Oct 052015
 

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On this date in 1969 Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast on BBC One for the first time. It lasted for 4 seasons and I saw every episode when it was aired originally. This took a lot of doing because I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and in those days we had ONE television in the whole college. So we would all cram in to the television room to watch. It was a great way to see it for the first time – 80 students crowded into a tiny room, laughing like mad through it all. Memorable times.

My chief inclination in this post is simply to embed a bunch of my favorite clips and leave it at that. But perhaps I should ramble on a bit. The 1960s was a tremendously fertile period for British television comedy. The Pythons emerged from this incredible richness largely because their fortuitous coming together from other diverse shows, where they were both writers and actors, created a perfect blend. They also benefitted later from international syndication and by moving from television to film making. I was a fan of their work (separately) on such series as I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (radio) [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle and Chapman: writers],The Frost Report [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle: writer of Frost’s monologues] – [Chapman, Palin and Jones: writers] At Last the 1948 Show [Chapman and Cleese: writers and cast members] – [Idle: writer], and Do Not Adjust Your Set [Idle, Jones, and Palin: cast members and writers] – [Gilliam: animation]. I really liked these shows, but Monty Python was clearly a step above – right from the start.

Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, ITV offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin their own late-night comedy series together. At the same time, Chapman and Cleese were offered a show by the BBC, who had been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-person show for various reasons, including Chapman’s supposedly difficult and erratic personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin on How To Irritate People and invited him to join the team. With no studio available at ITV until summer 1970 for the late-night show, Palin agreed to join Cleese and Chapman, and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn wanted Gilliam to provide animations for the projected series. The Pythons were born.

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From the outset the team was disciplined and organized (which Jones later ascribed to Cleese in a rather negative way). Script writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea funny, it was included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly egalitarian process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a writer, rather than as an actor eager for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had a free hand in bridging them with animations.

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While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were responsible for elements of the team’s humor. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members (Jones and Palin) was more visual, and more fanciful conceptually (e.g., the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in a suburban front room), while the Cambridge graduates’ sketches tended to be more verbal and more aggressive (for example, Cleese and Chapman’s many “confrontation” sketches, where one character intimidates or hurls abuse, or Idle’s characters with bizarre verbal quirks, such as “The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams”). Cleese wrote that “most of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham’s and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry’s, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric’s”. Gilliam’s animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).

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Everyone has their own personal favorite Python actors. I am not alone in finding the combination of Cleese and Palin hysterical. The “Dead Parrot” sketch is an everlasting favorite with all audiences. The others I cared for somewhat less, but their work in concert was stellar. I can’t say I ever cared for Gilliam’s animations; they seemed intrusive, pointless, and very repetitive. Gilliam did, however, go on to great (often disturbing) film production. I reflect on his oeuvre in a separate post http://www.bookofdaystales.com/terry-gilliam/ Repetitiveness proved to be the downfall of the series. Cleese left after 3 seasons because he felt they were just rehashing old material, and, indeed, season 4 was not very good – season 3 was not their best either, showing signs of staleness. The evergreens come from seasons 1 & 2. The good news is that in branching into film the team blossomed in new ways. They were still episodic, like the series, but much more thematic, with linking threads. The Meaning of Life is my absolute favorite in this regard. Absolutely brilliant from start to finish. Here’s the “Galaxy Song”


You can find the full movie of Monty Python and the Holy Grail here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwccBSr9KS4

One of several of my favorite scenes from the film is this one where Palin plays a politically astute peasant to Chapman’s uptight Arthur:

My all time favorite sketch from the original series is “The Cheese Shop,” which is a perfect bridge to a recipe.

Among other things, Cleese gives a fairly comprehensive listing of world cheeses here, so you could just celebrate with a cheese platter. But I’ve already covered that base several times, as well as talking about individual cheeses. What I think hits the mark is a great British light dish: Welsh Rarebit. The Pythons did take jabs at all nationalities from time to time, but the core of their humor was poking fun at British culture, including some British foods – notably baked beans and Spam (which is not British but has taken root). My mum used to make Welsh Rarebit for weekend suppers when we had our main meal in the middle of the day. She called it Welsh Rabbit which is the older pronunciation and spelling. “Rarebit” probably came about as a way of indicating that it was not a rabbit or meat dish. I’ll use either term.

Hannah Glasse, in The Art of Cookery (1747), gives recipes for “Scotch rabbit”, “Welch rabbit” and two versions of “English rabbit,” so we could be thoroughly British:

To make a Scotch rabbit, toast the bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.

To make a Welch rabbit, toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and with a hot iron brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard.

To make an English rabbit, toast the bread brown on both sides, lay it in a plate before the fire, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up. Then cut some cheese very thin and lay it very thick over the bread, put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.

Or do it thus. Toast the bread and soak it in the wine, set it before the fire, rub butter over the bottom of a plate, lay the cheese on, pour in two or three spoonfuls of white wine, cover it with another plate, set it over a chafing-dish of hot coals for two or three minutes, then stir it till it is done and well mixed. You may stir in a little mustard; when it is enough lay it on the bread, just brown it with a hot shovel.

These are all little more than grilled cheese on toast, which I am certainly quite fond of as a snack. But Welsh Rarebit nowadays is customarily a spicy cheese sauce spread over toast. Usually the sauce is flavored with hot mustard and Worcestershire sauce. The best cheese is sharp cheddar. Cayenne pepper and/or paprika may also be used. I have seen old recipes involving beer and cheese only, and you can still use dark beer if you wish. But it is more common to use milk or cream. With this recipe I give you lots of options.

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Welsh Rarebit

Ingredients

375 g mature cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
30 g butter
30 g flour
125 ml milk, cream, or dark beer
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp English mustard powder
salt
1 pinch cayenne powder (optional)
paprika (optional)
4 toast slices

Instructions

Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler. Add the flour and whisk to form a white roux. Slowly add the milk, cream or beer, whisking constantly until the mixture is thick. Then whisk in the Worcestershire sauce and mustard (and cayenne if you wish).

Add the grated cheese a little at a time whilst continuing to whisk until the whole mixture is thoroughly combined.

Pour the mixture over hot toast. Garnish with paprika if you wish.

Some people run the sauce on toast under the broiler to brown it before serving.

Jun 242014
 

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Today is the birthday (1842) of Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, U.S. editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist. He wrote the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and compiled a satirical lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary. His vehemence as a critic, his motto, “nothing matters”, and the sardonic view of human nature that informed his work, all earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.”

Bierce was born in a log cabin at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius Bierce  and Laura Sherwood Bierce. His mother was a descendant of William Bradford (governor of Plymouth Colony). His parents were a poor but literary couple who instilled in him a deep love for books and writing. Bierce grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, attending high school at the county seat, Warsaw. Bierce was the tenth of thirteen children whose father gave all of them names beginning with the letter “A”. In order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. He left home at age fifteen to become a printer’s apprentice at a small Ohio newspaper.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. He participated in the Operations in Western Virginia campaign (1861), was present at the first battle at Philippi and received newspaper attention for his daring rescue, under fire, of a gravely wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain. In February 1862 he was commissioned First Lieutenant, and served on the staff of General William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. Bierce fought at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), a terrifying experience that became a source for several later short stories and the memoir “What I Saw of Shiloh.”

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In June 1864, he sustained a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, returning to active duty in September. He was discharged from the army in January 1865. His military career resumed, however, when in mid-1866 he rejoined General Hazen as part of the latter’s expedition to inspect military outposts across the Great Plains. The expedition proceeded by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving toward year’s end in San Francisco, California.

Bierce married Mary Ellen “Mollie” Day on December 25, 1871. They had three children; two sons, Day (1872–1889) and Leigh (1874–1901), and a daughter, Helen (1875–1940). Both of Bierce’s sons died before he did: Day committed suicide due to depression over a romantic rejection, and Leigh died of pneumonia related to alcoholism. Bierce separated from his wife in 1888 after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer. They divorced in 1904 and she died the following year.

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In San Francisco, Bierce received the rank of brevet major before resigning from the Army. He remained in San Francisco for many years, eventually becoming famous as a contributor and/or editor for a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, the Overland Monthly, The Californian and The Wasp. A selection of his crime reporting from The San Francisco News Letter was included in The Library of America anthology True Crime.

Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875, contributing to Fun magazine. His first book, The Fiend’s Delight, a compilation of his articles, was published in London in 1873 under the pseudonym Dod Grile. Returning to the United States, he again took up residence in San Francisco. From 1879 to 1880, he traveled to Rockerville and Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, to try his hand as local manager for a New York mining company. When the company failed he returned to San Francisco and resumed his career in journalism.

In 1887, he published a column called “Prattle” and became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists to be employed on William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, eventually becoming one of the most prominent and influential among the writers and journalists of the West Coast. He remained associated with Hearst Newspapers until 1906.

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies had received large loans from the U.S. government to build the First Transcontinental Railroad on gentle terms, but Collis P. Huntington persuaded a friendly member of Congress to introduce a bill excusing the companies from repaying the money, amounting to $130 million. In January 1896 Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C. to foil this attempt. The essence of the plot was secrecy; the railroads’ advocates hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice or hearings. When the angered Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and told Bierce to name his price, Bierce’s answer ended up in newspapers nationwide:

My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.

Bierce’s coverage and diatribes on the subject aroused such public wrath that the bill was defeated. Bierce returned to California in November.

Bierce was considered a master of pure English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote in a variety of literary genres. His short stories are held among the best of the 19th century, providing a popular following based on his roots. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “The Boarded Window,” “Killed at Resaca,” and “Chickamauga.” In addition to his ghost and war stories, he also published several volumes of poetry. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that became a more common genre in the 20th century.

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One of Bierce’s most famous works is his much-quoted book, The Devil’s Dictionary, originally an occasional newspaper item which was first published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book. It consists of satirical definitions of English words which lampoon cant and political double-talk. A sampling:

Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Quotation, n: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.

Sweater, n. Garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.

Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.

Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.”

Lottery,n. A tax on people who are bad at math.

Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.

Famous, adj. Conspicuously miserable.

Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

Homicide, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are
four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and
praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain
whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for
advantage of the lawyers.

Apologize: To lay the foundation for a future offence.

Positive, adj.: Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

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In October 1913 Bierce, then aged 71, departed Washington, D.C., for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had passed through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, and in that role he witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca.

Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa’s army as far as the city of Chihuahua. His last known communication with the world was a letter he wrote there to Blanche Partington, a close friend, dated December 26, 1913. After closing this letter by saying, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination,” he vanished without a trace, his disappearance becoming one of the most famous in American literary history. Bierce’s disappearance became a popular topic, much debated. Carlos Fuentes’ novel The Old Gringo is a fictionalized account of Bierce’s disappearance, which was later adapted into the film Old Gringo (1989), starring Gregory Peck in the title role.

Bierce once mused on the English term “Welsh rarebit” for grilled cheese on toast, which was more commonly called “Welsh rabbit,” as follows: “the continued use of rarebit was an attempt to rationalize the absence of rabbit.” He wrote in his 1911 “Devil’s Dictionary”: “Rarebit n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad in the hole is really not a toad, and that ris de veau à la financiere is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she-banker.”

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So, if you want to be quick and simple you could make cheese on toast to celebrate Bierce. In case you are more adventurous, here is a recipe for ris de veau à la financiere. It is essentially veal sweetbreads in a white sauce flavored with truffles and Madeira wine. It can be served as is or in vol-au-vent cases.

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Ris de Veau à la Financière

Ingredients

500 g veal sweetbreads
400 g roast veal
200 g veal or chicken quenelles (see below)
400 g mushrooms
truffle shavings (optional)
¼ cup cognac
1 tbsp flour
100 g of butter
salt and pepper
For the sauce:

50 g of butter
50 g flour
chicken stock
¼ cup Madeira (or to taste)
100 g cream
1 egg yolk

Instructions:

Blanch the sweetbreads and cut into large dice.

Slice the mushrooms and sauté them over high heat in a pan with 40 grams of butter.

Cut the quenelles into slices.

Cut the veal into large dice.

To prepare the sauce, make a roux with the flour and butter, add about 1 cup of chicken broth and Madeira, and let it thicken over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon.

Dredge the sweetbreads in flour and sauté them over high heat until lightly golden. Sprinkle with brandy and flambé. Add the mushrooms, veal, dumplings and gravy. Simmer 15 minutes over low heat, covered.

In a bowl, mix the egg yolk with the cream. Add a tablespoon of hot sauce to this mixture and briefly whisk; then add it to the sauce. Stir over a low simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly.

Quenelles

Ingredients

250 g veal

150 g bread-crumbs

2 cups milk

2 eggs, separated

40g butter

salt and pepper

flour

Instructions

Chop the veal finely and then use a food processor to make it into a paste.

Soak the breadcrumbs in milk for about 10 minutes and then squeeze the excess milk out with your fingers.

Combine the breadcrumbs with the meat and add the butter.

Mix well, season with salt and pepper to taste, and add the egg yolks.

Beat the whites until they are stiff and add fold them gently, but thoroughly into the meat mixture.

Roll the mixture into small balls, and dredge them with flour. Bring a pot of water to a full boil, add the quenelles, and lower the heat to a simmer after 5 minutes. Cook for an additional five minutes.