Dec 262017

Today is the birthday (1891) of Henry Valentine Miller, a US writer who often lived in Paris, and known for breaking with existing literary forms, developing a new type of semi-autobiographical novel that blended character study, social criticism, philosophical reflection, explicit language, sex, surrealist free association, and mysticism. He was inspiration for the beat generation writers, among others. His most characteristic works are Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, which are based on his experiences in New York and Paris (all of which were banned in the United States until 1961). Miller went through much the same accusations of obscenity as D.H. Lawrence did in Britain over Lady Chatterley. Small minds simply cannot distinguish descriptions of (loving) sex and pornography. In fact, to many, sex is, by definition, obscene. This very notion is the true obscenity, and I suspect stems from lascivious minds. Miller also wrote travel memoirs and literary criticism, and painted watercolors.

Miller was born at his family’s home, 450 East 85th Street, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, New York City. He was the son of Lutheran German parents, Louise Marie (Neiting) and tailor Heinrich Miller. As a child, he lived for nine years at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known at that time (and referred to frequently in his works) as the Fourteenth Ward. In 1900, his family moved to 1063 Decatur Street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. He attended the City College of New York for one semester only.

Miller married his first wife, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, in 1917. They divorced in 1923. Together they had a daughter, Barbara, born in 1919. They lived in an apartment at 244 6th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn.[14] At the time, Miller was working at Western Union, where he worked from 1920-24. In March 1922, during a three-week vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings. It has never been published, and only fragments remain, although parts of it were recycled in other works, such as Tropic of Capricorn. Clipped Wings was a study of twelve Western Union messengers, which Miller called “a long book and probably a very bad one.”


In 1923, while he was still married to Beatrice, but in the process of divorcing, Miller met and became enamored of a mysterious dance hall dancer who was born Juliet Edith Smerth but went by the stage name June Mansfield. She was 21 at the time. They began an affair, and were married on June 1, 1924. In 1924 Miller quit Western Union in order to dedicate himself completely to writing. Miller later describes this time – his struggles to become a writer, his sexual escapades, failures, friends, and philosophy – in his autobiographical trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.

Miller wrote his second novel, Moloch: or, This Gentile World, in 1927–28, initially under the guise of a novel written by June. A rich older admirer of June, Roland Freedman, paid her to write a novel. She would show him pages of Miller’s work each week, pretending it was hers. The book went unpublished until 1992. Moloch is based on Miller’s first marriage, to Beatrice, and his years working as a personnel manager at the Western Union office in Lower Manhattan. A third novel written around this time, Crazy Cock, also went unpublished until after Miller’s death. Initially titled Lovely Lesbians, Crazy Cock (along with his later novel Nexus) told the story of June’s close relationship with the artist Marion, whom June had renamed Jean Kronski. Kronski lived with Miller and June from 1926 until 1927, when June and Kronski went to Paris together, leaving Miller behind, which upset him greatly. Miller suspected the pair of having a lesbian relationship. While in Paris, June and Kronski did not get along, and June returned to Miller several months later. Kronski committed suicide around 1930.

In 1928, Miller spent several months in Paris with June, a trip which was financed by Freedman. One day on a Paris street, Miller met another author, Robert W. Service, who recalled the story in his autobiography: “Soon we got into conversation which turned to books. For a stripling he spoke with some authority, turning into ridicule the pretentious scribes of the Latin Quarter and their freak magazine.” In 1930, Miller moved to Paris unaccompanied. Soon after, he began work on Tropic of Cancer, writing to a friend, “I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!” Although Miller had little or no money the first year in Paris, things began to change after meeting Anaïs Nin who, with Hugh Guiler, went on to pay his entire way through the 1930s including the rent for an apartment at 18 Villa Seurat. Nin became his lover and financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer in 1934 with money from Otto Rank. She wrote extensively in her journals about her relationship with Miller and his wife June. A great deal of what we know about Miller’s personal life comes from Nin’s journals, and the two continued a (now famous and celebrated) relationship for many years. Late in 1934, June divorced Miller by proxy in Mexico City.

In 1931, Miller was employed by the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune as a proofreader, thanks to his friend Alfred Perlès who worked there. Miller took this opportunity to submit some of his own articles under Perlès’ name, since at that time only the editorial staff were permitted to publish in the paper. This period in Paris was highly creative for Miller, and during this time he also established a significant and influential network of authors circulating around the Villa Seurat. At that time a young British author, Lawrence Durrell, became a lifelong friend. Miller’s correspondence with Durrell was later published in two books. His first published book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), was published by Obelisk Press in Paris and banned in the United States on the grounds of obscenity. The dust jacket came wrapped with a warning: “Not to be imported into the United States or Great Britain.” He continued to write novels that were banned.  Along with Tropic of Cancer, his Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) were smuggled into the US, building Miller an underground reputation. In 1939, New Directions published The Cosmological Eye, Miller’s first book to be published in the US. The collection contained short prose pieces, most of which originally appeared in Black Spring and Max and the White Phagocytes (1938).

In 1939 Durrell, who lived on Corfu, invited Miller to Greece. Miller described the visit in The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), which he considered his best book. One of the first acknowledgments of Henry Miller as a major modern writer was by George Orwell in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, where he wrote:

Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.

In 1940, Miller returned to New York; after a year-long trip around the United States, which was to become material for The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, he moved to California in June 1942, initially living just outside Hollywood in Beverly Glen, before settling in Big Sur in 1944. While Miller was establishing his base in Big Sur, the Tropic books, then still banned in the USA, were still being published in France by the Obelisk Press and later the Olympia Press. There they were acquiring a slow and steady notoriety among both Europeans and the various enclaves of US ex-pats. As a result, the books were frequently smuggled into the States, where they proved to be a major influence on the new Beat Generation of American writers, most notably Jack Kerouac, the only Beat writer Miller truly cared for. By the time his banned books were published in the 1960s and he was becoming increasingly well-known, Miller was no longer interested in his image as an outlaw writer of “dirty” books, but he eventually gave up fighting the image.

In 1942, shortly before moving to California, Miller began writing Sexus, the first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, a fictionalized account documenting the six-year period of his life in Brooklyn falling in love with June and struggling to become a writer. Like several of his other works, the trilogy, completed in 1959, was initially banned in the United States, published only in France and Japan. In other works written during his time in California, Miller was widely critical of consumerism in the US, as reflected in Sunday After The War (1944) and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). His Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957, is a collection of stories about his life and friends in Big Sur.

In 1944, Miller met and married his third wife, Janina Martha Lepska, a philosophy student who was 30 years his junior. They had two children: a son, Tony, and a daughter, Valentine. They divorced in 1952. The following year, he married artist Eve McClure, who was 37 years his junior. They divorced in 1960, and she died in 1966, likely as a result of alcoholism. In 1961, Miller arranged a reunion in New York with his ex-wife and main subject of The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, June. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly three decades. In a letter to Eve, he described his shock at June’s “terrible” appearance, as she had by then degenerated both physically and mentally.

In February 1963, Miller moved to 444 Ocampo Drive, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California, where he would spend the last 17 years of his life. In 1967, Miller married his fifth wife, Hoki Tokuda. After his move to Ocampo Drive, he held dinner parties for the artistic and literary figures of the time. His cook and caretaker was a young artist’s model named Twinka Thiebaud who later wrote a book about his evening chats. Thiebaud’s memories of Miller’s table talk were published in a rewritten and retitled book in 2011.

Only 200 copies of Miller’s 1972 chapbook On Turning Eighty were published by Capra Press, in collaboration with Yes! Press, it was the first volume of the “Yes! Capra” chapbook series and is 34 pages long. The book contains three essays on topics such as aging and living a meaningful life. In relation to reaching 80 years of age, Miller explains:

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power.

Miller died of circulatory complications at his home in Pacific Palisades on June 7, 1980.

Here’s some quotes, some from Miller’s novels and some personal. It’s hard to tell the difference anyway. I’ve interspersed a few of his watercolors.

Without a Coca-Cola life is unthinkable.

To be joyous is to be a madman in a world of sad ghosts.

I have found God, but he is insufficient.

There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy.

What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse.

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

Finding a recipe for Miller is no small matter. Miller himself, and others, mentioned repeatedly how much he loved eating. Here’s Miller:

‘Life,’ said Emerson, ‘consists in what a man is thinking all day.’  If that be so, then my life is nothing but a big intestine. I not only think about food all day, but I dream about it at night.

Nin wrote in her diary that Miller had two primal needs: sex and food. They were, indeed, famous for frequenting the cafes of Paris, and nowadays you can go on a tour of their most popular haunts – many decorated with their photos and other memorabilia. Miller was also legendary in giving dinner parties.

The biographer of Miller’s last years, Barbara Kraft wrote:

The house bore the face of the man. The walls were covered with his paintings, posters, memorabilia, photographs of friends and the famous framed lists. Lists of places he had been, list of places he hadn’t been, lists of all the women he never slept with — but no lists of those he had, lists of favorite foods, of favorite piano music — Ravel’s virtuosic Gaspard de la nuit comes to mind . . .

All good to know. But, what about the actual food in his list of favorites? Or what he ate when dining with Nin? Nothing. Not a word. I’ve gleaned her diaries, as well as Miller’s writings and come up empty – except for this:

Henry was eating red beans for lunch. Heavy red beans. When I met Betty Ryan at the Dôme I told her about the red beans and ordered Vichy. How we laughed!

It’s a start, I suppose, but not much of one. She might have been talking about a cassoulet or a hundred other ways of cooking beans. Why did they laugh? Anyway, you can go with a dish of red beans if you wish, but make it heavy. Here’s a recipe for croque Monsieur which has been a popular favorite in Parisian cafes for many years. If you are a good cook you don’t need a recipe, just the idea. Croque Monsieur is a grilled sandwich of Parisian ham and Gruyere cheese, smothered in a cheesy béchamel and baked. I expect Miller enjoyed it on occasion.

Croque Monsieur


2 tbsp unsalted butter, plus extra
2 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese, plus 8 slices
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 thick slices crusty bread
12 slices Parisian ham
Dijon mustard


Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and whisk in the flour to make a blond roux. Add the milk slowly, stirring all the time. Bring to a simmer, whisking all the time until the sauce thickens. Add the grated cheeses and remove from the heat. Keep whisking until the cheeses are completely melted and the sauce is smooth.

Generously butter the bread slices on one side only. Put half the slices, buttered side down, in a heavy skillet. Layer each bread slice with 2 slices of Gruyere and 3 slices of ham, with the Gruyere on the outside. Spread the Dijon mustard on the unbuttered sides of the remaining bread slices, and put each on top of a sandwich, buttered side up.

Put the skillet over medium-high heat and cook the sandwiches until golden on each side. If the cheese melts well, flipping them with a spatula should be easy. I help the melting process along by covering the pan, or weighting down the sandwiches with a large plate.

Place the sandwiches in a baking dish and divide the béchamel evenly between them, spooning it generously over the top. Broil the sandwiches until the sauce is bubbling and golden.

Serve immediately. I like to serve this sandwich with buttered, steamed asparagus spears.

Serves 4

Jun 202016


The June solstice is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter Solstice  in the Southern Hemisphere. The date varies between June 20 and June 22, depending on the year, and which time zone you are in. The June Solstice this year (2016) in Universal Coordinated Time (UTC – formerly GMT) is on Monday, 20 June 2016 at 22:34 UTC, which is Monday, 20 June 2016, 23:34 BST in London, but on Tuesday, 21 June 2016 at 06:34 CST in Los Angeles. So when is it? The thing is that the exact time of the solstice is determined by the moment when the sun’s zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. On the June solstice, the sun reaches its northernmost point and the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly towards the sun, at about 23.4 degrees. It is also known as the northern solstice because it occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere.

This means that, strictly speaking, the solstice is not really a day, but a moment in time. The day on which that moment in time occurs, however, is generally referred to as the solstice, and significant events take place on that day. Ancient cultures went to great lengths to calculate when solstices were to happen, especially the winter solstice. With days getting colder and nights getting longer, it’s comforting to know that things are going to turn around, and Spring is on its way. It’s a ridiculous modern chronocentrism ( ) to believe that we are oh-so-smart and know better, but primitive peoples in the distant past thought that the sun was dying every winter and that they had to light big bonfires and perform superstitious magic to bring it back. Hogwash. People really aren’t that stupid. When the same thing happens year after year, you kinda get the idea. The numerous monuments all over the world, aligned to solstices, make it clear that ancient peoples knew what they were doing and were skilled observers.


Calculating an extremely precise moment for solstices (and equinoxes) is a function of modern astrophysics. I suspect that I am like most people who don’t really care when the exact point is, as long as I know roughly. When I lived in Buenos Aires my apartment had a great view of the setting sun, and because the sunsets were amazing, and different, every day, I got in the habit of photographing the sun every evening as it set. When you’ve done this for a year (and I did it for three – because I’m just a tad driven), you notice how days and nights lengthen and shorten, and how the position of the sun on the horizon shifts over the course of the year.

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Naturally, around the solstices you are aware that the sun’s apparent movement along the horizon is changing direction. It’s not a blink-of-the-eye moment; it takes several days to notice. But it’s evident over time. It’s good if you have a specialist to tell you exactly when the change occurs, otherwise you end up saying “Oh, the sun is heading back in the other direction – damn, I missed the turning point !” It’s much better to be able to have a party right when the change is happening. Here’s a decent video explaining solstices and other stuff if you are interested. There’s a lot more here than just explaining the seasons

When it comes to dating my blog posts I have several challenges. When does the June solstice occur this year, for example? In Italy, where I am now, it is today (20 June), but in California it is tomorrow by their reckoning. Sorry Californians – I’m going with where I am now. I liken this to figuring out when my birthday is (and when other people’s birthdays are). I was born at 9 pm on 30 March in Argentina. Obviously I don’t celebrate at exactly 9 pm Buenos Aires time; that’s going a bit far, even for me. If I were to, though, I’d have to figure out when it is 9 pm in Buenos Aires according to my current time zone. I am not that nuts. I celebrate my birthday from midnight to midnight where I am (and I try to wish people a happy birthday when it is the day of their birthday where they are). With blog posting, things are not quite so simple.

My server is set to UTC, so it changes from one day to the next at midnight UTC.  Here in Italy that is not a big problem because my local time (which is summer time) is only 2 hours ahead of UTC, so what I think the date and time are locally, is not so different from what my server thinks it is (not that my server does a lot of thinking).  When I was in Argentina and China it was a whole different story. What date my server thinks it is makes a difference to me because my posts are date stamped. If I want to say “today is . . . blah blah,” I have to synchronize with my server so that the date stamp is correct. That meant that when I was in Argentina I had to get the day’s post finished and up before 8 pm or it was stamped on the wrong date, and in Kunming, I could dither around until 7 am and still get a post up for the day before. I’ll be in real trouble if I ever move to Alaska. Fortunately that’s unlikely to happen in this lifetime.

I crossed the International Date Line by ship from west to east in 1965 on the way from Australia to England. That was a trifle surreal. You’re sitting down to dinner on Wednesday night, go to bed, and then next morning it’s Wednesday again. Time zones, the Date Line, Summer Time, etc. are all human artifacts that are important in the global age, but they can mess you up. I tend to be happiest when I can organize my life by the sun, and not by clocks. My body tells me what I need to know. I can’t remember the last time I woke to an alarm clock. If I have something urgent to do, such as catching a plane, I’ll set an alarm to be sure. But I always wake before it goes off. When light fades I go to bed, and when dawn breaks I am up.

Solstices are of marginal interest to me. They do mark the passage of the seasons, and that’s important, but I don’t do much to celebrate them. I get the feeling that a lot of “sun worshippers” at Stonehenge and the like, are ordinary folks trying to invest their humdrum mechanized, modern lives with some kind of meaning beyond clock watching and the daily grind.  More power to them. If you want an excuse for a party, go for it, but don’t expect me to be there. I answer to my own rhythms these days, and they don’t generally involve hanging out with other people.


As it happens, Queen Victoria succeeded to the British crown on this date in 1837. William IV died at the age of 71 in the early hours of the morning. Victoria wrote in her diary, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.” Official documents prepared on the first day of her reign described her as Alexandrina Victoria, but the first name was withdrawn at her own wish and not used again. She had just turned 18, which meant that a regency could be avoided, but was young and inexperienced in government and had to grow into the role. This she did over her 63 year reign, the longest in British history until Elizabeth II surpassed her in 2015.


My mum always made apple Charlotte on Sundays to replace the usual apple crumble for the winter months. It’s a good treat for this time of year. If you make it with wild berries or a mix of berries and apples, which I usually do, it’s called Summer Pudding. Either will do for a celebration today. Here is Mrs Beeton first to combine solstice festivities with the Victorian:


  1. INGREDIENTS.—9 slices of bread and butter, about 6 good-sized apples, 1 tablespoonful of minced lemon-peel, 2 tablespoonfuls of juice, moist sugar to taste.

Mode.—Butter a pie-dish; place a layer of bread and butter, without the crust, at the bottom; then a layer of apples, pared, cored, and cut into thin slices; sprinkle over these a portion of the lemon-peel and juice, and sweeten with moist sugar. Place another layer of bread and butter, and then one of apples, proceeding in this manner until the dish is full; then cover it up with the peel of the apples, to preserve the top from browning or burning; bake in a brisk oven for rather more than 3/4 hour; turn the charlotte on a dish, sprinkle sifted sugar over, and serve.

Time.—3/4 hour. Average cost, 9d.

Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.


This is not quite the way my mum did it, nor I. I completely line a buttered pudding basin with bread, fill it with apple slices (or berries), top with a lid of bread, then bake in a 300°F oven for 45 minutes. I used to add sugar to the apples, but I don’t any more because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and I try to minimize sugar intake. Use white sugar if you do.

Jun 182016


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


Chicken and Cider


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


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

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

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

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

Serves 4


Jan 082016


Today is the birthday (1911) of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque entertainer, actress, author, and playwright whose 1957 memoir was made into the stage musical and film Gypsy. Gypsy Rose Lee was born in Seattle, Washington, as Rose Louise Hovick, but known within family and close circles as Louise. In this post to distinguish her family members, I am going to use Louise for her, June for her younger sister, and Rose for her mother.

Rose forged various birth certificates for each of her daughters — older when needed to evade varying state child labour laws, and younger for reduced or free train fares. The girls were unsure until later in life what their years of birth were, and Louise usually gave 9 January as her birthday even though it was 8 January.

Rose had married Norwegian-American, John Olaf Hovick, a newspaper advertising salesman and a reporter at The Seattle Times. They married on May 28, 1910 in Seattle, Washington and divorced on August 20, 1915. After the divorce, June supported the family by appearing in vaudeville, being billed “Tiniest Toe Dancer in the World” when she was only 2½. Rose and June went to Hollywood for two years where June appeared in short films directed by Hal Roach. Louise was left behind while June and her mother were on the road. She had an elementary education, unlike June who was taught to read by stage-hands. Much to her mother’s displeasure, June eloped with Bobby Reed, a dancer in their act, in December 1928, and went on to pursue a brief career in marathon dancing, a more profitable vocation than tap dancing.


Louise’s singing and dancing talents were insufficient to sustain the act without June. Eventually, it became apparent that Louise could make money in burlesque, which earned her legendary status as a high class and witty striptease artist. Initially, her act was propelled forward when a shoulder strap on one of her gowns gave way, causing her dress to fall to her feet despite her efforts to cover herself. Encouraged by the audience’s response, she went on to make the trick the focus of her performance.

You can see from this clip that the purpose of her act was not so much to bare her body as to tease the audience into thinking that she was going to – hence strip-tease. She became as famous for her onstage wit as for her strip style, and – changing her stage name to Gypsy Rose Lee – she became one of the biggest stars of Minsky’s Burlesque, where she performed for four years. She was frequently arrested in raids on the Minsky brothers’ shows. During the Great Depression, Louise spoke at various union meetings in support of New York laborers. According to activist Harry Fisher, her talks were among the most well attended.

In 1937 and 1938, billed as Louise Hovick, she made five films in Hollywood. But her acting was generally panned, so she returned to New York City where she had an affair with film producer Michael Todd and co-produced and appeared in his 1942 musical revue, Star and Garter.

In 1941 Louise wrote a mystery thriller called The G-String Murders, which was made into the sanitized 1943 film, Lady of Burlesque starring Barbara Stanwyck. While some assert this was actually ghost written by Craig Rice, there are others who claim that there is more than sufficient written evidence in the form of manuscripts and Louise’s own correspondence to prove that she wrote a large part of the novel herself under the guidance of Rice and others, including her editor George Davis, a friend and mentor. Lee’s second murder mystery, Mother Finds a Body, was published in 1942.


Louise married Arnold “Bob” Mizzy on August 25, 1937, and divorced in 1941. In 1942, she married William Alexander Kirkland; they divorced in 1944. While married to Kirkland, she gave birth on December 11, 1944, to a son fathered by Otto Preminger. Her son was named Erik Lee, but has since been known successively as Erik Kirkland, Erik de Diego, and Erik Preminger. Gypsy was married for a third time in 1948, to Julio de Diego, but that union also ended in divorce in 1955.


In 1940 she bought a town home on East 63rd St in Manhattan with a private courtyard, 26 rooms and seven baths. Louise and her sister continued to get demands for money from their mother who had opened a boarding house/ lesbian bordello in a 10-room apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan (rented for her by Louise). Details are sketchy and conflicting, but, according to Erik Preminger, Rose shot and killed her lover there after she had made a pass at Louise, and the killing was subsequently passed off as a suicide (and Rose was never prosecuted). Rose died in 1954, after which Louise felt freed to write about her without risking a lawsuit. Louise’s memoirs, Gypsy, were published in 1957 and were taken as inspirational material for the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable.


Her sister June did not like the way she was portrayed in the piece, but she was eventually persuaded (and paid) not to oppose it for her sister’s sake. The play and the subsequent movie deal assured Louise a steady income. The sisters became estranged for a period of time but reconciled. June, in turn, wrote Early Havoc and More Havoc, to tell her version of the story. Louise went on to host a morning San Francisco KGO-TV television talk show, “Gypsy.” The walls of her Los Angeles home were adorned with art by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning, all of which were reportedly gifts to her by the artists themselves. Like Picasso, she was a supporter of the Popular Front movement in the Spanish Civil War and raised money for charity to alleviate the suffering of Spanish children during the conflict. She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain’s Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities.


Louise died of lung cancer in Los Angeles in 1970, aged 59. She is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California (here pictured with the year of her birth incorrectly noted).

Louise put together a cookbook that was never published, and also contributed celebrity recipes to magazines. None of them is especially out of the ordinary. They are mostly for standard dishes given to her by friends. She reports that her mother was especially fond of chow mein, which I presume was nothing more than standard Chinese-American fare from faceless joints, and nothing like 炒面 (chǎomiàn – fried noodles) which the humblest roadside cook in China can make ten times better. I did, however, come across this greeting card with Louise’s photo and her recipe for torrijas, a Spanish festive form of French toast:


Torrijas are customarily made for Christmas or Easter. The only real difference between torrijas and French toast is that torrijas are deep fried in olive oil. Basically you cut stale bread in thick slices then soak it in sweetened milk, followed by a second soaking in sweetened beaten egg. Generally, each step should take about 30 minutes – don’t rush. Then shake off the excess fluid and deep fry the bread in olive oil at 350°F until golden. Drain on wire racks and dust with sugar.