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.

 

“LOVE AND WAR” (1984) Book Review

loveandwar

LOVE AND WAR (1984) Book Review

I have stumbled across my share of “Best Civil War Novels” lists on the Internet. I have yet to come across a list that includes John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “LOVE AND WAR”. 

Back in the 1980s, Jakes created his second major literary series, a trilogy about two wealthy American families during a period of thirty years during the 19th century. The first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) focused on the experiences of the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina between the years 1842 and 1861. “HEAVEN AND HELL” (1987), the third novel, is set between 1865 and 1877. But the second novel, “LOVE AND WAR” focused on the two families’ experiences during the Civil War.

The trilogy began when George Hazard, the son of a wealthy iron industrialist; and Orry Main, the son of a South Carolina rice planter; first met on their way to West Point in the late spring of 1842. The pair quickly became life-long friends, as they survived four years at the military academy, the Mexican-American War, and nearly a decade-and-a-half of political strife over the issue of slavery. Due to George and Orry’s friendship, their two families became very close over the years. By the end of “NORTH AND SOUTH”, George’s younger brother Billy had married Orry’s younger sister, Brett. Orry and the love his life, Madeline Fabray LaMotte, finally reconciled after years of clandestine meetings, when Madeline left her venal husband Justin Lamotte, after seventeen years of marriage.

However, following the outbreak of the Civil War, the friendship and familial connection between the Hazards and the Mains became tested when the Civil War begins. “LOVE AND WAR” began two weeks after “NORTH AND SOUTH” ended – in late April 1861. By the beginning of “LOVE AND WAR”, the two families consist of:

The Hazards
*George Hazard – one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, an iron industrialist
*Constance Flynn Hazard – George’s Irish-born wife and an abolitionist
*Stanley Hazard – George’s older brother, who left the iron trade to become a politician
*Isobel Truscott Hazard – Stanley’s shrewish and social-climbing wife
*Virgilia Hazard – George’s only sister and die-hard abolitionist
*Billy Hazard – George’s younger brother and Army officer
*Brett Main Hazard – Orry’s youngest sister and Bily’s new bride

The Mains
*Orry Main – one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, a rice planter
*Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main – Orry’s wife and widow of Justin LaMotte
*Cooper Main – Orry’s older brother and owner of a shipping company
*Ashton Main Huntoon – Orry’s younger sister and die-hard secessionist
*Charles Main – Orry’s young cousin, who had resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy Army
*Judith Stafford Main – Cooper’s wife, who also happens to be an abolitionist
*James Huntoon – Ashton’s husband, who is also a secessionist and attorney
*Clarissa Brett Main – Orry’s ailing mother

The novel not only featured the viewpoints of the Hazards and Mains, but also their friends, lovers, slaves and one Elkhannah Bent, an Ohio-born Army officer who had become an enemy of George and Orry during their years at West Point. Bent even became an enemy of Charles Main, when the two had served together on the Texas frontier in the late 1850s. the outbreak and chaos of war, along with Bent’s determination to survive, failed to put a damper on his desire to strike back at George, Orry, Charles and the other members of the two families.

I noticed that most of “LOVE AND WAR” focused on the Civil War’s Eastern Theater. Aside from taking readers to the political offices, salons and the military hospitals of Washington D.C. and Union Army camps; the novel also explored the Union and Confederate home fronts in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania – the Hazards’ hometown; and the Mains’ plantation, Mont Royal, in the South Carolina low country. Jakesk also explored various historical and violent incidents on the homefront through his characters – especially the Southern bread riot that broke out in 1862 Richmond, and the 1863 New York City draft riots. Although both George and Orry become military officers again after thirteen-to-fourteen years as civilians, their wartime experiences as military bureaucrats prove to be sources of great frustration for both of them. Stanley Hazard’s role as a political aide with the War Department gave readers a look into the politics of wartime Washington D.C. Readers learn about politics in wartime Richmond via the eyes of Ashton Main Huntoon, who also happened to be a politician’s wife. Through Virgilia Hazard, readers not only discover what countless number of women – including a future famous author – experienced as a wartime nurse. Cooper Main joined the Confederate’s Navy Department at the beginning of the war and through him, readers learned about the Confederates’ efforts to construct new warships in Great Britain’s shipyards. Through characters like Charles Main and Billy Hazard, readers explored the horrors of Civil War combat and prison camps in Maryland, Pennsylvania and especially Northern Virginia. Only through the Elkhannah Bent character were readers able to experience the war’s Western theater via the Battle of Shiloh and Union occupied New Orleans.

If I must be honest, I am rather surprised that Jakes’ trilogy, especially “LOVE AND WAR”, became major bestsellers. From the recent comments and reviews I have read on the Internet, I came away with the feeling that many found “LOVE AND WAR” difficult to read. In fact, many readers have complained that the novel featured too many characters. I found this complaint rather odd, considering that novels with several major characters have been the norm during the 20th century. And when did the number of characters suddenly became a detriment to a good novel? Following my recent reading of “LOVE AND WAR”, I must admit that I find this opinion hard to accept. And then there is the matter of the novel’s content. I have discovered that a good number of critics seem unwilling to accept Jakes’ mixture of historical drama and melodrama. And so, I found myself scratching my head at another criticism. Melodrama and history in a novel? These two elements have been the norm in many historical dramas – including the still highly rated “GONE WITH THE WIND” and the “POLDARK” series. When did the mixture of history and melodrama become unacceptable?

When it comes to the mixture of history and melodrama, I believe John Jakes has proven to be one of the few novelists who did it best. In “LOVE AND WAR”, I thought he did an excellent job in conveying both the personal and historic experiences of his major characters – especially during a highly charged period in American history like the Civil War. Not only did the author explore his characters’ desires, loves, fears, personal tragedy and ambition; he did so while exploring the historical background of the novel’s setting. I just realized that aside from a handful of history books and documentaries, I managed to learn a great deal about the United States’ Antebellum period, the Civil War and the post-war era from the NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy, due to Jakes’ meticulous research and skillful writing. And about human nature.

Four of the most interesting aspects of “LOVE AND WAR” proved to be the wartime experiences of Billy Hazard, Brett Main Hazard, a former slave named Jane and Charles Main. Being an Army engineer, Billy Hazard did not participate in any battles, although he did witness a good deal of danger. Billy started out the novel as an Army officer loyal to the Union cause, but lacking any sympathy toward abolition or African-Americans – unlike Virgilia, Constance or George. Despite spending the first half of the war maintaining this attitude, it took capture by Confederate forces and a harrowing period as a prisoner of war inside Libby Prison for Billy to even understand what it means to be treated cruelly, let alone be under the complete control of another. And it took his experiences with black troops during the war’s last year to make him view them more than just subhuman, children or victims.

Ironically, his wife, Brett Main Hazard, went through a similar metamorphosis on the home front. Being the daughter and later, the sister of a South Carolina planter, Brett had difficulty adjusting to life in the North and the resentment of the Hazards’ neighbors. Throughout the novel, Brett’s encounter with several people during the war forced her to question her own priviledged Southern upbring through a series of stages. First, she helped her impoverished sister-in-law, the hardcore abolitionist Virgilia Hazard, regain some kind of physical attraction. George and Constance Hazard’s sponsorship of a local orphanage for Southern black children displaced by the war led Brett to develop compassion for them – something she had failed to do with her family’s slaves back at Mont Royal. The orphanage also led to a surprising friendship with the orphanage’s founder, a New England-born black man named Arthur Scipio Brown.

Another interesting character proved to be a young African-American woman named Jane, who found herself living at Mont Royal during the war. Jane was never owned by the Mains. She was introduced as a recently emancipated slave, who was accompanying her aunt, an elderly free black woman named Aunt Belle Nin, to the Union lines. Due to Aunt Belle’s illness, the pair sought brief refuge at Mont Royal, due to the elderly woman’s friendship with Madeline Main. Following Aunt Belle’s death, Madeline asked Jane to remain at Mont Royal and educate the plantation’s slaves in preparation for the end of the war. Madeline, who was biracial, foresaw the end of slavery and wanted the slaves to be prepared for the chaos of a post-war South. Through Jane’s eyes, readers saw how the institution of slavery affected her fellow African-Americans throughout generations. What made Jane’s role in the novel so interesting is that readers were given a closer and more personal look at the slaves as human beings than he ever did in the trilogy’s first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

Charles Main’s wartime experiences did not bring about a social and political metamorphisis as it did his cousin and best friend, Brett and Billy Hazard. Even as a child, he never really shared his family’s racism or dismiss the ugliness of slavery. On the other hand, readers were granted an exploration of life within the ranks of the Confederate Army through his eyes. Looking back, I realized that Charles’ experiences pretty much served as a metaphor for the novel’s title. Charles had began the story as a man who had already gained experience as a military officer during his four years at West Point and another four years as a U.S. Army officer on the Texas frontier. He spent his early months of the war not only trying (and sometimes failing) to instill a sense of professionalism to the Confederate soldiers who served under him. Charles’ sense of professionalism also included a belief that soldiers had no business getting involved in a serious romance. As far as Charles was concerned, serious romance prevented a soldier from being distracted and doing his job. This belief was immediately challenged after meeting a young and witty Virginia widow named Augusta Barclay, who owned a farm in Northern Virginia. Despite his efforts to maintain an emotional distance from Augusta, Charles’ feelings for her deepened. And as the war began to take an emotional toll upon him, Charles began to question the logic of continuing his romance with Augusta. If anything, Charles’ professional and personal experiences during the war proved to be a prime example of Jakes’ ability to skillfully weave both history and melodrama together.

I do have a few complaints about “LOVE AND WAR”. One, most of the novel’s setting seemed to be focused solely on the war’s Eastern Theater – with scenes and chapters set along the Eastern Seabord. Villain Elkhanah Bent’s participation in the Battle of Shiloh and his assignment in New Orleans gaves readers a view of the war’s Western theater. Also, at least three characters ended up in the New Mexico Territory by the end of the war. But a part of me wished that Jakes had allowed more scenes away from the East – as he had done in “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

But my complaint about setting is minor in compare to another issue – namely the novel’s villains. I will give Jakes kudos for managing to portray them with the same kind of complexity as he did his protagonists. I suspect that he may have somewhat succeed with Elkhannah Bent, Ashton Huntoon and Stanley Hazard. The author went further in revealing their desires, fears and ways of dealing with their personal demons and crisis. However, both Bent and Ashton still seemed less rounded than in compare to the protagonists. James Huntoon had been portrayed as a minor villain in the 1982 novel. But once his marriage fell apart, thanks to Ashton’s love affair with a smuggler and political conspirator named Lamar Powell and his career within the Confederate government stalled, Huntoon ceased to be a villain and Jakes portrayed him with a lot more sympathy.

Jakes’ portrayal of the Mont Royal slave named Cuffey began with some level of complexity, as the character expressed his anger over being considered the Mains’ property. But not much time had passed before Jakes had reduced Cuffey to a one-note thug and bully. I look back at Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of the character in the 1986 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and found myself wishing that the literary version of the character had been portrayed in a similar manner. Jakes’ portrayal of Isabel Truscott Hazard remained as static as ever. Although Jakes seemed willing to portray Stanley with more complexity, he kept Isabel as the one-note vindictive shrew throughout the novel – with the exception of one scene in which she discovered Stanley’s affair with a tawdry actress. As for the Lamar Powell character, he struck me as a one-dimensional rogue with a cruel and controlling streak. Granted, Jakes did allow one sequence featuring Powell’s point-of-view. But that could not save the character for me.

I cannot say the same about George’s older brother, Stanley Hazard. Jakes seemed a lot more sympathetic toward Stanley in “LOVE AND WAR” than he was in the preceeding novel. Stanley did not become a better person. His views of his brother George remained as resentful as ever, despite his own success in politics. And his support of the Radical Republicans and their pro-abolitionist views was at best, a hoax on his part in order to further his career. And yet, Jakes seemed more than willing to portray Stanley with a bit more sympathy and more complexity.

On the other hand, I found it odd that Jakes was willing to be more flexible with Stanley’s character, but he could not do the same for the character’s only sister, Virgilia Hazard. Unlike other fans of Jakes’ saga, I have never regarded Virgilia as a villain and I never will. I do not regard her as perfect. And she is guilty of killing a wounded Confederate officer who had the bad luck to share the same name as her former lover, a fugitive slave named Grady who had been killed during John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. But I can never regard Virgilia as a villain. One, I share her political views . . . very strongly. Two, I find her family’s unwillingness to allow Virgilia to be herself rather frustrating. I suspect that their dismissal of her politics – due to their own conservatism and her gender – had a negative effect on her character. And three, I have noticed that Jakes’ negative portrayal of Virgilia seemed to have spread toward those historic figures that share her politics – namely the Radical Republicans.

I realize that the Radical Republicans were not perfect. But not all of them were not as bad as Jakes had portrayed them. Not once have I ever sensed the author’s willingness to portray them with any kind of sympathy or understanding. He seemed willing to criticize their behavior and policies, yet he avoids criticizing moderates such as President Lincoln like the plague. In once scene, Brett Hazrard had learned from her brother-in-law Stanley about the Republican Party’s plans to exploit the freed slaves’ gratitude over being emancipated after the war. I can only wonder if Jakes was accusing all of the Radical Republicans (including men like Thaddeus Stevens) for this willingness to exploit former slaves or fake abolitionists like Stanley and Isabel Hazard. Were all Radical Republicans – save for Virgilia – fake abolitionists? And was he trying to convey to readers that Virgilia was blind to the machinations of the Radical Republicans? Or was Virgilia simply a victim of Jakes’ overall negative attitude toward the Radical Republicans? Judging from what I have read, I can only conclude the latter.

In regard to historical accuracy, I can only account for one major example in the novel. It features an assassination plot hatched by Lamar Powell, along with the Huntoons and a few others against Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. Needless to say, this never happened. However, dislike and/or hatred of Davis did exist within the Confederacy. But aside from this story arc, Jakes painted a realistic portrait of the Civil War.

“LOVE AND WAR” is probably one of the finest Civil War novels I have ever read. The novel really gives readers a wide range view of war through the eyes of the Hazard and Main families and those with close connections to them. More importantly, Jakes managed to provide readers with a realistic portrait of the Civil War filled with a good deal of personal drama, humor, brutality, euphoria and tragedy. It is a shame that this novel is so underrated by book readers and critics today, because I thought it was simply superb, despite the few flaws it might possess. Who knows? Perhaps one day it will be universally appreciated again.