully taking away all scum that may rise to the surface; strain through a fine sieve, and pour into an earthen pan to get cold. Have ready a clean stewpan, put in the jelly, and be particular to leave the sediment behind, or it will not be clear. Add the whites of 3 eggs, with salt and pepper, to clarify; keep stirring over the fire, till the whole becomes very white; then draw it to the side, and let it stand till clear. When this is the case, strain it through a cloth or jelly-bag, and use it for moulding poultry, etc. Tarragon vinegar may be added to give an additional flavour.

Time. — Altogether 4–1/2 hours. Average cost for this quantity, 4s.

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Nowadays, the ready availability of commercial gelatin makes this laborious process unnecessary, but I have reproduced it from time to time because the flavor is unbeatable. Poultry or veal in aspic was a mainstay of the Victorian sideboard, as were luscious fruit jellies. They’re not popular any more, and the few times I have made them they’ve not been winners with my guests. They are simplicity itself, however, and worth experimenting with once in a while. I use a plain metal bowl, grease it lightly with clear oil, then put some decorative herbs in the bottom, pack it with cooked chicken, then pour in a good aspic to cover. It needs to chill in the refrigerator overnight. Then, when you are ready to serve, dip the bowl briefly in hot water, then place a plate over the bowl, invert it and give it a few sharp taps to unmold the aspic. With any luck it will come out clean. Serve the aspic sliced on a bed of lettuce or mixed greens.

Jul 292016
 

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Today is the birthday (1805) of Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville  was a French diplomat, political scientist, and historian. He is best known for Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) but also noted for The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). Democracy in America was published after his travels in the United States, and is today often used as an early work of sociology and political science. De Tocqueville was active in French politics, first under the July Monarchy (1830–48) and then during the Second Republic (1849–51) which succeeded the February 1848 Revolution. He retired from political life after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’s 2 December 1851 coup, and thereafter began work on The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Alexis de Tocqueville came from an old Norman aristocratic family with ancestors who participated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. His parents, Hervé Louis François Jean Bonaventure Clérel, Comte de Tocqueville, an officer of the Constitutional Guard of King Louis XVI, and Louise Madeleine Le Peletier de Rosanbo, barely escaped the guillotine due to the fall of Robespierre in 1794. After an exile in England, they returned to France during the reign of Napoleon. Under the Bourbon Restoration, his father became a noble.

De Tocqueville, who despised the July Monarchy (1830–1848), began his political career in 1839. From 1839 to 1851, he served as deputy of the Manche department (Valognes). In parliament, he defended abolitionist views and upheld free trade, while supporting the colonization of Algeria carried on by Louis-Philippe’s regime. De Tocqueville was also elected general counsellor of the Manche in 1842, and became the president of the department’s conseil général between 1849 and 1851. According to one account, Tocqueville’s political position became untenable during this time in the sense that he was mistrusted by both the left and right, and was looking for an excuse to leave France.

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In 1831, he obtained from the July Monarchy a mission to examine prisons and penitentiaries in the United States, and proceeded there with his lifelong friend Gustave de Beaumont. While de Tocqueville did visit some prisons, he also traveled widely in North America and took extensive notes about his observations and reflections. He returned within nine months, and published a report, but the real result of his tour was De la démocratie en Amerique, which appeared in 1835.

You cannot read de Tocqueville without marveling at his insight, but also being impressed with how relevant his observations are down to the present day. De Tocqueville wanted to know if there were any lessons to be learned from the “experiment” in the United States and applied to government in France. At home the old aristocratic order was fading and new democratic ideals were emerging, but the situation was confused and in constant flux. The grand themes of the French Revolution – liberty and equality – were of paramount importance to de Tocqueville, and he sought to understand them better and shed light on them in a deeper way than simply spouting them as slogans. What is liberty? What is equality? Are they always desirable? How can they be balanced? Key questions which he addressed with his probing mind, producing astonishing results.

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This blog is not in the business of advancing political causes, although I do make my views clear on occasion. I’m also not in the business of detailed analysis. Instead I’ll do as I often do; give you some salient quotes to ponder – these are all from Democracy in America [with my occasional comments in square brackets].

The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through.

I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men . . .

There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the lesser to the rank of the greater. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.

“The will of the nation” is one of those expressions which have been most profusely abused by the wily and the despotic of every age.       

Useful undertakings which require sustained attention and vigorous precision in order to succeed often end up by being abandoned, for, in America . . . the people move forward by sudden impulses and short-lived efforts.

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In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils it creates

A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults. [Dubious – discuss !!]

It frequently happens that a man does not undertake to direct the fortunes of the state until he has shown himself incompetent to conduct his own. [followers of Donald Trump take note]

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.

They all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point. [Times change]

I am obliged to confess that I do not regard the abolition of slavery as a means of warding off the struggle of the two races in the Southern states. The Negroes may long remain slaves without complaining; but if they are once raised to the level of freemen, they will soon revolt at being deprived of almost all their civil rights; and as they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies. [Yes, de Tocqueville was a racist.]

No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise, but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of great magnitude or to pursue very lofty aims. All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation.

The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle.

There are at the present time two great nations in the world—I allude to the Russians and the Americans— All other nations seem to have nearly reached their national limits, and have only to maintain their power; these alone are proceeding—along a path to which no limit can be perceived. [Extraordinarily prescient]

In the United States a man builds a house to spend his latter years in it and he sells it before the roof is on. He plants a garden and rents it just as the trees are coming into bearing. He brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops. He embraces a profession and gives it up. He settles in a place which he soon afterward leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere. If his private affairs leave him any leisure he instantly plunges into the vortex of politics and if at the end of a year of unremitting labor he finds he has a few days’ vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness.

In a letter from the U.S. de Tocqueville wrote:

At first we found the absence of wine from meals a serious deprivation, and we are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack. So far, this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways. People here seem to reek of national pride. It seeps through their politeness.

In my experience quantity over quality has long persisted in U.S. cuisine. When I first arrived in the U.S. I was staggered by the sheer size of portions offered at restaurants. In New York I was served a roast beef sandwich for lunch that had more meat in it than would have been eaten by a family of four in England for Sunday dinner, and I could not finish it. Half was more than enough. A great exemplar of U.S. cooking in the 19th century is The Cook’s Own Book: Being A Complete Culinary Encyclopedia: Comprehending All Valuable Receipts For Cooking Meat, Fish, And Fowl, And Composing Every Kind Of Soup, Gravy, Pastry, Preserves, Essences, &c. That Have Been Published Or Invented During The Last Twenty Years. Particularly The Very Best Of Those In The Cook’s Oracle, Cook’s Dictionary, And Other Systems Of Domestic Economy. With Numerous Original Receipts, And A Complete System of Confectionery  by Mrs. N. K. M. Lee from Boston.

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Here’s a curious recipe:

Pillau

Wash very clean two pounds of rice, stew it till perfectly tender with a little water, half a pound of butter, some salt, whole pepper, cloves and mace, and keep the stewpan closely covered; boil two fowls and one pound and half of bacon, put the bacon in the middle, and the fowls on each side, cover them all over with the rice, and garnish with hard-boiled eggs and fried whole onions.

Two pounds of rice, two chickens, and a pound and a half of bacon for how many people I wonder? Four maybe. I’m also interested to note the proportion of rice to meat. Pilau or Pilaf is immensely popular over a wide swathe of cultures from the Balkans and the Middle East to Central and South Asia. But in all these cultures the rice predominates. In this recipe the meat is the star and the rice floats around the edges. The recipe is very much in keeping with de Tocqueville’s general observations. The rice is very rich, with half a pound of butter for 2 pounds of rice, and quite spicy. The meat, on the other hand, is perfectly plain, but there’s plenty of it, no doubt garnished lavishly with the eggs and onions.

Jul 152016
 

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According to Roman historians (most notably, Livy), the first temple to Castor and Pollux in ancient Rome was dedicated on this day in 484 BCE. It was originally built in gratitude for victory at the Battle of Lake Regillus. Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini (Dioscuri), sons of Zeus/Jupiter and Leda were believed to have played a role in the battle. Their cult came to Rome from Greece via Magna Graecia and the Greek culture of Southern Italy.

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Both Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus state the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), and his allies, the Latins, waged war on the infant Roman Republic some time around 496 BCE. Historical details are a bit cloudy and mixed with legend. Supposedly, Tarquin had been expelled as king in 509 BCE and a republic established. The battle of Lake Regillus was his last ditch effort to regain his throne. Before the battle, the Roman dictator Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis vowed to build a temple to the Dioscuri if the Republic were victorious. According to legend Castor and Pollux appeared on the battlefield as two able horsemen in aid of the Republic, and after the battle had been won they again appeared in the Forum in Rome watering their horses at the Spring of Juturna and announcing the victory. The temple was built on the supposed spot of their appearance. One of Postumius’ sons was elected duumvir (magistrate) in order to dedicate the temple on 15 July (the ides of July) 484 BC.

In Republican times the temple served as a meeting place for the Roman Senate, and from the middle of the 2nd century BCE the front of the podium served as a speaker’s platform. During the imperial period the temple housed the office for weights and measures, and was a depository for the state treasury.

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The archaic temple was completely reconstructed and enlarged in 117 BCE by Lucius Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus after his victory over the Dalmatians. Gaius Verres restored this second temple in 73 BCE. In 14 BCE a fire that ravaged major parts of the forum destroyed the temple, and Tiberius, the son of Augustus by a previous marriage of Livia and the eventual heir to the throne, rebuilt it. Tiberius’ temple was dedicated in 6 CE. The remains visible today are from the temple of Tiberius, except the podium, which is from the time of Metellus.

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The temple was probably already falling apart in the 4th century CE, when a wall in front of the Lacus Juturnae was erected from reused material. Nothing is known of its subsequent history, except that in the 15th century only three columns of its original structure were still standing. The street running by the building was called via Trium Columnarum (three columns street).

In 1760, the Conservatori, finding the columns in a state of imminent collapse, erected scaffolding to effect repairs. Both Piranesi and the young English architect George Dance the Younger were able to climb up and make accurate measurements. Dance reported to his father that he had “a Model cast from the finest Example of the Corinthian order perhaps in the whole World.”

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Today the podium survives without the facing, as do the three columns and a piece of the entablature, one of the most famous features in the Forum. Originally the temple had eight Corinthian columns (octastyle) at the short sides and eleven on the long sides. There was a single cella (inner chamber) paved with mosaics. The podium measures 32 m × 49.5 m (105 ft × 162 ft) and 7 m (23 ft) in height. The building was constructed in opus caementicium (Roman cement) and originally covered with slabs of tuff (volcanic ash rock) which were later removed. According to ancient sources, the temple had a single central stairway to access the podium, but excavations have identified two side stairs.

I could provide another Roman recipe to celebrate the day but the sources are from the late imperial period at best and so are not especially relevant to the cuisine of the early Republic. Instead, I thought I’d be a little more creative. Gemini (Castor and Pollux) is an astrological sign and, as such, people born under this sign have been assigned traditional qualities. Among these qualities, which tend to be reasonably well agreed upon, are food suggestions, which are, at best, fanciful, and range far and wide depending on who you read. This list is far from definitive, but appeals to me for purely aesthetic reasons:

Meat: Poultry

Fruits: Apricots, Pomegranates

Vegetables: Beans, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Celery

Nuts: Almonds, Brazil Nuts, Filberts, Pecans, Pistachios

Herbs & Spices: Anise, Cardamom, Chamomile, Chicory, Cinnamon, Citron, Cloves, Ginseng, Licorice, Maple, Nutmeg, Sage, Sarsaparilla, Sassafras, Saffron, Sesame, Spearmint, Thyme

There’s certainly plenty to choose from here. I decided to pick chicken and apricots as the main ingredient, flavored with thyme. If you wanted to spice it up a little you could use a mix of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and saffron instead. Almonds could also be added. Whatever you choose, I suggest adding balsamic vinegar to contrast with the sweetness of the apricots. Such a balance of sweet and sour accords with ancient Roman recipes (although they would have used liquamen) and is also in keeping with the oppositional duality of Gemini.

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©Apricot Chicken

Ingredients

1 chicken (3 lbs) cut in 8 pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
1 cup chicken stock
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
20 small apricots, halved and pitted
½ cup apricot preserves
1 tbsp fresh thyme, finely chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the chicken pieces to a golden brown on all sides. If necessary you can do this in batches.

Add the onion and balsamic vinegar to the chicken pieces and let the liquid reduce for about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken stock, preserves, apricots, and thyme and stir to make sure everything is thoroughly mixed. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Simmer covered for 10 minutes, then uncover and let the sauce reduce. You can add a little cornstarch dissolved in water if the sauce is too thin, but reduction is a better option.

Serve with plain boiled white rice.

Jun 182016
 

Customs

Today is Mayor Making in Abingdon in Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire) when the residents and businesses of Ock Street (in the town center), and immediate environs, vote for the Mayor of Ock Street, a mock mayor who is thereafter the head of the Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers for the coming year. The ceremony nowadays takes place on the Saturday nearest 19th June each year, although in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was conducted near the annual Abingdon Midsummer Horse and Cattle Fair. The lineage of the dancers and the Mayor Making tradition is impossible to ascertain at this point due to the virtual non-existence of records prior to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a single entry in the parish records of 1560 for “two dossin of morris bells” and that’s about it until the 19th century. Not much to hang a history on.

I’ll try not to wear you out with my wonted diatribe about calendar customs in Britain, although in this case it is strongly tempting because I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing in England and was a member of Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers as musician and dancer in the 1970s. So I know a little bit about the tradition.

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The tradition of electing a mock mayor is sporadically recorded throughout English history but not much is known about the custom. It seems to be allied in a loose way with the widespread custom of electing a foolish version of officialdom in holiday seasons, but there’s no thread that unites these diverse customs. The Abingdon Mayor Making ceremony is recorded in the 19th century and seemingly has always been associated with the local morris dancers. A newspaper article from a Reading paper of 1864 notes that the “customary election of the mayor of Ock street” took place on Saturday 25th June with the horse and cattle fair following on the Monday. The general description is in the image above (click to enlarge) or go here: www.abingdonmorris.org.uk/mab144.htm  The general details are not very clear, however, and I doubt that 19th century reporters were any more accurate than modern ones are.

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Morris dancing in Abingdon suffered the same fate as morris dancing did in general in the late 19th century, that is, by 1900 there were a few groups clinging on in isolated spots, but most were defunct. A few antiquarians took an interest and noted down the dances and their music. Cecil Sharp was one of the more notable of these, but there were others before and after him. Sharp recorded the Abingdon dances from older performers, but was not particularly impressed because their dances did not fit what he saw as a canonical model, that is, each village had its own individual patterns of stepping, arm movements, and figures (which Sharp called “evolutions”), which were the same from dance to dance. What distinguished one dance from another were the tunes and the chorus movements that alternated with the figures. When Sharp interviewed the remaining Abingdon dancers, he discovered that their dances did not fit what he had by that time decided was the normal pattern and so dismissed them as defective.

By and large Abingdon dances are much simpler than the morris dances of other villages recorded in the region. They generally consist of an introduction followed by one figure and a chorus alternated until the leader calls for an ending movement. What has always marked the Abingdon tradition off from the others is its paraphernalia, and the Mayor Making ceremony. The dancers always perform with a set of horns which are reputed to date back to 1700. In that year William III granted a charter to the town, and in honor of the event they held a public ox roast. A fight broke out between the residents of Ock street and other townspeople over who should claim the horns, and Ock street won. Ever after, the winners and their descendants paraded the horns along Ock street during midsummer festivities.   The horns are mounted on a wooden replica of an ox head inscribed with the date, 1700. The mayor of Ock street carries a wooden cup and a sword as his badges of office during the Mayor Making procession. In 1864 these symbols had been hocked and had to be redeemed by the actual mayor of Abingdon before the election of the mock mayor could take place – which is presumably why the ceremony warranted a few lines in a Reading newspaper.

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The tradition of morris dancing and Mayor Making managed to survive through the 20th century with frequent breaks. In the 1930s the tradition was reasonably robust, but languished in the war years. In the 1950s and 60s it held on with some outside support and encouragement. Three of the oldsters from the 1930s — Charlie Brett, Jack Hyde, and Johnny Grimsdale (all born around 1900) — were recruited to revive the dances and act as continuity with the past. Charlie Brett was mayor from 1964 to his death in 1979, Johnny Grimsdale carried the horns, and Jack Hyde was an occasional musician (usually for practices).

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On the day before the election of the mayor, ballot cards are distributed to eligible voters along Ock street and its mews, and on the day itself a ballot box is set up in a designated spot from 10 am to 4 pm. A little after 4 pm the ballots are counted and the winner is proclaimed. Then around 6 pm a procession begins from one end of Ock street to the other. The basic idea is to parade from one pub to the next, so the itinerary has changed over the years. In the 1970s when I was a dancer it went from the Air Balloon to the Railway Inn (which was where we “practiced” – that is, drank all night and occasionally did a dance, and where we held meetings). Both are closed now, but there are still plenty of pubs to visit.

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The highlight of the parade is chairing the mayor. The dancers have a seat with long poles attached that the mayor sits in, and then he is hoisted to shoulder height and carried along Ock street.  It’s supposed to be an honor to be one of the bearers, but the times I did it, I thought it was just bloody hard work.

There are no special foods associated with either Abingdon or Mayor Making. It’s not a great foodie region of England. Jerome K. Jerome’s description of Abingdon in Three Men in a Boat  about sums the place up for me:

At Abingdon, the river passes by the streets.  Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order—quiet, eminently respectable, clean, and desperately dull. 

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They do have a bun throwing in Abingdon once in a while to mark special occasions. They had one recently to mark the queen’s 90th birthday. The town council in full ceremonial regalia get on to the roof of the town hall and toss about 4,000 currant buns out to the crowds in the market square below. I went to one in 1974 that mourned the move of Abingdon from Berkshire to Oxfordshire when the county boundaries were redrawn. It’s some sight to see currant buns raining down on expectant thousands. It’s also quite a job catching one. As it happens 1974 was a banner year for Abingdon morris because Ali saw us that year.

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Anyway . . . pub food would work as a celebration. The dancers always had high tea during the ballot counting when I was a dancer. Just to bring home a point I made some time ago. “High” tea does NOT mean “afternoon tea” with scones, cream, jam and whatnot, as it is mistakenly called in the US. “High” does not mean “fancy.” What it means is that high tea is a regular meal as opposed to something you have to tide you over until dinner. Noon is the regular lunch time and dinner is served around 7 pm conventionally, so something in between is definitely handy. But in some families, tea is the evening meal, and consists of solid dishes. It is called high tea. High tea for us at Mayor Making consisted of cold meat, pickles, cheese, and bread – something easy to put together without cooking. These days the dancers have a pub lunch, and then a formal dinner after the ceremonies in the evening. There are no special dishes, however. You could have anything suitably English – steak and ale pie, steak and kidney pudding, ploughman’s lunch . . . stuff I’ve regaled you with many times before. Here’s a dish that I concocted that’s not especially traditional but is easy and tasty. The cider should be English country cider, that is, rich and alcoholic, not what passes for cider in the US.

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Chicken and Cider

Ingredients

1 chicken cut in 8 pieces
flour for dredging
salt and pepper
cooking oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
cider
chicken stock
fresh parsley, chopped
heavy cream (optional)

Instructions

Place the chicken pieces in a heavy brown paper bag with some flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Fold down the top of the bag tightly, making sure there is plenty of air inside, and shake it vigorously. Open the bag and remove the chicken pieces, shaking off excess flour. This method ensures an even coating.

Heat the cooking oil over medium heat in a deep, heavy skillet. Gently sauté the onions and mushrooms until they are soft but not browned. Remove them with a slotted spoon and reserve them. Turn the heat to high and brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Return the mushrooms and onions, barely cover the chicken with a 50-50 mix of cider and stock, add parsley to taste, bring to a slow simmer and cook gently, partly covered for about 20 minutes.

Remove the cover and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. DO NOT OVERCOOK. The sauce should have reduced and thickened. Towards the end you can add a little heavy cream if you wish.

Serve the chicken with the sauce over the top garnished with parsley and accompanied with boiled new potatoes and a green vegetable such as green beans or asparagus.

Serves 4

 

Jun 142016
 

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Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Marengo fought in 1800, a decisive and momentous battle in what are now known as the Napoleonic Wars. I rarely “celebrate” battles in this blog because I am fundamentally opposed to war, and I am not going to dwell on the actual details of the battle. But Marengo had widespread consequences throughout Europe. Furthermore, the battle spawned the name of a much celebrated dish – Chicken Marengo – although the history of the recipe and its precise form is disputed to this day.

The battle of Marengo was fought between French and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont in northern Italy (roughly midway between Milan and Genoa). The French overcame General Michael von Melas’ surprise attack near the end of the day, driving the Austrians out of Italy, and enhancing Napoleon’s political position in Paris as First Consul of France in the wake of his coup d’état the previous November.

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Surprised by the Austrian advance toward Genoa in mid-April 1800, Bonaparte had hastily led his army over the Alps in mid-May and reached Milan on 2 June. After cutting Melas’ line of communications by crossing the river Po and defeating Feldmarschallleutnant  Peter Karl Ott von Bátorkéz at Montebello on 9 June, the French closed in on the Austrian army, which had massed in Alessandria. Deceived by a local double agent, Bonaparte dispatched large forces to the north and south, but the Austrians launched a surprise attack on 14 June against the main French army under General Louis Alexandre Berthier.

Initially, their two assaults across the Fontanone stream near Marengo village were repelled, and General Jean Lannes reinforced the French right. Bonaparte realized the true position and issued orders at 11:00 am to recall the detachment under Général de Division Louis Desaix, while moving his reserve forward. On the Austrian left, Ott’s column had taken Castel Ceriolo, and its advance guard moved south to attack Lannes’ flank. Melas renewed the main assault and the Austrians broke the central French position. By 2:30 pm the French were withdrawing and Austrian dragoons seized the Marengo farm. Bonaparte had by then arrived with the reserve, but Berthier’s troops began to fall back on the main vine belts. Knowing Desaix was approaching, Bonaparte was anxious about a column of Ott’s soldiers marching from the north, so he deployed his Consular Guard infantry to delay it. The French then withdrew steadily eastward toward San Giuliano Vecchio as the Austrians formed a column to follow them in line with Ott’s advance in the northern sector.

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Desaix’s arrival around 5:30 pm stabilized the French position as the 9th Light Infantry Regiment delayed the Austrian advance down the main road and the rest of the army re-formed north of Cascina Grossa. As the pursuing Austrian troops arrived, a mix of musketry and artillery fire concealed the surprise attack of Général de Brigade François Étienne de Kellermann’s cavalry, which threw the Austrian pursuit into disordered flight back into Alessandria, with about 14,000 killed, wounded, or captured. The French casualties were considerably fewer, but included Desaix. The whole French line chased after the Austrians to seal a victory of major political consequences because it secured Bonaparte’s grip on power after the coup. It would be followed by a propaganda campaign, which sought to rewrite the story of the battle three times during Napoleon’s rule. As a small aside, “propaganda” is an English loan word from Italian (ultimately from Latin), with an original meaning of to “propagate” or “spread around” (and not pejorative originally). It was a huge victory for Napoleon, but he sought to make it into a triumph of brilliant strategy – enhancing his status as a general and leader – instead of a series of lucky mistakes and potential blunders that ended up in his favor. Napoleon came close to losing earlier in the day.

Napoleon sought to ensure that his victory would not be forgotten, so, besides the propaganda campaign, he entrusted General Chasseloup with the construction of a pyramid on the site of the battle. On 5 May 1805, a ceremony took place on the field of Marengo. Napoleon, dressed in the uniform he wore on 14 June 1800, together with Empress Joséphine seated on a throne placed under a tent, oversaw a military parade. Then, Chasseloup gave Napoleon the founding stone, on which was inscribed: “Napoleon, Emperor of the French and King of Italy, to the manes of the defenders of the fatherland who perished on the day of Marengo.” This pyramid was actually part of a very ambitious project meant to glorify Bonaparte’s conquests in Italy. The field of Marengo was supposed to become the site of a “city of Victories” whose boulevards, named after Italian battles, would converge to the pyramid. In the event, the project was abandoned in 1815 and the stones recovered by local farmers. The column erected in 1801 was also removed, but restored in 1922.

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There is now a museum dedicated to the battle on the outskirts of Alessandria. Re-enactments are organized there every year on the second Sunday in June to commemorate the event. I was quite surprised when I first taught the history of the French Revolution in Italian schools to discover that Napoleon is considered a hero by many Italians because he drove the Austrians out of northern Italy and, in a sense, paved the way for the unification of Italy, half a century later. Marengo was the name of a greyish-brown color used for fabric produced in the vicinity before the battle, and a coat of that color became Napoleon’s signature color in common battle portrayals. He also named his battle horse and several warships in honor of the victory. The power of propaganda.

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The battle of Marengo also gave its name to the classic dish, Chicken Marengo, whose origins are encapsulated in an entirely fictitious legend. According to the legend, the dish was first made after Napoleon defeated the Austrian army at Marengo when his personal chef Dunand foraged in the town for ingredients (because the supply wagons were too distant) and created the dish from what he could gather. According to this legend, Napoleon enjoyed the dish so much he had it served to him after every battle, and when Durand was later better-supplied and substituted mushrooms for crayfish and added wine to the recipe, Napoleon refused to accept it, believing that a change would bring him bad luck.

Nice story, but with no merit whatsoever – even though, like so much of the folklore of “origins,” it is endlessly retold as fact. Dunand (or Dunan) did not become Napoleon’s chef until several years later, and tomatoes would not have been available at that time of year in that region, never mind crayfish. It’s much more likely that the dish was created by a French restaurant chef to honor the victory.

The recipe for Chicken Marengo varies considerably. The most distinctive, and possibly historically accurate,  consists of chicken sautéed in oil with garlic and tomato, finished with wine, and served on toast garnished with fried eggs and crayfish. Without the toast, egg, and crayfish, the dish resembles chicken à la Provençale, and that is how it is often presented nowadays.

Baron Brisse gives this recipe in 1868 in his classic cookbook:

Chicken à la Marengo.
Cut up a chicken into joints, and cook in olive oil and a little salt, put in the legs before the other pieces, as they take longer to cook. When a good colour and nearly done, add a bouquet of mixed herbs, pepper, mushrooms, and some slices of truffles; place the chicken on a dish, and add the oil drip by drop to some Italian sauce; stir the whole time. When warm, pour over the chicken, and garnish with fried eggs and sippets of fried bread. If preferred, clarified butter may be used instead of oil.

Italian Sauce.
Simmer a lump of butter as big as two eggs in a saucepan, with two tablespoonsful of chopped parsley, one tablespoonful of chopped eschalots, and the same quantity of minced mushrooms, add a bottle of white wine; reduce the sauce, and moisten with a tumblerful of velouté sauce and half a tumblerful of stock; boil over a quick fire, skim off all grease, and as soon as the sauce is thick enough, take off the fire, and keep warm in a bain-marie.

Isabella Beeton gives this recipe in 1861, suggesting that the dish had spread to England by this time but we must remember that she copied most of her recipes from other sources. Nonetheless, some form of the dish appears to have been popular by mid century.

POULET A LA MARENGO.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 large fowl, 4 tablespoonfuls of salad oil, 1 tablespoonful of flour, 1 pint of stock No. 105, or water, about 20 mushroom-buttons, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoonful of powdered sugar, a very small piece of garlic.

Mode.—Cut the fowl into 8 or 10 pieces; put them with the oil into a stewpan, and brown them over a moderate fire; dredge in the above proportion of flour; when that is browned, pour in the stock or water; let it simmer very slowly for rather more than 1/2 hour, and skim off the fat as it rises to the top; add the mushrooms; season with salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar; take out the fowl, which arrange pyramidically on the dish, with the inferior joints at the bottom. Reduce the sauce by boiling it quickly over the fire, keeping it stirred until sufficiently thick to adhere to the back of a spoon; pour over the fowl, and serve.

Time.—Altogether 50 minutes. Average cost, 3s. 6d.

Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.

Seasonable at any time.

Mrs Beeton concludes with the much-repeated fable:

A FOWL À LA MARENGO.—The following is the origin of the well-known dish Poulet à la Marengo:—On the evening of the battle the first consul was very hungry after the agitation of the day, and a fowl was ordered with all expedition. The fowl was procured, but there was no butter at hand, and unluckily none could be found in the neighbourhood. There was oil in abundance, however; and the cook having poured a certain quantity into his skillet, put in the fowl, with a clove of garlic and other seasoning, with a little white wine, the best the country afforded; he then garnished it with mushrooms, and served it up hot. This dish proved the second conquest of the day, as the first consul found it most agreeable to his palate, and expressed his satisfaction. Ever since, a fowl à la Marengo is a favourite dish with all lovers of good cheer.

Pellegrino Artusi’s Italian recipe in his legendary Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well (1891) is as follows:

Take a young chicken, remove the neck and legs, and cut into large pieces at the joints. Sauté in 30 grams (about 1 ounce) of butter and one tablespoon of olive oil, seasoning with salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. When the pieces have browned on both sides, skim the fat and add a level tablespoon of flour and a deciliter (about 7 fluid ounces) of wine. Add broth and cover, cooking over low heat until done. Before removing from the fire, garnish with a pinch of chopped parsley; arrange on a serving dish and squeeze half a lemon over it. The result is an appetizing dish.

What are we to make of all of this? Not much, I’m afraid, except to say that there is no canonical recipe. The idea of chicken with crayfish and wine served with an egg on fried bread appeals to me though, so here’s my version. I make no claim to this being an “authentic” recipe: there’s no such thing. Some people make something similar today using small shrimp instead of crayfish. You can use bone-in chicken pieces, but boneless breasts are easier to eat.

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© Chicken Marengo

Ingredients

4 skinless and boneless chicken breasts
2 tbsp olive oil
flour for dredging
¼ cup brandy
6 oz crayfish, tails, shelled
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine
1 tsp powdered thyme (or one fresh sprig)
1 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
salt and pepper
4 slices toast
4 eggs

Instructions

Dredge the chicken breasts lightly in flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté the chicken breast until golden on all sides. In the final minutes add the onions and garlic, and cook them until they are translucent but not browned.

Heat the brandy in a small pan, allowing it to flame, and then pour it over the chicken. Add the white wine, stock, thyme, and parsley, and bring to a slow simmer.  Cook until the chicken is tender (about 30 minutes), and add the crayfish tails at the end. The sauce should be somewhat thickened at this point, but can be reduced if need be.

Serve the chicken and sauce over toast and place a fried egg on top.

Serves: 4

 

Jun 102016
 

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Tonight after sundown is the last night of counting the Omer among certain Jewish sects. Today is also the date in 1947 on which their first motor car prototype was unveiled by the Saab company, which previously had been solely an aircraft manufacturer.  In keeping with this year’s theme of moveable feasts in this blog, I’ll go with the former.

Counting of the Omer (ספירת העומר, Sefirat HaOmer, sometimes abbreviated as Sefira or the Omer) is the verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot as commanded in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 23:15–16:

15 From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.

16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.

Chapter 23 in Leviticus sets out all the holidays that Jews should observe and their dating, and this particular span refers to the distance between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot (coming up). Whether an observant Jew is supposed to literally count each day out loud is a matter of dispute among rabbinic scholars. My reading of the Hebrew leads me to the conclusion that the text is simply saying “make a calculation,” and not literally calling for a daily count. But the tradition of counting day by day got established at some point and has stuck.

There is something to be said for religious periods of anticipation and preparation – firmly established in the Christian traditions of Advent and Lent (leading to Christmas and Easter respectively), and rooted in the Jewish tradition of periods of prayer and fasting before significant events. I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, that I find big celebrations to be much more satisfying if they are approached slowly and carefully, rather than by just coming upon them with a big bang. However, times of preparation are not popular in the modern – breathlessly hurried – world, so that counting the Omer is a rare practice nowadays, confined only to the most observant of religious Jews. Observant Jews sometimes have a device or calendar as a concrete reference to what day it is within the Omer.

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As soon as it is definitely night (approximately thirty minutes after sundown), the one who is counting the Omer recites this blessing in Hebrew:

Baruch atah A-donai E-loheinu Melekh Ha-olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al S’firat Ha-omer.

(Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.)

Then he or she states the Omer-count in terms of both total days and weeks and days. For example, on the 23rd day the count would be stated thus: “Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days ‘of’ [or] ‘to’ (לעומר) [or] ‘in’ (בעומר) the Omer”. The count is usually said in Hebrew but it can be said in one’s native language.

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In Kabbalistic Judaism the period of the counting of the Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth – for people to work on their good characteristics (middot) through reflection and development of one aspect each day for the 49 days of the counting. In the Kabbalah, each of the seven weeks of the Omer-counting is associated with one of the seven lower sephirot. The Hebrew names do not have an easy English translation, and they have very complex associations in the Kabbalah:

Chesed (loving-kindness)

Gevurah (strength)

Tipheret (adornment)

Netzach (endurance)

Hod (glory)

Yesod (foundation)

Malchut (sovreignty)

Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations. The first day of the Omer, for example, is  associated with “chesed that is in chesed” (loving-kindness within loving-kindness), the second day with “gevurah that is in chesed” (strength within loving-kindness), and so on.

Symbolically, each of these 49 permutations represents an aspect of each person’s character that can be improved or further developed. If you are interested there are numerous books and websites devoted to daily interpretations and practices, such as Simon Jacobson, The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer, or Yaacov Haber and David Sedley, Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer, or go here http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/276672/jewish/Spiritual-Guide.htm

As it happens, the night of the final count this year is also the beginning of the Shabbat, so a special dinner is in order. In Britain and the United States, certain dishes are traditional for Shabbat dinners and are referred to as “Jewish” cuisine. As I have said before here, this is a misnomer. Many Jews in the U.S., especially the northeast, descend from Germanic or eastern European Jews, and their cooking reflects the heritage of these cultures, not something that is uniquely Jewish, although it is important to keep kosher, so that there are no dishes that use pork products, or mix meat and dairy.

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Here’s a Sephardic dish, Moroccan Lemon Chicken, that I like. Chicken, and chicken soup, are proverbially Jewish dishes in the U.S., and this is one of my favorites.

 Moroccan Lemon Chicken

Ingredients

1 chicken (4 lbs), skinned and cut in 8 pieces
½ tsp powdered saffron
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 qt chicken stock
2 lemons
fresh chopped cilantro (for garnish)
salt and pepper

Instructions

Mix the saffron powder, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture evenly on the chicken pieces.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in one layer. Sauté the onions until they are softened. Add the garlic for an additional minute, and do not let it take on any color. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer.

Pour the stock over the chicken pieces so that they are barely covered. Add the juice of the lemons and the peel, thinly sliced. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Cooking time is highly variable depending on the quality of the chicken and your personal tastes. I tend to stop once the chicken is fully cooked and no more.

Remove the chicken pieces to a warm plate, and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce for about 2 minutes. You can add extra lemon juice at this point if you like. Taste first!

Place the chicken pieces over boiled basmati rice on a serving platter. Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken pieces, and garnish with cilantro.

Apr 232016
 

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Breweries in Germany traditionally celebrate National Beer Day on April 23. On this day in 1516, the “Reinheitsgebot” or “Beer Purity Law” came into force in Bavaria. That makes today the 500th anniversary. According to the 1516 Bavarian law, the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops. With some important changes, this law is still widely in effect in Germany. The 1516 Bavarian law also set the price of beer (depending on the time of year and type of beer), limited the profits made by innkeepers, and made confiscation the penalty for making impure beer.

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The text of the 1516 Bavarian law is as follows (translated):

We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1069 mL] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and

From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller = one-half Pfennig].

If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.

Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass of the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley, WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.

The Bavarian order of 1516 was introduced in part to prevent price competition with bakers for wheat and rye. The restriction of grains to barley was meant to ensure the availability of affordable bread, because wheat and rye were reserved for use by bakers. It may also be that the rule had a protectionist role, since beers from Northern Germany often contained additives that were not present in Bavarian beer. Religious conservatism may have also played a role in adoption of the rule in Bavaria, to suppress the use of plants that were allegedly used in pagan rituals, such as gruit. The rule also excluded problematic methods of preserving beer, such as adding soot, stinging nettle and henbane.

While some sources refer to the Bavarian law of 1516 as the first law regulating food safety, this is inaccurate; earlier food safety regulations can be traced back as far as ancient Rome. Similarly, some sources claim that the law has been essentially unchanged since its adoption, but as early as the mid-16th century Bavaria began to allow ingredients such as coriander, laurel, and wheat. Yeast was also added to modern versions of the law after the discovery of its role in fermentation.

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Historically, the restriction on ingredients led to the extinction of many brewing traditions and local beer specialties, such as North German spiced beer and cherry beer, and led to the domination of the German beer market by pilsener style beers. Only a few regional beer varieties, such as Kölner Kölsch or Düsseldorfer Altbier, survived its implementation. However, modern versions of the law have contained significant exceptions for different types of beer (such as top-fermented beers), for export beers, and for different regions.

More recently, German brewers, and some German politicians have argued that the Reinheitsgebot has slowed Germany’s adoption of beer trends popular in the rest of the world, such as Belgian lambics and Euro-American crafted beers. In March 1987, in a case brought by French brewers, the European Court of Justice found that the Reinheitsgebot was protectionist, and therefore in violation of Article 30 of the Treaty of Rome. This ruling concerned only imported beer, so Germany chose to continue to apply the law to beer brewed in Germany.

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After German reunification in 1990 the Neuzeller Kloster Brewery, a former monastery brewery in the East German town of Neuzelle, Brandenburg, was warned to stop selling its black beer as it contained sugar. After some negotiations the brewery was allowed to sell it under the name Schwarzer Abt (“Black Abbot”) but could not label it “bier”. This decision was repealed by the Federal Administrative Court of Germany through a special permit, and after legal disputes lasting ten years (known as the “Brandenburg Beer War”) Neuzeller Kloster Brewery gained the right to call “Schwarzer Abt” “bier” again.

The revised Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993, which replaced the earlier regulations, is a slightly expanded version of the Reinheitsgebot, stipulating that only water, malted barley, hops and yeast be used for any bottom-fermented beer brewed in Germany. In addition, the law allows the use of powdered or ground hops and hops extracts, as well as stabilization and fining agents such as PVPP. Top fermented beer is subject to the same rules with the addition that a wider variety of malt can be used as well as pure sugars for flavor and coloring.

The law’s applicability was further limited by a court ruling in 2005, which allowed the sale of beer with different ingredients as long as it was not labeled “beer”. Exceptions to the current rules can be sought, and have been granted to allow gluten-free beer to be labeled as beer despite the use of different ingredients.

I’ve never been a fan of German pilsners and bottom fermented beers in general, either for drinking or cooking. Not enough flavor or body, especially when cooking beef or pork.  Chicken, however, is a potential mate for pilsner or lager, so I have adapted a German recipe for chicken and dumplings to incorporate German beer. I have given several chicken and ale recipes in previous posts.

https://www.bookofdaystales.com/siege-of-calais/

https://www.bookofdaystales.com/arthur-tudor/

They are of my own devising based on old recipes. So this one is in the same vein. This version of chicken and dumplings is not at all like the version from the U.S. South (which is closer to chicken and noodles). I just invented this for lunch today using a German recipe as a base. Here’s my heuristic description which you can modify as you wish.

DSC_1169

©German-Style Chicken and Dumplings

Cut a chicken in 8 parts (removing the backbone), and sauté in a little olive oil (or lard) to brown on all sides. Place in a heavy pot with a leek (green and white parts) sliced thickly, and a chopped onion. Add a half and half mix of chicken stock and German beer.  Add a handful of chopped parsley. Bring slowly to a gentle simmer and cook covered for 40 minutes. Do not overcook. You want the meat juicy yet tender.

DSC_1168

While the chicken is cooking make the dumplings. Mix 1 cup of all purpose flour with 4 tablespoons of chopped suet or shortening until they are evenly blended. Add chopped fresh parsley and salt to taste. Add cold water a little at a time and mix to form a stiff dough. Roll the dough into small balls with floured hands and drop them into the cooking broth with the chicken. They will cook in about 10 minutes (depending on size).

Serve in deep bowls with a green vegetable as a side dish, and crusty bread.

Mar 042016
 

ss1

On this date in 1881 according to A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/arthur-conan-doyle/ ), Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes began their first adventure. Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet in 1886, and the story marks the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For verisimilitude Doyle gave some exact dates in the story, 4th March 1881, being one of them. The book’s title derives from a speech given by Holmes, to his friend and chronicler Watson on the nature of his work, in which he describes the story’s murder investigation as his “study in scarlet” — “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

The story, and its main characters, attracted little public interest when it first appeared. Only 11 complete copies of the magazine in which the story first appeared, Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, are known to exist now and they have considerable value. Although Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is one of only four full-length novels in the original canon. The novel was followed by The Sign of the Four, published in 1890. A Study in Scarlet was the first work of detective fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

I came to A Study in Scarlet in my mid teens, after I had read a number of the Holmes short stories. I won’t talk about the plot itself. You’ve either read it, in which case you know it, or you haven’t, in which case I won’t spoil it for you. When I first read it I was mystified by it for several reasons. For one, Holmes is initially described by Watson as a queer duck with very odd ideas. For example, he does not know anything about the motion of the earth and does not care to know:

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My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

When I first read this I was dumbfounded for all manner of reasons, and still find it ludicrous. Yes, Doyle wants us to see Holmes as brilliant but quirky. However, this description of him makes no sense. You can’t forget things at will; the brain is not like an expandable storage unit that can be filled; and you cannot guess ahead of time what information might be useful to you even though your profession is highly specialized. Incredibly intelligent and creative scientists, for example, have been known to take inspiration from all manner of seemingly unrelated spheres such as art and foreign travel.

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Second, I was perplexed when the story broke off from the main narrative of capturing a murderer and shifted, without warning, to Mormons in Utah. In fact I stopped reading at this point because I thought this was a new story, and only picked up the book again some time later because I was out of reading material at the time, and discovered that this digression was, in fact, essential to the plot even though at first it seemed irrelevant. Doyle did the same thing in The Valley of Fear, but by then I was prepared, and soldiered on even though I find these “digressions” tedious and pointless. They disrupt the flow of the narrative for me. They also show a lack of understanding of the United States in the 19th century and are rather preposterous. I don’t like narratives that need a lengthy back story for explanation. Admittedly the one in The Valley of Fear is more engaging than the one in A Study in Scarlet, but it is still very farfetched.

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Finding a recipe for Holmes is a challenge because his eating habits are largely absent from the books. If Holmes is true to form, eating is of no interest to him. Doyle certainly shows little interest in describing food in any of his writings. So I have to invent something. As I mentioned in my post on Doyle, the Beeton in Beeton’s Christmas Annual where A Study in Scarlet first appeared, was cookbook author, Isabella Beeton’s, husband. So a Beeton recipe is suitable. I have chosen boiled chicken with oysters simply because it is suitably Victorian. There are many cookbooks available now masquerading as the Sherlock Holmes Cookbook, but they are no more than collections of period recipes with no connexion to the Holmes stories, so I’ll follow suit. Oysters were popular in sauces and dishes in the Victorian period, in part because they were cheap and readily available. The combination of poultry and oysters is delectable. I first came across this combination when I was living and working on the coast of North Carolina where they routinely cooked turkey with an oyster stuffing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Delightful.

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Here’s Isabella Beeton’s recipe including some ever-charming notes. The twist here is that the bird is stuffed with fresh oysters, then stuffed into a large glass jar, which is immersed in boiling water to cook. In this way the bird does not come in contact with the water, and the cooking juices are preserved. Nowadays I would use a sealable boiling bag for the same effect.

SPACE FOR FOWLS.—We are no advocates for converting the domestic fowl into a cage-bird. We have known amateur fowl-keepers—worthy souls, who would butter the very barley they gave their pets, if they thought they would the more enjoy it—coop up a male bird and three or four hens in an ordinary egg-chest placed on its side, and with the front closely barred with iron hooping! This system will not do. Every animal, from man himself to the guinea-pig, must have what is vulgarly, but truly, known as “elbow-room;” and it must be self-evident how emphatically this rule applies to winged animals. It may be urged, in the case of domestic fowls, that from constant disuse, and from clipping and plucking, and other sorts of maltreatment, their wings can hardly be regarded as instruments of flight; we maintain, however, that you may pluck a fowl’s wing-joints as bare as a pumpkin, but you will not erase from his memory that he is a fowl, and that his proper sphere is the open air. If he likewise reflects that he is an ill-used fowl—a prison-bird—he will then come to the conclusion, that there is not the least use, under such circumstances, for his existence; and you must admit that the decision is only logical and natural.

BOILED FOWL, with Oysters.

(Excellent.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 young fowl, 3 dozen oysters, the yolks of 2 eggs, 1/4 pint of cream.

Mode.—Truss a young fowl as for boiling; fill the inside with oysters which have been bearded and washed in their own liquor; secure the ends of the fowl, put it into a jar, and plunge the jar into a saucepan of boiling water. Keep it boiling for 1-1/2 hour, or rather longer; then take the gravy that has flowed from the oysters and fowl, of which there will be a good quantity; stir in the cream and yolks of eggs, add a few oysters scalded in their liquor; let the sauce get quite hot, but do not allow it to boil; pour some of it over the fowl, and the remainder send to table in a tureen. A blade of pounded mace added to the sauce, with the cream and eggs, will be found an improvement.

Time.—1-1/2 hour. Average cost, 4s. 6d.

Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.

Seasonable from September to April.

THE FOWL-HOUSE.—In building a fowl-house, take care that it be, if possible, built against a wall or fence that faces the south, and thus insure its inmates against many cold winds, driving rains, and sleets they will otherwise suffer. Let the floor of the house slope half an inch to the foot from back to front, so as to insure drainage; let it also be close, hard, and perfectly smooth; so that it may be cleanly swept out. A capital plan is to mix a few bushels of chalk and dry earth, spread it over the floor, and pay a paviour’s labourer a trifle to hammer it level with his rammer. The fowl-house should be seven feet high, and furnished with perches at least two feet apart. The perches must be level, and not one above the other, or unpleasant consequences may ensue to the undermost row. The perches should be ledged (not fixed—just dropped into sockets, that they may be easily taken out and cleaned) not lower than five feet from the ground, convenient slips of wood being driven into the wall, to render the ascent as easy as possible. The front of the fowl-house should be latticed, taking care that the interstices be not wide enough even to tempt a chick to crawl through. Nesting-boxes, containing soft hay, and fitted against the walls, so as to be easily reached by the perch-ladder, should be supplied. It will be as well to keep by you a few portable doors, so that you may hang one before the entrance to a nesting-box, when the hen goes in to sit. This will prevent other hens from intruding, a habit to which some are much addicted.