Jan 072021

Today is the birthday (1912) of Charles Samuel Addams, a US artist and cartoonist known for his darkly humorous and macabre characters. Some of the recurring characters, who became known as the Addams Family, have been the basis for spin-offs in several other forms of media.

Addams was born in Westfield, New Jersey, son of Grace M. and Charles Huey Addams, a piano company executive who had studied to be an architect. Addams’ father encouraged him to draw, and he did cartoons for the Westfield High School student literary magazine, Weathervane. He attended Colgate University in 1929 and 1930. He also attended the University of Pennsylvania 1n 1930 and 1931, where a fine-arts building on campus is named for him. He then studied at the Grand Central School of Art in New York City in 1931 and 1932.

In 1933, Addams joined the layout department of True Detective magazine, where he had to retouch photos of corpses that appeared in the magazine’s stories to remove the blood from them. Addams complained: “A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were.”  Addams’ first drawing for The New Yorker, a sketch of a window washer, ran on February 6, 1932, and his cartoons ran regularly in the magazine from 1937, when he drew the first in the series that came to be called The Addams Family, until his death in 1988. He was a freelancer throughout that time.

Addams’ original cartoons were one-panel gags and the characters that eventually became known as The Addams Family were sometimes drawn as a group, sometimes as individuals interspersed with regular society.  As such, they were undeveloped and unnamed and remained so until the first television series production in 1964. Addams described them as follows:

Gomez and Pugsley are enthusiastic. Morticia is even in disposition, muted, witty, sometimes deadly. Grandma Frump is foolishly good-natured. Wednesday is her mother’s daughter. A closely-knit family, the real head being Morticia—although each of the others is a definite character—except for Grandma, who is easily led. Many of the troubles they have as a family are due to Grandma’s fumbling, weak character. The house is a wreck, of course, but this is a house-proud family just the same, and every trap door is in good repair. Money is no problem.

Until the development of the television series, the individual characters were simply bizarre foils for cartoon humor. They became fully-fleshed, three-dimensional people with a complete family dynamic when series scripts needed more than one-liners. Thus they became a satirical inversion of the ideal 20th-century US family: an odd wealthy aristocratic clan who delight in the macabre and are seemingly unaware or unconcerned that other people find them bizarre or frightening. They are not in any sense evil. In their own way they are loving, kind, caring, and generous, and especially loyal to one another. They love to laugh, play games, and make art and music.  They just happen to be a trifle odd in the ways they carry things out.

I could give you a recipe that does the kind of thing that IHOP did when it invented its Addams Family Menu, with such items as buttermilk pancakes decorated with spider motifs. But that seems a bit tame, and is also something you can come up with yourself based on the numerous Halloween-themed recipes that abound every October.  Instead, I give you casu marzu – much more exotically macabre.

Casu marzu (literally ‘putrid cheese’), also called casu modde, casu cundídu and casu fràzigu, is a traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese that contains live insect larvae (maggots). A variation of the cheese, casgiu merzu, is also produced in some Southern Corsican villages. The cheese is derivative of pecorino, but goes beyond the typical fermentation to a stage of decomposition, brought about by the digestive action of the larvae of the cheese fly of the Piophilidae family. These larvae are deliberately introduced to the cheese, promoting an advanced level of fermentation and breaking down of the cheese’s fats. The texture of the cheese becomes very soft, with some liquid (called làgrima, Sardinian for “teardrop”) seeping out. The larvae themselves appear as translucent white worms, roughly 8 mm (0.3 in) long.

Casu marzu is created by leaving whole pecorino cheeses outside with part of the rind removed to allow the eggs of the cheese fly Piophila casei to be laid in the cheese. A female P. casei can lay more than 500 eggs at one time. The eggs hatch and the larvae begin to eat through the cheese. The acid from the maggots’ digestive system breaks down the cheese’s fats, making the texture of the cheese very soft; by the time it is ready for consumption, a typical casu martzu will contain thousands of these maggots.

Casu marzu is considered by Sardinian aficionados to be unsafe to eat when the maggots in the cheese have died. Because of this, only cheese in which the maggots are still alive is usually eaten, although allowances are made for cheese that has been refrigerated, which results in the maggots being killed. When the cheese has fermented enough, it is often cut into thin strips and spread on moistened Sardinian flatbread (pane carasau), to be served with a strong red wine like cannonau. Because the larvae in the cheese can launch themselves for distances up to 15 cm (6 in) when disturbed, diners hold their hands above the sandwich to prevent the maggots from leaping. Some who eat the cheese prefer not to ingest the maggots. Those who do not wish to eat them place the cheese in a sealed paper bag. The maggots, starved for oxygen, writhe and jump in the bag, creating a “pitter-patter” sound. When the sounds subside, the maggots are dead and the cheese can be eaten.