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Introduction

For several months I have been watching the YouTube channel, Tasting History with Max Miller. It's great. His mix of humor and ingredients strikes just the right tone, and he manages to make both a recipe and a history lesson entertaining without being overly long (a fault of which I am clearly guilty.)

Just before Thanksgiving he did an episode on 17th C. “Pumpion Pie”, aka pumpkin pie. I made one, and it was delicious. Everyone that tasted it wanted more. But, making it was something of a pain. At the very least, it was much more work than a modern custard-based pie. I wanted to come up with a recipe that produced a result that was the same, or comparable, with less effort. I’ve been cooking pies and experimenting with this ever since. I think I finally have a delicious, easier to make, pumpion pie, which I share at the end of this post.

Miller also skipped a few factoids that I think are worth mentioning. He obviously can’t discuss every last thing about a recipe or else the segments would be too long for anyone but the most diehard to sit through. I have no such problem here. If you don’t care about these extra notes, jump ahead to the recipe😊

Note: though I am including a set of historical notes, the recipe I present is intended to be easier to make than Miller’s recipe, but it is not intended to be historically accurate. If you want to make the most authentic redaction of the recipe, stick with Miller’s excellent video

Not all pumpkins are smooth, spherical, or orange.

Words for pumpkins and squashes

I am going to make several references to “pumpkins”, and also to what are more broadly called “winter squashes” (though “pumpkins” are, in fact, winter squashes.) Note that, “the term pumpkin has no agreed upon botanical or scientific meaning, and is used interchangeably with ‘squash’ and ‘winter squash’.” (source: Wikipedia). Pumpkins are like obscenity – I can’t define them, but I know one when I see it.

The Annotated FRENCH GARDINER, Part One, The Kitchen Garden, 1658 by Nicholas de Bonnefons, translated by John Evelyn, edited and annotated by William Rubel

Pumpeons are raised also upon the hot-bed, and are removed like the former, but for the most part upon plain ground: being placed in some spacious part of your Garden because their shoots and tendrells straggle a great way before they knot into fruit.

The pumpeon of this work refers to winter squashes in general, including our pumpkin. It could have been a Cucurbita pepo, C. moschata, or C. maxima. [Annotation by William Rubel.]

For clarity, I will use “pumpkin” to refer to the spherical orange winter squashes that modern Americans (and many others) would call a “pumpkin”, as well as pumpkins like jarrahdale, porcelain doll pink, tiger, and dozens of other squashes called "pumpkins" which aren’t necessarily orange, nor particularly spherical. I will use the phrase “winter squash” to refer to hard-skinned, late season squashes such as butternut, kabocha, buttercup, etc., but not including squashes previously defined as “pumpkins.” Finally, I will refer to specific varieties of winter squash or pumpkin by name. 

The original recipe

Miller provides us with a recipe by Hannah Wooley from The Queen-like Closet, 1670. Page 256 (recipe CXXXII)

To make a Pumpion-Pie.

Take a Pumpion, pare it, and cut it in thin slices, dip it in beaten Eggs and Herbs shred small, and fry it till it be enough, then lay it into a Pie with Butter, Raisins, Currans, Sugar and Sack, and in the bottom some sharp Apples; when it is baked, butter it and serve it in.

However, the same book has another, rather different, recipe (XCIII), presented on page 235, some 20 pages earlier.

To make a Pompion-Pie.

Having your Paste ready in your Pan, put in your Pompion pared and cut in thin slices, then fill up your Pie with sharp Apples, and a little Pepper, and a little Salt, then close it, and bake it, then butter it, and serve it in hot to the Table.

You may find it odd that the book contains two recipes with the same name which are not presented together as two versions of the same thing. There is a surprising reason why this might be the case. For much of the history of publishing, copyright laws were non-existent or ignored. [Copyright law came into existence in England in 1710.] It was common for authors, or publishers, to fill out short books with sections lifted from other books. In fact, there are books that are nothing more than a combination of sections from different pre-existing books with no original content whatsoever, and without any credit to the originals. Indeed, plagiarizing entire books was not uncommon. So, while Wooley may have included two different “pumpion-pie” recipes of her own, it is equally likely that one of the two (or both?) came from some other source and was added to give the book heft.

In any case, the other version (XCIII) is interesting to consider - the differences in ingredients and method are significant. It is vastly simpler, consisting of nothing other than pumpkin and apples, plus salt, pepper, and butter. This version of the recipe is practically just sliced pumpkin baked with apples; it hardly matters that they are baked within a pie shell – they could easily have gone into the oven in a baking dish. This may harken back to a time when crusts were used to contain filling, but were not intended to be eaten.

Another contemporaneous “pumpion pye

Yet another recipe, published two years before The Queen-like Closet, presents some additional clues about pumpion pies. I assume this is the other recipe to which Miller alludes.

The Compleat Cook, Expertly Prescribing The Most Ready Wayes, Whether Italian, Spanish Or French, For Dressing Of Flesh And Fish, Ordering Of Sauces Or Making Of Pastry, written anonymously and published in 1658:

To make a Pumpion Pye.

Take about halfe a pound of Pumpion and slice it, a handfull of Tyme, a little Rosemary, Parsley and sweet Marjoram slipped off the stalks, and chop them smal, then take Cinamon, Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves, and beat them; take ten Eggs and beat them; then mix them, and beat them altogether, and put in as much Sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froiz*; after it is fryed, let it stand till it be cold, then fill your Pye, take sliced Apples thinne round wayes, and lay a row of the Froiz, and a layer of Apples with Currans betwixt the layer while your Pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it; when the Pye is baked, take six yolks of Eggs, some white−wine or Verjuyce, & make a Caudle of this, but not too thick; cut up the Lid and put it in, stir them well together whilst the Eggs and Pumpions be not perceived, and so serve it up.

* BritishFoodHistory.com tells us “A froiz is something that has been fried, usually with beaten eggs like a Spanish omelet”. Photos of froiz look very much like a frittata.

 

The king of the pumpkins receiving homages from his subjects
Autumn Sketches, 1865

Pumpkins or “pumpion

Winter squashes were brought to Spain in 1492, but it appears that they did not arrive in England until sometime later – possibly a lot later. In William Rubel’s annotations to The French Gardiner, he notes that the use of the word “pumpeon” could have referred to winter squash or pumpkin, so presumably pumpkin was being grown in English gardens by that date, but so were other winter squashes. So, while Wooley certainly had access to pumpkins, she could have been referring to other winter squashes. 

Currans or Currants

In modern English, the word “currant” refers to either the fruit of the currant bush (Ribes) (red, black, or white), or to completely unrelated small raisins (often referred to as “Zante currants”).

Currant bushes (Ribes) have grown in northern Europe since time immemorial and have probably been eaten by humans since homo sapiens arrived in the area. The little raisin, “Zante currant”, dates to at least Rome of the first century CE. So, both would have been known and available in England in the 17th C. As a result, we can’t definitively say which one Wooley meant, but there are some clues. “Zante currants” at the time were generally referred to as “currans” without the “t”, as she does. Also, she is using dried fruit (raisins) in the recipe, so another dried fruit is reasonable.

Side note: Other than those used for Zante currants, seedless grapes did not exist at this time (there may have been some seedless mutations here or there in the world, but they weren’t commonly available.) The Thompson’s seedless grape, now used for most raisins consumed in the US, was introduced in the mid-19th C. Thus, if you wanted seedless raisins (and who doesn’t), you would have needed to pick out the seeds before drying the fruit. The exception was the grape used for Zante currants, making them a much easier ingredient to produce. So, one might ask why she didn’t skip the raisins and use only currants - they are similar and would have been easier to make.

Herbs

Wooley refers simply to “herbs shred small”. Miller imagines this as “2 handfuls” of rosemary, parsley, and thyme. This is a reasonable guess. The Compleat Cook uses this trio (plus marjoram and spices.) But Wooley’s pumpion pie could have included any set of herbs, any number of different herbs, and in any quantity. 

Apples

Granny Smith apples did not exist in the 17th C. They are a relatively new cultivar. So, both Miller and I are stepping away from authenticity by using this apple (though it does work brilliantly in this pie.)

About my recipe

My recipe differs from Millers in several respects: intention, ingredients, and method. 

Intention

This pie is so delicious that I think it should be resurrected as common fare – at Thanksgiving or any time of the year. Thus, my intention is to make it as easy as possible for modern cooks to enjoy it, regardless of historical accuracy. If my result is comparable to the original, but easier to make, then I have succeeded. If I may be so bold, in addition to ease, I believe my creation is more delicious than the original on which it is based. 

Ingredients:

Pumpkin/squash

In most parts of the United States (and, indeed, the world), pumpkins seasonal availability is brief. Butternut squash is available almost year-round and is generally cheaper than pumpkin, making it an ideal substitute.

To add injury to unavailability, pumpkins aren’t the easiest winter squash to work with. Their skin is tough, and the seed cavity is large. [Kabocha squash, while delicious, can be even more of a pain.] In his video, Miller shows a smooth skinned pumpkin which he peels with a vegetable peeler. All the pumpkins I have found for sale have had ridges, as well as defects, making such treatment impossible and requiring a good knife and good technique. [Note: if you are cutting away the skin of a pumpkin with ridges, the easiest tool is a serrated knife, not a chef’s or paring knife.] Even Miller admits almost cutting himself while working with pumpkin.

The kind of pumpkins available in my area. Rough and ridged.
Conversely, butternut squash has softer skin and never has ridges. It is easily peeled with an ordinary vegetable peeler. Also, it has a smaller seed cavity that is easier to scoop out. Lastly, to my palate, butternut has a finer texture than pumpkin, and a more pleasing taste. Not only that, but when cooked, butternut squash has a deeper, redder color than pumpkin.

[Side note: Many canned “pumpkin” products are made from other winter squashes, especially butternut. Thus, if you are used to canned “pumpkin”, you may have been eating butternut squash all along, and, to you, it may taste more like pumpkin than pumpkin!] 

Currants

As noted, Wooley is probably specifying Zante currants, which are just tiny raisins. Zante currants tend to be a little bit sweeter than many other raisins, and they have a somewhat different texture, but, after baking in a pie, the difference is minor. So, while it is not terribly difficult to find Zante currants in grocery stores, raisins are more available, cheaper, and people are likely to already have them in their pantry. After making several recipes with both, I dropped the currants and doubled the quantity of raisins. If you have Zante currents on hand, use them. Otherwise, standard raisins work out fine.

[On one occasion I made a pie replacing the currants with dried cranberries. That was a delicious edit, which I suggest as an option.]

Eggs

The Queen-like Closet has us dip the squash in an egg-herb mix, and then pan fry. The “pumpion pye” from The Compleat Cook, has similar instructions, but directing that it should be made like a “froiz” - comparable to a Spanish omelet. I cannot figure out why either method is called for. First and foremost, cooking the squash like this in a pan takes a long time and requires active attention. Wooley wastes a lot of egg and herbs that drip off the slices as they are dipped. Finally, dipping the slices in egg precludes other cooking techniques for the squash.

Cooking the squash uncoated while adding eggs and herbs directly to the pie (along with sugar, butter, sack, etc.) produces a result which is different than the original version, but, no less delicious. This allows us to cook the squash by any method we desire. 

Herbs

Personally, I like rosemary and thyme with the squash, but not parsley. Though I like parsley in general, in this context I found it unpleasant. Thus, I substituted sage. This is 100% personal taste. Also, I am not certain what Miller means by “2 handfuls”. I provide specific quantities that I feel balance well with the other flavors. 

Butter

The 6 tbs of butter makes this dish rich and yummy, but I found it excessive. Not cooking the squash in a pan (see Method below) removes 2 tbs, and I don’t see much value in adding butter on top after cooking,. This leaves just 2 tbs in the pie - healthy pie!

Pie crust

I love a great pie crust. A well-made pĂąte brisĂ©e is a wonderful thing. However, the standout feature of this pie is the filling. The crust isn’t terribly important. Once they taste the pie, even your most finnicky friends will forgive a store-bought pie crust.

[Warning: Standard commercial pie crusts are very shallow, and smaller than 9” in diameter. Commercial “deep dish” crusts are about the height of a standard pie dish, though still often smaller in diameter. Take this into account when determining quantities for your pie’s filling.] 

Method

The big effort and time killers are peeling, seeding, and slicing the pumpkin, and then pan cooking the egg-dipped pieces. As noted, I took care of the first issue by substituting butternut squash. The pan cooking is an even greater hassle, requiring monitoring, moving, and flipping the squash slices. I found it to be a very troublesome process. To make matters worse, one either needs a very large pan, multiple layers of squash which demand even more active sautéing, or cooking them in multiple batches, which expands the time considerably.

Ultimately, the goal of pan cooking the squash is simply to par-cook it before finishing cooking in the oven, and to set the egg. Since these ingredients are all going into a pie which will be baked in the oven for close to an hour, a lot of sins can be hidden. The squash could be par cooked by any method you prefer – boiling, baking, sautĂ©ing, or microwaving. Yes, microwaving. I have found that this is the quickest and easiest way to par cook a bowl of squash. Its vastly faster and does not require much attention. Even knowing that this dastardly deed has been perpetrated on innocent ingredients, I challenge you to detect it in the result. You would be surprised how lewd and crude you can be with ingredients that end up baked in a pie.

I am also slicing the squash thicker than Miller calls for. I found that gave a toothier texture and even more attention to the squash, being in pieces rather than pureed.

In his video, Miller appears to be adding a whole 2Tbs pat of butter to the filling. I cut up the butter for better distribution. 

Unattractive burned raisins

Lastly, Wooley's recipe calls for adding the raisins to the mixture. However, I have found that they don’t get very well distributed, and many end up on top. The ones on top tend to burn, which is unattractive. So, I layer the raisins with layers of squash mixture, (as in The Compleat Cook) attempting to have squash on top with few raisins exposed directly to the heat of the oven. 



Elise Sigal holds Erica Sigal 1959
Photo by Marlowe Sigal
(c) The Estate of Marlowe A. Sigal
 

My father was a hell of a photographer.

I found this photo among my father's things yesterday. Ever since I rescued it from a pile of papers, I have not been able to stop staring at it.

For one thing, I personally think it is a great photograph. The lighting, the depth of field that puts the main subject in focus with the rest of the image fading away. The pose of my mother looking away while my sister stares at the viewer. The texture of the image. I think it is a beautiful photo, and it gives me a certain pride that my father created it.

It also blows my mind that it has lain hidden for 61 years. I had never seen it before. My sister says she's never seen it. My mother vaguely recalls seeing it a long time ago.

And then there are the personal aspects. The woman in the photo is my mother too. That is approximately what she looked like when I was born 3 years later. And, of course, I never knew the infant in the picture. She was a toddler by the time I came along.

I am also deeply struck by the passage of time. Sixty years is forever. The photo might as well be from the 16th century, or 10,000 years ago on the Anatolian plain, or from a period before the evolution of homo-sapiens. I wasn't even born when my father took this photo. Who are these people? My mother and sister are still alive, but the people in this image are long, long gone.

And then there is my sister's face. I don't mean any insult, but you can see the chimpanzee in her face. And those eyes - huge black pupils. The way her tiny hand grabs my mothers sleeve, and the look on her face, make me think that she knows that this is not going to be easy. I see an uncertainty as to whether or not she wants to face what's coming; whether or not she believes that she will make it through it all.



The US federal government's department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is planning to spend $250 million on an advertising campaign to convince people that the COVID vaccine is safe, and they should take it when it becomes available.

What a fucking waste! Due to conspiracy theories, t**** administration lies and rhetoric, and general stupidity, our government feels that it must blow a quarter of a billion dollars advertising a crucial lifesaving vaccine.

If only we could give that money to states to help them pay for the vaccination effort, or to try to speed up vaccine manufacture and distribution. If only we could use that kind of money to give scholarships to young people to go to medical school, or provide vaccination in 3rd world countries that cant afford it, or to feed people. Instead we have to waste it educating credulous idiots.

Just to put a $250M advertising budget in a little bit of perspective, that is more than half of McDonalds' annual worldwide ad budget. Just stop for a moment and consider how much advertising you see from McDonalds in your country during one year on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, on billboards, and on every form of online media. Now scale that up to the whole world. HHS is going to spend more than 1/2 of that amount in the US to convince people to take the vaccine!

Meanwhile, Congress has spent months fighting over a million here and a million there in a stimulus package now valued at about $750M. Let me reiterate: HHS is going to spend an amount equal to 1/3 of the proposed stimulus package to convince idiots to take the vaccine that the rest of us have been breathlessly awaiting all year.

HHS - Holy Horse Shit!

Preamble:

I have a rather productive fig tree that I planted about 10 years ago. It is a ‘Janice Seedless White Kadota’, a fig that is green outside and green to red-brown inside when ripe. The seeds are very small, so, in comparison to other figs, when you eat them you don’t really get that popping-seed sensation. The flavor is delicious but mild and very sweet. They are not very “figgy” compared to most other figs, particularly those one finds in products like fig-newtons, or commercial fig jam. They almost taste more like light brown sugar than figs. 

This year, as many times in the past, I made fig jam with candied ginger. Always yummy, always a crowd pleaser. But the tree was being super productive and I didn’t want more fig with ginger, so I tried a recipe for fig jam sweetened with honey. That was good, but not as great as it sounded. 

The season stayed surprisingly warm, causing figs to continue to ripen for a long time. I went to my spice drawer to see if there was anything that grabbed me to go along with figs besides ginger. I’d take a bite of fig, then a bite of herb or spice, to see what worked. Anise was a winner.

Looking through my library (including Fig Heaven by Marie Simmons, which contains surprisingly few jam recipes), and searching online, I found no recipes for fig with anise, though I did find one for fig with fennel and vanilla. I went back to the spice drawer to taste my figs combined with fennel seeds again. I felt (as I had on my first trial) that the fennel overpowered the fig. I suspect that this might have a lot to do with the fact that my figs are very mild. I am guessing that a more strongly flavored ‘mission’, ‘blackjack’, ‘turkey’ or other such fig might stand up to fennel where 'kadota' does not. Or it might be that I simply like anise more than fennel. In addition to the fennel flavor, the recipe had some oddities, for example, the author likes her jam with a consistency closer to sauce. Who knows why.

So, I used that recipe as just a broad guideline, combining it with my prior jam making experience to create my own recipe for fig jam with anise and vanilla. Wow! It was an out-of-the-park home run. I’ve taken to just eating it straight from the jar. Yuuuuuhhhhm! The only person that I have given a jar to is my mother. I’m keeping the rest for myself.

Here then is my recipe, with a variety of notes.

[PLEASE NOTE: I consider this to be a recipe in progress. I only had a chance to make it twice before the fig season ended. Though each time it was outstanding, I would not call it “tested.” Next year when fig season rolls around again, I will definitely make more. In the meantime, I present it here because it was so damned good, and to hopefully get feedback and suggestions from you. Regardless, as with any (non-pastry) recipe, it should be considered a framework or a guideline, not a strict set of ingredients and steps. Adjust for yourself depending on your own tastes and conditions.] 


The Recipe: Fig Jam with Anise and Vanilla

Yield 6 cups

Ingredients:

3 pounds of kadota figs (macerated in 1lb sugar – see below *)
1/2 additional lbs sugar (May still be a bit too sweet for some tastes *) 
2 pinches salt
2 Tbs lemon juice
1 rounded teaspoon anise seeds
1-2 tsp lemon zest
2.5 tsp vanilla extract (see note **)

 

Notes:

* I harvest my figs as they ripen, which can take several days for 3lbs. As I harvest, each day, I cut the stem end off & any bruised parts, cut the figs into quarters, and add them to a large container (I use a 4qt “Cambro”) covered in sugar with a bit of lemon. This then goes in the fridge to wait until I have enough figs and time. I keep note of the quantity of fig and sugar as I add more and more. The sugar and lemon help preserve the fig, and the maceration makes it release liquid (which you use), making it cook more quickly and thus producing a better taste.

When adding sugar before cooking, only add enough to bring the weight of sugar up to ½ the weight of fruit (after cleaning). Even this might be a bit too sweet for some people, or, if using a less sweet fig, you might want more. Adjust to taste.

** The original recipe called for using 1 to 2 vanilla pods, which is what I did for the first batch. Unfortunately, the vanilla seeds made the jam unattractive – full of black specks. For the second batch I used vanilla extract instead. The result was more attractive, less expensive, slightly easier to make, and no less delicious.

 

Method:

Stem and cut up figs. Macerate with sugar & lemon juice in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

Put several spoons on a plate in the freezer for testing setting of the jam. I have found the thermometer method unreliable.

Prepare jars for sterile canning using whichever method you prefer, or for freezer jam, etc.

Cook the ingredients (except the vanilla extract), preferably in a jam pot, testing for set using spoons from freezer.

When almost set, stir in vanilla extract.

When set, ladle into hot jars and process. 


Coming up on Lifestyles of the Rich and Incarcerated, Ivanka Trump shows off her new line of prison yard jumpsuits, we get up close and personal with the designer of Donald's solid gold straight jacket, the FBI takes us along as they search through abandoned mansions looking for Don Jr., we chat with Jared about life in a Palestinian prison, and explore Melania's new sensational Slovenian villa! Finally, we have another installment of our special segment, "No one cares about Eric!"

 

Stay tuned!


Now that the election is over, and the tRump campaign is filing (and losing) all the lawsuits they can think of, it is becoming vividly clear that there is virtually no voter fraud in America, and certainly no systemic fraud. Even having tRump tell his followers to commit the fraud of voting twice does not appear to have created fraud.

Surprise!

This outcome continues to be a surprise to the tRumpists (if they believe this "fake news" at all) - which should come as no surprise. But, curiously, the Democrats also seem to be at least a bit nonplussed by the total lack of voter fraud. This is simple human psychology; hearing something repeated over and over again for years, even if you know it is untrue, and even if it came from the mouth of Herr Drumph, can subconsciously take hold. Watching newscasters, biased or unbiased, it looks like even they are more than a little taken aback that there was really was no election fraud.

In reality, despite intense scrutiny, no fraud has been found. None. Why? Because there never has been widespread fraud in American elections! Study after study has shown this to be true. This year's process has simply shone a bright light on this truth.

My hope is that, maybe, just maybe, there will be an added bonus from the 2020 elections. Perhaps the glaring truth of the lack of voter fraud can be used as a tool to fight voter suppression laws. However, it is possible that Republican governors, legislatures, et. als., will point to 2020 to claim that their voter suppression, dressed up as election security, worked in stopping fraud, and is necessary to secure future elections. If so, I pray that they will not be believed.

Let us all hope that the forces fighting for voter rights can use this to their favor. We shall see.

 


The White House has announced that Rudy Giuliani
 will be holding a press conference from inside my pants.

I am not pleased.

 


Rudy Giuliani holds a press conference at a Motel 6 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 For no apparent reason.


Over recent years I have found myself thinking more and more about death. The death of my dog Kero, my heart attack, my father’s death, simply getting older, and now COVID-19, have each made death more of a reality for me. But, having become an atheist, death has become harder and harder for me to get my head around.

I was never particularly religious, though I was born Jewish. In mainstream Judaism there isn’t really an afterlife, but in my modern American cultural meme-set there was always a sense of something after life. There was going to be something; heaven and hell, reincarnation, Valhalla, filling pyramids with earthly items to use in the afterlife, building terracotta armies, becoming one with the cosmic consciousness, or just wandering the earth, haunting graveyards and old houses. There was a presumption that there would be something.

It is no surprise that humans have created so many ideas about what comes after this life because, no matter how absurd an afterlife we invent, it is conceivable, whereas nothingness, there being nothing after this existence, is inconceivable.

Part of the atheist package, as I understand it, is that there is absolutely nothing after death. After you die you are, well… dead. The consciousness doesn’t go anywhere, it simply ceases. The ever-quotable Mark Twain apparently said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Similarly, another clever atheist (Richard Dawkins? Sam Harris?) said, “I’ve never concerned myself with what happened before I was born, why should I concern myself with what happens after I die.” They may well have believed that, and considering Occam’s Razor, it is undoubtedly true. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to try to “understand” that impending nothingness, whatever that might mean.

I had always expected that when I died there would be some awareness that it had happened. I’d have some realization of it. I’d have some feeling about it. Maybe I would think, “Ahhhhh, the pain is finally over.” Or maybe, “oh no, I haven’t finished yet.” Or perhaps, “damn, I wanted to see what was going to happen with the project/election/playoffs.” Mainstream American culture has taught me this. But if there is nothing, then there is no awareness of having died, there is no awareness of having lived, there is no awareness.

I have a subconscious expectation that if I die right now, I will somehow learn how future events turn out, and I will be pleased, or disappointed, or thrilled, or horrified. I also assume that I will know how I am remembered. But the atheists, of which I am now one, say that this is not the case. If I were to die while writing this sentence, I would never know it. Furthermore, you would never read it, which is unfortunate since we each could have enjoyed the irony.

How do I think about this? How do I think about not thinking? How do I think about not having the capacity to think? How do I think about there being no “I” with which to think? I’m trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Last night I went to bed a bit early. I briefly woke up a little after midnight and looked at the clock. I lay there for a short time, thinking about the amazing dreams I had just had - so vivid and strange - then fell back to sleep. Then I woke up needing to pee. I thought, “Good lord, I just woke up a second ago, why didn’t I go pee then?” But when I looked at the clock, I saw that it read 4:00am. Four hours had passed during which I functionally didn’t exist. I was neither conscious, nor dreaming. “I” wasn’t, as far as I was concerned. If an asteroid had landed on my house at 2:00am, killing me instantly, I wouldn’t have known. As far as I was concerned, I would have effectively died when I fell asleep a little after midnight. Yet I can’t even say that, because I wouldn’t have been “concerned”. “As far as I was concerned” has no meaning in that context. I would’ve gone to bed, had some amazing dreams and then ceased to exist.

For Jews, we live on only in the way that we are remembered. Needless to say, most of us would like to be remembered well. But if I don’t exist, why should I care how I am remembered? There will not be a “me” to care. Trying to discuss how I will be remembered after I am actually dead is meaningless. While I am alive, I am concerned about how I will be remembered after I die. But after the event, nothing.

There are those who have suggested that if there is no reward in the afterlife, and we realize that after death we won’t care how we were thought of, then there is no reason to be a good person. That is nonsense. I firmly believe that almost no one thinks about their reward when performing most good acts, nor their punishment when acting badly. I do good acts because, like most of us, I have empathy. When I see someone sad, in pain, suffering, or afraid, I feel badly for them and I want to help ease that condition. When I see someone that is happy, joyous, or simply serene, I feel good for them. I am happy that they are happy. This is automatic. The act is its own reward. I am certainly not thinking about anything that will accrue to me in the afterlife. No one is keeping score. I’m a good person because I’m a person, not because I need to rack up positive points to get into heaven.

But it is still strange to think that Charles Darwin, Jack the Ripper, Adolf Hitler, and Mother Teresa are all the same after death. None of them are aware of their good or bad acts. None of them are aware of their contribution to knowledge, or to kindness, or to evil. None of them are aware. It is nonsensical to talk about whether or not they are aware. They just aren’t. Having your name on a building, or a city or state, plant, animal, geographic feature, or a star or galaxy, means something to those you’ve left behind, and might have thrilled you if you were alive, but is completely meaningless, completely nothingness, once you are dead.

Similarly, whenever conversation turns to the “big bang” theory, people always ask what came before. There has to be something before. It is not possible that there was nothing. Right? What does it mean for there to be no time, no space, nothing? How could the “big bang” possibly have come from… nothing? There must have been something, because nothing cannot be conceived of. It is, again, inconceivable. That there was nothing before the big bang is inconceivable.

Even if there is nothing, there has to be something to contain the nothing. After all, if there is an empty glass, there is still a glass. Yet, there it is. The atheist is forced to accept this. There was nothing before I was born, and there will be nothing after I die. Impossible to contemplate or conceive, yet true.

And so, I go round and round, and round once more, arriving at… nothing. For my entire life, except during those periods when I was unconscious, I have been self-aware. I have been in possession of thought. I have been aware of the world around me. How can I possibly think about nonexistence? I can’t even use the word “think” to think about not thinking.

What is the death of an atheist?