Mar 092019

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, usually simply called The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith was first published on this date in 1776, while the Agricultural Revolution was in full swing and the Industrial Revolution was cranking up. Smith concerned himself with the question of why some nations had more wealth than others, the division of labor, free markets, the law of supply and demand, competition, profit, and productivity, and the book is considered a founding work of classical economics. It influenced governments and organizations, setting the terms for economic debate and discussion for the next century and a half.

The Wealth of Nations was the product of 17 years of notes and earlier works, as well as conversations among economists of the time concerning economic and societal conditions during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Smith sought to offer a practical application for reformed economic theory to replace the mercantilist and physiocratic economic theories that were becoming less relevant in a time of industrial innovation. The book influenced economists, politicians, mathematicians, biologists, and scholars in a wide variety of fields. The Wealth of Nations was as foundational in the field of economics, as Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica for physics, Antoine Lavoisier’s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie for chemistry, or Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for biology.

Smith’s main tenet is that some nations are wealthier than other nations, not because some countries work harder or have better resources, but because of the judicious exploitation of free trade. Smith argues that free trade allows countries to import goods that are expensive to produce within their borders and export goods that are cheap to produce. Opening borders is better in the long term because the long-term cost of production is lower. One of the central ideas of Smith’s economics is what he calls “the invisible hand of the market place.”  The “invisible hand” in some ways foreshadows the concept of culture in anthropology: that is, there are natural forces at work that regulate communities (and markets) regardless of conscious involvement. People who create products will always work to make the biggest profit. This spells success all around, because when business owners have the long view in mind, they will put out their best work. He gives the example of a butcher. If a butcher sells bad cuts of meat, his customers will not come back. He might make a profit in the short term, but in the long term, it is better to sell a good product for a price people are willing to pay. The invisible hand of the market ensures a prosperous system that works for the good of the majority. Smith acknowledges that some will become super rich, and some will stay poor, but for him, this is a logical price to pay for a thriving economic system. In order for freedom to prevail, and for the majority to pursue their happiness and goals, the system must allow for some measure of inequality.

Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in response to the prevailing economic theory of the time, mercantilism. Mercantilism stated that international trade results in a collection of winners and losers. For one country to get rich, it is necessary that another country be poor. Because resources are limited a country will have to put in measures to ensure its prosperity at the expense of another. This theory meant that countries tried hard to bring money and resources within their borders, but blocked free exchange so that money stayed inside. Countries would levy tariffs on goods coming from outside countries, sometimes at the expense of their own long-term good. If another country produces something more cheaply than your country can, you can place tariffs on imports, so that the product made inside the country is competitive. The problem is that this action raises prices.

We could argue about the merits of Smith’s advocacy of free trade and laissez-faire economics for a long time. In the nineteenth century in Britain, unregulated capitalism without social safety nets led to catastrophic urban poverty, with political economists such as Karl Marx providing a very different analysis running counter to Smith’s. Smith, himself, also put limits on completely unregulated production. He believed that some taxation was needed to provide for services, such as roads, that benefitted everyone, and he was also strongly opposed to monopolies that circumvented the natural processes of free market competition and artificially forced up prices. Thus, economic systems always needed some regulation. How much regulation and taxation is a continuing debate.  Smith’s basic premise that all people are self-interested and striving for the best for themselves and this fact drives markets and individuals to maximize benefits for all concerned, is deeply contested to this day.

Here is a frugal Scots recipe for apples and oats that I make once in a while when I want a quick dessert.

Apples and Oats


1½ oz butter
2 oz brown sugar
4 oz rolled oats
4 cooking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tbsp lemon juice


Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the oats and sugar. Mix well. Spread out in a shallow tin and toast in the oven until they are golden brown. Keep an eagle eye on them, and shake periodically. They will brown quickly and unevenly if not shaken.

Toss the apples in the lemon juice and put them in a casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Bake in the oven until the apples are soft and fluffy (about 30 minutes). Beat in the sugar to taste and allow to cool.

In a loaf pan, arrange a layer of oats, then apples and repeat until all are used up, with a layer of oats on top. Let rest for at least an hour. Serve with whipped cream.

Feb 212017

On this date in 1848 The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was first published (in German) in London. It is a much misunderstood document, as is much of Marx’s work in general. I don’t have the space here, nor time, to redress all the misunderstandings, but I’ll make a start. The Manifesto was itself written to correct misunderstandings of what communism is/was, but it was itself misinterpreted badly by European revolutionaries and in points beyond. Marx was not envisaging dictators such as Stalin and Mao, but that’s the model of Marxism that has stuck in the general consciousness in the West, largely as a result of the Cold War.  Marx was addressing the radical divide between the people with all the money (hence power) and the rest of the population that was the model in his day in Europe, and which continues unabated. In my opinion his analysis of the situation (then and now) is generally sound, but his historical analysis is not.  The most important misunderstanding is of the world Marx envisaged – not the oppressive regimes of the likes of 20th century Russia and China, but a world in which the common people (proletariat) were not controlled, mind and soul, by the desires of an oligarchy of very few, very rich people (bourgeoisie), but, instead, controlled their own destinies.

I should probably start with a critique of Marx (and Engels) to demonstrate that I am not some kind of doctrinaire Marxist myself. Marx wrote in an era when very general ideas of the evolution of things were just beginning to catch hold, undoubtedly because Europe was radically changing under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution. A world that had seen precious little in the way of technological change for almost a thousand years was gripped by rapid and constant change and this had an effect on the intellectual world because change was in the air. The Grimms, for example, developed hypotheses concerning the evolution of languages, Lewis Henry Morgan proposed a theory of cultural evolution, and, of course, Darwin was interested in biological evolution. Marx stepped in with his own theory of historical evolution. My “simple” task here will be to try to separate the wheat from the chaff in Marx’s thinking, and will, obviously, end up being simplistic.

Where Marx has proven to be most blatantly wrong is in his hypothesis that capitalism would collapse of its own weight. Over 150 years later it is still going strong, the ultra-rich still hold all the power, and there’s no sign of collapse even though the disparity between rich and the rest is, if anything, greater than it was in Marx’s time in developed countries. The two major countries where a simulacrum of Marx’s ideas led to violent revolution in the 20th century, Russia and China, were not capitalist cultures at the time of their revolutions, but experiencing the last vestiges of feudalism that were ripe to be overturned — and have since adopted capitalist ideals on a large scale (including the huge disparities between the rich and the rest).

What cannot be denied is that the vast majority of people living in contemporary capitalist cultures are, by and large, comfortable. Of course they are exploited and controlled by a tiny minority of very rich people, but their lives are comfortable enough that they are hesitant to seek change, and so they continue as is. We still have plenty of poor people living in horrendous conditions but the Western world does not look like the Victorian London or Manchester of Marx’s day. The bulk of the electorate in Western democracies have food on the table, drive cars, have stable (if tedious) jobs, and aspire to owning their own homes. They have the time and money to go on vacation to exotic places, and they wear decent clothes. Discontent these days centers on the evident slowing of what was once a steady improvement in these comforts, not in the system itself.  Hence the capitalist system will endure unscathed through the rest of my lifetime and beyond. I have no idea what will cause its ultimate demise, but it will end – one day.

1848 was the “Year of Revolutions” in Europe. No country emerged untouched, although not all participated in overt revolution. Marx certainly contributed to the general revolutionary fervor with the Manifesto. But the revolutions were fueled by a lot of forces, notably nationalism, apart from the desire for social change.  Marx’s rhetoric was inserted into the revolutions, but socialism of a different sort, led by social philosophers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, and Robert Owen, was also on the horizon, leading in a different, non violent, direction.  They were called “Utopian Socialists” by detractors (including Marxists) because their visions were viewed as naïve.  What is frequently missed is that Marx’s socialist aims were the same as theirs, only the vision of the methods of achieving it was different.

Beneath the revolutionary rhetoric Marx was a humanist. If you read his works prior to the Manifesto  you get a much clearer sense of his underlying humanistic social philosophy. He imagined a post-capitalist world in which farmers collectively owned the farms, workers collectively owned factories, and so forth, and they would inevitably benefit because they would keep all the profits and make all the decisions. We can argue about the validity of this hypothesis, but there is no question that Marx envisaged a brighter world for everyone when the workers were the masters. He did not imagine Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Perhaps he should have. Revolution from the bottom up begets tyrants.  Marx should have known this; the French Revolution produced Napoleon. The American Revolution was different because it was not from the bottom up, but from the top down. The first rebels in the North American colonies were the rich who wanted less taxation and less regulation on their businesses (times don’t change much !!).

Marx was spot on when he pointed out that capitalism commodifies labor so that workers see themselves in terms of their earning power rather than in terms of their inherent human (and individual) traits. Workers thus take less pride in their work and more in their pay check. Work becomes a means to an end (house, car, vacations, etc) rather than an end in itself. In consequence all other social activities, such as education, are judged in terms of their ability to increase earning power and not for their intrinsic merits. I’m absolutely sick and tired of reading article upon article that charts the universities with the graduates who earn the most, the college majors with the best earnings potential, and the careers with the highest salaries.  So what????  I became an anthropologist, a teacher, and a writer because I love doing that work. I can look back on a long career with pride and happiness because my jobs have made me happy, not because I have stacked away piles of money. My riposte to the ages old barbed question, “If you are so smart why aren’t you rich?” is simple. “I am not rich because I am smart; I have other goals in life.”

I am not a doctrinaire Marxist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am enough of a Marxist to believe that people should live in a society where they are free to choose their own destinies, and not shackled by the dictates of the system.

Some apt quotes from the Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie . . . has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

The proletarians have nothing to loose but their chains. They have a world to win.


I’ve never wanted to be a chef because I’ve never wanted to debase my cooking via the profit motive.  I cook because I love to cook – end of story.  I hope this blog makes that point loud and clear. Today of all days you should cook something that you most love to cook, and cook with passion – not with an eye to time, cost, or any other variable other than devotion to the task itself. That means that you should choose today what recipe best suits you.  You are the master. For lunch today I had braised rabbit with wild mushrooms in a sauce seasoned with red pepper, garlic, onions, allspice, and ginger, with boiled new potatoes and broad beans on the side.  I’m not going to give you a recipe because (a) I invented the dish as I went along, and (b) today is your day to cook what you choose, not what I have decided for you. My braised rabbit took me 2 days to prepare because I like my dishes to rest overnight when they have complex sauces. I loved the preparation – and it was delicious.

Here’s a small gallery of things I have cooked recently.  In each case I cooked what I wanted without any recipe, just following my heart’s pleasure:

Apr 212016


Today is the birthday (1864) of Karl Emil Maximilian “Max” Weber, Prussian-German social theorist who was a major figure in the development of social research. Weber is sometimes grouped with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx as the founders of sociology. I could quibble about how sociology got created, but I won’t argue about Weber being a towering figure.  His work has had a lasting influence on mine. It’s impossible for me to summarize his work adequately in a short post, but I’ll try to keep it simple – which means, inevitably, simplistic.

Weber was a key proponent of methodological antipositivism, that is, he believed that social action cannot be understood empirically (scientifically) but must be delved through interpretive means (what he called Verstehen), based on understanding the purpose and meaning that individuals attach to their own actions. Unlike Durkheim, he did not believe in monocausality but proposed that for any outcome there can be multiple causes.

Weber is best known for his thesis combining economic sociology and the sociology of religion, as exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he proposes that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major “elective affinities” associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state. He argues that it was the basic beliefs of Protestantism that led to capitalism, and that, in fact, the spirit of capitalism is spawned by, and identical with Protestant religious values.


Weber was born in Erfurt, Province of Saxony, Prussia. He was the oldest of the seven children of Max Weber Sr., a wealthy and prominent civil servant and member of the National Liberal Party, and his wife Helene (Fallenstein), who partly descended from French Huguenot immigrants and held strong moral absolutist ideas. Weber Sr.’s involvement in public life immersed his home in both politics and academia, as his salon welcomed many prominent scholars and public figures. The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Weber’s 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled “About the course of German history, with special reference to the positions of the Emperor and the Pope”, and “About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations.” I just love it.

In class, bored and unimpressed with the teachers – who in turn resented what they perceived as a disrespectful attitude – he secretly read all forty volumes of Goethe, a major influence on his later thought and methodology. Before entering university, he devoured classical works. Over time, Weber was also significantly affected by the marital tension between his father, “a man who enjoyed earthly pleasures,” and his mother, a devout Calvinist “who sought to lead an ascetic life.” How many great thinkers were moved to greatness by the dysfunction of their parents? Freud for starters !!!


Weber’s main intellectual concern was understanding the processes of rationalization, secularization, and “disenchantment” that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity, and which he saw as the result of a new way of thinking about the world. Continuing my journey into mind-numbingly simplistic analysis, Weber and Marx can be seen as polar opposites: Marx saw evolving intellectual developments in society as the product of changing material circumstances historically, whereas Weber saw the evolution of intellectual processes as primary and material circumstances as secondary. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg affair, I’m afraid. Was Protestantism the outgrowth of the development of capitalism, or the other way around? I’m not going to take sides; I see them as co-evolving processes.

But then we come to a more intriguing question: was the rise of rational science in the 17th century a good thing or a bad thing? From a strictly technological point of view, it had numerous benefits: improved medicine, efficient transport, computers, iPhones . . . etc. etc. etc. But what was the cost? Well, we can start with pollution and move on from there. But for Weber the cost was catastrophic intellectually and, hence, socially. The monolithic faith in science as the answer to ALL problems led to the “disenchantment” of the West. The word “disenchantment” does not do justice to the original German word “Entzauberung” which we can translate literally as “un-magic-ing” or “despiritualizing.” In this case we should think of “enchantment” as equivalent to “full of magic” – where “magic” is the opposite of “natural.” The modern, secular, scientific mind dismisses prayer, God, elves, fairies, spirituality, and all the rest of it, and, according to Weber, we are the poorer for it. I agree.

Western science can do many great things, but it goes too far when it claims to be the sole guardian of THE TRUTH, and that in time science will solve all of our problems. There are vast realms of human experience that cannot be understood by the scientific method – love, art, beauty . . . what have you. The general public in the West tends to be torn in this area. Some reject the rational completely, some the spiritual. But most sit somewhere in the middle. People happily use laptops and go to the doctor if they feel sick, but they also love Harry Potter, use tarot cards, and visit ashrams.


The problem, as Weber sees it, is that rational science has overplayed its hand, so that the rational has crept into the fundamental fabric of society – and we don’t like it. Efficiency has become our god. From an industrial point of view, if we can turn out billions of identical, cheap, affordable smartphones we all benefit because we can chat to friends all over the world, look up arcane information whenever we want, listen to endless stores of music, play games . . . and so forth. But in the process we are increasingly dehumanized. The phones themselves are mass produced in factories by workers who have no identity or individuality, and who work for slave wages. Furthermore the phones themselves suck us into a world where individuality is also lost. OK – being simplistic once more, but you get the point.

So let’s turn to cooking. In a recent post I gave this recipe for eierstich, an egg custard from Weber’s native Saxony, that is often cut into fancy shapes as a garnish for soups:


You can make the eierstich, egg custard, in several ways. Beat together 1 cup of milk or cream, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, plus a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and salt. Don’t be so vigorous that a froth forms. Pour the mix into sealable plastic pouches, close them tightly, and place in boiling water for 10 minutes, or until the custard is firm. Unseal the pouches and cut the custard into small pieces. I have little decorative cutters for this job. Keep warm.

I call this kind of recipe “heuristic” as opposed to “scientific.” “Scientific” recipes are what you find in standard cookbooks, where each begins with a list of ingredients with precise measurements (often in Imperial and metric), given in the order in which they are used, followed by careful, step-by-step instructions. Such recipes can be useful, but they do not replicate real, human, flesh-and-blood process. This example of mine doesn’t either but it’s a bit closer.

Several years ago my son decided to roast a goose for Christmas dinner.  I had moved to Argentina and he was alone in our house in New York. I had roasted a goose every single Christmas up to that point, and he did not want to miss out just because I was away. So he asked me for the “recipe.” How do you explain how to roast a goose when you’ve got 35 years of experience behind you? I tried to write down the instructions for him and wrote 3 pages (single spaced), and still felt my description was inadequate.  It was.  He followed my instructions, but then called me three times on Christmas Day with additional questions as the goose was cooking.


A recipe assumes a wealth of knowledge that is not captured by the mere wording. We also know that two people can follow the same recipe with identical ingredients and equipment, and come up with vastly different products. Over and over again I showed my girlfriend (now my ex) how to make an Argentine tortilla, and supervised her many times as she made them herself. I also made instructional videos for her – all to no avail. She can make something edible, but her tortillas are nothing like mine – same ingredients from the same store, same kitchen – different spirits.

Nov 072015


The October Revolution (Октя́брьская револю́ция,) known officially as the Great October Socialist Revolution, and commonly referred to as Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution, was a seizure of state power instrumental in the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. It took place beginning with an armed insurrection in Petrograd traditionally dated to 25 October 1917 (by the Julian or Old Style calendar, which corresponds to 7 November 1917 in the Gregorian or New Style calendar). By coincidence today is also the birthday (1879) of Leon Trotsky, leading revolutionary and key figure in soviet government until ousted by Stalin. I’ll focus here on the revolution itself. Maybe next year for Trotsky.


The October Revolution is of some importance in the complex events of 1917 in Russia. Scholars still debate the course of events and significance of individual actions over the span of 1917, and histories have been deeply colored by political propaganda within and outside of Russia. Soviet history has changed a good deal with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 when many documents that had long been suppressed became public. When I studied the revolution in 6th-form history, the Western party line was that it was precipitated by the brutalities borne by the poor under the feudal system aggravated by the horrendous conditions on the eastern front in the Great War. I think this is still a reasonable assessment although a little simplistic. Now we would add other factors such as antagonism of the nobility towards the tsar, mismanagement of factories, and the like. What it was most definitely not was a vindication of popular Marxist ideology as it was codified – especially in Russia under Stalin. Russia was still primarily a rural, feudal economy in 1917. According to doctrinaire Marxism, the country was supposed to develop bourgeois capitalist industrialism, and only then should a mass people’s revolt have occurred. Lenin and Trotsky were both out of Russia in early 1917 and rushed back when the February Revolution broke out – in Lenin’s case it is reputed that he wanted to stop the revolution because the people were doing it all wrong. After Lenin’s return, the Bolsheviks wanted to shift events to better suit Marxism, but, despite their victory in 1917, they were not popular with the people and instigated a 5-year civil war to control the country. In the grand scheme of things, the October Revolution was of far less significance than it was portrayed as later by soviet propagandists.

I can’t do justice to the Russian Revolution in a short post. Here’s just some bare bones. You’ll have to read more elsewhere to get a more comprehensive picture.


The October Revolution of 1917 followed and capitalized on the February Revolution of the same year, which overthrew the Tsarist autocracy and established a provisional government composed predominantly of former nobles and aristocrats. During this time, urban workers began to organize into councils (“Soviets” in Russian) wherein revolutionaries criticized the provisional government and its actions. The October Revolution in Petrograd overthrew the provisional government and gave the power to the local soviets. The Bolshevik party was heavily supported by the soviets. After the Congress of Soviets, now the governing body, had its second session, it elected members of the Bolsheviks and other leftist groups such as the Left Socialist Revolutionaries to key positions within the new state. This immediately initiated the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the world’s first self-proclaimed socialist state.


The revolution was led by the Bolsheviks, who used their influence in the Petrograd Soviet to organize the armed forces. Bolshevik Red Guards forces under the Military Revolutionary Committee began the takeover of government buildings on 24 October 1917 (O.S.). The following day, the Winter Palace (the seat of the Provisional government located in Petrograd, then capital of Russia), was captured. This event was heavily propagandized as something akin to the storming of the Bastille, but it was nothing of the sort. Petrograd was mostly taken over peacefully and the storming of the Winter Palace was almost a farce.


The official Soviet version of events was that an assault led by Vladimir Lenin was launched at 9:45 p.m. signaled by a blank shot from the cruiser Aurora. (The Aurora was placed in Petrograd and still stands there now.) The Winter Palace was guarded by Cossacks, cadets (military students), and a Women’s Battalion. It was taken at about 2 a.m. More contemporary research with access to government archives significantly corrects accepted Soviet edited and embellished history. The archival version shows that parties of Bolshevik operatives sent out from the Smolny by Lenin took over all critical centers of power in Petrograd without a shot being fired. This was completed so efficiently that the takeover resembled the changing of the guard.

The capture of the Winter Palace was slightly more dramatic, with the Red Guards storming the Winter Palace at 2:10 a.m. on the night of 7–8 November [O.S. 25–26 October] 1917. The Cossacks deserted when the Red Guard approached, and the Cadets and the 140 volunteers of the Women’s Battalion surrendered rather than resist the 40,000 strong army. The Aurora was commandeered to then fire blanks at the palace in a symbolic act of rejection of the government. In fact the effectively unoccupied Winter Palace fell not because of acts of courage or a military barrage, but because the back door was left open, allowing the Red Guard to enter. The back door was left open !! Really ??? A Red Guard named Adamovich remembered gasping as he burst into the palace, as he had never before seen such luxury and splendor. A small group broke in, got lost in the cavernous interior, and accidentally happened upon the remnants of Kerensky’s provisional government in the imperial family’s breakfast room. The illiterate revolutionaries then compelled those arrested to write up their own arrest papers.


The Provisional Government was arrested and imprisoned in Peter and Paul Fortress after the ministers resigned to fate and surrendered without a fight. The stories of the “defense of the Winter Palace” and the heroic “Storming of the Winter Palace” came later as the creative propaganda product of Bolshevik publicists. Grandiose paintings depicting the “Women’s Battalion” and photo stills taken from Sergei Eisenstein’s staged film, “Ten Days that Shook the World,” depicting the “politically correct” version of the October events in Petrograd came to be taken as truth. Eisentstein later said that his filming did much worse damage to the Winter Palace than the events of the October Revolution. His extras’ gunfire broke every window in the palace.


The long-awaited Constituent Assembly elections were held on 12 November 1917. The Bolsheviks won only 175 seats in the 715 seat legislative body, coming in second behind the Socialist Revolutionary party, which won 370 seats. The Constituent Assembly was to first meet on 28 November 1917, but its convocation was delayed until January 5, 1918 by the Bolsheviks. On its first and only day in session, the body rejected Soviet decrees on peace and land, and was dissolved the next day by order of the Congress of Soviets. As the revolution was not universally recognized, there followed the struggles of the Russian Civil War (1917–22) and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. The totalitarianism of Lenin and later Stalin, was effectively masked by propaganda which sought to paint the revolution as a popular revolt and nothing more. The Russian Civil War had much more effect on the shape of the totalitarian regime that was to follow than the October Revolution.

Borscht seems like the obvious recipe to celebrate the day. It is a very old dish of peasant origin that was widespread throughout eastern Europe long before the modern era. Therefore, as with so many other dishes I have showcased here, it has as many “recipes” as there are cooks. You may have gathered some time ago that I find recipes for such dishes tiresome. So here’s my heuristic accounting of what I do. A more refined borscht involves blending the soup before serving, but that’s not to my taste. I prefer it hot in winter, but it can be served chilled as a summer soup. What is most definitely NOT borscht is the stuff referred to disparagingly as “beetroot water” by real cooks, is the stuff you find in jars in U.S. supermarkets. You can find my meatless version here I don’t like to repeat recipes, but these two are very different even though beets are the common factor.



Put 1 lb of bone-in stewing beef, a few whole peppercorns, a bay leaf, salt to taste, and some chopped fresh dill into a heavy saucepan and cover with water or light stock. Simmer until the meat is tender (about 2 hours). At this point I usually refrigerate the pot overnight to deepen the flavors and to make it easy to remove the fat in the morning.

Remove the congealed fat from the pot, and strain the broth, discarding the peppercorns and bay leaf. Remove the meat from the bone and cut it into chunks. Reserve the meat.

Peel and dice 3 medium beets. Sauté them gently in a little vegetable oil for about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with vinegar and let it evaporate. Set aside.

Return the broth to the stove and bring to a simmer. You need about 1 cup per person. Add 2 potatoes peeled and cubed, 2 carrots likewise, and 1 cup of chopped cabbage, plus a handful of chopped fresh parsley and the beets. Sauté an onion, peeled and chopped, in a little oil until transparent. Sprinkle with flour and stir over low heat. Whisk this mixture into the soup. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. If you wish, this is the time to blend or process the soup. Either way, add back the beef and heat through.

Serve in bowls with a dollop of fresh cream and a dill garnish.

Nov 232014


Today is the birthday (1888) of Adolph “Harpo” Marx (later Arthur “Harpo” Marx) legendary comedian, musician, and the second-oldest of the Marx Brothers. His comic style was influenced by clown and pantomime traditions. He wore a curly reddish blonde wig, and never spoke during performances (he blew a horn or whistled to communicate). He frequently used props such as a horn cane, made up of a lead pipe, tape, and a bulbhorn, and he played the harp in most of his films. As a boy he was my favorite Marx brother. One of the things about him that still intrigues me is the utter change in his face when he played the harp – solemn and serene, not clown-like at all. You either know his work or you do not. So I’ll give you a bio and then, as an ironic gesture, give you a list of some of his quotes.

Harpo was born in New York City. He grew up in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side (E 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue) of Manhattan. The turn-of-the-century building that Harpo called “the first real home they ever knew” (in his memoir Harpo Speaks), was populated with European immigrants, mostly artisans – which even included a glass blower. Just across the street were the oldest brownstones in the area, owned by people like the well-connected Loew Brothers and William Orth.

Harpo’s parents were Sam Marx (called “Frenchie” throughout his life) and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie’s brother was Al Shean. Marx’s family was Jewish. His mother was from East Frisia in Germany, and his father was a native of France and worked as a tailor.

Harpo received little formal education and left grade school at age eight, during his second attempt to pass the second grade. He began to work, gaining employment in numerous odd jobs alongside his brother Chico to contribute to the family income, including selling newspapers, working in a butcher’s shop, and as an errand office boy.

In January 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers, Julius (later “Groucho”) and Milton (later “Gummo”), to form “The Three Nightingales”, later changed to simply “The Marx Brothers.” Multiple stories — most unsubstantiated — exist to explain Harpo’s evolution as the “silent” character in the brothers’ act. In his memoir, Groucho wrote that Harpo simply wasn’t very good at memorizing dialog, and thus was ideal for the role of the “dunce who couldn’t speak”, a common character in vaudeville acts of the time.

Harpo gained his stage name during a card game at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois. The dealer (Art Fisher) called him “Harpo” because he played the harp. (In Harpo’s autobiography, he says that mother Minnie Marx sent him the harp. Harpo learned how to hold it properly from a picture of an angel playing a harp that he saw in a five-and-dime. No one in town knew how to play the harp, so Harpo tuned it as best he could, starting with one basic note and tuning it from there. Three years later he found out he had tuned it incorrectly, but he could not have tuned it properly; if he had, the strings would have broken each night. Harpo’s method placed much less tension on the strings. Although he played this way for the rest of his life, he did try to learn how to play correctly, and he spent considerable money hiring the best teachers. They spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way he played. In his movie performances he played the harp with his own tuning.

In his autobiography Harpo Speaks (1961), Harpo recounts how Chico found him jobs playing piano to accompany silent movies. Unlike Chico, Harpo could play only two songs on the piano, “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie” and “Love Me and the World Is Mine,” but he adapted this small repertoire in different tempos to suit the action on the screen. He was also seen playing a portion of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# minor” in “A Day at the Races” and chords on the piano in “A Night at the Opera,” in such a way that the piano sounded much like a harp, as a prelude to actually playing the harp in that scene.

Harpo had changed his name from Adolph to Arthur by 1911. This was due primarily to his dislike for the name Adolph (as a child, he was routinely called “Ahdie” instead). Urban legends stating that the name change came about during World War I due to anti-German sentiment in the US, or during World War II because of the stigma that Adolf Hitler imposed on the name, are groundless.

In 1933, following U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, he spent six weeks in Moscow as a performer and goodwill ambassador. His tour was a huge success. Harpo’s name was transliterated into Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, as ХАРПО МАРКС, and was billed as such during his Soviet Union appearances. Harpo, having no knowledge of Russian, pronounced it as ‘Exapno Mapcase’. At that time Harpo and the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov became friends and even performed a routine on stage together. During this time he served as a secret courier; delivering communiqués to and from the US embassy in Moscow at the request of Ambassador William Christian Bullitt, Jr., smuggling the messages in and out of Russia by taping a sealed envelope to his leg beneath his trousers, an event described in David Fromkin’s 1995 book In the Time of the Americans. In Harpo Speaks, describes his relief at making it out of the Soviet Union, recalling how “I pulled up my pants, ripped off the tape, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch in ten days.”

Harpo also took an interest in painting, and a few of his works can be seen in his autobiography. In the book, Marx tells a story about how he tried to paint a nude female model, but froze up because he simply did not know how to paint properly. The model took pity on him, however, showing him a few basic strokes with a brush, until finally Harpo (fully clothed) took the model’s place as the subject and the naked woman painted his portrait.


Harpo married actress Susan Fleming on September 28, 1936. The wedding became public knowledge after President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the couple a telegram of congratulations the following month. Unlike most of his brothers, Harpo’s marriage was lifelong. (Groucho was divorced three times, Chico once, and Zeppo twice.) The couple adopted four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy, and Minnie. When asked by George Burns in 1948 how many children he planned to adopt, he answered: “I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows in my house. So when I leave for work, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye.”


In 1961 Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. Because he never spoke a word in character, many believed he actually was mute. In fact, radio and TV news recordings of his voice can be found on the Internet, in documentaries, and on bonus materials of Marx Brothers DVDs. A reporter who interviewed him in the early 1930s wrote that he “…had a deep and distinguished voice, like a professional announcer”, and like his brothers, spoke with a New York accent his entire life. His son Bill recalled that in private he was “not verbose”; he preferred listening and learning from others.

Here’s a nice clip:

Harpo’s final public appearance came in early 1964 with singer/comedian Allan Sherman. Sherman burst into tears when Harpo announced his retirement from the entertainment business. Comedian Steve Allen, who was in the audience, remembered that Harpo spoke for several minutes about his career, and how he would miss it all, and repeatedly interrupted Sherman when he tried to speak. The audience found it charmingly ironic.

Harpo died on September 28, 1964 (his and his wife, Susan’s, 28th wedding anniversary), at age 75, after undergoing open heart surgery following a heart attack, barely six months after his retirement. Harpo’s death was said to have hit the surviving Marx brothers very hard. Groucho’s son Arthur Marx, who attended the funeral with most of the Marx family, later said that Harpo’s funeral was the only time in his life that he ever saw his father cry.

Harpo was cremated and his ashes were reportedly sprinkled into the sand trap at the seventh hole of the Rancho Mirage golf course, on which he occasionally played. In his will, he donated his trademark harp to the State of Israel.

Here’s some of his words:

If things get too much for you and you feel the whole world’s against you, go stand on your head. If you can think of anything crazier to do, do it.

But I guess that’s the way it is. When you lose something irreplaceable, you don’t mourn for the thing you lost, you mourn for yourself.

I am the most fortunate self-taught harpist and non-speaking actor who has ever lived.

[on visiting Hamburg, Germany, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power]: “I saw the most frightening, most depressing sight I had ever seen – a row of stores with Stars of David and the word ‘Jude’ painted on them, and inside, behind half-empty counters, people in a daze, cringing like they didn’t know what hit them and didn’t know where the next blow would come from. Hitler had been in power only six months, and his boycott was already in full effect. I hadn’t been so wholly conscious of being a Jew since my bar mitzvahs, and it was the first time since I’d had the measles that I was too sick to eat.

[on comedy playwright George S. Kaufman] He had great integrity. You never had to watch him when he was dealing.

The man who first inspired me was a guy called Gookie. Gookie had nothing to do with the theater. He rolled cigars in the window of a cigar store on Lexington Avenue. When he got going good he was completely lost in work, so absorbed that he had no idea what a comic face he was making. His tongue lolled out in a fat roll, his cheeks puffed out and his eyes popped out and crossed themselves. Over the years, in every comedy act or movie I ever worked in, I’ve thrown in a Gookie at least once.

[on ‘Duck Soup’] It was the only time I can remember that I worried about turning in a bad performance. The trouble was not with the script, the director, or the falls I had to take. The trouble was Adolf Hitler. His speeches were being rebroadcast in America. Somebody had a radio on the set, and twice we suspended shooting to listen to him scream.

[on performing in vaudeville] If an audience didn’t like us we had no trouble finding it out. We were pelted with sticks, bricks, spitballs, cigar butts, peach pits and chewed-out stalks of sugar cane. We took all this without flinching – until Minnie gave us the high-sign that we’d collected our share of the receipts. Then we started throwing stuff back at the audience and run like hell for the railroad station the second the curtain came down.

[on accommodation, while touring] Cheap hotels in the South and Southwest were apparently set up as bug sanctuaries by some Audubon Society for Insects. Fleas, ticks, bedbugs, cockroaches, beetles, scorpions and ants, having no enemies, attacked with fearless abandon. They had the run of the house and they knew it. After a while you just let them bite. Fighting back was useless. For every bug you squashed, a whole fresh, bloodthirsty platoon would march out of the woodwork. In one hotel the ants were so bad that each bed was set on four pots of oxalic acid.

Duck Soup is, of course, a famous Marx Brothers movie, so the recipe of the day is a no brainer. At one time “duck soup” was U.S. slang for something easy to do – hence the movie title. I wouldn’t say that duck soup is any easier, or harder, than any other soup. I usually make it with the carcass of a roast duck in much the same manner as I do with leftover roast chicken. This is from Christmas 2012 when I made braised duck for my dinner and used the bones to make stock.


And this me in Osaka shinkansen station eating a soup with duck broth, noodles, and ground duck meatballs while waiting for a train.


I’m not inclined to make a soup from a whole duck because I like roasted duck so much. Good job I live in China where a whole roasted duck from a street stall runs around $4. Beside the fact that roast duck skin is ambrosial, I am inclined to think that whole duck broth would be fatty (or else the meat would be). Anyway . . . here is a traditional recipe from Poland (Czarnina) which I have not tried but seems as if it would be tasty. The trick is finding the duck blood !! The image is from here:


My recipe here is a bit of a compilation to suit my tastes:

Czarnina (Polish Duck Soup)

Joint a whole duck as you would a chicken, that is, into about 12 pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breast and back both halved). Place them in a large stock pot and add around 5 pints of chicken stock. Bring to a slow simmer and add (to taste) powdered cloves, allspice, and marjoram, plus salt and freshly ground black pepper. Skim the scum as it rises and then let simmer for an hour or until the meat is tender.

Remove the soup from the heat. Chill in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning skim off all congealed fat and bring the soup to a gentle simmer. I suspect Poles leave the fat, in which case you can skip this step.

With a slotted spoon, remove the duck parts and let them cool enough to handle. Strip the meat from the bones, and return it to the pot. I am assuming that at this stage you set aside the fat and skin, which can be used for other purposes. Add 2 cups of duck blood to the soup, stirring well to combine. Make a slurry of 4 tablespoons of flour with about a cup of cold water in a small bowl. Whisk well so that there are no lumps. Slowly add about a cup of the broth, whisking well. When it is a thin mixture add it to the soup, stirring well until it is properly blended. Add back the duck meat plus a handful of dried fruits such as cherries and prunes. Heat through and serve.


Apr 072014


Today is the birthday (1772) of François Marie Charles Fourier, generally referred to as Charles, radical (for his day) social theorist and utopian socialist. His ideas had a profound impact on social theory in the early 19th century, among other things being foundational to much of what Karl Marx wrote later about the ills of industrial society.  But he was also a trifle loony and ended up being largely forgotten until the late 20th century.  Fourier’s views inspired the founding of the community of Utopia, Ohio, La Reunion near present-day Dallas, Texas, the North American Phalanx in Red Bank, New Jersey, Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (where Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the founders), the Community Place and Sodus Bay Phalanx in New York State, and several other communities in the United States.

Fourier was born in Besançon, capital and principal city of the Franche-Comté region in eastern France. He was the son of a small businessman, but was more interested in architecture than in his father’s line of work. He wanted to become an engineer, but the local military engineering school where he might have trained accepted only sons of noblemen. Fourier later said he was grateful that he did not pursue engineering, because it would have consumed too much of his time and taken away from his true desire to help humanity.

When his father died in 1781, Fourier received 40% of his father’s estate, valued at more than 200,000 francs. This inheritance enabled Fourier to travel throughout Europe at his leisure. In 1791 he moved from Besançon to Lyon, where he was employed by a merchant. Fourier’s travels also brought him to Paris, where he worked as the head of the Office of Statistics for a few months. Not satisfied with making journeys on behalf of others for their commercial benefit and desiring to seek knowledge in everything he could, Fourier often changed business firms and residences in order to explore and experience new things. From 1791 to 1816 (the years of revolution and the Napoleonic wars) Fourier was employed in Paris, Rouen, Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux. As a traveling salesman and correspondence clerk, his time for research and writing was limited. He complained of “serving the knavery of merchants” and the stupefaction of “deceitful and degrading duties.” His first book was published in 1808 and eventually he became a full time writer.

Fourier declared that concern and cooperation were the secrets of social success. He believed that a society that cooperated would see an immense improvement in its productivity levels. Workers should be recompensed for their labors according to their contribution (with odious, but necessary, toil being rewarded more than pleasing work). Fourier envisaged such cooperation occurring in communities he called “phalanxes,” based on large planned edifices called Phalanstères or “grand hotels.” These buildings were four-level apartment complexes where the richest had the uppermost apartments and the poorest lived on the ground floor. Wealth was to be determined by one’s job, and jobs were assigned based on the interests and desires of the individual. Fourier considered trade, presumably based on experience, to be the “source of all evil.”

Fourier characterized poverty (not inequality) as the principal cause of disorder in society, and he proposed to eradicate it by sufficiently high wages and by a “decent minimum” for those who were not able to work. Fourier used the word “civilization” in a negative sense and as such his contempt for the respectable thinkers and ideologies of his age was so intense that he always used the terms “philosopher” and “civilization” in a pejorative sense. Fourier´s attack on civilization went completely against the mainstream of social criticism of his day.

Here is where his theories start to go off the rails a little, but with some solid ideas at the core. He believed that there were twelve common passions which resulted in 810 types of character. Hence the ideal phalanx would have exactly 1620 people (male and female of each character type). He imagined that one day there would be six million of these phalanxes, loosely ruled by a world “omniarch,” or (later) a World Congress of Phalanxes, and this would be the new world order.

He had a touching concern for the sexually rejected; jilted suitors would be led away by a corps of fairies who would soon cure them of their lovesickness, and visitors could consult the card-index of personality types for suitable partners for casual sex. He also defended homosexuality as perfectly normal for some people. Anarchist Hakim Bey says of Fourier’s ideas: “In Fourier’s system of Harmony all creative activity including industry, craft, agriculture, etc. will arise from liberated passion — this is the famous theory of “attractive labor.” Fourier sexualizes work itself — the life of the Phalanstery is a continual orgy of intense feeling, intellection, & activity, a society of lovers & wild enthusiasts.” A perfect summation I think of his core concepts, and ones I wholeheartedly approve of.

Fourier was also a supporter of women’s rights in a time when women were strictly subjugated. He believed that all important jobs should be open to women on the basis of skill and aptitude rather than closed on account of gender. He spoke of women as individuals, not as half a human couple. Fourier saw that traditional marriage, as he saw it in his day, could  hurt woman’s rights as human beings and thus he never married. Writing well over a century before the so-called sexual revolution, Fourier believed that both men and women have a wide range of sexual needs and preferences which may change throughout their lives, including same-sex sexuality and androgénité. He argued that all sexual expressions should be enjoyed as long as people are not abused, and that “affirming one’s difference” can actually enhance social integration.

Fourier’s concern was to liberate every human individual, man, woman, and child, in two ways: education and the liberation of human passion. On education, he felt that “civilized” parents and teachers saw children as little slackers to be disciplined and trained into “civilized” behavior. He believed that this way of thinking was cripplingly wrong both for children and for society as a whole. He thought that children as early as ages two and three were very industrious (and could actually be put to work as long as it was enjoyable). He listed the dominant tastes in all children to include, but not limited to:

Rummaging or the inclination to handle everything, examine everything, look through everything, to constantly change activities.

Industrial commotion; a taste for noisy activities.

Aping or imitative mania.

Industrial miniature, a taste for small things.

Progressive attraction of the weak toward the strong.

Fourier was deeply disturbed by the disorder of his time and wanted to stabilize the course of events which surrounded him. Fourier saw his fellow human beings living in a world full of strife, chaos, and disorder. As such Fourier is best remembered for his writings on a new world order based on unity of action and harmonious collaboration. He is also known for certain, occasionally whacky, apocalyptic pronouncements, such as that the seas would lose their salinity and turn to lemonade, and that in the future phase of Perfect Harmony the North Pole would be milder than the Mediterranean.

The influence of Fourier’s ideas in French politics was carried forward into the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune by followers such as Victor Considérant. Numerous references to Fourier’s ideas appear, negatively, in Dostoevsky’s political novel The Possessed first published in 1872. In it Fourierism is used by the revolutionary faithful as something of an insult to their peers, and those within the circle are quick to defend themselves from being labeled a Fourierist.

Fourier’s ideas also took root in the United States, with his followers starting phalanxes throughout the country, including one of the most famous, Utopia, Ohio. The town lasted a mere 3 years as a phalanx and was then taken over by a succession of intentional communities.  It is now mostly deserted although a few people still live there. Here’s the subterranean chapel.


Remnants of phalanx buildings still stand in various parts of the country. This is the main building of the New American Phalanx as it was in the 1970’s.  I believe it is gone now.


Many studies have been written on the failure of these communities, coming to various conclusions.  The nineteenth century saw the rise of a great many utopian and millenarian philosophies which led to the creation of communes of one sort or another.  Most of them quickly failed because of general disagreement among the members concerning how to manage daily life and concerning the interpretation of their founders’ visions.  In Fourier’s case I suspect the lunatic elements of his theories interfered with their arguably solid foundations, and undermined the pragmatics of daily living.  No doubt also a wide variety of fringe elements in society were attracted to Fourier’s philosophy. Utopia, Ohio failed after 8 years because the members could not agree on issues of women’s rights and abolition, as well as disagreement among members concerning the role that religion should play in the community.

In the mid-20th century, Fourier’s influence began to rise again among left wing and radical writers reappraising socialist ideas outside the Marxist mainstream. After the Surrealists had broken with the French Communist Party, for example, André Breton returned to Fourier and wrote “Ode à Charles Fourier” in 1947.  Writers of the post-left anarchy movement, among others, have praised Fourier’s work. Bob Black in The Abolition of Work advocates Fourier´s idea of attractive work as a solution to his own criticisms of work conditions in contemporary society. Hakim Bey remarked that Fourier “lived at the same time as De Sade & Blake, & deserves to be remembered as their equal or even superior. Those other two apostles of freedom & desire had no political disciples, but in the middle of the 19th century literally hundreds of communes (phalansteries) were founded on fourierist principles.”  I love Fourier’s work.  I’ll take whackos over normal people every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

I thought about a recipe for lemonade as an homage to Fourier’s vision of future oceans.  But that seems so lame.  I mean – make a simple syrup of sugar and water, bung in some fresh squeezed lemon juice and top with water.  Big whoop. Actually Fourier may be referring to a much more interesting drink, aigre de cèdre, which was popular in Paris in his day.  Here is a clipping describing it (click to enlarge):


I don’t have the stamina right now to translate this, but the gist is that aigre de cèdre is made with citrons, not lemons, sweetened with honey, and enhanced with a variety of ingredients from mulberry juice to bergamot essence.

Anyway, I am going to go with a recipe for mirlitons, a pastry that was invented in, and is still common in, Rouen but rarely found elsewhere (to my knowledge).  Fourier spends quite a bit of time talking about his theories on food, which he called gastrosophy, and mirlitons have a prominent place in his discussions.  I’ll spare you his endless, and only semi-coherent, thoughts in this sphere.  Trust me, you don’t need to know his theories about the part mirlitons would play in feuds between members of phalanxes, and other notions.  Here’s a recipe instead.

Mirlitons come in a few different varieties, but basically they are puff pastry shells filled with an almond custard.  They can come in a pie size, but traditionally they are individual bites the size of a cupcake.  Just to avoid confusion, there are other pastries found in other parts of France that are quite different from the ones found in Rouen, which are the ones Fourier refers to. Mirliton is an old French word that is somewhat akin to “thingamabob.” The word is also used as an alternate to chayote (a vining vegetable), a Paris cabaret, a type of flute, and a style of military shako. You will need tartlet pans, fluted if possible, and a pastry wheel.


Mirlitons de Rouen


1 8 oz/230g puff pastry sheet
3 ½ ozs/100 g ground almonds
3 ½ ozs/100 g caster sugar
2 eggs
vanilla essence or orange flower water
7 ozs/ 200 g thick jam or fruit butter
5 tbsps thick cream
flaked almonds to decorate


Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Cut out circles of the pastry with a pastry wheel so as to give the mirlitons a decorative edge, and tuck them into greased tartlet molds.

Put a teaspoon of jam or fruit butter into each tartlet shell.

In a mixing bowl combine the eggs, sugar, and ground almonds. Whisk well and then add the cream and stir to incorporate it

Pour the egg mixture into each tartlet shell so that they are about ¾ full (the mixture will rise in baking).

Decorate with flaked almonds and bake for about 20 minutes or until golden.

Serve warm or cold.

Yield: 12-14