Jul 232018

On this date in 1929 the Fascist government in Italy banned the use of foreign words in Italian. I am going to use this post to talk about the specific driving force behind the Italian ban, and then turn my attention – briefly – to similar movements in other countries. Before I start on particulars I want to make my position clear. Attempts at “purifying” languages (generally for political purposes), are misguided, pointless, and ultimately doomed to failure. Orwell had it right when he invented Newspeak for the citizens of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?

Here is the essence of the issue. Some people in power attempt to control the words that people use, because they think that by controlling words they can control thinking. Fortunately, anthropologists have shown otherwise, (although for some time theories have knocked around suggesting that language does control thinking, such as the hypotheses promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf https://www.bookofdaystales.com/benjamin-lee-whorf/ ). Read the post to get the skinny on why Whorf’s hypotheses do not hold water. You cannot control thinking by controlling language, and, furthermore, attempts to control language are futile. Languages change – end of story.

I am a low-level officer in the language police, it is true. I am not interested in controlling people’s thoughts via language, but I am a stickler for accurate use of language.  Using language to obscure one’s meaning is a crime in my book – commonly indulged in by politicians. Sometimes language crimes are relatively unimportant. Thinking that “media” and “data” are singular is a mistake, but not one on which meaning suffers greatly. I cringe when a pundit says  “the media is to blame” or the like, but the world does not stop spinning. What if you say, “I have 1 books in my bag”? Now I am confused. How many do you have: one or more than one? Your statement is unclear because you have confused singular and plural. I could go on with this line, but I’ll spare you. Precision in language matters (to me).

Mussolini wanted to eliminate “foreign” words from Italian for a number of reasons. First, we must consider what he meant by “foreign words.” He did not simply mean English, German, French, or Chinese words, he meant words that came from dialects other than standard Italian. By Mussolini’s standards the seemingly ultra-Italian (informal) greeting “ciao” was a foreign word. It comes from Venetian dialect, from the expression s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su (literally, “your slave”), with the indirect connotation of “at your service,” but over time losing all sense of servility. Change over time, or not, Mussolini wanted it gone because it was a “foreign” word. Mussolini wanted only pure, standard Italian spoken in Italy. Herein lies a huge problem. A great many languages spoken in the Italian peninsula for hundreds of years were descendants of Vulgar Latin. They were not dialects of a standard; they were just different. One of these languages, a variety of Tuscan, was the most common literary language, and so became the basis for standard Italian when the nation unified in the late 19th century.

A major part of the process of building a nation out of disparate bits is forging a language that will be a standard for all citizens. Mussolini felt that the continued existence of a number of dialects that were spoken alongside standard Italian was a hindrance to national unity, and, so, wanted them expunged. Anthropologists could have told him that creating a standard language is not too difficult, but having it take hold universally within a nation takes time, and is never fully successful. Nowadays, young people in Italy learn correct standard Italian in school, but local dialects persist in older generations, and so do other languages. Sicilian is related to standard Italian, but is sufficiently different as to be classified as a distinct language. It is still widely spoken on Sicily and in southern parts of Calabria and Apulia. It was precisely this situation that Mussolini wanted to eliminate. His thinking was that if you speak a regional language or dialect you are more committed to your region than to a unified Italy. Whether that is true or not is debatable.

Numerous nations have expended considerable effort to expunge their national languages of foreign loan words with mixed results. Hitler wanted to use the word Fernsprecher for “telephone” but Telefon eventually prevailed. French authorities did manage to get « l’ordinateur » to stick over « le computer » but have had less success with « le weekend » and the like. In Chinese a computer is 电脑, literally “electric brain,” conforming to the dislike of loan words by the Chinese government. They have accepted qiǎokèlì (巧克力) for chocolate, however, as well as a host of others.

Trying to “purify” a language (most especially English) is a lost cause from the outset, because languages are under the constant influence of languages spoken by other people near and far. English is hopeless because it was a meld of (at least) Saxon, Norman French and Old Norse even before it evolved into modern English, and continues to evolve under the influence of other languages. The name for the sauce we now call “ketchup” has been through multiple spellings and meanings, but is thought to have entered English from Malay, but came to SE Asia through Chinese. Should we make “ketchup” an illegal word because it has roots in Chinese? What about “algebra” (Arabic),  “mosquito” (Spanish), or “drama” (Greek)? What we should not lose sight of is the fact that languages are mutable, evolving things that adapt to the world around them. So are cuisines.

If Mussolini had tried to purge Italian cooking of foreign influences, there would be nothing left. So many pasta and pizza sauces (not to mention Italian salads) contain tomatoes, but tomatoes originated in Mesoamerica. Try creating a “pure” Italian cuisine without tomatoes, eggplants, beans, or peppers. I’ll accept that Italy had pasta before Marco Polo’s trip to China, but the wheat it was made from in ancient times was originally developed in the Middle East. All national cuisines are mongrels (and nations are a modern invention). This is because nations are mongrels. Being a mongrel is not a bad thing, however. Ardent nationalists want to tell you otherwise, but they are wrong. In biology there is the phenomenon of hybrid vigor, the enhanced strength engendered in a strain when varieties are deliberately mixed. So too with cultures. If cultures are made up of multiple strains they are stronger than those that attempt to reduce themselves to a single idealized strain. There is a “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” principle of evolution at work here as well.

There is another, deeper, principle at heart to add to the complexity. Cultures (and cuisines) are not based on things but on ideas. Cultures take stuff (tangible and intangible) from all manner of places and bend it to their key, underlying concepts. Democracy, for example, looks different in Britain, US, Russia, and Argentina. The same is true with cuisines. I can give ingredients to cooks in multiple cultures and, with no guidelines from me, ask them to make a dish. Let’s take two of my favorites: chicken and leeks. Off the bat I might make cock-a-leekie soup because that’s where my cultural history leads me. But I could make chicken and leek pie, chicken and leek pâté, stir fried chicken with leeks, roast chicken and roast leeks . . . etc. etc. A great deal of the decision making depends on what the cook thinks of as normative methods of cooking. What else the cook adds will also depend on cultural norms. A Chinese cook would probably use soy sauce with the chicken and leeks, a French cook might use thyme, an Italian, oregano. Cultures, languages, and cuisines are all fusions.

That said, I am not a big fan of deliberate fusion dishes. You won’t find me chowing down on a Hawaiian pizza with a topping of pineapple and ham any time soon. Nor am I crazy about Asian spring rolls with avocado. I will confess to having made mango and lychee crumble on more than one occasion, as I am not averse to chameleon cooking (see TAB). I can’t help it; I am more of a mongrel than most.

Your cooking task for today is to take a set of ingredients that I give you and make of them what you would. You can tell me your ideas in the comments section. You can add whatever you want, but you cannot eliminate anything: my blog, my rules. At minimum you can use whatever variety of the ingredient you want, in whatever quantities you want.

Ingredient list:






Your turn. I know what I would do, but I will not tell you unless I get comments.

Jun 252018

Today is the birthday (1908) of Willard Van Orman Quine, a US philosopher and logician squarely in the analytic tradition, and certainly one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Western philosophy is every bit as technical as Western science, so I am going to have to struggle to explain Quine’s influence. Quine worked first in symbolic logic and then moved into the philosophy of language and of meaning. These are all areas that fascinate me, but can seem like a gigantic waste of time because they have zero practical application except to amuse and confound smart people.

Quine grew up in Akron, Ohio, where he lived with his parents and older brother. His father was a manufacturing entrepreneur (founder of the Akron Equipment Company, which produced tire molds) and his mother was a schoolteacher. He received his B.A. in mathematics from Oberlin College in 1930, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1932.  Apart from a stint away during World War II, lecturing on logic in Brazil (in Portuguese) and deciphering coded messages for military intelligence, Quine spent the remainder of his life at Harvard.

Quine started his academic career working on formal logic, which is the area where Bertrand Russell worked to establish rigorous foundations of mathematics. This gets us quickly into an extremely technical field, so I will content myself with saying that the vast majority of people think that mathematics is about as solid as it gets, yet it is not. If you accept certain basic propositions, such as 2 + 2 = 4, all is well with the world. Once you accept certain basic propositions, then you can build the vast edifice of mathematics. But proving that 2 + 2 = 4 is not only difficult, it is impossible. Sure, you can take 2 apples and add another 2 apples, and you have 4 apples, but that is an empirical demonstration, not a proof. Can you prove that 2 +2 = 4 without apples or any other objects? Can you even define what 2 is, or, more importantly, what a number is? Are numbers real things, or simply convenient abstractions? Russell used formal logic to find answers to these questions, and failed. Quine wrote three textbooks, and numerous academic papers on formal logic, and taught the subject for his entire career. He also wrote Mathematical Logic showing that much of what Russell’s Principia Mathematica took more than 1000 pages to say can be said in 250 pages, and in the last chapter examines Gödel’s incompleteness theorem https://www.bookofdaystales.com/kurt-godel/  and Tarski’s indefinability theorem.  In highly informal terms I will tell you that Gödel proved – definitively – that mathematics inevitably contains statements that are true, but cannot be proven to be true, and Tarski showed that truth in mathematics cannot be defined. Some of the greatest mathematicians in the world proved, beyond question, that mathematics rests on foundations that have to be accepted because they cannot be proven. Any different from building a religion on a spiritual force whose existence cannot be proven?

Quine then extended his investigations concerning logic into discussions concerning language. In particular he was led to doubt the tenability of the distinction between “analytic” and “synthetic” statements which was commonly made in the philosophy of language. Analytic statements are true simply by definition. For example, “Bachelors are unmarried men.” Synthetic statements are true or false because of facts in the world, “There is a black cat sitting on the mat.” Quine’s chief objection to analyticity is with the notion of synonymy (sameness of meaning). An analytic sentence substitutes a synonym for one half of the statement.  The objection to synonymy hinges upon the problem of collateral information. We intuitively feel that there is a distinction between “All unmarried men are bachelors” and “There have been black cats”, but a competent English speaker will assent to both sentences under all conditions because such speakers also have access to collateral information. In the case of black cats this collateral information has to do with the historical existence of black cats. But Quine maintains that there is no distinction between generally known collateral information (such as the existence of black cats) and conceptual or analytic information needed to agree that bachelors are unmarried men. One of the common questions used to elucidate this position is: “Is the pope a bachelor?” Quine argues that there is no distinction between those truths which are universally and confidently believed and those which are necessarily true.

Quine may be best known in some circles for his thoughts on the indeterminacy of translation. Can we ever be sure that we understand what a person speaking another language is saying?  As an anthropologist, this question interests me greatly, but where I part company with Quine is that he uses thought experiments based on imaginary languages, but anthropologists of language can address his concerns more directly using real languages. Quine’s investigations hinge on ontological relativity, that is, the idea that for any empirical observation there are multiple explanations (theories).

Let us consider statements in English first. What do words refer to? Quine says:

How can we talk about Pegasus? To what does the word ‘Pegasus’ refer? If our answer is, ‘Something,’ then we seem to believe in mystical entities; if our answer is, ‘nothing’, then we seem to talk about nothing and what sense can be made of this? Certainly when we said that Pegasus was a mythological winged horse we make sense, and moreover we speak the truth! If we speak the truth, this must be truth about something. So we cannot be speaking of nothing.

We already have a conundrum here because it is difficult enough in English to agree concerning what words are referring to. The problem is compounded when you try to translate sentences in another language into English, because you have to take into account what words refer to in another language as well as what they refer to in English. Quine’s thesis is that no unique interpretation of a foreign language is possible, because a ‘radical interpreter’ has no way of telling which of many possible meanings the speaker has in mind. Quine uses the example of the word “gavagai” uttered by a native speaker of the unknown language Jungle upon seeing a rabbit. A speaker of English could do what seems natural and translate this as “Look, a rabbit.” But other translations would be compatible with all the evidence he has: “Look, food”; “Let’s go hunting”; “There will be a storm tonight” (if the locals have superstitions about rabbits and storms); “Look, a momentary rabbit-stage”; “Look, an undetached rabbit-part.” Some of these might become less likely – that is, become more unwieldy hypotheses – in the light of subsequent observation.

Frankly I find all of this ruminating quite pointless. Yes, it’s certainly true that there is slippage of meaning when translating one language to another. Nuances are perpetually lost in all manner of ways, and there are dozens of ways in which mistakes can be made. But anthropological field linguists have been dealing with such problems for over a century, and somehow they manage to come up with grammars and dictionaries for new languages that can be used to develop fluency. The fact that there is always going to be a degree of uncertainty (indeterminacy) is neither news nor earth shattering.

I had lunch with Quine and a number of other luminaries of the philosophical world back in the 1970s when he was attending an annual conference at my university. The group was talking about the philosophical problems associated with language acquisition and even then, as a raw doctoral candidate in anthropology, I was perplexed as to why he and others were speculating about issues that were being addressed more fruitfully by neuroscientists, anthropologists and the like. It made me think that Western analytic philosophy was sheer speculating – at great length – about ideas in a vacuum. This tradition leads to some fascinating mind puzzles, but ultimately has no value for me beyond exercising my brain. This was perhaps not the best conclusion to reach given that I was married to an analytic philosopher of language at the time.

Quine spent 70 of his 92 years at Harvard, so a Harvard recipe is in order on his birthday. One with a small linguistic twist seems in order, so I thought of Harvard beets. If I told you we had Harvard beets for dinner what would you think? Were the beets grown at Harvard? Or are they cooked in a style common to Harvard? Or what? This is a simple question in the philosophy of language concerning modifiers. How do we know that baby shoes are shoes for babies, but crocodile shoes are made out of crocodile skin, not shoes for crocodiles (any more than baby shoes are made from baby skin)? We can be reasonably sure that Harvard beets are beetroots cooked in some fashion, but what does the modifier “Harvard” refer to? The simple answer is that it is a way of cooking beets in a sweet and sour sauce, but why Harvard? Why not Princeton or Chicago? For that question there is no answer. Cookbooks say that “Harvard” refers to the crimson color of the beets, and crimson is the university color for Harvard. That is a terrible answer because by that token, beets cooked in any fashion, or eaten raw, could be called Harvard beets because they are all crimson. Anyway, this recipe calls for roasting beetroots and then preparing a thick sweet and sour sauce for them.

Harvard Beets


1 ½ lbs medium-sized fresh beets
⅓ cup sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup water
1 tbsp unsalted butter


Brush excess dirt off the beets, trim the tops and roots leaving about 1” and do not break the skin. Wrap them in foil and bake them for 1 hour in a 400˚F oven. Remove them from the oven and let them cool to the touch. When they are still a little warm, cut off the tops and roots and peel them. Then cut them in cubes.

Mix the sugar, cornstarch, vinegar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking until thickened. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter.

Add the beets to the sauce and heat them through gently over low heat. Serve warm.

Feb 062018

Today is Sámi National Day, an ethnic national day for the Sámi people that falls on February 6th because this date was when the first Sámi congress was held in 1917 in Trondheim. This congress was the first time that Norwegian and Swedish Sámi came together across their national borders to work together to find solutions for common problems. In 1992, at the 15th Sámi Conference in Helsinki, a resolution was passed that Sámi National Day should be celebrated on February 6th. Sámi National Day is a celebration for all Sámi, regardless of where they live, and on that day the Sámi flag should be flown and the Sámi national anthem is sung in the local Sámi dialect.

Through pure coincidence, this date also happened to be when representatives of the Sámi of the Kola Peninsula used to gather annually, meeting with Russian bureaucrats to debate and decide on issues of relevance to them. This body, called the Koladak Sobbar, has been called the ‘first Sámi Parliament’ by the researcher Johan Albert Kalstad. This information did not influence the choice of this date as the Sámi People’s Day, given that the people present did not know about it – the Koladak Sobbar existed during the late 19th century only, and was not ‘rediscovered’ by Kalstad until the 21st century.

Before I continue talking about the Sámi people in general, I want to point out that this celebration is really a model for indigenous peoples who are ethnic minorities, and who are scattered across national boundaries. The Sámi (often called Lapps in English) represent only about 5% of the population in the region where they live which spreads across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Long ago, they were the majority in the region, but they were slowly encroached upon by Scandinavians and Russians. The enduring question is how to maintain some degree of autonomy and unity in the face of pressures to assimilate to national cultures, especially when these nations fragment the region where they live – called Sápmi in Sámi (Lapland in English). The term Lapp (and European cognates) is sometimes seen as derogatory because it is an outsider term. It has no pejorative connotations that I know of, but it is best not to use it. Apparently, the Sámi object less to Lapland than to Lapp.

If we look at language first we can get a sense of the geography and distribution of the Sámi. The Saamic languages are the region’s main minority languages and also, of course, its original languages. They belong to the Uralic language family, and are most closely related to the Finnic languages. Many Sámi languages are mutually unintelligible, but the languages originally formed a dialect continuum stretching southwest-northeast, so that a message could hypothetically be passed between Sámi speakers from one end to the other and be understood by all. Today, however, many of the languages are all but extinct, and thus there are “gaps” in the original continuum.

On the map above numbers indicate Sámi Languages (Darkened areas represent municipalities that recognize Sámi as an official language.): 1. South (Åarjil) Sámi, 2. Ume (Upme) Sámi, 3. Pite (Bitthun) Sámi, 4. Lule (Julev) Sámi, 5. North (Davvi) Sámi, 6. Skolt Sámi, 7. Inari (Ánár) Sámi, 8. Kildin Sámi, 9. Ter Sámi. Of these languages the Northern one is by far the most vital, whereas Ume, Pite and Ter seem to be dying languages. Kemi Sámi is extinct.

Since prehistoric times, the Sámi people of Arctic Europe have lived and worked in an area that stretches over the northern parts of the regions now known as Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Kola Peninsula. They have inhabited the northern arctic and sub-arctic regions of Fenno-Scandinavia and Russia for at least 5,000 years. The Sámi are counted among the Arctic peoples and are members of circumpolar groups such as the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat. Petroglyphs and archeological findings such as settlements dating from about 10,000 BCE can be found in the traditional lands of the Sámi. These hunters and gatherers of the late Paleolithic and early Mesolithic were named Komsa by the researchers because what they called themselves is unknown.

Recent archaeological discoveries in Finnish Lapland were originally seen as the continental version of the Komsa culture about the same age as the earliest finds on the coast of Norway. It is hypothesized that the Komsa followed receding glaciers inland from the Arctic coast at the end of the last ice age (between 11000 and 8000 BCE) as new land opened up for settlement (e.g., modern Finnmark area in the northeast of Norway, to the coast of the Kola Peninsula). For long periods of time, the Sámi lifestyle thrived because of its adaptation to the Arctic environment. Throughout the 18th century, as Norwegians of Northern Norway suffered from low fish prices and consequent depopulation, the Sámi cultural element was strengthened, since the Sámi were mostly independent of supplies from Southern Norway.

During the 19th century, Norwegian authorities pressured the Sámi to adopt Norwegian language and culture universal. Strong economic development of the north also ensued, giving Norwegian culture and language higher status. On the Swedish and Finnish sides, the authorities were less militant, although the Sámi language was forbidden in schools and strong economic development in the north led to weakened cultural and economic status for the Sámi. From 1913 to 1920, the Swedish race-segregation political movement created a race-based biological institute that collected research material from living people and graves, and sterilized Sámi women. Throughout history, Swedish settlers were encouraged to move to the northern regions through incentives such as land and water rights, tax allowances, and military exemptions.

The strongest pressure took place from around 1900 to 1940, when Norway invested considerable money and effort to wipe out Sámi culture. Anyone who wanted to buy or lease state lands for agriculture in Finnmark had to prove knowledge of the Norwegian language and had to register with a Norwegian name. This caused the dislocation of Sámi people in the 1920s, which increased the gap between local Sámi groups (something still present today) that sometimes has the character of an internal Sámi ethnic conflict. In 1913, the Norwegian parliament passed a bill on “native act land” to allocate the best and most useful lands to Norwegian settlers. Another factor was the scorched earth policy conducted by the German army, resulting in heavy war destruction in northern Finland and northern Norway in 1944–45, destroying all existing houses, or kota, and visible traces of Sámi culture. After World War II the pressure was relaxed though the legacy was evident into recent times, such as the 1970s law limiting the size of any house Sámi people were allowed to build.

The controversy over the construction of the hydro-electric power station in Alta in 1979 brought Sámi rights to the political agenda. In August 1986, the national anthem (“Sámi soga lávlla”) and flag (Sámi flag) of the Sámi people were created. In 1989, the first Sámi parliament in Norway was elected. In 2005, the Finnmark Act was passed in the Norwegian parliament giving the Sámi parliament and the Finnmark Provincial council a joint responsibility of administering the land areas previously considered state property. These areas (96% of the provincial area), which have always been used primarily by the Sámi, now belong officially to the people of the province, whether Sámi or Norwegian, and not to the Norwegian state.

The indigenous Sámi population are mostly urbanized, but a substantial number live in villages in the high arctic. The Sámi are still coping with the cultural consequences of language and culture loss related to generations of Sámi children taken to missionary and/or state-run boarding schools and the legacy of laws that were created to deny the Sámi rights (e.g., freedom of beliefs, use of indigenous language, land ownership, and freedom to practice traditional livelihoods). The Sámi are experiencing cultural and environmental threats, including oil exploration, mining, dam building, logging, climate change, military bombing ranges, tourism, and commercial development.

The Sámi have for centuries been the subject of discrimination and abuse by the dominant cultures claiming possession of their lands down to the present day. They have never been a single community in a single region of Lapland, with political autonomy. Norway has been greatly criticized by the international community for the politics of assimilation of and discrimination against the aboriginal peoples of the country. On 8 April 2011, the UN Racial Discrimination Committee recommendations were handed over to Norway. These addressed many issues, including the educational situation for students needing bilingual education in Sámi. One committee recommendation was that no language be allowed to be a basis for discrimination in the Norwegian anti-discrimination laws, and it recommended wording of Racial Discrimination Convention Article 1 contained in the Act. Further points of recommendation concerning the Sámi population in Norway included the incorporation of the racial Convention through the Human Rights Act, improving the availability and quality of interpreter services, and equality of the civil Ombudsman’s recommendations for action. A new present status report was to have been ready by the end of 2012.

Even in Finland, where Sámi children, like all Finnish children, are entitled to day care and language instruction in their own language, the Finnish government has denied funding for these rights in most of the country, including even in Rovaniemi, the largest municipality in Finnish Lapland. Sámi activists have pushed for nationwide application of these basic rights.

As in the other countries claiming sovereignty over Sámi lands, Sámi activists’ efforts in Finland in the 20th century achieved limited government recognition of Sámi rights as an ethnic minority, but the Finnish government has clung unyieldingly to its legally enforced premise that the Sámi must “prove” their land ownership, an idea incompatible with and antithetical to the traditional reindeer-herding Sámi way of life. This has effectively allowed the Finnish government to take land occupied by the Sámi for centuries without compensation.

On Sámi National Day, not only do Sámi throughout Sápmi raise the national flag and sing the national song, they also do a range of activities traditionally associated with Sámi culture, such as wear traditional dress, make traditional dishes and play or listen to traditional music.

A characteristic feature of Sámi musical tradition is the singing of yoik (also spelled joik). Yoiks are song-chants and are traditionally sung a cappella, usually sung slowly and deep in the throat with apparent emotional content of sorrow or anger. Yoiks can be dedicated to animals and birds in nature, special people or special occasions, and they can be joyous, sad, or melancholic. They often are based on syllablic improvisation. In recent years, musical instruments frequently accompany yoiks. The only traditional Sámi instruments that were sometimes used to accompany yoik are the “fadno” flute (made from reed-like Angelica archangelica stems) and hand drums (frame drums and bowl drums).

Traditional foods of the Sámi involve reindeer, fish, and flatbread. Reindeer is absolutely the most characteristic ingredient, because the Sámi for centuries were reindeer herders. Traditionally, the reindeer were not fully domesticated, but the Sámi were nomadic, following the herds on their seasonal migrations. You might have trouble getting hold of some reindeer to roast, but you might be able to make flatbread.

Gáhkko is a traditional Sámi flatbread that has a faint taste of anise. It uses yeast, so it is puffier than other flatbreads, and it is also more complex than most. The most traditional method of cooking is in a dry, cast-iron skillet over an open fire, but a stovetop works as well. This is but one recipe. There are countless styles. You can use a number of sugar syrups in place of Golden Syrup, but do not use corn syrup. If you wish, you can cut fewer breads than described here and make them larger.



3 ½ oz/100 gm butter, melted
2 tbsp Golden Syrup
2 tsp anise
2 pints/1 liter milk
2 oz/50 gm yeast
1 tsp salt
2 – 2 ½ lb/1-1.2 kg flour


Place the melted butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add the anise and syrup and stir well until the syrup has been thoroughly incorporated with the butter. Mix in the milk and heat until lukewarm. Remove from the heat.

Crumble the yeast into milk mixture and stir well until it has dissolved. Pour into a large mixing bowl.

Add the flour and salt to the liquid. Add the flour slowly and mix only until you have a smooth dough. Do not add too much flour. It can be slightly sticky. Turn out on to a flat surface, lightly floured if need be, and knead for about 20 minutes.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.

Turn the dough on to a flat surface again and knead it again. Then roll the dough into a long sausage, and cut it into about 40 small pieces. Roll the pieces into small balls with your hands and let them rest for about 5 minutes.

Press the balls flat and pat them between your palms until you have round breads about ¼ inch thick. Let them for about 30 minutes.

Bake the breads in batches in a dry frying pan on a campfire or on the stovetop for about 5-6 minutes on each side. They are cooked when they are golden-brown on both sides.

Let the gáhkko cool, but eat immediately. They can be eaten with soups or stews, or with sliced cheese.



Nov 162016


Today is Icelandic Language Day (Dagur Íslenskrar tungu), a day commemorating the Icelandic language and drawing attention to its potentially endangered status. This date was chosen to commemorate the birthday of Jónas Hallgrímsson, a locally famous Icelandic poet and naturalist of the 19th century. Icelandic Language Day was first celebrated in 1996 in response to research showing that Icelandic was one of four major European languages that are losing ground. I think this is somewhat alarmist in comparison with minor languages. There are around 250 languages spoken in Europe, 225 of which are endangered (139 languages from the past are already extinct). To be classified as endangered a language must be restricted to grandparents of the present generation, and rarely spoken outside the home. Usually children and grandchildren of the older generation can understand the language, but few speak it or have any interest in passing it on. Icelandic is the official language of Iceland, so I doubt there is any real threat to its existence, but there are only about 330,000 native speakers, the vast majority of whom live in Iceland.

The real problem with Icelandic (along with Latvian, Lithuanian and Maltese) is not with the spoken language but with digital support in the computer age. Ever tried finding an Icelandic keyboard? Digital support includes phone apps, spell checkers, automatic translators, and the like. You might be inclined to scoff, but these are genuine problems in the digital age when more and more people in younger generations rely on this kind of support.


Icelandic has an interesting history. Icelandic language began in the 9th century when the settlement of Iceland, mostly by Norwegians, brought a dialect of Old Norse to the island. The oldest preserved texts in Icelandic were written around 1100. The majority of these texts are poems or laws, preserved orally for generations before being written down. The most famous of these, written in Iceland from the 12th  century onward, are the Icelandic Sagas, the historical writings of Snorri Sturluson, and the Eddas.

The language of the era of the sagas is known as Old Icelandic, a dialect of (Western) Old Norse, the common Scandinavian language of the Viking era. Old Icelandic was, in the strict sense of the term, Old Norse with some Celtic influence. The Danish rule of Iceland from 1380 to 1918 had little effect on the evolution of Icelandic, which remained in daily use among the general population: Danish was not used for official communications. The same applied to English during the British (and later US) occupation of Iceland during World War II.


Though Icelandic is considered by linguists to be more archaic than other living Germanic languages, especially in its morphology and other grammatical aspects, as well as in its lexicon, the language has nevertheless been subject to some important changes. The pronunciation, for instance, changed considerably between the 12th and 16th centuries, especially that of vowels. Nevertheless, written Icelandic has changed relatively little since the 13th century. As a result of this, and of the similarity between the modern and ancient grammar, modern speakers can still understand, more or less, the original sagas and Eddas that were written about 800 years ago. This ability is sometimes mildly overstated by Icelanders themselves, most of whom actually read the Sagas with updated modern spelling and footnotes—though otherwise intact.

During the 18th century Icelandic authorities implemented a stringent policy of linguistic purism. Under this policy, a group of writers and linguists was put in charge of the creation of new vocabulary to adapt the Icelandic language to the evolution of new concepts, without resorting to loan words as many other languages had done. A few old words that had fallen into disuse were updated to fit in with the modern language, and neologisms were created from Old Norse roots. For example, the word rafmagn (“electricity”) literally means “amber power” – a calque of the Greek elektron (“amber”). Similarly the word sími (“telephone”) originally meant “wire,” and tölva (“computer”) is a portmanteau of tala (“digit” or “number”) and völva (“female fortuneteller”).


My interest in Icelandic (in translation) concerns the two Eddas (commonly called the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda) and the Icelandic Rune Poem. The Poetic Edda, also known as Sæmundar Edda or the Elder Edda, is a collection of Old Norse poems from the 13th century Icelandic medieval manuscript Codex Regius (“Royal Book”). Along with the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda is the most expansive source on the Norse gods. The first part of the Codex Regius preserves poems that narrate the creation and foretold destruction and rebirth of the Old Norse realm of the gods as well as individual stories about the Norse deities. The poems in the second part narrate legends about Norse heroes and heroines, such as Sigurd, Brynhildr and Gunnar.

The Prose Edda, sometimes referred to as the Younger Edda or Snorri’s Edda, is an Icelandic manual of poetics which also contains many stories of the gods. Its purpose was to enable Icelandic poets and readers to understand the subtleties of alliterative verse, and to grasp the allusions behind the many kennings that were used in the poetry of the skalds (professional Viking court poets). A kenning is a type of circumlocution, in the form of a compound, that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are common in Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry. They usually consist of two words, and are often hyphenated. For example, Old Norse poets might replace sverð, the regular word for “sword”, with a more abstract compound such as “wound-hoe” or a genitive phrase such as randa íss “ice of shields.” The skalds also employed complex kennings in which the determinant, or sometimes the base-word, is itself made up of a further kenning: grennir gunn-más “feeder of war-gull” = “feeder of raven” = “warrior” or eyðendr arnar hungrs “destroyers of eagle’s hunger” = “feeders of eagle” = “warrior” (referring to carnivorous birds scavenging after a battle). Where one kenning is embedded in another like this, the whole figure is said to be tvíkent “doubly determined, twice modified.” Some kennings require an understanding of the history of the gods, hence the use of the Prose Edda – for example, mög-fellandi mellu “son-slayer of giantess” = “slayer of sons of giantess” = “slayer of giants” = “the god Thor.”

Kennings are rare in British English, but are fairly common in American English: rug rat, fender bender, bean counter, and my personal favorite, First Lady, because its Italian translation, prima donna, is used as a loan word/phrase and is also a kenning.


The Prose Edda was written by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson around 1220. It survives in four known manuscripts and three fragments, written down from about 1300 to about 1600. The Prose Edda consists of a Prologue and three separate books: Gylfaginning, concerning the creation and foretold destruction and rebirth of the Norse world of the gods; Skáldskaparmál, a dialogue between Ægir, a Norse god connected with the sea, and Bragi, the skaldic god of poetry; and Háttatal, a demonstration of verse forms used in Norse descriptions of the gods.

Apart from the information about the Norse gods in the Eddas I am interested in the Old Icelandic rune poem. Runes were used as the alphabet for a number of Old Germanic languages, including Old Icelandic, before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. There is a great deal of nonsense going the rounds about runes these days because they have been popularized in two distinct ways. First, a disparate group of people from neopagans to New Age devotees have latched on to runes as ancient systems of magic and divination even though there is almost no primary evidence of these practices. To be sure, runes were used for carving spells and incantations, but it is reasonable to presume that it was the spells and not the runes themselves that were magical. Nonetheless, non scholars, notably Ralph Blum, have written texts on how to use the runes for divination simply by inventing the rules from scratch. Blum used Tarot and I Ching as his guides because he had no knowledge of runology or Medieval Germanic cultures. Second J.R.R. Tolkien used runes as his models for the alphabets of his created languages of Middle Earth in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, giving runes a mysterious, magical or fantasy quality.

Apart from this nonsense there are actually a few things we know for certain about runes. For one thing, the runes had names and not just phonological values. The names were different in different languages and were explained in rune poems where each stanza starts with the name of a rune and then explains its meaning. The Old Icelandic rune poem is the oldest of the three extant poems (the others are in Old Norse and Old English).  Here’s a sample, the first three verses representing runes for F (Fé), U (Úr ), and TH (Þurs):

Fé er frænda róg
    ok flæðar viti
    ok grafseiðs gata
    aurum fylkir.

Úr er skýja grátr
    ok skára þverrir
    ok hirðis hatr.
    umbre vísi

Þurs er kvenna kvöl
    ok kletta búi
    ok varðrúnar verr.
    Saturnus þengill.

    source of discord among kinsmen
    and fire of the sea
    and path of the serpent.

    lamentation of the clouds
    and ruin of the hay-harvest
    and abomination of the shepherd.

    torture of women
    and cliff-dweller
    and husband of a giantess.

I have used these rune poems to create my own system of divination http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/divination-2-runes/  It too is nonsense, but it’s credible nonsense. For certain, Icelandic runes were used to create graphics known as rune staves that were used for good luck.

ild12 ild13

This website is great. http://icelandmag.visir.is/article/10-useless-icelandic-phrases-you-should-not-bother-learn It tells the would-be tourist to Iceland what sentences in Icelandic not to be bothered with. A few favorites of mine are . “Hvar byrjar röðin?” / “Where does the line start?” which is not utterly useless, but Icelanders are as notoriously ill mannered as the Chinese or Italians when it comes to forming an orderly queue, such as at bus stops, in shops, or at bars.  Then there’s “Hvar er næsta lestarstöð?” / “Where’s the closest train station?” – useless because there are no trains in Iceland (there are no MacDonald’s either – hooray). Finally, “Hvernig verður veðrið í kvöld?” / “What will the weather be like tonight?” The weather in Iceland is legendarily unpredictable, and changeable at a moment’s notice.

I’ve dealt a little with Icelandic cuisine before. For protein, historically, Icelanders depended on fish, sheep, and hunted game birds. Subsistence farming focused on cold weather cereals, such as barley, and vegetables. The cuisine is heavily Scandinavian, of course, with notable Danish influences. Here’s a recipe for skyr – homemade curds which can be eaten with cream and fruit as a dessert. It’s a bit of a rigmarole but I’m all for revamping home cheesemaking, the way my mum used to when I was a little boy. Commercially made skyr is readily available in markets in Iceland, much as yoghurt is in other countries, so few people make it at home these days.




1 gallon whole milk
½ pint sour cream
½ rennet tablet


Scald the milk by bringing it to a boil and then immediately turning off the heat and allow it to cool to blood temperature (98°F/37°C).

Whip the sour cream and add some of the warm milk until it is thin and smooth. Then pour the cream into the milk and mix thoroughly.

Dissolve the rennet in about a tablespoon of cold water and add to the milk. Mix thoroughly again.

Let the mixture stand at room temperature for 24 hours.

You now have skyr (curds) and whey. The simplest method of separating out the whey is to make several bags out of multiple layers of cheesecloth (its original purpose), fill them with the skyr and whey and let them hang until the whey drains off. My mum used to hang it on the bath taps.

I gallon of milk should make about 3 pints of skyr, so you can adjust the recipe accordingly.

When serving, whip the skyr well with a whisk to a smooth ice-cream-like consistency. It should not be grainy or like cottage cheese. Serve with cream, sugar and fresh berries.

Oct 252015


On this date in 1979 the Gernika Statute, which was approved by a majority in a referendum, made the Basque region of NW Spain autonomous. Nowadays it is one of the most decentralized regions in the world; in this regard it has been described as having “more autonomy than just about any other in Europe” by The Economist. The forerunner of the Gernika Statute was the short-lived Statute of Autonomy for Álava, Gipuzkoa and Biscay, which came to be enforced in October 1936 just in Biscay, with the Spanish Civil War already raging, and which was automatically abolished when the Spanish Nationalist troops occupied the territory. Before the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and its system of autonomous communities, these three provinces were known in Spanish as the Provincias Vascongadas since 1833. The political structure of the new autonomous community is defined in the Gernika Statute.


Concerning the limits of the Spanish Constitution, Basque nationalists cite the fact that in the 1978 Spanish Constitution referendum, which was passed with a majority of votes and a poor turnout in this area, the Basque Country had the highest rate of abstention (the Basque Nationalist Party had endorsed abstention on the grounds that the Constitution was being forced upon them without any Basque input). To this, the “NO” vote in this referendum was also higher in the Basque Country than in the rest of the state. All in all, many Basques believe that they are not bound to a constitution that they never endorsed.

The Statute of Autonomy of the Basque Country is an organic law, but powers have been devolving gradually over decades based on re-negotiations between the Spanish and the Basque regional governments to reach an effective implementation, while the transfer of many powers are still forthcoming, a matter of heated political discussion. Basque nationalists often attribute this limitation in the devolution of powers to concessions made to appease the military involved in the 23-F coup d’état attempt (1981).


The statute was meant to encompass all the historical provinces inhabited by the Basque people in Spain, who had demonstrated a strong will for the acknowledgement of a separate Basque identity and status, even in non Basque nationalist circles. However, the statute’s original blueprint came up against strong opposition in Navarre (Unión del Pueblo Navarro party founded) and rightist and nationalist circles of the still Francoist central administration. At the beginning of the 1980s the Spanish Socialist party and their regional branch too swerved to a Navarre-only stance, paving the way to a separate autonomous community.

However, the Statute of Autonomy of the Basque Country retained in its wording the spirit of the original blueprint, namely allowing the necessary means for the development in liberty of the Basque people, while now limited only to the western Álava, Gipuzkoa and Biscay provinces. The possibility of Navarre joining in is anyway emphasized and provisioned for, insomuch as they are identified as Basque people, should that be their will.

It established a system of parliamentary government, in which the president (chief of government) or lehendakari is elected by the Basque Autonomous Parliament among its members. Election of the Parliament is by universal suffrage and parliament consists of 75 deputies, 25 from each of the three Historic Territories of the community. The parliament is vested with powers over a broad variety of areas, including agriculture, industry; from culture, arts and libraries, to tax collection, policing, and transportation. Basque (as a right) and Spanish (as a right and duty) are official languages.


The equal representation of the provinces regardless of actual population was a wink to Alava and Navarre, the least populated and least prone to Basque nationalism of the provinces. However the Navarrese society seems content with its current Amejoramiento del Fuero’

Up to early 19th century, the Basque districts maintained a great degree of self-government under their charters (they came to be known as the Exempt Provinces), i.e. they held a different status from other areas within the Crown of Castile/Spain, involving taxes and customs, separate military conscription, etc.), operating almost autonomously.

After the First Carlist War (1833-1839), home rule was abolished and substituted by the Compromise Act (Ley Paccionada) in Navarre (1841) and a diminished chartered regime in the three western provinces (up to 1876). After the definite abolition of the Charters (end of Third Carlist War), former laws and customs were largely absorbed into Spanish centralist rule with little regard for regional idiosyncrasies. As a result, attempts were made by Carlists, Basque nationalists and some liberal forces in the Basque region of Spain to establish a collaboration among them and restore some kind of self-empowerment (“autonomy”), while the Catalans developed their own Catalan Commonwealth.


Attempts at a unified Basque statute including Navarre were repeatedly postponed until the occasion seemed to have arrived at the onset of the Second Spanish Republic with an statute for the four Basque provinces. A draft Basque Statute was approved by all four provinces (1931), but Carlists were divided, and the 1931 draft Statute of Estella did not achieve enough support, against a backdrop of heated controversy over the validity of the votes, as well as allegations of strong pressures on local representatives to tip the scale against the unitarian option (Assembly of Pamplona, 1932).

Following the works started for the Basque Statute, another proposal was eventually approved by the government of the Spanish Republic, already awash in the Civil War, this time only including the provinces of Gipuzkoa, Biscay and Álava. Its effectivity was limited to the Republic-controlled areas of Biscay and a fringe of Gipuzkoa.

After the surrendering of the Basque Army in 1937, the statute was abolished. However, Francisco Franco allowed the continuation of a limited self-government for Alava and Navarre, thanking their support for the Spanish Nationalist uprising.


Basque autonomy represents a microcosm of the struggles of ethnic groups within Europe. I have written many times here about this situation. For centuries Europe was, and is, torn by opposing ideologies. On the one hand, states and empires sought hegemonic control over large territories that encompassed a range of ethnic and linguistic minorities. Even now there is no state within Europe that is unicultural, although a few come close. Some are inherently pluralistic without even considering recent waves of immigrants. Spain is a classic example. It was originally manufactured out of individual kingdoms whose languages and cultures are quite distinct. Spanish language differences are bad enough – the dialects are much more diverse within Spain than between other Spanish dialects worldwide. Though I speak Argentine Spanish, I can understand Chileans, Filipinos, Peruvians, etc. easily enough, but I have no hope with Catalonians or Galicians. Add Basque to the mix. It is a language isolate, totally unrelated to Indo-European languages, or any other language family for that matter.

On the other hand, these individual cultural and linguistic groups have sought independence from state and imperial hegemonic power. The European Union is merely the latest in a series of unifying powers aimed at bringing a vast region under one government (sort of). Counter to this are Basques, Scots, etc. who want autonomy and self identity. Not everyone is happy with the situation, but the creation of an autonomous Basque Country within both Spain and Europe seems to be a reasonable model.

The Basques may have more recipes for variety meats than any other culture. They delight in tripe, sweetbreads, heart, oxtail, tongue — you name it. This derives from their traditional occupation as shepherds in the high Pyrenees (and subsequently in the American West). As is true of so many peasant cultures of Europe, the herders raised the animals and sold the fine muscle meats, but got to keep the less desirable organ and scrap meats for themselves. Yet, a cuisine born of necessity can, nonetheless, produce magnificent dishes. Many fine Basque stews like this one have a base of tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. The sauce is reminiscent of the taste of gazpacho, tangy with the olive oil and peppers, so be sure to use the most flavorful olive oil you can find. I cook this stew over two days, simmering the tripe on the first day, and adding the vegetables on the second. Like many stews of this type, the preparation is rather simple. The key to success is long, long, slow cooking. This dish is best served with plain boiled rice and a big loaf of crusty bread.


Basque Stewed Tripe


3 lbs honeycomb tripe
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion diced
1 green pepper diced
2 tablespoons garlic finely chopped
1/4 cup of finely chopped green chiles
1lb fresh or canned (drained) sauce tomatoes peeled and chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
beef stock


Simmer the tripe in rich beef stock for about 1 hour, or until it is fork tender but not soft, and then let it cool in the broth (preferably in the refrigerator overnight). Remove the tripe from the broth and cut it into bite size hunks. Skim the fat from the broth and return it to the heat to warm through. Gently heat the olive oil in a large skillet or heavy bottomed saucepan capable of accommodating all the stew ingredients comfortably.   Sauté the green pepper and onions in the oil until they are soft. Add the tomatoes, green chiles, parsley, and garlic and continue to sauté gently for 5 minutes. Add three cups of the warmed broth and the tripe, and simmer very slowly, uncovered, for one hour. The sauce will thicken considerably in this time. There is no harm in extra cooking if the sauce appears too thin. Essentially, the longer the cooking the better (if the sauce gets too thick add a little more broth).

Serves 6


Oct 042015


Today is the birthday (1880) of Alfred Damon Runyon a New York newspaperman and author who is most well known for his short stories celebrating the world of Broadway in New York City that grew out of the Prohibition era. To New Yorkers of his generation, a “Damon Runyon character” evoked a distinctive social type from the Brooklyn or Midtown demi-monde. The adjective “Runyonesque” refers to this type of character as well as to the type of situations and dialog that Runyon depicted. For years an omnibus volume of Runyon’s stories sat on my bedside table, along with the complete works of e. e. cummings, a Sherlock Holmes compendium, as well as other assorted reading material that came and went. I like to read just for pleasure, but I always have an eye out for certain kinds of writing style which I suppose influences me in a way when I write. Runyon I could never imitate; wouldn’t even try. I do very much like a writer whose style is immediately recognizable.

Runyon was born Alfred Damon Runyan to Alfred Lee and Elizabeth (Damon) Runyan. His relatives in Manhattan, Kansas included several newspapermen. His grandfather was a newspaper printer from New Jersey who had relocated to Manhattan, Kansas in 1855, and his father was editor of his own newspaper in the town. In 1882 Runyon’s father was forced to sell his newspaper, and the family moved westward. The family eventually settled in Pueblo, Colorado in 1887, where Runyon spent the rest of his youth. By most accounts, he only attended school through the fourth grade. He began to work in the newspaper trade under his father in Pueblo.

In 1898, when still in his early teens, Runyon enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Spanish–American War. While in the service, he was assigned to write for the Manila Freedom and Soldier’s Letter. After his military service, he worked for various Colorado newspapers, beginning in Pueblo. His first job as a reporter began in September 1900, when he was hired by the Pueblo Star; he then worked in the Rocky Mountain area during the first decade of the 1900s: at the Denver Daily News, he served as “sporting editor” and then worked as a staff writer. His expertise was in covering the semi-professional teams in Colorado; he even briefly managed a semi-pro team in Trinidad, CO. At one of the newspapers where he worked, the spelling of his last name was changed from “Runyan” to “Runyon,” a change he let stand.


Runyon moved to New York City in 1910. In his first New York byline, the American editor dropped the “Alfred” and the name “Damon Runyon” appeared for the first time. For the next ten years he covered the New York Giants and professional boxing for the New York American. He was the Hearst newspapers’ baseball columnist for many years, beginning in 1911, and his knack for spotting the eccentric and the unusual, on the field or in the stands, is credited with revolutionizing the way baseball was covered. Runyon was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. He is also a member of the International Boxing Hall Of Fame and is known for dubbing heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, the “Cinderella Man”. Runyon frequently contributed sports poems to the American on boxing and baseball themes, and also wrote numerous short stories and essays.

Gambling, particularly on craps or horse races, was a common theme of Runyon’s works, and he was a notorious gambler himself. One of his paraphrases from a well-known line in Ecclesiastes ran: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” A heavy drinker as a young man, he seems to have quit drinking soon after arriving in New York, after his drinking nearly cost him the courtship of the woman who became his first wife, Ellen Egan. He remained a heavy smoker.


His best friend was mobster accountant Otto Berman, and he incorporated Berman into several of his stories under the alias “Regret, the horse player.” When Berman was killed in a hit on Berman’s boss, Dutch Schultz, Runyon quickly assumed the role of damage control for his deceased friend, correcting erroneous press releases (including one that stated Berman was one of Schultz’s gunmen, to which Runyon replied, “Otto would have been as effective a bodyguard as a two-year-old.”).

Runyon’s marriage to Ellen Egan produced two children (Mary and Damon, Jr.), but broke up in 1928 over rumors that Runyon had become infatuated with Patrice Amati del Grande, a Mexican woman he had first met while covering the Pancho Villa raids in 1916 and discovered once again in New York, when she called the American seeking him out. Runyon had promised her in Mexico that if she would complete the education he paid for her, he would find her a dancing job in New York. She became his companion after he separated from his wife. After Ellen Runyon died of the effects of her own drinking problems, Runyon and Patrice married; that marriage ended in 1946 when Patrice left Runyon for another, younger, man.

Runyon died in New York City from throat cancer in late 1946, at age 66. His body was cremated, and his ashes were illegally scattered from a DC-3 airplane over Broadway in Manhattan by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker on December 18, 1946.


Frank Muir comments that Runyon’s plots were, in the manner of O. Henry, neatly constructed with professionally wrought endings, but their distinction lay in the manner of their telling, as the author invented a peculiar argot for his characters to speak. Runyon almost totally avoids the past tense (English humorist E.C. Bentley thought there was only one instance, and was willing to “lay plenty of 6 to 5 that it is nothing but a misprint”) and makes little use of the future tense, using the present for both. He also avoided the conditional, using instead the future indicative in situations that would normally require a conditional. For example: “Now most any doll on Broadway will be very glad indeed to have Handsome Jack Madigan give her a tumble.”

The comic effect of his style results partly from the juxtaposition of broad slang with mock-pomposity. Women, when not “dolls”, “Judies”, “pancakes”, “tomatoes”, or “broads”, may be “characters of a female nature”, for example. He typically avoided contractions such as “don’t” in the example above, which also contributes significantly to the humorously pompous effect. In one sequence, a gangster tells another character to do as he’s told, or else “find another world in which to live.”


Runyon’s short stories are told in the first person by a protagonist who is never named, and whose role is unclear; he knows many gangsters and does not appear to have a job, but he does not admit to any criminal involvement, and seems to be largely a bystander. He describes himself as “being known to one and all as a guy who is just around”.

Here’s a couple of short excerpts just for the hell of it.

If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business. But I wish to say I never shed any of these tears personally, because I am never in love, and furthermore, barring a bad break, I never expect to be in love, for the way I look at it love is strictly the old phedinkus, and I tell the little guy as much.

One of these days … a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.

Runyon’s fictional world is also known to the general public through the musical Guys and Dolls based on two of his stories, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. The musical additionally borrows characters and story elements from a few other Runyon stories, most notably “Pick The Winner.” The film Little Miss Marker (and its two remakes, Sorrowful Jones and the 1980 Little Miss Marker) grew from his short story of the same name. All told there are 20 plays and movies based on Runyon’s stories. Here’s my favorite number from Guys and Dolls:

Let’s start the recipe section with this advertisement for hot dogs supposedly served at Runyon’s table. If  you click to enlarge you can read the advertising copy.


I have no doubt that this story is disconnected from reality. I would certainly hope that Runyon would not have a dinner of franks with onion cups stuffed with creamed, diced carrots followed by butterscotch pudding. It sounds revolting. However, Runyon did apparently have a liking for tripe. This from the start of the story “Blonde Mink”:

Now of course there are many different ways of cooking tripe but personally I prefer it stewed with tomatoes and mushrooms and a bit of garlic and in fact I am partaking of a portion in this form in Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway one evening in January when a personality by the name of Julie the Starker sits down at my table and leans over and sniffs my dish and says to me like this:

“Tripe,” he says. “With garlic,” he says. “Why, this is according to the recipe of the late Slats Slavin, who obtains it from his old Aunt Margaret in Troy. Waiter,” he says, “bring me an order of this delicious concoction only with more garlic. It is getting colder outside and a guy needs garlic in his system to thicken his blood. Well,” he says, “this is indeed a coincidence because I just come from visiting the late Slats and having a small chat with him.”

And this from the middle of “Pick the Winner,”

Now what happens one evening, but Hot Horse Herbie and his ever-loving fiancée, Miss Cutie Singleton, and me are in a little grease joint on Second Street putting on the old hot tripe à la Creole, which is a very pleasant dish, and by no means expensive, when who wanders in but Professor Woodhead.

Naturally Herbie calls him over to our table and introduces Professor Woodhead to Miss Cutie Singleton, and Professor Woodhead sits there with us looking at Miss Cutie Singleton with great interest, although Miss Cutie Singleton is at this time feeling somewhat peevish because it is the fourth evening hand running she has to eat tripe à la Creole, and Miss Cutie Singleton does not care for tripe under any circumstances.

Italian and Italian-American cuisine features tripe in tomato sauce with various additions and flavorings. I’ve had all manner of different styles in both New York and Italy. Tripe with tomatoes, mushrooms and garlic sounds fine. Tripe à la Creole is a well known, slightly more complicated dish.


Tripe à la Creole


2 lbs cooked tripe cut in strips
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 onions, sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp chopped ham
1 tsp thyme
2 bay leaves
1 14 oz can diced plum tomatoes
1 green pepper, sliced
salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste


Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and gently sauté the garlic, onion. ham and green pepper, until the onion is translucent. Add the plum tomatoes and bring the mixture to a simmer.  Add the lemon juice, thyme, and bay leaves, and season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne.  Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Add water or light stock if the sauce starts to dry out. Add in the tripe and heat through. Serve over spaghetti or linguine. You can grate Romano or Parmesan cheese over the top if you like, but it is not to my taste. I do, however, sometimes sprinkle red pepper flakes on top.

Apr 262014


Today is the birthday (1889) of Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. One of my great heroes. During his lifetime he published just one slim book, the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), one article, one book review, and a children’s dictionary. He spent years editing his voluminous manuscripts into the magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations, which was published posthumously in 1953. It became a classic, ranking Wittgenstein with the powerhouses of modern philosophy. Bertrand Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.”

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna into one of Europe’s richest families and inherited a large fortune from his father in 1913. He gave considerable sums to poor artists, and in a period of severe depression after World War I, he gave away his entire fortune to his brothers and sisters. Three of his brothers committed suicide, and Wittgenstein contemplated it too. He left academia several times: serving as an officer on the front line during World War I, where he was decorated a number of times for his courage; teaching in schools in remote Austrian villages; and working during World War II as a hospital porter in London, where he told patients not to take the drugs they were prescribed, and where he largely managed to keep secret the fact that he was one of the world’s most famous philosophers. He described philosophy, however, as “the only work that gives me real satisfaction.”


His philosophy is often divided into an early period, exemplified by the Tractatus, and a later period, articulated in the Philosophical Investigations. In his early work Wittgenstein was concerned with the logical relationship between propositions and the world, and believed that by providing an account of the logic underlying this relationship he had solved all philosophical problems. In the later period Wittgenstein rejected many of the assumptions of the Tractatus, arguing that the meaning of words is best understood as their use within a given context. This is classic:

Think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked ‘five red apples’. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked ‘apples’, then he looks up the word ‘red’ in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word ‘five’ and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words—”But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?” Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word ‘five’? No such thing was in question here, only how the word ‘five’ is used.

The very last piece is priceless. What is “five-ness”? This is the kind of question I used to ask my students (along with “what is blue-ness?” etc.), much to their frustration. We can use these words effectively, but definition is illusive. Look up “left” or “right” in the dictionary and see what you get. Here’s one of my common questions for students, following Wittgenstein: “prove to me that 2 + 2 = 4.” Most would show me by putting items (such as fingers) into two groups of two and then putting them together to make four. But I would reply by pointing out that this was merely demonstrating (using), and not proving. At that point they all got baffled, as well they should. You can (sort of) prove it mathematically, but you need a sophisticated understanding of set theory and other complicated stuff. Even then you have to accept certain things on faith such as that zero and the natural numbers exist at all! By the way, these were anthropology classes; I am not a philosopher. Wittgenstein has a long reach.

Wittgenstein’s influence has been felt in nearly every field of the humanities and social sciences, yet there are diverging interpretations of his thought and, therefore, of its value. In the words of his friend and colleague Georg Henrik von Wright:

He was of the opinion that his ideas were generally misunderstood and distorted even by those who professed to be his disciples. He doubted he would be better understood in the future. He once said he felt as though he were writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men.

There is a story told of someone going up to Wittgenstein and saying, “What a lot of morons they were back in the Middle Ages. They looked up at the dawn every morning and thought what they were seeing was the Sun going around the Earth, when every school kid knows that the Earth goes around the Sun,” to which Wittgenstein replied, “Yes, but I wonder what it would have looked like if the Sun had been going around the Earth?” (Incidentally, Einstein showed that without a frame of reference external to the universe it is just as legitimate to say that the sun goes round the earth as that the earth goes round the sun. Very few people understand the implications of relativity).


Here are some of my favorite quotes from the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations in no particular order:

I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself.

The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves.

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.

If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.

Don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.

Only describe, don’t explain.

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree’, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.

Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.

Problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known all long.

Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.

If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different. It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

How small a thought it takes to fill a life.

I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.

If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself, because this is too painful, he will remain superficial in his writing.

The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy.

It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic.

If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him.

To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.

I hope Wittgenstein will approve of today’s “recipe.” It comes in the form of a story. John Maynard Keynes wrote this about him after meeting Wittgenstein in Cambridge in 1929:

My wife gave him some Swiss cheese and rye bread for lunch, which he greatly liked. Thereafter he more or less insisted on eating bread and cheese at all meals, largely ignoring the various dishes that my wife prepared. Wittgenstein declared that it did not much matter to him what he ate, so long as it always remained the same. When a dish that looked especially appetizing was brought to the table, I sometimes exclaimed “Hot Ziggety!” — a slang phrase that I learned as a boy in Kansas. Wittgenstein picked up this expression from me. It was inconceivably droll to hear him exclaim “Hot Ziggety!” when my wife put the bread and cheese before him.

So . . .bread and cheese it is. Have yourself a ploughman’s lunch. Here’s one I made for Plough Monday 2012.