Apr 252016


Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, was first published on this date in 1719. The first edition credited the work’s protagonist Robinson Crusoe as its author, leading many readers to believe he was a real person, and the book a travelogue of true incidents. It was originally published under the title The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

The work is epistolary, confessional, and didactic in form, presented as an autobiography of the title character (whose birth name is Robinson Kreutznaer)—a castaway who spends thirty years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad, encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers, before ultimately being rescued. You can find the complete text here:


The story is usually conjectured to have been based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway who lived for four years with his pet dog on a pacific island called “Más a Tierra”, now part of Chile, which was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966, but various other literary sources have also been suggested. I’d be inclined to say it is “inspired by” these stories rather than “based on” since most of the events in Robinson Crusoe (and also the numerous ruminations) are of Defoe’s devising.


Robinson Crusoe was well received in the literary world and is often credited as marking the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre. This is an overstatement, but the book was an important milestone in the rise of the novel in the 18th century, paving the way for numerous classics, such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Before the end of 1719, the book had already run through four editions, and it has gone on to become one of the most widely published books in history, spawning numerous sequels and adaptations for stage, film, and television.

I wouldn’t imagine the full text is read much any more, not least because people don’t read much of anything these days.  I’ve just finished a series of lessons with 4th-year high school students (18 year olds) in English classes in Italy. They don’t read more than excerpts, which is just as well.  Even for native speakers the book is a challenge. There are lengthy passages of short journal entries that move the narrative along, but are heavy weather for modern readers.  As a boy I read an abridged version (considerably amended) that gave the gist only. I expect that nowadays people know a few bits of the tale and that’s it.


Here’s a couple of representative extracts from the initial chapters of the book when Crusoe has first arrived, shipwrecked, and has to make plans for a lengthy stay. His ship has foundered near shore so that in a brief lull in the weather he is able to get to it and rescue some items:

I had been now thirteen days on shore, and had been eleven times on board the ship, in which time I had brought away all that one pair of hands could well be supposed capable to bring; though I believe verily, had the calm weather held, I should have brought away the whole ship, piece by piece.  But preparing the twelfth time to go on board, I found the wind began to rise: however, at low water I went on board, and though I thought I had rummaged the cabin so effectually that nothing more could be found, yet I discovered a locker with drawers in it, in one of which I found two or three razors, and one pair of large scissors, with some ten or a dozen of good knives and forks: in another I found about thirty-six pounds value in money—some European coin, some Brazil, some pieces of eight, some gold, and some silver.

I smiled to myself at the sight of this money: “O drug!” said I, aloud, “what art thou good for?  Thou art not worth to me—no, not the taking off the ground; one of those knives is worth all this heap; I have no manner of use for thee—e’en remain where thou art, and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saying.”  However, upon second thoughts I took it away . . .

This last piece is typical of Defoe’s examination of the nature of civilized life – the major theme of the book.  Later there is this tabulation made by Crusoe concerning the good and bad side of his situation:

Evil Good
I am cast upon a horrible, desolate island, void of all hope of recovery. But I am alive; and not drowned, as all my ship’s company were.
I am singled out and separated, as it were, from all the world, to be miserable. But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew, to be spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition.
I am divided from mankind—a solitaire; one banished from human society. But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance.
I have no clothes to cover me.


But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them.


I am without any defence, or means to resist any violence of man or beast. But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been shipwrecked there?
I have no soul to speak to or relieve me. But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the shore, that I have got out as many necessary things as will either supply my wants or enable me to supply myself, even as long as I live.


Even without being shipwrecked, such a tabulation assessing one’s circumstances can be a useful exercise.  I’ve done it myself on several occasions with good effect.


I could go on at length about the themes of Robinson Crusoe as dozens of critics have done, but I’ll spare you. Read it yourself. It’s a complex, multi-layered work reflecting (not surprisingly) Defoe’s Puritan background, and the social norms of 18th-century England, yet nuanced in its general conclusions about society. For example, Crusoe is repelled by the cannibals he encounters, considering cannibalism to be an absolute moral wrong. But he does not hold the cannibals personally responsible for their actions, attributing their behavior to their own cultural history and habits – remarkably broad minded for the time.

Crusoe makes a valiant effort to replicate the cooking norms of the time in England. He grows crops, and eventually builds an oven which he can use to bake bread although he lacks yeast.  If Defoe had been more knowledgeable about wild yeasts he might have included a discourse on gathering and using them. There’s also this passage early on:

June 16.—Going down to the seaside, I found a large tortoise or turtle.  This was the first I had seen, which, it seems, was only my misfortune, not any defect of the place, or scarcity; for had I happened to be on the other side of the island, I might have had hundreds of them every day, as I found afterwards; but perhaps had paid dear enough for them.

June 17.—I spent in cooking the turtle.  I found in her three-score eggs; and her flesh was to me, at that time, the most savoury and pleasant that ever I tasted in my life, having had no flesh, but of goats and fowls, since I landed in this horrid place.


The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined by John Mollard is a good resource for 18th century recipes. In it I found this recipe for calipee, the fatty, gelatinous belly meat of the turtle that was much prized at one time. I certainly don’t advocate eating turtle, but the recipe is a period piece reflecting the tastes of Defoe’s time. I’ve seen turtle on the menu in New Orleans, and live turtles (small) are a commonplace of food markets in China. Not my thing.


Take a quarter of the under part of a turtle of sixty pounds weight, and scald it, and when done, take the shoulder-bone out and fill the cavity with a good high-seasoned forcemeat made with the lean of the turtle; put it into a stewpan, and add a pint of madeira wine, cayenne pepper, salt, lemon juice, a clove of garlick, a little mace, a few cloves and allspice tied in a bag, a bunch of sweet herbs, some whole onions, and three quarts of good beef stock. Stew gently till three parts done; then take the turtle and put it into another stewpan, with some of the entrails boiled and some egg balls; add a little thickening of flour and butter to the liquor, let it boil, and strain it to the turtle, &c. then stew it till tender, and the liquor almost reduced to a glaize. Serve it up in a deep dish, pasted round as a callipash, ornamented and baked.

N.B. I think the above mode of serving it up in a dish the best, as it frequently happens that the shell of the callipee is not properly baked.


Feb 082016

My last post on Ruskin 2 years ago was hopelessly inadequate because I was so distracted at the time https://www.bookofdaystales.com/john-ruskin/ This is much better.


Today is the birthday (1819) of John Ruskin, leading English art critic of the Victorian era. He was also a patron of the arts, draughtsman, watercolorist, social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economy. His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. Ruskin wrote essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. His early writing style when writing about art was elaborate but he later toned it down for plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively. In all of his writing, he emphasized the connexions between nature, art, and society. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures, and ornamentation.


He was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century, and up to the First World War. After a period of relative decline, his reputation has steadily improved since the 1960s with the publication of numerous academic studies of his work. Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognized as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability, and craft.

Ruskin came to widespread attention with the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay in defense of the work of J. M. W. Turner in which he argued that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature”. From the 1850s he championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas. His work increasingly focused on social and political issues. Unto This Last (1860, 1862) marked the shift in emphasis. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing. In 1871, he began his monthly “letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain”, published under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–1884). In the course of this complex and deeply personal work, he developed the principles underlying his ideal society. As a result, he founded the Guild of St George, an organization that endures to this day.


As with many of the “greats” whom I celebrate here, there is way too much to say about Ruskin. If you need to know more there are plenty of places to find information on him. I’m going to focus on one adventure of his, now known as the Ruskin Diggers, which I think symbolizes his life’s work.


Ruskin was fond of riding out into the countryside from Oxford, and his trips often took him westwards to North Hinksey, whose rustic charm he admired. (There is a plaque to this effect on one of the old thatched cottages.) He noted the poor state of the village road, and in 1874, he thought of a scheme which would give Oxford students the benefits of manual labor, and also improve conditions for the villagers. He organized a group of undergraduates to help him in the building of an improved road, bordered with banks of flowers. The episode might have vanished into historical obscurity, except that the students in his road-building gang included Oscar Wilde, Alfred Milner, Hardwicke Rawnsley, William Gershom Collingwood and Arnold Toynbee. Wilde later wrote of the episode in “Art and the Handicraftsman” (published in Essays, 1879):


We were coming down the street—a troop of young men, some of them like myself only nineteen, going to river or tennis-court or cricket-field—when Ruskin going up to lecture in cap and gown met us. He seemed troubled and prayed us to go back with him to his lecture, which a few of us did, and there he spoke to us not on art this time but on life, saying that it seemed to him to be wrong that all the best physique and strength of the young men in England should be spent aimlessly on cricket ground or river, without any result at all except that if one rowed well one got a pewter-pot, and if one made a good score, a cane-handled bat. He thought, he said, that we should be working at something that would do good to other people, at something by which we might show that in all labour there was something noble. Well, we were a good deal moved, and said we would do anything he wished. So he went out round Oxford and found two villages, Upper and Lower Hinksey, and between them there lay a great swamp, so that the villagers could not pass from one to the other without many miles of a round. And when we came back in winter he asked us to help him to make a road across this morass for these village people to use. So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank—a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the ‘diggers’, as they called us, fell asunder.

In lieu of a parade of “useful” things to know about Ruskin’s life here’s some poignant quotes. In all of this I hear my own mantras, chief of which are – PAY ATTENTION, SLOW DOWN, BE HUMBLE. Furthermore I firmly believe that merely writing or reading lofty words is pointless. You must believe them deeply and incorporate them into your being:


To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.

It is better to lose your pride with someone you love rather than to lose that someone you love with your useless pride.

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.

I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.

A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel.

Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.

When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.


All art is but dirtying the paper delicately.

Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.

Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.

Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.

 You will find it less easy to unroot faults than to choke them by gaining virtues. Do not think of your faults, still less of others faults; in every person who comes near you look for what is good and strong; honor that; rejoice in it and as you can, try to imitate it; and your faults will drop off like dead leaves when their time comes.

Remember that the most beautiful things in life are often the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.

It rather surprises me that Ruskin had virtually nothing to say about food and cooking given his interest in the sensual and its effects on the mind and body. However, after much hunting I found this quote from him in the first edition of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896)

Cookery means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe and of Helen and of the Queen of Sheba. It means the knowledge of all herbs and fruits and balms and spices, and all that is healing and sweet in the fields and groves and savory in meats. It means carefulness and inventiveness and willingness and readiness of appliances. It means the economy of your grandmothers and the science of the modern chemist; it means much testing and no wasting; it means English thoroughness and French art in Arabian hospitality; and, in fine, it means that you are to be perfectly and always ladies — loaf givers.

Perfectly Ruskin-esque: bread is the staff of life. Not much help in choosing a recipe, however, other than for me to tell you to go and bake a wholesome loaf. So, I am going to be inventive and show you what I made for breakfast today. This year (2016) today is Collop Monday in England, that is, the Monday before Ash Wednesday. In Victorian times it was a common custom to have a collop for breakfast right before Lent. “Collop” is a dialect cognate of the French loan word “escalope” which generally means a thin slice of meat (sometimes flattened with a mallet). Typically on Collop Monday people ate a collop of bacon and a fried egg for breakfast, as prelude to the Lenten season when meat and fat are forbidden.

Living in Italy, a rustic slab of English bacon is not easy to come by, and, besides, bacon and eggs is a little pedestrian as a celebratory meal, I think. I happened to have some beef scaloppine in the refrigerator, so I cooked up a hearty breakfast of beef collops, cheese, and vegetables. I began by sautéing sliced mushrooms, leeks, and hot peppers in olive oil.


Then I pan fried the beef and topped it with cheese.


Then I served the beef and melted cheese with the veggies on top – color, sight, sound, smell, and taste.


Feed your inner Ruskin !!