Monthly Archives: November 2013

Coriolanus on Film

CoriolanusCoriolanus is a tough play, full of politics and angry people and shouting mobs. It has no comic relief, no jesters, no romance and no real heroes. No great soliloquies, unsympathetic characters, uncomfortable double dealing, treachery and plotting. No powerful subplot as a counterpoint. Pride, arrogance, and power dominate.

Coriolanus himself is empty, driven, bereft of the great passions that animate Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.

Except the passion for revenge, which comes upon him halfway through the play. Before that, he seems an automaton, as fixed in his role as an aristocrat and soldier as Tsar Nicholas was, with little softening humanity to give the audience something to like. And like as wedded to his fate as the Tsar.

Harold Bloom wrote:

Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.

And yet… even if there’s not much noble in Caius Martius, he has honour and enough incipient tragedy about him that we feel keen interest in his story. He is, if nothing else, true to himself, with no apparent ulterior motives or hidden agendas to guide his deeds or words. He’s a soldier; he does his job without questioning.

Scholars aren’t even sure if the play was performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But after the Restoration, various directors dug it up and molded the play to fit some contemporary political event or cause. Even today, it’s considered popular as a symbolic political work, easily adapted to modern views.

Which is what Ralph Fiennes does well in his 2011 film of the play. Fiennes both directs and acts the central role, brilliantly in both cases.

I’m always leery of Shakespeare in modern clothes. It sometimes seems artificial and contrived to have modern-day characters strutting around speaking 16th century lines. But not in this Coriolanus. The stagecraft is remarkable, and the date language seems made fit for the setting. I was glued to the screen as it unfolded, and stuck to it for the entire two hours. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action and emotion. It feels modern, relevant.

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Gluten, Sourdough, Fads and Ailments

Gluten breakdownGluten, that everyday protein found in many grains, has become the health-fad followers’ most recent evil spectre, and many (one in three, stats show) have jumped onto the anti-gluten bandwagon, generally with a simplistic message: “gluten bad.”

Like most diet fads, I expect it will likely fall off centre stage when the next Big Thing To Rise Against comes along. But meanwhile, until the next fad raises its head, gluten gets sensationalized, demonized and generally misunderstood.

Headlines like this abound (it was matched by a CBC Radio story on Ontario Morning Tuesday, Nov. 12):

Sourdough breadmaking cuts gluten content in baked goods
Celiacs and gluten avoiders have a new way to enjoy a slice of bread

That’s from a misleading and potentially dangerous CBC story about sourdough bread. It’s dangerous because there are people who suffer severe reaction from gluten intake (celiac disease or CD), and others who have non-celiac intolerance (sensitivities) to gluten (not, as some sites say, an allergy) and they might be misled to think sourdough bread is now safe.

People – thinking CBC a reliable, even credible source – might consume regular sourdough bread  – or at least bread labelled as “sourdough” – believing this article deems it safe, when it may in fact cause severe and painful reactions.*

The article says:

A handful of recent studies have some good news for those trying to reduce the amount of gluten they eat — old-fashioned sourdough baking techniques significantly cut gluten content in bread…

But the reporter fails to identify those studies, so readers need to research to find out what those studies actually say (and more importantly, what they don’t say). Nor does the writer say whether all sourdough methods work, or just some (Google sourdough starter and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, some including wild yeast, others with domestic yeast). The writer then adds:

A team of Italian scientists led by Luigi Greco at the University of Naples authored a 2010 study that showed significantly lower levels of gluten in sourdough made according to old methods.

Old methods? Like leaving the started in peasant’s thatch-roof, mud-walled hut shared with the family pig?

Well, unless I completely misread it, that study of 13 people didn’t say anything of the sort about “old methods” It showed reduced gluten in “fully hydrolyzed wheat flour” that had been treated in a sterile laboratory environment with a clinical mix of cultured bacteria commonly found in sourdough, as well as adding fungal enzymes:

Fermentation with selected lactobacilli added with fungal proteases, routinely used as an improver in bakery industries, decreased the concentration of gluten to below 10 ppm. Despite the markedly reduced concentration of gluten, the resulting spray-dried flour was still adequately workable. As shown in this and other studies, the hydrolyzed flour is suitable for making sweet baked goods and also bread and pasta if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…

A 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with CD.

Which is good news and encourages further research, but not a promise that all breads labelled “sourdough” will have that effect. Or that the baker’s sourdough starter will have the ingredients in the necessary quantities and balance of ingredients to sufficiently reduce the  gluten in the flour. Or that the length of fermentation will be sufficient to achieve those results. Or that the flours used in the bakery are the same as those used in the research (different flours have different gluten levels).

Notice that caveat for bakers: “…if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…” These test subjects were fed pastries, not breads or pasta.

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I’m struggling with this…

Recent bread loafMy recent passion for bread and baking has caused a bit of an internal upset. Not the baking thereof, but rather the writing about it. I’m doing a lot of that, recently. Writing (and, yes, baking too). And of course it comes with the attendant research into bread’s history, the combing through websites for recipes and book reviews, the hunt for equipment and the discussions about yeasts, pH balance, sourdough starters, Canadian versus American flours, protein contents, vintage and ancient grains… gawds, I’m having fun.

And it is, if you don’t mind some hyperbole, damn tasty fun.

It’s both culinary and hands-on science, with a bushel of history tossed into the mix. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the ukulele, back in 2008.

I suppose everyone needs new challenges, new horizons, new mountains to conquer. Bread – well, so far artisan, rustic bread – is my latest Everest.  Which is a bit synchronistic, because sourdough is often described as the “Everest of breads” and sourdough is one of my next projects. Enroute to that pinnacle, I have a lot to learn. But sourdough is on the horizon for this winter.

It’s a bit of a throwback for me because I was baking bread 25-30 years ago with all the earnestness of a wannabe chef. My notes from classes at the Toronto Academy of Culinary Arts date to the mid-1970s. I was making bread (albeit mostly in bread machines by 1988) into the late 1980s. I stopped after we moved here. Now I’ve started again.

BouleThanks to both a spate of new books on breadmaking and the internet, I can now re-indulge that interest and share the experiences of others, as well as their recipes. It’s an obsession, I admit, but a creative one.

I am pondering starting a whole new WordPress blog zone for my baking and research about bread. One amateur to another, it would be. Here’s me flailing around with recipe after recipe, tweaking, tinkering and photographing. And about the historical impact and implications of bread, as I have recently posted (on the impact of ergot and witchcraft via bread). My naked tweets would be – unlike Anthony Wiener’s – about my bread results.

Bread blogging is actually been and being done successfully on other sites such as The Fresh Loaf (highly recommended if you’re into bread baking, by the way). But I am reluctant to create my own blog zone on their site (if for nothing more than I want to be able to create recipes in my preferred format and style, which is possible through WP plug-ins). Besides, there have a lot more accomplished people there, and my efforts would seem presumptuous.

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Bread, Madness and Christianity

St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

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The Fretful Porpentine

Fretful porpentineLike quills upon the fretful porpentine. That phrase just makes the modern reader stop and wonder. What, you ask yourself, is a porpentine? And why is it fretful?

We never learn, although later interpreters would knowingly tell us a porpentine is a porcupine in today’s argot. Porcupine itself dervices from the Old or Middle French term, “porc espin” or spined pig. Which it isn’t – it’s a rodent*

It’s an old word, encountered earlier as “purpentine” in 1589, but hardly a common word in any spelling after that, at least not in drama.**

Shakespeare wrote it as porpentine in 1602. One seldom encounters the word between his Hamlet and the middle of the 20th century, when it reappears in The Amazing Vacation, a children’s fantasy novel written in 1956 by Dan Wickenden. It also appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1960 novel about Bertie Wooster, Jeeves in the Offing.***

Today, of course, the word porpentine is frequently paired with the adjective fretful on may online sites and blogs. In more common use is the phrase “hair stand on end,” penned in the same verse of Hamlet. tells us of that:

The allusion of makes your hair stand on end is to the actual sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to cold or to fear. This is otherwise known as ‘goose-flesh’ and the condition is, or rather was, known by the entirely splendid word horripilation. This was defined by Thomas Blount in his equally splendidly named book Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used, 1656.

Horripilation. Love that word. We owe a lot to Shakespeare and the number of phrases of his we still write and speak today is truly astounding.

The Australian News commented on the longevity of Shakespearean phrases more than 400 years later:

Then there is the English language. The debt it owes to Shakespeare (and the slightly later King James Version of the Bible) is incalculable. No English speaker with any pretensions to culture (above that of phone texting or advertising brochures) can avoid using words or expressions that originated with the Bard of Avon. Not bad going for the son of a draper.

Porpentine isn’t one of Shakespeare’s many neologisms, but rather a nonce word: “a linguistic form which a speaker consciously invents or accidentally does on a single occasion.” Or in this situation, a word used rarely (but not singly). Perhaps it’s simply his unique spelling of purpentine.

Shakespeare was, regardless, an unprecedented source of neologisms and nonce words. According to the Oxford Dictionary, some 2,200 words first appear in writing in Shakespeare’s works, and linguist David Crystal says he invented about 1,700 of them. These are aside from the phrases mentioned above.

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What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?

Starter mixI was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’  movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.

That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the  refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…

So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).

First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*

Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

Starter mixBack to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:

Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.

Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:

Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.

So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:

He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.

Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts – weren’t all that important to him:

Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :

 …most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.

Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today.  Still…  This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:

A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.

Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.

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In Appreciation of Vintage Music

I was listening the other day to a song sung by Cliff Edwards, Cheating on Me, recorded from an old 78 RPM single. Scratchy, warbly, and a bit thin, but it comes across beautifully across the gap of time. When you listen for a while, the scratches just disappear into the background and you hear Ukulele Ike’s lovely voice cut through the noise. I was thinking it was a song I really should learn to play myself. Listen to Edwards’s classic strumming in his version, as well as the key change towards the end:

I have it on my MP3, player along with many other tunes from the 1920s through the 50s. When I tire of listening to audio lectures and history podcasts (my usual audio fare when walking my dogs), or just want a change, I put the old music on; tunes featuring Al Bowlly, Ruth Etting, Rudy Vallee, Bessie Smith and others. Music my parents would have known. Songs like Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Why Don’t You Do Right? Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. Ukulele Lady.

Wonderful stuff. Not really all that different from today’s music, just some changes in instrumentation, in rhythm and in instrumentation. Certainly the sentiment in the lyrics is familiar: love, passion, loss, cheating, family, friends, the ups and downs of relationships. A bit more innocent than music these days (no violent, pornographic lyrics). I turn to this music increasingly often these days, less and less to modern, post-1990 tunes.

Here’s the same song, sung a few years later by Kay Brown, arranged for a somewhat later period’s musical tastes and different orchestration:

Both are undated, but I’d guess Edwards was from the late 1920s, Brown from the 40s.* One of the positive aspects of the internet has been the archiving of a lot of material from the past like these tunes, making them accessible for a new, wider audience.

Back when Edwards recorded the song, the guitar was not used a lot in popular music – it would start its ascendancy in the early 1930s when the first electric amplification was developed. But the ukulele craze brought that little instrument to the fore from around 1920 to the mid-1930s. And Edwards was the top of the pops for a while.

How well that music of yesteryear works today is evident in the numerous pop stars who have cut albums of old popular standards. Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett and Brian Ferry, for example. Then there are those who have resurrected the music in somewhat more romantic manner: Steve Tyrell comes to mind as the best of them, as the least saccharine and most authentic of many performers. Critic John Taylor writes:

…Tyrell is a romantic’s romantic, his just-slightly-craggy voice possessed of a natural and easy-going warmth. He may not be the most technically precise singer around, but there’s a just-between-us quality that renders each tune an intimate and personal performance, as though Tyrell is singing, not to a crowd but to each and every individual listener. Add impeccable production and sympathetic support from an utterly immaculate orchestra, and the results are the perfect prelude to passion.

Tyrell and the rest all know that good music is timeless and our musical past is easily resurrected, with just a little careful honing (and sincere appreciation of the music). Most of their cover songs are arranged to suit more modern tastes. Orchestrations beefed up to fit the current tastes in sound and rhythm, bass lines pumped up. But really not all that different: it remains comfortable and approachable for any modern listener.

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All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Humpty DumptyThat children’s nursery rhyme says a lot about the situation Toronto Mayor Rob Ford finds himself in, following the release of police reports, yesterday. The mayor is in, to put it politely, a pickle. Rather than reiterate all the brouhaha and the details of what the police reported, I direct you to read the CBC, Toronto Star, National Post, Globe and Mail and even the notoriously pro-Ford Toronto Sun newspapers and websites. They all say much the same, differing only in how much gleeful I-told-you-so they can insert into the stories.

Whether Ford is guilty – and remember, nothing has been proven – the story has been titillatingly sensationalized in the media so that pretty much everyone but Rob Fords thinks he’s guilty. Of what? Well, something. We’re not sure but he’s gotta be guilty of something. That’s what media sensationalism does.

Until he is charged with some crime, much of it is, of course, merely allegation and innuendo. The police haven’t charged him with anything. And if they do, his guilt is a matter for the courts to decide, not the media or the public. The public will have its say on Rob Ford on election day, in 2014.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no affection for the man, or his style. I think he has handled the story wrongly from the very beginning. He’s a boor, a loudmouth and a redneck with the media relation skills of a bull rhino. But I can empathize with him about how sensationalism in the media can align with allegation, rumour and gossip to damage your reputation and your ability to do the job you were elected to do. And there’s damn little you can do when you get on that roller coaster.

What matters right now is governance. And the relevant question is: does Ford’s situation hurt the effective governance and operation of the city?

The likely answer is yes. Ford’s ability to manage the role is seriously compromised, regardless of the truth of any accusation. If nothing more, the job is too often interrupted by non-sequitor media questions. Too much attention on the allegations, not enough gets given to the business of running Canada’s largest city.

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