Lasagna

Below is an article on the dish known as Lasagna

LASAGNA

The Italian dish known as Lasagne has been popular for years here in the United States . . . ever since the arrival of immigrants from Italy. When the recipe for Lasagne first appeared in an American cookbook, I have no idea. But I discovered, to my surprise, that there are several theories to the origin of Lasagne.

The first theory is that Lasagna originated from an Ancient Roman dish called lasana or lasanum (Latin word for “container”, “pot”) described in the book “De re coquinaria” by Marcus Gavius Apicius. Another theory is that the dish actually originated from an Ancient Greek dish called λάγανον (laganon). This dish was basically a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips.

The most popular theory is that Lasagna originated in Naples, Italy during the Middle Ages. An early recipe for this dish first appeared in the early 14th century cookbook, “Liber de Coquina (The Book of Cookery)”. It bore a slight resemblance to the more modern form of Lasagna. This early recipe featured fermented dough that is flattened into a thin sheet, boiled, sprinkled with cheese and spices, and eaten with the use of a small pointed stick.

Later recipes also written in the 15th century recommended boiling the pasta in a chicken broth and dressing it with cheese and chicken fat, or in one case walnuts. This recipe was adapted for the Lenten Fast. The more traditional form of Lasagna – Lasagne di Carnevale – consisted of local sausage, small fried meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, and a Neapolitan ragù sauce. The pasta dough prepared in Southern Italy for Lasagna used semolina and water. It used flour and eggs in Northern Italy, where semolina was not available. In modern-day Italy, the dough for commercial Lasagna is made from semolina (Durum Wheat).

Below is a modern, yet traditional recipe for Lasagna from the All Recipes website:

Easy Lasagna I Recipe

Ingredients

1 pound lean ground beef
1 onion, chopped
1 (4.5 ounce) canned mushrooms, drained
1 (28 ounce) jar spaghetti sauce
1 (16 ounce) package cottage cheese
1 pint part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
1 (16 ounce) package lasagna noodles
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

Preparation

Reheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

In a large skillet, cook and stir ground beef until brown. Add mushrooms and onions; saute until onions are transparent. Stir in pasta sauce, and heat through.

In a medium size bowl, combine cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, grated Parmesan cheese, and eggs.

Spread a thin layer of the meat sauce in the bottom of a 13×9 inch pan.

Layer with uncooked lasagna noodles, cheese mixture, mozzarella cheese, and meat sauce. Continue layering until all ingredients are used, reserving 1/2 cup mozzarella. Cover pan with aluminum foil.

Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes. Uncover, and top with remaining half cup of mozzarella cheese. Bake for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from oven, and let stand 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

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“POLDARK” Series Two (2016) Episodes One to Four

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“POLDARK” SERIES TWO (2016) EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

Following my viewing of the 1975 series, “POLDARK” and its adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1950 novel, “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”, I decided to view Debbie Horsfield’s recent adaptation of the same novel, spread out in four episodes during its second series. Needless to say, my experience with this adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark” proved to be a different kettle of fish.

Series Two’s first episode began a day or two after the final scene of Series One – namely Ross Poldark’s arrest by the local militia for instigating a riot between his tenants/employees and the citizens of another town, who were salvaging the goods from a shipwrecked ship. The ship happened to belong to a noveau riche family named Warleggan and one of its members, one George Warleggan, went out of his way to ensure that the law would charge Ross with the crime. To make matters worse, Ross and his wife, Demelza Carne Poldark, had to endure the death of their only daughter from Putrid’s Throat.

At the beginning of the second series’ Episode One, Ross faced one of his old nemesis, the Reverend Dr. Halse , in court in order for the latter to determine whether Ross would stand trial for his crime. Considering the two men’s previous clashes, it was not surprising that Halse ordered Ross to stand trial during the next assize in Bodmin. Not only that – audiences were treated with an energetic scene between star Aidan Turner and former Poldark leading man, Robin Ellis. After Ross returned to his estate, Nampara, he set about getting his business in order. Meanwhile, Demelza tried to encourage him to seek help or patronage in order to ensure his acquittal. Being an incredibly stubborn and self-righteous ass, Ross refused. Demelza was forced to go behind his back to seek help from the judge assigned to his case and a wealthy neighbor named Ray Penvenen. Needless to say, Demelza failed to gather support from both men. Her cousin-in-law and Ross’ former love, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark attempted to acquire George Warleggan’s help by arranging a meeting between the men at her husband’s estate, Trenwith. She also failed, due to Ross’ unwillingness to speak to the latter. George’s major henchman, Tankhard, managed to recruit Ross’ former farmhand, Jud Paynter, to testify against Ross. Although Jud had intially agreed to testify, he changed his mind at the last minute, while on the stand. Due to a rousing pro-labor speech, Ross was acquitted by the end of Episode Two.

During those first two episodes that focused on Ross’ trial, other events occurred. His close friend, Dr. Dwight Enys met Ray Penvenen’s flighty niece, Caroline Penvenen during the azzis and election in Bodmin and sparks flew between the pair … despite the latter’s arrogant demand that he treat her pug. Francis, while in despair over estrangement from Ross, Verity and Elizabeth, attempted suicide in Bodmin and failed, due to a falty pistol. Elizabeth also appeared in Bodmin for the trial. Although she had appeared to support Ross, she and Francis ended up reconciling. Unfortunately, I was not pleased by this development. I wish Elizabeth had never forgiven Francis, since he had never bothered to offer any apology for the five to six years of emotional abuse and the loss of his fortune and their son Geoffrey Charles’ future. Unless I am mistaken, Elizabeth never really forgave Francis in the novels, despite his “new lease on life”, following his suicide attempt. Good. I never thought he deserved forgiveness.

I have read a few articles and reviews of the episodes that covered the adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark”. While everyone else seemed impressed by the hullaballoo over Ross’ trial, I felt more impressed by the third and fourth episodes. One, I was never that impressed by the trial storyline in the first place. Due to Ross’ social standing as a member of the landed gentry, I suspected he would be acquitted, when I first read the novel. Unless he had committed murder (against someone from his own class) or treason against the Crown, I never really believed he would be convicted. If Ross had been a member of the working-class or middle-class, chances are his closing speech would have guaranteed conviction of the charges made against him. By the way, was that a closing speech? Or was that merely a speech inserted into Ross’ own testimonial? I hope it was the latter, because he seemed to possess a barrister who barely said a word.

And if I must be brutally honest, there was an aspect of the first two episodes – especially Episode Two – that I found disappointing. I had been more impressed by the 1975 adaptation of Ross’ trial, due to its strong ability to recapture the atmosphere of an assize during the eighteenth century. I never sense that same level of atmosphere from this latest adaptation. Showrunner Debbie Horsfield seemed more intent upon creating tension over the possibility conviction. In a way, this seemed appropriate considering that the story should matter. But would it have hurt for Horsfield to add a little color or flavor in her portrayal of the Bodmin assize? For me it would have made up for my disinterest in Ross’ trial.

While many complained about the “dullness” of Episodes Three and Four, I found it interesting. Once Ross and Demelza dealt with his arrest and trial, they were forced to deal with the aftermath of their daughter Julia’s death. While Demelza openly faced her grief, Ross finally got the chance to focus his attention on dealing with his possible financial ruin. But in doing so, he ended up emotionally distancing himself from his wife. It was easy to see that the honeymoon was over for Ross and Demelza. Like many couples in real life, they found it difficult to deal with a child’s death, which they were forced to face after Ross’ acquittal. And like many couples, their relationship suffered, due to their grief. Although Demelza had discovered she was pregnant, Ross made it clear that he was not ready to deal with another child before she could reveal her news. I have to commend both Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson in conveying the growing estrangement between Ross and Demelza with great skill and subtlety. And I suspect that they benefited from Debbie Horsfield’s writing, who managed to capture this roadblock in the couple’s relationship without turning it into an over-the-top ham fest.

Both Episodes Three and Four also focused on Ross’ financial problems. Many critics seemed uninterested in this turn of events. Apparently, they were more interested in watching Ross and Demelza behave like “the perfect couple”. I was not bored. It was interesting to watch an upper-class landonwer deal with looming poverty without the benefit of securing the hand of an heiress. You know … like aspiring politician Unwin Trevaunance. And what many had failed to point out was that the Nampara Poldarks’ financial situation was a result of Demelza’s matchmaking efforts for Verity, Francis’ resentment and anger, and George’s malice. The die was cast in Series One’s eighth episode and the consequences reared its ugly head in Series Two. Ross and Demelza were bound to face these consequences sooner or later. Worse, Ross found himself dealing with a vindictive George Warleggan, who was finally able to purchase enough shares to assume control over Wheal Leisure, Ross’ mine.

I never understood why Demelza had kept her fishing trips (to provide food for Nampara’s larder) a secret from Ross. Personally, I thought she could have informed him that someone needed to fish to prevent them from starving, due to their money problems. If Ross had dismissed the idea, then I could have understood her need for secrecy. But knowing Ross, he probably would not have supported the fishing trips or bothered to find someone to provide fish for Nampara’s inhabitants. He could be rather stubborn and proud. And I must admit that I did not care for how Debbie Horsfield changed the circumstances behind Demelza’s last fishing trip. Instead of allowing her to reach shore on her own, while going into labor; Horsfield had an angry Ross come to her rescue and carry her ashore:

 

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It looked like a scenario from a second-rate romance novel. And I found it a touch sexist. Ugh.

Other matters threatened to endanger Ross and Demelza’s marriage even further. One, Demelza seemed to have become the center of attraction for men like fellow landowner Sir Hugh Bodrugan, who has set his eyes on Demelza ever since the Warleggan ball back in Series One; and the Scottish-born militia officer, Captain McNeil, who happened to be one of Ross’ former military comrades from the Revolutionary War. Mr. Poldark seemed unaware of Sir Hugh’s attention, but did not seem particularly thrilled by Captain McNeill sniffing around his wife. Yet … he did nothing. Two, Ross gave permission to allow a smuggling ring led by a Mr. Trencomb to use the cove on his beach to store their stolen goods. Fearful that Ross might face arrest again and this time, prison, Demelza expressed her disapproval.

However, she seemed relieved that Ross and Francis had finally made their peace following their estrangement over Verity Poldark’s (Francis’ sister) marriage to a former alcoholic sea captain in Episode Three, thanks to Elizabeth’s machinations. In fact, she was more than happy to attend Francis’ harvest ball at Trenwith. What she did not like was the conversation she had overheard between Ross and Elizabeth, later that evening. A part of me was fascinated by Ross’ bold attempt to seduce Elizabeth. Especially since it featured some excellent acting from both Aidan Turner and Heida Reed. Another part of me felt disgusted by his actions. Ross had not merely flirted with his cousin-in-law. He made a strong effort to seduce her … after her husband had retired to his bedroom, upstairs. Fortunately, Elizabeth put a stop to his action before it could get any worse.

Interesting consequences resulted from Ross’ attempt at seduction. It finally led Demelza to reveal her pregnancy to Ross … who did not seem particularly thrilled. And although Demelza seemed willing to dismiss her husband’s behavior, her cool attitude toward Elizabeth during their encounter in the woods seemed to hint that she seemed willing to place most of the blame on her cousin-in-law. In other words, Demelza seemed willing to use Elizabeth as a scapegoat for Ross’ indiscretion. Or … perhaps Ross’ attempt to seduce Elizabeth had simply increased Demelza’s insecurity. After reading several articles on this story arc, I was … not particularly surprised that most fans and critics had ignored this little scene between the two cousins-in-law, especially since Demelza is such a popular character and Elizabeth is not. Many years have passed since I last read “Jeremy Poldark”. But I do not recall such a scene in the novel. What made Horsfield add it? Was this the producer’s attempt to portray Demelza in a more ambiguous light than she did in previous episodes? Or was this an attempt to set up Elizabeth as partially responsible for an upcoming event in a later episode? I have no idea. I am confused.

Many fans seemed thrilled by the budding romance between Dr. Dwight Enys and heiress Caroline Penvenen. Personally, I found it rather interesting … and romantic in a way. Both Luke Norris and Gabriella Wilde seemed to have a strong screen chemistry. My problem with this relationship is that I am not a fan of Caroline. I never have been. I have the oddest feeling that although she may be in love with Dwight, she also regards him as something new or different that she wants to acquire … or collect. Her constant requests for his medical services and her assistance in acquiring oranges to help him deal with an outbreak of scurvy strikes me as seductive foreplay on her part and nothing else.

However, the reunion between the Nampara and Trenwith Poldarks resulted in two positive consequences. Following the loss of Wheal Leisure, Ross recalled Mark Daniels’ (one of the saga’s two wife killers) claim of discovering copper inside his family’s other mine, Wheal Grace and managed to convince Francis in investing in the mine. And the latter invested the six hundred pounds that he had received from George Warleggan for exposing the Carnmore Copper Company investors (the majority of whom were indebted to the Warleggan Bank), back in Series One.

Speaking of Francis’ six hundred pounds, I am confused about something. When George Warleggan learned about Francis’ investment in Wheal Grace, he vindictively revealed to Ross how Francis had acquired the money in the first place. Naturally, Ross lost his temper and the pair engaged in a brawl. But I could have sworn that Ross had figured out Francis’ betrayal of the company ever since he learned about Demelza’s meddling in Verity’s love life around the same time that Carnmore Copper Company had folded. The sequence from Episode Eight seemed to hint this. Unless I had misread it. Judging from Ross’ reaction to George’s revelation in Episode Four of this season, apparently I did. However, I need to re-watch that Series One sequence again.

George’s revelation of Francis’ betrayal did give Ross the opportunity to manipulate the latter into finally accepting Verity’s marriage to Andrew Blamey in a very clever scene that featured first-rate performances from both Kyle Soller and Aidan Turner. As for that brawl between Ross and George … the scene sizzled from Aidan Turner and Jack Farthing’s performances. And many fans and critics cheered over Ross emerging victorious over his nemesis. However, I noticed that George made that victory difficult for Ross to achieve. I guess George’s boxing lessons proved to be beneficial after all. Some have expressed confusion over why George went through so much trouble to bring down Ross. Perhaps these fans had forgotten Ross’ rude and insulting response to George’s genuine offer of condolences over young Julia’s death near the end of Series One. Not only had Ross dismissed George’s sympathetic overture, he also insulted the latter’s cousin Matthew Stinson, who had drowned when the Warleggans’ ship foundered. Apparently George never did.

It was nice to see Ruby Bentall as Verity Poldark Blamey again … even though her presence in the production was diminished in compare to Series One. Verity served as a reminder of Francis’ unwillingness to accept her marriage to the former alcoholic (and wife killer) Captain Andrew Blamey … which I can understand. Episode Three (or was it Four) featured a minor story arc that featured Verity’s problems with her stepdaughter, Esther Blamey. I must admit that it was not that difficult to understand Esther’s hostility. Her father had killed her mother in a fit of alcoholic rage (during an argument). Although he had served a few years in prison, he was released, managed to rebuild his profession as a sea captain and marry a woman from an upper-class family. If dear Esther was seething with inner rage over this series of events, I honestly could not blame her. However, her brother James, a midshipman in the Royal Navy, seemed more than willing to accept Verity. Oh well.

I have one last topic to discuss … Jud Paynter. As many know, Jud was bribed by George Warleggan’s minion, Tankard, to testify against Ross about the riot on the beach. Instead, Jud refrained from doing so once he had reached the stand. In retaliation, George hired a couple of thugs to give him a beating. Only they went too far and nearly beat Jud to death. I say nearly, because for some stupid reason, everyone from his wife Prudie to both Ross and Demelza believed that Jud had died. No one had bothered to check his body to see whether he was alive or not. I have liked this little story arc. Mind you, it revealed that Jud had taken money from George to testify against Ross. But the whole “poor Jud is dead” routine struck me as completely ridiculous and hard to believe. I alway enjoy Phil Davis’ portrayal of Jud and even Beatie Edney gave a rather funny performance in this story arc as the “grieving” Prudie Paynter. But I still dislike this story arc. Yet, I am grateful that Horsfield did not allow it to stretch out over a long period of time, as the producers of the 1975-77 series did. Thank goodness for some miracles.

I might as well be frank. I am not really a fan of Winston Graham’s 1950 novel, “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”. For me, it seemed like a transitional novel. It concluded the story arc that began with Ross’ arrest for inciting a riot and it set up the Poldark/Warleggan family drama that eventually exploded in Graham’s next novel. I realized that Debbie Horsfield and the cast did all they could to make this adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark” work. There were some scenes that I found interesting – especially in Episodes Three and Four. But I must be honest … I did not find it particularly captivating. How could I when the source material had failed to captivate me, as well?

The AMERICAN REVOLUTION in Television

Below is a selection of television productions (listed in chronological order) about or featured the American Revolution: 

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION IN TELEVISION

1. “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (aka Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow)” (NBC; 1963) – Patrick McGoohan starred in this three-episode Disney adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel, “Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Mars”. James Neilson directed.

2. “The Bastard” (Syndication; 1978) – Andrew Stevens and Kim Cattrall starred in this adaptation of the 1974 novel, the first in John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” literary series. Lee H. Katzin directed.

3. “The Rebels” (Syndication; 1979) – Andrew Stevens, Don Johnson and Doug McClure starred in this adaptation of the 1975 novel, the second in John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” literary series. Russ Mayberry directed.

4. “George Washington” (CBS; 1984) – Barry Bostwick starred as George Washington, first U.S. President of the United States – from his childhood to his experiences during the American Revolution. Directed by Buzz Kulik, the miniseries starred Patty Duke, Jaclyn Smith and David Dukes.

5. “April Morning” (Hallmark; 1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The television movie was directed by Delbert Mann.

6. “Mary Silliman’s War” (Syndication; 1994) – Nancy Palk starred in this Canadian-produced television movie about the experiences of a Connecticut matriarch during the American Revolution. Stephen Surjik directed.

7. “The Crossing” (A&E; 2000) – Jeff Daniels starred as George Washington in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1971 novel about the Battle of Trenton campaign in December 1776. Robert Harmon directed.

8. “John Adams” (HBO; 2008) – Emmy winners Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams in this award winning HBO miniseries about the second U.S. President from his years as a Boston lawyer to his death.

9. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC; 2014-2017) – Jamie Bell starred in this television series that is an adaptation of Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”. The series was created by Craig Silverstein.

10. “The Book of Negroes” (BET; 2015) – Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr. starred in this television adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel about the experiences of an African woman who was kidnapped into slavery.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1700 and 1749

Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1700 and 1749: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1700 AND 1749

1. “Tom Jones” (1963) – Tony Richardson directed this Best Picture Oscar winner, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. The movie starred Albert Finney and Susannah York.

2. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006) – Gore Verbinski directed this second entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the search for the chest that contains Davy Jones’ heart. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

3. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) – Gore Verbinski directed this first entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about a dashing pirate who forms an alliance with an apprentice blacksmith in order to save the latter’s beloved from a crew of pirates – the very crew who had mutinied against the former. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

4. “Kidnapped” (1960) – Peter Finch and James MacArthur starred in Disney’s 1960 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel about family betrayal in 1740s Scotland. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007) – Gore Verbinski directed this third entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the Pirate Lords’ alliance and their stand against the East Indian Trading Company and Davy Jones. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush.

6. “Against All Flags” (1952) – Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara starred in this swashbuckler about a British sea officer who infiltrates a group of pirates on behalf of the government bring them to justice. George Sherman directed.

7. “Rob Roy” (1995) – Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange starred in this adventure film about Scottish chieftain Rob Roy McGregor and his conflict with an unscrupulous nobleman in the early 18th century Scottish Highlands. Michael Caton-Jones directed.

8. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1984) – Michael York, Richard Thomas, Fiona Hughes and Timothy Dalton starred in this second adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. Douglas Hickox directed.

9. “Swashbuckler” (1976) – Robert Shaw starred in this adaptation of Paul Wheeler’s story, “The Scarlet Buccaneer”, about a early 18th century pirate who forms an alliance with the daughter of a disgraced judge against an evil imperial politician. James Goldstone directed.

10. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1953) – Errol Flynn, Anthony Steel and Roger Livsey starred in an earlier adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. William Keighley directed.

“Croque-Monsieur Sandwich”

Below is an article on the dish known as the Croque-Monsieur Sandwich: 

“CROQUE-MONSIEUR SANDWICH”

My familiarity with the French dish known as the Croque-Monsieur Sandwich originated with an American version called the Monte Cristo Sandwich. You see, I first experienced the latter during a visit to the Disneyland Resort about a decade ago. It took another four or five years before I first stumbled across the Croque-Monsieur at a cafe in downtown Los Angeles.

The Croque-Monsieur Sandwich is originally a popular dish served at cafes and smaller eateries in Paris, France. Basically, it is a ham and cheese sandwich that is either baked or fried. The sandwich was originally created for the French working-class. At least two origin stories are associated with the Croque-Monsieur Sandwich. The first origin tale claimed that the sandwich was created entirely by accident when French workers left their lunch pails too close to a hot radiator. The heat toasted the bread and melted the cheese in their sandwich. Personally, this origin tale seems a bit far-fetched and no particular date or year is associated with this tale. The second version seemed to have more merit.

In 1901, a chef at a local Parisian brasserie on the Boulevard des Capucines had ran out of baguettes for the restaurant’s sandwich of the day. The chef cut slices from a loaf of Pain de Mie bread (similar to American sandwich bread) placed ham and cheese between them and baked the entire sandwich until it was crisp. The name of the sandwich came from the French verb croquer (“to bite”) and from a casual comment from the chef, when asked about the ham’s origin. The chef pointed at another customer and claimed that the ham came from “C’est la viande de monsieur (It’s that guy’s meat)”.

The sandwich first appeared on the menu of a Parisian cafe in 1910. Unfortunately, no one seems to know which cafe. It was also mentioned in the second volume of Marcel Proust’s novel, “In Search of Lost Time”, in 1918. Over the years, variations of the Croque-Monsieur Sandwich had been added. Some brasseries and cafes eventually added Béchamel sauce. A Croque-Monsieur Sandwich with a poached or lightly fried egg became known as Croque-Madame. In the United States, a ham and cheese sandwich dipped in an egg batter and deep fried was called the Monte Cristo Sandwich. And in Great Britain, a hot ham and cheese sandwich became known as a “toastie”.

Below is a modern, yet traditional recipe for the Croque-Monsieur Sandwich from the Bon Appétit website:

Croque-Monsieur Sandwich

Ingredients:

Béchamel Sauce (One Day Ahead)
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1½ cups whole milk
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ¼ ground nutmeg
Kosher salt

Sandwich
8 slices ½”-thick country-style bread
6 oz. ham, preferably Paris ham (about 8 slices)
3 oz. Gruyère, grated (about 1½ cups)
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence

Preparation:

Béchamel Sauce (One Day Ahead)
Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until foamy. Add flour and cook, stirring, until mixture is pale and foamy, about 3 minutes. Gradually add milk, stirring until mixture is smooth. Cook, stirring, until sauce is thick and somewhat elastic, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in mustard and nutmeg; season with salt.
DO AHEAD: Béchamel can be made 1 day ahead. Let cool; press plastic wrap directly onto surface and chill.

Sandwich
Preheat oven to 425°. Spread bread slices with béchamel, dividing evenly and extending all the way to the edges. Place 4 slices of bread, béchamel side up, on a parchment-lined baking sheet; top with ham and half of cheese. Top with remaining slices of bread, béchamel side up, then top with remaining cheese and sprinkle with herbes de Provence. Bake until cheese is brown and bubbling, 10–15 minutes.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I first learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES”was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.

 

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter I Commentary

 

Eps. 1.3

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER I Commentary

Years ago, before the advent of DVDs, I had perused my local video rental store for something to watch. I came across a miniseries called “THE CHISHOLMS”. Due to it being a Western and possessing a running time of four hours and thirty minutes, I decided to give it a chance. I managed to purchase a VHS copy of the miniseries and enjoy for several years. But with the advent of the DVD and my VHS player going on the blink, I had to wait quite a while before I could finally get a DVD copy of it. 

Based upon Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel, “THE CHISHOLMS” told the story of a family from western Virginia, who make the momentous decision to travel west to California after losing part of their farm to a neighbor, due to some unusual circumstances. Unlike many other television and movie productions about the westward migration during the 1840s, “THE CHIISHOLMS” took its time in setting up the story. In this first episode, it spent at least an hour introducing the Chisholm family – namely:

*Hadley Chisholm – the family’s patriarch and owner of a farm in western Virginia
*Minerva Chisholm – the family’s matriarch
*William “Will” Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s oldest son, who is also a veteran of the Texas Revolution
*Gideon Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s second son
*Bonnie Sue Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s older daughter and Beau’s twin
*Beau Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s youngest son and Bonnie Sue’s twin
*Annabel Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s younger daughter and youngest offspring

The first episode or Chapter I began with Will’s wedding to a young local woman named Elizabeth during the spring of 1843. Also, the family is unaware of Bonnie Sue’s romance with a young man named Brian Cassidy. Unfortunately for her and Brian, the Chisholms and the Cassidys have been engaged in a feud ever since Hadley’s brother had rejected Brian’s aunt at the wedding altar several decades ago. When the latter died, the Chisholms and the Cassidys discovered that she had received a portion of the Chisholm land – the farm’s most fertile – from Hadley’s brother as compensation for being dumped. She never revealed this to her family or the Chisholms. But she did leave her land to her brother and Brian’s father, Luke Cassidy, who did not wait long to demand that the Chisholms hand over the land. Matters worsen for the Chisholms when Will’s bride die from an infection after giving birth to an unborn child.

With no fertile land to farm, Hadley Chisholm decides to pack his family and migrate to California. Most of the family agrees with his decision, except Minerva, who is reluctant to leave Virginia; and Bonnie Sue, who is reluctant to leave Brian. The journey west goes without a hitch, until the family reaches Louisville, Kentucky. There, they discover from a young Western guide named Lester Hackett that they had departed Virginia at least a month or two late for the journey to California. The family had reached Louisville in mid-May 1844, around the time when most emigrant wagon trains usually departed Independence, Missouri. Upon learning this, Hadley changes his mind about the journey to California and decides to return to Virginia. But Will informs him that there are other members of the family are willing to utilize Lester’s plan that would eliminate some time from their trip to Independence. After the Chisholms decide to continue west via a family vote, they utilize Lester’s plan by boarding a flat-bottom boat that takes them to Evansville in western Indiana, cutting off their journey by a few weeks.

Some people might find the first hour of “THE CHISHOLMS” rather hard to endure. Most movie and television productions usually spend at least fifteen minutes in introducing its characters and conveying the reasons behind their decision to migrate to the West. “THE CHISHOLMS” spent an hour. Personally, this did not bother me, for I found the circumstances behind the Chisholms’ decision to head for California rather interesting. Especially since the circumstances involved a potential feud with another family. Other reasons why I rather enjoyed the miniseries’ first hour was how the circumstances in which the family made its departure originated with Hadley Chisholm’s displeasure over the neighborhood’s new minister from Vermont and how the latter conducted Elizabeth Chisholm’s funeral. I would explain how Hadley’s conflict over the new minister led to the family sneaking away from their home in the middle of the night. But it would require a great deal of narration on my part. And honestly, I would suggest that you simply watch the miniseries.

Once the family hit the road for California, the miniseries went into full steam. Chapter I only followed the Chisholms from Virginia to southwestern Indiana, but a good deal happened in that half hour. The temptation to return home to Virginia hovered over the family all the way to Louisville. And when the family learned from Lester Hackett that they had left Virginia about a month or so too late, even Hadley was tempted to turn around. What I found interesting about this turn of events is that Chisholms’ decision on whether to return to Virginia or continue west to California depended upon a family vote . . . and the instant attraction between Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester. Personally, I would have ended Chapter I with that scene inside a Louisville stable. Hadley and Minerva’s willingness to decide the whole matter on a vote, along with the sexual attraction between Bonnie Sue and Lester, would end up producing strong consequences later in the miniseries and in the short-lived television series that followed. Instead, the Chisholms experienced a brief journey down the Ohio River on a broad horn (flat-bottom raft), while Minerva endured the unwanted attention of the broad horn’s captain (or patroon) named Jimmy Jackson. By the time the family reached the outskirts of Evansville, it had reached the point of no return.

Another aspect about “THE CHISHOLMS” that I enjoyed, was how the producers, director Mel Stuart and the screenwriters utilized the production’s historical background without hitting viewers over the head with facts. The family had departed Virginia in 1844, a year that featured a Presidential election. Not once did the topic of the election graced anyone’s lips. But the miniseries made it clear that Will Chisholm was a veteran of the Texas Revolution of 1836. The miniseries also brought up the topic of slavery. The narrative pointed out that Hadley’s wealthiest neighbor was a planter and slave owner. And during the last half hour of Chapter I, a coffle of slaves was among the other passengers aboard Jimmy Jackson’s broad horn, leading Minerva Chisholm to express anti-slavery sentiments. I also enjoyed how the miniseries gave television viewers a lengthy peek into life in the early-to-mid 19th century Appalachia. I have always admired Aaron Copeland’s score for the miniseries. But I must admit that his score contributed to this episode’s first hour, which featured the Chisholms’ life in western Virginia.

Most of the production’s historical background seemed to revolve around the family’s westward journey. Unlike many Hollywood productions, television viewers did not see the Chisholms’ wagon being pulled by horses (which is historically inaccurate). And the narrative went out of its way to point out that the family began its westbound journey about a month or two late. I also enjoyed the brief montage that featured the Chisholms’ early start on the journey and what it took for them to maintain supplies and keep their wagon in condition. Steven P. Sardanis’s production designs, the art direction that he provided with Fred Price, Charles Korian and Charles B. Price’s set decorations, and Tom Costick’s costumes (to a certain extent), did a great job in re-creating western Virginia and the Ohio River Valley circa 1844.

But in the, the cast proved to be the best thing about “THE CHISHOLMS”. I must commend casting director Vicki Rosenberg for gathering a first-rate collection of performers for the cast. The miniseries featured solid performances from Dean Hill, Jack Wallace, Maureen Steindler, Tom Taylor, James O’Reilly and Gavin Troster; even if they did not exactly rock my boat. Glynnis O’Connor gave a charming performance as Will’s young wife, Elizabeth Chisholm. Anthony Zerbe gave a spotless performance as the sleazy flat boat patroon, Jimmy Jackson. But the one supporting performance that caught my eye came from Charles Frank, who gave the first of a series of dazzling performance as the charmingly ambiguous Lester Hackett.

Rosenberg casting of the Chisholm family proved to be even more impressive to me. Susan Swift gave a very charming and balanced performance as the family’s youngest member, Annabel Chisholm, who seemed divided between the adventure of migrating to California and being mindful of her mother’s reluctance to move. James Van Patten gave a very energetic and intense performance as the family’s hot-tempered member, Beau Chisholm. Stacy Nelkin’s portrayal of the sensual, yet pragmatic Bonnie Sue Chisholm struck me as very skillful, which is why her performance was one of my favorites in the series. Brian Kerwin, whom I remember from the 1982 miniseries, “THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, seemed a bit laid back as middle son, Gideon Chisholm. But he gave a charming performance in the end. Ben Murphy portrayed the oldest sibling, Will Chisholm. And I thought he did a great job in revealing how Will seemed to be an interesting combination of his parents. I was especially impressed by how he handled Will’s grief over Elizabeth’s death.
Years after I had first seen “THE CHISHOLMS”, I was surprised to learn that the two leads – Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris – had first worked together on the 1966 Broadway play, “THE LION IN THE WINTER”. I do not if having them reunite for the 1979 miniseries was Rosenberg or someone’s idea, but it was a damn good one, all the same. What can I say? Whatever magic Preston and Harris had created on Broadway back in the mid-1960s, they managed to re-create it front of the television camera some 12 to 13 years later. In some ways, the pair seemed like the yin and yang of the Chisholm family. They were so perfect together that I do not know how else to describe their performance.

Before I end this article, I must admit there were one or two aspects of “THE CHISHOLMS” that either did not impress me or . . . confused me. Although I believe that Tom Costick’s costumes added to the production mid-1840s setting . . . but only to a certain degree. It did seem that a great deal of Costick’s costumes looked as if they had come out of a Hollywood warehouse, instead of being created by him. Especially the women’s costumes. Even those costumes worn by well-to-do women in the Louisville sequence gave that impression. And I am a little confused about the circumstances surrounding Hadley’s loss of his most fertile cornfield. I understood how he lost the actual land to Luke Cassidy. What I did understand was how Cassidy managed to take possession of the corn that the Chisholm family had already sown. Surely the court would have allowed the Chisholms to profit from the corn sown from seeds purchased by them? If someone could clear this matter for me, please do so.

Despite my quibbles regarding the costumes and the matter surrounding the cornfield lost to the Chisholms, I enjoyed Chapter I of “THE CHISHOLMS” very much. In fact, watching it reminded me why it had become one of my favorite miniseries in the first place. Why on earth did I wait so long in watching it again? Oh well . . . on to Chapter II.