Jun 162017
 

Today is the birthday (1890) of Stan Laurel (born Arthur Stanley Jefferson), an English comic actor, writer and film director, most famous for his role in the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. He appeared with his comedy partner Oliver Hardy in 107 short films, feature films, and cameo roles. He is one of my favorite comedy actors of all time.  Buster Keaton said at his funeral: “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.” Amazing praise by a world famous comic. The main point is that Laurel, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, was able to make the transition from stage to silent movies to talkies and finally to color movies without missing a beat, constantly adapting yet keeping all the styles he accumulated along the way.

Laurel began his career in English music hall (like Chaplin), where he adopted a number of his standard comic devices: the bowler hat, the deep comic gravity, and the nonsensical understatement. His performances polished his skills at pantomime and music hall sketches. Laurel was a member of “Fred Karno’s Army,” where he was Charlie Chaplin’s understudy. With Chaplin, the two arrived in the United States on the same ship from the United Kingdom with the Karno troupe. Laurel began his film career in 1917 and made his final appearance in 1951. From 1928 onwards, he appeared exclusively with Oliver Hardy. Laurel officially retired from the screen following Hardy’s death in 1957. That fact in itself shows the character of the man.

Before you read on, here’s a sampling of his comedy to enjoy:

Laurel was born in his grandparents’ house at 3 Argyle Street, Ulverston in Lancashire. His parents, Margaret (neé Metcalfe) and Arthur Jefferson, were both active in the theater, and, in consequence, moved a great deal. In his early years, Laurel spent some time living with his maternal grandmother, Sarah Metcalfe. He attended school at King James I Grammar School, Bishop Auckland, County Durham and the King’s School, Tynemouth, Northumberland. He moved with his parents to Glasgow where he completed his education at Rutherglen Academy. His father managed Glasgow’s Metropole Theatre, where Laurel first began to work. His boyhood hero was Dan Leno, one of the greatest English music hall comedians. Laurel gave his first professional performance on stage at the Panopticon in Glasgow at the age of 16, where he polished his skills at pantomime and music hall sketches.

He joined Fred Karno’s troupe of actors in 1910 with the stage name of “Stan Jefferson” where he acted as Chaplin’s understudy for some time. Chaplin and Laurel toured the US with Karno before both went their separate ways. From 1916-18, he teamed up with Alice Cooke and Baldwin Cooke, who became lifelong friends. Amongst other performers, Laurel worked briefly alongside Oliver Hardy in a silent film short The Lucky Dog (1921). This was before the two were a duo.

It was around this time that Laurel met Mae Dahlberg. Around the same time, he adopted the stage name of Laurel at Dahlberg’s suggestion that his stage name Stan Jefferson was unlucky, due to it having thirteen letters. The pair were performing together when Laurel was offered $75 a week to star in two-reel comedies. After making his first film Nuts in May, Universal offered him a contract. The contract was soon cancelled during a reorganization at the studio. Among the films in which Dahlberg and Laurel appeared together was the 1922 parody Mud and Sand.

By 1924, Laurel had given up the stage for full-time film work, under contract with Joe Rock for 12 two-reel comedies. The contract had one unusual stipulation: that Dahlberg was not to appear in any of the films. Rock thought that her temperament was hindering Laurel’s career. In 1925, she started interfering with Laurel’s work, so Rock offered her a cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to her native Australia, which she accepted.

Laurel next signed with the Hal Roach studio, where he began directing films, including a 1926 production called Yes, Yes, Nanette. He intended to work primarily as a writer and director. Oliver Hardy, another member of the Hal Roach Studios Comedy All Star players, was injured in a kitchen mishap in 1927, and Laurel was asked to return to acting. Laurel and Hardy began sharing the screen in Slipping Wives, Duck Soup (1927), and With Love and Hisses. The two became friends and their comic chemistry soon became obvious. Roach Studios’ supervising director Leo McCarey noticed the audience reaction to them and began teaming them, leading to the creation of the Laurel and Hardy series later that year.

Together, the two men began producing a huge body of short films, including The Battle of the Century, Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, Be Big!, Big Business, and many others. Laurel and Hardy successfully made the transition to talking films with the short Unaccustomed As We Are in 1929. They also appeared in their first feature in one of the revue sequences of The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and the following year they appeared as the comic relief in the lavish all-color (Technicolor) musical feature The Rogue Song. Their first starring feature Pardon Us was released in 1931. They continued to make both features and shorts until 1935, including their 1932 three-reeler The Music Box, which won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.

During the 1930s, Laurel was involved in a dispute with Hal Roach which resulted in the termination of his contract. Roach maintained separate contracts for Laurel and Hardy that expired at different times, so Hardy remained at the studio and was teamed with Harry Langdon for the 1939 film Zenobia. The studio discussed a series of films co-starring Hardy with Patsy Kelly to be called “The Hardy Family.” But Laurel sued Roach over the contract dispute. Eventually, the case was dropped and Laurel returned to Roach. The first film that Laurel and Hardy made after Laurel returned was A Chump at Oxford. Subsequently, they made Saps at Sea, which was their last film for Roach.

In 1941, Laurel and Hardy signed a contract at 20th Century Fox to make ten films over five years. During the war years, their work became more formulaic and less successful, though The Bullfighters and Jitterbugs did receive some praise. In 1947, Laurel returned to England when he and Hardy went on a six-week tour of the United Kingdom, and the duo were mobbed wherever they went. Laurel’s homecoming to Ulverston took place in May, and the duo were greeted by thousands of fans outside the Coronation Hall. The Evening Mail noted: “Oliver Hardy remarked to our reporter that Stan had talked about Ulverston for the past 22 years and he thought he had to see it.” The tour included a Royal Command Performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London. The success of the tour led them to spend the next seven years touring the UK and Europe.

In 1950, Laurel and Hardy were invited to France to make a feature film. The film was a disaster, a Franco-Italian co-production titled Atoll K. (The film was entitled Utopia in the US and Robinson Crusoeland in the UK.) Both stars were noticeably ill during the filming. Upon returning to the United States, they spent most of their time recovering. In 1952, Laurel and Hardy toured Europe successfully, and they returned in 1953 for another tour of the continent. During this tour, Laurel fell ill and was unable to perform for several weeks.

In May 1954, Hardy had a heart attack and cancelled the tour. In 1955, they were planning to do a television series called Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables based on children’s stories. The plans were delayed after Laurel suffered a stroke on 25 April, from which he recovered. But as the team was planning to get back to work, his partner Hardy had a massive stroke on 14 September 1956, which resulted in his being unable to return to acting.

Oliver Hardy died on 7 August 1957. Laurel was too ill to attend his funeral and said, “Babe would understand.” People who knew Laurel said that he was devastated by Hardy’s death and never fully recovered from it. He refused to perform on stage or act in another film without his good friend, although he continued to socialize with his fans. Laurel was always gracious to fans and spent considerable time answering fan mail. His phone number (OXford-0614) was listed in the telephone directory, and fans were amazed that they could dial the number and speak to him directly.

Laurel was a heavy smoker until suddenly quitting around 1960. In January 1965, he underwent a series of x-rays for an infection on the roof of his mouth. He died on 23 February 1965, aged 74, four days after suffering a heart attack on 19 February. Just minutes away from death, Laurel told his nurse that he would not mind going skiing right at that very moment. Taken aback, the nurse replied that she was not aware that he was a skier. “I’m not,” said Laurel, “I’d rather be doing that than this!” A few minutes later, the nurse looked in on him again and found that he had died quietly in his armchair.

Laurel had said in hospital: “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again.” Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy at Laurel’s funeral, as a friend, protégé, and occasional impressionist of Laurel during his later years. He read “The Clown’s Prayer” the last verse of which is:

And in my final moment,
may I hear You whisper:
“When you made My people smile,
you made Me smile.”

Can’t leave without this; one of my favorite scenes:

Laurel’s daughter Lois was once asked about Stan and Ollie’s favorite foods.  She wrote, “My father’s favorite was prime rib. Second, it would be liver, bacon, and onions. Third, fish and chips.” Very English. Let’s go with liver, bacon, and onions. I’m quite fond of this dish too, but only if it is cooked right. Most cooks destroy it in any one of a dozen ways. The first important point is that you should use young calf’s liver, not old ox liver. Second, you should barely cook it. Most cooks like to fry liver until it is tough, grainy, and dry. A few minutes on high heat is all it takes. We can begin with Mrs Beeton since Laurel was born in the Victorian era and would certainly have had this dish as a boy:

CALF’S LIVER AND BACON.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 or 3 lbs. of liver, bacon, pepper and salt to taste, a small piece of butter, flour, 2 tablespoonfuls of lemon-juice, 1/4 pint of water.

Mode.—Cut the liver in thin slices, and cut as many slices of bacon as there are of liver; fry the bacon first, and put that on a hot dish before the fire. Fry the liver in the fat which comes from the bacon, after seasoning it with pepper and salt and dredging over it a very little flour. Turn the liver occasionally to prevent its burning, and when done, lay it round the dish with a piece of bacon between each. Pour away the bacon fat, put in a small piece of butter, dredge in a little flour, add the lemon-juice and water, give one boil, and pour it in the middle of the dish. It may be garnished with slices of cut lemon, or forcemeat balls.

Time.—According to the thickness of the slices, from 5 to 10 minutes.

Average cost, 10d. per lb. Sufficient for 6 or 7 persons.

Seasonable from March to October.

There are no onions here, however, so you are missing an important component. This is what I do:

Fry off the bacon over medium-low heat in a dry skillet until it is crisp and the fat has been rendered. Set aside the bacon in a warm (not hot) oven.

Slice the liver thinly and sauté over high heat very quickly (in batches) in the bacon fat. Certainly don’t overcook the liver. If anything leave them slightly underdone. As the liver pieces are cooked add them to the bacon in the oven to keep warm.

Add a whole onion thickly sliced to the skillet. Turn the heat down to medium and sauté until they take on some color. Add 1 tablespoon of flour to the skillet and stir it around with a wooden spoon to make a dark roux with the bacon fat. Add cold beef stock a little at a time, whisking vigorously, to make a dark gravy.

Serve the bacon, and liver with mashed potato and the onion gravy poured over.

Jan 182017
 

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Today is the birthday (1882)  of Alan Alexander “A.A.” Milne best known for his books about the teddy bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, and also for various poems. Milne actually thought of himself primarily as a playwright but the huge success of Pooh overshadowed all his previous work. Both he and his son, Christopher Robin, spent much of their lives trying to escape the fame of Pooh (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/christopher-robin/ ).

Milne studied mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge graduating in 1903. He collaborated with his brother Kenneth on humorous pieces whilst at Cambridge and their articles appeared over the initials AKM. Milne’s work came to the attention of the magazine Punch, where Milne was to become a contributor and later an assistant editor. He also played for the amateur English cricket team, the Allahakbarries, alongside the likes of J. M. Barrie, P.G. Wodehouse, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Milne joined the British Army in World War I and served as an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and later, after a debilitating illness, the Royal Corps of Signals. He was commissioned into the 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 17 February 1915 as a second lieutenant. On 7 July 1916, he was injured while serving in the Battle of the Somme and invalided back to England. Having recovered, he was recruited into Military Intelligence to write propaganda articles for MI 7b between 1916 and 1918. He was discharged in 1919.

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Milne married Dorothy “Daphne” de Sélincourt in 1913 and their son Christopher Robin Milne was born in 1920. In 1925, Milne bought a country home, Cotchford Farm, in Hartfield, East Sussex. During World War II, Milne was Captain of the British Home Guard in Hartfield & Forest Row, insisting on being plain “Mr. Milne” to the members of his platoon. He retired to the farm after a stroke and brain surgery in 1952 left him an invalid, and by August 1953 “he seemed very old and disenchanted”. Milne died in January 1956, aged 74.

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Milne is most famous for his Pooh books inspired by his son and his stuffed animals, most notably the bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. Christopher Robin Milne’s stuffed bear, originally named “Edward”, was renamed “Winnie-the-Pooh” after a Canadian black bear named Winnie (after Winnipeg), which was used as a military mascot in World War I, and left to London Zoo during the war. “The pooh” comes from a swan called “Pooh”. E. H. Shepard illustrated the original Pooh books, using his own son’s teddy, Growler (“a magnificent bear”), as the model. The rest of Christopher Robin Milne’s toys, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger, were incorporated into Milne’s stories, and two more characters – Rabbit and Owl – were created by Milne’s imagination. Christopher Robin Milne’s own toys are now under glass in New York where 750,000 people visit them every year.

Here’s a little selection of Milne’s quotes: some from Pooh, others from elsewhere.  I could have chosen dozens of others, of course. If you are a Milne fan you’ll know these and many more. It’s just a reminder.

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If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.

Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?

People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.”

If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.

I’m not lost for I know where I am. But, where I am may be lost.

The things that make me different are the things that make me.

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.

Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

Christopher Milne noted that his father was something of a nostalgic eater; he savored food for the memories it brought back to him as much as for their present flavors. However, he does not say what these dishes were. Various cooks have fancifully created Milne’s non-existent Cottleston pie:

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken, I don’t know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

Well, Milne lived most of his life in Sussex, so maybe this old-fashioned Sussex recipe will suit.

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Sussex Churdle Pie

Ingredients

1 oz butter
1 onion, peeled and finely-chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely-chopped
1 lb lambs liver, chopped
2 oz streaky bacon, rind removed and chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
salt and pepper
2 oz fresh breadcrumbs
4 oz Cheddar, shredded
10 oz puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten

Instructions

Pre-heat the oven to 400°F.

Gently melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, then add the garlic, bacon and liver. Raise the heat to medium-high and sauté, while stirring constantly, until the liver has browned. Add the sage, apple, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another minute and then remove from the heat.

Roll out the pastry and cut it into 7” rounds.  It should make from 4 to 6.

Divide the meat mixture between the pastry circles, and top each one with some cheese and breadcrumbs.

Gather the pastry around to form a purse shape, with the opening at the top.  Squeeze together to form a seal, using a little of the beaten egg to form a seal. Paint the remaining egg wash over the pastry.

Bake the pies, in the oven, for 18-20 minutes or until the pastry is golden.

Apr 252014
 

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Today is the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist, author of the Gospel of Mark. He is one of the Seventy Disciples, and the supposed founder of the Church of Alexandria, one of the original three main episcopal sees of Christianity. No one can be sure of the actual identity of Mark but there are certain conjectures of long standing that have been accepted, for no really good reason, for centuries. The conventional belief is that Mark the Evangelist is the same person as John Mark who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37). Sometimes he is also conflated with Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10; Philm 1:24), but most modern scholars consider this unwarranted. Nowadays the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark is the scholarly consensus, but there are skeptics (myself included). A great many debates in theological circles hinge on who exactly Mark was. Was he an eyewitness to events in the life of Jesus? Was he a follower of Paul and/or Peter without direct experience of Jesus? Was he a scribe who collated oral and written traditions into a continuous narrative? The first is highly unlikely, the second is a possibility, the third seems to me most likely.

Scholars have favored the identification of Mark the Evangelist with John Mark of the Acts because he seems to be a significant figure in the early church. Here’s what we know about him from Acts:

    When [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.[Acts 12:12]

   And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark.[Acts 12:25]

   When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.[Acts 13:5]

   Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem; but they passed on from Perga and came to Antioch of Pisidia.[Acts 13:13–14]

   And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.[Acts 15:37–40]

My first essay for my Greek Bible tutor at Oxford was “Does it matter whether Mark the Evangelist was John Mark?” (He believed he was). Well, yes it does, but at 19 I had no clue how to answer this question; I have pondered it a great deal in the intervening years. The reason it does is that if the gospel writer is John Mark we can speculate on his motives for writing the gospel. For starters, John Mark vehemently disagreed with Paul, so chances are the gospel is some kind of riposte to Paul’s teachings. It is known that Paul disagreed with the apostles in Jerusalem on several occasions, and the solution was for the apostles to continue working in Jerusalem, and for Paul to go on missionary expeditions throughout the Mediterranean. Probably the chief issue was whether “the way” – the earliest name for Christianity – was for Jews only (the apostles), or whether it should be spread to the gentile world (Paul).

If the gospel writer is John Mark then he was a friend of Peter’s, which would explain Peter’s prominence in the gospel. It would also explain why the gospel was written in Greek, yet the author is very familiar with Aramaic (Jesus’ native language). He frequently translates Aramaic sayings into Greek. But we also have to accept the fact that John and Mark (Marcus) were very common names in the 1st century, and, therefore, the gospel writer could have been any one of them.

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There are a great many traditions surrounding Mark the Evangelist, chief of which is that in 49 CE he traveled to Alexandria where he founded the Church of Alexandria, which today is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Aspects of the Coptic liturgy are supposed to be attributable to Mark himself, although this is pure conjecture. Because of these traditions, Mark is celebrated as the first bishop of Alexandria and honored as the founder of Christianity in Africa.

In 828, relics believed to be the body of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants and taken to Venice. A mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica depicts sailors covering the relics with a layer of pork and cabbage leaves. Since Muslims are not permitted to touch pork, this was done to prevent the guards from inspecting the ship’s cargo too closely. The possession of a truly important relic could have serious political consequences. When the body of St Mark came to Venice, the previous patron saint of the city, St Theodore, was demoted. The Doge of the day began to build a splendid church to contain the relics next to his palace, the original San Marco. With an evangelist on its territory, Venice acquired a status almost equal to that of Rome itself. To this day St Mark’s Day is a major festival in Venice.

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In 1063, during the construction of a new basilica in Venice, St. Mark’s relics could not be found. However, according to tradition, in 1094 the saint himself revealed the location of his remains by extending an arm from a pillar. The newfound remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the basilica.

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In art, Mark is represented sometimes as a young man sometimes as an old one, sometimes dressed in a bishop’s habit, with a lion at his feet and a scroll with words “Peace be to thee, O Mark, My Evangelist.” He holds a pen in his right hand and the Gospel in his left. He can also be represented seated on a throne decorated with lions, or else helping Venetian sailors.

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For the sake of variety I will celebrate Mark with a modern recipe from Alexandria rather than an ancient one. Alexandrian liver is a popular dish throughout Egypt. It is commonly found in major cities sold by street vendors with fresh chiles, lime wedges, and warm pita. It is easily made at home. Just be sure not to overcook the liver.

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Alexandrian Liver

Ingredients

? cup cooking oil
1 lb/500 gm calf’s liver, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 hot red pepper, seeded and chopped (more if desired)
1 ½ tbsps powdered cumin
½ tsp powdered cinnamon
¼ tsp powdered ginger
¼ tsp powdered cloves
¼ tsp powdered cardamom
Juice of one lime or lemon
1 tsp salt

Instructions

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat until it reaches the smoking point. Make sure the liver is dry by patting with paper towels.  Add the liver to the hot oil and sauté quickly until it lightly browns.

Add all the other ingredients and continue to cook on high heat from 1-2 minutes. Then cover the pan and cook over medium heat for another 10-15 minutes until the liver is cooked through but not dry.

Serve with warm pita or crusty bread.

Serves 4