Feb 102018
 

Today is the birthday (1893) of James Francis (“Jimmy”) Durante, US singer, pianist, comedian, and actor. His distinctive clipped gravelly speech, New York accent, comic language-butchery, jazz-influenced songs, and prominent nose helped make him one of America’s most familiar and popular personalities of the 1920s through the 1970s. He often referred to his nose as the Schnozzola, and the word became his nickname.

Durante was born on the Lower East Side of New York City. He was the youngest of four children born to Rosa (Lentino) and Bartolomeo Durante, both of whom were immigrants from Salerno in Italy. Bartolomeo was a barber. Young Jimmy served as an altar boy at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, known as the Actor’s Chapel. Durante dropped out of school in seventh grade to become a full-time ragtime pianist. He first played with his cousin, whose name was also Jimmy Durante. It was a family act, but he proved to be too professional for his cousin. He continued working the city’s piano bar circuit and earned the nickname “Ragtime Jimmy”, before he joined one of the first recognizable jazz bands in New York, the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. Durante was the only member not from New Orleans. His routine of breaking into a song to deliver a joke, with band or orchestra chord punctuation after each line, became a Durante trademark. In 1920 the group was renamed Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band.

By the mid-1920s, Durante had become a vaudeville star and radio personality in a trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, Durante’s closest friends, often reunited with Durante in subsequent years. Jackson and Durante appeared in the Cole Porter musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway on December 8, 1930. Earlier that same year, the team appeared in the movie Roadhouse Nights, ostensibly based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest.

By 1934, Durante had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, “Inka Dinka Doo”, with lyrics by Ben Ryan. It became his theme song for the rest of his life. A year later, Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo. A scene in which a police officer stopped Durante’s character—who was leading a live elephant across the stage—to ask, “What are you doing with that elephant?”, followed by Durante’s reply, “What elephant?”, was a regular show-stopper. This comedy bit likely contributed to the popularity of the idiom the elephant in the room. Durante also appeared on Broadway in Show Girl (1929), Strike Me Pink (1934) and Red, Hot and Blue (1936).

During the early 1930s, Durante alternated between Hollywood and Broadway. His early motion pictures included an original Rodgers & Hart musical The Phantom President (1932), which featured Durante singing the self-referential Schnozzola. He was initially paired with silent film legend Buster Keaton in a series of three popular comedies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Speak Easily (1932), The Passionate Plumber (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933), which were financial hits and a career springboard for the distinctive newcomer. However, Keaton’s vociferous dissatisfaction with constraints the studio had placed upon him, his perceived incompatibility with Durante’s broad chatty humor, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led the studio to end the series. Durante went on to appear in The Wet Parade (1932), Broadway to Hollywood (1933), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, playing Banjo, a character based on Harpo Marx), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962, based on the 1935 musical), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In 1934, he starred in Hollywood Party, where he dreams he is ‘Schnarzan’, a parody of ‘Tarzan’ who was popular at the time due to the Johnny Weissmuller films.

On September 10, 1933, Durante appeared on Eddie Cantor’s NBC radio show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, continuing until November 12 of that year. When Cantor left the show, Durante took over as its star from April 22 to September 30, 1934. He then moved on to The Jumbo Fire Chief Program (1935–36).

Durante teamed with Garry Moore for The Durante-Moore Show in 1943. Durante’s comic chemistry with the young, brushcut Moore brought Durante an even larger audience. “Dat’s my boy dat said dat!” became an instant catchphrase, which would later inspire the cartoon Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy. The duo was one of the nation’s favorites for the rest of the decade. Their Armed Forces Radio Network Command Performance with Frank Sinatra remains a favorite of radio-show collectors today. Moore left the duo in mid-1947, and the program returned October 1, 1947 as The Jimmy Durante Show. Durante continued the show for three more years, and featured a reunion of Clayton, Jackson and Durante on his April 21, 1948 broadcast.

Durante made his television debut on November 1, 1950 (although he kept a presence in radio, as a frequent guest on Tallulah Bankhead’s two-year NBC comedy-variety show The Big Show). Durante was one of the cast on the show’s premiere November 5, 1950. The rest of the cast included humorist Fred Allen, singers Mindy Carson and Frankie Laine, stage musical performer Ethel Merman, actors Jose Ferrer and Paul Lukas, and comic-singer Danny Thomas (about to become a major television star in his own right). A highlight of the show was Durante and Thomas, whose own nose rivaled Durante’s, in a routine in which Durante accused Thomas of stealing his nose. “Stay outta dis, No-Nose!” Durante barked at Bankhead to a big laugh.

From 1950 to 1951, Durante was one of four alternating hosts on NBC’s comedy-variety series Four Star Revue. He alternated Wednesdays with Danny Thomas (now a headliner), Jack Carson, and Ed Wynn. Durante had a half-hour variety show – The Jimmy Durante Show – on NBC from October 2, 1954, to June 23, 1956.

Beginning in the early 1950s, Durante teamed with sidekick Sonny King, a collaboration that continued until Durante’s death. He was often seen regularly in Las Vegas after Sunday Mass outside of the Guardian Angel Cathedral standing next to the priest and greeting the people as they left Mass.

Durante’s radio show was bracketed with two trademarks: “Inka Dinka Doo” as his opening theme, and the invariable signoff that became another familiar national catchphrase: “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” For years Durante preferred to keep the mystery alive. One theory was that it referred to the owner of a restaurant in Calabash, North Carolina, where Durante and his troupe had stopped to eat. He was so taken by the food, the service, and the chitchat he told the owner that he would make her famous. Since he did not know her name, he referred to her as “Mrs. Calabash”. Another idea was that it was a personal salute to his deceased first wife, Jeanne (Olsen) Durante, who died in 1943. “Calabash” might be a mangle of Calabasas, the California city where they made their home during the last years of her life. His friend and co-star, Candy Candido, (in an interview with Chuck Shaden’s “Speaking of Radio” in 1988), reported that he met the actual woman in Chicago when traveling with Durante, but was sworn to keep the secret. Alternatively, Jimmy’s friend and radio producer, Phil Cohan revealed to Chuck Shaden’s Speaking of Radio interview in 1988 that it was a fabrication. Needing a closing to his show, the writers tossed around several names settling on Cohan’s calabash pipe as the best-sounding moniker.

Mrs Calabash

At a National Press Club meeting in 1966 (broadcast on NBC’s Monitor program), Durante finally revealed that it was indeed a tribute to his wife. While driving across the country, they stopped in Calabash, whose food they liked, but she also loved the name. “Mrs. Calabash” became his pet name for her, and he signed off his radio program with “Good night, Mrs. Calabash.” He added “wherever you are” after the first year.

Calabash, North Carolina, was named after the gourds that grew in the region, which were used for drinking well water. Since the 1930s, Calabash has been known for its distinctive style of fried seafood, which has come to be known as “Calabash Style” Calabash style buffets are common in many eastern Carolina coastal towns.  I lived on the coast of North Carolina for a year in the late 1970s and never tired of fish buffets. You may tire, however, if you are a longtime reader of my endless mantra: “You have to go there to appreciate the food.” I’ll give you a recipe anyway. It looks like the recipe for English deep fried fish, but if you go to Calabash you’ll know the difference.

Calabash North Carolina Shrimp Recipe

Ingredients

2 eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
salt and black pepper
2 lbs small shrimp, shelled
oil for frying

Instructions

Heat oil in a deep fryer to 375˚F/190˚C.

Beat together the eggs and milk in a large mixing bowl. Sift in the flour, a little at a time, and beat until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let rest for a few minutes while the oil is heating.

Dip the shrimp in batter, in batches, making sure that each shrimp is well coated. Fry in the hot oil, being careful not to fry too many at once in order to avoid cooling the oil excessively at the beginning of frying.

Deep fry the shrimp, turning them periodically to make sure that they are golden on all sides, and, when crisp, remove with a slotted spoon and drain briefly on a wire rack. Serve with cole slaw, fried potatoes, and the dipping sauce of your choice. Tomato and horseradish is a common favorite along the coast.

Jun 052015
 

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On this date in 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in The National Era, an abolitionist periodical, and the following year was issued as an illustrated book. Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Seminary and an active abolitionist, featured the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings. Assessment of the novel and its title character have undergone profound changes from its first publication to the present day.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies in Great Britain. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.” The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that “The long-term durability of Lincoln’s greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals … to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.”

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At the time of the novel’s initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel shows; Stowe’s melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for white audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two women who had escaped from slavery. Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom’s passivity against the daring of three African American women who escape from slavery.

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Senator Charles Sumner credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the election of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln himself reportedly quipped that Stowe had triggered the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass praised the novel as “a flash to light a million camp fires in front of the embattled hosts of slavery”. Despite Douglass’ enthusiasm, an anonymous 1852 reviewer for William Lloyd Garrison’s publication The Liberator suspected a racial double standard in the idealization of Uncle Tom:

Uncle Tom’s character is sketched with great power and rare religious perception. It triumphantly exemplifies the nature, tendency, and results of Christian non-resistance. We are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the White man, under all possible outrage and peril, as for the Black man… Talk not of overcoming evil with good—it is madness! Talk not of peacefully submitting to chains and stripes—it is base servility! Talk not of servants being obedient to their masters—let the blood of tyrants flow! How is this to be explained or reconciled? Is there one law of submission and non-resistance for the Black man, and another of rebellion and conflict for the White man? When it is the whites who are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights? And when it is the blacks who are thus treated, does Christ require them to be patient, harmless, long-suffering, and forgiving? Are there two Christs?

The accusation of a double standard may be apt, but I think that this and other critiques miss the point. Stowe upholds the Christian standard (mostly forgotten in the contemporary U.S.) of meeting hatred and bigotry with love, as did Jesus. Modern critics treat Uncle Tom’s servility as weakness rather than a strength (as Stowe intended). This change of attitudes towards Uncle Tom reflects a general cultural shift in the U.S. from tolerance to aggressiveness as the solution to what are perceived as the world’s ills.

James Weldon Johnson, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, expresses an antipathetic opinion in his autobiography:

For my part, I was never an admirer of Uncle Tom, nor of his type of goodness; but I believe that there were lots of old Negroes as foolishly good as he; the proof of which is that they knowingly stayed and worked on the plantations that furnished sinews for the army which was fighting to keep them enslaved.

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In 1949 James Baldwin rejected the emasculation of the title character “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex” as the price of spiritual salvation for a dark-skinned man in a fiction whose African-American characters, in Baldwin’s view, were invariably two dimensional stereotypes. To Baldwin, Stowe was closer to a pamphleteer than a novelist and her artistic vision was fatally marred by polemics and racism that manifested especially in her handling of the title character. Stowe had stated that her sons had wept when she first read them the scene of Uncle Tom’s death, but after Baldwin’s essay it ceased being respectable to accept the melodrama of the Uncle Tom story. Uncle Tom became what critic Linda Williams describes as “an epithet of servility” and the novel’s reputation plummeted until feminist critics led by Jane Tompkins reassessed the tale’s female characters. According to Debra J. Rosenthal in an introduction to a collection of critical appraisals for the Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, overall reactions have been mixed with some critics praising the novel for affirming the humanity of the African American characters and for the risks Stowe assumed in taking a very public stand against slavery before abolitionism had become a socially acceptable cause, and others criticizing the very limited terms upon which those characters’ humanity was affirmed and the artistic shortcomings of political melodrama.

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A specific impetus for the novel was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed heavy fines upon law enforcement personnel in Northern states if they refused to assist the return of people who escaped from slavery. The new law also stripped African Americans of the right to request a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf, even if they were legally free, whenever a single claimant presented an affidavit of ownership. The same law authorized a $1000 fine and six months imprisonment for anyone who knowingly harbored or assisted a fugitive slave. These terms infuriated Stowe, so the novel was written, read, and debated as a political abolitionist tract.

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Stowe drew inspiration for the Uncle Tom character from several sources. The best-known of these was Josiah Henson, an ex-slave whose autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, was originally published in 1849 and later republished in two extensively revised editions after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson was enslaved at birth in 1789. He became a Christian at age eighteen and took up preaching. Henson attempted to purchase his freedom for $450, but after selling his personal assets to raise $350 and signing a promissory note for the remainder Henson’s owner raised the price to $1000; Henson was unable to prove that the original agreement had been for a lesser amount. Shortly afterward Henson was ordered on a trip south to New Orleans, and when he learned that he was to be sold there he obtained a weapon and contemplated murdering his white companions, but decided against violence because his Christian morals forbade it. A sudden illness in one of his companions forced their return to Kentucky, and shortly afterward Henson escaped north with his family, settling in Canada where he became a civic leader.

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Southern plantations were noted for their cooking, and their recipes carried on after the Civil War as what is now classic Southern cuisine. A great many plantation cooks were slave women who created a style that was an amalgam of African and European traditions which was enormously varied across the South. I’ve given a number of recipes here before for hush puppies, hoppin’ John, burgoo, and the like – all personal favorites from my days living in the swamps of North Carolina. Here’s a more upscale recipe from South Carolina still popular today as a summer dish.

Dilled Rice and Shrimp salad

Ingredients

2 cups cooked long-grain white rice
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly chopped dill, plus extra for garnish
salt and pepper
¼ cup chopped green onions, plus extra for garnish
¼ cup sliced radishes
½ lb. cooked and shelled medium shrimp
1 lemon

Instructions

Combine the oil, vinegar, dill, and salt and pepper to taste in a blender or food processor, and blend until you have a fine emulsion.

Place the rice in a large mixing bowl and pour over the oil and vinegar dressing. Mix well. Add the shrimp and radishes and toss lightly. Cover the bowl and chill for several hours.

Serve with a garnish of fresh dill and green onions and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. You may need to toss the salad to separate the rice after refrigeration.