The Mother of Cuisines

There are several claimants to the title of World’s Premier Cuisine but the most influential cuisine ever created, one that has offshoots in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, is that of Persia. Around 550 BC, the Persians overcame their allies/masters, the Medes, and began a millenium of grand achievements. Among these, of course, was not defeating the allied Greek city-states — the Greeks did themselves in a few years later and Alexander the Great conquered Persia in the 330s BC. Alexander was quite taken with the Persian way of life, something which upset some of his fellow Greeks. 

Persian feast from

The Greeks were a pretty rough-hewn people compared to the Persian invaders they resisted and could not compete in certain cultural areas. Herodotus has a little to say about Persian dining:

Of all the days in the year, one’s birthday is held in the most honor. On this day they claim the right to serve a larger feast than on any other day. The more fortunate among them serve the meat of oxen, horses, camels, and donkeys roasted whole in ovens, while the poor serve the meat of small animals such as sheep and goats. They eat few main dishes but consume many desserts, and the latter are not served as one course, but at intervals throughout the meal. The Persians in fact say that the Hellenes are still hungry when they finish eating, since nothing worthwhile is served after the main dinner, and they add, if something extra were to be served, the Hellenes would not stop eating so soon. [The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories]

So, right away, a culinary invention: dessert!

After the death of Alexander, his generals squabbled over leadership of the conquered area. Seleucis finally prevailed over his rivals circa 300 BC. Native Persian rule was restored by the Parthians about fifty years afterward. Parthian Persia lasted 500 years. During this period, the Persians pushed against India in the East and Rome in the west. Meanwhile, Persia had introduced a number of new food items.

Dried fruit market at Tabriz

Perians were particularly interested in fruit (probably for all those desserts) and brought peaches from China and developed oranges and lemons from the native citron. Dried fruits, such as raisins, were a specialty and used in all kinds of recipes. Spices, particularly cloves, cardamom, and pepper, were imported from Asia. Rice became a staple, the Persians developing various aromatic, non-sticky strains. Wheat and both leavened and unleavened breads were very important to the Persians. These items were traded west — Romans liked peaches, disliked lemons. All this was in addition to native Persian ingredients such as saffron, pomegranates, and basil.

The Parthians gave over to the Sassanids in the 3rd Century and Persian culture reached a peak period. Incessant war with Byzantine Empire took its toll, however, and left both nations vulnerable to Islamic Arab armies who, after 650, ruled.

Moroccan lamb tajine with almonds and prunes

The Arabs hadn’t much of a culinary history but they quickly came to enjoy Persian food and carried the cuisine west into North Africa and Spain and north and east into central Asia, then back south into India. A Persian cooking vessel, the tajine, became the favored device of North African cooks. In Tunisia, a tajine is an herbed omelet similar to the Persian kookoo sabzi. In Morocco, a tajine is a stew cooked with spices and meant to be served over rice. This sort of dish had been developed in Persia as khoresht (or any of many other local names) and was taken into India by the Moguls where it was named biryani.

Tunisian tajine and Persian kookoo with dried barberries and cilantro

The muslim invaders of Spain found a dry, undeveloped land that they quickly transformed by building irrigation channels and walled orchards for the fruit trees that they brought from the east along with rice and spices:

In the court kitchens of Córdoba and Granada, cooks could now produce the dishes of high Islamic cuisine. There were the pilaus, made by frying rice or thin wheat noodles and then simmering them in an aromatic liquid until it was fully absorbed. Another family of dishes consisted of delicate dumplings (albondigas) of meats pounded with seasonings. And there were the most characteristic meat dishes: meltingly tender spicy stews. Flavored with a variety of herbs and spices, these stews were cooked in earthenware pots nestled in circular holes in charcoal-heated masonry bench stoves. Some were green with spinach and coriander. Others were golden with saffron. And the most complex were flavored with cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, almonds and raisins and thickened with eggs or breadcrumbs.

Shortly before the Moguls began their expansion, European powers invaded the New World. Cortez found that Mexico had its own culinary tradition. From Prescott:

His meals the emperor took alone. The well-matted floor of a large saloon was covered with hundreds of dishes. Sometimes Montezuma himself, but more frequently his steward, indicated those which he preferred and which were kept hot by means of chafing-dishes. The royal bill of fare comprehended, besides domestic animals, game from the distant forests, and fish which, the day before, was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico! They were dressed in manifold ways, for the Aztec artistes, as we have already had occasion to notice, had penetrated deep into the mysteries of culinary science.

Cortez (the Killer) was a relatively enlightened and far-seeing conqueror. He saw that gold was not going to support his venture by itself and began investigating local agriculture. Cacao beans were being used as currency and Cortez shipped quantities of chocolate and native vanilla back to Spain where they remained royal perogatives for decades. Even after chocolate and vanilla escaped the royal grasp, they never spread out of Europe and were pretty much relegated to desserts. Much more important was the export of native tomatoes and chili peppers to Spain which then spread east. Meanwhile, Cortez introduced peaches, almonds, oranges, grapes, rice, and olives:

The importation of a European fruit or vegetable was hailed by the simple colonists with delight. The first produce of the exotic was celebrated by a festival, and the guests greeted each other, as on the appearance of an old familiar friend, who called up the remembrance of the past, and the tender associations of their native land. [Prescott]

At around the same time, Spain’s Portugese allies were landing on the west coast of Mexico where they off-loaded cargoes of cinnamon from their Sri Lankan holdings. They took back chili peppers and tomatoes, thus transforming the cookery of South East Asia.

In 1962, Mexico’s great writer, Octavio Paz, became his nation’s ambassador to India where:

…he quickly ran across a culinary puzzle. Although Mexico and India were on opposite sides of the globe, the brown, spicy, aromatic curries that he was offered in India sparked memories of Mexico’s national dish, mole. Is mole, he wondered, “an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce?” How could this seeming coincidence of “gastronomic geography” be explained?

Well, by now you know the answer — the link between East and West (and the New World) was Persia. A mole is a preparation of ground spices or a sauce or a finished dish made with a spiced sauce. (Chocolate is only used in a few mole dishes.) The east-west sequence is khoresht/tajine/Spanish estofadas/mole while west-east goes khoresht/biryani/regional curries/mole. When a Sri Lankan curry features the New World’s tomatoes and turkey, you are looking at true fusion cooking.

Chicken: mole, estofada, tajine

Chicken: khoresht, biryani, Sri Lankan curry [recipe links below]

Recipes and credits: khoresht, biryani, sri lankan curry 

There are a good many other Persian influences on Mexican cuisine. Persians were (and are) fond of sharbats = sweetened fruit juices, and Mexico has its agua frescas. Need I add that intermediary North Africa has its own fruit drinks? And there is Spanish rice which has its Persian antecedents. But you can easilly find more correspondences. There has been a recent surge of interest in Iranian cooking with celebrity chefs picking up on the topic. And here’s some more stuff:

Rachel Laudan, “The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection”
Many, many links to recipes and sources from Pars Times.
Recipes, including a pomegranate khoresht and kuku, from Najmieh Batmanglij.

Batmangli’s Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies
My Persian Kitchen
Javane’s Kitchen discusses the spice mixture advieh, the Persian version of Indian masala or Moroccan ras-al-hanout.
KShar has a huge series of YouTube videos on Persian cooking including this rice tahchin that I mean to try sometime.
Donia Bijan, Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen

Melchizedek’s Dominion

There is a connected group of con men out to fleece everyone they can. These con men have a nation: the Dominion of Melchizedek. This is about that nation and these con men.

David Evan Pedley was a con man. He taught his son Mark to be a con man. Together they wrote a new Bible and created a nation. They also swindled millions of dollars from people.

David Pedley was part of a loose organization of a hundred or so con men that came together after the Second World War. During the 1960s this group specialized in “Prime Bank Securities”, a non-existent class of investments. Chief among these criminals was Dr. Clifford Noe. (That’s right, Dr. No.) Noe was finally busted in 1972. Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny described this organization in his book The Fountain Pen Conspiracy. In that book, Kwitny called David Pedley “the world’s greatest con man”.

Pedley was indicted on several charges and served a few years in jail. After testifying against an organized crime family associated with some of his schemes, he was taken into a witness protection program in 1975 and given the name David Wellington. He was moved to California where he teamed up with his son in a real estate-based scam that also involved a former state Deputy Attorney General. Facing numerous indictments, the Pedleys fled to Mexico. For a time these two ran a money-laundering racket based on an imaginary off-shore bank. Mark Pedley was arrested and deported for a visa violation. Soon, David was incarcerated in a Mexican jail. It was there that he began writing The Melchizedek Bible.

David Pedley (center) in his Mexican prison, 1985. Doesn't look like your idea of a nasty Mexican prison, does it?

In the 1940s and ’50s, David Pedley had taken lessons from Dr. Josiah Merriman, a Christian Science mystic who promoted a system based around Melchizedek, a priest mentioned twice in the Old Testament and several times in Hebrews. Over the centuries, Melchizedek has been cited by Jewish and Christian mystics as some kind or other of special being ranging from Excellent Priest to Jesus In Person.

Christian Science mysticism is, well, pretty mystical. Mary Baker Eddy emphasized spiritual truth over material evidence — “Mind” over matter — which can be a very useful tenet to a con man. After all, if reality is what we believe rather than what we can sense, than those imagined Prime Bank Securities are real. At any rate Pedley re-wrote the King James Bible (or “re-translated” it) to reflect this concept. The first part of Genesis does not refer to God creating the world of matter, it’s a metaphor for divine revelation. Or something like that.

While David was working on his holy task, Mark was in and out of jail. During the times when he was in, Mark also participated in correcting the errors in the King James Bible. By 1986, the father and son writing team had finished the important parts of this work: Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, and Revelation which was published as The Melchizedek Bible. But it was also during this time that Mark and David came up with the idea of creating a nation. Of course they named it after Melchizedek, but at this point, the country was only a name, it had no territory.

David died in 1987. At least there is an official death certificate for him from that year. When his body was received in California, Mark refused to allow authorities to fingerprint it. Some law enforcement officers believe that David never died and is still out there today, conning people. The Dominion of Melchisedek has an ambiguous comment: “…certain government regulators doubt that David is really dead. Perhaps they are correct, since good never dies.”

Mark Pedley's 1991 mugshot.

Mark was finally paroled in 1990. Immediately he changed his name to Tzemach ben David Netzer Korem. Later, this became Branch Vinedresser, which is, Mark says, the translation. He also operated as David Korem and, probably, other identities. Very soon after being paroled, he went back into defrauding people and was quickly busted for parole violations. Released in 1993, Mark married Elvira Gamboa ( AKA Pearlsasia and forty or so other aliases). These two set about finding territory for the Dominion of Melchizedek. Gamboa became its first president. The idea was that the DoM was an “ecclesiastical state”, like the Vatican, even though Pedley has been careful not to push an official Melchizedekan cult.

Over the years there have been several locations for this imaginary nation: Karitane Atoll that is underwater half the day, a slice of Antarctica that seemed unclaimed [see end of post for more], an island off South America composed entirely of guano (is that a metaphor or what?), and so on and so forth. Official entities from Fiji, the Marshall Islands, and many other places have denied that the Dominion of Melchizedek exists even though it claims to be situated in their territory. Here’s one location, Taongi or Ratak Atoll in the Marshall Islands group:

That's a GoogleEarth view of Ratak atoll which encloses what must be a pretty lagoon. The strip of land on the east is, at its widest, 750 meters across. The atoll is uninhabited.

Why bother with all this? Well, if you have a nation you can issue currency and license banks and incorporate businesses. You can give legitimacy to organizations and institutions. If all else fails, you can sell passports. In 1998, three men who claimed a connection with Melchizedek were caught selling passports in the Phillipines for as much as $3500 each. The trio had cleared more than a million dollars in two years. One, an Australian who was already famous for a race horse fraud, escaped. The other two went to jail for a while. Mark Pedley made an official Melchizedekean announcement that anyone connected with the fraud would be removed from office in that nation. 

Branch Vinedresser alias Mark Pedley

By that time, the Dominion of Melchizedek was fairly well known to law enforcement who, time and again, made unequivocal statements that the nation was a phony and investors should steer away from any scheme connected with it. But during the 1990s, several places were fooled and actually accepted Melchizedekan passports. Mark Pedley travelled to Fiji on one and was thus able to say that Fiji recognized his nation.

Oh, yes, this is all an amusing farce and hipsters can buy a flashy cool passport to show their friends and be in on the joke. Pedley doesn’t mind a straight-faced joke or two. The quote above about his father’s death, for instance, or, after claiming a wedge of Antarctica, the list of Melchizedek’s officials changing to include a M. Pinguin. And I bet he thought it was amusing to declare war on France when they commenced nuclear testing near Ratak and then to claim victory when the tests ended two days early. It’s easy to laugh at other people being fooled and they had too much money anyway and you can’t fool an honest man and so on. But you might reflect that those folks scraping together the money for Melchizdekan passports were looking for a way to travel to places where they could earn a living as chambermaids and janitors. Continue reading

Jan Janszoon the Pirate

When the Netherlands sought independence from Spain in the late 1500s, they enlisted sea captains to act as corsairs or privateers to harass Spanish shipping. Almost immediately some of these corsairs became pirates, attacking any target that seemed of value, Spanish or not. These pirates needed a place to shelter and refit and soon discovered a welcome in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia — the Barbary Coast. The rulers of north Africa appreciated the new “round-bottom” ships that were far better than their old galleys and they needed experienced seamen to sail them. Many European prates converted to Islam becoming “renegadoes”.

From their bases in north Africa,  the pirates attacked Spain and Spanish possessions and also raided island communities in the Mediterranean. The main loot from these expeditions was slaves. From the mid-16th to the late 18th Century more than a million Europeans were seized as slaves. Desirable women were sold into seraglios in Africa or Constantinople. Men were often used as galley slaves, chained to the oars of the older vessels, where they ate, slept, and existed until they died. Fortunate slaves were held in prisons in Algeria where, sometimes, they might be ransomed by groups set up to help them.

A 17th Century galeasse. This type of ship replaced the old galleys of the Barbary Coast.

Jan Janszoon of Haarlem received a letter of marque from the Dutch Republic establishing him as a corsair around 1600 (or possibly 1605). He was twenty-five years old and had a wife and daughter. At some point he fell in with the Dutch pirate Simon Dancer (Zymen Danseker) who had established a relationship with the kings of Morocco and Algeria. Janszoon began attacking all kinds of shipping. When he attacked a Spanish vessel, he flew the Dutch flag, when he attacked anyone else, he flew the crescent moon of Morocco. It was the general policy of the Barbary states that any nation who did not have a treaty with them, was at war with them. So any country that lacked a treaty — which involved payment of protection money — was a target.

 Janszoon married a woman from Spain who appears to have been a Morisco, a Muslim forceably christened and labelled a Christian. The Moriscos revolted against Spain more or less at the same time as the Dutch. They were expelled from Europe and many went to Salé in Morocco.

Janszoon was himself captured by Algerian pirates in 1618. He converted to Islam and was eventually freed by the good graces of the Ottoman Turks, who appreciated the naval technology coming into their territory from Europe.  Algeria concluded treaties with most European nations and Janszoon left for Salé, which had become a base for pirates. In 1619, Salé declared itself independent from Morocco and the pirate government elected Janszoon their leader.

Inside the walls of Salé today.

In 1622 Janszoon sailed up the English Channel but found no targets. When the English fleet took after him, Janszoon took refuge in Holland, which had signed a treaty with Morocco. Janszoon’s ship flew the Moroccan flag and was given safe harbor. Dutch authorities sent Janszoon’s wife and daughter to plead with him to give up his pirate ways, but to no avail. When the coast was clear, Janszoon sailed away taking with him many young Dutchmen who wanted to try pirate life.

Salé was a problem for Morocco and Europe both. Morocco had been in diplomatic contact with England since the mid-16th Century — in fact the English had engaged Morocco as allies in their long war against Spain. Now they both wanted Salé shut down but the Sultan of Morocco found the task impossible and Salé existed as an independent entity until 1668, sometimes in combination with Rabat, another breakaway pirate republic.

Janszoon’s reign as governor ended in 1627 as local politics forced him out. He fled to Algeria with his family. Later that year he seized the island of Lundy, off England, and for five years used it as a base. Janszoon needed lucrative targets and, when a captured Dane told him of the isolated island of Iceland, Janszoon took an expedition there.

Janszoon’s pirates first attacked Reykjavik and seized some dried fish but quickly left when men came in to defend the city. They then attacked some of the islands in the south of Iceland, in particular Heimaey in the Vestmann Islands. Most of the men were off fishing when Janszoon’s pirates struck. Some of the people fled up into caves but many were captured. Janszoon sorted out the ones young enough to be salable as slaves and the rest were herded into the local church which was boarded up and set afire. About 400 Icelanders were taken into slavery. On the way to north Africa Janszoon encountered a Dutch vessel and seized it, taking all aboard to sell as slaves. Some accounts claim that rape was uncommon amongst the captives headed toward the seraglios of Turkey and that pirates allowed women to give birth in peace and even shared food with the prisoners, both the new mothers and the young men doomed to be broken in the galleys.

Barbary Pirate Beach on Heimaey. (

In 1631, Janszoon was told by an Irishman named John Hackett of the isolated town of Baltimore on the southern tip of Ireland. English settlers — Ireland being colonized by England at the time — had bought a fishing monopoly from the local Irish lord. Hackett was apparently an agent for another Irish clan leader who disapproved. At any rate, Janszoon invaded and took more than a hundred people to sell as slaves. Some accounts say that he only took English settlers but the sack of Baltimore as remembered in Irish song and poetry seems a more general affair. Hackett, incidentally, was hanged by the locals.

Afterwards Janszoon became an ally of the Dey of Tunis and his depradations tended more toward Mediterranean targets. In 1635 his luck ran out and he was defeated and captured by the Knights of Malta. There he was tortured and confined in harsh conditions. A number of corsairs had been captured by the Knights and were held in Malta and, in 1640, the Dey of Tunis attacked the island fortress. Janszoon and many others were able to escape.

Janszoon returned to Morocco and was made governor of the fortress at Oualidia. Later that year his daughter sailed from the Netherlands to visit her famous father. She found him old and feeble, broken by captivity and shrunken with age. She left him in the summer of 1641 and nothing more is known of Janz Janszoon, the greatest of the Dutch renegadoes.

There is a great deal of romanticizing of pirates these days and concepts of pirate democracy and so on. But piracy is a product of chaos and the inability to establish control over the seas; given the opportunity sociopaths will take what they can get. Whenever I hear about “talk like a pirate day” or such, I recall Heimaey and think of the screams of those burning alive in that sealed-up church and I think of those going into slavery listening to those screams of family and friends in a homeland they would never see again.

For more: The Story of the Barbary Corsairs by Stanley Lane-Poole.


Connections: Mohammed V to Giant Boxing Shrimp

Okay, today, fast as you can say Kevin Bacon, we’re going to follow the links between King Mohammed V of Morocco and giant fighting shrimp.

King Mohammed V of Morocco; Mutant giant boxing shrimp

In 1952 Morocco was controlled by both Spain and France; there was an international zone — perfect for crime and espionage — around Tangier. The French of Morocco had aided Mohammed V’s rise to power because they thought he could be manipulated. They were horrified to discover that he was plotting with the Moroccan independence movement. In 1953, Mohammed was forced into exile in Madagascar; meanwhile non-European Moroccans began pushing for his return.

Post Office van after being divested of 250,000 pounds, 1952

One European the Moroccans liked was Billy Hill, English gangster. Billy served some time for a warehouse robbery in the 1940s. He swore he would never return to prison; he never did. Legendary gangster Jack Spot took Billy under his wing and the two did well at Spot’s protection rackets. But Billy also had other schemes going. “He was a thief,” says one associate, “He was a very good thief.” In 1952, Hill masterminded the robbery of a mail van that brought in a quarter million pounds, a record haul then. Billy needed a place to stash his loot. He discovered Tangier. Pretty soon he had investments in Morocco and was running a smuggling operation on the side.

Billy Hill, left, and George Walker, right, in Tangier 1953.

The Moroccans approached Billy about returning Mohammed to Tangier and Billy set up a dummy banking corporation, bought a boat, and organized a trip to Madagascar. But the boat never left Tangier. Locals were on to Billy and when Interpol told them he was one of England’s biggest crooks, the authorities tried to seize the boat. There was a brawl on the beach, the boat was set afire, and Billy fled to Cannes.

Later, Mohammed V did return to Morocco, this time with the assistance of the French government. Spain and France quit the place and Tangier ceased to be an international zone. Meanwhile, Billy Hill had lots of good contacts with the new government and continued to invest his cash there (including the proceeds from a 1954 bullion theft). In the 60s he bought a major club, the Tangier, which became a hangout for English crooks looking for a holiday, including the infamous Kray brothers, billy’s protégés.

With Billy when he tried to help Mohammed, was a young ex-boxer named George Walker. George had served some jail time and knew his way around London’s underworld but George left the criminal life when he discovered how much more he could make through legal investment. George’s younger brother Billy boxed and, though he seldom won, kept enough of the purse for George to invest in various schemes. George became very adept at leveraging whatever assets he could claim into very large loans. He founded Brent Walker which began investing in real estate, shopping malls, and so on.

Mohammed V returns to Morocco, 1956

George Walker became interested in producing movies. His first big hit was Bitch based on the Jackie Collins novel. That had a successful sequel, The Stud, and George had a reputation as a film-maker. He bought up established studios and churned out the product. But George’s success was something of a ponzi scheme. He used movie profits to leverage loans for real estate deals and he leveraged the properties to make movies. There was far less collateral than there was debt. George’s biggest deal was to buy the William Hill (no relation to Billy) chain of bookmaking shops in 1989, paying more than 685 million pounds. But George had been scammed by William Hill and the betting shops weren’t worth their sticker price. George’s empire collapsed with him in arrears for more than a billion pounds. George spent the 90s battling criminal charges and trying to set up a new business empire in Russia.

Of course leveraged buyouts and over-mortgaged real estate didn’t disappear with Gregory Walker’s downfall. Investment experts swarmed over Britain like beetles on a corpse. One of these lovely fellows was Guy Hands. Hands learned his trade working for the Japanese takeover outfit Nomura. In 1997, when George Walker went under, Hands engineered Nomura’s leveraged buyout of  the William Hill Bookmaking chain.

George Walker dreams of empire

Continue reading