Sep 292017

Today is the birthday (1899) of László József Bíró (or Ladislao José Biro – born  László József Schweiger) an Argentine inventor, born in Hungary, who patented the first commercially successful modern ballpoint pen. The native form of his personal name was Bíró László József; it is common in many European countries (and even more so in Asia), to put the family name first.

Bíró was born to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest. After leaving school, he began work as a journalist in Hungary. It was while working as a journalist that he noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He tried using the same ink in a fountain pen but found that it would not flow into the tip, because it was too viscous.

He presented the first production of the ballpoint pen at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. Working with his brother György, a chemist, he developed a new tip consisting of a ball that was free to turn in a socket, and as it turned it would pick up ink from a cartridge and then roll to deposit it on the paper. Bíró patented the invention in Paris in 1938.

During World War II, Bíró was forced to flee the Nazis. In 1943 the brothers moved to Argentina. On 10 June they filed another patent, issued in the US as 2,390,636 Writing Instrument, and formed Biro Pens of Argentina (in Argentina the ballpoint pen is known as birome). This new design was licensed for production in the United Kingdom for supply to Royal Air Force aircrew, who found they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude.

In 1945 Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró for the pen, which soon became the main product of his Bic company, which has sold more than 100 billion ballpoint pens worldwide. In November of that same year, promoter Milton Reynolds introduced a gravity-fed pen to the U.S. market. The Reynolds Pen was a sensation for a few years, until its reputation for leaking, and competition from established pen manufacturers overtook it. Bíró’s patent was based on capillary action, which caused ink to be drawn out of the pen as it was deposited on the paper. Because the Reynolds workaround depended on gravity, it did not infringe but required thinner ink and a larger barrel.

Bíró died in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1985. Argentina’s Inventors’ Day is celebrated on Bíró’s birthday, that is, today. On 29 September 2016, the 117th anniversary of his birth, Google commemorated Bíró with a Google Doodle for “his relentless, forward-thinking spirit.”

A ballpoint pen is widely referred to as a “biro” in many countries, including the UK, Ireland, Australia and Italy. Biro is a registered trademark, but in some countries it has become genericized – like Kleenex and Hoover. Biros were the spawn of Satan according to my teachers in Australia and England. I’m not entirely sure why this was the case in England, but in Australia it was because we were taught cursive copperplate which requires thin lines for up-strokes and thicker ones for down-strokes. I had cursive writing lessons for 5 years in primary school using a dip pen and inkwell. I was not even allowed to use a fountain pen. Why there was so much emphasis on correct penmanship is beyond me. Needless to say, I was useless at it and my handwriting nowadays is a scrawl that is more or less illegible to anyone other than myself. And . . . I use a biro.

Although Bíró was nominally Argentino, and he is celebrated there as a (sort of) national hero, he was Hungarian, and did his most productive work in Europe.  So, a great Hungarian recipe is in order. But . . . as a sop to Argentina I’ve chosen a pancake (crepe) recipe because they are immensely popular in Buenos Aires. This one can be made to look like biro writing by using a squeeze bottle to add the chocolate sauce.

Gundel Palacsinta


For the crepe batter (10-12 pieces):

2 eggs
240 gm/2 cups flour
300 ml milk
100 ml club soda water
1 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 lemon
40 gm sugar
2 tbsp vegetable oil

For the filling:

40 gm raisins
200 ml cream
4 tbsp dark rum
100 gm sugar
250 gm walnuts
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp powdered cinnamon

For the chocolate sauce:


100 gm dark chocolate
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
30 gm butter
250 ml milk
80 gm sugar
30 gm cocoa powder
3 tbsp dark rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
butter (for frying)


For the pancakes:

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the milk slowly, whisking vigorously to avoid lumps, until they are well combined and smooth. Add the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, club soda, and vanilla plus a pinch of salt and continue to beat until well combined. When the batter is finished, mix in the vegetable oil.

Refrigerate the batter for at least two hours before frying.

For the filling:

Soak the raisins in lukewarm water.

Grind half of the walnuts, and chop the other half reasonably fine.

Bring the cream and sugar to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high head, then add the ground and finely chopped walnuts, rum, cinnamon, orange zest and raisins while stirring continuously. Over low heat cook for 2-3 minutes. If it’s too thick, you may add more cream. Turn off the heat and let the filling cool.

Fry the crepes in a crepe pan. I use butter to grease the pan initially, but after one or two it is no longer necessary. Get the crepe pan well heated, add the butter, swirl it around, and then add about a ladle of batter. Swirl it around until it covers the base of the pan, let the top dry, then flip and cook the other side. There is no need to cook them to a golden brown because you are going to cook them again.

When all the crepes are ready, spread them with the filling. Some people roll them up, others fold them in quarters (as in the photo). They are easier to re-fry if quartered.

Set aside.

For the chocolate sauce:

Melt the dark chocolate combined with the milk in a double boiler, or in a metal bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Remove from the heat and quickly combine the chocolate mixture with the egg yolks using a heavy whisk. Add the sugar, cocoa powder, butter and rum, and stir until well combined. Put back over simmering water and warm the sauce for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, but keep warm.

Melt 60 grams of butter in a non-stick pan and fry all the filled crepes, in small batches, on both sides until they are golden brown.

Place one or two crepes on a heated plate and pour a little hot chocolate sauce on the top.

Aug 312016


Today is the birthday (1821) of Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz a Prussian physician and physicist who made significant contributions to several widely varied areas of modern science. In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism. In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics. As a philosopher, he is known for his philosophy of science, ideas on the relation between the laws of perception and the laws of nature, the science of aesthetics, and ideas on the civilizing power of science. Some of his ideas are a bit spaced out and are not widely supported, or even known, any more. But there’s no question that Helmholtz had a fertile mind.

Helmholtz’ father, Ferdinand, had been in the Prussian army fighting against Napoleon, but, despite an excellent university education he preferred to teach in a secondary school in Potsdam, which left the family struggling financially.  Ferdinand was an artistic man and under his influence Hermann grew up to have a strong love of music and painting, which he then put to use in his contemplation of the unity of a number of investigations, especially physics and aesthetics. It’s in this area that I most know his work.

Hermann attended Potsdam Gymnasium where his father taught philology and classical literature. His interests at school were mainly in physics and he would have liked to have studied that subject at university. But the financial position of the family, however, meant that he could not go to university unless he received a scholarship. Financial support of this kind was not available for physics so his father persuaded him to study medicine which was supported by the government.


In 1837 Helmholtz was awarded a government grant to enable him to study medicine at the Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute of Medicine and Surgery in Berlin. He did not receive the money without strings attached, however, and he had to sign a document promising to work for ten years as a doctor in the Prussian army after graduating. In 1838 he began his studies in Berlin. Although he was officially studying at the Institute of Medicine and Surgery, being in Berlin he had the opportunity of attending courses at the University. He took this chance, attending lectures in chemistry and physiology.

Given Helmholtz’s contributions to mathematics later in his career it would be reasonable to have expected him to have taken mathematics courses at the University of Berlin at this time. However he did not, rather he studied mathematics on his own, reading works by Laplace, Biot and Daniel Bernoulli. He also read philosophy works at this time, particularly the works of Kant. His research career began in 1841 when he began work on his dissertation. He rejected the direction which physiology had been taking which had been based on “vital forces” which were not physical in nature. Helmholtz strongly argued for founding physiology completely on the principles of physics and chemistry, and ultimately this approach led to his contemporary fame.

Helmholtz graduated from the Medical Institute in Berlin in 1843 and was assigned to a military regiment at Potsdam, but spent all his spare time doing research. His work concentrated on showing that muscle force was derived from chemical and physical principles. If some “vital force” were present, he argued, then perpetual motion would become possible. In 1847 he published his ideas in his paper “Über die Erhaltung der Kraft” which laid down the mathematical principles behind the conservation of energy.


Helmholtz argued in favor of the conservation of energy using both philosophical and physical arguments. He based many ideas on earlier works by Sadi Carnot, Clapeyron, Joule and others. That philosophical arguments came right up front in this work was typical of all of Helmholtz’s contributions. He argued that physical scientists had to conduct experiments to find general law. In that way science

 … endeavours to ascertain the unknown causes of processes from their visible effects; it seeks to comprehend them according to the laws of causality. … Theoretical natural science must, therefore, if it is not to rest content with a partial view of the nature of things, take a position in harmony with the present conception of the nature of simple forces and the consequences of this conception. Its task will be completed when the reduction of phenomena to simple forces is completed, and when it can at the same time be proved that the reduction given is the only one possible which the phenomena will permit.

He then showed that the hypothesis that work could not be continually produced out of nothing inevitably led to the principle of the conservation of kinetic energy. This principle he then applied to a variety of different situations. He demonstrated that in various situations where energy appears to be lost, it is, in fact, converted into heat energy. This happens in collisions, expanding gases, muscle contraction, electrostatics, galvanic phenomena and electrodynamics. The paper was quickly viewed as an important contribution and played a major role in Helmholtz’ career. The following year he was released from his obligation to serve as an army doctor so that he could accept the vacant chair of physiology at Königsberg.


His career progressed rapidly in Königsberg. He published important work on physiological optics and physiological acoustics. He received great acclaim for his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1851 and rapidly gained a strong international reputation.  In 1855 he was appointed to the vacant chair of anatomy and physiology in Bonn, but because his approach to physiology as a matter of physics and chemistry and not “magic,” he got a lot of complaints from traditionalist students, and wound up at Heidelberg University in 1858 where they promised to set up a new physiology institute for him.

Some of his most important work was carried out while he held this post in Heidelberg. He studied mathematical physics and acoustics producing a major study in 1862 which looked at musical theory and the perception of sound. In mathematical appendices he advocated the use of Fourier series. In 1843 Ohm had stated the fundamental principle of physiological acoustics, concerned with the way in which one hears combination tones. Helmholtz explained the origin of music on the basis of his fundamental physiological hypotheses. He formulated a resonance theory of hearing which provided a physiological explanation of Ohm’s principle. He also explained why you get a note when you blow across the neck of a bottle, and why the note changes depending on how much liquid is in the bottle. Technically this is called a Helmholtz resonator.


From around 1866 Helmholtz began to move away from physiology and move more towards physics. When the chair of physics in Berlin became vacant in 1870 he indicated his interest in the position and in 1871 he took up this post. He had begun to investigate the properties of non-Euclidean space around the time his interests were turning towards physics in 1867. This led Helmholtz to question the adequacy of Euclidean geometry to describe the physical world, and, in general, broadened his thinking into the realms of philosophy.

There’s more but I’ll stop. I’ve probably already caused a few glassy eyes. On the one hand, Helmholtz revolutionized many scientific fields because he was a true polymath at a time when scientific fields were becoming narrower and narrower in their focus. Many would do well to follow his lead, but this is virtually impossible in today’s highly professionalized and specialized world. Occasionally these days physicists stumble on ancient Chinese philosophy and the like, and you get a bit of playful synthesis. But it does not to amount to anything of any importance. A person of Helmholtz’ stature might do better nowadays, but with so much technical matter to cover this may be impossible. Pity. Helmholtz was driving down a path to show that the natural science of the physical would eventually explain EVERYTHING from the motion of objects to the aesthetic appreciation of color and sound. Good luck with that. The science of the 19th century is simply not up to the task; nor that of the 21st century in my oh so humble opinion. I believe we need a new paradigm, which I doubt will be forthcoming in my lifetime. I will give Helmholtz A++ for effort though (generous of me, I know).

Potsdam, Helmholtz’ birthplace, was the capital of Prussia, but ceded its central place to neighboring Berlin when Germany was unified in Helmholtz’ lifetime, although Potsdam remained the residence of the Kaisers until 1918. As with other manufactured nations, we can speak of German cuisine as a whole, which notion has some merit, but also blurs over regional distinctions. The fact is, though, that certain dishes are universal, and the potato, which was popularized by Frederick the Great of Prussia dominates to this day. So, I suggest German potato pancakes, Kartoffelpuffer, which are widespread in German cuisine. I’ve never used a recipe, but I’ll give you one for completeness. The main issue is that the potatoes are grated raw, so you need the right quantity of egg and flour to bind the potatoes together, otherwise they will fall apart when cooked. Trust me – I know this. In Prussia they are served as a side dish with meat or with applesauce as a sweet dish.




1 kg/2 lb potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
1 onion, peeled and grated
2 large eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
2 tbsp flour
vegetable oil


Drain all excess moisture from the potatoes but do not squeeze them dry. This will ruin the taste.

Mix the potatoes, onion, and egg together in a bowl, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Add enough flour, a little at a time, to absorb any excess moisture in the potatoes.

Divide the mixture into 8 and shape each portion into flat, round patties. Place the patties individually on trays, and  let them rest in the refrigerator for at least 30-45 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the kartoffelpuffer in small batches, flipping once so that they are golden brown on both sides and cooked through. This part takes some practice. Don’t be tempted to cook them too quickly, or they will not cook all the way through.

Feb 042016


Today is occasionally called King Frost Day in honor of the famous Frost Fair held in London in 1814. River Thames frost fairs were held on the tideway of the River Thames in London in a few winters between the 17th century and early 19th century, during the period known as the Little Ice Age, when the river froze over. During that time the British winter was more severe than now, and the river was wider and slower, and impeded by Old London Bridge.

Even at its peak, in the mid-17th century, the Thames freezing at London was less frequent than modern legend sometimes suggests, never exceeding about one year in ten except for four winters between 1649 and 1666. From 1400 to the removal of the medieval London Bridge in 1835, there were 24 winters in which the Thames was recorded to have frozen over in London. Frost fairs were far more common elsewhere in Europe, for example in the Netherlands on frozen canals. The Thames freezes over more often upstream, beyond the reach of the tide, especially above the weirs, of which Teddington Lock is the lowest. The last great freeze of the higher Thames was in 1962-63.


During the Great Frost of 1683–84, the worst frost recorded in England, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches (28 cm) in London. Solid ice was reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries), causing severe problems for shipping and preventing the use of many harbors. Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to 27 inches; in Somerset, to more than four feet.

The Thames had frozen over several times in the 16th century — King Henry VIII traveled from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river in 1536. Queen Elizabeth I took to the ice frequently during 1564, to “shoot at marks”, and small boys played football on the ice.


The first recorded frost fair was in 1608. The most celebrated frost fair occurred in the winter of 1683–84 and was described by John Evelyn:

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.

The frost fair of 1814 began on 1 February, and lasted four days. An elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. A printer named George Davis published a 124-page book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State. The entire book was type-set and printed in Davis’ printing stall, which had been set up on the frozen Thames. This was the last frost fair. The climate was growing milder; old London Bridge was demolished in 1835 and replaced with a new bridge with wider arches, allowing the tide to flow more freely; and the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, all of which made the river less likely to freeze.


King Frost, who gives his name to this day is recorded in folk tales throughout Europe. Here is an English version of the tale printed by the Scottish folklorist/anthropologist, Andrew Lang:

There was once upon a time a peasant-woman who had a daughter and a step-daughter. The daughter had her own way in everything, and whatever she did was right in her mother’s eyes; but the poor step-daughter had a hard time. Let her do what she would, she was always blamed, and got small thanks for all the trouble she took; nothing was right, everything wrong; and yet, if the truth were known, the girl was worth her weight in gold–she was so unselfish and good-hearted. But her step-mother did not like her, and the poor girl’s days were spent in weeping; for it was impossible to live peacefully with the woman. The wicked shrew was determined to get rid of the girl by fair means or foul, and kept saying to her father: ‘Send her away, old man; send her away–anywhere so that my eyes sha’n’t be plagued any longer by the sight of her, or my ears tormented by the sound of her voice. Send her out into the fields, and let the cutting frost do for her.’

In vain did the poor old father weep and implore her pity; she was firm, and he dared not gainsay her. So he placed his daughter in a sledge, not even daring to give her a horse-cloth to keep herself warm with, and drove her out on to the bare, open fields, where he kissed her and left her, driving home as fast as he could, that he might not witness her miserable death.

Deserted by her father, the poor girl sat down under a fir-tree at the edge of the forest and began to weep silently. Suddenly she heard a faint sound: it was King Frost springing from tree to tree, and cracking his fingers as he went. At length he reached the fir-tree beneath which she was sitting, and with a crisp crackling sound he alighted beside her, and looked at her lovely face.

‘Well, maiden,’ he snapped out, ‘do you know who I am? I am King Frost, king of the red-noses.’

‘All hail to you, great King!’ answered the girl, in a gentle, trembling voice. ‘Have you come to take me?’

‘Are you warm, maiden?’ he replied.

‘Quite warm, King Frost,’ she answered, though she shivered as she spoke.

Then King Frost stooped down, and bent over the girl, and the crackling sound grew louder, and the air seemed to be full of knives and darts; and again he asked:

‘Maiden, are you warm? Are you warm, you beautiful girl?’

And though her breath was almost frozen on her lips, she whispered gently, ‘Quite warm, King Frost.’

Then King Frost gnashed his teeth, and cracked his fingers, and his eyes sparkled, and the crackling, crisp sound was louder than ever, and for the last time he asked her:

‘Maiden, are you still warm? Are you still warm, little love?’

And the poor girl was so stiff and numb that she could just gasp, ‘Still warm, O King!’

Now her gentle, courteous words and her uncomplaining ways touched King Frost, and he had pity on her, and he wrapped her up in furs, and covered her with blankets, and he fetched a great box, in which were beautiful jewels and a rich robe embroidered in gold and silver. And she put it on, and looked more lovely than ever, and King Frost stepped with her into his sledge, with six white horses.

In the meantime the wicked step-mother was waiting at home for news of the girl’s death, and preparing pancakes for the funeral feast. And she said to her husband: ‘Old man, you had better go out into the fields and find your daughter’s body and bury her.’ Just as the old man was leaving the house the little dog under the table began to bark, saying:

‘YOUR daughter shall live to be your delight; HER daughter shall die this very night.’

‘Hold your tongue, you foolish beast!’ scolded the woman. ‘There’s a pancake for you, but you must say:

“HER daughter shall have much silver and gold; HIS daughter is frozen quite stiff and cold.” ‘

But the doggie ate up the pancake and barked, saying:

‘His daughter shall wear a crown on her head; Her daughter shall die unwooed, unwed.’

Then the old woman tried to coax the doggie with more pancakes and to terrify it with blows, but he barked on, always repeating the same words. And suddenly the door creaked and flew open, and a great heavy chest was pushed in, and behind it came the step-daughter, radiant and beautiful, in a dress all glittering with silver and gold. For a moment the step-mother’s eyes were dazzled. Then she called to her husband: ‘Old man, yoke the horses at once into the sledge, and take my daughter to the same field and leave her on the same spot exactly; ‘and so the old man took the girl and left her beneath the same tree where he had parted from his daughter. In a few minutes King Frost came past, and, looking at the girl, he said:

‘Are you warm, maiden?’

‘What a blind old fool you must be to ask such a question!’ she answered angrily. ‘Can’t you see that my hands and feet are nearly frozen?’

Then King Frost sprang to and fro in front of her, questioning her, and getting only rude, rough words in reply, till at last he got very angry, and cracked his fingers, and gnashed his teeth, and froze her to death.

But in the hut her mother was waiting for her return, and as she grew impatient she said to her husband: ‘Get out the horses, old man, to go and fetch her home; but see that you are careful not to upset the sledge and lose the chest.’

But the doggie beneath the table began to bark, saying:

‘Your daughter is frozen quite stiff and cold, And shall never have a chest full of gold.’

‘Don’t tell such wicked lies!’ scolded the woman. ‘There’s a cake for you; now say:

 “HER daughter shall marry a mighty King.”

At that moment the door flew open, and she rushed out to meet her daughter, and as she took her frozen body in her arms she too was chilled to death.


A cautionary tale for a cold and snowy February. The pancakes that the woman made for the dog are seasonal in England – usually made for Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (called Mardi Gras elsewhere, but commonly called Pancake Day in Britain). Pancakes for Pancake Day are not like pancakes in the United States; instead they are very thin, like French crepes, and always served with a sprinkling of sugar and a squeeze of fresh lemon – one of the great desserts of the world. The batter for pancakes is the usual English egg batter that I have described many times before. Watch this video if you need help:

Pancakes are very versatile for both savory and sweet dishes. Use your imagination to make fillings for them. Here’s a version I made today using creamed chicken, fresh oyster mushrooms, and leeks.

Poach a whole chicken in broth.  Remove it and strip the meat.  Meanwhile poach sliced leeks and mushrooms in the broth.


Make a cream sauce by first making a roux of flour and butter, then adding a mix of the broth and heavy cream.


Add the chicken and vegetables, and warm through.


Make the pancakes one at a time by heating butter in your pan, then adding a ladle full of batter.  Swirl it around to coat the bottom of the pan. When the top is dry flip it over and cook the other side.


Turn on to a plate and keep warm whilst you make more.

For dessert today I made a filling of poached wild berries in a sauce of sugar and butter.


When your fillings and pancakes are all ready, lay one pancake at a time on a plate, spoon in some filling, and roll it up.



Dec 272015


Today is the feast of St John, sometimes also known as the feast of John the Apostle, or John the Evangelist, or both. There’s not much in the way of customs associated with the day, but I always celebrate it in my own little way because it is my saint’s day. John (and all its linguistic variants) has for millennia been a very popular name. The original Hebrew, יוחנן (Yôḥanan), is a short form of a longer name meaning “Yahweh is gracious.” It was the most popular name for newborns in the U.S. until 1924 and in England until 1950. The most popular name for newborns in England now is Jack, which, ironically, was originally a nickname for John. Many people do not realize that such names as Sean, Ewan, Ian, Hans, and Ivan are all linguistic variants of John. Others such as Johann, Jean, Jan, Jehan, and Juan are a little more obvious. Anyway, I was registered as Juan at birth, but used to use John in English-speaking countries (courtesy of my mum). My father was John and so was his father. My son was also registered at birth as John, but subsequently changed it. The name is strongly built into my patrilineage.


Some scholars over history have wanted to conflate John the Apostle with the author of five books of the Greek Bible(Gospel of John, 3 epistles, and the Revelation). I think this is a mistake on two grounds. First, I believe that both the language of these works, and their theology place them outside the time period when John the Apostle lived. Second, I do not believe these 5 books are the work of a single author. The gospel and 1 John may well have been written by the same person, but 2 John and 3 John are clearly by a different hand, and Revelation by yet another. Scholars who want to merge them into a “Johannine” corpus are, I believe, being driven by theological motives that are not consonant with historical and literary analysis.

ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) from Basildon Park. The Italian painter born in Lucca was celebrated for his portraits.

John’s gospel and the Synoptic gospels (following Mark) are at odds in many ways. For example, Mark places the Last Supper as a Passover meal and John dates it as the day before Passover, so that the crucifixion coincides with the slaughter of the paschal lambs – buttressing his theology of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. My tutor at Oxford set me the essay, “Was the Last Supper a Passover meal?” which I dutifully agonized over. I was too green at the time to say anything sensible, let alone original. Maybe I still can’t. His argument was that John had to be right, otherwise the theology made no sense. But my tutor was a high church Anglican priest of the old school, for whom theology trumped historical analysis. I’m long past that way of thinking. John’s gospel is the cornerstone of Trinitarian thinking, and therefore anchors centuries of theology. Without it Christianity would look a whole lot different. Historically many very smart non-theologians, such as Jefferson and Newton, have found the doctrine of the Trinity unpalatable, as do I.

1 John contains some of my favorite passages, notably:

4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. 4:8 He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love.


A great deal of my own personal theology hinges on this statement, especially, “God is love.” I can get pretty close to a trinitarian way of thinking if I equate God the Father with love in its totality, God the Son with love personified, and God the Holy Spirit with love manifested in individual action.

Because five books of the Greek Bible are traditionally attributed to John he is the patron of writers and associated professions: bookbinders, booksellers, compositors, editors, engravers, papermakers, printers, and publishers.

My head image here is an El Greco, depicting John holding a chalice with a dragon rising from it. This is based on the legend that John was given a chalice of poisoned wine by the emperor Domitian, but the poison rose out of the wine in the form of a dragon.


Fergus Henderson is well known in culinary circles as the master of cooking and celebrating offal. He runs a restaurant in London called St John, so why not rejoice in offal on this day when many Westerners are still trying to be creative with leftovers? Offal is, after all, “leftover” meat for great swathes of the Western world these days – more’s the pity. I’ll eschew the opportunity to glorify tripe just this once, because other offal dishes can be equally magnificent – tongue, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads, spleen, etc. Here’s a recipe I created many years ago: pig’s feet pancakes.

This concoction was inspired by a recipe for a Spanish appetizer, but I converted it to a main dish. These dainties are so, so rich that I find that even when made bite sized they have the capacity to fill the belly in just a few mouthfuls. One of the full sized ones described here will more than adequately satisfy the heartiest appetite. Be warned, though, that these delights are quite time consuming and complicated to make, so I recommend that you at least prepare the filling ahead of time. It can be made a day in advance and refrigerated. If the batter coating seems too much, the pancakes can be filled and served plain with a garlic sauce dip.

© Pig’s Feet Pancakes



4 whole pig’s feet
rich beef stock
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped crimini or black mushrooms
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried sage


2 eggs
½ cup flour
½ cup milk

butter for frying


1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup beer

oil for frying

Garlic Sauce

1 cup mayonnaise
8 garlic cloves (or 1 tbsp prepared minced garlic)


Place the pig’s feet in a saucepan and cover with beef stock. Simmer very gently for two to three hours or until they are well cooked and the meat is falling from the bones. Let the feet cool to the point where they can be handled, and separate out the bones. Run the meat and skin through the coarse blade of a food grinder or use a food processor to chop them coarsely (the point is to retain some texture to the meat). Heat the butter in a frying pan and gently sauté the chopped onion until it is soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms to the pan and continue to sauté until they begin to take on a golden color. Add the ground meat, parsley, thyme and sage and fry the whole mixture until it is heated well through. This can then be set aside.

Make the pancake batter by sifting the flour into a mixing bowl and then slowly adding the milk while stirring vigorously with a wire whisk to create a smooth mixture without lumps. If the mixture feels thick, add water until it is the consistency of custard. Add the eggs one at a time, beating vigorously. Set the batter aside to rest for 30 minutes. The most essential tool for making the pancakes is a heavy omelet pan with a 4″ to 5″ base. After the batter has rested heat the pan on high heat and add a teaspoon of butter. Let it sizzle, but do not let it brown.   Swirl the butter around to coat the bottom of the pan then pour enough batter in so that the pan’s bottom is just covered with a thin layer (it will tend to puddle in the middle, so swirl it round to get an even coating. Return to high heat and shake the pan as soon as the pancake has set slightly. Flip the pancake over with a spatula, and quickly cook the other side. The pancake should have light brown mottled spots on both sides, but still be basically yellow. Turn the pancake on to a plate and repeat the process until all the batter is used (about 6 pancakes).   Making the pancakes takes a bit of practice, but do not worry if they are not perfectly round or good looking; they are going to be rolled and deep fried so appearances are not important. However, it is vital to keep them as thin as possible, so the thinner the batter, the better.

Place one of the pancakes on a flat surface and put two tablespoons of filling in the center. Fold the near edge of the pancake over the filling, then fold the sides in, and finally pull the far edge down to make a tight envelope around the filling. Fill the rest of the pancakes in the same way.

Make the frying batter by sifting the flour and baking powder together in a mixing bowl. Add the oil and beer and mix well to get rid of any lumps. Set aside to rest for 20 minutes. When rested, heat cooking oil in a deep fryer to 395°F (or you can shallow fry in a skillet as long as you have a depth of oil of more than ¾”). Dip each filled pancake in the batter and then deep fry until golden brown. These pancake packets will float on the hot oil, so must be turned with a slotted spoon at least once for an even browning. Remove from the oil and place on paper towels. Keep cooked pancakes hot in a warm oven until they are all fried. Serve them with a garlic dipping sauce made by crushing and mincing the garlic fine and stirring it well into the mayonnaise. Only light accompaniments are suggested — such as a tossed salad, or some lightly poached vegetables — because these pancakes are so very rich and heavy.

Serves 6

May 072014


Today is the birthday (1919) of María Eva Duarte de Perón, the second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón (1895–1974), First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952, and officially recognized as Spiritual Leader of the Nation. She is formally referred to as Eva Perón, but in Argentina she is always known by her diminutive, Evita. Argentinos rarely use diminutives; they are reserved for family and others who are exceptionally intimately close. No one here EVER uses my diminutive. Nicknames are used instead of diminutives by friends and associates to express familiarity. So the fact that people in Argentina call her Evita to this day indicates just how close they feel to her. She is embedded in the soul of every Argentino, like tango and the gaucho, and if you are not Argentino you will never grasp the feeling. You might get it intellectually, but not with your soul. In fact for outsiders to refer to her as Evita is slightly insulting.

In her day Evita evoked deep passions. Some people saw her as a saint, others as a scheming, self serving egoist. Some saw her as the savior of the poor, others as someone who used her charities to enrich herself. She was loved by the people, and despised by the military. She has been characterized as a sincere, genuine, loving woman, and also as a superb actress whose public image was carefully crafted to fool the people. This is a blog post and not a book, so I cannot get into all I think about this. Instead, I will try to dissect for you, in brief, how I understand the period when she succumbed to cancer and died. As an anthropologist and Argentino I would like to help you with some context to better understand those days. First a little background.

On 9 January 1950, Evita fainted in public and underwent surgery three days later. Although it was reported that she had undergone an appendectomy, she was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. Fainting continued through 1951, with extreme weakness and severe bleeding. By 1951, it had become evident that her health was rapidly deteriorating. Although her diagnosis was withheld from her by Juan, she knew she was not well. She underwent a secret radical hysterectomy in an attempt to eradicate her advanced cancer, but it had already metastasized.


On 17 October 1951 Evita delivered her final public speech. Here are two video clips of segments of her speech to give you a sense of the woman. She was so weak by then that Juan had to support her much of the time.

On 4 June 1952, Evita rode with Juan in a parade through Buenos Aires in celebration of his re-election as President of Argentina. She was so ill by this point that she was unable to stand without support. Underneath her oversized fur coat was a frame made of plaster and wire that allowed her to stand. She took a triple dose of pain medication before the parade, and took another two doses when she returned home. In a ceremony a few days after Juan Perón’s second inauguration, Evita was given the official title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.”

After the hysterectomy the cancer returned rapidly. She was the first Argentine to undergo chemotherapy (a novel treatment at that time). Despite all available treatment, she became emaciated, weighing only 36 kg (79 lb) by June 1952. Evita died at the age of 33, at 8:25 p.m., on 26 July 1952. The news was immediately broadcast throughout the country, and Argentina went into mourning. All activity in Argentina ceased; movies stopped playing; restaurants were closed immediately and patrons were shown to the door. A radio broadcast interrupted the broadcasting schedule, with the announcer reading, “The Press Secretary’s Office of the Presidency of the Nation fulfills its very sad duty to inform the people of the Republic that at 20:25 hours Mrs. Eva Perón, Spiritual Leader of the Nation, died.”


Evita was granted a state funeral and a full Roman Catholic requiem mass. Her body was embalmed immediately and lay in state in the presidential residence, La Casa Rosada. People waited in throngs to get a chance to glimpse her. Crowds flooded the streets for a 10 block radius, completely blocking traffic. In all 8 people died, and over 2,000 were treated at local hospitals for injuries sustained in the crush to see her body. On 9 August her body was transferred to the Congress Building for an additional day of public viewing. On Sunday 10 August, after a final Sunday mass, the coffin was laid atop a gun carriage pulled by CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo de la República Argentina) officials. Following was Perón, his cabinet, Eva’s family and friends, the delegates and representatives of the Partido Peronista Femenino—then workers, nurses and students of the Eva Perón Foundation. Flowers were thrown from balconies and windows. Nearly 3 million people attended.

There are two quite distinct interpretations of the spectacle of Evita’s dying in full public display, which I can roughly characterize as the outsider and the insider views. Outsiders (and Argentine cynics) see it as an opportunistic, politically staged drama to milk an ignorant public for sympathy, and to drum up support for a repressive dictatorship. Insiders see it as a genuine outpouring of Evita’s love of the people, and her need both to show herself to them and to hear their expressions of devotion. In tandem with this, Argentinos deeply appreciated their ability to voice their emotions directly to her, and not simply in public demonstrations in her absence. The insider view is almost completely alien to Westerners, even those in Spanish-speaking Catholic countries. Let me be clear. I am not talking about the funeral now. We’ve all witnessed massive state funerals with hundreds of thousands of weeping mourners. I’m talking about the fact that Evita chose to go through the act of dying in front of all the people.

In the 1950’s, and even now, Argentina had two faces. There was the one the world saw – a sort of mini version of Europe located in South America. Buenos Aires has been called the “Paris of the South.” Buenos Aires is, without doubt, the most European of all Latin American cities. This is the Buenos Aires the tourists see. But there is another Argentina that visitors almost never see. This is the Argentina that was forged in the 19th century through wars of independence and bloody civil conflict, through efforts of nation building, and through the long process of creating an economy founded on herding and agriculture. The ethos developed in this era is sometimes called hispano-creole, where creole is a translation of “criollo,” meaning a person of Spanish heritage born in Argentina. This ethos is almost impossible to explain. It has its roots, in part, in Europe, but it is NOT European. It is unique to Argentina. Tango and the gaucho are products of this ethos, and so was Evita. Dying in public is one expression of this ethos.

Catholicism as a whole has a fixation with death, but people in Catholic countries, like Protestants, have a habit of hiding the process of dying away in secret. Hence, Evita’s actions are seemingly incomprehensible and have to be explained away as political drama. But that’s not it. The old hispano-creole tradition sees the time of dying as a time to revel in the splendor of life, made poignant by the fact that death is so near. Evita was celebrating the fact that she had lived a full life that was packed with meaning. I won’t deny that her actions served the peronistas well. But that was not Evita’s primary motivation. Her’s was a desire to be affirmed by the people that the way she had lived her life was the right way, and that she had succeeded in her endeavors. We all could use that in our dying days.

One food typifies the soul of Argentina more than any other – dulce de leche. It is basically sweetened milk that has been boiled and boiled until it is reduced to a thick, creamy, caramelized wonder. It is the taste of my childhood. Various kinds of caramelized milk product are produced worldwide, but dulce de leche is pure Argentina. For most of the late 19th and 20th centuries it was known only to Argentina and neighboring countries. But more recently it has been marketed to countries worldwide largely due to the spread of Argentine immigrants who cannot live without dulce de leche. You can make it yourself, either the long way, that is, by boiling sweetened milk for days (not recommended), or by punching a few small holes in a can of sweetened condensed milk and placing it in boiling water for several hours until you see the milk sputtering from the holes turning dark brown. It’s simpler to buy it if you can, however. In the supermarkets where I shop in Buenos Aires, whole aisles are devoted to the various brands of dulce de leche. You should be able to find it too if you live in a good-sized city; or you can order it online.


Pancakes with dulce de leche (panqueques con dulce de leche) are an Argentine favorite. No need for a formal recipe, just a few simple rules. First you need to make a standard batter as for Argentine tortillas. I’ve given you my video on making the batter before. Here it is again:

Heat butter in a crêpe pan and add a small amount of batter to the pan with a ladle – enough to form a thin layer. Tilt the pan in all directions to make sure the pancake is thin and evenly distributed. When the pancake is spotted golden on the bottom, flip it and do the same for the other side. Turn it out on to a plate, spread with dulce de leche and roll it up. Top with more dulce de leche and whatever else suits your fancy – whipped cream, ice cream, whatever. Repeat.

Aug 292013


On this date in 1911 Ishi (c. 1860 – March 25, 1916) — supposedly the last full-blooded member of the indigenous Yahi — emerged from his ancestral homeland, in present-day Tehama County, near the foothills of Lassen Peak, and known to Ishi as Wa ganu p’a. He was about 49 years old, and had lived all of his life to that point with a dwindling band of Yahi (and related peoples).  With the deaths of his mother and sister he was completely alone and ultimately could not survive by himself.

Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to him because it was rude to ask a Yahi his name. Ishi is quoted as saying, “I have [no name], because there were no people to name me.” I am given to doubt this.  Naming among most indigenous peoples of North and South America is a very serious business.  Kroeber’s wife, Theodora, wrote, “A California Indian almost never speaks his own name, using it but rarely with those who already know it, and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question.” So it is more likely that Ishi knew his name but would not reveal it. The only people who could speak his name were dead.  But this is not the only mystery about Ishi by any means.


Prior to the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855, the Yahi population numbered approximately 400 in California, but the total Yana (of which the Yahi were a sub-group) numbered about 3,000. The gold rush brought tens of thousands of miners and settlers to northern California, putting pressure on native populations. Gold mining damaged water supplies and killed fish; the deer left or were overhunted by miners. In addition the settlers brought diseases, such as smallpox and measles, which the Yana had no immunity to. The northern Yana were wiped out completely, and the central and southern groups including the Yahi were drastically reduced in numbers.  While searching for food, they came into conflict with settlers, leading to outright massacres, or bounties on the native peoples by the settlers. A settler could get up to $5 per head he produced. This practice was by no means confined to California, and is a deplorable chapter in the history of North and South America that rarely makes it to the history books.

Ishi is estimated to have been born between 1860 and 1862. In 1865, when he was a young boy, Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which 40 Yahi were killed. Approximately 30 survived to escape, but shortly afterwards, cattlemen killed about half of the survivors. The last survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 40 years, and the Yahi were believed to be extinct. From 1859 to 1911, Ishi’s remote band became more of a mix of neighboring groups such as the Wintun, Nomlaki, and Pit River as the populations of all these groups dwindled to the point where they could not sustain themselves as distinct entities.

In late 1908, a group of surveyors came across a camp they reported as inhabited by a man, a young girl, and an elderly native woman (and possibly one other person).  This was Ishi, his younger sister, and his elderly mother, respectively. The former two fled while the latter hid herself in blankets to avoid detection, because she was sick and unable to flee. The surveyors ransacked the camp and took everything. University of California anthropologists tried to find the camp, but were unsuccessful. Ishi’s mother and sister died shortly afterwards.


Ishi lived three years beyond the raid in complete isolation. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, at the age of about 49 on August 29, 1911, he was found by butchers outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville, and was presumed to be trying to steal meat. Initially, he was jailed by the Butte County sheriff, but U.C. Berkeley anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman, took him to San Francisco and gave him housing at Berkeley Museum of Anthropology where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Waterman and Kroeber  worked with Ishi closely over the years and interviewed him at length to help them reconstruct Yahi culture. He described family units, naming patterns, and the ceremonies that he knew, but much of the tradition had been lost because there were few older survivors in the group in which he was raised. He identified material items and showed the techniques by which they were made. Ishi provided valuable information on his native dialect of Yana, which was recorded and studied by the linguist Edward Sapir, who had previously done work on the northern dialects.

Ishi's quiver and arrows

Ishi’s quiver and arrows

Ishi, having come to live in San Francisco, and having no immunity to Western diseases, was often ill. He was treated by a Professor of Medicine at UCSF, Saxton T. Pope. Pope became close friends with Ishi, and learned from him how to make bows and arrows in traditional fashion. He and Ishi often hunted together. Ishi died of tuberculosis, then an incurable disease, on March 25, 1916. His friends at the university initially had tried to prevent an autopsy on Ishi’s body since the body was to be kept intact according to Yahi tradition. But the doctors at the University of California medical school performed one before Waterman was able to stop it. Ishi’s brain was preserved and the body cremated. Included alongside his remains were “one of his bows, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, a boxful of shell bead money, a purse full of tobacco, three rings, and some obsidian flakes.” Ishi’s remains were interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Colma, near San Francisco, but his brain was put in a deerskin-wrapped Pueblo pottery jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution by Kroeber in 1917. It remained there until August 10, 2000, when it was sent to members of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River nations in accord with both the letter and the spirit of the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, that requires the repatriation of human remains to suitable host groups.

There is now considerable controversy concerning Ishi’s background. I believe that there is little doubt that he was the last of the indigenous peoples of North America to have lived the bulk of his life without contact with Westerners. The question has more to do with whether he was distinctly Yahi/Yana or of a more multi-ethnic heritage.  The flint arrow points he produced, for example, do not resemble Yana examples from archeological assemblages, but look more like those produced by the Nomlaki or Wintu, who were living with the Yana around the time of Ishi’s childhood.  It has even been speculated that one of his parents was not Yahi.  He spoke Yahi, but possibly his descriptions of Yahi culture are more of a blend of cultures he grew up with.  I can’t say I am overly concerned about this given that every culture borrows from others.  Whatever his origins, Ishi provided early twentieth century anthropologists with a treasure trove of knowledge.

As is evidenced by Ishi’s grave goods, acorn flour was an important component of the Yahi diet (as it was throughout northern California), so a recipe involving acorn flour is in order.  The purists among you might consider making it yourselves. It is a major project, however.  The big issue is that acorns are very high in tannins so they have to be leached out before the acorn flour is edible.  Tannins are not only bitter, they can cause stomach upset if consumed in large quantities.  The basic process is as follows:

1. Store the acorns several months in a dry place (up to a year). This process can be reduced to a month if they are stored by a fire.
2. Remove the outer skin.
3. Use a grinder or food processor to reduce the acorns to a meal. Depending on usage this can be coarse (for acorn mush), or fine (baked goods).
4. Place the ground acorns in a bag, such as a flour sack, that will allow the passage of water, but not allow the flour to seep out.
5. Put the bag in gently flowing water for 7 to 8 hours (a river is great). A slow trickle from a tap is all right, but the process may take up to 24 hours. Taste the rinse water periodically to see that the bitterness has been removed. The time also depends on the fineness of the flour: the coarser, the longer.
6. Spread the leached flour out on trays in the sun to dry.

If you do not want to go to all this trouble it is possible to get acorn flour in some health food stores, or online. Click here for a good source.

Here’s the thing.  Prepared acorn flour comes from the genus Quercus – the classic oaks – but the peoples of northern California used acorns from the tanoak or tanbark-oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), and, to the best of my knowledge, flour from these acorns is not commercially available.  It is richer and more flavorful than flour from regular oak acorns, and is what Ishi ate.

Tanoak acorns

Tanoak acorns

The simplest recipe is for mush, for which coarser flour is best. Place a quantity of acorn meal in a non reactive pot (do not use aluminum) with double the quantity of water.  Simmer slowly for 1 to 2 hours. The mush should resemble oatmeal or cream of wheat.  It can then be used to accompany meat dishes such as hearty stews.  Northern California peoples also made acorn pancakes by taking a very thick mush and using it like a batter, baking it on hot flat stones in a fire.  You could do the same with a heavy iron skillet.  My efforts in this regard have not been highly successful. The pancakes tended to fall apart and were not especially appealing.  What works best is a 50-50 acorn flour and regular flour mix made into a batter with eggs and griddled as you would regular US-style pancakes.


May 142013


Today we celebrate St Engelmund of Velsen who died on this date c.739.  It is customary to celebrate a saint on the day of his/her death, but St Engelmund is also honored on June 21.  He was born in England of Frisian parents, and went on to be a Benedictine monk, then priest, then abbot. Eventually he decided to move to Frisia where he worked with Saint Willibrord, also English, bringing Christianity to the Frisian people.  His home base was in Velsen.

In art, Saint Engelmund is usually depicted as a pilgrim abbot with a fountain springing under his staff. He is venerated in Frisia and invoked against toothache.

Frisia is a sprawling territory lying on the southeast corner of the North Sea. It stretches across the coastlands of modern Holland and Germany up to the border of Denmark.   Velsen is in the Dutch part.  Frisians speak the Frisian language, which is very closely related to English.  Currently there are around 500,000 native speakers in Holland. Dutch Frisia is primarily an agricultural area with dairying and cheese making predominating. The largest Dutch cheese manufacturer is in Frisia. Frisia is also famous for world class speed skaters who practice on frozen canals in the winter.  There is a local sport involving canals called fierljeppen, vaguely similar to pole vaulting.  A jump consists of an intense sprint to a pole somewhere between 8 and 13 meters (26 and 42 feet) long, jumping and grabbing it, then climbing to the top while trying to control the pole’s forward and lateral movements over a canal,  finishing with a landing on a sand bed opposite to the starting point. The aim is to see how far one can leap.  The current record is 21.51 meters (70.51 feet). The sport is believed to have originated with farmers vaulting across drainage ditches to reach different parts of their farms.

Yeast pancakes are a very common holiday treat in Frisia.  They are often served drizzled with Beerenburg, a characterstic liqueur made from Dutch gin flavored with a secret blend of herbs and spices.

Fryske Pannekoek – Frisian pancake


2 cups milk
1 teaspoon yeast
2 ½ cups flour
pinch salt

Beerenburg (optional)


Dissolve the yeast in a part of the lukewarm milk and set aside for 10 minutes.

Place the flour in a large bowl and make a hole in the center. Pour the yeast mixture in the hole.

Beat the flour and yeast mixture while adding the rest of the milk to make a smooth batter.

Cover and let the batter rise 1 hour in a warm place.

Heat some butter in a pancake or frying pan. Spoon a quarter of the batter in and move the pan around so the batter covers the complete bottom. Fry the pancake over low heat to golden brown and turn when the upper surface is dry. Fry the second side over higher heat until brown.

Fry the other 3 pancakes keeping the cooked pancakes warm.

Serve the pancakes with butter and sugar and some Beerenburg drizzled over them if you wish. You can also substitute any herbed liqueur such as Benedictine (given that Engelmund was a Benedictine monk).

Serves  4.