Oct 172016


Today is the first full day of Sukkot or Succot (סֻכּוֹת), commonly translated into English as the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), a biblical Jewish holiday celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (varies from late September to late October). During the time of the Jerusalem Temple it was one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (שלוש רגלים‎‎, shalosh regalim) on which the people of Israel were commanded to perform a pilgrimage to the Temple (the others are Passover and Shavuot). I have not covered Passover yet, but Shavuot is here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/shavuot/ Looking at these three festivals as a secular anthropologist provides a different view of them from the way they are interpreted religiously – going all the way back to Temple times. I am very reluctant to talk about the “origins” of festivals, because in doing so we strip away all of the accumulated history associated with those festivals – which is not a reasonable thing to do. Festivals evolve over time and are continuously overlaid with new meanings on top of the old ones. So, what I have to say about the history of these festivals, especially Sukkot, is not meant to suggest that the birth of them represents the one true meaning of them. Birth is one strand in the complexly layered and continuing evolution of these festivals.


When I look at the symbolism of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot I see embedded in them three separate land-based traditions, pastoral and agricultural. Passover is about lambs, Shavuot about wheat, and Sukkot about fruit. I’ll leave aside my thoughts about the merging of pastoral and agricultural traditions for the moment. Let’s just focus on the clear symbolism of Sukkot. The two most important elements of Sukkot are the building of a Sukkah and the daily waving of the Four Species. The Sukkah is meant, deliberately, to be a temporary shelter, made of natural products and with the roof open partially to the elements. The faithful are supposed to eat their meals in the Sukkah, to entertain there, and some people even sleep there for the week of the festival. In modern times this can be a challenge, first in finding the natural materials to build the Sukkah with, and second, finding a place to build it. The whole point is to be out in the open, which is not exactly easy if you live in an apartment in a high-rise building in the midst of a teeming city.


The tradition of the Four Species comes from Leviticus 23:40 –  “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” This commandment is interpreted in various ways by different sects. The four elements are 1. Fruit  2. Palm branches 3. Leafy boughs 4. Willow boughs. Contemporary Jews keep a spray of the Four Species in the Sukkah and wave them ritually each day for seven days. Talmudic tradition interprets these as a citron, a date palm frond, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch.

There are two strands to Sukkot in the Torah, one in Exodus 34:22, the other in Leviticus 23:42-43. Talking about the books of the Torah is a very long discussion indeed. This is just a quick overview of my thoughts based on decades of study. Exodus is a complex document stitched together out of old sources. It is an historical narrative based on a defining moment for Jewish identity – the departure from bondage in Egypt and subsequent wandering in the desert. Its primary focus is Passover which is clearly a pastoral (animal herding) festival. But stitched into the fabric of this narrative are laws and obligations that derive from agricultural (farming) as well as pastoral traditions because the book was written for a society where there were both pastoral and agricultural regions and ethnicities that needed to be united. The book was probably started around 600 BCE when scholars and rulers were creating a national identity for the Judeans (Jews). They used history (as they knew it) to establish the meaning of laws and rituals. Leviticus is entirely about law and is a product of the Temple priests. It too was started around 600 BCE but with a different purpose. It assumes all of the history in Exodus and so is simply a tabulation of laws governing every aspect of life, including ritual, but adds an element of holiness, explaining why certain laws and traditions exist (usually more than just “God commands it”).


Exodus gives rules for observing Sukkot which make it clear that it is a fruit harvest celebration. A Sukkah is meant to resemble the temporary lodgings that the fruit harvesters built in the fields during harvest time so that they did not have to return to their city homes at night during an intense period when every hour of daylight was precious to secure the harvest as quickly as possible. Leviticus steps in and adds a layer that seeks to bring ALL celebrations in line with the founding narrative of the exodus and desert wandering. So it says that the Sukkah is meant to be a reminder of temporary dwellings whilst wandering in the desert. On the face of it this is patently absurd. Desert pastoralists don’t live in structures – temporary or permanent – made of wood. They live in tents. People who pick fruit in orchards have spare wood, desert nomads don’t. Yet Leviticus does not care about such anomalies – it wants a united nation, so logic takes a back seat.


If you are Jewish, you know what foods to celebrate Sukkot with. Different traditions have traditional favorites. If you have a Sukkah in your garden, all that is necessary is to cook in the kitchen and bring it out to the Sukkah to eat. Since citron is one of the Four Species it is a good ingredient to work with. Citron is one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin, and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization. It is not always easy to find because it is difficult to work with. Unlike common modern citrus fruits, the pulp of the citron is not useful, but it has a thick rind that can be used for cooking – usually with sugar. Candied citron is its most common usage. It can be eaten as is, or incorporated into other recipes.


Candied Citron


2 citrons
3 cups sugar (600g), plus 1 cup (100g) for tossing the finished fruit
2 cups (500ml) water


Wash and dry the citrons. Cut them in half and remove the pulp, then cut them into 1/2-inch (2cm) cubes. Put the pieces in a large saucepan, cover with a sufficient amount of water so it won’t boil away, and blanch the citron pieces in barely simmering water for 30 to 40 minutes.

Drain the citron pieces. Put them back in the pot with 3 cups (600g) of sugar and 2 cups (500ml) of  water.

Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot and cook the citron until the temperature reaches 230ºF. (110ºC)

Turn off the heat and let the citron pieces sit in the syrup for one hour.

The candied citron will stay preserved in the syrup in the refrigerator for at least one year. To use the citron, let the peel sit in a strainer for a couple of hours, stirring it occasionally, to let as much of the syrup drip away as possible. The syrup should be reserved for other uses.

When drained, toss the pieces of citron in sugar and let them sit on a wire rack overnight to dry out. Shake off the excess sugar, which you can reserve for other uses and store the citron in an airtight container.

Sep 152016


Today begins the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival (Simplified Chinese: 中秋节, Vietnamese: tết Trung Thu, Korean: 추석), a harvest festival celebrated by ethnic Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese people worldwide. The festival begins on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, corresponding to a date in late September or early October in the Gregorian calendar that ushers in the full moon. It is also a public holiday in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong. The full moon is actually tomorrow (16th ) in Europe and the day after (17th ) in Asia.

Europeans have not cornered the market on nonsense spouted about the ancient “origins” of calendar customs; Asians have their fair share too. In the case of Mid-Autumn Festival in China there is a degree of legitimacy to the notion that it is an ancient festival, but only a degree. The Chinese have celebrated the harvest during the autumn full moon since the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th to 10th century BCE). What this festival looked like is anyone’s guess. Morris Berkowitz, who studied the Hakka people during the 1960s, theorizes that the harvest celebration originally began with worshiping Mountain Gods after the harvest was completed. Supposedly, for the Baiyue peoples, the harvest time commemorated the dragon who brought rain for the crops. Both are speculations based on little evidence. The celebration as a festival did not start to gain popularity until the early Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). One legend says that Emperor Xuanzong of Tang started to hold formal celebrations in his palace after having explored the Moon-Palace (that is, he visited the moon).


The term mid-autumn (中秋) first appeared in Rites of Zhou, a written collection of rituals of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE). Empress Dowager Cixi (late 19th century) enjoyed celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival so much that she would spend the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth day of the eighth month staging elaborate rituals.


An important part of the festival celebration was moon worship, now softened to moon symbolism. The ancient Chinese believed in rejuvenation being associated with the moon and water, and connected this concept to the menstruation of women, calling it “monthly water.” (which is pretty much what “menstruate” means without the “water” bit). The Zhuang people, for example, have an ancient fable saying the sun and moon are a couple and the stars are their children, and when the moon is pregnant, it becomes round, and then becomes crescent after giving birth to a child. These stories made it popular among women to give offerings to the moon on this evening. Customs such as this one are rare in China now.


Offerings were also made to a more well-known lunar deity, Chang’e, known as the Moon Goddess of Immortality. One version of the story is as follows:

In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yi who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang’e. One year, ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yi shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yi and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yi did not want to leave Chang’e and be immortal without her, so he let Chang’e keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the 15th of the 8th month in the lunar calendar, when Yi went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yi’s house and forced Chang’e to give the elixir to him. Chang’e refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved her husband very much and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yi came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang’e liked in his garden and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang’e they participated in these sacrifices with Yi.


In more agrarian times, the festival was a time to enjoy the successful reaping of rice and wheat with food offerings made in honor of the moon. Today, it is still an occasion for outdoor reunions among friends and relatives, to eat mooncakes, and to watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity. The festival is celebrated with many cultural or regional customs including:

Burning incense

Dragon and lion dances (especially in southern China and Vietnam)



A notable part of celebrating the holiday is the carrying of brightly lit lanterns, lighting lanterns on towers, or floating sky lanterns. Another tradition involving lanterns is to write riddles on them and have other people try to guess the answers. It is difficult to discern the original purpose of lanterns in connection to the festival, but it is certain that lanterns were not used in conjunction with moon-worship prior to the Tang Dynasty. Traditionally, the lantern has been used to symbolize fertility, and functioned mainly as a toy and decoration. But today the lantern has come to symbolize the festival itself.

As China gradually evolved from an agrarian society to a mixed agrarian-commercial one, traditions from other festivals began to be transmitted into the Mid-Autumn Festival, such as the putting of lanterns on rivers to guide the spirits of the drowned as practiced during the Ghost Festival, which is observed a month before. Hong Kong fishermen during the Qing Dynasty, for example, would put up lanterns on their boats for the Ghost Festival and keep the lanterns up until Mid-Autumn Festival.


In Vietnam, children participate in parades in the dark under the full moon with lanterns of various forms, shapes, and colors. Traditionally, lanterns signified the wish for the sun’s light and warmth to return after winter. In addition to carrying lanterns, the children also wore masks. Elaborate masks were made of papier-mâché, though it is more common to find masks made of plastic nowadays. Handcrafted shadow lanterns were an important part of Mid-Autumn displays since the 12th century Ly dynasty, often of historical figures from Vietnamese history. Handcrafted lantern-making has declined in modern times due to the availability of mass-produced plastic lanterns, which often depict internationally recognized characters such as Pokémon’s Pikachu, Disney characters, SpongeBob SquarePants and Hello Kitty.

maf9 maf16

Making and sharing mooncakes is one of the hallmark traditions of this festival. In Chinese culture, a round shape symbolizes completeness and reunion. Thus, the sharing and eating of round mooncakes among family members during the week of the festival signify the completeness and unity of families. In some areas of China, there is a tradition of making mooncakes during the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The senior person in that household cuts the mooncakes into pieces and distribute them to each family member, signifying family reunion. In modern times, however, making mooncakes at home has given way to the more popular custom of giving mooncakes to family members, although the meaning of maintaining familial unity remains.

maf10 Huge mooncake appears in central China

Although typical mooncakes can be around a few inches in diameter, imperial chefs have made some as large as several feet in diameter, with its surface impressed with designs of Chang’e, cassia trees, or the Moon-Palace. One tradition is to pile 13 mooncakes on top of each other to mimic a pagoda, the number 13 being chosen to represent the 13 months in a full lunar year.

According to Chinese folklore, a Turpan businessman offered cakes to Emperor Taizong of Tang in his victory against the Xiongnu on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Taizong took the round cakes and pointed to the moon with a smile, saying, “I’d like to invite the toad to enjoy the hú (胡) cake.” After sharing the cakes with his ministers, the custom of eating these hú cakes spread throughout the country. Eventually these became known as mooncakes. Although the legend explains the beginnings of mooncake-giving, its popularity and ties to the festival began during the Song Dynasty (906–1279 CE).

Another popular legend concerns the Han Chinese’s uprising against the ruling Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty (1280–1368 CE), in which the Han Chinese used traditional mooncakes to conceal the message that they were to rebel on Mid-Autumn Day. Because of strict controls on Han Chinese families imposed by the Mongols in which only 1 out of every 10 households was allowed to own a knife guarded by a Mongolian guard, this coordinated message was important to gather as many available weapons as possible.

maf18 maf19

Imperial dishes served on this occasion included nine-jointed lotus roots which symbolize peace, and watermelons cut in the shape of lotus petals which symbolize reunion. Teacups were placed on stone tables in the garden, where the family would pour tea and chat, waiting for the moment when the full moon’s reflection appeared in the center of their cups. Owing to the timing of the plant’s blossoms, cassia wine is the traditional choice for the “reunion wine” drunk on the occasion. Also, people will celebrate by eating cassia cakes and candy.

Food offerings made to deities were placed on an altar set up in the courtyard, including apples, pears, peaches, grapes, pomegranates, melons, oranges, and pomelos. One of the first decorations purchased for the celebration table was a clay statue of the Jade Rabbit. In Chinese folklore, the Jade Rabbit was an animal that lived on the moon and accompanied Chang’e. Offerings of soy beans and cockscomb flowers were made to the Jade Rabbit. Nowadays, in southern China, people will also eat some seasonal fruit that may differ in different district but carrying the same meaning of blessing.

I gave a pretty complete description of mooncakes here — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/giordano-bruno-crater/  No need to repeat myself. Most Chinese buy them rather than make them these days. You’ll find them on sale everywhere from regular markets to street stalls. For today’s celebration I recommend dragon fruit also known as pitaya.


Sweet pitayas come in three species, all with leathery, slightly leafy skin:

Hylocereus undatus (Pitaya blanca or white-fleshed pitaya) has red-skinned fruit with white flesh. This is the most commonly seen dragon fruit.

Hylocereus costaricensis (Pitaya roja or red-fleshed pitaya, also known as Hylocereus polyrhizus) has red-skinned fruit with red flesh.

Hylocereus megalanthus (Pitaya amarilla or yellow pitaya, also known as Selenicereus megalanthus) has yellow-skinned fruit with white flesh.


Dragon fruit are very common in Asia but you won’t find them often in the West, although popularity is increasing. They’re touted for their health benefits, but they don’t appear to have much more in the way of nutrients than other more common fruit. I had them first in Hong Kong a couple of years ago and was not hugely impressed. They’re rather bland, in the same ballpark as kiwis. I ended up mixing mine with other fruit in a fruit salad. That works for me.


Jun 222013

Thomas More  Thomas More2
Today is the feast day of St Thomas More (1478 – 1535), perhaps more widely known (outside the Catholic church) as Sir Thomas More, English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, and noted Renaissance humanist. He was an adviser to Henry VIII, until things went south between them, and was Lord Chancellor from October 1529 to 16 May 1532. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935 as one of the early martyrs of the schism that separated the Church of England from Rome in the 16th century.

More was the son of a prestigious London lawyer and went to the best schools.  Because of his father’s influence he became a page in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury who nominated him for a place at Oxford University.  He excelled at the classics there before going to the Inns of Court to train as a lawyer.  His rise in politics and the royal court was meteoric, eventually becoming a close personal adviser to the king, along with holding high positions.  Were it not for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent split with the Catholic church, life would have been rosy for More.  But More was an ardent supporter of the papacy and, though he tried to walk the razor’s edge with the king, found his personal faith at odds with royal politics.  He did acquiesce to the divorce and subsequent remarriage of the king to Anne Boleyn (although his absence from the wedding, on the flimsy excuse of ill health,  was not taken lightly).  Eventually he fell from grace and was executed for treason for refusing to accept that Henry was the head of the church, rather than the pope.

The contemporary opinion of More by historians is sharply divided.  There is no question that he was a man of his convictions and was willing to die for them rather than recant.  But it is not always obvious what those convictions were, and some of them do not sit well with modern scholars.  In his early years he was a noted humanist and close friend of Erasmus, arguably the greatest humanist of his day. More believed in equal education for men and women, and under his teaching his eldest daughter, Margaret, became a very proficient scholar of Greek and Latin, noted by many for her erudition.  More’s most famous work, Utopia, seems to be full of progressive ideas.  The book describes a fictional island where everyone is happy (Utopia is Greek for “happy place” but can also be translated as “nowhere”).  Jewels are considered worthless and are used only as children’s toys; everyone works equally and there are no positions of power; all property is held in common; men and women are equals; and, all religious ideas are tolerated.  It is not entirely clear whether the work is meant to be taken seriously as an ideal, or as a parody of these ideals.  Hints that it is a parody are sprinkled around.  For example, the narrator is called Hythlodaeus (Greek for “dispenser of nonsense”).

Counter to the views expressed in Utopia, More was far from tolerant of religious differences in his professional life.  As Lord Chancellor he ordered the works of Martin Luther, as well as William Tyndale’s English Bible, burnt, and condemned at least six men to be burnt at the stake as heretics for espousing Protestant views.  He saw Protestant theology as destructive to social order and unity, and wrote a number of vitriolic works condemning them.  No one is quite sure what happened to his former allegiance to humanism.  The best I can muster is that, like all thoughtful people, he was a complex man.  These days many people tend to write off his religious intolerance as the product of his times, and praise him for holding to his convictions, though they cost him his life. After his death Erasmus wrote that More was a man “whose soul was more pure than any snow, whose genius was such that England never had and never again will have its like”. Noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in 1977 that More was “the first great Englishman whom we feel that we know, the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints, the universal man of our cool northern renaissance.”

For recipes to honor Thomas More I thought I would change gears a little and dip into a cookbook that was published shortly after More’s death, and which certainly reflects recipes of his day: A Propre new booke of Cokery.  The recipes are all pretty basic and easy to follow if you are an experienced cook.  I present them here in their original form.  You should be able to interpret them easily enough if you sound the words out loud.  I was rather surprised to note the heavy use of saffron for flavoring in all manner of dishes. Obviously oriental spices were prohibitively expensive for most cooks on an everyday basis, so locally grown seasonings played a significant role, including some that are not so common any more, such as bergamot, rue, and borage.  Verjuice, was also a common ingredient; not much used in modern cookery until a recent renewed interest.  Verjuice (“vergis”) is made by pressing sour juices from unripe grapes or apples.  Some modern cooks use it in salad dressings to replace the vinegar because it is milder and does not clash with wines as much. It is readily available online. I tend to use lemon or lime juice as a substitute. The beans in the recipe here would have been fresh broad beans (fava beans). Sopps are slices of old bread used to mop up broths and sauces. The recipe for vautes is quite typical in its combination of meat, fruit, and spices.  In case it is not clear, these are omelets stuffed with a meat/fruit mixture bound with egg yolk.

Recipes from A Propre new booke of Cokery (1545)

To make a stewed brothe for Capons / mutton / biefe / or any other hote meate / and also a brothe for all manar of freshe fisshe

Take halfe a handfull of rosemary and as muche of tyme / and bynde it on a bundell with threde after it is washen / and put it in the pot / after that the pot is clene skynned / and lette it boile a while / then cut soppes of white bread and put them in a great charger and put on the same skaldynge broth / and whan it is soken ynough / strayne it through a strayner with a quantitie of wyne or good Ale / so that it be not to tarte / and when it is strayned / poure it in a pot and than put in your raysons and prunes and so let them boyle tyll the meate be inough. If the broath be to sweete / put in the more wyne / orels a lytell vyneger.

To frye Beanes

Take your Beanes and boyle them and put them into a fryenge pan with a disshe of butter & one or two onyons and so let them fry tyll they be browne all together / than cast a lytell salt upon them / & than serue them forth.

To make Vautes

Take the kidney of veale and perboile it till it be tender / then take and chop it smal with the yolkes of thre or four egges then ceason it with dates small cutte / small reysons / gynger suger synamon / saffron and a little salte / and for the paest to laye it in / take a dozen of egges bothe the white and the yolkes / and beate theim well all togyther then take butter and put it into a fryyng panne and frye theim as thyn as a pancake then laie your stuffe there in and so frye them togyther in a pan and cast suger and gynger vpon it and so serue it forth.