Archive for October, 2010

How to Milk a Carnation: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

TV premiere week has come and gone. Veni, video, vici, as they used to say at MTV.
I am not unhappy with this season’s televised offerings. Nevertheless, I would trade any (perhaps all) of the shows currently on the air for a few episodes of Burns and Allen.
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show celebrates its diamond anniversary today. It debuted on CBS on October 12, 1950.
George Burns and Gracie Allen were hardly strangers to entertainment when their television program went on the air.
The two had worked together for almost 30 years in vaudeville, in films, and on the radio—and each went through years of show-business experience separately before their meeting in 1922 (or 1923; accounts vary).
In some ways, the basics of their act had barely changed over the years. As always, Gracie played a “dumb Dora” character whose reworking of facts and words amused audiences. As her straight man George cued audiences on how to interpret her zaniness.
Nevertheless, the pair incorporated a few changes into their television show, which was written by George Burns himself along with an experienced stable of writers.
First, George’s character steps out of the action of the show to address the audience and comment on the plot. He is part stage manager, part actor, part Greek chorus, part narrator, and part master of ceremonies.
Second, the pair played “themselves,” celebrity performers George Burns and Gracie Allen, living in Beverly Hills, California, not just characters named George and Gracie.
Eventually, their son Ronnie joined the cast as himself. Their announcer (first Bill Goodwin and later Harry Von Zell) played their announcer, who extols the virtues of the sponsors’ products, most notably Carnation Evaporated Milk. 

Gracie is always fascinated by the idea of getting milk from carnations.

Early on in the series, George’s narrator observes that the show has “more plot than a variety show and not as much as a wrestling match.” In fact, the plot is generally set off by one of Gracie’s misunderstandings—or, as I like to call them, reinterpretations–of a situation.
The plot is resolved when it is time to end the episode, often in a rather cursory manner. For example, George once settles a court battle by informing the judge that he will never work on The Burns and Allen Show again if he doesn’t wind up the case in a hurry.
A fairly typical plot comes in an episode titled “We’re Not Married” in which Gracie and her loyal friend Blanche Morton (played by Bea Benaderet) have just seen the Ginger Rogers film of that title. It revolves around the discovery by a number of couples that the judge who married them several years earlier forgot to renew his license.
Gracie observes that the judge in the movie (played by Victor Moore) looks like the judge who married her to George—and promptly jumps to the conclusion that she and George have never really been married.
When George informs her that Victor Moore didn’t marry them, she only responds, “Why didn’t you tell me then? I could have spent our honeymoon looking for a husband.”
George tries a number of tricks to get Gracie to believe that they are legitimately married, eventually importing his best man, Jack Benny, to argue his case.
A bare plot synopsis doesn’t capture the magic of Burns and Allen. I could give you many reasons for watching it and, I hope, loving it. Here are three.
First, despite—or perhaps because of—the decades Burns and Allen spent working with similar material, the couple’s performances are amazingly fresh. George Burns is obviously having the time of his life. And Gracie Allen is such a strong actress that her character’s “illogical logic” comes across as authentic and rather sweet.
Second, the program presents a delightfully egalitarian view of marriage. George’s character never talks down to Gracie—or if he does, he regrets it. Their marriage, like their ongoing vaudeville routine, is one long conversation between people who may not always understand each other but clearly always love, respect, and enjoy each other.
Finally, I love the way Burns and Allen explores the push-pull between narration and language, between linear thinking and intuition.
George’s straight man/narrator should be in control of the plot; he has many more lines than Gracie and knows far more about what is going on in each episode than she does. He works hard to entertain viewers.
Nevertheless, Gracie’s character derails every single plot (and delights every viewer) with absolutely no visible work, simply by being herself and challenging the meaning of a few words. George’s reassertion of the logic of narrative at the end of each episode never has the power of Gracie’s disruptions of the plot and their life. And linearity never quite rules. 

Gracie Allen’s health and a desire to live a quiet life after years of nonstop work led her to retire in 1958. Her heart gave out in 1964. It took George Burns years to regain a foothold in the entertainment world without her. He finally made it as a solo artist in 1975, when he won an Academy Award for playing an elderly vaudeville veteran in The Sunshine Boys.

Anecdotes about his late wife and the daffy character she played continued to pepper his stand-up work and the books he wrote until he died in 1996, having just fulfilled his ambition to turn 100.
It’s hard to determine the accuracy of any of those anecdotes. In the foreword to George Burns’s book I Love Her, That’s Why, his pal Jack Benny wrote:
Some of the episodes [related by George] I’m sure are true. Some of them will have a basis of truth and then will develop into the damndest lies you have ever read…. Sometimes at a party when [George] is telling a long story about me, he is so convincing that I have to take him into the other room and say, “Did that really happen to me?” He says, “Of course not. It was Harpo Marx, but Harpo isn’t here and you are. 

In the case of George Burns and Gracie Allen, the only truth one can discern with certainty is that the pair loved each other, on and off the television screen. And that’s probably the only truth that matters.

Inspired by Gracie Allen Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese
Although Gracie Allen’s TV character doesn’t spend a lot of time cooking, she does enter the kitchen from time to time, with predictably confusing results.
My friend Jack recently reminded me that one of Gracie’s signature dishes is roast beef. She preheats the oven and puts in one large roast and one small roast. When the little one burns, the big one is done.
Naturally, the character spends a lot of time cooking with evaporated milk, even if she never does figure out how to milk a carnation. Announcer Bill Goodwin is fond of pumpkin pie made with evaporated milk. (For a variation on this recipe, see last year’s “Pumpkin Pie Plus” recipe.)
I decided to make my own evaporated-milk dish. I was inspired by my friend Kelly Morrissey, who told me she had made roasted butternut squash into a lovely pasta sauce with the addition of spices and a little cream.
If you want to use cream instead of evaporated milk in this recipe, please do; I love cream! The evaporated milk was actually quite tasty, however.
The squash gives the dish a lovely color, a delicate flavor, and a remarkably smooth consistency.
1 small to medium butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cloves garlic, minced
several sprigs of sage, cut into small pieces
olive oil, salt, and pepper as needed
3/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup evaporated milk, plus up to 3/4 cup more as needed (if you’re making the dish with cream, use plain milk for the additional moisture)
a generous dash of cayenne pepper
1 pound pasta, cooked according to package directions (I used wagon wheels because I find them entertaining and not too big to handle)
3 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (or to taste)
several sprinkles of paprika
In a Dutch oven at moderate temperature (350 degrees), roast the squash pieces uncovered, garlic, and sage in the olive oil, adding salt and pepper generously.
When the squash begins to soften, pour the water into the dish and stir. Cover and continue to cook until the squash softens completely. The cooking time should take somewhere between 30 minutes and 1 hour, depending on the age and density of your squash.
Remove the pot from the oven and allow it to cool for a few minutes. (Leave the oven on.) Carefully ladle the solids and liquids into a food processor or electric mixer, and mix until smooth. Mix in the nutmeg, 3/4 cup evaporated milk, and cayenne.
Grease a 2- to 3-quart casserole dish, and combine the cooked pasta and most of the cheese in it. Stir in the squash mixture. Your dish should be moist but not swimming in liquid. If it is not moist enough, add more milk. Top with the remaining cheese and the paprika.

Bake for half an hour. Serves 8 to 12.

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Eat Me! Apple Bread

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

At this season of the year we always have lots and lots of apples in our entryway. Some come from the trees in our front yard (I have no idea what variety of apple grows there; we just call them “tree apples”) and some from nearby orchards.
It always seems to me that the apples are begging to be eaten. Naturally, I am happy to oblige. I eat a lot of them raw, but I also include them in cooking and baking.
Here’s a quick way to use up a couple of apples and make one’s family happy. My mother prefers to nibble on this bread with a mid-day glass of cider while I like to eat it for breakfast.
The Bread
1 cup canola oil
1-1/2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups grated raw apple (packed a bit into the measuring cup)
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the oil and sugar, and beat in the eggs. Combine the dry ingredients and add them to the previous mixture. Stir in the apples, raisins, and nuts (if desired). Bake in greased loaf pans until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (about 45 to 60 minutes). Makes 2 loaves.

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The Ponder Heart

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Image by Lee Peters, adapted from cover art, Vintage Paperbacks, 1954 (original artist unknown)

Charlemont, Massachusetts, is a musical town.
With only about 1300 residents it manages to support a summer chamber-music series, Mohawk Trail Concerts, as well as a yearly reggae festival and frequent performances by singer Charlotte Dewey, the co-owner of and spirit behind the Charlemont Inn.
The town has never hosted an opera, however … until now.
On Friday and Saturday, a concert production of The Ponder Heart will debut at the Charlemont Federated Church. The opera was composed by Alice Parker, a splendid musician and a loyal NOT (neighbor of Tinky).
Eudora Welty’s short novel The Ponder Heart first appeared in the New Yorker in 1953 and was published in book form the following year.
Alice adapted it into a short opera in 1982 with Eudora Welty’s blessing. Thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and several local cultural councils, the upcoming production will reintroduce this  humor-filled musical gem to the public and provide a concert recording for future listening. 

As I type, Alice’s Musicians of Melodious Accord are arriving to fill up houses all over Charlemont, Heath, and Hawley and get ready for their final rehearsals. 

Alice Parker (Courtesy of Melodious Accord)

I haven’t seen the opera, although I have read the novella—a delightful comic Gothic piece set in Mississippi in the 1930s.
Narrator Edna Earle Ponder is a character with whom I can identify. She tells anyone who will listen, “It’s always taken a lot out of me, being smart.” I have often felt this way myself.
Like me, Miss Edna Earle likes to make fudge and keep track of her neighbors. The proprietor of the Beulah Hotel in the small but bustling town of Clay, she knows everyone in town and has an opinion about everything.
It is her lot in life to mediate between her Grandfather Ponder and her lovable but impulsive-to-the-point-of insanity Uncle Daniel Ponder. In the course of the story, Uncle Daniel gives away just about everything he owns (including his grave site), marries twice, and goes on trial for murder.
It seems appropriate to me that this small-town story will be performed in another tight-knit community, and I look forward to seeing what Alice has done with Eudora Welty’s tale. I’m sure the composer’s ear for vernacular music will do justice to the saga of Edna Earle and Uncle Daniel.
Naturally, I have a recipe to share in honor of The Ponder Heart. I was hoping to write about divinity, a confection dear to the heart of both Eudora Welty and Edna Earle Ponder. 

My friend Bill Kubasek’s mother Win gave me her divinity recipe, and I obligingly covered much of my kitchen in sticky sugar syrup in an attempt the make the stuff.

Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to get the hang of it yet. As Miss Edna Earle says in the story, divinity is NOT “the kind of fudge anybody can make.”

Part of the Sticky MESS!

I plan to return to divinity in December, when it should make a lovely holiday gift. Meanwhile, here is a recipe from the composer of The Ponder Heart for a simple, tasty, and fairly healthy dip. Alice often calls it “Grandma’s Dip” and keeps it in the house to use as a quick appetizer when company stops by.
It would be perfectly at home at the Beulah Hotel, where guests, including Miss Edna Earle’s beau the traveling salesman, could dip vegetables or chips in it while listening to Uncle Daniel wax operatic about his trials and tribulations.
Try it—and if you’re in New England this weekend, come see and hear Edna Earle, Uncle Daniel, and the townspeople of Clay in the New England premiere of Alice Parker’s Ponder Heart. 

Performances will take place on Friday, October 8, at 7:30 pm and on Saturday, October 9, at 11 am. Tickets cost $20 and may be reserved by contacting Kay Holt at

Alice’s Herb Dip
Alice pretty much wings this dip, and I did, too. Adjust flavors to taste, and add anything you think might enhance the mixture. Fresh herbs out of the garden are of course preferred, but you could probably throw in a few dried ones in winter.
2 cups cottage cheese (low fat is fine)
1 cup sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
seasoned salt, garlic salt, and/or seasoning mixes to taste (I eschewed the salt and pepper and threw in several sprinklings of my Zatarain’s spice mixture, as well as a dash of something from Penzey’s Spices called “mural of flavor” seasoning)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 pinch cayenne pepper
a handful of chives, finely chopped
other fresh green herbs to taste (I used parsley, basil, and dill), finely chopped
Combine the cottage cheese and sour cream in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat in the remaining ingredients.
Place the dip in a bowl, and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.
Serve with veggies, chips, sliced apples, or crackers. This dip also tastes great atop a baked potato. 

Makes about 3 cups.