Apr 272016


Today is the birthday (1759) of Mary Wollstonecraft, English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. During her brief career, she wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be so only because they frequently lack the education that men receive. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. Nowadays anyone who has half a brain takes her ideas as self evident, but in her day they were revolutionary.

Until the late 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s personal life received more attention than her writing. After two ill-fated affairs, with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay (by whom she had a daughter, Fanny Imlay), Wollstonecraft married the philosopher William Godwin, one of the prime movers in the anarchist movement. She died at the age of 38, eleven days after giving birth to her second daughter, leaving behind several unfinished manuscripts. This daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, had an illustrious career of her own as a writer, although tends to be remembered as the wife of Percy Shelley and the author of Frankenstein (as Mary Shelley) https://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-shelley/

After Wollstonecraft’s death, Godwin published a Memoir (1798) of her life, revealing her unorthodox lifestyle, which inadvertently destroyed her reputation for almost a century. However, with the emergence of the feminist movement at the turn of the 20th century, Wollstonecraft’s advocacy of women’s equality and critiques of conventional femininity became increasingly important. Today Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, and feminists often cite both her life and work as important influences.


To be blunt, I’d classify you as a moron if you judge the value of people’s work by the manner in which they choose  to live their lives. Granted, certain writers can be branded as hypocrites if they say one thing and do the opposite. But that fact does not diminish the value of their work. Men are often guilty of such hypocrisy, yet frequently judged less harshly than women for the same behavior. Wollstonecraft can hardly be called a hypocrite; she lived according to the values that she preached. Yet she was judged harshly for over a century because she did not conform to the social mores of her times (as well as later times). This too is rank hypocrisy.  There are plenty of famous men of the 18th and 19th centuries who flouted the norms of marriage, and yet their behavior is excused or treated as a minor footnote to the “greatness” of their work. I rather hope there comes a time (probably not in my lifetime) when ideas are judged on their own merits, and not ranked according to the perceived social value of their authors. I also hope there comes a time when a person (male or female) is not termed a “feminist” for believing that men and women should have the same rights and benefits, but is called “rational” and a person who does not, “bigot.”

In this light I am going to downplay what people have judged the prurient aspects of Wollstonecraft’s and, instead, say a little about her life challenges. Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields in London. She was the second of the seven children of Edward John Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Dixon. Although her family had a comfortable income when she was a child, her father gradually squandered it on speculative projects. Consequently, the family became financially unstable and they were frequently forced to move during Wollstonecraft’s youth. The family’s financial situation eventually became so dire that Wollstonecraft’s father compelled her to turn over money that she would have inherited at her maturity. Moreover, he was a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Wollstonecraft used to lie outside the door of her mother’s bedroom to protect her.

Two friendships shaped Wollstonecraft’s early life. The first was with Jane Arden in Beverley. The two frequently read books together and attended lectures presented by Arden’s father, a self-styled philosopher and scientist. Wollstonecraft reveled in the intellectual atmosphere of the Arden household and valued her friendship with Arden greatly. In some of Wollstonecraft’s letters to Arden, she reveals the volatile and depressive emotions that would haunt her throughout her life.

The second and more important friendship was with Fanny (Frances) Blood, introduced to Wollstonecraft by the Clares, a couple in Hoxton who became parental figures to her. Wollstonecraft credited Blood with opening her mind. Wollstonecraft was unhappy with her home life and, in consequence, struck out on her own in 1778, accepting a job as a lady’s companion to Sarah Dawson, a widow living in Bath. However, Wollstonecraft had trouble getting along with the irascible woman (an experience she drew on when describing the drawbacks of such a position in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). In 1780 she returned home, called back to care for her dying mother. Rather than return to Dawson’s employ after the death of her mother, Wollstonecraft moved in with the Bloods. She realized during the two years she spent with the family that she had idealized Blood, who was more invested in traditional feminine values than was Wollstonecraft at the time. But Wollstonecraft remained dedicated to her and her family throughout her life, and frequently gave financial assistance to Blood’s brother.


Wollstonecraft had envisioned living in a female utopia with Blood. They made plans to rent rooms together and support each other emotionally and financially, but this dream collapsed under economic realities. In order to make a living, Wollstonecraft, her sisters, and Blood set up a school together in Newington Green, a Dissenting community. Blood soon became engaged and after their marriage her husband, Hugh Skeys, took her to Lisbon to improve her health, which had always been precarious. Despite the change of surroundings, Blood’s health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Wollstonecraft left the school and followed Blood to nurse her, but to no avail. Moreover, her abandonment of the school led to its failure. Blood’s death devastated Wollstonecraft and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).

After Blood’s death, Wollstonecraft’s friends helped her obtain a position as governess to the daughters of the Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family in Ireland. Although she could not get along with Lady Kingsborough, the children found her an inspiring instructor. Margaret King later wrote that she “had freed her mind from all superstitions”. Some of Wollstonecraft’s experiences during this year would make their way into her only children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788).

Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women—an impediment which Wollstonecraft eloquently describes in the chapter of Thoughts on the Education of Daughters entitled “Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left Without a Fortune”—she decided, after only a year as a governess, to embark upon a career as an author. This was a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing. As she wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become “the first of a new genus”. She moved to London and, assisted by the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. She learned French and German and translated texts, most notably Of the Importance of Religious Opinions by Jacques Necker and Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children by Christian Gotthilf Salzmann. She also wrote reviews, primarily of novels, for Johnson’s periodical,  Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft’s intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading that she did for her reviews but also from the company she kept: she attended Johnson’s famous dinners and met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. The first time Godwin and Wollstonecraft met, they were both disappointed in each other. Godwin had come to hear Paine, but Wollstonecraft assailed him all night long, disagreeing with him on nearly every subject. Johnson himself, however, became much more than a friend. She described him in her letters as a father and a brother.


While in London, Wollstonecraft pursued a relationship with the artist Henry Fuseli, even though he was married. She was, she wrote, enraptured by his genius, “the grandeur of his soul, that quickness of comprehension, and lovely sympathy”. She proposed a platonic living arrangement with Fuseli and his wife, but Fuseli’s wife was appalled, and he broke off the relationship with Wollstonecraft.  After Fuseli’s rejection, Wollstonecraft decided to travel to France to escape the humiliation of the incident, and to participate in the revolutionary events that she had just celebrated in her recent Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). She had written the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and it made her famous overnight. She was compared with such leading lights as the theologian and controversialist Joseph Priestley and Paine, whose Rights of Man (1791) was the most popular of the responses to Burke. She pursued the ideas she had outlined in Rights of Men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), her most famous and influential work.

For a variety of reasons Wollstonecraft returned to London in April 1795. Gradually, Wollstonecraft returned to her literary life, becoming involved with Joseph Johnson’s circle again, in particular with Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sarah Siddons through William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s courtship began slowly, but it eventually became a passionate love affair. Godwin had read her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and later wrote: “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration.” Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin received  criticism because he had advocated the abolition of marriage in his philosophical treatise Political Justice. After their marriage on 29 March 1797, they moved into two adjoining houses, known as The Polygon, so that they could both still retain their independence. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and stable, though brief, relationship.


On 30 August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary. Although the delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected; puerperal  fever was a common and often fatal occurrence in the 18th century. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on 10 September. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft, “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, “Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797.


There is no better source for a recipe to celebrate Wollstonecraft than Hanna Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Simple (1749). Glasse was a woman in Wollstonecraft’s mold. She was the family breadwinner because her husband John Glasse could not make a decent living, and she wrote the book to train up literate girls to be professional cooks, a profession dominated by men at the time. In fact, for many years it was believed that the book was written by a man because it was assumed that a woman was incapable of producing such a work. The original edition gave simply “A Lady” as the author. The book opens:

I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon … If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven ; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way … So as in many other things in cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.


Here’s her original recipe for Portugal cakes:

MIX into a pound of fine flour, a pound of loaf sugar beat and sifted, then rub it into a pound of pure sweet butter till it is thick like grated white-bread, then put to it two spoonfuls of rose-water, two of sack, ten eggs, whip them very well with a whisk, then mix into eight ounces of currants, mixed all well together; butter the tin pans, fill them but half full and bake them; if made without currants they will keep half a year; add a pound of almonds blanched and beat with rose-water, as above, and leave out the flour.   These are another sort, and better.


It’s a bit obscure at the end, but reasonably clear overall. The basic recipe is made with wheat flour, but she is suggesting that it is finer if you use almond flour. She says “almonds blanched” but you are meant to understand that the almonds are beaten to flour. You can buy almond flour (sometimes called “almond meal”) at health food stores. It makes very rich cakes. Go careful, though, and don’t do this too often because almonds are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Sack is sweet sherry.  I would halve the recipe and use decorative muffin tins, rather than baking a single cake. Bake in a 375°F/190°C oven for 20 minutes. Serve with tea or a glass of sherry.

Oct 052015


On this date in 1969 Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast on BBC One for the first time. It lasted for 4 seasons and I saw every episode when it was aired originally. This took a lot of doing because I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and in those days we had ONE television in the whole college. So we would all cram in to the television room to watch. It was a great way to see it for the first time – 80 students crowded into a tiny room, laughing like mad through it all. Memorable times.

My chief inclination in this post is simply to embed a bunch of my favorite clips and leave it at that. But perhaps I should ramble on a bit. The 1960s was a tremendously fertile period for British television comedy. The Pythons emerged from this incredible richness largely because their fortuitous coming together from other diverse shows, where they were both writers and actors, created a perfect blend. They also benefitted later from international syndication and by moving from television to film making. I was a fan of their work (separately) on such series as I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (radio) [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle and Chapman: writers],The Frost Report [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle: writer of Frost’s monologues] – [Chapman, Palin and Jones: writers] At Last the 1948 Show [Chapman and Cleese: writers and cast members] – [Idle: writer], and Do Not Adjust Your Set [Idle, Jones, and Palin: cast members and writers] – [Gilliam: animation]. I really liked these shows, but Monty Python was clearly a step above – right from the start.

Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, ITV offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin their own late-night comedy series together. At the same time, Chapman and Cleese were offered a show by the BBC, who had been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-person show for various reasons, including Chapman’s supposedly difficult and erratic personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin on How To Irritate People and invited him to join the team. With no studio available at ITV until summer 1970 for the late-night show, Palin agreed to join Cleese and Chapman, and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn wanted Gilliam to provide animations for the projected series. The Pythons were born.


From the outset the team was disciplined and organized (which Jones later ascribed to Cleese in a rather negative way). Script writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea funny, it was included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly egalitarian process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a writer, rather than as an actor eager for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had a free hand in bridging them with animations.


While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were responsible for elements of the team’s humor. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members (Jones and Palin) was more visual, and more fanciful conceptually (e.g., the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in a suburban front room), while the Cambridge graduates’ sketches tended to be more verbal and more aggressive (for example, Cleese and Chapman’s many “confrontation” sketches, where one character intimidates or hurls abuse, or Idle’s characters with bizarre verbal quirks, such as “The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams”). Cleese wrote that “most of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham’s and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry’s, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric’s”. Gilliam’s animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).


Everyone has their own personal favorite Python actors. I am not alone in finding the combination of Cleese and Palin hysterical. The “Dead Parrot” sketch is an everlasting favorite with all audiences. The others I cared for somewhat less, but their work in concert was stellar. I can’t say I ever cared for Gilliam’s animations; they seemed intrusive, pointless, and very repetitive. Gilliam did, however, go on to great (often disturbing) film production. I reflect on his oeuvre in a separate post https://www.bookofdaystales.com/terry-gilliam/ Repetitiveness proved to be the downfall of the series. Cleese left after 3 seasons because he felt they were just rehashing old material, and, indeed, season 4 was not very good – season 3 was not their best either, showing signs of staleness. The evergreens come from seasons 1 & 2. The good news is that in branching into film the team blossomed in new ways. They were still episodic, like the series, but much more thematic, with linking threads. The Meaning of Life is my absolute favorite in this regard. Absolutely brilliant from start to finish. Here’s the “Galaxy Song”

You can find the full movie of Monty Python and the Holy Grail here:


One of several of my favorite scenes from the film is this one where Palin plays a politically astute peasant to Chapman’s uptight Arthur:

My all time favorite sketch from the original series is “The Cheese Shop,” which is a perfect bridge to a recipe.

Among other things, Cleese gives a fairly comprehensive listing of world cheeses here, so you could just celebrate with a cheese platter. But I’ve already covered that base several times, as well as talking about individual cheeses. What I think hits the mark is a great British light dish: Welsh Rarebit. The Pythons did take jabs at all nationalities from time to time, but the core of their humor was poking fun at British culture, including some British foods – notably baked beans and Spam (which is not British but has taken root). My mum used to make Welsh Rarebit for weekend suppers when we had our main meal in the middle of the day. She called it Welsh Rabbit which is the older pronunciation and spelling. “Rarebit” probably came about as a way of indicating that it was not a rabbit or meat dish. I’ll use either term.

Hannah Glasse, in The Art of Cookery (1747), gives recipes for “Scotch rabbit”, “Welch rabbit” and two versions of “English rabbit,” so we could be thoroughly British:

To make a Scotch rabbit, toast the bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.

To make a Welch rabbit, toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and with a hot iron brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard.

To make an English rabbit, toast the bread brown on both sides, lay it in a plate before the fire, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up. Then cut some cheese very thin and lay it very thick over the bread, put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.

Or do it thus. Toast the bread and soak it in the wine, set it before the fire, rub butter over the bottom of a plate, lay the cheese on, pour in two or three spoonfuls of white wine, cover it with another plate, set it over a chafing-dish of hot coals for two or three minutes, then stir it till it is done and well mixed. You may stir in a little mustard; when it is enough lay it on the bread, just brown it with a hot shovel.

These are all little more than grilled cheese on toast, which I am certainly quite fond of as a snack. But Welsh Rarebit nowadays is customarily a spicy cheese sauce spread over toast. Usually the sauce is flavored with hot mustard and Worcestershire sauce. The best cheese is sharp cheddar. Cayenne pepper and/or paprika may also be used. I have seen old recipes involving beer and cheese only, and you can still use dark beer if you wish. But it is more common to use milk or cream. With this recipe I give you lots of options.


Welsh Rarebit


375 g mature cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
30 g butter
30 g flour
125 ml milk, cream, or dark beer
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp English mustard powder
1 pinch cayenne powder (optional)
paprika (optional)
4 toast slices


Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler. Add the flour and whisk to form a white roux. Slowly add the milk, cream or beer, whisking constantly until the mixture is thick. Then whisk in the Worcestershire sauce and mustard (and cayenne if you wish).

Add the grated cheese a little at a time whilst continuing to whisk until the whole mixture is thoroughly combined.

Pour the mixture over hot toast. Garnish with paprika if you wish.

Some people run the sauce on toast under the broiler to brown it before serving.

Jun 302015


Today is the birthday (1685) of John Gay, an English poet and dramatist, and member of the Scriblerus Club (whose core included Gay’s friends Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.). He is best remembered for The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a ballad opera that lampooned both Italian opera and contemporary English society. For a period of about three years I lived, breathed, and dreamed The Beggar’s Opera when I produced it for a Catskills (New York) opera company (my humble self playing Macheath). I felt the need to introduce contemporary audiences to the 18th century ballad opera through a series of stage productions I wrote – notably The Beggar’s Prologue (mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone) – before springing the full production on local audiences. Many, many of the tunes have a fascinating history in their own right. Take the tune for “Cease Your Funning,” for example, which I have in 56 settings from Purcell to Britten. It can be found as a hymn tune (Westminster), a string quartet, an aria, a morris dance tune (in at least 12 variants, major and minor), and so on. Why it was endlessly popular baffles me. Here’s Beethoven’s setting of it – mysteriously labeled a “Scottish Song” (op.156#5):


The work took satiric aim at the passionate interest of the upper classes in Italian opera, and simultaneously set out to lampoon the notable Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. It also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, primarily through the comparison of low-class thieves and prostitutes with their aristocratic and bourgeois “betters.” Gay’s essential point is that corruption is corruption whatever level of society you are looking at – the only difference being that the upper classes get away with it and the lower classes get hanged. Things haven’t changed much since Gay’s time !!


The Beggar’s Opera opens with Peachum, a fence, justifying his actions by comparing them with those of politicians. Mrs. Peachum, overhearing her husband blacklisting of unproductive thieves, protests regarding one of them, Bob Booty (the nickname of Robert Walpole). The Peachums then discover that Polly, their daughter, has secretly married Macheath, the infamous highwayman, who is Peachum’s principal client. Upset to find out that he will no longer be able to use Polly in his business, Peachum and his wife ask how Polly will support such a husband “in Gaming, Drinking and Whoring.” Nevertheless, they conclude that the match may make sense if the husband can be killed for his money. They leave to carry out this errand. Meanwhile Macheath enters and in learning of her parents’ scheme to sell him to the authorities, decides to go into hiding (although, in truth, his main aim is to avoid the consequences of his marriage to Polly).


Macheath goes to a tavern where he is surrounded by his gang and then by women of dubious virtue who, despite their class, compete in displaying perfect drawing-room manners, although the subject of their conversation is their success in picking pockets and shoplifting. Macheath discovers, too late, that two of them (Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry) have contracted with Peachum to capture him, and he becomes a prisoner in Newgate prison. The prison is run by Peachum’s associate, the corrupt jailer Lockit. His daughter, Lucy Lockit, has the opportunity to scold Macheath for having agreed to marry her and then broken this promise. She tells him that to see him tortured would give her pleasure. Macheath pacifies her, but Polly arrives and claims him as her husband. Macheath tells Lucy that Polly is crazy. Lucy helps Macheath to escape by stealing her father’s keys. Her father learns of Macheath’s promise to marry her and worries that if Macheath is recaptured and hanged, his fortune might be subject to Peachum’s claims. Lockit and Peachum discover Macheath’s hiding place and agree to split his fortune.


Meanwhile, Polly visits Lucy to try to reach an agreement, but Lucy tries to poison her. Polly narrowly avoids the poisoned drink, and the two girls find out that Macheath has been recaptured owing to the duplicity of the inebriated Mrs Diana Trapes. They plead with their fathers for Macheath’s life. However, Macheath now finds that four more pregnant women each claim him as their husband and declares that he is ready to be hanged. The narrator (the Beggar), notes that although in a properly moral ending Macheath and the other villains would be hanged, the audience demands a happy ending, and so Macheath is reprieved, and all are invited to a dance of celebration, to celebrate his wedding to Polly.


The opera does not create the sensation these days that it did when it was first produced, largely because the language is difficult for modern audiences, and the tunes that were popular in their time are now not well known. But, with suitable staging, these difficulties can be overcome. The underlying story and themes remain current, and the opera has been reworked many times to a greater or lesser extent. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera is the most well known reworking. Go here for my appraisal: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-threepenny-opera/ Even Brecht and Weill are now rather stale although their “Mac the Knife” still has currency as a classic cabaret piece. Revivals of The Beggar’s Opera still fill theaters because its basic social and political critique – rather depressingly – never loses its force.


Curiously Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1st ed. 1747) resonates with the class themes of The Beggar’s Opera. From her introduction:

I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet though worth their while to write upon … If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven ; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way … So as in many other things in cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.


As Gay decried the high-flown style of Italian opera, so Glasse lampoons the manners of Frenchified chefs, preferring plain and simple cooking instead. However, most of her recipes are incomprehensible to the modern cook. Take this one – one of my favorites:

LARKS, roast them, and for Sauce have Crumbs of Bread; done thus: Take a Sauce-pan or Stew-pan and some Butter; when melted, have a good Piece of Crumb of Bread, and rub it in a clean Cloth to Crumbs, then throw it into your Pan; keep stirring them about till they are Brown, then throw them into a Sieve to drain, and lay them round your Larks.

Not a clue what she is on about. Best I can imagine is that you roast little birds whole and serve them with a pan gravy thickened with bread crumbs. Her meat pie recipes are hilarious. Something on the order of “put strips of bacon in a dish, layer on some steak, then more bacon, then a chicken if you feel like it (or possibly a hare), add gravy (not to mention more bacon), top with a crust and bake.”

I do like her recipe for asparagus, though, which I will paraphrase for you:

Peel the green part of a bunch of asparagus so that only the white part remains. Cut them all the same length and poach them gently so that they remain a little crisp. Toast thick rounds of bread with the crusts removed. Pour a little of the cooking water over the toast along with some melted butter. Lay the asparagus on top of the toast and serve with a dish of drawn butter on the side.

Nov 152013


Today is the birthday (1738) of Sir Frederick William Herschel, KH, FRS (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel), German-born British astronomer, technical expert, and minor composer. He was born in Hanover and followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover, before emigrating to Britain at age 19. He became famous for his discovery of the planet Uranus, along with two of its major moons (Titania and Oberon), and also discovered two moons of Saturn. In addition, he was the first person to discover the existence of infrared radiation.  He was also a musician and composed a number of symphonies, organ pieces, and other works.  Being rather derivative and lackluster, these works have largely been forgotten except by enthusiasts.

Herschel was born in Hanover, Electorate of Hanover, one of ten children of Anna Ilse (née Moritzen) and Isaac Herschel. His family were Protestant Christians, probably descended on his father’s side from converted Moravian Jews. His father was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band. In 1755 the Hanoverian Guards regiment, in whose band Wilhelm and his brother Jakob were engaged as oboists, was ordered to England. At the time the crowns of Great Britain and Hanover were united under George II. As the threat of war with France loomed, the Hanoverian Guard was recalled from England to defend Hanover. After the Hanoverian guard was defeated at the Battle of Hastenbeck, Herschel’s father Isaak sent his two sons to seek refuge in England in late 1757. Although his older brother Jakob had received his dismissal from the Hanoverian Guard, Wilhelm was accused of desertion (for which he was pardoned by George III in 1782). Wilhelm, nineteen years old at this time, was a quick student of the English language. In England he went by the English rendition of his name, Frederick William Herschel.

Herschel moved to Sunderland in 1761 when Charles Avison immediately engaged him as first violin and soloist for his Newcastle orchestra, where he played for one season and wrote his symphony no. 8 in C minor. He was head of the Durham Militia band 1760–61 and visited the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke at Halnaby Hall in 1760, where he wrote two symphonies, as well as giving performances himself.

After Newcastle he moved to Leeds and Halifax where he was the first organist at St John the Baptist church (now Halifax Minster). He became organist of the Octagon Chapel, Bath, a fashionable chapel in the well-known spa, and also became Director of Public Concerts. He was appointed as the organist in 1766 and gave his introductory concert on 1 January 1767. When he arrived the organ was still being built so he wrote pieces including a violin concerto, an oboe concerto, and a harpsichord sonata to fill the gap until the organ was ready.

His sister Caroline went to England in 1772 and lived with him there in New King Street. His brothers Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob also appeared as musicians in Bath. In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist.

Herschel’s music led him to an interest in mathematics, not an uncommon connexion in the Enlightenment era, and then he became interested in optics and lenses. His interest in astronomy developed after he made the acquaintance of the English Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. He started building his own reflecting telescopes and would spend up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the speculum metal primary mirrors.  He “began to look at the planets and the stars” in May 1773 and on 1 March 1774 began an astronomical journal by noting his observations of Saturn’s rings and the Great Orion Nebula (M 42).


Herschel’s early observational work soon focused on the search for pairs of stars that were very close together visually. Astronomers of the era expected that changes over time in the apparent separation and relative location of these stars would provide evidence for both the proper motion of stars and, by means of parallax shifts in their separation, for the distance of stars from the Earth (a method first suggested by Galileo). From the back garden of his house in New King Street, Bath, and using a 6.2-inch aperture (160 mm), 7-foot focal length (2.1 m) (f/13) Newtonian telescope “with a most capital speculum” of his own manufacture, in October 1779, Herschel began a systematic search for such stars among “every star in the Heavens,” with new discoveries listed through 1792. He soon discovered many more binary and multiple stars than expected, and compiled them with careful measurements of their relative positions in two catalogues presented to the Royal Society in London in 1782 (269 double or multiple systems) and 1784 (434 systems). A third catalogue of discoveries made after 1783 was published in 1821 (145 systems).

In 1797 Herschel measured many of the systems again, and discovered changes in their relative positions that could not be attributed to the parallax caused by the Earth’s orbit. He waited until 1802 (in Catalogue of 500 new Nebulae, nebulous Stars, planetary Nebulae, and Clusters of Stars; with Remarks on the Construction of the Heavens) to announce the hypothesis that the two stars might be “binary sidereal systems” orbiting under mutual gravitational attraction, a hypothesis he confirmed in 1803 in his Account of the Changes that have happened, during the last Twenty-five Years, in the relative Situation of Double-stars; with an Investigation of the Cause to which they are owing. In all, Herschel discovered over 800 confirmed double or multiple star systems, almost all of them physical rather than virtual pairs. His theoretical and observational work provided the foundation for modern binary star astronomy; new catalogues adding to his work were not published until after 1820 by Friedrich Wilhelm Struve, James South and John Herschel.


In March 1781, during his search for double stars, Herschel noticed an object appearing as a nonstellar disk. Herschel originally thought it was a comet or a star. He made many more observations of it, and afterwards Russian Academician Anders Lexell computed the orbit and found it to be probably planetary. Herschel determined in agreement that it must be a planet beyond the orbit of Saturn. He called the new planet the ‘Georgian star’ (Georgium sidus) after King George III, which also brought him favor; the name did not stick. In France, where reference to the British king was to be avoided if possible, the planet was known as ‘Herschel’ until the name ‘Uranus’ was universally adopted. The same year, Herschel was awarded the Copley Medal and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1782, he was appointed “The King’s Astronomer” (not to be confused with the Astronomer Royal). He and his sister subsequently moved to Datchet (then in Buckinghamshire but now in Berkshire) on 1 August 1782. He continued his work as a telescope maker and achieved an international reputation for their manufacture, profitably selling over 60 completed reflectors to British and Continental astronomers.


From 1782 to 1802, and most intensively from 1783 to 1790, Herschel conducted systematic surveys in search of “deep sky” or nonstellar objects with two 20-foot focal length (610 cm), 12-inch aperture (30 cm) and 18.7-inch aperture (47 cm) telescopes (in combination with his favoured 6-inch aperture instrument). Excluding duplicated and “lost” entries, Herschel ultimately discovered over 2400 objects defined by him as nebulae. (At that time, nebula was the generic term for any visually extended or diffuse astronomical object, including galaxies beyond the Milky Way, until galaxies were confirmed as extragalactic systems by Edwin Hubble in 1924.)

Herschel published his discoveries as three catalogues: Catalogue of One Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (1786), Catalogue of a Second Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (1789) and the previously cited Catalogue of 500 New Nebulae … (1802). He arranged his discoveries under eight “classes”: (I) bright nebulae, (II) faint nebulae, (III) very faint nebulae, (IV) planetary nebulae, (V) very large nebulae, (VI) very compressed and rich clusters of stars, (VII) compressed clusters of small and large [faint and bright] stars, and (VIII) coarsely scattered clusters of stars. Herschel’s discoveries were supplemented by those of Caroline Herschel (11 objects) and his son John Herschel (1754 objects) and published by him as General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters in 1864. This catalogue was later edited by John Dreyer, supplemented with discoveries by many other 19th century astronomers, and published in 1888 as the New General Catalogue (abbreviated NGC) of 7840 deep sky objects. The NGC numbering is still the most commonly used identifying label for these celestial landmarks.


In 1783 he gave Caroline a telescope, and she began to make astronomical discoveries in her own right, particularly comets. She discovered or observed eight comets, eleven nebulae and, at her brother’s suggestion, updated and corrected Flamsteed’s work detailing the position of stars. This was published as the British Catalogue of Stars. She was honored by the Royal Astronomical Society for this work. Caroline also continued to serve as his assistant, often taking notes while he observed at the telescope.

In June 1785, owing to damp conditions, he and Caroline moved to Clay Hall in Old Windsor. In 1786, the Herschels moved to a new residence on Windsor Road in Slough. He lived the rest of his life in this residence, which came to be known as Observatory House. It is no longer standing. On 7 May 1788, he married the widow Mary Pitt (née Baldwin) at St Laurence’s Church, Upton in Slough. His sister Caroline then moved to separate lodgings, but continued to work as his assistant.

During the course of his career, he constructed more than four hundred telescopes. The largest and most famous of these was a reflecting telescope with a 49 1?2-inch-diameter (1.26 m) primary mirror and a 40-foot (12 m) focal length. Because of the poor reflectivity of the speculum mirrors of that day, Herschel eliminated the small diagonal mirror of a standard newtonian reflector from his design and tilted his primary mirror so he could view the formed image directly. This design has come to be called the Herschelian telescope. On 28 August 1789, his first night of observation using this instrument, he discovered a new moon of Saturn. A second moon followed within the first month of observation. The “40-foot telescope” proved very cumbersome, and most of his observations were done with a smaller 18.5-inch (47 cm) 20-foot-focal-length (6.1 m) reflector. Herschel discovered that unfilled telescope apertures can be used to obtain high angular resolution, something which became the essential basis for interferometric imaging in astronomy (in particular Aperture Masking Interferometry and hypertelescopes).

In his later career, Herschel discovered two moons of Saturn, Mimas and Enceladus; as well as two moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon. He did not give these moons their names; they were named by his son John in 1847 and 1852, respectively, after his death.



In 2007 evidence was cited by Dr. Stuart Eves that Herschel might have discovered rings around Uranus. Herschel measured the axial tilt of Mars and discovered that the martian ice caps, first observed by Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1666) and Christiaan Huygens (1672), changed size with the planet’s seasons.

From studying the proper motion of stars, he was the first to realize that the solar system is moving through space, and he determined the approximate direction of that movement. He also studied the structure of the Milky Way and concluded that it was in the shape of a disk.

He also coined the word “asteroid,” meaning star-like (from the Greek asteroeides, aster “star” + -eidos “form, shape”), in 1802 (shortly after Olbers discovered the second minor planet, 2 Pallas, in late March), to describe the star-like appearance of the small moons of the giant planets and of the minor planets; the planets all show discs, by comparison. By the 1850s ‘asteroid’ became a standard term for describing certain minor planets.

On 11 February 1800, Herschel was testing filters for the sun so he could observe sun spots. When using a red filter he found there was a lot of heat produced. Herschel discovered infrared radiation in sunlight by passing it through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. This thermometer was meant to be a control to measure the ambient air temperature in the room. He was shocked when it showed a higher temperature than the visible spectrum. Further experimentation led to Herschel’s conclusion that there must be an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum.

On 25 August 1822, Herschel died at Observatory House, Windsor Road, Slough, and is buried at nearby St Laurence’s Church, Upton (now in Slough).  Slough is the butt of many derisive jokes because in the post-war era it became known for its industrial estate that was, at the time, distinctly not idyllic, rural England.  But Herschel is very much respected in the town and there are several memorials to him and his discoveries. In 2011 a new bus station was built in the town center, the design of which was inspired by Herschel’s infrared experiment.  My father was a member of the Slough freemason’s lodge, named Herschel lodge.


Written in 1747, Hannah Glasse’s (1708–1770) The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy represents one of the most important references for culinary practice in England during the latter half of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. In the introduction she writes:

A Frenchman in his own country will dress a fine dinner of twenty dishes, and all genteel and pretty, for the expence he will put an English lord to for dressing one dish. But then there is the little petty profit.  I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when every body knows (that understands cooking) that half a pound is full enough, or more than need be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!

Here is a delightful recipe from the book:

A ragoo of eggs

BOIL twelve eggs hard, take off the shells, and with a little knife very carefully cut the white a cross long-ways, so that the white may be in two halves, and the yolk whole. Be very careful neither to break the whites, nor yolks, take a quarter of a pint of pickled mushrooms chopped very fine, half an ounce of truffles and morels, boiled in three or four spoonfuls of water, save the water, and chop the truffles and morels very small, boil a little parsley, chop it fine, mix them together with the truffle-water you saved, grate a little nutmeg in, a little beaten mace, put it into a sauce-pan with three spoonfuls of water, a gill of red wine, one spoonful of catchup, a piece of butter, as big as a large walnut, rolled in flour, stir all together and let it boil. In the mean time get ready your eggs, lay the yolks and whites in order in your dish, the hollow parts of the whites uppermost, that they may be filled; take some crumbs of bread, and fry them brown and crisp, as you do for larks, with which fill up the whites of the eggs as high as they will lye, then pour in your sauce all over, and garnish with fry’d crumbs of bread. This is a very genteel pretty dish, if it be well done.


I took a shot at this recipe using what I had on hand, and the photo shows the result. Truffles and morels are in short supply in my pantry right now, so I made do with some rich brown fresh mushrooms.  By “catchup” Glasse means a rich and spicy mushroom sauce in vinegar which you can still find in gourmet stores or online (or make yourself). I used a Chinese mushroom sauce.  I am not sure how to fry breadcrumbs “as you do for larks” so I just browned them in a dry skillet.  Cutting the eggs was a challenge in that I could not keep the yolks whole – they fell in half even though I was careful cutting the whites.  A sauce of mushrooms and nutmeg does go well with eggs, and the breadcrumbs add a toasted note and a slight crunch. I ate them cold and hot – delicious both ways.