Jan 202019
 

Today is the birthday (1896) of legendary US comedian George Burns who made it to his 100th birthday and a few months more before handing in his lunch pail. He was one of the few performers in the US who made the transition from vaudeville, to radio, and on to film and television. His arched eyebrow and cigar-smoke punctuation became familiar trademarks for over three quarters of a century. He and his wife, Gracie Allen, appeared on radio, television, and film for decades as the comedy duo Burns and Allen. These days their gender roles of the cool, sophisticated man of the house and his ditzy housewife companion might not play so well, but it worked in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond.

Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City, the ninth of 12 children born to Hadassah “Dorah” (née Bluth; 1857–1927) and Eliezer Birnbaum (1855–1903), known as Louis or Lippe, Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States from Kolbuszowa in what is now Poland. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue but usually worked as a coat presser. During the influenza epidemic of 1903, Lippe Birnbaum contracted the flu and died at the age of 47. Burns went to work to help support the family, shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers. When he landed a job as a syrup maker in a local candy shop at age seven, “Nate” as he was known, was “discovered”, as he recalled long after:

We were all about the same age, six and seven, and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with: no more chocolate syrup. It’s show business from now on. We called ourselves the Pee-Wee Quartet. We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels, and on street corners. We’d put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.

Burns was drafted into the United States Army when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, but he failed the physical because he was extremely nearsighted. In order to try to hide his Jewish heritage, he adopted the stage name by which he would be known for the rest of his life. He claimed in a few interviews that the idea of the name originated from the fact that two star major league players (George H. Burns and George J. Burns, unrelated) were playing major league baseball at the time. Both men achieved over 2000 major league hits and hold some major league records. Burns also was reported to have taken the name “George” from his brother Izzy (who hated his own name so he changed it to “George”), and the Burns from the Burns Brothers Coal Company (he used to steal coal from their truck).

He normally partnered with a girl, sometimes in an adagio dance routine, sometimes comic patter. Though he had an apparent flair for comedy, he never quite clicked with any of his partners, until he met a young Irish Catholic in 1923. “And all of a sudden,” he said famously in later years, “the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent—and I was married to her for 38 years.” His first wife was Hannah Siegel (stage name: Hermosa Jose), one of his dance partners. The marriage, never consummated, lasted 26 weeks and happened because her family would not let them go on tour unless they were married. They divorced at the end of the tour.

Burn’s second wife and famous partner in their entertainment routines was Gracie Allen. Burns and Allen got a start in motion pictures with a series of comic short films in the late 1930s. Their feature credits in the mid- to late-1930s included The Big Broadcast; International House (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), (the latter two films with W.C. Fields), The Big Broadcast of 1936, The Big Broadcast of 1937, A Damsel in Distress (1937) in which they danced step-for-step with Fred Astaire, and College Swing (1938) in which Bob Hope made one of his early film appearances. Honolulu would be Burns’s last movie for nearly 40 years.

Burns and Allen were indirectly responsible for the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby series of “Road” pictures. In 1938, William LeBaron, producer and managing director at Paramount, had a script prepared by Don Hartman and Frank Butler. It was to star Burns and Allen with Bing Crosby, who was then already an established star of radio, recordings and the movies. The story did not seem to fit the comedy team’s style, so LeBaron ordered Hartman and Butler to rewrite the script to fit two male co-stars: Hope and Crosby. The script was titled Road to Singapore, and it made motion picture history when it was released in 1940.

Burns and Allen first made it to radio as the comedy relief for bandleader Guy Lombardo, which did not always sit well with Lombardo’s home audience. In his later memoir, The Third Time Around, Burns revealed a college fraternity’s protest letter, complaining that they resented their weekly dance parties with their girlfriends listening to “Thirty Minutes of the Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven” had to be broken into by a vaudeville team.

In time, though, Burns and Allen found their own show and radio audience, first airing on February 15th, 1932 and concentrating on their classic stage routines plus sketch comedy in which the Burns and Allen style was woven into different little scenes, not unlike the short films they made in Hollywood. They were also good for a clever publicity stunt, none more so than the hunt for Gracie’s missing brother, a hunt that included Gracie turning up on other radio shows searching for him as well.

The couple was portrayed at first as younger singles, with Allen the object of both Burns’ and other cast members’ affections. Most notably, bandleaders Ray Noble (known for his phrase, “Gracie, this is the first time we’ve ever been alone”) and Artie Shaw played “love” interests to Gracie. In addition, singer Tony Martin played an unwilling love interest of Gracie’s, in which Gracie “sexually harassed” him, by threatening to fire him if the romantic interest was not reciprocated.

In time, however, due to slipping ratings and the difficulty of being portrayed as singles in light of the audience’s close familiarity with their real-life marriage, the show adapted in the fall of 1941 to present them as the married couple they actually were. For a time, Burns and Allen had a rather distinguished and popular musical director: Artie Shaw, who also appeared as a character in some of the show’s sketches. A somewhat different Gracie also marked this era, as the Gracie character could often be mean to George.

As this format grew stale over the years, Burns and his fellow writers redeveloped the show as a situation comedy in the fall of 1941. The reformat focused on the couple’s married life and life among various friends, including Elvia Allman as “Tootsie Sagwell,” a man-hungry spinster in love with Bill Goodwin, and neighbors, until the characters of Harry and Blanche Morton entered the picture to stay.

Like The Jack Benny Program, the new George Burns & Gracie Allen Show portrayed George and Gracie as entertainers with their own weekly radio show. Goodwin remained, his character as “girl-crazy” as ever, and the music was now handled by Meredith Willson (later to be better known for composing the Broadway musical The Music Man). Willson also played himself on the show as a naive, friendly, girl-shy fellow. The new format’s success made it one of the few classic radio comedies to completely re-invent itself and regain major fame.

In the fall of 1949, after twelve years at NBC, the couple took the show back to its original network CBS, where they had risen to fame from 1932 to 1937. Their good friend Jack Benny reached a negotiating impasse with NBC over the corporation he set up (“Amusement Enterprises”) to package his show, the better to put more of his earnings on a capital-gains basis and avoid the 80% taxes slapped on very high earners in the World War II period. When CBS executive William S. Paley convinced Benny to move to CBS (Paley, among other things, impressed Benny with his attitude that the performers make the network, not the other way around as NBC chief David Sarnoff reputedly believed), Benny in turn convinced several NBC stars to join him, including Burns and Allen. Thus CBS reaped the benefits when Burns and Allen moved to television in 1950. On television, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show put faces to the radio characters audiences had come to love.

To ring the changes, instead of a recipe I give you one of their shows in which Gracie tries to adopt a vegetarian diet. Typical stuff for the era:

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.

Oct 022016
 

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Today is the birthday (1890) of Julius Henry Marx known professionally and ubiquitously as Groucho. His absolutely unmistakable appearance, carried over from his days in vaudeville, included quirks such as an exaggerated stooped posture, glasses, cigar, and a thick, black greasepaint mustache and eyebrows. These exaggerated features resulted in the creation of one of the world’s most recognizable novelty disguises, known as “Groucho glasses”: a one-piece mask consisting of horn-rimmed glasses, large plastic nose, bushy eyebrows and mustache.

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I don’t think there’s any great sense in rehashing Groucho’s career. If you don’t know him, a simple biography won’t help. If you do know him you don’t need me telling you about him. Let’s start instead with a compilation of some of his famous lines.

Groucho’s life before Hollywood is the part most fans don’t know. He was born in a room above a butcher’s shop on East 78th Street in New York City between Lexington and 3rd” and grew up on East 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At the time the area was dominated by European immigrants, mostly artisans.

This 1915 photo of the Marx brothers with their parents in New York City is extraordinary because the family resemblance of the brothers, masked by the vaudevillesque makeup on film, is so evident. From left to right they are, Groucho, Gummo, Minnie (mother), Zeppo, Frenchie (father), Chico, and Harpo.

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Groucho’s family was Jewish. Groucho’s mother was Miene “Minnie” Schoenberg, whose family came from Dornum in northern Germany when she was 16 years old. His father was Simon “Sam” Marx, who changed his name from Marrix, and was called “Frenchie” by his sons throughout his life because he and his family came from Alsace in France. Minnie’s brother was Al Schoenberg, who shortened his name to Al Shean when he went into show business as half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century. According to Groucho, when Shean visited he would throw the local street waifs a few coins so that when he knocked at the door he would be surrounded by adoring fans. Groucho and his brothers respected his opinions and asked him on several occasions to write some material for them.

Minnie Marx did not have an entertainment industry career but had intense ambition for her sons to go on the stage like their uncle. While pushing her eldest son Leonard (Chico Marx) in piano lessons she found that Julius/Groucho had a pleasant treble voice and the ability to remain on key. Groucho’s early career goal was to become a doctor, but the family’s need for income forced him out of school at the age of twelve. By that time young Groucho had become a voracious reader, particularly fond of Horatio Alger. Groucho continued to overcome his lack of formal education by becoming very well read.

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After a few stabs at entry-level office work and jobs suitable for adolescents, Groucho started on the stage as a boy singer with the Gene Leroy Trio, debuting at the Ramona Theatre in Grand Rapids, MI on July 16, 1905. Marx reputedly claimed that he was “hopelessly average” as a vaudevillian. By 1909 Minnie Marx had assembled her sons into a forgettable-quality vaudeville singing group billed as “The Four Nightingales.” The brothers Julius, Milton (Gummo Marx) and Arthur (originally Adolph, from 1911 Harpo Marx) and another boy singer, Lou Levy, traveled the U.S. vaudeville circuits to little acclaim. After exhausting their prospects in the East the family moved to La Grange, Illinois, to play the Midwest.

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After a particularly dispiriting performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, Julius, Milton, and Arthur began cracking jokes onstage for their own amusement. Much to their surprise, the audience liked them better as comedians than as singers. They modified the then-popular Gus Edwards comedy skit “School Days” and renamed it “Fun In Hi Skule”(reminds me of Molesworth). The Marx Brothers performed variations on this routine for the next seven years.

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For a time in vaudeville all the brothers performed using ethnic accents. Leonard, the oldest, developed the Italian accent he used as Chico Marx to convince some roving bullies that he was Italian, not Jewish. Arthur, the next oldest, put on a curly red wig and became “Patsy Brannigan”, a stereotypical Irish character. His discomfort speaking on stage led to his uncle Al Shean’s suggestion that he stop speaking altogether and play the role in mime. Groucho’s character from “Fun In Hi Skule” was an ethnic German, so he played him with a German accent. After the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, public anti-German sentiment was widespread, and Groucho’s German character was booed, so he quickly dropped the accent and developed the fast-talking wise-guy character that became his trademark.

Consequently the Marx Brothers became the biggest comedic stars of the Palace Theatre in New York City, which billed itself as the “Valhalla of Vaudeville.” Chico’s deal-making skills resulted in three hit plays on Broadway. No comedy routine had ever so captured the Broadway circuit. All of this predated their Hollywood career. By the time the Marx Brothers made their first movie, they were major stars with sharply honed skills. That’s why at the heart of their movies they are still vaudevillians. Here’s the crowded cabin scene from A Night at the Opera. Pure vaudeville.

After his movie career Groucho was relaunched to new stardom on You Bet Your Life, now with a genuine moustache but still wisecracking – often ad-lib. Here’s a reel of outtakes that were too racy to air in the 1950s.

Groucho’s quotes are famous, so there is no need to list them in quantity. Here are some that are not especially wisecracks.

Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

A woman is an occasional pleasure but a cigar is always a smoke.

My favorite poem is the one that starts ‘Thirty days hath September’ because it actually tells you something.

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We know a great deal about Groucho’s eating preferences. He loved chocolate, for example, and when on a strict diet towards the end of his life he limited himself to two only which he ate first thing, remarking, “Well, I’ve had my chocolates. Now there’s nothing to do but wait for tomorrow.” Groucho had a lifelong love of clam chowder. In his youth, his Aunt Hannah would cook up batches of the soup for the Marx family using the same pot the family used to do their laundry. Groucho claimed the dual-purpose pot enhanced both the wash and the flavor of the chowder. “I wish I could remember what it tasted like,” Groucho later recalled when he was in his 80s.

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I have no idea what it tasted like. I’m fairly certain it was not classic New England Chowder. That recipe is here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ship-ahoy/ Here is Manhattan clam chowder instead. People are really divided between the two chowders. I’ll take either, but I prefer Manhattan style because of the contrast of the sweetness of the clams and the acidity of the tomatoes. If you are a decent cook, all you need is the list of ingredients. Proportions and quantities, as always, are really up to the cook.

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Manhattan Clam Chowder

Ingredients

24 cherrystone clams, rinsed
1 tbsp butter
¼ lb slab bacon, diced
1 white onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 large ribs celery, cleaned and diced
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
red pepper flakes, to taste
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed or roughly diced
freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped parsley
oyster crackers

Instructions

Put the clams in a large, heavy Dutch oven, add about 4 cups water, then set over medium-high heat. Cover, and cook until the clams have opened, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. (Clams that fail to open after 15 to 20 minutes should be discarded.) Strain the clam broth through a sieve lined with cheesecloth, muslin, or doubled-up paper towels, and set aside. Remove the clams from their shells, discard the shells and set aside the clams.

Rinse out the pot, and return it to stove. Add the butter, and turn the heat to medium-low. Add the bacon, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fat has rendered and the pork has started to brown, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the meat from the fat, and set aside.

Add the onions, garlic, celery, green pepper, potatoes and carrots to the fat, and sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened but not brown, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Add 4 cups of clam broth. Add the sprigs of thyme and the bay leaf.

Partly cover the pot, and simmer gently until potatoes are just tender, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Using the back of a wooden spoon, smash a few potatoes against the side of the pot to release their starch and help thicken the broth.

When the potatoes are tender, stir in the tomatoes, and heat them through. Add the and reserved bacon, stirring to combine. Add black pepper to taste. Let chowder come to a simmer, and remove from the heat. Remove the thyme and the bay leaf.

The chowder should be allowed to sit for a while to cure. You can refrigerate it overnight if you like.

Reheat the chowder before serving, then garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with oyster crackers.