28 March 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 6



How to prepare a chicken for roasting

I hardly have time today to write a few lines here. I have a big job in the kitchen: to prepare two chickens that we are going to roast this evening. It’s no small affair. I am going to tell here how I intend to go about it. Maman has shown me well other times how it must be done, but I have a great deal of self-respect and I would quite like, today, to be able to manage all by myself.

First I will pluck the chickens, then I will bleed them by making an incision along one of the thighs. I will take care not to crush the gall bladder in removing the intestines, since that would give the chicken a very bad taste, and I would be obliged to wash the inside of the chicken and to rub it with lemon juice in order to make it edible.

I will carefully set aside the gizzards and the liver that I will use later. Then I will flame the two chickens, to remove the least little fragments of down and of feathers that are attached to the skin. To do this, since we do not have an open fire and only a simple kitchen stove, I will burn a piece of paper in the opening of the oven and I will place the chicken above the flame.

For example, I must not be scatter-brained and allow the skin of my bird to grill, as I did the first time I tried. I will pay close attention this time, and I hope to succeed.

After this, I will truss the chicken, since I have learned how to truss a chicken. You say that this is quite difficult? … No, it’s enough to have a bit of dexterity. I turn the wings of the chicken in such a way that the wingtips lie flat against the back; I cut the legs [the lower part, including the claws], because that is easier; I pull the head of the chicken backward; I press it against the back; I hold all that in place with a string which I wrap several times around the chicken. In this way my bird will have a pretty shape, quite regular, quite rounded.

That’s how I’m going to do it. I’ve got to run now!


Madeleine is happy.

I am quite happy: My chickens are well plucked, well cleaned, well flamed, well trussed. There’s nothing left but to skewer them, to let them roast … and to eat them. This last part of the operation won’t be the least pleasant.

[To copy and to keep]

1. I will use only a bit of spice in cooking, in order to avoid indispositions and illnesses caused by cooking that is overburdened with pepper, with vinegar, with garlic, with pickles, with mustard.

2. When I prepare a sauce with leftover meat that is already cooked, I won’t add the pieces until ten minutes or a quarter-hour before serving, so that they won’t toughen.

3. When I make a roux, I will stir it all the time over the fire, without leaving it for a minute, until it has taken a beautiful reddish color. Then I will remove it from the flame so that it doesn’t turn black.

4. I will remember that mushrooms must not be added to sauces until a few minutes before serving.

5. I will not forget that good sauces are those that are cooked gently and for a long time.

6. When I make a soup, a potage, a sauce, I will always taste at some point before serving.

Madeleine’s stove probably looked much like this one.

Cooking foods

44. To cook good food, it’s necessary to manage the fire with care and intelligence, since there are dishes that must cook fast, others that must cook slowly, and we ruin everything is the fire is too high or not high enough, accordingly.

45. The foods that should be cooked over high flame are those that we roast, grill, fry.
Those that should be cooked over low flame are stews, sauces, smothered meats.

46. The foods that we boil will be good only if the water or the sauce in which they are cooking never stops boiling for as long as the cooking lasts.

47. Roasts are cooked on a skewer, that is simply speared and turning before an open fire, or else placed in a rotisserie before a fire of hot coals.

We also roast in the oven; but the meats cooked in this manner are never as delicate as those that are cooked on a skewer.

At the butcher shop.
Doesn’t it look as if the woman at the center is pleading for mercy for the lamb on the counter? I think she’s already too late.

48. Whatever the manner in which we roast, here are the general rules to observe in the conduct of a roast:
1. We should immediately expose the roast to a high flame so that it will seize, that is to say grill lightly on its surface;
2. We turn the roast toward the fire on each of its sides successively, in such a manner that there is no place that is not perfectly browned;
3. We don’t let the fire die down during the cooking time;
4. We baste with the liquid that falls from the roast and that mixes with the butter or the grease in which we take care to prepare the roast before placing it on the fire.
5. We salt the roast ten minutes before serving, but we don’t base it again until the salt is perfectly melted and it has penetrated into the meat.

49. We need:
A quarter-hour per pound to cook beef and mutton;
Twenty to twenty-five minutes per pound for veal and poultry;
A good half-hour per pound for pork and game.

50. We can tell that the roast is cooked rare when it gives to the touch and when it releases a slight steam.

51. When it is necessary to roast in the oven, it is good to avoid that the roast bathe in its own juice. For this we procure for ourselves a grill which we place on top of the roasting pan, and on top of which we place the roast.

52. Grilled meats are cooked on the grill, above a coal fire that is very hot. During the cooking, we fan the fire, either with a bellows, or with a paper fan, so that it retains its vivacity, which it might lose as the grease drips from the meat.

53. Frying oil is a fatty liquid (butter, grease, oil) which one places over a high flame and in which we throw the food when it is very hot. Thus the foods which are plunged into it will take on a beautiful golden tint and become crispy.

High-frying, adored

54. We fail at frying:
1. If the grease is too hot at the moment when we add the foods;
2. If the grease is not hot enough;
3. If it does not keep an even temperature throughout the cooking time;
4. If we leave that which we wish to fry in the grease either not long enough or too long.

55. We can tell that the frying liquid is hot enough when it begins to smoke and when it no longer sizzles [sings]. Beyond this, we must always test it by throwing into it a small piece of breadcrumb. If the bread instantaneously turns golden, without blackening, the cooking oil is ready.

56. Cooking by smothering is done in a hermetically sealed pot over a low flame.

Meat which is prepared this way renders its moisture while cooking slowly; thus we have no need to add water to the butter or grease we used at the beginning. The steam released by the meat is sufficient.

During cooking, we turn the meat several times, basting it in its liquid.

It is not always recommended to play with a cat while you are plucking a chicken.

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27 March 2010

Bettydämmerung: Anticipation, Satisfaction, & Loss

Mark Indelicato as Justin Suarez, Season 1:
A kind of Neil Armstrong in American television history

Watching Ugly Betty in its final weeks has turned into an emotionally supercharged experience that has little to do with the show’s content and much to do with its cancellation. I can’t wait for each new episode — I’ve even taken to surfing the Internet to read more about upcoming intrigues and resolutions. (I’ve been taking spoilers like medicine, as if they’ll ease my withdrawal symptoms, later.) I’ve enjoyed each episode thoroughly, and I’m delighted by certain plot developments. Yet my pleasure is tempered by the knowledge that, shortly, there won’t be any more Ugly Betty. We’ll never see the all-musical episode that the show’s creator, Silvio Horta, hoped to write, or any of the other strange things that might have befallen his characters. And it’s not merely a few, fondly remembered actors from earlier seasons who won’t be coming back — soon, nobody is coming back. The gang is moving on, and we don’t know whether their new projects will entertain us.

The show’s principal cast: left to right, Vanessa Williams, Mark Indelicato, Tony Plana, Ana Ortiz, America Ferrera, Becki Newton, Eric Mabius, Judith Light, Michael Urie

The rapid course of anticipation, satisfaction, and mourning is singular in my experience, or nearly so. (That’s why I’m recording it here.) For example, I can’t compare my feelings now with those I have toward the end of a good book, that delicious pain I get when I see I have only a few more pages to spend in the company of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. And because nobody has seen the conclusion of Ugly Betty, I don’t have the reassuring reputation that generations of readers gave to Pride and Prejudice: I don’t know yet whether this story will turn out well, as that earlier romantic comedy does. (Rare is the TV show that rates so highly.) Pace, Forrest Gump, but watching the end of Ugly Betty is more like eating the last few chocolates in the box. I liked the ones that came before, but who’s to say what’s in the last one? It could be Hazelnut Creme; it could be Anthrax Ripple.

What will I do without my regular fix of Ana Ortiz fierceness?
Okay, “fierceness” is not a word I should use. I’ll stop now. Sorry.

At least Horta addressed what was for me the most important outstanding business: Betty’s 15-year-old nephew, Justin (played by Mark Indelicato), has a love interest at last, and it’s another boy. Television history has been made. (Not the first gay couple or kiss, but Justin’s age at the time the show started makes him the youngest gay character on prime-time television; arguably, he’s also the best-adjusted.) Thus far, that plot has been depicted honestly and endearingly — and without the After-School Special tropes of gay teen tragedy.

It’s not so much that Justin has come out of the closet, since he wasn’t in one to begin with. Even when he claims to have a crush on a girl, his family assumes he’s gay (which has led to some nice comedy in recent episodes). Justin’s challenge hasn’t been to proclaim who he is, but to understand what his identity means.

His So-Called Life: For Justin,
unlike other young gay characters on TV,
happiness may be a kiss away.

That more philosophical, more hopeful and less melodramatic approach, I realize now, is one reason I wanted so much for Ugly Betty to fulfill the early promise of Justin Suarez. Coming out or coming to terms with being gay is difficult and painful for so many people, but Justin represented a new generation, in a culture more accepting and above all in a family more embracing than those that came before. His sexuality wouldn’t be equated with misery, isolation, and fear: I needed to see that story played out. Maybe it’s a fairy tale (you should pardon the expression), but it’s also an important model of possibility. Other kids, Justin’s age, need that model, and former kids, who weren’t so lucky, can draw comfort from it, too. Other American families can make the possibility real, if they try.

To tell that story, to convey that message, is a powerful achievement for what is in most respects a fluffy, knockabout comedy. But I’ll take good news where I find it, and I’d have been deeply disappointed if Horta had reneged on the promises he made to his audience, the first time Justin Suarez appeared on screen.

Role model for a new generation

As Justin has evolved, he has relied increasingly on Marc Saint James (Michael Urie) for guidance, treating him as an older (gay) brother-figure. As I’ve pointed out, we got early indications that this bond might benefit Marc, as well as Justin, and in recent episodes, that theme has been developed further. Marc understands himself better now; watching Justin embark on the path of love has helped him to see his own need for affection, and his coming-of-age seems closer to realization.

In a beautifully written and delivered speech, Marc explained to Justin what it’s like when people who care for each other kiss. “If you kiss someone with feeling, they know it and you know it,” Marc said. “It’s like everything else goes gray, and you’re the only two people left in the whole world.” Thanks to that description, we knew it was the real thing when at last Justin kissed Austin, his friend from acting class (played by Ryan McGinnis): the color drained out of the background.

Michael Urie as Marc Saint James.
In the show’s moral construct, the more time you spend with the Suarez family,
the better person you become. Marc has been proving that.

Fittingly, since the boys are acting students, and since the episode title was “All the World’s a Stage,” the big moment played out onstage, like one of the scenes they and their classmates just presented in workshop. At first, Justin kept his back turned to Austin (unlikely blocking in real life, but a natural choice in acting class), until Austin said something to make him turn and face him — a typical actors’ exercise. Next came a bit of horseplay; they jostled each other as boys do who can’t put their feelings into words. Lots of subtext, with clear motivation. And then came the high point in the dramatic arc.

Justin: “You’re so in love with yourself!”

Austin: “Wouldn’t you be?”

Though it takes a moment to sink in, the question isn’t a boast, it’s an invitation: Wouldn’t you please love me? The kiss that followed was inevitable.

“You make me so good to be around.
Feeling like you should won’t get you down...

Music up, color down, history made. Hard to imagine how you’d improve that scene; had it run a little longer, I daresay we’d have seen it reenacted in drama classes around the country for years. Despite my worries, the writers, producers, director, and actors of this show recognized the significance of what they were doing, and they responded with superlative work. (And my nagging and ranting here probably had nothing to do with that.)

“...Full bliss every time, receive the sun.
It’s coming on.”
Lyrics from “Valium in the Sunshine,” the song that played under this scene.

Because this is a soap opera, we have to admit the possibility of complications. Though he’s the one who made the first move, Austin ran off after the kiss; we don’t know exactly how he’ll cope, or whether his family will be as accepting as the Suarezes are. And yet, if there’s any consolation to the fact that this plot development has come so late in the show’s run — and we won’t see Justin and Austin become a “Super Couple,” as conventional soap-opera terminology would have it* — it’s that there isn’t much time to explore any possibilities other than a happy ending.

Besides, everything went GRAY. So you just know it’s going to work out for these two. Obviously.

Marc is another story. After that speech about kissing, Justin thanked him: “I feel better now.”

“Good,” Marc replied. “And I have never felt more alone.”

Word on the Internet is that he’ll get a boyfriend before the series ends — though apparently it won’t be the guy I was rooting for. A cute, inexperienced photo-lighting assistant whom Marc met in the Bahamas, Troy was a one-night stand who wouldn’t go away. Matt Newton, the real-life brother of Becki Newton (Amanda), played him in two episodes.

Innocent Troy, the “baby duckling,” with Amanda and Marc:
A nest o’ Newtons confronts Urie.
Did somebody forget to write the scene where Marc and Troy broke up?
Too late now, I guess.

Other happy notes: the show’s casting of Broadway divas and cult actresses in cameo roles continues, with recent appearances by Carol Kane, Kathy Najimy, Donna Murphy, Lainie Kazan, and Dana Ivey. Vanessa Williams as Wilhelmina has never been funnier. And Betty’s braces have come off at last.

Vanessa Williams: Her teeth were already perfect.

Now my greatest worry is that Betty (America Ferrera) will wind up with her boss, Daniel Meade (handsome but dull Eric Mabius). When the series started, their marriage seemed the ultimate goal, a consummation devoutly wished by legions of fans, and the original telenovela did end with the wedding of “Betty la Fea” and her boss. But the characters in Horta’s version have developed differently, the actors themselves are ill-matched (Ferrera is so much stronger), and pairing them off would be too easy and unimaginative. It’s not as if we have to stick around and watch them together, but still.

I’d much rather see something like the late-series episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Mary and Lou Grant go on a date and realize — ecstatically — that “it never would have worked.” What if Betty faces the future like a modern-day Mary Richards, single but turning the world on with her (braces-free) smile?

Betty and Daniel: Noooooooooo!

Or else couldn’t Horta play with our expectations (as he’s heightened them, this whole season, dancing Betty and Daniel closer and closer) and then walk away without addressing them directly? Betty’s love life isn’t the groundbreaking, history-making, potentially trend-setting plot line of this series, after all. In the context of Ugly Betty’s loopy universe, just because you introduce a gun in the first episode, it doesn’t mean you have to fire it in the last.

My second-greatest worry is this: what sort of TV trivia am I going to obsess over when this show has ended? Thank goodness for Glee.

*NOTE: On the Internet, Justin and Austin are widely known already
as “TinTin” and “Au Jus.”

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22 March 2010

Burton’s The Anatomy of Melanchol-Wii

Hell, yeah! Dante, Man of Action

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
con un Howitzer tremendo.”

The immense success of Visceral Games’ Dante’s Inferno, a new adventure game for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Portable, has prompted this writer, who minored in Renaissance Lit, to wonder how I can grab a piece of the lucrative action. Really, just looking at the body-built, armor-plated Dante Alighieri of the video game (how did Beatrice resist him?), I can think of a great number of masterpieces even better suited to this purpose. I propose a few examples.

Cervantes’ Don Quixote
¡Hasta la vista, baby! Rape, pillage, and plunder your way across La Mancha in this fast-paced game. You control the third-person protagonist, Knight of the Whoa! Countenance, in mortal conflict with wizards, giants, dragons, enchanted windmills with titanium blades, and the Spanish Inquisition. Your primary weapon is Sancho Panzer, an armored vehicle outfitted with laser cannon and short-range missiles. As you accumulate points by annihilating your enemies, you acquire additional powers, including the ability to transform Aldonza into Dulcinea. Which won’t help you win the game, actually, but will make the screen images a lot more attractive.

Machiavelli’s The Prince
A combat game centered on the protagonist’s attempt to take control of a decadent Italian court, using only Backstabbing Daggers (very big swords, see above), Treachery (a sort of futuristic Gatling gun) and Cunning (a thermonuclear device). Your enemies include merchants, artists, women, foreigners, the Pope, and everybody else in this suspenseful game, where danger lurks behind every orderly fluted pilaster. And be careful! You may be susceptible to Poison Packs … unless you can get your hands on the mystical Mandrake Antidote.

Boccaccio’s The Decameron
A network game, The Decameron takes ten players through ten levels, each of which is subdivided into ten sub-levels. Advance by using the power of Copia and the ability of Virtù; earn bonus points by hitting Bawdy Boxes with your Ribald Rockets. Store extra energy in your Codpiece. Low-scoring players may be eliminated by the Plague, if the Pox doesn’t get you first. You’ll never look at hotseating and multitapping the same way!

(Beginners and smaller networks may prefer Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron.)

Explosive Belching is one of Gargantua’s most potent weapons.

Rabelais’ Gargantua Versus Pantagruel
Designed for younger players, this PG-rated game takes gigantic, bone-crushing characters on a death- and taste-defying race through five levels of increasing difficulty. In Level 1, eat and drink everything in sight, then vomit and shit it all out, destroying your enemies. In Level 2, your dad gets to do more or less the same thing. In Levels 3 and 4, you’ll embark on the challenging Quest for the Perfect Arse-Wipe, scoring points for every sheep you can toss into the ocean along your way. Finally, in Level 5, you’ll debate the qualities of an ideal marriage, then blow up some books and a couple of abbeys, and get drunk and puke again. Fun for the whole family!

The Collected Poetry of François Villon
Driving a turbo-powered, retrofitted motorcycle through the subterranean vaults of post-nuclear Paris, your protagonist battles pimps, whores, thieves, beggars, spies, assassins, rival poets, cuckolded husbands, and the kings’ soldiers for control of something I’ll figure out later. (Gold, maybe. Yeah, gold sounds right.) Your primary weapon is The Pen, which is a big sword; your secondary weapon is The Sword, which is an even bigger sword. The ultimate weapon is, of course, The Penis Mightier, a colossal screwdriver: earn extra points by screwing anything that moves.


Really, the possibilities are nearly endless. A good illustrated edition of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is practically a video game already. (Monsters! Magic! Battles! Can you score the bonus points required to emerge unscathed from the Valley of Lost Things?) And let’s not even get started on Shakespeare — Titus Andronicus alone could provide countless hours of gory gaming excitement!

Game designers, I await your calls.

Petrarch’s Laura di Croft, anyone?
(You don’t want to see the picture I found for Chaucer’s Wife of Bloodbath.)

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21 March 2010

Liz Carpenter

You can see in her eyes that she’s up to something —
And don’t think for a minute she doesn’t know
how to use that cane on you.

Liz Carpenter was one of the most charming women I ever met. Just the sound of her voice over the telephone was enough to win me over: there was something so buttery about her drawl, as if she’d just eaten a big old slice of jalapeño cornbread, that you wanted to share it. And her Texas accent reminded me of my sweeter little old lady relatives. But as a tough reporter and an even tougher political operative, Liz knew when to turn off the charm and to shove you aside or to bulldoze you into line. Mercifully, I never experienced those sides of her — I might not have survived. I’m a good deal more delicate than Liz Carpenter ever was.

Salado-born and Austin-educated, she’s best known for serving as press secretary to the First Lady during the Johnson Administration, somewhat less known for continuing to serve unofficially in that capacity for another four decades, until Lady Bird passed away. If you made the mistake of saying “beautification” instead of “Mrs. Johnson’s pioneering environmentalism,” you’d hear from Liz; and when I tagged along with Dan Rather for an interview at the Johnson Ranch, Liz was right there. She was also an influential feminist, a power behind the throne in Texas state politics, and a trusted adviser to Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, each of whom took Liz’s basic principles in directions that Liz didn’t go — but might have.

At the White House

So it’s entirely possible that Liz was bulldozing me all along, and that, because of her charm, I simply didn’t notice it. It was flattering in the extreme that she sometimes called the Rather office — just to speak to me. Unlike so many others, who considered me a waste of time, an obstacle on the path to my boss, Liz gave every indication of enjoying our conversations. She always made a point of referring to my family in Goliad and to my parents’ affiliation with The University of Texas, their alma mater as well as hers. Maybe she had notecards in front of her to jog her memory of me, but I never saw them. (And honestly, it would be kind of flattering just to think that someone like her might keep a file on someone like me.)

Liz was a pro who knew how offices like mine worked, and she’d been a gatekeeper herself. She knew that I’d drop everything to take her calls, even in the middle of a broadcast (and I’d apologize for keeping her on hold, even when I hadn’t), and that, because I was at the anchor’s right hand, I could transmit her messages and steer conversations in directions she sought, even when she wasn’t around. She didn’t need to pester Dan. Liz knew what so few press reps and publicists do: when to step back. That’s part of what I mean by charm.

This is the picture that ran with obituary in the New York Times. I hesitated to run it here, because frankly I think Liz would prefer a picture in which she looked prettier. However, I draw your attention to the prominent placement of the book she’s holding — it’s one of her own, Start with a Laugh, a guide to public speaking. Liz was always working, always pitching, always trying to win over somebody. But she was always laughing, too.

When you’re a boy growing up in the South, you’re born familiar with the phenomenon of the gracious lady who wields more power — psychological, political, sexual — than you do, more even than you can imagine. “Steel magnolia” is the stereotype, and it’s one reason so many Southern men are more feminist than they know: they’ve been surrounded by superior women all their lives.

Liz wasn’t all sweetness and perfume. She had plenty of spice — there was jalapeño in her cornbread, as I say. But she could very easily persuade you to do something without your ever realizing it hadn’t been your idea in the first place.

If I hadn’t agreed with her on so many points already (something she surely recognized, though professionally I was forbidden to say so), I might have resented her. But I admired her wholeheartedly, and nobody could make me laugh the way Liz Carpenter could.

I encourage you to check out Liz Carpenter’s many books, though most are currently out of print. Her White House memoir, Ruffles and Flourishes, is ranked as one of the best of its kind by Dan Rather (who would know, having read them all) and by my mother, too. Unplanned Parenthood, the astonishing story of how, in her 70s, she adopted her late brother’s three children, is also a helluva good read. Of course, Liz herself would have found a much more gracious, witty, and subtle way to make this endorsement.

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La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 5



A good dish prepared with leftovers — It’s necessary to taste food before serving it at table

At last I know how to make a sauce rousse! [Sauce based on a roux, otherwise known as flour-based gravy.]

If I say “at last,” it’s because, for quite a few days, I tried and tried without being able to succeed. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to blend exactly, in the right proportions, butter, flour and water. What else is quite difficult, is letting the flour take color just enough for it to have a beautiful color, without getting burned or without being too pale.

It’s all a matter of finding a use for some leftover beef roast, and without resorting, let it be understood, to vinegar, pickles, shallots, all those things Papa is forbidden to eat, at least for a certain while longer.

Maman wasn’t at home, neither was our good neighbor, Tante Victoire, to whom I would have gone to ask advice. Both of them had taken the train that morning to visit a neighboring village, to see Tante Victoire’s notary. They were not supposed to return until the evening, just in time to sit down at table. So I was left to my own forces, to my own knowledge, which is not yet very extensive, despite my willingness and my application.

For lunch that noon, everything went smoothly: boiled potatoes en robe de chamber [in their skins; literally: “in their nightgowns”], as we say, with fresh butter; then a bit of cold roast beef from the night before; that famous beef of which the last leftover was to be used by me in a sauce for the evening meal.

Prior to being left over: Rôti de boeuf
Since Papa’s gastroenteritis, Madeleine would not have stuck the roast with garlic.

“Let’s go, Madeleine,” I said to myself, “take heart! Don’t be scatterbrained! Be very careful! You’ll succeed.”

The time to start dinner having arrived, I cut up my beef in slices, I pay attention to the amount and I see clearly that it is sufficient. So I prepare my sauce.

My stove worked very well. I placed my saucepan there with a good piece of butter in it. The butter having melted, I throw in a spoonful of flour and stir it in. I believe that it looks as if I need to add some flour, since the mixture seems to me still too liquid. I take another spoonful and I add it, and without stopping I stir again over the flame.

“Good,” I said to myself, “I believe that will go well. Now the flour is taking color, it’s turning yellow, a lovely reddish yellow…. It’s reddening further…. Stop now!”

I quickly removed my saucepan from the fire and I poured the water needed for the sauce. Then I added two small white onions, a bouquet of parsley, some salt, a pinch of pepper. Then I placed my meat cut in slices and I let it cook over a low flame, on a corner of the stovetop.

During this time, I began to peel some white mushrooms, those little mushrooms that in some places we call champignons de Paris; I cut them up, I washed them several times, and I added them to the sauce.

My ragoût cooked that way for an hour. It filled the kitchen with a very agreeable odor, and I was quite happy, since I understood so well that it would be good and that my mother, upon her return, would be enchanted to see me so able and so attentive.

Everybody arrived on time, Maman and Tante Victoire, returned from their little trip, Papa coming out of his workshop, my brother and my little sister coming back from school.

As soon as she entered the apartment, Maman went into ecstasies: “But smell that now, Victoire, what a good odor Madeleine’s cooking spreads.”

“That’s what I was going to say to you, my dear,” said Tante Victoire. “I can tell that there are mushrooms in there and that we are going to have a treat.”

With what pleasure I brought my dish to the table, once the soup bowl had been removed. We served, we tasted the sauce: it was perfect.

“Madeleine, how many times did you taste the sauce?” said Maman.

“I didn’t taste it at all, Maman,” I answered, “since I’m not gourmande [I don’t overeat].”

“It has nothing to do with overeating,” said my mother with a laugh. “I will even say that you shirked your duty and that it’s a stroke of luck that your sauce turned out just right. A good cook tastes her sauce at least once to be sure that everything is good. If there’s not enough salt, or pepper, if the sauce is too thick, too light, not flavored enough, she can fix the problem. And once the problem is fixed, she tastes again to verify if the sauce is better than before.”

“Well then,” cried out my little sister Jeanne, “I won’t even bother to ask before sampling all the dishes! Better ten times than not at all!”

“So,” said my father in good fun, “you have really found your vocation* as a cook. And it is Madeleine who will give you lessons when you are bigger,” he added, turning to me.

“I don’t ask for anything better, Papa,” I answered with a bit of pride.

“You’re going to say that I’m being quite difficult,” said Tante Victoire, “perhaps that I’m a complainer, but I want to make Madeleine the most perfect cook and point out to her the defects in her sauce.”

“What are they?” I asked urgently, since I don’t get angry at the observations of my good friend, who acts only in my best interests.

“Voilà,” said Tante Victoire. “You made your roux very well, prepared your sauce very well, and it is a good idea to add these mushrooms. But tell me, at what moment did you put the meat in the sauce?”

“Immediately after the sauce had been prepared, so that everything would cook together.”

“That’s precisely where you were wrong, my dear child. See how the meat is dry, tough. Ah! If you had been making a ragoût of raw meat, not cooked in advance and not roast beef, you would have done well to act as you did; but for meats that are already cooked and that one wishes to use in a sauce, you must not add the meat until ten minutes or a quarter-hour before serving, otherwise the meat will toughen.

“As for the mushrooms, I taste the flavor well enough, but I don’t see a single piece….”

I interrupted Tante Victoire: “I assure you, aunt, that I put a lot of them in, just the same.”

Above all, let’s not talk about the Dreyfus Affair!
...They talked about it.

“Oh! I know it well,” said Tante Victoire with a smile, “but you were in too great a hurry to add them to your sauce. They should have been thrown in more or less at the same time as the meat, that’s to say a quarter-hour before dinner, since it’s a food that melts, if you will, when the cooking is prolonged.”

A blush came to my face, no doubt, since Tante Victoire added quickly: “No matter, your sauce is excellent, and I congratulate you on it. There are quite a few professional cooks who wouldn’t do it any better.”

Then, turning to my mother, she added in a fairly low voice: “It’s true, my dear, this child has an astonishing disposition for cooking.”

Oh! How that, said with sincerity to my mother, gave me pleasure! At last! I could really help Maman, second her in caring for the household, and do so without making too many foolish errors! At last, I am going to be able to make myself really useful, to be agreeable to my father, to prove to him that I am grateful to him for all that he has done for me! Here is something truly very sweet to my heart; seeing that my efforts to do well did not go wrong, I feel overcome by a great joy that makes me want to run, to sing.

While I went back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, and from the dining room to the kitchen, serving and clearing, I sang softly under my breath, in fact, as I crossed the hallway. Maman, who didn’t see at all what was going on with me at that moment, cried out to me: “So you’re really content, Madeleine?”

“Oh! Oui, Maman,” I answered her, “more than you can imagine.”

Next time: Madeleine plucks and trusses a chicken for roasting in a wood stove.
(I told you this book was from 1895.)

Tante Victoire and Madeleine:
All the better to cook, my dear!

*Madeleine’s glossary defines “vocation” as “a particular disposition to exercise an art or a profession.”

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20 March 2010

Fess Parker

The historical Boone didn’t wear a coonskin cap,
but because Crockett did, Parker did, playing both roles.
And so I don’t know which man he’s supposed to be in this picture.

For most of my early childhood, Fess Parker was my favorite actor, with few if any rivals. So it’s with regret that I realize, upon word of his death at the age of 85, that I haven’t gone back to look at his work in many years. I remember a mellow voice, a quiet good humor, and an upright dignity that served him well as a Western hero and that, in retrospect, mirrored qualities I saw in my father. But at the age of four, what I cared about was the adventure.

Born too late to experience firsthand the Davy Crockett craze of the mid-1950s, I was right on time to be enthralled by the Daniel Boone TV series. Very often Parker’s exploits inspired our playground games, and we kids discussed the show over lunch.* Other boys got store-bought coonskin caps (even Bernard, growing up in France, owned one) and buckskin jackets, but not me. This was a sore spot, and I decided to make my own, cutting up my parents’ bedspread in the expectation that, somehow, its many jagged pieces would come together in the perfect replica of Parker’s costume.**

As Davy Crockett, the Congressman:
Lower Taxes! More Texas!
Remember the Alamo! Remember the Appropriations Bill!

Among Parker’s other noteworthy screen credits is Old Yeller, in which he plays the long-absent father. The troublesome yet loving dog arrives on the scene just as Parker goes off on a cattle drive, and only when Yeller has met his fate does Parker return, as if they’re different incarnations of the same protective paternal spirit. Except that, you know, only one of them steals chickens.

I’m sure that Parker’s TV shows and movies taught me something. Daniel Boone, for example, was in some way about the importance of community, and Dan’l, while always an independent soul, was less a solitary hero than the leader of a small frontier town. Whatever he did, he did for his family, for his friends, for his neighbors. Davy Crockett combined tall tales with Texas history (which in some ways is the biggest tall tale of them all), and probably instilled some sort of patriotism in me, a worthy goal in my parents’ eyes; even the fact that Parker himself was Texan (born in Fort Worth) was meaningful.

…TV’s Daniel Boone: How many accidents resulted
when children copied his axe-throwing stunts?
Oh, if I had a nickel for every time Mom told me to put down that hatchet!

His function as a role model was explicit in his work. As a child, I understood that, just as Tommy Kirk watched Parker be a man in Old Yeller, so did I. And some day I, like Tommy, would have to shoulder a man’s responsibilities. And Parker wouldn’t be present to guide me, any more than he was for the boy on the screen.

But what else were Parker’s characters teaching me? I’d have to go back and look before I could say for sure. Early ’60s TV transmitted a lot of dubious messages. But no matter, really. Fess Parker made me want to run wild and free in the great outdoors. Through his steely eyes, I saw the vast Western frontier in my own backyard, and adventure around every corner of my suburban block; I saw possibility wherever I looked. And that, my friends, is persuasive acting — because it’s entirely possible that these ideas might never have occurred to me without his influence.

With Tommy Kirk, in Old Yeller.
“And while I’m away, son, you’ll have to do the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life, which will reduce future generations to sobbing fits and probably traumatize you for the rest of your days. If you screw up even a little, your mother and your kid brother will die agonizing deaths. That’s what it means to be a man. Sorry I won’t be around to help you through this ordeal; I’ll see you when I get back….
We’ll go fishing.”

*NOTE: Younger readers probably don’t know about one of the great viral rumors of the mid-1960s: namely, that Daniel Boone’s trusted Indian sidekick, Mingo (Ed Ames, see below), and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy, of course) were played by the same actor. Though I didn’t start watching Star Trek until I was in junior high school, and thus had no idea who Spock was, I weighed in on this debate authoritatively and often.

**I had no concept of needle and thread; the costume was supposed to assemble itself by magic. I later learned that Mom had bought that bedspread to cheer herself up after President Kennedy was assassinated. Seeing it reduced to scraps and fluff on the bedroom floor, she was confronted with the necessity to move forward — “with vigor,” but without that material comfort. Really, I was helping her to stand on her own two feet, to face up to adversity by drawing, like a Fess Parker hero, on her inner resources. So why do I feel so bad — to this day — about having done it?

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19 March 2010

Art Films

There’s something to be said for sloppiness. This thought occurs as I watched, in quick succession, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-action animated film; and Tom Ford’s A Single Man, a live-action drama. Neither can be termed a conventional “art film,” and yet both movies are showcases for three-dimensional artworks. Anderson’s movie relies on beautifully crafted dolls (and brilliant voiceover work by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, and others); Ford’s, on exquisitely tailored costumes and impeccably decorated interiors. Ultimately, while Ford’s movie hit closer to home (or should have), I found Fantastic Mr. Fox far more persuasive — and the reason, I think, is its sloppiness.

Anderson’s figures recall those of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit movies, in which the animators are encouraged to leave their fingerprints on the clay models, keeping the visual style more personal and thus more characterful. In the same way, there’s no attempt to maintain “continuity” between shots of Anderson’s critters, and their shifting fur patterns become a quirk, a style. You don’t ever feel as if you’re watching an impersonal, industrialized entertainment machine, like so many computer-animated movies: a handmade movie seems homemade, friendlier, more playful. Those elements that are rendered more smoothly and realistically — especially Mr. Fox’s quite eloquent eyes — become more prominent, and therefore more expressive. (We pay closer attention than we would to Shrek’s eyes, for example.)

Fox and His Friends

And since the movie is about ingenious solutions and celebrating unique abilities — about friends who come to understand themselves for what they are, and in the process of that understanding, are saved — the look is a perfect match for the story Anderson is telling. Even though somebody else is doing the animation, and even though (for once) he’s using source material written by somebody else, it’s as personal as any of Anderson’s live-action movies.

Meeting cute: Goode and Firth*

A Single Man is a personal vision, too, but in this tale of suffering among the prosperous, the good taste is so relentless that I left the theater eager to break something precious and to wear ugly, sloppy clothing. (Actually, I was already halfway there.) It’s not a bad film, but it cheats: George Falconer, the immaculate character played by Colin Firth, does in fact let his emotions spill out, in extremely messy fashion, in two scenes with his best friend, played by Julianne Moore.

Ford is so nonplussed by this that he can’t even come up with dialogue for the more important sequence: having just learned that his lover (Matthew Goode) has been killed in an accident, Firth charges into the pouring rain, runs to Moore’s house, and collapses, sobbing, in her arms. We see that they’re speaking, but all we hear is the music of the soundtrack.

Tears in the rain: Moore and Firth

Firth does an absolutely heroic job of showing us both the depth of his character’s feeling and the extraordinary effort required to maintain that unnaturally serene, crisp and polished surface. (He wears a pressed, tailored shirt and necktie even to take his morning crap.) I just wished that Ford had worked equally hard to tell that story. He certainly didn’t reveal why everybody in the movie is as perfectly dressed and groomed as George Falconer, whose neat-freak self-control thus becomes less extraordinary, and less interesting.

Warning: Not all L.A. hustlers look like this guy.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a fashion designer finds surface images so seductive, or, for that matter, that he’d hire a top model (Jon Kortajarena) to play a parking-lot rentboy. Yet Ford doesn’t seem to understand that no English professor in the history of the world has ever dressed so nattily as does Firth’s George Falconer (not only on what he intends to be his last day of life, but every day that we see him) — or that a couple of flaws might be revealing.

Even when a guy is striving to carry out the most perfectly ordered plan, there will sometimes be a hair out of place. Just look at another man with a plan: Mr. Fox. His message — “We’re all wild animals” — has a place in A Single Man, too.

Creature comforts: Mr. and Mrs. Fox

*NOTE: The publicity stills I found for A Single Man are, almost without exception, close-ups — which is why you can’t tell that Matthew Goode is wearing a naval lieutenant’s uniform in this scene. Interestingly, the French subtitles identify him as a soldier, and thus we can deduce the inevitable result of not liberating this country every few years: the French no longer know one branch of the U.S. armed services from another.

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17 March 2010

John Mosedale

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
John in a playful mood
Photo courtesy of the Mosedale Family

Television news is fundamentally deceptive, since the viewer sees only one or two of the people who make it possible. Except when something goes wrong, the producers, writers, bureau chiefs, researchers, assistants, directors, camera and Teleprompter operators, sound technicians, hair stylists, makeup artists, and set decorators remain invisible and nearly anonymous: at home, we see only the anchor or the reporter.

This is why I don’t have a picture of John Mosedale [UPDATE: I do now, as you see at the top of the page], one of the most gifted and generous writers I’ve ever known; he died on the Ides of March. A polymath equally at home in conversations about sports or about Shakespeare, John wrote books on football and baseball, a memoir, a novel, and theater criticism — and last but not least, words for Dan Rather to speak on the CBS Evening News.

Writing for the Evening News was challenging work, because the script was uncommonly mutable. Taped pieces might run long or short, urgent news might break, other stories might be cut, all circumstances that required revision of the anchor’s text, up to and during the live broadcast. Dan himself, being a writer and, moreover, the managing editor, was inclined to make last-minute changes, and a pen stroke or an ad lib from him could wipe out the punchy, balanced sentence that another man had spent the day laboring over.

In short, the newsroom is no place for a would-be Shakespeare. And yet writing television news is an art: that of concision and compression, of distillation and summation, of truth and clarity above all. The prose is rarely quotable, and stylish only when all other requirements have been met. If you have much of an ego, you’re better off pursuing some other line of work — such as anchoring, or blogging.

The CBS Broadcast Center, New York City

Nobody was more gifted in the (mostly thankless) pursuit of this art than the writers of the Evening News, when I worked there, and yet for all their excellence, there numbered not a showboat or a prima donna among the lot. Quiet, studious, hardworking, they looked and often behaved as if they’d stepped out of the English faculty of some small college: Lee Townsend (the head writer, like the chairman of the department); Tom Phillips (a real-life professor); young Paul Fischer and Jerry Cipriano (possibly doctoral candidates); and the most professorial of all, John Mosedale himself, with his signature bowties.

Sequestered as I was in Dan’s office, I didn’t have a great deal of contact with most of the writers. But John encouraged my work and made a point of chatting with me about film and theater, our shared interests. I couldn’t wait to tell him about an actress I’d “discovered,” and typically I’d walk away with a list of four more of her movies to watch. Even a brief word with him could make my day.

He was one of the kindest men I ever knew, and nobody’s praise meant more to me. I wish I could say that I’ve followed his example in the years since then. It doesn’t take much for an older man to boost the confidence of a junior colleague, but it’s important work and worthwhile. John took it seriously and, so far as I could tell, joyfully. Most folks don’t leave a legacy when they leave the workplace, but John surely did.

I lost touch with him after I left CBS, and it was only a few weeks ago that a former colleague put us in contact again. John had written a review of Jude Law’s Hamlet — not merely a review but an account of his trip to the theater, of the planning and loving care required of his beautiful wife, Betty, and their family to get him there. His gift for concision ever refined, the article also entailed a thumbnail sketch of his lifelong love of Shakespeare, tinted with the awareness that, in all likelihood, this would be the last play he ever saw.

We exchanged a couple of e-mails, and among his last words to me were true to form.

“Keep on writing,” he wrote. It’s because of mentors like John Mosedale that I can.

And that’s part of our world tonight.
Good night, sweet prince.

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