No Pokémon review this week, have some democracy and pie instead

I’ve been a little bit swamped lately with teaching; my students have just handed in their first big assignment and taken their first test of the semester (don’t worry; only a few of them will be executed).  I haven’t finished writing my next Pokémon review, Komala, so instead you’re getting a spiel about some of what I’ve been teaching recently, as well as some pictures of my first attempt at something resembling an English-style pork pie.

This week I’ve been teaching the politics of the Greek Archaic period roughly 700 BC to 480 BC), which means, among other things, talking about the origins of democracy in ancient Athens.  Democracy meant different things to the ancient Greeks than it does to us, and was in some ways a much more radical thing, but in other ways much less.  Most Greek cities had a “political class” of people with the right to participate in all the decisions of the state, and normally this was made up of everyone with a certain amount of property or wealth.  These people could all attend meetings of an “Assembly” that voted on all laws and foreign policy decisions.  Where Greek cities differed was on how inclusive the political class was, and where this placed them on a spectrum from democracy to oligarchy.  The most oligarchic cities, like Corinth, only extended these rights to people who were rich and high-born, because obviously those people must, by definition, be “the best” and therefore the most qualified to guide the city.  More democratic cities might extend those same rights to anyone who owned land (because if you own land in a city, you have more to lose if its fortunes turn sour).  And this is actually kind of a striking thing when you compare it to a modern democracy, because we don’t vote on laws or foreign policy ourselves; we elect representatives to do that.  There is a very real sense in which even this limited, plutocratic form of democracy is “more democratic,” or at least more immediately and directly democratic, than what we do today.


So here’s a pile of ingredients I’ll be using to invoke the pork gods.  I’ve got a couple of recipes that I’ll be vaguely following, and if I wanted to be really traditional I’d include, like, pig’s feet and $#!t to make a jelly for the filling, but frankly let’s not go there.  With pie you have a bit of freedom to ad lib things, depending on what you have to hand.  I’m using ready-made puff pastry, because unless you’re really good at it, making your own from scratch probably isn’t worth it.  I’ll make sweet short pastry, like for a tart, myself, but a good flaky pastry is super labour intensive because of how many times you have to fold in the butter, and honestly the stuff you can buy at a supermarket is fine; it may not win you awards but people are consistently surprised when I tell them it’s not home-made.  First thing to do is chop my vegetables.

So, according to Aristotle’s text Constitution of the Athenians, which is our main source for the origins of Athenian democracy, Athens in the 7th century BC was a strongly oligarchic city where the main magistracy, the Archonship, was shared among a few of the most ancient highborn families of Athens, the Eupatrids.  Archons originally ruled for life, later for ten years, and eventually for one year, and over time the number of Archons increased to nine, partly to serve the evolving needs of the growing city, but probably also to ensure that more members of the Eutpatrid families got a piece of the pie.  At some point there also came to be an institution called the Areopagus Council, made up of everyone who had ever been an Archon.  Law was based less upon a formal code, and more upon the in-person judgements of the Archons, which is fine in a small community where the Archons are universally respected, but less fine in a city that will grow to become one of the greatest in the Greek world.  So, in response to unrest from the city’s “middle class” (a SUPER PROBLEMATIC term that I’m going to use here anyway because it’s easy to understand) a man named Draco was commissioned in (probably) 621 BC to establish a written code of laws and draft constitutional reforms to give some political power to people who, y’know, hadn’t been born with silver spoons jammed in their smug Eupatrid faces.  Draco established an Assembly made up of “all those who bore arms” – probably meaning all of the freeborn adult men with enough money to afford the standard weapons and armour of hoplite heavy infantry – with authority to pass laws, make foreign policy decisions and elect new Archons.  From this class, 401 people would be chosen at random each year to sit on a council that would decide the agenda for meetings of the full Assembly.  The older institutions – the Archons and the Areopagus Council – were retained.  So far so good, but the code of laws that Draco drew up was super… well… draconian (that’s where the word comes from), and made extremely liberal use of the death penalty.  This was, it turns out, not a fantastic recipe for ending civil strife.



What we’re going to do now is take most of this pile of vegetables (I probably didn’t need the whole onion, or all of the second carrot and second stick of celery), throw it in a bowl, and mix it up, by hand, with the pack of pork mince I’ve got on the side there.  In a traditional pork pie the meat in the filling is raw when it goes into the oven, and the pies cook for close to an hour.  While I’m here, I’m also going to chop up some bacon and salami and add those to the mix.  Bacon is at least semi-traditional, salami very much is not, but I’m throwing it in anyway because I LIKE TO COOK FAST AND EAT DANGEROUSLY

What happened with the Athenians was, about 30 years later everyone was still at each other’s throats, only now they were fµ¢&ing executing each other for stealing blocks of cheese or whatever.  So they appointed another dude by the name of Solon, an ex-Archon, to clean up Draco’s mess, and Solon isn’t remembered for setting up what the Athenians understood as “democracy” but he did very much pave the way for it.  Solon formalised four property classes, of “500-bushel-men” (the “1%” in today’s terminology, but probably more like the 0.1%), “knights” (people rich enough to own horses), the “rank-and-file” (everyone who was not super-rich but owned at least a respectable amount of land) and “labourers” (all the other poor bastards), with high offices like the archonship restricted to the top two classes, and some minor offices (as well as membership on the council of 401) open to the third class.  Every freeborn adult male citizen, regardless of wealth, had the right to participate in meetings of the Assembly, and thus to vote on laws, which was one of the more significant things Solon did.


I mean you could probably do this with a wooden spoon or something but there’s something viscerally satisfying about getting in there with your hands and squidging everything around.  This is basically what the filling is; we’ve got to add some seasoning and spice, but this is more or less what we’re putting into the crust of the pie.

According to Aristotle, the three “most democratic” changes Solon made actually had nothing to do with who could vote or hold high office, which is striking because those are the things we normally think of as core to democratic values.  Number one was the abolition of debt-slavery – an institution of the Greek Dark Ages whereby debtors who could not pay their debts, even freeborn Athenians, could be sold into slavery by their creditors – there was no such thing as bankruptcy in ancient Greece (so, hey, your student loan sucks, but it could be worse).  This freed the poor from having to live with the fear of enslavement constantly over their heads, an important step towards economic equality (or at least, a semblance of it).  Number two was that any adult male citizen could seek legal redress for any crime, even when he was not personally the victim.  Ancient Greece didn’t have police or public prosecutors; when a crime was committed, traditionally it was the responsibility of the person wronged (or that person’s family) to seek justice, in the form of a verdict from an Archon.  By giving all citizens “standing” to prosecute any crime, Solon made justice the concern of the entire community, not just individuals.  Number three was that any citizen who was unhappy with the verdict of an Archon in a criminal case, or with any other decision made by any magistrate, could appeal to a trial by jury.  What’s more, the jury courts were one of the things any Athenian could participate in, regardless of property class, so justice was now in the hands of the common people.  Today we take jury duty for granted and treat it as something of an onerous chore, but I think it’s important sometimes to remember what an incredible thing it seems like to people from societies that don’t have that institution.  Aristotle and the Athenians regarded the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers – rather than by the whim of some Archon – as a more radically democratic idea than the right to vote.  I think that’s worth remembering.


Add flavourings and give it another squidge.  Here I’ve got salt, black and white pepper, nutmeg, and parsley flakes.  You should really use fresh parsley if you can but I’M A SOULLESS MILLENNIAL SO I DON’T CARE and also, like, it’s going in a pie, and the difference in flavour between fresh and dried herbs is not that extreme when you’re baking them in a pie, is an opinion that I happen to have.


Y’know what, fµ¢& it, let’s be like Solon and buck tradition; I’m throwing in a teaspoon of curry powder.  AND THANKS TO THE MIRACLE OF COLONIALISM, NO ONE CAN STOP ME

Solon’s reforms pleased exactly no one; the rich wanted to keep more of their traditional power, and the poor wanted them to lose more of it.  Civil strife continued between different aristocratic factions each trying to pander to the demands of the lower classes.  Eventually this culminated (and I’m skipping a lot of detail here, and some fun stories, so look it up) in the elevation of an aristocrat named Peisistratus as a “tyrant.”  “Tyrant” in early Greek politics didn’t necessarily mean a bad ruler, but it did mean a ruler who came to power by unconstitutional means, usually by force and typically with the support of a majority of the lower classes who were frustrated with the unfairness of traditional aristocratic rule.  A lot of tyrants were politically adept reformers who steered their cities toward new economic prosperity.  A lot of their sons were spoiled rich kids who steered their cities toward catastrophic civil war and were booted out in favour of democracies or more open oligarchies.  Peisistratus is supposed to have instituted a radical new tax on agricultural land and used the proceeds to fund important public works, like proper roads and a public supply of drinking water.  He left most of the existing institutions untouched, and is also credited with establishing “deme justices” – travelling officials who would arbitrate disputes in country towns, so that people didn’t have to come to Athens to get the verdict of an Archon.  His kids, Hippias and Hipparchus, flagrantly abused the power they inherited; Hipparchus was murdered in a gay love triangle that turned nasty (yes, really) and Hippias was expelled from the city in disgrace in 510 BC and spent the rest of his life as a courtier in Sardis, the Persian regional capital of Asia Minor.


I kinda like Pepperidge Farms because they just give you square sheets of pastry, which is what I’m used to from Edmonds in New Zealand.  A lot of US brands will give you circles ready-made for a certain diameter of pie tin, as if whatever the fµ¢& it is you think you’re making, they know better what the optimum size, shape and thickness are, so you should just shut up and do as they tell you.  This pastry is a bit thicker than I’d like, but that’s okay because I can roll it out thinner and the company that makes it ISN’T TRYING TO JUDGE ME FOR IT

So what we’re going to do is roll this out a bit, then use it to line some little pie dishes and then cut off the excess with a sharp knife.


Notice the ragged edges, which my mother would term “rustic” and I would term “look I just can’t be fµ¢&ked getting them all nice and neat, okay”


Now we add the filling, then take an egg and a dash of milk and mix them together with a fork.  Use a pastry brush to apply the mixture to the rim of the pie crust; this is what will make the lid stick to it.


Lay your pastry lids over the top, press down the edges so they stick, then brush more egg wash over the top so they’ll be a nice golden brown when they cook.  Then poke holes in the lids with a fork so steam can escape while the pies are baking.

Then it’s into the oven with them!

So back in Athens, the Athenians now have no tyrant and still need a new constitution to address the problems that apparently weren’t solved by Solon’s, and this is where the foundation of the Athenian “democracy” is generally dated, but again, the changes made in 509 BC are not ones that we would consider crucial to a modern democracy.  The new constitution, drawn up by another aristocrat named Cleisthenes, emphasised changes in the meaning of citizenship and Athenian identity.  Athenians had traditionally identified themselves as members of one of four ancestral tribes, which had supposedly been united by the mythical hero Theseus in ancient times, and used patronymics (“son of [your dad’s name]”) the way we use surnames.  Cleisthenes established ten new tribes, named after mythical heroes of Athens.  Each was made up of an equal number of “demes” (local communities) from each of the three regions of Athens’ territory – the coast, the plains, and the city – and instituted the custom of using demonyms (“of [your deme’s name]”) instead of patronyms.  The idea was that people would identify first with their local community, and second with an artificial “tribe” that cut across traditional Athenian political factions and interest groups.  For American readers – imagine if, instead of voting with your state in federal elections, you voted with a “tribe,” named after one of the founding fathers, that contained some people from every state.  And apparently this worked; people started to identify with their demes and their new tribe, and order was kept (more or less) for the better part of a hundred years.


Mmmm… excellent… but our work is not done!  A traditional English pork pie is served cold, and before this can be done, you’re supposed to open a hole in the top and pour in a broth that will set into a jelly.  If you want to be traditional, you’ll make this broth by boiling pig’s feet and bones.  If you want to be sensible, you’ll make it with chicken stock and gelatine.  Since we have already established that I am neither of those things (and my local supermarket was out of unflavoured gelatine today), I’m going to use chicken stock and cornflour (corn starch to American readers).

Cleisthenes instituted two more important changes to the Athenian constitution.  First, and this may not sound democratic at all, he abolished elections for all official positions except the generalship (oh, by the way, yeah, they elected their generals).  Instead of being elected by the assembly, Archons and other magistrates in 5th century BC Athens were chosen at random – they drew lots for it.  At first, only the top two property classes were eligible, as before, but over the course of the century the right was extended to the bottom two classes as well.  By 450 BC, literally any adult male citizen could become one of Athens’ highest officials, just by volunteering his name for the lottery and being randomly selected.  This would sound insane today; you could get someone completely unqualified, someone with no relevant skills or experience whatsoever (I mean, we now know that in America that just happens sometimes, but it’s not baked into the system) – but to the Athenians, that was kind of what democracy was about.  As far as they were concerned, being a citizen was the most relevant skillset and experience for governing citizens.  And because of this, they took political participation very seriously – you have to know how things work, because someday you might be called upon to serve as Archon.  The Athenian word for someone who doesn’t participate in politics was idiotēs – literally the origin of our word “idiot.”


Cornflour needs to cook to turn gelatinous, unlike gelatine which can just set in the fridge, but in principle if I fill these pies up with this mysterious liquid, then stick them back in the oven for a bit… shouldn’t need to be hot, 100º C should do it…

(To be honest with you it probably would have made more sense to put this mixture in when I cooked the pies the first time; you wouldn’t do it that way with the normal gelatine-based methods so that’s not what the recipes say, but if I had been thinking ahead that would have been a better decision)

The last thing Cleisthenes did was establish the custom of ostracism.  Every year, the Assembly would get together and everyone would scribble someone’s name on a broken bit of pottery (the Greek word for this is an ostrakon).  They would all be counted up, and if anyone’s name appeared more than 6000 times, that asshole was gone – exiled from the city for ten years.  This was supposed to prevent the rise of tyrants, by allowing the people to get rid of men like Peisistratus before they could gain enough support to seize power.  In practice, canny political operators quickly learned to take advantage of the system to banish their rivals.  One tradition holds that Cleisthenes himself was the first man to be ostracised under the new laws.  And… you know what, history may have proven dozens of times that this system is super abusable, but I can think of  a couple of politicians back home who could do with this kind of treatment, and I think America might be in a better place right now if both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton could have just been packed off to cool their heels in Monaco or Andorra or somewhere for a decade.


Well, it falls short of being a traditional English pork pie, and the gelatinous part of the filling hasn’t really permeated (it’s all at the sides) but I’ll take it!  Now I just need to let it cool and eat it with a little mustard… and of course, as one final heresy, I have no English mustard, so Dijon style will have to do.

Thank you for joining me for this, the unequivocal weirdest premise for a cooking show ever: a Pokémon blogger rambling about ancient democracies while making pork pies because he’s been too busy to research koalas.  This could definitely get picked up by Netflix.  Maybe if the pie was somehow a metaphor for the Athenian constitution…

One thought on “No Pokémon review this week, have some democracy and pie instead

  1. A crash course in the development of rudimentary democracy, interspersed with a crash course in the development of a pork pie… and the most memorable part of it to me is the word “squidging.” Go figure.


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