Jan 152017
 

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Today is the birthday (1622) of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, a French playwright and actor who is generally considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature, although he is not very well known, popularly, these days in the English-speaking world (largely because intelligence and wit are unfashionable).  I’ll give you a snippet of his biography (the rest you can find for yourself). Then I will give you some of my favorite quotes.

Molière was born into a prosperous family and having studied at the Collège de Clermont (now Lycée Louis-le-Grand) he worked for 13 years as an itinerant actor. Then he began writing plays combining Commedia dell’arte elements with the more refined French comedy of his day.

Through the patronage of aristocrats including Philippe I, Duke of Orléans—the brother of Louis XIV—Molière procured a command performance before the King at the Louvre. Performing a classic play by Pierre Corneille and a farce of his own, The Doctor in Love, Molière was granted the use of salle du Petit-Bourbon near the Louvre, a spacious room appointed for theatrical performances. Later, Molière was granted the use of the theater in the Palais-Royal. In both locations he found success among Parisians with plays such as The Affected Ladies, The School for Husbands and The School for Wives. (Sorry – I am going to use the English translations). This royal favor brought a royal pension to his troupe and the title Troupe du Roi (“The King’s Troupe”). Molière continued as the official author of court entertainments.

Though he received the adulation of the court and Parisians, Molière’s satires attracted criticism from moralists and the Catholic Church. Tartuffe and its attack on perceived religious hypocrisy roundly received condemnations from the Church, while Don Juan was banned from performance. This social ambivalence was summed up in an anecdote that is probably apocryphal, but makes the point, and was immortalized in a classic painting.

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One day Louis XIV was informed that certain members of the court refused to invite Molière to join them for a meal because he was just a playwright and, therefore, beneath their dignity. One morning, as the king sat down for breakfast, he invited Molière to join him at the table and enjoy the meal. Conventionally Louis invited the rich and famous to watch  him eat, but they had to remain silent as he ate. Louis reportedly kept up a conversation with Molière over the meal and called in to the room everyone who normally attended his breakfast. Supposedly after this royal lesson, no one ever had qualms again about inviting Molière for a meal.

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Molière’s hard work in so many theatrical capacities took its toll on his health and, by 1667, he was forced to take a break from the stage. In 1673, during a production of his final play, The Imaginary Invalid, Molière, who suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, was seized by a coughing fit and a haemorrhage while playing the hypochondriac Argan. He finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later.

Here’s a smattering of Molière’s quotes (they are by no means all meant to amuse, and the English translations fail to capture the original French – my apologies again):

It is a folly second to none; to try to improve the world.

It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.

Some of the most famous books are the least worth reading.

The only people who can be excused for letting a bad book loose on the world are the poor devils who have to write for a living.

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.

Love is a great master. It teaches us to be what we never were.

All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.

Unbroken happiness is a bore: it should have ups and downs.

I want people to be sincere; a man of honor shouldn’t speak a single word that doesn’t come straight from his heart.

I have the fault of being a little more sincere than is proper.

Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.

The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.

One ought to look a good deal at oneself before thinking of condemning others.

We must take the good with the bad because the good when it’s good is so very good, that the bad when it’s bad isn’t so bad!

There is something inexpressibly charming in falling in love and, surely, the whole pleasure lies in the fact that love isn’t lasting.

So that we can transition into talk about food I will add:

I live on good soup, not on fine words.

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It’s often said that fine French cuisine began in the time of Molière with the publication of Le cuisinier françois by Pierre François La Varenne in 1651.  The full text in the original can be found here — http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k114423k/f1.image  It’s not that hard to read if your French is halfway decent, and there are hundreds of recipes to choose from that look a lot like modern French recipes.  La Varenne’s work was the first to set down in writing the considerable culinary innovations achieved in France in the 17th century, particularly in the court of Louis XIV, while codifying food preparation in a systematic manner, according to rules and principles. He introduced the first bisque and Béchamel sauce, for example, he replaced crumbled bread with roux as the base for sauces, and lard with butter. You can also find the first usage of terms such as bouquet garni, fonds de cuisine (stocks) and reductions, and the use of egg-whites for clarifying stocks. It also contains the earliest recipe in print for mille-feuille. The cooking of vegetables is considered at some length, which was unusual for the times because vegetables previously were not popular. In a fragrant sauce for asparagus there is evidence of an early form of hollandaise sauce: “make a sauce with good fresh butter, a little vinegar, salt, and nutmeg, and an egg yolk to bind the sauce; take care that it doesn’t curdle…”

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Here’s my adaptation of Varenne’s recipe for garden peas, which were a fad in 17th century France. This makes an excellent side dish. The peas should be seasonal and freshly shucked.

Varenne’s Garden Peas

Ingredients

3 cups freshly shucked garden peas
3 tbsp butter
2 oz rendered pork fat or bacon fat
1 head of lettuce
finely chopped chives
1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves separated from the staly
salt and pepper
fresh nutmeg
2 tbsp rich beef broth
¼ cup crème fraîche

Instructions

Break off the tough outer leaves of the lettuce and plunge the head in boiling water for a few seconds to blanch it. Immediately drain it and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Then chop it to a size that suits you.

Heat the butter and pork fat (or bacon fat) in a large skillet over medium-low hear until the butter has melted. Add the peas and stir them so that they are all covered in butter and fat. Add the other ingredients, except for the crème fraîche, and simmer, covered, until the peas are just cooked. Uncover, stir in the crème fraîche, heat for a minute, and serve.

Aug 132015
 

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Today is the birthday (1899) of Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE, well known English film director and producer, who pioneered many elements of the suspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema with both silent films and early talkies, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood in 1939 and became a US citizen in 1955.

Over a career spanning half a century, Hitchcock fashioned for himself a recognizable directorial style. His stylistic trademarks include the use of camera movement that mimics a person’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism. In addition, he framed shots to maximize anxiety, fear, or empathy, and used innovative forms of film editing. His work often features fugitives on the run alongside “icy blonde” female characters. Many of Hitchcock’s films have twist endings and thrilling plots featuring depictions of murder and other violence. Many of the mysteries, however, are used as decoys or “MacGuffins” that serve the films’ themes and the psychological examinations of their characters. Hitchcock’s films also borrow many themes from psychoanalysis and sometimes feature strong sexual overtones. Through interviews, movie trailers, cameo appearances in his own films, and the ten years in which he hosted the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he became a highly visible public figure.

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Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films. Often regarded as the greatest British filmmaker, he came first in a 2007 poll of film critics in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, which said: “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from viewers) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.”

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I don’t think there’s any need to go through his movies and production techniques in detail. They are all well known. Instead I’ll focus on three things, his cameos, his practical jokes, and (since this is a foodie blog) his relationship to food, and his favorite dishes.

His cameos are justly famous: a trademark. When I was a young boy my mother told me about them and said I should watch out for them. It can be a challenge. Some are fleeting, or in the far distance, or from behind or disguised in some fiendish way. The one in Lifeboat is classic. Here’s a compilation of all his cameos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YbaOkiMiRQ

His practical jokes were also famous, some benign and some quite sadistic. He once sent Peter Lorre a suit made by London’s most prestigious tailor; the suit, however, was sized for a child. On another occasion, he sent an actor 400 smoked herrings. He had a horse delivered to the dressing room of actor Sir Gerald du Maurier (father of Daphne) just to see how he would react to inconvenience. When a cameraman boasted about his elaborate new all-electric kitchen, the man returned home to find two tons of coal delivered to his doorstep with a receipt marked ‘Paid by A Hitchcock’.

Hitchcock would often enlist a colleague to whom he would tell a tantalizing story in a loud voice while they were in a packed elevator. He would perfectly time his exit just before the punch line and then bow politely to the eavesdropping passengers.

He may have inherited some of this behavior from his father who, when Hitchcock was about five, sent him with a note to a local police chief, who locked the little boy in a cell. After about 10 minutes, the policeman released Hitchcock, saying: “That’s what we do to naughty boys.” Hitchcock later said he could never forget the fear of such a humiliation.”

There was certainly an element of bullying. Assistant cameraman Alfred Roome had been the target of one of his jokes but exacted revenge by putting a fake smoke bomb under Hitchcock’s car. “You never saw a fat man get out of a car quicker,” he recalled. “Hitch never tried anything on me again. He respected you if you hit back. If you didn’t, he’d have another go.”

Hitchcock himself called it the “humor of the macabre.” He believed it was simply a typically London form of humor, and used to say as an example: “It’s like the joke about the man who was being led to the gallows, which was flimsily constructed, and he asked in some alarm, ‘I say, is that thing safe?’ ”

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Actresses were often the target of his ‘jokes’. Elsie Randolph revealed her fear of fire to Hitchcock and he later played an elaborate trick on her, getting a technician to pump smoke into a telephone box after the door had been surreptitiously locked. This was probably just a sadistic prank, but his treatment of Tippi Hedren (The Birds) was malicious, which she suggests resulted from her refusing his advances. He sent her daughter, Melanie Griffith, an exquisitely lifelike miniature of Hedren in a coffin in one of the dresses from The Birds when Griffith was 6. I would hardly call this a joke or prank. Furthermore, he used his influence to prevent Hedren from getting further roles after his second film with him which, she says, effectively ruined her career.

Hitchcock’s relationship with food was also dark. He was bullied a great deal in school and compensated by overeating and developing what he called his “armor of fat.” This no doubt made things worse. English schoolboys (and schoolmasters) are, or at least were, merciless with any boy who is fat. My take on it all is that Hitchcock was both jovial and twisted because of his upbringing, and was largely oblivious to his own peculiarity which he turned to good use in his films.

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Hitchcock’s overeating was legendary. He could eat three steaks and three portions of ice-cream at a sitting. But then would go on crash diets. His cameo in Lifeboat shows a “before” and “after” of him in a slimming ad during a dieting phase.

Sometimes he combined pranking with eating. His targets were often people he had privately identified as “phonies” and “big heads”. Pompous guests would be invited to dinner parties where he would slip whoopee cushions on to their chairs before they sat down. Sometimes, the food would be served in the wrong order, starting with dessert. At one lavish meal, guests were disturbed to find all the food dyed with blue coloring: blue soup, blue trout, and even blue peaches and ice cream.

It’s hard to tell when he was joking about food. He once told an interviewer, “I’m frightened of eggs. That white round thing without any holes…have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is positively jolly by comparison.” He also claimed to have a phobia for making soufflé, because he couldn’t stand the suspense of waiting 40 minutes to see how it would turn out. This has to be a joke from the “master of suspense.” His daughter Pat said that soufflé was one of his favorite desserts.

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Soufflé is one of those dishes that frightens a lot of cooks, but if you follow some simple rules they are not as hard as you might think. When my son was under my tutelage as a homeschooler I gave him cooking lessons, and his first soufflé was stellar. The links below to videos give all you need to know.

A soufflé really has two basic components: a cream, which for a savory soufflé is usually made from béchamel and for sweet an egg custard, folded with stiffly beaten egg whites. The two must get combined together to form a mixture that is then poured into special molds and then placed in the oven. This is when a law of physics comes in, in the form of evaporation. The mix first gets cooked externally, along the borders of the mould, trapping the water molecules from the steam from within. When the temperature rises, they seek a way out and the only way is upwards – the only part of the soufflé not confined by the mould. As the top of the soufflé bakes and becomes thicker, the molecules push harder and this is why the top rises. And here lies the crux of the issue: a proper soufflé is one that creates the most resistance for the steam molecules. The secret to this is to beat the egg whites until they are very stiff, so they create a compact foam that serves as a barrier.

Key “secrets” revealed in the videos are:

  1. Brush the sides of the molds with softened butter with upward strokes to guide the soufflé straight up as it rises.
  2. Preheat the oven 10 degrees hotter than you want for baking, so that when you put the molds in, the temperature change by opening the door merely lowers it to the desired level.
  3. Temper one-third of the beaten whites with the béchamel/custard, then fold in the other two-thirds.
  4. Run your thumb around the edge of the molds once they are filled so that the tops can rise freely.
  5. NEVER open the oven when the soufflés are baking.

Early on I had some fair disasters, but it got easier once I followed the rules. I prefer savory soufflés with cheese, mushrooms, or tomato. That’s because I am generally not a fan of desserts. Follow the same rules for savory as for sweet. Use a béchamel as your base adding the necessary ingredients and cooking them in the sauce before adding the egg whites. Happy viewing – they are good videos.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKvfjcpfUow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jc1DtH-OC94

Jul 202013
 

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Today is the birthday (1822) of Gregor Johann Mendel, a German speaking Silesian scientist and Augustinian friar who gained posthumous fame as the founder of the new science of genetics.  Mendel was born into an ethnic German family in Heinzendorf bei Odrau in Silesia in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Hyn?ice, Czech Republic). He was the son of Anton and Rosine (Schwirtlich) Mendel, and had one older sister (Veronica) and one younger (Theresia). They lived and worked on a farm which had been owned by the Mendel family for at least 130 years.

Mendel worked on the family farm as a gardener and studied beekeeping until the age of 11. At that point a local schoolmaster who was impressed with his intellect recommended that he go to Troppau to a secondary school.  This was an unusual step because in that era in the Western world the vast majority of boys left school at 11 and took up work on farms, began apprenticeships, or the like.  His family had to take on the burden of financing his education whilst not having him around to work.  But they acquiesced and he graduated with honors in 1840.

Following his graduation, Mendel enrolled in a two-year program at the Philosophical Institute of the University of Olmütz. There, he again distinguished himself academically, particularly in the subjects of physics and mathematics, and tutored in his spare time to make ends meet. Despite suffering from deep bouts of depression that, more than once, caused him to temporarily abandon his studies, Mendel graduated from the program in 1843.

That same year, against the wishes of his father, who expected him to take over the family farm, Mendel began studying to be a monk. He joined the Augustinian order at the St. Thomas Monastery in Brno, and was given the name Gregor (his birth name was Johann).  At that time, the monastery was a cultural center for the region, and Mendel was immediately exposed to the research and teaching of its members, and also gained access to the monastery’s extensive library and experimental facilities.

In 1849, when his work in the community in Brno exhausted him to the point of illness, Mendel was sent to fill a temporary teaching position in Znaim. However, he failed a teaching-certification exam the following year, and in 1851, he was sent to the University of Vienna, at the monastery’s expense, to continue his studies in the sciences. While there, Mendel studied mathematics and physics under Christian Doppler, after whom the Doppler effect of wave frequency is named; he studied botany under Franz Unger, who had begun using a microscope in his studies, and who was a proponent of a pre-Darwinian version of evolutionary theory.

In 1853, upon completing his studies at the University of Vienna, Mendel returned to the monastery in Brno and was given a teaching position at a secondary school, where he would stay for more than a decade. It was during this time that he began the experiments for which he is best known. Around 1854, Mendel began to research the transmission of hereditary traits in plant hybrids. At the time of Mendel’s studies, it was generally believed that the hereditary traits of the offspring of any species were merely the diluted blending of whatever traits were present in the “parents.” It was also commonly accepted that, over generations, a hybrid would revert to its original form. Mendel’s work on the propagation of peas completely overturned these assumptions.

Mendel chose to study what happened over several generations to 7 traits of peas as they were mixed and matched:

1.Form of ripe seed     Smooth vs Wrinkled
2.Color of seed albumen Yellow vs Green
3.Color of seed coat     Grey vs White
4.Form of ripe pods     Inflated vs Constricted
5.Color of unripe pods     Green vs Yellow
6.Position of flowers     Axial vs Terminal
7.Length of stem     Tall vs Dwarf

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The first thing he discovered was that there was no blending. If, for example, he paired a plant with green pods with one with yellow pods, the pods of the next generation were either green or yellow, and not some greenish-yellow in between.  He also discovered that a characteristic might disappear for a generation and then reappear in the next. Furthermore, he discovered that these seven traits were completely independent of one another, and could be passed on in any combination.

Over 8 years he developed the notion of dominant versus recessive traits.  He theorized that every plant has two genes per trait and passes one on to the next generation, the partner plant providing the other.  In this way every plant can have one of four gene combinations: dominant::dominant, dominant::recessive, recessive::dominant, recessive::recessive. If the dominant gene is present AT ALL it masks the recessive.  So, for example, if smooth seeds is a dominant trait, it will appear in the first three combinations, but not the last.  In theory, therefore, over time any trait should be represented in each generation by more or less ¾ of the plants (although experimental conditions won’t make this exact). This is what Mendel’s experimental data show.

Mendel's notes on peas

Mendel’s notes on peas

During his 8 years of study Mendel made 287 crosses between 70 different purebred plants, producing approximately 28,000 pea plants.  He formulated two principles which are now called Mendel’s Laws and are the cornerstone of genetics.  They are: 1. The Law of Segregation (a parent has two genes for each trait and passes ONE of them on to the offspring). 2. The Law of Independent Assortment (separate genes for separate traits are passed independently of one another from parents to offspring).

Mendel published his findings in 1866 to vast indifference in the scientific community because no one could understand what he was saying, nor recognize the profound value of his discoveries because they did not fit current theory. Mendel died before the scientific community caught up with him.  Blending inheritance continued to be the dominant theory until around 1900. It is a sad fact, repeated through history, that you can be right but your ideas rejected because they fail to support prevailing views.  By 1900, research aimed at finding a successful theory of discontinuous inheritance rather than blending inheritance led to independent duplication of Mendel’s work by Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns, and the rediscovery of Mendel’s writings and laws. Both acknowledged Mendel’s priority, and it is thought probable that de Vries did not understand the results he had found until after reading Mendel.  What always astounds me when I think about Mendel and his peas is that even with 28,000 plants and data gathered over 8 years, I and millions of others, would NEVER have the flash of insight to put it all together to come up with the conclusions Mendel did. That is the mark of pure genius.

For a recipe I have no choice.  It has to be Silesian pea soup.  Fortunately there is such a thing.  It’s close kin to classic split pea soup, but with important differences.  First, it is made from whole dried peas and not splits.  These produce a markedly different flavor. Second, it uses fresh pig bits rather than smoked. Apart from the trotters and skin these may be hard to find.  I can get snouts and ears in Argentina on occasion. Use what you can find.  It also uses parsley root which can be a bit hard to find, but makes a difference.

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Silesian Pea Soup

Ingredients:

1 lb (500 g) whole dried peas, soaked overnight
1 stalk celery diced
1 carrot peeled and diced
1 leek sliced thin
1 onion peeled and chopped coarsely
1 parsley root peeled and diced
1 large potato peeled and diced
1 small bunch fresh parsley chopped fine
1 small bunch fresh lovage chopped fine
1 tsp allspice
salt and pepper
1 lb (500g) any combination of pig’s trotters, ears, snout, and skin
lard

Instructions:

Fry the pig parts in a heavy skillet until they are golden brown.

Put the pig parts, peas, and allspice into a large soup pot and cover with water.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

After about an hour remove the pig parts, strip the meat from the trotters, and chop up whatever else is edible.  With a potato masher, mash up some (but not all) of the peas.

Return the meat to the pot and add the vegetables and herbs.

Simmer until the vegetables are cooked.

Serves 6