In Memoriam

[We interrupt this catalogue of ancient recipes to meditate for a moment on the passing of a person who was very important to me, and who, in a way, inspired me to create this blog by drawing me irretrievably into the ancient world. Back to our regularly-scheduled programming next week.]

Pindar’s Olympian Ode 1, translated and read by William Mullen

Bill Mullen, the guy rattling off lines of Pindar in the original Ancient Greek in the above link, was one of my college professors at Bard. But he was much more than that as well.

Bill was hilarious, unpredictable, completely brilliant, and possibly the most well-read person I’ve ever met. Casually and very seriously, he would say things like, “There was a point in my life when I said to myself, Bill, you’ve got to stop picking up new languages and just improve the ones you already know!” His non sequiturs were legendary, and you never knew which direction a conversation with him (or a class taught by him) was going to go. Once I went to meet with him about an event we were planning together and he took up the entire time digressing about the use of “like” as a filler in colloquial speech. He liked to tell the same stories over and over, and I can’t count how many times I heard about his fantasy of the perfect afternoon: climbing the fence of an apple orchard on a warm spring day and lying under a tree to drink German white wine and read Rilke with white petals drifting over him. He had a keen sense of the dramatic, like any good Classicist.

He was my advisor for my college senior project, which was a highly unconventional one for a Classics major. Long story short: despite there being no class or specialist in Mesopotamian literature at my school, I insisted that for my senior thesis I would analyze a Mesopotamian poem, adapt it for the stage and perform it. In drag. Bill was delighted by the concept, and even more delighted when he came to see my play (I remember he laughed particularly hard when, as the goddess Inanna, I snapped at the audience “Aphrodite? Forget about that bitch!”) More recently, he expressed similar excitement over this blog and my classes on ancient food, and even brought me back to Bard to help the Classics Department with a Roman dinner party.

I aspire as an educator to show the level of support and respect to my students that he showed to me. And not just me, of course; he was proud of all his students and always encouraging of our creativity. He engaged with us intellectually and socially as though we were his peers (how many bottles of wine did we go through at Bill’s house?) I don’t think he saw us as being much different from him, because he was a perpetual student too, always learning, always teaching. He taught me to listen to ancient people and follow their wisdom: don’t fear growing older, like Anacreon, but consider each day a new learning opportunity, like Solon. As a young gay man concerned about my future, he taught me that it could be marvelous.

Ancient people wrote about death quite a lot, often with great eloquence and feeling; they saw it more often than most of us do today. So I had trouble choosing the right quote to end with because there are so many great ones. But then I remembered the day in Greek class when Bill had us translate and discuss two lines from Plato’s Apologia. He was a passionate atheist (as he was passionate about everything in his life) but he loved this quote anyway:

“But now the time has come to go away. I go to die, and you to live; but which of us goes to the better lot, is known to none but God.”

Cheese and Other Updates

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I’ve had a busy summer. Aside from my earlier vacation, I worked at an amazing culinary camp through CampusNYC, where I got to teach groups of teens about the history and science of food. Now I’m off on my last major event of the season: Burning Man 2017. This is my first time going to Burning Man, and while I’m not exactly certain what I’ll encounter out there, I know it will delay my next blog post. Expect a new ancient recipe in early September.

For now, I wanted to provide some updates about a recipe from the Medieval Islamic world that I posted some time ago: kamakh rijal, the remarkably simple recipe that uses salt and natural probiotic cultures to ferment milk into spreadable cheese. Last time, I wrote about the first six weeks. For the cheese to reach its final stage, I had to wait a total of 15 weeks before adding seasonings and transferring it from its original container. I am happy to say I am now the proud owner of several quarts of kamakh rijal.

Now that the cheese is officially ready to serve, I moved it from the counter to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process. Following the instructions of the original recipe in the Medieval Book of Dishes, I mixed in equal amounts of garlic and mint leaves (minced) and nigella seeds (one and a half tablespoons of each for the large amount of cheese I had–about 6 cups. That’s almost exactly the amount of milk and yogurt that went into the cheese in the first place). Nigella, also called black cumin or black caraway, is a spice that was widely-used in the ancient world, even being found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The seeds are similar in appearance to black sesame seeds, but the flavor is unique and powerful, like onion mixed with anise. In Armenia and Syria, nigella is still used to flavor cheese today (especially string cheese), while modern-day South Asians use the spice in naan and other breads.

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This is what the cheese looked like immediately after being transferred to a larger bowl for mixing. Less solid than it looks.

Kamakh rijal was likely intended to be served on flatbread, ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisines to this day. I’ve been experimenting with different ways to use it beyond its original context. It’s good on crackers and raw vegetable sticks or in a sandwich. Because the flavor is so strong, it is best-used sparingly and pairs well with milder ingredients like celery, tomato or lettuce. I could imagine using it in tuna salad, or anywhere you might use an herb cream cheese or goat cheese.

I used some of the kamakh rijal with milk, flour, butter and spinach to make a cheese sauce. I also made chicken rollatini using it as filling. The flavor of the cheese was a little overpowering in the chicken, but I really liked the cheese sauce on pasta or baked potatoes.

If the garlic/nigella/mint combination doesn’t appeal to you, you could try mixing it with dried rose and cinnamon (another suggestion from the Book of Dishes) or other flavorings of your choice. VII out of X.

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Kamakh rijal-stuffed chicken cutlet, topped with dried mint and onions and served with asparagus on the side.