May 202020

On this date in 325 the First Council of Nicaea (Νίκαια), the first of many ecumenical (lit. “the whole world”) councils of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey) The council was called by Constantine I, the first nominally Christian Roman emperor, to establish doctrinal unity in the empire. Its main accomplishments were (temporary) settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first version of the Nicene Creed, establishing uniform observance of the date of Easter, and promulgation of early canon law.

This is the kind of theological history I have been teaching for years, and was part of my recent foray into early church history at a theological college in Phnom Penh.  Therefore, I could go on and on and on about the Council.  But I will spare you.  The Byzantine recipe for a fluffy omelet is much more interesting.  The thing is that I hate doctrine with a passion.  I was bored with it when I studied theology at Oxford in the 1970s and I am still bored with it.  It is meaningless – except to sticklers who insist on making logical sense out of pronouncements in the Greek Bible that are contradictory and simply cannot be reconciled logically.  The Christological problem is a great example.

Because John’s gospel starts by saying that Jesus of Galilee was the eternal creative word of God (the Logos) made flesh, subsequent scholars tried to make sense out of who this Jesus really was.  Mark’s gospel is a lot simpler.  He casts Jesus as the Jewish messiah, a “king” come to save the people of Judah from oppression.  The fact that he was a spiritual rather than earthly king took a little explaining, but he did not make the claim that Jesus was God – simply using the cryptic Son of Man (from the book of Daniel) as his title.  John’s claim is much more all-encompassing, and very difficult to integrate with the facts on the ground.  How can Jesus be the eternal God and a man at the same time?  This is the Christological Problem.

At the time there were two conflicting viewpoints: (1) Jesus was fully God and fully human, and was co-eternal from all time with God the Father, and (2) Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, but was created by God the Father.  The latter opinion was promulgated by Arius (Ἄρειος) a Libyan presbyter and ascetic, and priest in Baucalis in Alexandria in Egypt. His point of view – known as Arianism – was widespread in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  The Council of Nicaea spent the bulk of its time debating positions #1 and #2.  Arius was present and defended his position vigorously. At one point (so it is said), St Nicholas of Myra ( ) – yup, Santa Claus – got so enraged with Arius’s rhetoric that he got up and slapped him in the face.

The Nicene Creed that developed during the deliberations of the Council accepted position #1 and rejected Arianism.  So if you are Christian and sing carols at Christmas you will recall from O Come All Ye Faithful, the line “begotten not created” (if you pay any attention to words).  That is, Jesus (the Word), was not created: he is co-eternal with the Father.  If this kind of theology floats your boat I pity you.  I did have to assent to it at my ordination, but I do not find it significant in my Christian life.

The Council also fixed on a date for Easter to be observed through all Christendom – and, most especially, wanted to distinguish it from Passover, even though the two are indelibly related.  This they (sort of) achieved, setting up calendric problems that lasted for over 15 centuries – requiring eventually a move from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Nicaea, and later İznik, was, and is, famous for a kind of fluffy omelet called sphongia. Here is a recipe in Byzantine Latin:

ova quattuor, lactis heminam, olei unciam in se dissolvis, ita ut unum corpus facias. in patellam subtilem adicies olei modicum, facies ut bulliat, et adicies impensam quam parasti. una parte cum fuerit coctum, in disco vertes, melle perfundis, piper adspargis et inferes.

 The Latin is a little obscure but my (very) rough translation is as follows:

Four eggs, one cup (half a pint) of milk and an ounce of oil well beaten, to make a mixture. In a pan put a little oil, heat, and add the egg mixture. When it is cooked on one side, place on a dish, pour over honey, add pepper, and serve.

The addition of honey and pepper makes for an interesting dish.  Here is a modern interpretation:


Apr 302017

Today is marked as Jubilate Sunday in the ecclesiastical calendar of many Christian traditions. I get a little miffed that on many sites – including Wikipedia – it is called the 3rd Sunday AFTER Easter. Can’t these people count? It is the 3rd Sunday OF Easter (or the 2nd Sunday after Easter). The full Easter season stretches from the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday to Pentecost – a pretty long haul that usually starts in February and ends in late May or early June. The Christmas and Easter seasons flow into one another with a short break between them of a couple of weeks (longer if Easter is late). By comparison, the time from Pentecost to Advent (beginning the Christmas season again), is very long, usually around 6 months. Technically, the time between major seasons is known as ordinary time, and because the liturgical color for ordinary time is green the period from Pentecost to Advent is colloquially known (mostly by clergy), as the meadow period – when all the lessons of Christmas and Easter are put into practice (you know: grow a meadow and make hay). But now we are in the period of Easter that in many traditions is a time for rejoicing; but not all, as we shall see.

The third Sunday of Easter is called Jubilate Sunday because in the liturgy of the Catholic Church the first line of the introit for that day’s mass is “Jubilate Deo omnis terra” (“Shout with joy to God, all the earth”) from Psalm 66:65.

The liturgy for this day in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, and for the next two Sundays, continues to celebrate the Easter resurrection.

The Germanic Lutheran tradition was at one time rather more dour. Johann Sebastian Bach composed three church cantatas for the occasion, based on the prescribed readings: the epistle reading, 1 Peter 2:11–20, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man”, and the gospel reading, John 16:16–23, the announcement of the Second Coming from the Farewell discourse:

20 Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. 21 A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.

Bach’s three cantatas for this day are:

Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, 22 April 1714

Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, BWV 103, 22 April 1725

Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal, BWV 146, 12 May 1726 or 18 April 1728

I’ll focus on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing). Bach composed the cantata in Weimar when he was Konzertmeister at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians. He led the first performance in the Schlosskirche, the court chapel of the Schloss in Weimar. His job called for the performance of a new church cantata each month. He composed Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen as the second cantata in the series, on a text probably written by court poet Salomon Franck. The work is structured in seven movements, an instrumental Sinfonia, a choral passacaglia, a recitative on a Bible quotation, three arias and, as the closing chorale, the last stanza from Samuel Rodigast’s hymn “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (“What God does is well done”) (1674). The cantata is scored for three vocal soloists, a four-part choir, trumpet, oboe, bassoon, two violins, two violas, and basso continuo.

Bach reworked the first section of the first chorus to form the Crucifixus movement of the Credo in his Mass in B minor. Franz Liszt based extended keyboard compositions on the same material. Here is the cantata on Baroque instruments and with vocalists adopting a Baroque style:

Because of the Lutheran tradition there’s not a lot of “Jubilate” here. The music is wonderful, of course, but as a pastor I find the sentiments misplaced. I understand the point. After the resurrection, Jesus remains with the disciples a little while and then ascends to heaven, leaving them bereft. But not long after, Pentecost comes, giving them the Holy Spirit to comfort them until his triumphant return. So obviously the period after the resurrection contains mixed messages. Christians should be thinking around this time: “Now what?” But for me the heavy lifting comes after Pentecost in the meadow period. Between Easter and Pentecost is mostly for rejoicing in my book.  So let’s talk about pork neck.

Pork neck is not a cut that you see in the UK or the US, unless your butcher deals in whole carcasses and you specially ask for it. In Germany it is a normal cut. It consists of the front part of the pig’s back behind the head. It is both meaty and fatty, but not as fatty as belly meat. It is a good choice for grilling or roasting. In Weimar it is the custom to marinate the meat overnight and then grill it. Some people bone the neck meat, roll it, and roast it. Schwarzbier is a dark lager made in Thuringia. You can substitute any German-style dark, bitter beer.

Thüringer Mutzbraten


2 lb/ 1kg pork neck, cut into thick cutlets


2 tsp marjoram
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 cups Schwarzbier


Combine all the marinade ingredients in a bowl. Place the cutlets on a zip top bag. They must be able to lie flat in one layer, so divide them between 2 bags if necessary. Pour the marinade in the bag(s). Squeeze out as much air as possible, then seal the zip top. Lay the cutlets flat so that they are surrounded by marinade. Refrigerate overnight.

Next day, take the cutlets from the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature before grilling.

It is traditional to use birch in the grill, but you can use any wood or charcoal. I use a barbecue with a lid so that the pork can smoke a little as it cooks.  For pork I used to cook using apple wood. If you don’t have an outdoor grill you can use your broiler.

Apr 162017

Happy Easter 2017 !!!  I’m not going to launch into a long polemic about historical accounts of Easter and the resurrection. If you want my thoughts on all of that read my chapter “What Peter, Paul, and Mary Saw” in this book:  Instead I will turn my attention to Easter eggs, an enduring symbol of Easter.

Displaying colored chicken’s eggs has been an Easter custom for a very long time; just exactly how long is a matter of debate. Decorating eggs in general is an ancient art. Furthermore, eggs have been an enduring symbol of death and rebirth in numerous Mesopotamian cultures for thousands of years. Thus, their association with Easter seems perfectly natural. What intrigues me is how diverse the traditions are these days.

There seems to me to be some merit in the speculation that boiled eggs were eaten at Easter for practical reasons. In the Middle Ages eggs were forbidden during the Lenten fast in some traditions, but, being Spring time, chickens did not stop laying. You can keep eggs for quite some time without spoilage, but not forever. Three weeks is about the limit. Boiling them allows you to keep them a little longer, and then at Easter, when the Lenten fast is over, they can be eaten. Boiling them with certain natural dye materials, such as onion skins or some tree barks, adds a whole new dimension – including additional decoration.

Let me just interject a quick note here about refrigerating versus not refrigerating fresh eggs. People in the US refrigerate EVERYTHING, including many items that should NOT be refrigerated. Chocolate, bread, and tomatoes, for example, will degrade much more quickly if refrigerated – but people do it anyway (not me!!). Eggs are complicated. Generally they are refrigerated in the US, but not in Europe. There is a reason for the difference. Eggs in the US are scrupulously washed before storage, and the washing removes a thin protective film which they acquire from the hen in the laying process, making the shells porous and open to invasion by harmful bacteria. So after washing they must be refrigerated. Eggs in Europe are not washed, so the protective film is preserved and they can be safely stored at room temperature. I prefer room temperature eggs for cooking under most circumstances, so when I lived in the US I had to take them out of the refrigerator some time before using them.  Here in Italy there is no need – likewise when I lived in Argentina and China. Trying to change habits in the US is almost certainly a lost cause.

There are so many different ways to decorate eggs that it would take me a fortnight to enumerate them all. One simple, very traditional, way is to affix a pattern to the eggs before boiling them in colored water so that the stain penetrates only the bare surface of the eggs. Pace eggs in the north of England are made this way (“pace” being a dialect variant of “pesach” – Aramaic for Passover/Easter, giving the common Romance words – via Latin (pascha) – for Easter such as Pascua, Pasqua, or Pâques).  Pace egging was a longstanding tradition in rural England involving a death and resurrection play and a begging song.  This traditional version comes from Burscough in Lancashire:


In eastern European countries, notably, Ukraine, a tradition of dyeing eggs in highly developed patterns using a wax-resist method (batik) has evolved into an art form that is still popular, with many regional variations.

Similar traditions have evolved throughout Mediterranean and Slavic cultures, and sometimes displaying them on Easter “trees”.

There is also a rather rarer tradition throughout Europe of carving lacey patterns into the uncolored shells.  This is incredibly delicate work that requires years of practice.

Chocolate eggs are a relative newcomer to the Easter scene; not possible until the perfection of techniques for making solid chocolate in the 19th century, allied with industrial processes for making hollow shapes.

Of course you can make decorative or artistic egg-shaped forms for Easter out of any material from marzipan to gold.

There’s probably no need to extol the enormous versatility of the chicken egg. Instead I’ll showcase a dish I made several years ago based on a 14th century recipe: poached egg with a saffron and ginger flavored Hollandaise. You should be able to work it out without a detailed recipe from me.

For Easter breakfast or brunch you can whip up a frittata, tortilla, omelet, or quiche is plain eggs are too bland for you. Later you can have a baked egg custard, pancake, flan, or egg-anything-you want. Let’s instead consider the virtues of eggs other than chicken eggs.

Duck. Duck eggs are not easy to find in the West, but in Chinese markets they are as common as chicken eggs and can be used in much the same way. I bought them all the time in Yunnan. They are a little more flavorful than chicken eggs – perhaps earthier.

Quail. Once quail eggs were hard to find in the West, but I have no trouble getting them in northern Italy now. They’re a little fiddly to cook with.  You can boil them, but peeling them is a chore. I usually fry them, but you’ll need quite a few if you are making a meal of them !!! In China they have special utensils for frying them in a row on a stick. This is a great street snack. Usually I chose the option of dusting them with a hot spicy powder. The fun is in the size more than the taste. They’re not so different from chicken eggs in that regard.

Goose. The goose egg is larger than duck or chicken eggs and is decidedly more robust in flavor. They’re hard to find and I don’t care to go to the trouble these days because I’m not a fan of the taste.

Ostrich. I’ve never seen ostrich eggs for sale outside of Africa, and even there they are not common. Ostriches don’t produce very many eggs and breeders generally use them to make more ostriches. They are gigantic with an exceedingly tough shell that takes a hammer, or the like, to break into. One egg will serve more than one person – scrambled or made into an omelet. They are delicious if you can ever get hold of one that is fresh enough to eat.

Apr 142017

Today is Good Friday this year (2017). Good Friday commemorates the execution by crucifixion of Jesus and in most Christian denominations it is a very solemn day. When I was a youth in Australia and England not much happened in churches on Good Friday and pretty much everything was closed: shops, pubs, restaurants, etc. It was a rare public holiday when only the most essential workers reported for work. Absolutely everyone else had the day off. Any worker on an hourly wage who had to work received triple pay which was highly unusual (Christmas was the only other day when this was mandated). Double pay was the normal rate for overtime on holidays. The crucifixion may be the most painted subject in Western art history.

What happens on Good Friday ecclesiastically represents a deep divide between Catholic and Protestant traditions historically although these days there is some merging of ideas as some Protestant denominations become a bit more attuned to the re-enactment of Biblical events. One cannot help but be struck by the fact that all Catholic churches are dominated by a crucifix and Protestant churches emphasize the empty cross. It was drilled into me as a boy in the Presbyterian church that our focus is on the resurrection and not Christ’s suffering. I won’t belabor the point. When I was a parish minister some of my churches went on cross walks around the town on Good Friday with other denominations, and I joined in – semi-reluctantly.  Public displays of this sort do not appeal to me. The crucifixion was a hideous act of torture perpetrated on an innocent man, but it happened 2000 years ago. Whilst I abhor the act utterly, it is over.

The events of Easter were probably fixed very early in oral and written narrative because there were some eye witnesses to actual events. But these narratives are unsatisfactory as history as they are retold in the various gospel versions. Even if you accept the idea that the gospels were written by the men they claim as authors (which I don’t), none was a direct eye witness (although John obliquely claims to have been there). The much more likely story is that when Jesus was arrested, all the apostles scattered in fear of their own lives. The story of Peter’s famous denial of his association with Jesus during his trial is perhaps symbolic of what they all actually did at the time. The gospels all report that the women who had followed Jesus as disciples had no such qualms, and they both actively and visibly lamented his fate on his way to Golgotha and on the cross itself.

Slanting the interpretation of actual events to suit a particular ideology is not an invention of modern journalism. The gospel writers were masters of this trade. This is what we know. Jesus was arrested in the suburbs of Jerusalem in the evening after having dinner with his closest associates, he was tried and condemned to death, and was crucified. I don’t think many serious historians would dispute these bare facts, but there is endless speculation concerning the details.

The point that I want to emphasize is that ALL the gospels want to whitewash the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and lay the blame for Jesus’ execution squarely on the Jewish Temple authorities. The thing is that at the time Jewish authorities had wide latitude because the Romans feared insurrection in a troublesome province that could not be subjugated in the way that other parts of the empire had been. Religion was an especially touchy subject. Things finally came to a head roughly 35 years later in 70 CE when the Romans, tired of all their accommodations, simply crushed the people in a mass slaughter, destroyed the Temple, and dispersed the remnant of the population. The Romans were most decidedly in charge, although the Jewish leaders held considerable influence in Jesus’ day. So what really happened?

The gospel narratives are highly unsatisfactory. Their thrust is patent. According to the gospel writers, the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus out of the way because he was subverting their authority and they used the Roman governor as their shill to accomplish what they could not do legally. Pilate is made out to be an insightful man who just wants to keep the peace. His examination of Jesus leads him to two conclusions: that he is entirely innocent, and that he really is the Jewish Messiah. But . . . for the sake of order in the province he’s willing to go along with what the Temple priests apparently earnestly want. Just to underscore the point the gospels create this scene of Pilate displaying Jesus and Barabbas to the Jewish mob and asking which one they want freed, because, as governor, he has license to free one condemned man at Passover. The mob is content to free a murderer and let Jesus die. Can we really accept this scene historically?

That Jesus was condemned to death is beyond dispute. That a mob was asked to choose between him and another condemned man is highly questionable. Are we expected to believe that for a week Jesus was surrounded by adoring fans who were so loyal that the priests were afraid to even go near him, yet these very same people all of a sudden turned on him and wanted him dead? This strains credulity to the breaking point, although it makes good reading. Yup, mobs are fickle. This theme, in fact, permeates the gospels: Jesus performs miracles time and again, yet people, whilst being amazed at the time, simply turn away and go about their business. Why would they not do the same at a critical juncture?

It is unlikely in the extreme that Pilate had the capacity to release a condemned man on a holiday, and that, even if he had such leeway, he would use it. He decides Jesus is utterly innocent and Barabbas is completely guilty but lets the mob decide their fate? Seriously? I’ll happily accept that Roman authorities were arbitrarily capricious, but not that wanton. They had no qualms about crucifying hundreds of slaves who revolted to make a point; I can’t see Pilate letting a convicted murderer go on a whim.

Inasmuch as we can get at the truth at all I suspect that things were much less clear cut at the time. Certainly it was Passover time and feelings were high in Jerusalem. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the provinces had flocked into the city for this special occasion. Such pilgrims were especially attuned to the tenets of Jewish faith, otherwise they wouldn’t have been there. Many of them were taken with Jesus’ teaching because it was revolutionary. He was not condemning Jewish faith at root: far from it. He clearly affirmed the basics of Jewish teaching, but asserted that its basics had been subverted by rigid legalists, and the foundational message had been lost. Love (of God and others) comes first and the Law grows out of that, not the other way round. It’s that simple.

Some people were attracted to Jesus’ teaching, others weren’t. The Temple priests, notably, were not amused and wanted him out of the way. He was disrupting centuries old tradition that anchored Jewish identity (as well as their places in the hierarchy), even though it’s clear that he was a devout Jew in honoring the Passover, the Torah, and the like. His message was basic: “follow the spirit of the Law, not the letter.” The Romans would have been on edge at the time because the Passover’s clear message was that historically the Jews were enslaved by Egypt, but were miraculously freed under Moses. They could easily transform this message into rebellion against their current oppressors. The overarching outline of the gospels’ narrative is, therefore, likely to be accurate. Jesus was betrayed by one of his associates to the Temple priests, who, in turn, handed him over to the Roman leadership for disposal. The Romans were probably happy to oblige to keep the peace with the powers that be in the Jewish community, and that was that. All of Pilate’s wise philosophizing and hand wringing (and washing), is almost certainly an invention. This guy is a troublemaker; get rid of him. Case closed. His followers were left to make sense of all that followed.

Hot cross buns are the enduring staples of England and the nations of the former empire on this day. Good Friday just isn’t the same without one. I’ve never baked them myself because I’ve never seen the point. They are available, sometimes fresh from the oven, in bakeries and supermarkets worldwide. I can’t do any better.

Passionfruit strikes me as a much more interesting, and apposite, possibility for the day. I love the flowers and the fruit, which I use in a variety of ways. Early colonial missionaries in Latin America, when they discovered the indigenous vines, quickly exploited the complex flowers as a teaching tool. The flower has spikes protruding from the center, symbolizing the crown of thorns. Three stigmata symbolize the three nails and five anthers represent the five wounds Jesus received on the cross. The flower’s trailing tendrils were likened to the whips used in his scourging.

The vines are found everywhere these days. I’ve come across them in Argentina, Australia, Madeira, Kenya, Bermuda, China, and even spreading abundantly over a neighbor’s door when I lived for a short spell in the Oxfordshire countryside a few summers ago. As a boy I liked to have a passionfruit scooped out over vanilla ice cream – and still do. It’s a very easy and tasty treat. It’s hard to find unadulterated passionfruit juice, nectar, or preserves because of the expense involved. I don’t like mixtures with other fruit because the plain passionfruit pulp’s taste is exquisite. I’ll buy them only if I have no other choices. I have made passionfruit ice cream, which was heavenly, and soon gone.  Today I am making fresh whipped cream (unsweetened) with passionfruit pulp folded in. Sugar spoils the natural taste for me. All I’ll need is a spoon.


Mar 282017

According to the anonymous MS De Pascha Computus (How to Calculate Easter’s Date), written c. 243 CE by someone in north Africa (now called pseudo-Cyprian), the Sun and Moon were created by God on March 28th. So . . . Happy Birthday Sun and Moon.  Follow me as I map out a twisted trail of suspect beliefs and tortured logic.  Throughout Western history a great deal has hinged on how you calculate the date of Easter, not least being the enormous Gregorian calendar reform.  The simple statement that Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox barely scratches the surface. Moderns think of events such as the equinox and a full moon as astronomically observable events.  The ancients thought otherwise. These events were calendrically fixed by complex tables, which meant that the calendar had to be trustworthy, otherwise resultant computations would be off.  Our first mistake in trying to think like the ancients is to believe that they looked at the sun, moon, planets, and stars to determine dates.  WRONG!!!  If, for example, you think that your sign of the zodiac is determined by what constellation the sun is in on your birthday, think again. Your sign of the zodiac is determined by fixed charts, not by actual observation (at least according to classical methods).

From pre-Christian times March 25th was fixed as the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere in many (not all) cultures. Many of these cultures treated the equinox as the anniversary of the day of creation of the universe: all in one go.  De Pascha Computus follows this basic idea but uses the Genesis chronology.  Hence, the MS treats March 25th as the date of the first day of creation: the day of the creation of Light. March 28th is, therefore, the anniversary of the fourth day of creation, the date on which God created the Sun and the Moon. All kinds of wobbly logic follows on from here.

Some early Christian scholars equated the March 25th anniversary of the creation of Light with the conception of Jesus.  God’s pretty orderly, don’t you know – he’d want his son conceived on an important anniversary. If you calculate 9 months from the conception you wind up with December 25th as his date of birth.  What a surprise !!! Of course, I am fudging a lot of information and debates during the 2nd to 4th centuries. You’ll have to read a lot more to get the full story of why the Church settled on December 25th as Christmas.  What I can say unequivocally is that the Church did not adopt pagan traditions such as Sol Invictus or Saturnalia for the date of Christmas: quite the opposite. The early Church wanted to distance itself from non-Christian dating systems, including the Jewish calendar. Easter quite deliberately does not coincide with Passover even though the gospels are clear that Jesus was crucified (within a day) of when the Passover occurred. John places the crucifixion on the day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered for theological reasons.  The other gospels place the crucifixion on the day after the lambs were slaughtered. No matter. Without question, the first Easter happened in the Passover season, but the early Church was not interested in making Easter coincide with Passover in perpetuity. They were bent on divorcing Christianity from Judaism, so historical dates were an irrelevance.

One piece that came out of all of this was that the early Church associated Jesus with the Sun. In Malachi 4:2 the prophesied Messiah is called the “Sun of righteousness” and De Pascha Computus then suggests that if Jesus is the Sun he must have been born on the anniversary of the creation of the Sun. Hence for that author, and some others, Christmas should be on March 28th “O the splendid and divine providence of the Lord, that on that day, the very day, on which the sun was made, the 28 March, a Wednesday, Christ should be born. For this reason Malachi the prophet, speaking about him to the people, fittingly said, ‘Unto you shall the sun of righteousness arise, and healing is in his wings.'”

Confused yet?  Don’t worry. Ecclesiastical logic has always been strained, to put it mildly. I’m just messing with you.  What is pretty basic, however, is that the Sun and Moon, whether they were created on this date or not, are almost universally regarded as complementary opposites of one sort or another: Male/Female, Day/Night, Fire/Water, War/Peace . . . and so on. The one that leads to my recipe for today is Gold/Silver. This rather disregards the fact that according to modern physics the Sun is white (how else would it produce white light?). According to the testimony of our eyes the Sun is yellow (but bear in mind that the Moon is white because it reflects the light of the Sun. If the Sun were yellow the moon would be also).  My recipe is going to be about as far from the Christian West as you can get: 扬州炒饭 – Yangzhou Chao Fan – or Yangzhou-style egg fried rice, often known in China as gold over silver, or silver over gold fried rice, depending on how the eggs are cooked. In Western Chinese restaurants this dish is often called “special fried rice” and can vary enormously in ingredients and quality. Most I have tried are far from “special.” In China, Yangzhou Chao Fan comes towards the end of the meal as a grand finale, after soup and before the fruit (or sweet morsel). It is meant to be eaten by itself and is a BIG DEAL.  If you are fortunate enough to be visiting China and are invited to a banquet, beware.  You may be stunned by course after glorious course, but don’t fill up on them. When the Yangzhou Chao Fan appears at the end you are expected to praise it lavishly and eat heartily. You’ll be amazed at how much rice the Chinese can pack away. It’s a great insult to the host to simply pick at the dish because you’ve already gorged yourself.  As ever, I will give a simple caution: you will not replicate Chinese cooking in the West. Even if you own a wok your stove is not hot enough, trust me. Chinese stoves are like acetylene torches, and need to be for proper stir frying.  The good news is that the ingredients are easy to come by in the West. The recipe calls for cooked rice. This does not mean leftover rice you have hanging around. Cook the rice on the morning you are making the dish, drain it and cool it quickly to room temperature. Many, many variants exist, especially concerning ingredients.  My recipe is fairly traditional (and basic).

You have to decide, before you begin making this dish, whether you want the eggs to be ‘silver over gold’ or ‘gold over silver.’  In the first case you cook the eggs at the beginning, break them up, reserve them, and then add them to the fried rice at the end (the way I do it). In the second case you add the beaten egg to the hot rice and other ingredients when they are cooking, breaking up the eggs as they solidify.  Either way the eggs should be part yellow and part white which means that you should beat them only lightly so that the yolk and white are a little distinct. Master Chinese chefs can crack an egg into the rice as it cooks (without beating it first) and it turns out perfect. When I do it this way the dish is never even close to perfect.

Yangzhou Chao Fan


6 cups cold cooked rice
3 eggs, very lightly beaten
½ cup Chinese BBQ pork or Chinese sausage, finely diced
½  cup  raw small shrimp (or prawns)
4 spring onions, finely sliced, including the green parts
vegetable oil


Heat your wok on high heat, swirl in a little vegetable oil, let it heat, then add the eggs. Let them set quickly and break them up into small fragments. Set aside.

Heat the wok again, swirl in a little more oil if needed, and add the pork, shrimp, and onions. Cook for a minute or so, then add in the rice. Whilst stirring and tossing all the time, heat everything through. At the end add the egg fragments, mix thoroughly and serve very hot – immediately.

May 222016

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Today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, which is celebrated in all the Western liturgical churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist. In the Catholic Church it is officially known as the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it marked the end of a three-week period when church weddings were forbidden. The period began on Rogation Sunday, the fifth Sunday after Easter. The currently prescribed liturgical color is white.

Feasts within the church typically celebrate people or events. Trinity Sunday is rare in that it focuses on a theological doctrine. The trinity is an important building block of Christianity although the doctrine itself does not appear as such in the Bible. During the 2nd to 4th centuries (and later) there was enormous debate as to the exact nature of Jesus (known as the Christological problem). Was he created by God, or was he co-equal and co-existent with God? In other words, was he the same as God? Where does the Holy Spirit fit in ? I spent almost a whole year at Oxford (ironically including Trinity term) studying this problem in theology and was thoroughly bored by it. Still am. Is the trinity three intertwined infinite lines or cigar shaped over time? Yawn.

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The essentials of the doctrine grow out of John’s gospel and is not evident in other gospels. John states that Jesus is the creative Word of God in human form:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

John is deliberately echoing the opening of Genesis here, making it clear that Jesus and God are the same thing (with the Spirit of God added in for good measure).

Over the course of several centuries the official church hammered out the doctrine and enshrined it in three major creeds – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Subscribe to these creeds, and you are good to go; object to these creeds and you are a heretic. The doctrine is certainly a big puzzle. How can three things be one thing?  Usually it is explained as one thing having three manifestations – roughly (1) eternal being (2) human form (3) action. This is very rough. I won’t go into detail.

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The doctrine became official church dogma over the objections of early theologians such as Arius (250-336), who asserted that Jesus was created by God, and was therefore subordinate to him. The Ecumenical First Council of Nicaea of 325 deemed Arius’ philosophy (Arianism) to be a heresy. At the regional First Synod of Tyre in 335, Arius was exonerated. After his death, he was again anathemized and pronounced a heretic again at the Ecumenical First Council of Constantinople of 381.

To me, all these councils and arguments are a colossal waste of time. But they illuminate the inner workings of the official church (and why I have problems with organized religion). Arguments about the trinity were foundational in the split between Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054 meaning that in the course of 1000 years theologians could not agree. I tend to prefer Eastern approaches to Western ones. Western churches had a habit of using Aristotle and other philosophers to explain the nature of the trinity, whereas Eastern churches simply said that it could not be explained and should just be accepted as a mystery.  I’ll put it in simpler terms – don’t worry about it; get on with more important things.

In the traditional Divine Office of the Catholic Church, the Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult), which is now rarely used, is said on this day at Prime. Before 1960, it was said on numerous days after Epiphany and Pentecost including Trinity Sunday. The 1960 reforms reduced it to once a year, on this Sunday. It is said as a kind of memorial to old arguments.

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Trinity Sunday has the status of a Principal Feast in the Church of England and is one of seven principal feast days in the Episcopal Church. Thomas Becket (1118–70) was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, and his first act was to ordain that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honor of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from Canterbury throughout the whole of western Christendom.

Johann Sebastian Bach composed a number of cantatas for Trinity Sunday. Three of them are extant, including O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, BWV 165, Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding, BWV 176, and Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, BWV 129. This is my favorite:

Trinity term is the third and final term of the academic year at University of Oxford, the University of Dublin, Canterbury Christ Church University, and some independent schools in the United Kingdom. It runs from about mid April to about the end of June and is so named because Trinity Sunday falls within it.

The Cajun holy trinity, or holy trinity of Cajun cooking consists of onions, bell peppers and celery, the base for much of the cooking in the regional cuisines of Louisiana. The preparation of Cajun/Creole dishes such as étouffée, gumbo, and jambalaya all start from this base. The holy trinity is the Cajun and Louisiana Creole variant of mirepoix, Traditional mirepoix is 2 parts onions, 1 part carrots, and 1 part celery, whereas the holy trinity is 3 parts onions, 2 parts celery, 1 part green bell pepper.


Étouffée (or etouffee) is a dish found in both Cajun and Creole cuisine typically served with shellfish over rice. The dish employs a technique known as smothering, a popular method of cooking in the Cajun areas of southwest Louisiana. In French, the word “étouffée” (borrowed into English as “stuffed” or “stifled”) means, literally, “smothered” or “suffocated”, from the verb “étouffer.” Étouffée can be made with any shellfish such as crab or shrimp, though the most popular version of the dish is made with crayfish, locally referred to as “crawfish.” Étouffée is typically served over rice.

Here is an extremely simple recipe for crawfish étouffée which I use sometimes when I am in a hurry. It is very clean tasting and fresh. Some Cajun cooks use a dark roux as a thickener and add Cajun spices as well.  Do as you wish.

Crawfish Étouffée


4 oz butter
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped bell peppers
1 pound peeled crawfish tails
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp flour
1 cup water or fish broth
cayenne pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley
3 tbsp chopped green onions


Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, celery, and bell peppers and sauté until soft and golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the crawfish and bay leaves. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the crawfish, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.

Dissolve the flour in the water (or broth) and add to the crawfish mixture. Season to taste with salt and cayenne. Stir until the mixture thickens. Add the parsley and green onions and cook for about 2 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves and serve over plain boiled white rice.