The troubles of the 4th Century

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians. Edward Armitage, 1875.

Julian, by Gore Vidal. Vintage International, 1962, 502 pages.

On the Gods and the Cosmos, by Sallustius, mid 4th Century.

Paganism’s last stand occurred in the 4th Century. Early in the 4th Century, the Roman emperor Constantine established Christianity as the state religion. A few decades later, the emperor Julian did his best to reverse it. Julian did not succeed.

I think it would be fair to say that the pagan intellectuals of that era did not see the conflict as a competition between the old gods and Christianity. Rather, they saw the conflict as a rational and living philosophy versus lifeless doctrine and dogma. These pagan Romans spoke Greek. Julian was trained as a philosopher at Athens. To them, Christian doctrine was (to put it bluntly) hickish and childish.

I have found it remarkably difficult to read up on the 4th Century. The 4th Century is covered in many general histories, of course, but I have been looking for sources that are limited to the 4th Century in particular. There are some new books by university presses, but they’re very expensive and narrowly focused (for example, on the city of Rome as an urban center). The old references — Gibbon, for example — are outdated. There are oodles of biographies of Constantine. But I’m not very interested in Constantine. After all, we now live in Constantine’s world. I couldn’t figure out what to read first, so I settled on Vidal’s novel.

Vidal is a good writer, in that, unlike so many people who write for a living these days, Vidal has an excellent command of the English language. But Vidal is not a good storyteller. He seems to lack a sense of drama. It’s as though he’s just dutifully writing up his research. That’s a shame. I can’t help but compare Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, or Mary Renault’s Alexander novels. Yourcenar and Renault bring their subjects to life and make them human. Vidal is just not good enough as a novelist to do that.

Vidal, however, was a formidable intellect and a fearless heretic. I wonder if any other writers have ever really dared to write about the formation of Christianity as the cultural castastrophe it actually was in the eyes of philosophers such as Julian — the triviality of its texts; the depravity of its early bishops and theologians; its expropriation from the pagans of anything the Christians found useful; its lust for wealth, property and dominance; its habit of violence, persecution, and inquisition; its tendency toward quibbling and schism; its self-delusion about its absoluteness; the hypocrisy of its carnality vs. its other-worldly posturing; its imperial usefulness as a tool for subduing, pacifying, and, as necessary, exterminating the masses. “No evil ever entered the world quite so vividly or on such a vast scale as Christianity did,” says Vidal’s Priscus.

Gore Vidal died in 2012. I don’t think that we now have any public intellectuals who are quite like him or who can take Vidal’s place.

For a short, sweet read on how the last pagans saw the world, you probably can’t do better than Sallustius’ On the Gods and the Cosmos. Sallustius was a trusted friend and military leader in Julian’s army. What stands out in Sallustius’ writing is his sophisticated use of reason. He understands perfectly well that the pagan gods were myths and that the meaning of the myths had to be teased out with the tools of philosophy. Reading Sallustius, one becomes aware of how reason was smothered for centuries by Christian doctrine and didn’t get its head above water again until the Enlightenment. In many ways, it seems to me, this 4th Century conflict is playing out yet again.

Foo yung to the rescue

I hadn’t made egg foo yung in many years. In fact, I hadn’t even thought about it in many years. I recall that, thirty years ago before I moved to San Francisco, egg foo yung was a popular item in Chinese restaurants in the South. And yet I don’t recall ever seeing it on menus in San Francisco, where the Chinese cookery is much more authentic.

In any case, I am covered up with eggs (each hen has been laying every day), and I can’t figure out what to do with them all. It seems as though half of my driving these days is taking eggs to friends. This afternoon, foo yung popped into my head like a vision, and I was so enthusiastic that I immediately went down to the kitchen and made myself an early supper.

No Chinese vegetables? No problem. I used shredded cabbage, onion, and thinly sliced celery.

It’s the sauce that makes the foo yung. Without the sauce, you’re just eating an omelet in which the cook forgot the cheese. The sauce needs as much zing as you can get into it. I used vegetable bouillon in the liquid in addition to the soy sauce. A teensy touch of sugar and vinegar gives it a slight sweet and sour spin. Garlic powder helps, along with lots of pepper. Cook it well. Make it foam.

By the way, someone recently told me the price of eggs at Walmart these days. If I’m not mistaken, it was something absurdly cheap like 46 cents a dozen. How can that be? Is it that they’re importing eggs from China now? What scares me about egg prices that low is what the chickens are fed and what miserable lives they must lead. In the best of all possible worlds, the animals that help provide us with food would live behind our houses. And they would have names.

Domesticated muscadines

From my years as a young’un, I have clear memories of picking strawberries by the gallon. Mama made strawberry preserves. Mama also made grape jelly, but for some reason I don’t have recollections of picking grapes wholesale for the kitchen. Wild muscadines, though, grew in lots of places at the edges of the woods, and I have climbed trees and foraged for them often enough. I rarely see wild muscadines anymore, but lots of people cultivate them.

I have never made grape jelly, maybe because I’ve never had enough grapes, and grape jelly isn’t my favorite. So what do you do when you have nice mess of grapes but not enough to preserve them? Answer: You eat them raw.

Muscadines are seedy. The only way I know to seed them is to squeeze them until the skin bursts. Unfortunately, most of the pulp comes out with the seeds. The skins are delicious, and no doubt the healthful qualities of grapes are where the color is — in the skins. If you then put the pulp in some cheesecloth and squeeze, you’ll get some juice. Lacking any method of squeezing the pulp really hard, too much of the juice is wasted.

Still, it was a nice breakfast.

The above grapes produced only a shot of juice.

Eggplant bacon?

A homegrown organic eggplant

Two days ago, a friend sent me a Facebook video on making vegan bacon from eggplant. The next day, when I took a dozen surplus eggs to friends (among the few superb gardeners in the county who can outgarden the abbey when Ken is in residence) they gave me eggplants, green peppers, and fresh-picked native muscadine grapes. I took the eggplant coincidence as a hint that, now that the weather is cooler, it’s time to get back to experimenting in the kitchen.

Eggplant bacon seems to be a vegan staple. My version of it was very tasty — smoky and nicely seasoned — but I just couldn’t get it crisp. If you’d like to try, here’s a recipe.

For this recipe, I got out the kitchen implement that I despise and fear the most — the mandolin. But, much as I hate the mandolin, it did an excellent job of making the 1/8-inch slices of eggplant. The seasoning and marinating are a snap. Baking the eggplant is no big deal. But even though I baked the eggplant 15 minutes longer than the recipe requested, the bacon was still flabby. Still, it was tasty enough that I may try it again. Next time, I’ll probably extend the drying part at 225 degrees. Then I’ll spray on some olive oil, turn up the heat in the oven, and make it sizzle. Another option might be taking the bacon to the flabby stage in the oven, then finishing it off in a skillet with some oil.

This is a short post, so I’ll digress into a lifestyle question. One of the cool things about rural agricultural counties like Stokes County is that — though most people long ago gave up gardening — some people still do it. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, you want to get to know the agricultural extension folks in your county. The gardener who gave me the eggplant is retired from the agricultural extension service. Once you’ve built a network of gardeners, people trade or give away their surpluses. I remember how it was when I was a child. We’d give people strawberries. They might bring us corn. It’s a nice way to live.

Now if I could only locate some wild abandoned apples to trade for some organic eggs.

Ready for the dreaded mandolin


Ready for the oven

A vegan supper: Tofu scramble, eggplant bacon, and sourdough toast. The chardonnay is off-camera.

The kraken vine

Last year, a friend sent me a gift from his garden. He called it a squash, I called it a little pumpkin. Save the seeds, he said. Plant in early summer, he said, feed it well, give it lots of room, and it will become a kraken plant. The vine will spread like kudzu, and it will eat you alive if you don’t watch out, he said. They’re still blooming! The photo is of two baby kraken with a teacup for scale.

These little things are outrageously magical. They mature just before Hallowe’en. They’re probably winter squash. Like winter squash, they like to be cured, and they keep for ages. But in a pie they taste just like pumpkin.

Next year, I’d like to have a lot more of these things and do a better job of cultivating them. A good crop of them probably would last for most of the winter.

Update: The friend who sent me my first little pumpkin identifies these as “Long Island cheese pumpkins.” Here’s a link to some history. They’re an old variety, rescued by an heirloom seed project in the 1970s. He bought his first one at a farmer’s market, he says. Nothing could be easier than saving pumpkin seeds, by the way.

Wintertime table lighting

W.T. Kirkman No. 1 “Little Champ” oil lanterns

For many years, I have been weird about how the table is lit for supper. Electric light is not allowed. It’s not just an affectation for when there is company. It’s an everyday thing, even when I’m having supper alone. During the summer months, supper is over well before dark. But as the days get shorter, it was time to rethink table lighting yet again.

For years, my solution was ordinary tapers of the type that can be bought just about anywhere. But they’re too small. They don’t last long enough. And I don’t much like tapered candles. A year ago, I ordered a box of church candles. They’re very expensive, but they’re great candles. They’re 50 percent beeswax with a nice, straight, ecclesiastical shape. They’re 7/8 inch in diameter and 12 inches long. One box of 24 candles lasted all winter. But the price rose from $50 per box for the first box I ordered to $89 per box now. That’s just too much. All candles gutter and sometimes make a mess. Removing the drippings from the candleholders and replacing spent candles is an unpleasant chore.

My next idea was to try the little blown-glass oil candles made by Firefly. I thought about it for a long time before I ordered a pair, for safety reasons. Flammable liquid inside a glass vessel with a wick is the very definition of Molotov cocktail. What if one of them hit the floor and shattered? But eventually I ordered a pair and tried them out. I hated them. They produce a tiny little dot of light. I should have realized that before I bought them, because the wick is tiny. They are useless, except perhaps as votives, and I’m not a very votive person.

My next idea was an oil lamp, or chamber lamp, of the type that was very common in the days before electrification. They burn kerosene, and they’re easy to find today, both new and antique. But they, too, are usually made of glass. I made a new rule for myself: No glass oil lamps.

Then I admired the yacht lamps and miner’s lamps made of brass, often plated with stainless steel. But they are extremely expensive, and they’re often poorly reviewed as not being well-made enough to be worth the cost.

So then, the last option was oil lanterns.

Obviously there is still a thriving market for oil lanterns. Many people buy them, I believe, as backup lighting for power failures, which makes a lot of sense. They’re made of metal, and the larger lanterns have nice big wicks that are 1 inch wide. As I read reviews of lanterns on Amazon, I finally settled on lanterns made by W.T. Kirkman. Kirkman lanterns get the best reviews and were said to be better made. I ordered two of the Kirkman lanterns from Amazon. Here’s a link to the Kirkman web site. Kirkman sells several models and options in its lanterns, but not all of those models and options are available on Amazon.

I settled on the No. 1 “Little Champ” cold blast lantern. It’s 12 inches high with a 5/8-inch wick. So what does “cold blast” mean? It has to do with how the flame gets its air for combustion. It’s a clever bit of 19th Century technology. In a cold blast lantern, the air is taken in at the top of the lantern and travels down through the side tubes. This is said to give a whiter, brighter flame. Also, cold blast lanterns are said to self-extinguish if tipped over. I’m not going to try that out, but I’m glad to hear it.

The lanterns burn clean and aren’t affected by drafts or blasts of air. Once they’re lit and glowing, they look more domestic and less like something you’d see in a barn. They’re brighter than candles. And they give off a certain warmth (1,100 or 1,400 BTU per hour depending on the model) which should be very welcome in the wintertime.

Kirkman also makes a larger lantern, 15 inches tall with a 1-inch wick. I might just get myself one of those for outdoor use. All the lanterns are galvanized steel. Options include a black enamel finish, round shades that reflect the light downward, and globes in several colors of glass including red, yellow, green, blue, and frosted. Lantern technology is alive and well! You also can buy kits to electrify the lanterns, including with LED bulbs. But why would you want to do that?

When I was a young’un, my grandparents had an oil lantern that they had had since the days before rural electrification. I used to love to play with it. Though I suppose it’s a bit eccentric to have oil lanterns on the supper table, I’m pretty sure that will be my method hereafter. I’ll save the pricey church candles for special occasions.

My grandparents also always kept a 5-gallon tank of kerosene. These oil lanterns will, of course, burn kerosene. But these days most people use the newer lamp oils, which burn cleaner, make less odor, and are said to be safer.

A box of church candles