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:

May 212016
 

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Today is the May full moon for many parts of the world (including mine). In Asia and Australia it will be tomorrow because of the way time zones work.  Because I am now using the blog to focus on movable festivals (those that move about the Gregorian calendar), there will be lunar celebrations here every month, especially those fixed to the full moon. The moons all have names in cultures that use a lunar or lunisolar calendar pegged to the name of the month they begin. In cultures that use solar calendars the names of the moons are associated with annual activities such as Harvest Moon or Hunter’s Moon.

In Anglo-Saxon times the May moon/month was called Þrimilce-mōnaþ (Month of Three Milkings) in England. These days it has various titles —  Milk, Grass, Corn, Flower, Root, etc. depending on the Almanac you choose.

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In Buddhist cultures, today is a special day reserved to celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), usually known as the Buddha.  In Japan the day is fixed on 8 April in the Gregorian calendar and I have already mentioned this tradition  http://www.bookofdaystales.com/buddhas-birthday/ . In most Asian cultures, however, it is pegged to the lunar calendar and has various names, although the underlying significance is generally the same. For convenience I’ll use the Sanskrit name, Vesākha.

Tradition ascribes to the Buddha himself instruction on how to pay him homage. Just before he died, he saw his faithful attendant Ananda, weeping. The Buddha advised him not to weep, but to understand the universal law that all compounded things (including even his own body) must disintegrate. He advised everyone not to cry over the disintegration of the physical body but to regard his teachings (The Dhamma) as their teacher from then on, because only the Dhamma truth is eternal and not subject to the law of change. He also stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings. This is how Buddhists are expected to celebrate Vesākha: to use the opportunity to reiterate their determination to lead noble lives, to develop their minds, to practice loving-kindness and to bring peace and harmony to humanity.

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On Vesākha day, devout Buddhists and followers alike are expected and requested to assemble in their various temples before dawn for the ceremonial, and honorable, hoisting of the Buddhist flag and the singing of hymns in praise of the holy triple gem: The Buddha, The Dharma (his teachings), and The Sangha (his disciples). Devotees may bring simple offerings of flowers, candles and incense to lay at the feet of their teacher. These symbolic offerings are to remind followers that just as the beautiful flowers will wither away after a short while and the candles and incense sticks will soon burn out, so too is life subject to decay and destruction. Devotees are enjoined to make a special effort to refrain from killing of any kind. They are encouraged to partake of vegetarian food for the day. In some countries, notably Sri Lanka, two days are set aside for the celebration of Vesākha and all liquor shops and slaughter houses are closed by government decree during the two days. Also birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands in what is known as a ‘symbolic act of liberation’; of giving freedom to those who are in captivity, imprisoned, or tortured against their will. Some Buddhists wear simple white clothes and spend the whole day in temples with renewed determination to observe the Eight Precepts of Buddhism.

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Some temples also display a small statue of the Buddha in front of the altar in a small basin filled with water and decorated with flowers, allowing devotees to pour water over the statue; it is symbolic of the cleansing of a practitioner’s bad karma, and to reenact the events following the Buddha’s birth, when devas and spirits made heavenly offerings to him.

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Devotees are expected to listen to talks given by monks. On this day monks will recite verses uttered by the Buddha to invoke peace and happiness for the government and the people. Buddhists are reminded to live in harmony with people of other faiths and to respect the beliefs of other people as the Buddha taught.

Celebrating Vesākha also means making special efforts to bring happiness to the unfortunate like the aged, the handicapped and the sick. To this day, Buddhists will distribute gifts in cash and kind to various charitable homes throughout the country. Vesākha is also a time for great joy and happiness, expressed not by pandering to one’s appetites but by concentrating on useful activities such as decorating and illuminating temples, painting and creating exquisite scenes from the life of the Buddha for public dissemination. Devout Buddhists also vie with one another to provide refreshments and vegetarian food to followers who visit the temple to pay homage to the Buddha.

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Buddha’s Delight (罗汉斋) would be suitable to celebrate the day. This is basically a Chinese stir-fried vegetarian dish that varies according to taste, the cook, region, and what’s available. Common Chinese ingredients include:

Arrowhead (慈菇; cí gū)
Bamboo shoots (笋; sǔn)
Bean curd sticks or bean threads (腐竹; fǔ zhú)
Black mushrooms (冬菇; dōnggū)
Cellophane or mung bean noodles (粉絲; fěn sī)
Day lily buds (金针; jīnzhēn)
Fat choy (Cantonese) or black moss (发菜;  fà cài)
Ginkgo nuts (白果; bái guǒ)
Lotus seeds (蓮子; liánzǐ)
Napa cabbage (大白菜; dà bái cài)
Peanuts (花生; huā shēng)
Fried tofu (炸豆腐; zhá dòu fǔ)
Water chestnuts (荸荠; bí qí)
Fried or braised wheat gluten (面筋; miàn jīn)
Wood ear or black fungus (木耳; mù ěr)
Red dates or jujubes (红枣; hóng zǎo)
Lotus root (藕; ǒu)

Collect the vegetables you want for the dish, making sure you have plenty of variety. Cut them all into bite-sized pieces. You’ll need cellophane noodles as well. Soak them in warm water until they are soft. For the sauce prepare a mix of vegetable stock, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and cornstarch.

Stir fry your vegetables over the highest possible heat in a wok or skillet with a little vegetable oil. Add the noodles (with some water clinging) to heat through, then add your sauce, turn down to a simmer and mix all the ingredients and sauce together.

 

Jun 282015
 

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Today is the birthday (1712) of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of the 18th century. His political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment in France and across Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.

Rousseau’s novel Emile, or On Education is a treatise on the education of the whole person for citizenship. His sentimental novel Julie, or the New Heloise was of importance to the development of romanticism in fiction. Rousseau’s autobiographical writings — his Confessions, arguably the first modern autobiography, and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker — exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, and featured an increased focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing. His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones in modern political and social thought.

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Rousseau was a successful composer of music, who wrote seven operas as well as music in other forms, and made contributions to music as a theorist. As a composer, his music was a blend of the late Baroque style and the emergent Classical tradition, and he belongs to the same generation of transitional composers as Gluck and C. P. E. Bach. One of his more well-known works is the one-act opera Le devin du village, containing the duet “Non, Colette n’est point trompeuse” which was later rearranged as a stand-alone song by Beethoven. The complete opera is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEucVoQ1fsU

During the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most popular of the philosophes among members of the Jacobin Club, and many of his political ideals were adopted in North America by luminaries such as Thomas Jefferson during the American Revolution. As an anthropologist I am interested in his reflections on humans in the “state of nature” which are intriguing even though they are based on zero actual data and, therefore, of no value as scientific anthropology. The Enlightenment was characterized by conflicting theories of human nature. One, exemplified by Hobbes, saw humans as basically selfish and cruel who needed to be tamed by “civilization”; the other, exemplified by Rousseau, saw humans as basically noble who had been corrupted by “civilization”. Nowadays we would use the word “culture” instead of “civilization”. Because his speculations on humans are not informed by hard data they are worthless as anthropology; but they do provide insight into the minds and aspirations of the 18th century. I am not going to wade into these deep waters, but, given that this is nominally a food blog, I want to take a look at Rousseau’s thoughts on the relationship between diet and culture.

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Based on Rousseau’s writings on meat and temperament, it has often been asserted that Rousseau was a vegetarian: he was not. Here are some pertinent quotes:

The peasants eat less animal food and more vegetables than our women in town; a regimen which is rather favorable than otherwise to them and their children.

One proof that the taste of meat is not natural to the human palate is the indifference children have for that kind of food, and the preference they give to vegetable aliments, such as milk-meats, pastry, fruit, etc. It is of the utmost importance not to vitiate this primitive taste in children, to make them carnivorous. Were even their health not concerned, it would be expedient on account of their disposition and character; for it is sufficiently clear from experience, that those people who are great eaters of meat, are in general more ferocious and cruel than other men.

This observation is true of all places and of all times. English coarseness is well known.. The Gaures, on the contrary, are the gentlest of men. All savages are cruel, and it is not their morals that urge them to be so; this cruelty proceeds from their food. They go to war as to the chase, and treat men as they do bears. Even in England the butchers are not received as legal witnesses any more than surgeons. Great criminals harden themselves to murder by drinking blood. Homer represents the Cyclopes, who were flesh-eaters, as frightful men, and the Lotophagi [lotus-eatersj as a people so amiable that as soon as one had any dealings with them, one straightway forgot everything, and one’s country, to live with them.

Our first food was milk. We accustom ourselves only by degrees to strong flavors. At first they are repugnant to us. Fruits, vegetables, kitchen herbs, and, in fine, often broiled dishes without seasoning and without salt, composed the feasts of the first men. The first time a savage drinks wine he makes a grimace and rejects it; and even amongst ourselves, whoever has lived to his twentieth year without tasting fermented drinks cannot afterwards accustom himself to them. We should all be abstinent from alcohol if we had not been given wines in our early years. In fine, the more simple our tastes are the more universal they are, and the most common repugnance is for made-up dishes. Did one ever see a person have a disgust for water or bread? Behold the impress of nature! Behold here, then, our rule of life. Let us preserve to the child as long as possible his primitive taste; let its nourishment be common and simple, let not its palate be familiarize with any but natural flavors, and let no more exclusive taste be formed.. . . . I have sometimes examined those people who attached importance to good living, who thought, upon their first waking, of what they should eat during the day, and described a dinner with more exactitude than Polybius would use in describing a battle. I have thought that all these so-called men were but children of forty years without vigor and without consistence – fruges consumere nati. Gluttony is the vice of souls that have no solidity (qui n’ont point d’étoffe).

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger for the sweet and gentle creatures which harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service

And in reflecting on eating outdoors with his “wife” (they were not officially married):

Who shall describe, who shall understand, the charm of these repasts, composed of a quartern loaf, of cherries, of a little cheese, and of a half pint of wine, which we drank together. Friendship, confidence, intimacy, sweetness of soul, how delicious are your seasonings!

Despite this clear statement on the virtues of avoiding meat, his friends all describe dinners to which they were invited as laden with plain roast meats of all kinds – poultry, lamb, and fish – and were often asked to help him turning the spit. In these cases it was the rich gravies and other accoutrements he objected to. Simplicity in all food was his motto. In later life, for health reasons, he followed a vegetarian regimen, but this was not his general inclination.

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Longtime readers here will understand that I like roasting meats, but, unlike Rousseau, I like a nice gravy to accompany them. My general practice is to take the pan drippings in a heavy skillet, add flour to make a dark roux (which requires patient stirring over a medium flame), then slowly incorporate a stock made from chicken or beef. I bring this to a steady simmer to cook the flour, then add seasonings of my choice. For roast beef I generally add parsley and powdered cloves, for lamb, garlic and rosemary, and for chicken, parsley and sage – none of which herbs I have been able to find in China as yet. I always make a good quantity of gravy (at least a pint for 4 people), and there is rarely any left at the end of the meal.