YELLOW AND RED

Vienna, 21 November 2020

Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!

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My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.

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But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall

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or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.

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“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”

To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:

“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”

OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:

“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”

We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.

In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.

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In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.

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“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”

Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.

“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?

I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.

“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”

Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.

“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”

Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.

But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.

There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.

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Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.

ANIMALS

Milan, 25 April 2020

Nine days to go before – maybe – we’re let out onto the streets again …

Well, I’ve gone for another wander around the apartment, this time looking for pieces involving animals – that seems to me a suitable way to follow up the last two posts devoted to humans.

I should start by pointing out that neither my wife nor I are really animal people. My wife’s parents never had any pets when she grew up. My mother used to tell me that we had a dog in the house when I was very young, but I have no memory of it. My wife used to go riding as a child and liked it. I used to go and hated it. We never had pets when the children were growing up – apart from a goldfish which our daughter brought home triumphantly after a field trip somewhere and which very rapidly died. We still don’t have any pets. As a result, I think, we don’t really have that many pieces in the apartment that have to do with animals. But let me show readers what we have!

As usual, I start this wander in the living room, with a piece we bought – once again – in the Museum Art shop in Vienna (several pieces I mentioned in the last two posts were also bought in the shop; there was a time when I visited it very often).

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Like all the pieces we bought in the Museum Art shop, it is a modern copy of a very old original, which in this case is in the Louvre Museum in Paris. My copy is made of resin, but the original is in terracotta covered with a red slip. It comes from the Iranian plateau and dates from the 12th Centry BC. The Louvre’s website has this to say about the piece: “their terracotta objects were highly original. Used for funerary libations, they were often in the shape of animals, the most remarkable being the hump-backed bulls with a “beak” for the ritual pouring of water”. I love it for the simplicity of its lines, while still portraying the power of the animal. Here’s a photo of the real thing, a magnificent Zebu bull.

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The next piece takes us to Africa.

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It was once again bought at the Museum Art shop, by my son and wife, as a birthday present for me. It is also, once again, a copy. The original, a Chi Wara Bamana headdress made of wood, hails from Mali. It is held in the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens in Paris. The blurb which the shop gave us states: “Originally fixed to a wicker cap, this sculpture is a headdress that is used in the agricultural rites of the Bambara, organized by a society of initiates called Chi Wara, “champion of cultivation”. This figure is a combination of three animals that inhabit the bush: the antelope, the pangolin, and the anteater.” Here is a photo of one of them in use.

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My wife and I bought the next piece during a trip we made (with my mother-in-law) to Mexico in the early 1980s.

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I definitely don’t like cats (I tolerate dogs), but I’ve always been fond of this ceramic stand-in. We’ve had him quietly sit on a shelf wherever we’ve been.

We bought this next piece at the UN in New York, back in the mid to late 1980s.

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At the time, there was a shop in the building well stocked with “ethnic art”. It’s a delightful piece, from Peru if I remember correctly. Formally it is a candlestick, and we have used it for that purpose a couple of times. But really it’s just a wonderful piece of art, with a cheerful bird as its crowning figure (which is of course the reason why I include it here).

We move on to the kitchen, where we have several animal-themed knick-knacks on our shelves. My favourite is this one.

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It is a ram with extremely long fleece standing on a pile of rocks. My wife and my mother-in-law bought it when they went for a holiday to Scotland in the mid to later 1970s. It stayed with my mother-in-law and we inherited it when the good woman died. It is signed “P. Nelson” on the bottom, but who he or she is I have no idea.

My mother-in-law bought the next two pieces.

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For obvious reasons, we have the two rabbits sitting on the same shelf. Interestingly, they both serve the same function, as a receptacle. The rabbit to the right is ceramic, but I’m not sure what the rabbit to the left is made of. Could it be zinc? My wife thinks it’s silver; if it is, it must be alloyed with something else. Rabbits are animals I’m quite fond of. My French grandmother had a number of them in a hutch, and I would go and stroke them. I was shattered when one of their babies died of myxomatosis. I remember still my wails when the poor thing was taken out and buried. Of course, my grandmother didn’t keep rabbits because she was fond of them, she kept them to eat. And I have to say that rabbit is very yummy.

These next two cups were a gift – along with two other cups – from a friend of my wife’s. There was one cup for each member of our family. The two seen in the photo are the cups of our children.

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They were made by the Hadley Pottery Company, which is based in Louisville, Kentucky. My wife’s friend chose the duck for our son and the lamb for our daughter (their names are on the other side of the cups, that’s how I know). I let readers guess what might have been the reasoning behind the choice, although I suspect that it might be something as prosaic as the lack of any other suitable animals to choose from. The cups are too precious a memory for us to use them now. In fact, one them (mine!) fell to the floor one day and broke. I glued it back together again, but there are pieces missing.

Gluing things back brings me to the last piece (sharp-eyed readers will notice that the beak has been glued back on).

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It is a loon, a common bird on the lakes of North America, and one with a wonderfully haunting cry. I remember it vividly from my little canoe trip on Lake of the Woods (which I wrote about in an earlier post). It was made by an Inuit artist, although which one I don’t know. Because of this Arctic connection, I insert here a photo of an Arctic loon.

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I bought it as a Christmas present for my soon-to-be-wife in the same shop, the Snow Goose, where some six months later we bought the much larger Inuit piece which kicked off my post on the human face. In fact, it was because I had bought this piece there that we went back to that shop. Fate then led my wife to the Face Spirit.

Well, that completes that tour. I let my readers guess what the subject of my next post will be.

A CELEBRATION OF THE HUMAN FACE, PART II

Milan, 15 April 2020

Some seven years ago (Goodness me, in my mind’s eye it doesn’t seem that long ago), I wrote a post about a visit which my wife and I made to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The post was made up of a collection of photos which I took of human faces, from all periods and all regions of the world, looking out at us from the art spread out before us, as we criss-crossed the museum going from one exhibition to another.

Now, in this period of lockdown, I have done the same thing, wandering from room to room in the apartment and taking photos of pieces which my wife and I – and my mother-in-law before us – have collected of the human face.

I start my wanderings in the living room, with this piece from Canada.

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I went there with my wife (who was then still my girlfriend) during the summer of 1977. It was she who spotted the piece in a shop close to the National Art Gallery in Ottawa which sold Inuit art, called the Snow Goose. The blurb we were given at the time of purchase gave its title as Face Spirit and stated that it was handmade by an Inuit artist called Sharky who lived in Cape Dorset in Canada’s far north. When we brought it back, my mother-in-law fell in love with it. Since we were both going on to graduate school that Autumn and therefore by definition would be “of no fixed abode”, living in cheap, rented accommodation, we were happy to give it to her on a long-term loan. We took back possession of it some 15 years later when our life was finally on a more even keel. Some 15 years after that, when I was in Montreal for a conference, I spotted a gallery which sold Inuit pieces and visited it. The pieces were all quite modern. When I said that I had bought a piece of Inuit art back in 1977, the lady exclaimed, “Oh, you have an antique!” Readers can imagine how that made me feel about myself.

My wife bought this next piece for me as a birthday present in Vienna in the Noughties.

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There was at the time a shop behind the Kunsthistorisches Museum which sold copies of pieces from various world-famous museums (sadly, the shop has stopped offering such pieces). One of these was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the original of this piece is located. In fact, as I report in the post I mentioned earlier, I came nose to nose with the original during our 2013 visit to the Met, which gave me a bit of a shock. The blurb from the museum’s website has this to say about the original: “This magnificent head portrays a king of the late third millennium BC. Its heavy-lidded eyes, prominent but unexaggerated nose, full lips, and enlarged ears all suggest a portrait of an actual person. While the date and place of manufacture of this piece have been much debated, its close similarity to the magnificent bronze head found at Nineveh make a late third millennium date most likely.”

This next piece is also a copy, but this time of a piece in the Musée Guimet in Paris.

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I bought the piece online (probably the first thing I ever bought online, come to think of it). It is the head of Jayavarman VII, who was a king in the Khmer Empire. He reigned at the end of the 12th/beginning of the 13th Centuries. He is probably best known for the Bayon temple at Angkor Wat, where this same face is repeated over an over, and on a much large scale, all across the temple.

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In fact, I bought this piece after my wife and I had visited Angkor Wat, also during the Noughties. I had found this slightly smiling face totally fascinating.

After Asia we go to Africa. This group of pieces were give as presents to my mother-in-law by an old boyfriend of my wife’s.

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They are of wood, but of a wood so dense that they seem to be made of iron. Appropriately enough, they are probably made from a type of ironwood, although which type I have no idea. One day, I’ll try putting them in a basin of water to see if they sink: true ironwoods are denser than water.

This next piece is also from Africa, but is in a completely different, quasi abstract, style.

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The unknown artist who made it wound copper wire around a wooden core and used copper parts to make the eyes and nose. It is a really striking piece. I bought it in Ghana in the dying years of the 20th Century during a business trip there.

The next piece brings us back to Europe, although it actually refers to the wars between Europeans and “Africans”.

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They were bought by my mother-in-law. They are modern copies of the heads of “Saracens” (i.e., peoples from North Africa) which were used in the Sicilian puppet shows of the 19th Century.

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These shows retold the stories of the wars between European knights and their Saracen adversaries (guess who always won), and were roughly based on Medieval classics such as the Chanson de Roland, Gersualemme liberata and Orlando furioso. To the heads of the puppets, normally elaborately carved, would  be attached clothes and a reticulated set of arms and legs.

My mother-in-law also bought the next piece. My wife thinks she bought it in Sardinia in the second half of the 1970s.

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It’s a very small piece, only some 10 cm high, and very dark, so it’s quite easy to miss on our cluttered shelves. It represents a woman whose face is hidden in the deep folds of a very big shawl she has wrapped around her head. I find the mystery which emanates from it quite tantalizing. Who was she? Why was she so anxious to hide her face?

You couldn’t miss this next piece, even if you tried.

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I bought it for my wife a few years ago, as a present for her first birthday in our retirement. The artist, Caterina Zacchetti, entitled it “Vento tra i Capelli”, Wind in her Hair.

Which sort of brings us to the world of ceramics (the last piece being terracotta). My wife and I bought this next piece in Vienna.

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The shop we bought it at is Harro Berger Keramik, located in the old town, which specializes in bright and cheerful ceramic objects.

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However, the shop’s most spectacular offerings are modern copies of the old ceramic stoves which you find in Austria (two of which are in the photo).

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I have always lusted after these stoves. Once, when we were apartment hunting in Vienna, we were shown one which had just such a stove in the corner of the living room. I was sorely tempted to take the apartment just for the stove, but good sense prevailed – it was too small for us.

My wife made this next piece during the one and only ceramics class we have ever taken together, in Vienna.

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She made some excellent pieces during that course, which are now scattered here and there. From an inscription on the bottom of this piece I rather think that my wife made it for our daughter. As our mother-in-law did for us, I think we can keep it on a long-term loan and our daughter can take it back when we finally shuffle off this mortal coil.

Talking of my mother-in-law, it was she who bought the next two pieces, in New York as I recall, when she was visiting us there once.

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They are wonderful cups, so precious that we never use them for their intended purpose. I’ve no idea who their maker was. There is a mark on the bottom, OCI (I think), and a date, 1984. My memory tells me that there were originally three cups. If there were, one has disappeared along the road of life.

My mother-in-law also bought the next three pieces, which – at least formally – were all made for the same purpose, to hold liquids.

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The piece on the far right is a typical Toby jug, from the Royal Doulton porcelain works. My mother-in-law picked it up during a trip she made to the UK with my wife in the mid-1970s. The other two pieces are Italian. We’ve seen very similar jugs to the one in the middle being sold at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, so it must be a popular design. It is Sicilian, if my memory serves me right. I have no information on the piece to the far left.

Sometimes, a face is used to hide your face. I mean, of course, masks.  We have a few of those. My wife and picked up this typical set of Venetian masks on one of our trips to Venice – there was a time in our lives when we went there quite frequently.

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The top-left mask, the baùtta, was a mask frequently worn, by both men and women of the Venetian aristocracy, as this painting by the Venetian painter Pietro Longhi attests.

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The other three masks are from characters in Venice’s commedia dell’arte. From top right clockwise, we have the Plague Doctor, Brighella, and Arlecchino. Here, we have a line-up of the many characters that populated commedia dell’arte.

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We go back to Africa for the next mask.

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My wife bought it at the Dorotheum. The brief blurb that accompanied the piece states: “Helmet mask, Tribe: Ibo, Nigeria. Wood, polychrome, hints of facial features, towering, tapering top, jagged ornaments, dark crusty patina, original repairs, 2nd half of the 20th century”.  Quite what ceremony this mask would have been worn in I don’t know. Perhaps one day, if and when I buy a thick tome on African masks, I will find out.

I finish where I started, in Canada. We bought this mask on that same trip of 1977.

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It is a modern copy of a corn husk face, which would have been used in the Mohawk Tribe’s Gajesa Society rituals as the mask of a medicine man. It was made by Ga’haur (I’m not sure I got the spelling right, the original label has faded during the intervening decades), a woman from the Mohawks’ Turtle clan.

Well, that’s taken me around the whole apartment as I’ve scoured it for examples of the human face. By my reckoning, we have only two and a half weeks to go before they let us out (if they let us out), time enough to wander a few more times around the apartment and report back on some of the other things we’ve collected here.

Stay safe.

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

Milan, 18 November 2019

A few days ago, my wife entered a greengrocer’s to get some fruit and came out with fruit but also with a gleam in her eye. “I have bought some Jerusalem artichokes”, she announced, and I was delighted to hear it.

It was a University flatmate who many, many (many …) years ago introduced us to this tuber. One evening, it must have been about this time of the year, he appeared in the kitchen with these strange-looking things.

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As we looked at them curiously, he asked us if we had ever tried them. When we confessed that we had not, he promised us a plateful. He was as good as his word. I cannot remember now how he cooked them – more on this later – but it allowed us to appreciate that delicate artichoke taste which is the hallmark of this tuber.

Its name in English recognizes this gustatory affinity to the artichoke. And it is that artichoke taste which drew me to this lumpy, knobbly little tuber; as I have written in a previous post, I am very partial to artichokes.

Not that we’ve eaten Jerusalem artichokes all that often since that first tasting 40-plus years ago. It is one of the few foodstuffs that is still only found seasonally – it’s available from late Autumn to late Winter, and very difficult to keep once out of the earth – so unless you maintain a sharp lookout, you’re liable to miss it. Because of that, and because, frankly, of a bad press – it has a reputation of being something you feed to animals and only eat if you’re literally starving – it’s not grown in large quantities and supermarkets rarely stock it. Once, I bought a whole load of ginger because I thought they were Jerusalem artichokes. They really do look quite similar, as I think this photo shows; the resemblance between the two has often been noted.

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I cannot remember where it was that I bought this ginger, but it must have been somewhere where I couldn’t read the labels – Thailand, maybe? I also cannot remember what we did with all the ginger: probably, after a few half-hearted attempts to drink tea with a lot of ginger in it, we threw it away.

I must confess to also rather liking the name, which I find satisfyingly quirky. I initially thought that the “Jerusalem” part of the name indicated a Levantine origin for the tuber; maybe, I romantically mused, it was a foodstuff brought to Europe by returning Crusaders. But no, I discovered, North America is its place of origin. It is actually the tuber to a rather lovely flower, the Helianthus tuberosus.

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It is part of the Great Columbian Exchange, that massive intercontinental move of plants and animals (and diseases … and people) which took place after we Europeans discovered the Americas: plants and animals mostly travelling from the Americas to Europe and the rest of the world, and vice versa for diseases and people. I’ve written an earlier post about a minor representative of this exchange, the prickly pear. The Jerusalem artichoke is another minor representative. It is the relative of a much more important representative, also an emigrant from North America, the common sunflower, planted in vast quantities for its oil-bearing seeds.

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The French explorers of North America seem to have been the first Europeans to report on this tuber, and French colonists the first to send exemplars back to Europe. Samuel de Champlain, the explorer of the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, first came across it on Cape Cod.  As related on the US National Park Service website, “after rounding the headlands of Cape Cod in 1605, the French explorers sailed south along the ocean side of the outer Cape. Avoiding shoals and sandbanks, they managed to enter the first embayment they encountered. They called the place Malle Barre and left the ship to go onshore to inspect the Native American settlement. Champlain described the scene:

Before reaching their wigwams we entered a field planted with Indian corn … The corn was in flower and some five and a half feet in height. There was some less advanced, which they sow later. We saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of artichoke. The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell. There were also several fields not cultivated, for the reason that the Indians let them lie fallow … Their wigwams are round, and covered with heavy thatch made of reeds. In the middle of the roof is an opening, about a foot and a half wide, through which issues the smoke of their fire.”

Champlain helpfully included a map of the embayment in his printed report.

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Another Frenchman, Marc Lescarbot, met Champlain soon after this in Port-Royal, a new settlement on the coast of what is now Nova Scotia. I throw in here a map of Port-Royal which Lescarbot included in the book he wrote some years later.

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Among other things, Champlain introduced him to the tuber. Lescarbot described it as follows: “a sort of root, as big as a beet or truffle, tasting rather like chard but more agreeable”. Chard is a vegetable which I’m fond of, fond enough to have written a post about it a little while back. Lescarbot was onto something, I think: the two share a similarly delicate taste. Nevertheless, in the end I would plump for the artichoke connection, so Jerusalem artichoke it should be, not Jerusalem chard.

Europeans were responsible for the global redistribution of the Jerusalem artichoke, but in truth humans had already started to move the plant out of its natural range before Europeans discovered the Americas. When Champlain, Lescarbot, and all the other anonymous European colonists came across the native plantations of the Jerusalem artichoke on the East coast, it looked to them like the plant had always been there. But actually that was not so. The plant’s natural range is somewhere in central North America, straddling the modern US-Canada border. However, the American Indians, recognizing the tuber’s value as a foodstuff, and especially its availability during the winter months when other food is often scarce, had centuries earlier carried it out of its natural range, all the way to the east and west coasts of North America, and down south into Mexico too.

Fascinating stuff, but none of it explains that “Jerusalem” bit of the name. Unfortunately, the chroniclers of the 17th century – the time when the Jerusalem artichoke arrived in Europe and was diffusing across the Continent – were more interested in the Great Men (and possibly Great Women) as well as the Great Events of their time rather than in the names being given to new vegetables. So it has been left to modern historians and etymologists to make some educated guesses. I give two of these guesses here, the two that seem to me the most likely – or perhaps the least unlikely. The first guess has it that the tuber made its way to Rome, as a foodstuff which had miraculously saved the French (Catholic) colonists of North America from starvation. It was planted in the Vatican gardens, whose gardeners gave the plant the name girasole articiocco – “girasole” being the Italian name for the sunflower (readers will recall that the plant is a cousin to the sunflower). The usual mangling of foreign words in British mouths meant that girasole articiocco became Jerusalem artichoke. This is quite neat and is the guess I would normally lay my money on, but I can’t explain to myself how Protestant Britain would have picked up a name being bandied about in the Catholic Vatican. The second guess has it that the tuber originally entered the UK from the Netherlands and more specifically from the town of Terneuzen (the Dutch botanist Petrus Hondius, who lived there, reported in the early 1600s on having successfully planted a shriveled tuber which he had received, no doubt from Dutch colonists in North America). In British mouths, Terneuzen artisjokken got mangled into Jerusalem artichokes. Trade between the two countries was brisk, so a transfer such as this of a new foodstuff sounds quite reasonable to me. But a mangling of Terneuzen into Jerusalem seems a bit of a stretch.

One of the rare places where my wife and I came across the Jerusalem artichoke was in Paris. The French name for the tuber is equally quirky: topinambour. Here again the mists of time have veiled over the origin of the name. The best guess is that the tuber began to appear on Parisian plates at around the time that a delegation of three Amerindians from the Tupinambá tribe, which had settled on the Brazilian coastline, were paraded before King Louis XIII and his court in the Tuileries (three others had died en route). They were sent there by some missionaries, who were competing with the Portuguese for the souls of the local “savages”.  No doubt the idea was to get the king interested in defending French interests in Brazil. I’m not sure they succeeded in that, but the Tupinambá created a sensation. One of the missionaries commented enthusiastically: “Who would have thought that Paris, used to the strange and the exotic, would go so wild over these Indians?”. After being paraded before the king and his court, no doubt in their “savage” state, the three Tupinambá were taken off to a church, baptized, and dressed in more “civilized” garb.

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Parisians, being vague about the geography of this New World that was being discovered before their very eyes but knowing that the tuber came from somewhere over there, simply decided that the Topinambá had brought the tuber with them and began to call it the topinambour.

Helianthus tuberosus grows extremely well in Europe, it is very easy to grow, and as I said earlier its tuber is available in the winter months when other foods can be scarce. As a result, the plant’s popularity grew, especially in France, where it saw its heyday in the 18th Century. Not only were people eating it, but it was given as feed to livestock. It was so widespread in France that one of the days in the Revolutionary calendar – the thirteenth day in the month of Brumaire, to be precise – was dedicated to it. But by then, its days were numbered. The potato (another representative of the Great Columbian Exchange), after facing a century or so of hostility in France, finally won wide acceptance. It eventually completely eclipsed the topinambour.

Which is sad really, because the Jerusalem artichoke/topinambour is really quite good to eat. I personally prefer the tubers steamed (they can be boiled, too, but they risk crumbling in the water).

Source

There’s Jerusalem artichoke soup, too, which I have yet to try.

Source

Then they can be roasted

Source

fried

Source

or prepared in just about any other way one can think of – there are recipes out there for all tastes.

I feel that I cannot in all fairness finish this post without mentioning one negative thing about the Jerusalem artichoke: the plant has a tendency to be invasive, a problem I’ve written about several times. It’s the tubers – if you leave just one little piece in the ground, they will proliferate. This is fine if you have them planted in your garden or in a field; it means you don’t have a problem getting another harvest next year. But it is not fine if the tuber somehow jumps the garden fence or the field boundary. Like another invasive species which I recently wrote about, the Himalayan balsam, Helianthus tuberosus is particularly troublesome if the plant colonizes river banks, for the same reason. It dies back during winter, leaving the river banks much more exposed to the danger of erosion during winter and spring floods.

So, dear readers, bon appetit! But if you want to grow these tubers please make sure they don’t escape from your garden!

KANANGINAK POOTOOGOOK

Milan, 6 September 2017

After our friends’ birthday party, described in my previous post, my wife and I decided to stay a couple of days more in Venice to visit the Art Biennale, the international exhibition of modern/contemporary art which the city holds every two years. We spent one day at the Giardini section of the exhibition and one at the Arsenale section.

I don’t know, maybe I’m getting old, maybe it was the oncoming cough and sore throat that got to me, but it was all such … crap – I can’t think of a better word to describe what we saw. It was just a lot of empty rhetorical flourishes: large pieces of things hanging from ceilings or plonked down on the floor; meaningless videos; assemblages that wouldn’t look out of place in a teenager’s bedroom; and long-winded texts on the walls full of ultimately empty words that pretended to make sense of the rubbish surrounding us. What’s the problem with modern art, for God’s sake?! Looking at all this with an admittedly dyspeptic eye I concluded that art has entered a cul-de-sac where it will die with a whimper.

I had a glimmer of hope on the first day, in the Giardini section, when I saw the quite powerful portraits by the Syrian-German artist Marwan Kassab-Bachi.


But it was really only on the second day, at the Arsenale section, when I was at my most despairing, that I stumbled across the one light shining in all this gloom, eleven paintings by the Inuit artist Kananginak Pootoogook – drawings is probably the better term, since they were mostly done with ink and coloured pencils.

I had never heard of this artist before coming face-to-face with these drawings, but I have since boned up on him a little. 1935, born in a traditional Inuit camp near Cape Dorset in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 1957, married Shooyoo and moved to Cape Dorset. Was one of the leaders in the establishment of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, the first Inuit owned cooperative, and was its president until 1964. In the 1970s, finally began working full-time as an artist, producing drawings, carvings and prints. 1980, was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. 2010, was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent an operation, from which he did not recover.

After that potted biography, let me without ado show some of his drawings at the Biennale, together with one extra drawing out of many which I found on-line.

Reflecting the Inuits’ traditional way of life, we have:
Whale hunt

Successful walrus hunt

Untitled

Reflecting the Inuits’ modern lifestyle, we have:
He thinks he has run out of gas but his engine is shot

Kananginak and his wife Shooyoo in their home

Reflecting the Inuits’ age-old connection to the natural world around them, we have:
Self portrait drawing a wolf

Shedding the velvet

Wonderful … Thank God someone had the great idea of including him in the Biennale. It made up for all the misery of two days’ worth of glum traipsing around from one pile of crap to another.

_________________

Marwan Kassab-Bachi:
Portrait 1: http://mosaicrooms.org/event/not-towards-home-but-the-horizon-marwan/
Portrait 2: http://artsalesindex.artinfo.com/auctions/Marwan-Kassab-Bachi-3598424/Sans-titre-1976

Kananginak Pootoogook:
Whale hunt: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Successful walrus hunt: http://www.nunatsiaqonline.ca/stories/article/65674inuk_artist_to_be_featured_in_renowned_international_exhibit/
Untitled: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
He thinks he has run out of gas but his engine is shot: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Kananginak and his wife Shooyoo in their home: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Self portrait drawing a wolf: http://canadianart.ca/news/kananginak-pootoogook-inuit-art-venice-biennale/
Shedding the velvet: http://digitalcollections.stlawu.edu/collections/inuit-art/bycreator/Pootoogook,%20Kananginak

ABSTRACT LANDSCAPES

Vienna, 30 December 2016

My wife, son and I have just visited a show on Georgia O’Keeffe at the Kunstforum in downtown Vienna. I suppose O’Keeffe is best known for her big, close-up paintings of flowers
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or of animal skulls floating over desert landscapes from the American Southwest.
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But personally I find that, after a wow moment on first sighting, these pall quickly. Seeing them now, I find them somewhat twee.

What I prefer by far in O’Keeffe’s works are her paintings of New Mexico’s landscapes. Two in particular in the show caught my attention, Purple Hills from 1935
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and Rust Red Hills from 1930.


It’s not all her landscapes that I appreciate. It’s those where she has cut away much of the detail to reduce the landscape to its essential shapes and colours. For me, this kind of painting is a form of abstract art. In fact, it’s the only form of abstract art that I really appreciate, where the eye is captivated by the interplay of shape and colour but where there is still a recognizable subject.

Even as I write these lines, I gaze at two prints of paintings hanging on my wall, by the Canadian painter Lawren Harris, who worked in the same way, painting quasi-abstract landscapes. In his case, though, his subjects came from Canada’s far north. The prints I have are his Lake and Mountains, painted in 1928

and his Mount Lefroy, painted in 1930.
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Harris is part of the Group of Seven, a grouping of seven Canadian painters who believed that a distinct Canadian art could be developed through direct contact with nature and who concentrated on paintings inspired by the Canadian landscape. Perhaps the most iconic painting of this group is North Shore, Lake Superior, painted by Harris in 1926.
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I first came across the Group of Seven as a teenager, when I visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. I loved their paintings, especially those of Harris. The pared down monumentality of his paintings seemed to reflect so well the huge, spare landscapes I was seeing around me.

The only other time I have come across abstract representation of landscapes is in Australia, and more specifically in the work of Rover Thomas, whom I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. The example I gave there was the painting River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.

I also gave there an example of another quasi-abstract landscape, this one by the Australian painter Fred Williams, again of a river system.


Interestingly enough, Georgia O’Keefe painted a similar scene, It Was Blue and Green.
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It seems to be the case that painters are drawn to these types of “abstract landscapes” in the remoter, more rugged parts of the world. I wonder if there are North African painters, or painters from the Sahel countries, who have painted in abstract form the landscapes of the Sahara desert. Or how about Scandinavian or Russian painters who have painted their far north in abstract form? Who knows, maybe there are even Argentinian painters who have depicted Patagonia in this way.

But O’Keefe shows that actually it is possible to extract the abstract from the more homely parts of the world. Here is her Winter Road 1, from 1963, also in the Vienna show.
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Perfect: a dark brown to black line curving across a white background, but also obviously a road across snowy hills. I have seen this exact scene several times in my life in places no more remote than North Yorkshire.

_______________
Georgia O’Keeffe, flower: http://de.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/february/05/what-do-you-see-in-georgia-okeeffes-flowers/
Georgia O’Keeffe, animal skull: http://www.marissamuller.com/blog/2015/7/3/skulls-flowers
Georgia O’Keeffe, Purple Hills: http://www.scottzagar.com/arthistory/timelines.php?page=event&e_id=1935
Georgia O’Keeffe, Rust Red Hill: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/my-faraway-nearby
Lawren Harris, Lake and Mountains: https://www.oberhauserart.com/close_up_views_of_selected_artwork
Lawren Harris, Mount Lefroy: http://www.artcountrycanada.com/group-of-seven-harris.htm
Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/canadian/The-Group-of-Seven.html
Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg
Fred Williams, Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg
Georgia O’Keeffe, It Was Blue and Green: http://www.oocities.org/moondarlin/artokeeffe3.html
Georgia O’Keefe, Winter Road 1: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/the-walk-to-laggan-cottage-ruins-and-ancient-footfalls/georgia-okeeffe-winter-road-1-1963/

ROCK ART

Bangkok, 18 June 2016

As readers of this blog cannot have failed to notice, I’m a bit of a history buff. I suppose it runs in the family. My father had an extensive collection of history books, which as I grew up I filched for a quiet read in bed, and my elder brother actually teaches the subject.

As perhaps we all do, my interest in history started with the grand events, the Kings, the Queens, the battles. But with age, I became more interested in the history of the voiceless: the poorer segments of society, the goods and chattel which we humans have enslaved and used for our own material comforts, and – the topic of this post – our forefathers from the time when there were no written records: pre-history. Precisely because they have no written history, the latter can only talk to us through the material remains they have left behind, and through the chemical and biological tracers they have scattered about, from our genetic codes to such mundane things as pollen records. This post is about a particular material remain left to us by the voiceless, rock art.

My first meeting nearly half a century ago with this art form was not very propitious. They were rock paintings, in the middle of Lake of the Woods, on the US-Canadian border, where I was spending a week canoeing. They were painted on a small overhang on the water’s edge of one of the many small islands that dot the lake, so that we could bring the canoe alongside to study them. They looked something like this.
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If I’m to be honest, I didn’t think much of them. They were pretty crude drawings, and awfully faded. I was far more excited by the very old man we met on another island, who told us that he remembered as a child being hurriedly bundled off into a hiding place because the local Indians had gone on the warpath. Wow! Indians on the warpath! To a boy of 15, that was something to talk about, not those crude, faded rock paintings.

At about the same time as I was gazing with a certain skepticism at the rock paintings on Lake of the Woods, I came across my first rock engraving. It was the White Horse, carved in the mid-19th Century into the escarpment of the Yorkshire Moors near my high school.
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I have to say, though, that I was more taken by the gliders soaring silently on the updrafts created by the escarpment than the White Horse carved into it.

Well, time passed, I grew up, and I became wiser (I hope). My growing fascination with pre-history meant that I became more interested in rock art. Not that I saw that much rock art in the flesh, as it were. For instance, I have never managed to see the rock engravings in Valcamonica up in the Alps, not that far from my wife’s home town of Milan, even though it was one of the first places to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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On the other hand, when my wife and I visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona early on in our marriage
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we came across some rock engravings among the old American Indian pueblos.
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I may not have been seeing much rock art, but I was reading up on whatever new finds were being made. For instance, new caves were being found in France and Spain with art from the Paleolithic era, adding to what was already known. I give here just a few examples from some of the better-known caves:
Lascaux
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Altamira
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Chauvet
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Now this is really art! Visiting these caves is on my retirement bucket list – if we can manage to get in. Many of them are closed, or access to them is severely restricted, to protect the paintings. Forget the problem of stray fingers touching where they shouldn’t. Even our innocent breath deteriorates the artwork.

Several of the articles I read were about rock art in Australia. For instance, there was much excitement several years ago when it was announced that some rock art in the Northern Territories had been dated to 28,000 years ago, which made it Australia’s oldest dated rock art, and some of the earliest in the world.
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Then there were articles a few years before that about the fascinating rock art in Kakadu National Park, also in the Northern Territories, which goes from the ancient
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to the modern – Australian rock art didn’t stop tens of thousands of years ago.
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All this meant that I approached the rock art which we visited on our recent tour of the Kimberley with a lively interest. We found ourselves confronted with two quite different styles of painting. The more recent, Wandjina art, is dominated by these alien-like faces.
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To my mind, these paintings were only mildly interesting. Of much greater interest was the considerably older Gwion Gwion art, which is peopled with stencil-like figures like these.
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In contrast to many of the representations of people in rock art, where they tend to be reduced to mere stick figures, Gwion Gwion art shows them dressed and coiffed. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that one can get an idea of what the painters of this art might have looked like if we had met them.

There are very recent articles reporting scientific analyses which suggest that these paintings could be 50,000 years old. This very much favors the theory which I mentioned in my previous post, the author of which argues not only that African peoples sailed to the Kimberley and brought the baobab tree with them but also that they were the authors of the Gwion Gwion art. He claims similarities between this art and the rock art of the Sandawe people, hunter-gatherers from Tanzania.
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Personally, I’m not convinced. But hey, I’m no expert. In any event, reporting this claim has allowed me to segue smoothly to Africa, a major storehouse of rock art. And here I will leave my readers with some remarkable rock art from the Sahara, once a green and verdant land full of game and peopled by the humans who hunted them and who recorded their lives on the rock.
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____________________
Lake of the Woods rock painting: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/8653359
White Horse, Kilburn: http://www.jdw-fitness.co.uk/ben-campbell-5k-10k-trail-races/
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.italia.it/it/idee-di-viaggio/siti-unesco/valcamonica-larte-rupestre.html
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.invasionealiena.com/misteri/articoli-misteri/963-arte-rupestre-delle-alpi-la-valcamonica.html
Canyon de Chelly: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Canyon+de+Chelly+National+Monument
Canyon de Chelly pictographs: http://www.inn-california.com/arizona/apacheC/canyondechelly/rockart.html
Cave wall, Lascaux: https://www.reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts/comments/2xfe1z/what_if_cave_drawings_are_done_by_cavechildren/
Hunters, Lascaux: https://hartogsohn.com/category/טכנופוביה/
Bisons, Altamira: https://www.pinterest.com/gfrilli/prehistoric-art-altamira/
Horses, Chauvet: http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/september-2011/article/prehistoric-cave-paintings-of-horses-were-spot-on-say-scientists
Bears, Chauvet: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/francechauvet.htm
Rhinoceros, Chauvet: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10920920/French-cave-paintings-inscribed-on-Unesco-World-Heritage-list.html
Reindeer, Font-de-Gaume: http://artdiscovery.info/rotations/rotation-1/packet-1/
Nawarla Gabarnmang: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2012/06/24/spe31.asp
Kakadu woman: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_10231459_aboriginal-rock-art-namondjok-at-nourlangie-kakadu-national-park-northern-territory-australia.html
Kakadu kangaroo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/521502831831829461/
Kakadu boat: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/10/photogalleries/australia-aboriginal-art-photos/photo4.html
Wandjina art: https://www.pinterest.com/rosadevaux/wandjina/
Gwion Gwion 1: our photo
Gwion Gwion 2: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/bradshaw_paintings.php
Gwion Gwion 3: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/photographs/
Sandawe rock art: http://africanrockart.org
Giraffe, Dabous, Algeria: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/giraffe/
Cattle, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Antelope, Oued Dider, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Man and dog, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Archer, Oued Djaret, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/

HOT PASTRAMI SANDWICH

Bangkok, 12 August 2015

Last weekend, my wife informed me excitedly that she had discovered a restaurant downtown which claimed to serve Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. Goodness me, we chirruped to each other, it had been years since we’d eaten either. We had to go back to the late 1980s, when we lived in New York for a while, for our last Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. The seminal initiation event was in a small deli to the south of Central Park, one of those places with booths where you slide into your seat (although unfortunately it didn’t have the really cool little juke box that you can see in this picture).

diner booth

We had actually gone in there because we happened to be in the neighbourhood and it happened to be lunch time. Since it also happened to be a Jewish deli, we found ourselves scanning a menu listing Jewish delicacies. After some rumination, we plumped for this thing called a Reuben sandwich and this other thing called a hot pastrami sandwich. What an experience! The deli owner looked on amusedly as we oohed and aahed over our two sandwiches. Thereafter, we ate them regularly during the rest of our stay in New York.

So even though we had had a traumatizing experience two months ago with coq au vin, we decided to risk it. This time, we were not disappointed. We were served very creditable Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. I have a picture of the Reuben sandwich we ate.

reuben sandwich

But in our haste to devour the pastrami sandwich we forgot to take a photo of it. Which is a pity, because if I have to choose between the two, I would plump for the pastrami sandwich, and in fact the rest of this post is about pastrami.

No matter, I can throw in here a photo of a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli.

pastrami sandwich katz deli

This deli, which is on Houston Street in New York, is claimed in certain quarters of the internet to be “the keeper of the Jewish culinary flame” in the city.

katz deli

katz deli inside

Strong claim indeed! Never having been to the establishment myself, I can’t tell you if this claim is reasonable (although I will note that my daughter has been there and was not that impressed by their pastrami sandwich – but then, she doesn’t much care for pastrami in the first place).

Before I get into rival claims, of which there are many in this field, let me quickly review the making of pastrami (something which I’d always vaguely asked myself about but had never bothered to check until I decided to write this post). Start with a cut of beef from around the animal’s navel, the so-called plate cut (you can also use brisket – more of this choice in a minute). Cure it with salt and saltpeter and let it dry for several weeks (you can also throw some herbs into the curing mix). Once cured, rub and coat your meat with a mix of herbs (as you can imagine, the precise make-up of this coating is a trade secret, jealously guarded by rival delis, but onion, garlic, black pepper, coriander seed, possibly sugar, all seem to be common ingredients). Once nicely coated, smoke it at low heat for several days (the precise wood used for the smoke being again a closely guarded trade secret).

So far, so good. This is no different from the preparation of many dried, cured meats around the world, and before the advent of refrigeration these methods had been used by human beings in one combination or another for thousands of years to preserve meat. It’s the next steps where it gets interesting. After smoking, you first boil the meat to cook it, and then steam it for some 15 minutes. These last steps seem to have to do with the cut of beef used. Initially, pastrami was a poor man’s dish. People used the plate and brisket cuts because they were the cheapest, and they were the cheapest because they are fatty and gristly. Boiling and steaming was used to soften both the meat and all those difficult-to-chew parts in the meat.

Then you serve it, fresh from the steamer, on rye bread; actually, it’s a wheat-rye bread, of a kind that the not-too-poor people used to eat in Europe (wheat bread was only eaten by the rich, while the poorest people ate horsebread, so called because it was made of the cheaper grains fed to rich men’s horses). The sandwich should always be served with a pickle (or two or three) on the side. To me, this is capital; the sharp astringency of the pickle offsets nicely the fattiness of the pastrami. It’s often served with coleslaw, but frankly that can be left out, at least the kind of commercial gooey coleslaw that tends to be served nowadays. It adds no real value to the dish that I can see.

The alert reader may have noted a stress in the last couple of paragraphs on poverty. This allows me to segue smoothly into a discussion of pastrami’s history. Pastrami researchers have concluded that its roots are to be found in New York’s community of Romanian Jews, who emigrated to the States in the late 1800s. They were escaping from Romania’s increasingly organized and ethnically-tainted anti-Semitism as well as looking for better economic opportunities. Like millions of other people, they would have transited through Ellis Island

immigrants at Ellis Island

and then been sucked into the slums of New York.

Mulberry street NYC

There, like all immigrants everywhere and at all times, they would have tried to maintain their culinary traditions, and one of these was a dried, cured meat called pastramă (in the early days, New York’s version was called pastrama, which was then changed to pastrami so that it could rhyme with salami, the idea being that this would help people remember it – an early form of the marketing jingle). But as is also often the case, they would have had to modify it to fit the ingredients they could find in their new homeland. And here the change was radical. In Romania, pastramă tended to be made with mutton or goose or even veal (but that must have been a rich man’s version; poor people didn’t eat veal). But what Romanians found in New York was beef (pork also, but that was non-kosher), so beef-based their pastramă became. And because they were poorer than poor, they used the cheapest cuts of beef, the plate and brisket. I suppose it was the fact that pastramă made this way was really chewy that led them to take the extra steps of boiling and steaming. The common Romanian way of eating pastramă is grilled. In fact, pastramă sounds to me like the Romanian version of bacon. Bacon, which is also a cured and dried meat (pork in this case), is also grilled before eating, and it is often eaten with eggs, as is grilled pastramă.

pastrama and eggs

Or was it maybe this gentleman (at the back with the white headgear) who introduced the boiling and steaming steps?

sussman volk

This gentleman is Sussman Volk, an Orthodox Jew of Lithuanian ancestry. He is credited with having introduced pastrami to New York, and through New York to the rest of the world. He had emigrated to the States and had eventually opened a small butcher’s shop on Delancey Street. One day, so the story goes, a Romanian Jew came in and asked if he could store a trunk in the shop’s basement while he went back to Romania. Rab Volk agreed, and in return he got the recipe for pastrami. So Rab Volk started making pastrami, and then people wanted it on a slice of bread, and then he put chairs and tables in, and suddenly he was running a delicatessen. And the rest is history, as they say (just to close the circle, the following year Katz’s Deli opened). It could be that the recipe given to Rab Volk already included the boiling and steaming steps, or it could be that Rab Volk – reaching back into his Lithuanian culinary roots, or maybe other immigrant culinary roots – introduced the boiling and steaming steps himself.

Who knows? In the end, it doesn’t matter. This is the way pastrami is made, and that’s that.

If readers were to think that the story ends here, they would be wrong. Because Romanian Jews also emigrated to Canada, settling in Montreal. And there they also introduced Montrealers to another son-of pastramă, in this case just called smoked meat. The two – relatively small – differences between the two products are the cut of beef used (smoked meat tends to use more brisket) and the mix of herbs used to rub and coat the meat (the fact that both boil/steam the meat suggests to me that these were introduced by the Romanian émigrés rather than by Rab Volk). Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal seems to be a good candidate for “the keeper of the Jewish culinary flame” in Montreal, so I’ll throw in a photo of the deli.

Schwartz deli

And here is the product

smoked meat Schwartz deli

Mmm, that looks gooood!

And now the Montrealers have boldly brought the fight to New York. A Canadian couple has set up a new Jewish deli in New York, the Mile-End deli. They’ve opened one shop in Brooklyn and another in Manhattan, in Bond Street.

mile end deli

Well, the next time my wife and I go to New York, we (or at least I) will forget about visiting the Metropolitan Museum or any other worthy institution. First stop will be Katz’s Deli and then Mile End Deli. To compare and contrast the two products.

_______________

Empty booth in a diner: https://hautevitrine.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/empty-booth-rockin-johnnys-diner-ottawa-2007.jpg (in http://hautevitrine.com/page/17/)
Reuben sandwich: our pic
Pastrami sandwich, Katz’s deli: http://ilovekatzs.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/pastrami1.jpg (in http://ilovekatzs.com/)
Katz’s Deli: http://animalnewyork.com/wp-content/uploads/katz_artgalll.jpg (in http://animalnewyork.com/2013/katzs-deli-opening-an-art-gallery-and-pop-up-shop/)
Katz’s Deli inside: http://www.sheilazellerinteriors.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/00-20-Inside-Katz.png (in https://carileee.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/dining-101-new-york-katzs-deli/)
Immigrants at Ellis Island: http://history105.libraries.wsu.edu/fall2014/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/08/Ellis-Island.jpg (in http://history105.libraries.wsu.edu/fall2014/2014/08/28/jewish-immigration-in-the-1940s/)
Mulberry street NYC: https://theselvedgeyard.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/mulberry_street_new_york_city_loc_det-4a08193.jpg (in http://piedader-letspractiseenglish.blogspot.com/2011/11/jacob-riis.html)
Pastramă and fried eggs: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_GzvYAGoAhKY/TH5bioNE7PI/AAAAAAAACW0/bto1mheJNDM/s1600/oua.jpg (in http://elenamutfak.blogspot.com/2010/09/pastrama-cu-oua-ochiuri.html)
Sussman Volk: http://astro.temple.edu/~bstavis/family/oldstavins.jpg (in http://astro.temple.edu/~bstavis/family/oldstavin.htm)
Schwartz deli: http://gottakeepmovin.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/20130914_151229.jpg (in http://gottakeepmovin.com/classic-montreal-schwartzs-smoked-meat-sandwiches/)
Smoked meat sandwich Schwartz deli: https://travelloafers.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/montreal-schwartz-deli-680×680.jpg (in https://travelloafers.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/celine-dion-is-the-queen-of-cured-salted-meats/)
Mile End deli Manhattan: http://mileenddeli.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/photo-for-web_SANDWICH.jpg (in http://mileenddeli.com/)

THE TRACTOR

Beijing, 14 September 2013

In the trip to Xinjiang which I mentioned in my previous post, we were also taken to see a tractor manufacturer. Row upon row of bright new tractors greeted us as we walked into the factory’s yard
tractors outside
but we ignored these, headed as we were for the shed where they assembled the tractors.

It was with some relief that we exchanged the heat and light of the yard for the cool darkness of the shed interior. There, we were introduced to the plant manager, and after a hearty shaking of hands all round he launched into his exposé of all the wonderful things his factory was doing. I let his voice wash over me as I took in a yellow tractor, newly assembled, standing proud and tall before me.

tractors inside

And suddenly I was 14 or 15 again, standing, on a beautiful summer’s day, by the side of a tractor. I was out on the plains of Manitoba, an hour or so’s drive from Winnipeg, on a farm owned by the parents of a friend of my sister’s.  The farmer was asking me if I wanted to try ploughing a field and I was saying yes. Why not? Everything is possible when you are 14 or 15.

So he gave me a quick lesson in tractor driving and ploughing, and sent me off to a distant field. And off I went, my hat cocked at a jaunty angle as I surveyed the surroundings, Lord of everything I beheld.  After 10 minutes, I arrived at the field – the North American plains are very big and tractors are very slow – and there I found myself faced with an unexpected choice: there were actually two fields, one to the left and one to the right, and no fences. Which one? I hesitated, trying to remember my instructions – no mobile phones in those days, no way to check back – and eventually plumped for the field to the right.

So I started ploughing, starting as instructed at the field’s edge and going round in ever-decreasing circles until the middle was reached. By the end of the first circle, I noticed a man standing on the edge of the field. By the end of the second circle, he had walked over and signaled me to stop. He asked me politely what I was doing. Well, I was ploughing the field, I replied lamely. Yes, he responded patiently, but on whose instructions. Well, I said, and here I named my farmer host. Ah, he said, but the fact was that I was ploughing HIS field. Not that he minded, he added quickly, the field was fallow (thank God! I screamed inside of me) and no doubt it would benefit from an extra plough, but still … He pleasantly instructed me to stay still while he phoned his neighbour.

I sat there, on the tractor, with my hat at not quite such a cocky angle now, with a sense of impending doom. And indeed my farmer host came scorching over like a bat out of hell. He covered in 10 seconds in his battered old car what had taken me 10 minutes with the tractor. He bounced out, glared at me, and excused himself profusely with his neighbour, but the offended party was very gracious about it all and the situation resolved itself pleasantly.

My farmer host next turned to me and in that very deliberate and slow tone one reserves for the village idiot told me that I was meant to be ploughing the LEFT field. And to make sure that the village idiot had understood he pointed very insistently at the field in question. Suitably chastened, with my hat drooping about my ears, I headed for said field, and started again.

So there I was, circling the field, spiraling slowly – EVER so slowly; the field was very big – towards its middle.  I have to tell you,  ploughing is pretty boring. After about the fourth circle the novelty of it all had worn off and I was wondering how to pass the time. I tried singing, but the noise of the engine drowned out even the lustiest of my songs. I tried driving with one hand, but that palled after 2 minutes. I tried driving with one leg up on the dashboard, but that was uncomfortable. In a moment of desperation, I even thought of trying to drive sitting backwards but luckily good sense prevailed. So I was reduced to just driving, driving, driving in ever decreasing circles as the sun slowly dropped to the horizon of the endless Manitoban plains.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Ploughing the plains may be boring but the plains themselves have a strange beauty. As a boy brought up in undulating landscapes, used to cresting land-waves and finding hills rising up before me, I initially found the plains disorienting. Whenever my parents took us out for drives I never knew which way to look. But after a while I began to appreciate the way the sky was so close to the land, seeming to press down on it and you, and how you could really enjoy cloud formations in the vast, uncluttered sky of the plains. I could never get over those fields of wheat stretching off as far as the eye could see, registering on their waving surface every meander of the passing breeze …
the plains-7
I was nudged, the plant manager had finished his peroration. I came out of my reverie with a smile playing on my lips, which no doubt delighted the man, reinforcing his conviction that what he did was incredibly interesting. With another round of hearty handshakes, we emerged blinking into the strong sunlight and headed for the car and the next factory.

______________________________

tractors inside and outside: GUO Li
tractor and the sunset: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4045/4482416778_f1fc6db355_z.jpg
wheat fields: https://farm5[dot]staticflickr.com/4127/4975335245_a2e33916c3_z.jpg

GONE FISHING

Beijing, 8 June 2013

Readers of my posts will no doubt have noticed that I often refer to a piece of canal which runs close by our apartment and along which I walk every day as I go to and from the office. I like my piece of canal, especially during the summer when along the banks the weeping willows have leaved and the water irises stand tall, while the lotuses on the artificial island in the middle of the stream are unfurling.

irises May 2013 004

Closing my eyes a little and squinting a bit, I could almost imagine that I am on a placid river running through a quiet wooded landscape rather than in the middle of a highly urbanized setting. This view of the canal today, where to a great degree the fog blots out the buildings,  gives an idea of what I mean.

misty canal 002

Fishermen also like it. The moment the ice melts and the trees start flowering, they filter out of the surrounding urban jungle and start settling down along the banks.

fishermen 002

fishermen 003

They sport what look to my eyes like state-of-the-art fishing rods (no stick, string, and safety pin for them), nets to hold their haul, and various pieces of fishing tackle.

fishermen 013

And there they sit all summer and well into the autumn, staring out into the middle distance, waiting for a nibble on the end of their lines.

fishermen 010

fishermen 011

What are they thinking about, I always wonder, as I walk briskly by aiming to arrive in the office on time. Really, what do fishermen think about all day?  This has always been a mystery to me. And what are these particular fishermen catching, for Lord’s sake? The few times I’ve seen a fish on the end of their lines, they were small and malingering. I fervently hope they don’t take them home to the wife to cook.  I should clarify that as my pictures show the overwhelming majority of my fisherpersons are men. I got quite excited one morning when I spotted a woman, and I guess this other woman I saw a week or so ago thought it was better to be with her man than alone at home.

fishermen 009

I am no fisherman; I suppose that much is clear. In fact, I have only ever fished once in my life. I was 14 going 15, and I was on a canoe trip on Lake of the Woods in Canada.

lake of the woods

I remember the date very well; it was when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Me and my travel companion, Steve, must have been the only people in the whole of North America not sitting in front of a TV that day. After a hard morning’s paddling and looking over some Native American rock paintings,

rock paintings

Steve decided to give me a taste of the sport. He hauled out his fishing rod, set me up, and gave me a short lesson in its use. We then sat there for a while – not long, thank goodness – until I got a bite. My fish fought a bit, but after a while I hauled it in. It was a large pike, or so I have thought all these years. It certainly looked like one. But my internet surfing for this posting has convinced me that I caught a muskellunge (or muskie to the experienced fisherman – you see how quickly I catch on to the jargon …), which actually does belong to the pike family.  I suppose my catch was no more than a metre long but in my mind’s eye it has grown over the years to an enormous length. Steve took a photo, with me holding the muskie a trifle nervously but still sporting a smug smile on my face. Where is that photo? Sitting in a shoe box under a bed somewhere, perhaps, or now that both my parents are dead it is probably buried in a landfill in some foreign land. For all intents and purposes, gone. But here is a photo, which seems very similar to mine in my mind’s eye, except that we were sitting in a canoe while this gentleman is standing in a rather swank boat

Muskie on Lake of the Woods

Well, I suppose that will be the only time I ever sit behind a rod staring into the middle distance thinking about … what?

fishermen 008

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Lake of the woods: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m5tjkqKB7h1r1ghhbo1_1280.jpg
rock painting: http://www.canoenorthwestontario.ca/sscimages/history/IMG_4260_1.jpg
Muskie: http://harrishillresort.com/files/images/49%20inch%20Muskie%20on%20Lake%20of%20the%20Woods.JPG
the rest: mine