St. Anthony’s Fire and a Problem of Bureaucracy

In August of 1951, in the French village of Pont-Sant-Esprit, bakers received several loads of flour. It had a greyish cast, and smelled a little off. The government depot in charge of distribution ordered them to use it anyway. By August 11, customers complained of feeling ill after eating the bread, and other bakers reported trouble getting their dough to behave properly. Multiple complaints about the flour fell on deaf ears, even though, as it later proved, more bakers in other villages complained about the products of that one specific mill. On August 17, the first local people began to suffer hallucinations. Their feet burned as if they walked on coals. Physicians had no idea what was wrong, until someone realized: St. Anthony’s Fire had struck for the first time in hundreds of years.

Ergot poisoning, or St. Anthony’s Fire, was a disease that afflicted people who ate wheat or rye contaminated by the fungus ergot. In mild cases, people get queasy, sweat a lot, have low blood pressure and a weak pulse, feel elated or giddy despite their illness, and smell like dead mice or other unpleasant things. Severe cases include terrifying nightmare hallucinations that include compulsions, terrible burning pain and swelling in the extremeties, and nerve damage or gangrene. People may kill themselves trying to escape what chases them, or die of other causes. In the French case, four people died and three hundred fell very ill.

In Schwabische Hall, I saw a painting of St. Anthony that showed people approaching him for aid with flaming feet. I’d never seen that in art before, and have not seen it since. The museum did not allow photography and did not sell postcards with that painting on them, alas.

Below is a more common painting of St. Anthony, although the style is rather different than most Renaissance paintings. (H. Bosch aside.)

A detail from the “Temptation of St. Anthony” by Mathias Gruenewald, part of the Eisenheim Altarpiece. The little demon in the corner is a victim of severe ergotism and has gangrene.

The bureaucrats in the French government, which oversaw the distribution of flour, refused to take the blame for forcing the bakers to use contaminated flour. Instead they punished the bakers for selling bad bread. The book The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire by John G. Fuller tells the tale. It is an excellent book that uses interviews, accounts written by the people of the time, court and other testimony and a little imagination in places to describe the events. I happened to find a copy as I was cleaning a corner of a bookshelf this past weekend. My parents got it out of curiosity, because medical history fascinates them. I read it as a young teen, and it left an impression. It’s a great read, if depressing because it doesn’t have a happy ending.

That lack is probably where my distrust of bureaucracies came from, even before personal experience confirmed my suspicion that large governmental or corporate entities are not necessarily your friend. Granted, the post-war French government wasn’t exactly in great shape itself, and that year had not been good for wheat in France and surrounding countries because of the wet weather and cool temperatures. Looking back, I can sort of understand why the central flour depot’s managers might have been reluctant to try to see what was going on. The miller and one wheat grower later confessed that they had broken the law by selling and accepting dirty grain that had rye, bugs, and dirt greater than the official limits. But still, there’s a sense in the book that justice was not done for the bakers or their customers.

Some people disagreed that ergot caused the outbreak. Theories range from mercury-treated wheat that should have been used only for seed, other chemicals that were used to bleach the wheat, the US government conducting tests on using LSD as a weapon [who needs the Internet to have a conspiracy theory?], or something else. The symptoms matched ergot, the weather fit ergot, and most people agree that ergot probably was the culprit.

I’d not thought of the book for a very long time, but I still remember the story.

(Interestingly, in Italy, St. Anthony’s Fire is the term for shingles. The emphasis is on the burning pain and risk of infection, not the hallucinations.)


Beef or Berries? Seasonal Foods of the Past

A repeat from 2016.

Do you buy meat or vegetables? Do you choose your groceries based on the outside temperature? For most people reading this blog, I suspect the answer is no, unless the air conditioner has died and you look at your house or apartment-mate and say “Cook? Forget it. Let’s get ice cream” or you go to an air-conditioned bar for a cold one. Or you are stocking up in case a winter storm takes the power out for an extended period (let’s see: chili in a can, stew in a can, bread, powdered milk, corned beef hash in a can, and so on.) ‘Twas not always so, something that a few writers of historical fiction occasionally miss. Continue reading

T.N.N. – Teacher News Network

Some weeks back I wandered into the main workroom at Day Job to make a copy and see if I had any mail. Two large bags of popcorn slouched on top of the big table. By large, I mean two feet tall, and almost as round, or so it seemed. One had been opened the day before during an open house event. The other remained unsampled, as best I could tell.

I made my copy and read the tag on the unopened bag. “Kettle Corn.” Oh. Oh dear. Beside the big bag was a smaller bag with fold-your-own popcorn boxes. So I did. It was perfect kettle corn, a little sweet, a little salty, but not overwhelming.

As I was munching away, Mrs. Hankie (the middle-school counselor) came in. She gave me a curious look. I held up the box. “Kettle corn. High fiber, low fat.”

“Kettle corn?” She came over and sampled a bite. “Ooh. That’s my weakness.”

Munch, munch, munch.

When I returned almost two hours later, still before lunch, almost half the huge sack of kettle corn was gone. The Teachers’ News Network had struck again.

Tasty, Tasty Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation came up on a blog that I occasionally glance at (great pictures, some cool crafts, mildly useful book reviews), and I rolled my eyes. The quasi-debate centered on embroidery on a jacket. Could that be duplicated (jacket and embroidery) without committing the venal sin of Cultural Appropriation? The final group decision was a reluctant no, you shouldn’t because that would be theft if you didn’t get permission from the cultural group to which the wearer belonged, but using the color combination with different patterns and a more western-style jacket would be OK. The wearer of the item in question would never see the proposed copy of the garment, but it was the very act of copying that was “problematic.”

I glanced over at a the small mound of spicy pecans that I was having for lunch and rolled my eyes. American food is cultural appropriation. Western clothing is cultural appropriation. English, and German, and a lot of other languages borrow words, although English revels in it far more than most. Going back to the pecans on my desk, the chili pepper and pecans are from the Americas. The garlic, paprika, and savory came from Europe originally. G-d bless the Columbian Exchange that gave us cheese burgers, Tex-Mex food, anything European with potatoes in it, polenta, curries with tomato in them, milk chocolate and dark chocolate, apple pie, and so on.

Cheeseburger – the beef, cheese, lettuce, and wheat for the bread came from Eur-Asia. The tomato and french fries (potatoes) are from the Americas. Apples of the domestic kind came from Eur-Asia, as did the wheat, cinnamon, clove, allspice, ginger, and sugar. But apple pie in all its wonderful forms is “as American as . . . ” Now, getting a dozen Americans to settle on which kind of apple pie is the ne plus ultra of the American identity, well, good luck. By the time you sort that out, the rest of us will have eaten the pie and moved on to try the pecan and pumpkin and cherry and French Silk and grasshopper and Mississippi Mud and . . . 😀

What about when non-Americans borrow stuff from this hemisphere? Apparently peanut oil and peanuts have become staples in Asia, and potatoes and corn also appear. Chili peppers as well, although the local versions of many dishes were already hot before the “death-by-curry” types available today appeared. Should we complain when served satay because peanuts are not native to Thailand? You can if you want. I’ll eat your share. And your polenta, and anything with tomato, and the dark milk-chocolate, and . . .

Clothing is another place where the argument against cultural appropriation gets amusing for those of us who study history. Skirts are universal, as are shirts. Any usable fiber or material will be used, and some that no one really considers “clothing fibers” anymore, like some barks in Europe, and nettles. (Treat nettle stems as you would flax, but more so. Mind the leaves.) Trousers were rediscovered any time someone rode a horse, because unless you ride side-saddle, friction and saddle sores are also universal. Today, we have “national costumes” and ferocious arguments over if this pattern or that color is “authentic,” and who can or may not wear said item. The Japanese are delighted for people to try their “costume” and will happily sell you what you need, and giggle a tiny bit as you rediscover why Japanese kimono wearers take small steps when they walk. Germans and Austrians et al will assist with the wearing of dirndls and trachten suits, and lederhosen, although there is some pressure not to get too authentic unless you know what you are doing and why. Actual tracht, not the dirndl, is meant to conceal a woman’s “attributes” and to show social position and where she is from. It is a bit different from the dirndl, and not what you find in most stores. When was the last time an American balked at selling someone a cowboy hat or jeans, because of “cultural appropriation?” No idea.

Humans borrow and adapt. If someone strips a place of something edible that the locals depend on just because it is a trendy food, that’s a problem. Combining ideas, ingredients, and textile styles to create something fun is not a problem. If you recreate a copyrighted design from another culture and sell it as yours, that’s wrong. Borrowing an embroidery style and adapting it for your own pleasure? Not a problem. Go for it. Wasabi sauce [Japan] on your burger? Um, you go right ahead. I’ll stick with BBQ sauce, mustard [England], or catsup [England + Americas], thanks. Burgers that fight back are not my cup of tea [China and India].

Some Days, It Is

Food is not the solution to problems. Dietitians have been saying that for years, cardiologists, counselors and psychiatrists as well. Eating doesn’t solve life’s big problems. OK, it prevents starvation in most cases, but devouring a bunch of steak, or a pound of mashed potatoes, or half a cheesecake, or something like that doesn’t fix relationships or other problems.

But there are days when you come home tired, cold, perhaps wet, and a cup of good hot chocolate, or spicy tea, or a bowl of soup or chili makes the world so much better. It doesn’t end the main problem of the day, but it eases the body and mind enough to give you space, let you relax, and adds a bit of pleasure to the day. You can return to the battle, or face your family without saying something rash.

Some evenings, a thick, messy burger, or a steak, or pot roast, or a small mountain of pasta eaten in the company of friends, or fellow believers, makes the world wonderful. Talk flows around everything and nothing, perhaps a few beers or other drinks are consumed, but in moderation and with fellowship. The food is not fancy but it fills your insides like the talk and laughter fills your soul, both nourishing and soothing. You still have work waiting to be done, but life is better. Perhaps you listen more than you talk, learning, hearing stories about characters gone before, or stories of recent vacations and adventures. All is well, and you leave refreshed as well as fed. A good burger with bacon, cheese, and a little BBQ sauce is soul food when taken in the right company.

Certain parts of society seem to have forgotten the importance of little joys, of breaking bread with friends. I’ve been musing off and on about why some people, despite having all the possible material benefits and comforts known to mankind, seem so unhappy. And why they appear to want to spread that unhappiness. Far wiser people than me have spilled ink and pixels on the topic for at least a century or so, and I’m not a psychologist or counselor in any sense of the words. But I wonder if those people ever stop, share a burger and fries with laughter and friendship, or savor anything at all.

We can get so tied up in causes or duties or being good parents that we forget to stop, have a cup of chocolate, or a cup of really good coffee, and watch the clouds go by. We don’t take time for a casual meal with people who just want to chat and enjoy each other’s company without worrying about the Problem of the Day.

But sometimes, hot chocolate or a sloppy burger IS the answer to the trials of the day.


Thanksgiving dates to 1620-21, and the harvest festival celebrated by the Plymouth Separatists and their Indian neighbors after both groups managed to survive a rough year. The Separatists were not the rigid, stereotypical “Puritans” that most people associate with New England. Those folks arrived later. The first group were more mellow in their understanding of religion and tolerance, and the group included Strangers as well as “Saints.” Miles Standish, for example, was a Stranger, who worked as hard as anyone and helped nurse and protect anyone who fell in the disease outbreak that winter. Giving thanks for the harvest and the One who provided it was natural, and an English as well as Indian tradition.

“Harvest Home” is not longer something most people in the US, Canada, or elsewhere do unless you are part of a farming community or follow a certain cultural tradition. If you are in a city, you probably don’t farm, so it doesn’t apply. “Harvest Home” was the bringing in of the last sheaves of grain or sacks/baskets of root crops. It led to a community celebration, or at the very least to the land owner treating his workers to a good meal and good beer/ale. The work wasn’t over, not at all, but the time-critical harvest was done and the grain and other things had been brought safely home. “All is safely gathered in/ Ere the winter storms begin.”

Today, Harvest Home means grain is in the bin or at the elevator, the root crops are gathered, and the combine or digger can be put away for a while. No more working from can’t see until “so tired I’m hallucinating” in order to save what can be saved. Farm wives no longer have to shuttle meals out to workers at all hours of the day and night while taking care of the kids and running into town for parts and supplies if needed. There’s time to breathe, to rest, to prepare for cleaning equipment ahead of winter, to take inventory of the harvest and the crop year.

Today, in the US, we give thanks for food and shelter, for health and well-being, and for the opportunity to give thanks. Some of us are with family of blood, or family of choice, or are working so that others can have a little time away. Giving thanks reminds us that we are not the center of the universe (unless you are a cat, in which case I congratulate you on your good taste in blog reading). Other people make the good things in life possible for the rest of us – farmers, power-company employees, physicians and EMTs, soldiers and sailors and airmen, the folks working at the grocery store . . . Whether you believe in a higher power or not, stopping to give thanks is a good way to keep a proper sense of proportion about the world.

I hope you have something to give thanks for, and that today is a good day for you and yours, wherever you are.

Red Cabbage and Apples

This dish appears in all seasons at RedQuarters, although it really is more of a fall/winter recipe. Red cabbage (Rotkohl) is a German staple, along with green cabbage. You need a red cabbage, one or two tart apples, a bay leaf, two (or three) juniper berries, vinegar, water, butter, maybe white wine, and a bit of sugar.

1 medium-sized head of red cabbage

1 or 2 tart apples (Granny Smith)

2 Tablespoons butter


1/4 c cider vinegar

1 bay leaf

2-3 juniper berries

a bit of sugar

1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)

Chop the cabbage and apples fine. (I prefer more finely shredded cabbage, DadRed likes a coarser chop.) In a heavy pot large enough to hold the cabbage, melt the butter. Add cabbage and apples, bay leaf and juniper berries. Stir for a minute or two. Turn up heat and add vinegar, some water, and wine (if using). Stir. Once liquid starts to boil, turn down heat, add sugar, stir, and cover. Stir once in a while until cabbage is tender, adding a little water if it seems to be getting dry. (I prefer more tender, DadRed leans towards crisper.)

Serve hot. Can be made in advance and re-heated. Serves small horde, depending on size of cabbage. Goes well with sausage, schnitzel, or game (turkey, venison, boar).

Per Red Family tradition, the finder of the bay leaf wins the opportunity to do the dishes.

“Remember to Replace the Onion”

In most other households, that would be a rather odd note. Which onion? A decorative item that got broken? An edible onion?

At RedQuarters, where most non-bread recipes seem to begin with “First sautĂ© an onion,” it means that someone sauteed the onion and more need to be purchased. Somehow, we always end up with one onion that lingers down in the corner of the “mixed containers mostly Tupperware but not entirely” drawer. Which is where everyone stores onions, right?

I once asked DadRed why everything started with olive oil, a pan, and an onion. “Because that buys time to decide on the meat and what else goes with it.”

Not entirely true, but valid for about 60% of the time. Unless I’m cooking. I prefer dried, minced onion because I react strongly to strong onions, which are about the only kind available around here. There are sweet onions, strong white onions, weaponized yellow onions, and red onions that come in protective shielding and probably ought to have a hazmat label on them.

(If I’m every dining with you, and something comes with red onions despite my begging to have them omitted, you can have mine. Please. Pretty please.)

Thus the note. And you know what will happen. Three or more onions appear in the drawer, because each member of the family gets one onion (or perhaps two) on the way home from work or errands. Usually white onions. The yellow onions have been of such variable quality that RedQuarters tends to stick with the known evil.

It’s a good thing that “first, sautĂ© an onion” happens so often. Occasionally I will caramelize an onion. I’m the only one who cooks fancy stuff most of the time, so caramelizing is my job. That and I’m patient enough to stand there watching, watching, watching, stirring, stirring, stirring . . . for a while. It’s a bit like making a real risotto, except you can’t read while you do onions. Yes, while in grad school I read while making risotto. I never read while browning butter or making a roux. Those change too quickly from raw to “dang it. A charcoal suspension.”

So, I need to replace an onion. Perhaps two. But certainly one.

Red Beans and Rice

Ah, the national Monday food of Louisiana, red beans can be put on the back of an already hot stove (behind the wash water pots) and ignored all Monday. Toss in several handfulls of rice just before supper time, and all is ready. Plus you can add in any leftover bits of meat or ham bones and so on from Sunday dinner if you have them.

Last week, I found the tail end of a sack of red-beans-n-rice mix, chopped up some andouille sausage, and tossed in some other veggies toward the end of cooking. The flavor was good, but I think I found four red beans in three cups of rice. That’s not really red-beans-n-rice.

So if you are doing the old fashioned version, soak a pound of dried red beans overnight, changing the water once or twice. If you are doing a modern version, open and drain two cans of red beans (total of 30 ounces).

In addition to the beans you need:

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 medium green bell-pepper, chopped fine.

2 sticks of celery, chopped fine (or you can buy the frozen veggie blend in a bag if you live in a place where the Holy Trinity is in high demand)

6-8 cups of water (less if you use canned beans)


garlic to taste

1 bay leaf

thyme, dried parsley, other pot herbs to taste (I’d avoid sage, but that’s just me)

pepper sauce like Tabasco

leftover meat, or a pound of good, spicy sausage chopped into chunks. Or skip the meat.

1 1/2 cup white rice (or brown, but keep in mind that brown takes longer to cook)

Filé powder if so inclined (not traditional but I had cousins who liked to add it)

Sautee onion, bell-pepper, celery, and garlic in a heavy pot. I use olive oil with a bit of garlic flavor, but whatever you have on hand is good. You want the onions translucent, but not brown. Add the drained and rinsed beans to the pot, along with dried parsley, a bay leaf, thyme, and anything else you think you’d like. I add two shakes of chipotle powder (dried smoked jalapeno pepper). Other people use “Cajun spice” blend and two shakes of Tabasco sauce (Louisiana kind, not Tabasco Mexico kind). Stir until well blended, add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Once it boils, turn down the heat to medium low, cover, and ignore while you do other chores.

Check on the beans and stir every so often. After an hour or so, add the sausage, bring it back to a boil, then return to a simmer and keep ignoring as you do more chores. I prefer my beans a little soupy, but you might like drier. If so, as the rice cooks, leave the lid off the beans and stir so they lose some moisture.

After two and a half hours, or longer, check everything, adjust water and spices as needed, and start the rice (if using white rice) cook rice until done. Serve rice with red beans, a shake of filé if you want some, and more pepper sauce.

Makes a lot.

Look Out, Happy Tail!

Coffee-table height table, well worn, and surrounded by comfortable, slightly scruffy chairs. This is the kind of furniture that doesn’t mind if you have been working on an airplane, or refurbishing a WWII era hangar and then sit on the upholstery. Airport bums (APBs) are lounging around, talking airplanes, weather, airplanes, hangar gossip, and airplanes. And a Golden Retriever naps in the corner.

Bill, the owner of the dog, and Jerry, the aerobatic instructor, come bouncing in with everyone’s dinner orders (mostly burgers and one chicken and bacon sandwich, because the guy’s doc said, “Eat more white meat.”) “Hi guys! Food’s here!”

Bill sets his bag and drink carrier down on the table, and takes Goldie out for a moment. The rest of us pay Jerry and start sorting out burgers, fries, onion rings, and other stuff.* Food divided, we dive in.

Bill returns with Goldie. Goldie saunters over and looks at the table. “Not yet, girl,” Bill informs her. She backs away. He flops into an empty chair and grabs his burger. She turns to face him.

“Happy tail!” Jerry yelps. We grab everything off the coffee table as a strong, fluffy tail sweeps across the surface at a high rate of speed.

Ah, those were the days . . .

*For us, this was health food. A little later, I became quite an expert on which airport’s vending machines had the best selection, the healthiest stuff (not always a good thing), and the highest fat to chocolate ratio. Pilots and mechanics tend to be on the see-food diet. Or as one retired charter and corporate pilot phrased it, “If you are what you eat, I’m fast, cheap, and easy.”