Jul 102021

Today is the birthday (1509) of John Calvin (born Jehun Cauvin), a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology now called Calvinism, which includes the doctrines of predestination and of God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. While Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the foundation of the Lutheran church, it was Calvin’s ideas which really set the Christian world ablaze, leading to, among other things, Puritanism, Presbyterianism, and numerous Reformed denominations.  As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a professor of Church History at a Theological College in Phnom Penh, you are in danger of a mammoth post on Calvin.  But I will spare you.  Just some highlights – and a recipe from Picardy, his birthplace. He does, of course, also lend his name to my favorite cartoon character, Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes (not to mention my favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin).

Calvin was a tireless polemicist and apologetic writer who generated considerable controversy. He also exchanged cordial and supportive letters with many reformers, including Philipp Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger. In addition to his seminal Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, confessional documents, and various other theological treatises.

Calvin was originally trained as a humanist lawyer. He broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. After religious tensions erupted in widespread deadly violence against Protestant Christians in France, Calvin fled to Basel in Switzerland, where in 1536 he published the first edition of the Institutes. In that same year, Calvin was recruited by Frenchman William Farel to join the Reformation in Geneva, where he regularly preached sermons throughout the week. However, the governing council of the city resisted the implementation of their ideas, and both men were expelled. At the invitation of Martin Bucer, Calvin proceeded to Strasbourg, where he became the minister of a church of French refugees. He continued to support the reform movement in Geneva, and in 1541 he was invited back to lead the church of the city. Following his return, Calvin introduced new forms of church government and liturgy, despite opposition from several powerful families in the city who tried to curb his authority. Following an influx of supportive refugees and new elections to the city council, Calvin’s opponents were forced out. Calvin spent his final years promoting the Reformation both in Geneva and throughout Europe.

Let’s talk briefly about the doctrine of predestination which lies at the heart of Calvinist theology, and is certainly the most debated of all of Calvin’s theology.  Among other things, this doctrine appears to fly directly in the face of the doctrine of free will, and is a key pillar in Max Weber’s argument that Protestantism leads to the development of capitalism (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  While I take issue with much of Weber’s thought, he is correct in his assertion that Catholic doctrine is cyclic – sin, confess, repent, salvation, then sin again (and repeat) – whereas Calvin’s doctrine is linear – you find out your fate on Judgment Day and not before, so you have to live as sinlessly as possible every minute of every day all of your life in the hope that you got it right.

Calvin’s logic is really straightforward.  God is all-knowing and all-powerful. Therefore, he knows the past, present, and future – otherwise he is not God.  If he knows the future, he knows YOUR future – all of it.  Therefore, he knows your ultimate fate: Heaven or Hell.  Not complicated.  There are many ways to challenge the doctrine, and many have using philosophy, Biblical criticism, or just through simple reasoning.  It’s not hard.  You can challenge the definition of God, which forces you to part company with the Bible, and probably with theism in general.  If your conception of God is little more than an invisible superhero with all the faults and shortcomings of a human, then you are not left with much, and you do not have Biblical support. If you accept the Biblical view of an all-powerful, all-knowing God, you still have some options to allow for peace of mind.

First, you can try to live as sinlessly as possible – even building a wall around the law so that you have little chance to stumble. Live a simple life, wear unadorned, modest clothes, use plain language, eat plain food and do not drink alcohol, and avoid frivolous spending. That way you end up as a Puritan, which has a built-in safety net but is not much fun. Second, you can reconsider all the components of the definition of God. This does not mean challenging the all-powerful and all-knowing parts, but, rather, adding the all-merciful piece. If God is all-loving and all-forgiving, then maybe the concept of Hell and damnation are misguided.  Maybe we are all destined for ultimate salvation through God’s infinite mercy.  After all, the idea of souls suffering in Hell for all eternity does not mesh with the notion of God’s perfection. How can a God of perfection countenance a world where suffering never ends? The danger here is, of course, that such a theology gives people free rein to do as they please in life knowing that they will ultimately be forgiven. Third, the route that a great many modern theologians follow, and which I agree with, simply dispenses with logic altogether.  This line of attack simply says that the spiritual realm is not open to human reasoning. God is inscrutable and unknowable – end of story.  So, instead of worrying about Heaven and Hell, concentrate on the present and follow the most basic of precepts as laid out in the gospel – namely, love God and love your neighbor – also end of story.  “Who is my neighbor?” is answered by the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the definition of love can be found in 1 Corinthians 13.  Easy-peasy.

For Calvin’s birthday I have chosen a recipe from Picardy, leek tart, that is more or less a quiche (a very common dish in that general region) using leeks, which are among my favorite vegetables.

Picardy Leek Tart


shortcrust for a 25 cm/9 in pie dish

75g/2 ½ oz butter
1kg/ 2lb leeks, cut in half lengthways, washed and cut into 1 cm/ ½ in pieces
300g/10 ½ oz full-fat crème fraiche
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and black pepper


Heat the oven to 200°C/400°F.

Line a 25cm/9 in pie dish with short crust.  Flute the edges, and prick the bottom with a fork.  Cover with cling wrap and keep refrigerated until ready for baking.

Melt the butter over low heat in a large skillet.  Add the leeks and cook gently for about 20 minutes until they are soft, but not browned.  Add the crème fraiche and eggs.  Stir gently to combine and turn off the heat.  Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Blind bake the pastry shell. Line it with baking parchment and fill it with dried beans, and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove the parchment and beans, and cook for another 5 minutes.

Lower the heat to 190°C/375°F

Take the shell out of the oven and fill it with the leek mixture. Return to the oven and bake until the filling is completely set (25 – 30 minutes).

Can be eaten hot or cold.

Apr 292018

Today is the birthday (1854) of Jules Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and philosopher of science. He is often described as a polymath, and in mathematics as “The Last Universalist,” since he excelled in all fields of the discipline as it existed during his lifetime. Outside of mathematics and science Poincaré is scarcely a household name, yet a reasonable argument can be made that both Einstein and Picasso were profoundly influenced by his work – yes, BOTH. I’ll try not to make your eyes glaze over with technicalities too much, and, instead, focus on generalities that just about anyone can grasp, including Poincaré’s ideas concerning original thinking, as well as his work habits.

As a mathematician and physicist, Poincaré, made a number of original and fundamental contributions to pure and applied mathematics, mathematical physics, and celestial mechanics. He was responsible for formulating the Poincaré conjecture, which was one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics until it was solved in 2002–2003. In presenting the conjecture he helped found the field of topology. In his research on the three-body problem (calculating the motion of three interacting bodies – such as planets – using the laws of motion and gravity posited by Newton), Poincaré became the first person to discover a chaotic deterministic system which laid the foundations of modern chaos theory. Poincaré was also one of the first to propose the existence of gravitational waves emanating from a body and propagating at the speed of light as a solution to problems in celestial mechanics. His proposal has proven correct experimentally.

Poincaré’s work itself was of great importance in numerous fields, but for the moment I would like to focus on that way in which he worked and how he construed the intellectual process. To begin, let me remind you that scientific discovery is almost never a step-by-step process. It requires imaginative leaps and “what-ifs” that are anything but logical. Poincaré tried to probe the mechanics of genius, and, though he explained his own process quite well superficially, he did not exactly provide much useful penetrating detail.

Poincaré’s work habits have been compared to a bee flying from flower to flower. One observer said:

Accustomed to neglecting details and to looking only at mountain tops, he went from one peak to another with surprising rapidity, and the facts he discovered, clustering around their center, were instantly and automatically pigeonholed in his memory.

The mathematician Darboux claimed he was un intuitif (intuitive), saying that this is demonstrated by the fact that he usually worked by visual representation. Poincaré himself wrote that he believed that logic was not a way to discover ideas, but a way to structure and manage ideas once imagination and intuition have uncovered them. Poincaré’s mental processes were not only interesting to Poincaré himself but also to Édouard Toulouse, a psychologist at the Psychology Laboratory of the School of Higher Studies in Paris. Toulouse wrote Henri Poincaré (published in 1910). In it, he discussed Poincaré’s personality and work habits:

He worked during the same hours each day for short periods of time. He did mathematical research for four hours a day, between 10 a.m. and noon then again from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. He read articles in journals later in the evening.

His normal work habit was to solve a problem completely in his head, then commit the completed problem to paper.

His ability to visualize what he heard proved particularly useful when he attended lectures, since he was severely nearsighted and could not see what the lecturer wrote on the blackboard.

He was always in a rush and disliked going back for changes or corrections.

He never spent a long time on a problem since he believed that his unconscious would continue working on the problem while he consciously worked on another problem.

While most mathematicians worked from principles already established, Poincaré started from basic principles each time.

Not exactly helpful. What you get from this list is that Poincaré’s mind was a cauldron of stuff that he poked around in until he came up with something useful. I am, fortunately or unfortunately, familiar with the process, although my cauldron as not filled with as much technical stuff as his. Furthermore, filling your cauldron with stuff is not enough. You have to have ways of wading around in the stuff productively. Here Poincaré is not much help. He talks about intuition and imagination, but what are they and how do you get them? Poincaré studied his habits and gave a talk about his observations in 1908 at the Institute of General Psychology in Paris. He linked his way of thinking to how he made several discoveries. Some quotes are pertinent.

The chief aim of mathematics teaching is to develop certain faculties of the mind, and among these intuition is by no means the least valuable.

 It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.

 Logic teaches us that on such and such a road we are sure of not meeting an obstacle; it does not tell us which is the road that leads to the desired end. For this, it is necessary to see the end from afar, and the faculty which teaches us to see is intuition. Without it, the geometrician would be like a writer well up in grammar but destitute of ideas.

All good up to a point. A good vocabulary and excellent command of grammar will not make you a poet; skilled brushwork and an array of paints will not make you an artist. No argument. What does make a Keats or a Picasso? Poincaré has no answer, and neither do I.

An array of pots and pans and a larder full of good ingredients will not make you a good cook either. Nor will training by the best chefs. I can give you recipes, however. They are the building blocks. Poincaré was born in Nancy, former capital of the duchy of Lorraine. Lorraine is, of course, the birthplace of quiche Lorraine, which you can find in qualities from wretched to divine the world over. It has become a rather mundane staple in many places. This recipe is serviceable, but you ought to go to Lorraine for a proper quiche. Even there you may be disappointed. You are best served by seeking the advice of a knowledgeable local. Eggs and cream in a pastry shell is not especially French, but the word “quiche” comes from Lorraine dialect (maybe from German, “kuchen”). The bacon was at one time lardons, and the cheese is a late addition also. Therefore, finding “authentic” quiche Lorraine is a lost cause.

Quiche Lorraine


For the crust

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt
½ cup cold butter, cubed small
3 tbsp ice water

For the quiche

8 slices bacon
1½ cups shredded gruyere
1 shallot, minced
6 large eggs
1½ cups heavy cream
salt and black pepper


For the crust, sieve the flour and salt into a mixing bowl or food processor. Work the flour and butter together with your hands, or by pulsing in the food processor, until it resembles coarse sand.

Add the ice water one tablespoon at a time and work the mixture into a dough. Form into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm, (at least 30 minutes).

On a lightly floured surface, roll out crust until ¼” thick. Loosely drape it over a 9” pie plate (or quiche pan) and crimp the edges. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.

In a large, dry skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until crispy. Drain and cool on wire racks and then break into bite-sized pieces.

Scatter the bacon pieces evenly on the pie crust and then spread over 1 cup of grated gruyere and the shallot.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, a pinch of cayenne and nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour mixture over bacon and cheese. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

Bake for around 45 minutes until the crust is golden and the eggs are cooked through. Test by inserting a knife into the eggs near the center. It should come out clean when the eggs are cooked. Cool the quiche on a wire rack in the tin for 10 minutes before slicing into wedges and serving.

Oct 142016


Today is World Egg Day, established at the IEC (International Egg Commission) Vienna 1996 conference when it was decided to celebrate World Egg Day on the second Friday in October each year. I love it !! Eggs have their own commission. Well done eggs. No doubt it has a lot to do with business and hype, but . . . so what? I love eggs – chicken, duck, quail, ostrich, fish . . . doesn’t matter. I eat them all.


Here’s some of the hype from the IEC. Treat it with a pinch of salt (as you would your eggs):

Eggs are among the few foods that can be classified as a “superfood.”They are loaded with nutrients, some of which are rare in the modern diet. Here are 10 health benefits of eggs that have been confirmed in human studies.

    Eggs Are Incredibly Nutritious. Eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet.A whole egg contains all the nutrients required to turn a single cell into a baby chicken.

    Eggs Are High in Cholesterol, But They Don’t Adversely Affect Blood Cholesterol

    Eggs Raise HDL (The “Good”) Cholesterol

    Eggs Contain Choline – an Important Nutrient That Most People Don’t Get Enough of

    Eggs Turn LDL Cholesterol From Small, Dense to Large: Linked to a Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

    Eggs Contain Lutein and Zeaxanthin, Antioxidants That Have Major Benefits For Eye Health

    In the Case of Omega-3 or Pastured Eggs, They Lower Triglycerides as Well

    Eggs Are High in Quality Protein, With All The Essential Amino Acids in The Right Ratios

    Eggs do NOT Raise Your Risk of Heart Disease and May Reduce The Risk of Stroke

    Eggs Are Highly Fulfilling and Tend to Make You Eat Fewer Calories, Helping You to Lose Weight


A recipe du jour? Surely you jest. I loved the fact that in China duck eggs and quail eggs were as common in markets as hen’s eggs. I routinely made my omelets from duck eggs. One of my favorite street snacks there was fried quail eggs on a stick (flavored with hot spices) – 3 Yuan (50 cents). In Japan I enjoyed a raw quail egg over salmon eggs in battleship sushi.


In Argentina – onion and potato tortilla. Hands down my favorite diner food in New York is soft poached eggs over corned beef hash – the runny yolk is ambrosial.  Quiche in Lorraine. Need I go on?


For today’s first meal I made an omelet with fresh shiitake mushrooms – what I happened to have on hand. I call it “first meal” because I don’t live by the designations breakfast, lunch, dinner. I eat when I want, what I want.  The idea that eggs are breakfast food is absurd. Here’s the photo gallery for today’s omelet:

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