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Friday, November 30, 2012


From the Root Cellar Dept.: It’s the time of year to be dining on squash. Meet some unusual varieties, and the preparation ideas that they can inspire.


“I’M HAVING A SQUASH TASTING,” my neighbor said. “Come on over and try some varieties you’ve never tasted before.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Six varieties were in the offing and she was right: I knew only the beige Waltham Butternut. Its preparation, like that of the others, was simple: oven-roasted, lightly salt-and-peppered.

Ah, the associations one bite of the butternut inspires! Decades of holiday meal memories live in that first bite, in its earthy sweetness and flaky texture, crying out for the reassurance of a pat of melting butter. This kind of squash is so season-specific that its positively Proustian.

Thick skin and a plump size classify it as a winter squash, as opposed to those thin-skinned summer varieties like zucchini. The genus of all squash is Cucurbita; the large winter squash generally fall into the species Cucurbita maxima, while smaller types such as butternut are C. pepo.

Just as it’s a rambunctious garden guest, squash has an all-over-the-place history. The word itself comes from the Narragansett “askutasquash,” which means that it’s green and can be eaten raw, suggesting that even Native Americans had too many zucchini on their hands.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Diner’s Mailbag

From the Mailbag Dept.: During my ongoing run as restaurant writer-abouter for Albany’s Metroland Magazine, there have been occasions when the confluence of over-scheduling and under-funding obviated any chance of getting to an eatery in time to write the week’s review. For the past few years we’ve made food-related essays a part of the lineup; twenty-one years ago, it was a rarity and led to the format you see below.


You’re always complaining about service, like there’s something wrong with an efficient waitress. Are you one of those snobs who thinks only men can do it right?
– F. Nightingale, Niskayuna.

No, Flo, it’s just not so. I was trained as a waiter in the kind of place that tried hard not to hire women on the floor, but even those joints are dinosauring out of existence. What I’m complaining about is a close cousin to that attitude. A long-standing prejudice in the business suggests that men should be hired for more formal dining rooms, while a bevy of gals is all you need to take care of orders in a diner.

Wages are better in formal joints, so your career waiter naturally gravitates to such a place if there’s a family to support. But the same now is true of the career waitress, and more and more of those places are casting that prejudice aside.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Longing for the Short of It

From the Vault Dept.: He described himself as a “saloon singer,” but Bobby Short was the classiest exponent of the cabaret world for much of the 20th century, settling into Manhattan’s Café Carlyle for a decades-long run, playing and singing the best of the standards and beyond. Here’s my account of his 1987 appearance at Albany’s ovoid performing arts center, followed by the set list I compiled.


BY THE FINISH of his afternoon concert at the Egg, Bobby Short had transformed the sterile environment into the sort of club in which he’s more typically found. And he did so even without any liquor service.

Bobby Short
A combination of charm, showmanship and skillful programming was responsible. Oh, it looks so casual when the natty pianist-singer does his thing, yet Short is hard at work sculpting the result. With the absolute cream of the literate songs now so difficult to discover at his disposal.

The composers? Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen. Lyricists? Again, Porter, and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer.

Something about these craftsmen makes contemporary listeners nervous. Is it the deftness of the rhymes? The secure, considered way in which music and lyrics support one another? Whatever, it’s easy to dismiss Bobby Short as performer to the glitz set, a notion supported by a cameo in a Woody Allen film.

Because Short makes it look too easy. He began the first set with a mixture that included Weill, Ellington, and Rodgers and Hart.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

They Say It's Your Birthday . . .

. . . because the inaugural entry on this blog was posted a year ago today. I'd have baked cakes for us, but decided instead to celebrate with pies. Some 3,000 of them, which you'll see flying in the last minutes of this 1927 Laurel and Hardy film titled "The Battle of the Century." Once thought lost, it's been surrendering bits and pieces enough to give us the complete first reel (look for Lou Costello among the crowd) and enough of the second to make some sense of the proceedings. It's a silent movie, but you don't expect much talking from a one-year-old.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Winter, Old Man

I JUST SPENT a pleasant but chilly afternoon activating all of my gasoline-powered lawn-care equipment to run their fuel tanks empty, raising an unholy ruckus in the neighborhood. It’s my payback for suffering, every warm Saturday, to the sound of the muffler-free mowers scalping the grounds of each nearby house – but I’m blinding myself to the probability that those steering such clamorous machines hardly could care. At the end of the task list is its most depressing component: firing up the snowblower and positioning it to eat the driveway’s first accumulation. Some people insist that washing the car makes it rain. Moving my snowblower exacts a parallel meteorological payment.

It officially happens when I flip the office-wall calendar page to December and realize that the year is pretty much shot. Have I accomplished what January suggested would be so easy, so well within reach? Hardly. And as the daylight hours shorten and the air screams with chill, there’s clearly no chance of getting anything done before we’re warbling “Auld Lang Syne.”

Which means it’s time to mock my indolence by buying not only a new wall calendar but also a costly day-planner refill. Out come the November diary pages, almost as clean as they day they were printed, to join the similarly pristine rest of the year. What were November’s triumphs? A scrawl on 11/19 reads “10:30 am. Dr. appt. Bring [illegible].” A little farther down the page: “4:45 pm. Pick up L.” Short for “hang around the Albany area for most of the day so you can fetch your daughter from school.”

Thankfully, there’s coffeehouse time available on a day like that (and a day like this, similarly scheduled). The tumult of the surrounding chatter becomes white noise, unpleasantly punctured only when some witless dunderhead hauls out a cell phone and hollers into it his side of the conversation.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Perfection in Utah

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Written September 11, 1989, this was the seventh installment of my series of articles produced during a cross-country car trip and published in the Schenectady Gazette. I was in the thick of writing about computers at the time, and a big fan of the program WordPerfect (which I still use, although more as an anti-Word). So it made sense to make a stop at what was then the sprawling headquarters of the software maker, then at the height of its popularity with version 5.0 of the DOS-based word-processing program.


THERE’S AN UNUSUALLY SECLUDED feel about the Salt Lake City area. Interstate 15 is a huge highway, rivalling the approaches to New York in congestion and complexity, but this desert-white metropolis sits with seeming quiet beside the highway in the flat well of a bowl bordered by mountains.

WordPerfect 5.0
This was the area chosen by Brigham Young to celebrate the particular perfection of his Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints and the area remains a testimony to his planning. No disrespect is meant in my suggestion that the avatars of this century include technology, and no technology has threatened to become its own religion more than the computer biz.

It’s also good for the local economy. Ski Utah! is exclaimed on all the new state license plates, and the tourists who pour into Provo each winter carry the appropriate bundles of equipment. But snow is now getting competition from sand and rust. Sand is the basis of computer chips; rust coats the data diskettes.

That stretch of northern California dubbed “Silicon Valley” is a densely-packed home base for many of the young, burgeoning computer companies, but WordPerfect Corporation stubbornly keeps its base in Orem, a town near Provo and Brigham Young University.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Friday, November 23, 2012

Of Restaurants and Restaurateurs

From the Bookshelf Dept.: I combat holiday cooking demands by inflicting unfamiliar (to me) recipes on those foolish enough to dine at my house, and thus welcome the new cookbooks that appear towards the end of the year. Here’s a look at three such volumes.


THE SOUND AND FURY of the Food Network can’t guarantee a good cookbook. What appeals to the goggle-eyed masses is spectacle; what works between the pages, for me at least, is something intelligently considered and skillfully written. Which is why I’m always keen to see what Phaidon Press offers in the food realm.

Three recent books uphold the publisher’s good taste. Fäviken, by Magnus Nilsson (no relation) surveys the cooking and philosophy behind the world’s most remote eatery. Salma Hague’s The Lebanese Kitchen is a brilliant survey of one of my favorite cuisines. And The Art of the Restaurateur, written by Nicholas Lander, gives mini-biographies of and valuable lessons learned by 20 of the world’s top restaurateurs.

Lander writes about restaurants for the London Financial Times and is himself a former restaurateur, having helmed Soho’s L’Escargot to success in the 1980s. “While chefs may use plates for their art,” he writes, “restaurateurs’ imaginations work on much bigger canvases.”

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Bon Appétit!

Gustatory Excess Dept.: The year my wife and I moved into our rural farmhouse was also the first year of a tradition of stay-at-home Thanksgivings, for which we created and prepared a new menu each year, often highlighting a style or ethnicity of cooking that struck our fancy. I'm still working on this year's menu, which doesn't get finalized until the guests are upon us. But here's a review of menus past, beginning with a nod to tradition in 1990 and then careering every which way after the jump. Happy Thanksgiving!
UPDATE: Today's menu appears below.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is Your House Radioactive?

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Remember when radon was all the rage, seeping out of our cellars and wreaking radioactive havoc upon us all? I tried to do something about it. This is from a 1995 issue of Computer Life magazine.


HER SMILE RADIATED HAPPINESS. The radiator hissed warmly. Funny how a few decades can transform comforting images into distressing ones: Radiation poisoning. Radioactive half-life. But times have a way of changing, and the safety films of the atomic '50s—the ones that told us we’d be fine if we looked away when the Bomb went off—taught us an even larger lesson later on: Don’t believe the so-called experts.

Now we worry about radiation from our computer monitors, radon in the basement, even radioactive lantern mantles . . . lantern mantles? You didn’t know they were radioactive? Prepare for some surprises.

We’re going to turn a computer into a Geiger counter. All it takes is a gadget not much larger than a cassette tape box. The RM-60 Radiation Monitor from Aware Electronics plugs into your computer’s serial port and comes with software that can continuously display radiation levels or, when loaded as a terminate-and-stay-resident program, can capture information to be displayed later. The RM-60 will automatically sound an alarm when it detects levels that are too high, which can be useful if you live close to a nuclear reactor and don’t trust the emissions reports.

Teachers and hobbyists can set up experiments for observing radiation levels in rocks and gases and even (with added equipment) the sky at night. But the home user gets the best deal of all: peace of mind—like the comfort you get from a smoke or carbon monoxide detector.

Like a Geiger counter, the RM-60 detects ionizing radiation. That’s the stuff you find beyond the visible light spectrum, beyond even ultraviolet light, in the realm of alpha and beta particles and in gamma and X rays.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Editor’s Song (From a Forthcoming Opera)

Guest Blogger: P. G. Wodehouse. In the first decade of the 20th century, P. G. Wodehouse churned out dozens of light-verse pieces for magazines like Punch and the UK edition of Vanity Fair. Soon he turned his versification to musical theater, taking him from the West End to Broadway, where he famously teamed with Jerome Kern. Here's one of his early pieces.


P. G. Wodehouse
When my correspondent told me
    that the war was at an end,
(One morning in the middle of November)
Though bald as any billiard ball,
    my hair I strove to rend
(A very painful process I remember).

The editorial steak and beer untouched
    I left to lie,
In vain they brought my tea and
    muffins to me,
The office boys all whispered, “He must
    weep or he will die.”
The printers and compositors
    looked gloomy.

But now once more the night has fled.
    The morn of hope has blushed,
Through sorrow’s fog the sun of joy
    shines clearly,
My correspondent wires again, “I said the Boers were crushed
But (my mistake) I should have added, ‘Nearly.’”

Monday, November 19, 2012


From the Bookshelf Dept.: Like so many disenfranchised writers-to-be, I stared at the opening page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (“A screaming comes across the sky . . . ”) and realized (A) this would be the biggest reading challenge I’d yet encountered and (B) it wasn’t as if I had anything else to do, except scrape up rent money and work on my novel. I’ve been hooked on Pynchon’s work ever since. I’ve already posted my review of his Mason & Dixon, which was the “massive saga ” rumored below.


BEHIND THE DAZZLING WORDPLAY and labyrinthine plotting of Vineland, Thomas Pynchon's first novel in 17 years, there’s a compelling goofiness that lets you know you’re back in a world unique to this obsessive and all-knowing storyteller.

Although set in 1984 in a small county in Northern California, the book time- and place-shifts through a dazzling kaleidoscope of narratives. Prairie Wheeler hears the surprising story of a mother she barely knew, even as the woman – named Frenesi because of her parents’ fondness for big band tunes – is pursued by manic federal prosecutor Brock Vond.

Vond is bringing a drug-fighting strike force to town to conquer one of California’s most inaccessible pot farms, but DL Chastain, former sidekick of Frenesi, is out to head him off. Darryl Louise has been trained to the highest degree of Ninja combat:
“She learned how to give people heart attacks without even touching them, how to get them to fall from high places, how through the Clouds of Guilt technique to make them commit ‘seppuku’ and think it was their idea – plus a grab bag of strategies ... such as the Enraged Sparrow, the Hidden Foot, the Nosepicking of Death, and the truly unspeakable ‘Gojira no Chimpira.’”
And it’s DL who is telling Prairie the story of the turbulent ‘60s, when much of the flashbacks are set, as they hole up at the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, described as “a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers” with DL’s partner, Takeshi Fumimota, who got involved through a bizarre mistaken-identity conflict.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Paper Chase

From the Vault Dept.: Once upon a time, there was the brown paper bag. It held groceries, it sucked the fat out of cooling bacon, it served as schoolbook cover and wrapping paper. I’m guessing the piece below, written at a time when baggers were asking your paper-or-plastic preference, was part of a Schenectady Gazette special section, for which I was always able to crank out filler.


WHEN WAS THE last time your cat burrowed into a plastic bag? They don’t. It has no appeal.

My fussy old calico even abandoned her ritual of leg rubs the first time I came back from the store with my groceries packed in plastic. Those leg-rubs, as you know, are feline for, “How about popping open a tin of Nine Lives right now and putting the rest of the stuff away later?” But a few disdainful sniffs of the plastic were enough to send her stalking out of the room, tail a supercilious exclamation point.

Is the brown bag on its way out? I hope not. Plastic will never achieve the same status. Brown bag" describes both a package and a style of packaging. Nobody “plastic bags” a lunch.

And speaking of packaging: There was a time when placing groceries into a bag was a craft practiced by virtuosos. They wore spanking clean aprons and stood proudly at the foot of the checkout conveyor, where they cast an expert eye over your produce.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Working in Coffeehouses, Part Five

ONE OF THE FUNNIEST set pieces in Jacques Tati’s brilliant movie Mon Oncle takes place on the approach to a county village, where a group of boys is gathered on a rise overlooking a street and sidewalk. On the sidewalk is an inconveniently placed lamppost, the treachery of which the kids have learned to encourage. When a likely pedestrian approaches the pillar, one of the boys whistles at just the right moment to cause the victim to glance aside and collide with the impediment.

We’re easily distracted. We take for granted a threshold of safety. I watched an amusing example of this is in a coffeehouse in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village late one chilly night, an example unprovoked by hobbledehoy machinations. A heavy door with a big glass pane led into the shop. It opened inward, and engraved brass signs near the handle indicated the direction in which to move the thing in order to get in or out of the place.

Yet most of the customers got it wrong. They pulled when a push was required. They vice-versa’d. And they did so with enough follow-through energy to provoke an abrupt, stumbling stop. “Do people regularly have that problem?” I asked a server. “All night,” she said. “All day.”

If I tend to be fanatical about paying attention to such instructions as “push” and “pull,” it’s only because my mile-high selfconsciousness holds me in terror of committing such gaffes in public. To become even slightly a figure of ridicule is one of my most mortifying ordeals.

I can’t take it, but I’m quick to deal it out, teasing my family without mercy, playing pranks on long-suffering friends. The most memorable such prank had a mean-spirited core to it. This was in the mid 1970s, during my brief flirtation with college. I never got a degree, but I acquired, at long last, a girlfriend, and she had a high-strung roommate in whose name the shared telephone was registered.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Plan That Holiday Meal!

From the Holiday Vault Dept.: I’ve been paying tribute to Thanksgiving for many years with Metroland articles; today’s issue features a piece I wrote about choosing wine, drawing on advice from folks more knowledgeable than I. Although it seems as if I’ve been turning in these pieces forever, the practice dates back merely to 1995, when the following was published.


ANY MINUTE NOW, a horde of hungry people is about to descend on your house. They’ll start banging forks and knives against the table in anticipation of Thanksgiving turkey, and the feeding frenzy will persist through Christmas and New Year’s.

Ritualized dining, if you exclude what goes on in sports bars, is what sets us apart from other animals, and food-enriched holiday celebrations are the glue that hold the rest of the ritual fabric together. Which means that they’re vital elements of a civilized society.

Thanksgiving has roots in the Greek harvest festival, the Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles, and a Roman celebration called Cerealia, honoring the goddess of Wheaties. Ironically, our American Thanksgiving remembers a feast held in the autumn of 1621, when surviving English settlers in Plymouth, Mass., honored the Indians who helped them get through a harsh winter without calling attention to the stupidity of arriving on a new continent too late to harvest anything, never mind plant it, with no viable crops in hand and a characteristic hostility toward unfamiliar cuisine. 

That hostility persists, although in a revised form, as I learned the year I decided to forego the traditional turkey dinner in favor of a vegetarian Chinese menu. We’re bringing the turkey back this year, but please don’t expect the rest of the menu to be any too conventional.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Last Ditch

Short Story Dept.: A piece inspired, when I wrote it twelve years ago, by a decade of rural residency.


IN A MORE THAN usually misanthropic move, Virgil Handy put a bucket on the front of his old 8N and dug a four-foot ditch between the highway and his front yard one morning in early September. To ensure proper drainage he severed his driveway, briefly creating a short, dry moat. He dropped a length of corrugated pipe in the pit, restored the driveway above it, and flanked the narrow entrance with tall concrete pillars studded with the shiny chrome and plastic remnants of past auto accidents that had invaded his yard over the years. Henceforth, those late-night visits would be eliminated. That the vehicles might be damaged by his handiwork was an inevitable side-effect, but he took no pleasure in such anticipation. He sought protection, not revenge. Drivers – and their cars – had no right to leave the highway.

Not surprisingly, many in the town of Millcross took offence at Virgil’s work, and, too fearful of the man to confront him directly, showed up at the next town meeting to complain.

“I know, I know,” said George Wattler, the town supervisor. Wattler, a happy dumpling of a man in a too-small suit, had held this position for over 20 years, running unopposed in most elections. “I talked to Virge. He says as how it’s his property to do with what he wants and all.”

“That’s a state road!” Claude von Scholly thundered. As head of the highway department, he maintained a small fleet that plowed and oiled the non-state-owned streets in town. He begrudged the state its newer equipment and always could find fault with its work, but was quick to defend all highways against hotheads like Virgil. “There’s a right-of-way, you know!”

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fire over Yellowstone

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Return with me to the fire-ravaged Yellowstone National Park that my wife and I visited during our September 1989 cross-country journey. This piece (written Sept. 12 of that year) is one of 21 such that I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette about that trip, most of which are now nestled within the folds of this blog.


WELCOME TO A CHANGING YELLOWSTONE is the headline on a full-color supplement to a tabloid that’s handed to visitors as they pay their entrance fee. Above the headline are photos from last year’s devastating fires, including hopeful tidbits like the news that “some lodgepole pine cones require fire to release seeds.”

Three dry months last summer brought the moisture content of the trees down to a low ten percent; a series of lightning fires that had been allowed to burn in May turned dangerous a month later. Added to that were lightning fires that spread from adjacent land and fires caused by humans.

Almost half of the Yellowstone acreage was affected in some way by the conflagration, less than 20 percent of which actually reached the ground. But the testimony to fire’s talent for destruction is there in the hillsides of blackened trees that appear every so often as you wind through the park.

The “let burn” policy that allowed some of this damage has come under fire from tourists and supervisory people. What was intended as a reinforcement of a natural, ecologically necessary process seemed to have gotten out of hand, and nobody had a better time criticizing the policy and park superintendent Robert Barbee than citizens of nearby Cody.

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Financial Career

Guest Blogger: Stephen Leacock. He was one of Groucho Marx’s favorite writers, and the Canadian scholar and writer Leacock (1869-1944) was responsible for persuading fellow humorist Robert Benchley to collect his own pieces into book form. Leacock’s gentle, humorous essays made him the most famous such writer of the early 1900s. “My Financial Career” is one of his most oft-anthologized pieces.


WHEN I GO into a bank I get rattled. The clerks rattle me; the wickets rattle me; the sight of the money rattles me; everything rattles me.

Stephen Leacock
The moment I cross the threshold of a bank and attempt to transact business there, I become an irresponsible idiot.

I knew this beforehand, but my salary had been raised to fifty dollars a month and I felt that the bank was the only place for it.

So I shambled in and looked timidly round at the clerks. I had an idea that a person about to open an account must needs consult the manager.

I went up to a wicket marked “Accountant.” The accountant was a tall, cool devil. The very sight of him rattled me. My voice was sepulchral.

“Can I see the manager?” I said, and added solemnly, “alone.” I don’t know why I said “alone.”

“Certainly,” said the accountant, and fetched him.

The manager was a grave, calm man. I held my fifty-six dollars clutched in a crumpled ball in my pocket.

“Are you the manager?” I said. God knows I didn’t doubt it.

“Yes,” he said.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Open Yourself to Opera

From the Vault Dept.: I’ve posted a lot of old reviews and essays, but here’s a bread-and-butter piece that also happens to be the second article I wrote for Metroland, in early 1984. Tonearm, indeed! I’m happy to note that since I wrote the piece, opera became a far more favored phenomenon. No doubt this helped. As did supertitles, which I continue to deplore. Operas should be sung in the language of the country in which they’re presented, which means we need far better translations than typically are available. I’m working on that.


YOU HAVE A PICTURE of the classic opera buff as a tuxedoed fellow squiring a wife who is barely visible beneath layers of fur and jewelry. They enter the Met on opening night and take note of who among their equally monied circle is there. They also, incidentally, watch the opera. Most of it.

Or you’ve got the guy who buys his tonearm separately, whose record collection is a wall of boxed sets, with three or four versions of the complete Ring cycle. And it’s all he listens to: heaven forbid that a Mozart symphony should sneak its way onto his turntable.

To appreciate opera it sometimes seems as if you have to join a highly exclusive club, hardly worth the bother when you consider they don’t even sing in English. It is worth it? Yes, I say, most assuredly. But you must learn to avoid some nasty obstacles, the worst of which can be the “True Buff.”

Opera is just one way of putting a play to music. The theatricality of it is an important part: the greatest composers of operatic stuff knew this, and knew, like Stephen Sondheim or Rodgers and Hart, how to use music to really bring out what the scene is trying to accomplish.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Friday, November 09, 2012

Dinner with the Family

From the Vault Dept.: As we peer from our bunkers and realize, ecstatically, that electioneering is behind us, we’re clobbered with the anticipation of Thanksgiving. Here’s my take on the holiday, written eight years ago but in no way diminished, except to note that the restaurant described below has closed.


ALTHOUGH THE ANTICS described in Anthony Bourdain’s entertaining book Kitchen Confidential are certainly credible—pretty much a free-for-all of food (not all of it good) and drugs—my own experience both on the floor and on the line was nowhere near as appalling. Perhaps the restaurants of Fairfield and Westchester Counties were more genteel, or perhaps the ’70s simply were a gentler time.

Illustration by Bill Elder, from MAD Magazine
Thanksgivings exemplified this. Mother’s Day was and is the killer holiday for the business, far eclipsing any other event. Thanksgiving still has a strong enough homebound tradition to make it only a moderately busy restaurant day.

And, of course, it’s a family event, and that’s where it intersects with restaurants in a fascinating way. The traditional family—well, we’ve heard enough palaver about the “traditional” family in the run-up to the last election to nauseate us for a lifetime. Let’s just note that a family can also be defined by the bonds imposed by a shared event or occupation.

Because restaurants attract a high share of the otherwise disenfranchised, you find many people—especially in the kitchen—who long for the closeness never offered at home. I spent my longest stretch of kitchen time in a place called the Elms Inn, in Ridgefield, Conn., which was (and still is) owned and operated by the Scala family. In fact, when John Scala bought the restaurant in the 1950s, there was a minor scandal in that it was the first time an Italian family had owned property on the village’s Main Street.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

No, Really: Try Him

From the Back Catalogue Dept.: In 2007, David Bromberg broke a 17-year recordings silence (at least as star attraction) with a CD featuring just him and his guitar. In advance of his appearance in Albany tomorrow (Friday) night, here’s another look at my Metroland review of the disc.


BACK IN THE DAYS before selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, depression was known as the blues and a popular course of treatment was to write and perform a song about it, preferably opening with a plangent picture of the singer waking up one morning in an empty bed.

Robert Johnson’s “Kind-Hearted Woman” is just such a plaint, but it’s distinguished by a more sophisticated ambiguity than many such songs: “I got a kindhearted woman, do anything in the world for me/But these evilhearted women, boy, they will not let me be.” As played and sung by David Bromberg on his new CD, it features the same deft melding of voice and guitar as in the best of the many other versions (Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, among others).

Bromberg’s playing – he accompanies himself throughout on a Martin M-42 made especially for him – isn’t flashy, but it’s thorough. His virtuosity lies in crafting a line that sounds right, deftly supporting his voice and creating an infectious groove. No wonder he was the sideman of choice for so many years, working with just about everyone you’ve ever heard of.

“Kind-Hearted Woman” has the additional enhancement of Bromberg’s own verse: “I was out in California, there was a great big rumbling on the ground/I was out in California, people, whoa, the earth was tremblin’ all around/Those people thought it was a big earthquake comin’ to get ’em: Lord, wasn’t nothing but those evil-hearted women trying to run me down.”

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Try Him One More Time

HE’S A FREQUENT VISITOR to the Capital Region’s Egg, more often than not with his full band in tow. When David Bromberg returns for an 8 PM performance Friday, Nov. 9, he’s not even necessarily planning to play anything the hardcore fan hasn’t heard before. But it’s far more accurate to note that he isn’t planning anything at all.

“I guess I’m in a rut,” he says, speaking from his Delaware-based violin shop, “but I like it. And we’re constantly adding new tunes and new kinds of tunes.” But as for the performance itself: “I have no idea exactly what I’ll be doing. I’ll probably do some from the ‘Use Me’ CD, but I don’t plan my sets.”

Butch Amiot and David Bromberg
Photo by James Martin
And he’s inclined to greet shouted suggestions with an amusing reminder that it remains up to him to program the set. “Here’s the thing,” he explains. “When I finish a tune, I get a feeling for the kind of energy I need to use for the next one. When people shout stuff at me, it interrupts that process and makes it harder for me. I can’t go from whatever it was I was doing to whatever it is they’re demanding and do it well.”

Bromberg was a guitar-playing prodigy who frequented the Greenwich Village basket houses in the 1960s, playing alongside the folk scene’s up-and-comers and soon he was the first-choice guitarist on recordings by Bob Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Tom Paxton and many more – at the same time developing his own songwriting chops, writing solo and with the likes of George Harrison.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Promethean Punishment

MANY YEARS AGO, in a small act of cultural rebellion, I shifted the bin dividers at an E. J. Korvette’s record department so that a bunch of Bach ended up in the Rock section. I’m sure I accomplished little more than busy work for a clerk, assuming anybody noticed and/or cared about it, but it felt good to mess with the categories.

When mega-stores like Tower Records opened, the classical department got its own room, sound-sealed off from the rest of the shopping area. No doubt this pleased the kind of classical-music fan whose ears wilt whenever a rock beat kicks in.

And I know they’re out there. Before moving to the Capital Region in 1980, I worked for a free-form radio station nominally based at the University of Bridgeport, where my typical airshift was predominantly classical stuff liberally laced with whatever I thought challenging or serendipitous. When I took over the morning-drive slot at Schenectady’s WMHT-FM, I found, on the other end of the phone, a parade of the astonishingly intolerant prepared to complain about anything that was airing. Because these bastards had ponied up their 30 membership dollars, they took upon themselves the right to dictate programming to their farcically narrow tastes.

Categorization grew out of the recording business. Classical discs followed the cult of the star performer, which already had become the defining characteristic of the American classical-music scene (as opposed to Europe’s more composer-driven identity). Caruso’s voice and status propelled his 78s to best-sellerdom and helped justify a higher price for classical records, but even a prestige item can be expected to pay its own way in the marketplace.

Monday, November 05, 2012

How Little Red Riding Hood Came to Be Eaten

Guest Blogger Dept.: It’s Guy Wetmore Carryl again, about whom more need not be noted, except that 1902 wasn't a great year for feminist enlightenment.


Most worthy of praise
Were the virtuous ways
Of Little Red Riding Hood’s Ma,
And no one was ever
More cautious and clever
Than Little Red Riding Hood’s Pa.
They never mislead,
For they meant what they said,
And would frequently say what they meant:
And the way she should go
They were careful to show,
And the way that they showed her, she went.
For obedience she was effusively thanked,
And for anything else she was carefully spanked.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Critical Signoff

From the Vault Dept.: In honor of today’s Critics Roundtable, of which I was a participant – part of the Capital Rep-Proctors Theatre Next Act new play festival – here’s my 1987 review of critic John Simon’s appearance at Union College. And a sidenote of trivia. Kenneth Mars plays a character named Hugh Simon in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” and modeled the character’s manner and accent after the notoriously acerbic critic.


Calmly, quietly, and wearing a handsome suit, acid-tongued John Simon spoke at Union College last night ostensibly to herald a series of classic movies but actually to pay eloquent tribute to the role of the professional critic.

John Simon
“There is,” he stated, “in the American public consciousness, as it surveys the performing arts, a strong sympathy for what sells, because it is entertainment, and an equally strong aversion to what fails, because it contains too little fun, or too much art, and is either way boring or depressing.

“So, if performing arts criticism at the present has a primary function, it is to convey to the public that the word “arts” is of equal importance in that term as the word “performing.” And that art is not only not the opposite of entertainment, but indeed a bigger, better, more lasting form of it.”

And he added, with his delightful flair for despair, “To bring this truth home to an appreciable number of theater- and film-goers may well be a lost cause.”

Which precisely is why the critic should continue the struggle, Simon maintains. He is the drama critic for New York magazine and film critic for National Review, and maintains that there is less difference between the two disciplines than supposed purists suggest.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Friday, November 02, 2012

Critics Panel Double Feature

Critics on Parade Dept.: As noted yesterday, a festival of new theatrical works begins this evening thanks to the Capital Rep-Proctors Next Act festival. I’ll be part of the Critics Circle discussing our craft at 1 PM Sunday, Nov 4 at Cap Rep, and have been posting a few of my reviews in anticipation of the event. Here’s a pair of them. The first takes a far more measured approach than the one I shared yesterday, while the second shows that my crankiness has mellowed with age.


ALTHOUGH NOËL COWARD’S operetta “Bitter Sweet” followed the more modern-sounding “Showboat” by two years, 1929 was still an era of melodramatic passion played out against frothy tunes, with Rudolph Friml and Sigmund Romberg, among others, still cranking them out.

But Coward’s piece occupies a special place. It’s a tribute to the era in which the young playwright-composer developed his theatrical sensibility, and the trademark Coward wit shines through the creaky layers of melodrama.

The playwright already had made big successes with “The Vortex” and “Hay Fever,” and had contributed songs to revues, but this was his first musical book show. Fittingly – given the Victorian-era feel of the piece – it is set but briefly in 1929 before flashing back to 1875.

Here’s where the Bard production made the first of several departures. London-based director Michael Gieleta moved up the setting to open in 1969 before heading to 1920, a decision that can’t really have saved much on costumes and muddied the social mores informing the piece.

Your Mamma

Byron Gets Cranky Dept.: Not to pick overmuch on the Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga), which has presented many excellent productions that have been a pleasure to praise in print. But farce requires discipline, and said discipline crumbles when the production team trowels ersatz comedy on top of what’s properly built into the piece.


FARCE AND OPERA have become uneasy bedfellows. It’s bad enough in many a musical comedy, where cheap, audience-pandering gags are easy to indulge. In opera, farce offers a license to chase laughs at the expense of the integrity that, yes, even broadly written comedy deserves. Which is why I avoid any Gilbert and Sullivan production: I’ve yet to see one that reveals any understanding of the humor intrinsic to the piece.

But Donizetti’s Le Convenienze ed Iconvenienze Teatrali, nicknamed “Viva La Mamma” for modern audiences, is unknown enough to be inviting. And it’s a backstage farce, which holds promise: anything that mocks sopranos has instant appeal.

It started off well, if deceptively. A new intro, devised by director Nelson Sheeley and the musically versatile John Douglas, kicks off with Mozart’s “Voi che sapete,” part of an audition sequence, and gave mezzo Elizabeth Pojanowski a brief, deft, amusingly sexy cameo. Soprano Allison Pohl sang more Mozart in another fine moment, and then Anna Steenerson, whom we would see later as Luigia, Secondo Donna, warmed us up with a bit from Donizetti’s “Lucia.”

All of which set the stage for the backstage antics of a company (played in modern dress) whose rehearsal of something titled Romulus and Ersilia is falling to pieces as backbiting and jealousy rules the day.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Very Model of a Most Unpleasant Review

Hall of Shame Dept.: You need to check out the new plays that will be presented this weekend at the Capital Rep-Proctors Next Act festival. Supporting live local theater means supporting new, unfamiliar work, keeping mind that getting angry at something you see on stage is a valid and important response, and ideally encourages dialogue with your friends and with the artistic community. I’ll be part of the Critics Circle discussing our craft at 1 PM Sunday, Nov 4 at Cap Rep, and am eager to share my warts-and-all history. To whet your appetite, here’s one of nastiest, least helpful reviews I ever penned, a vitriolic screed that was all about me being grumpy and went for cheap laughs at the expense of thoughtful commentary. Even worse, I left at intermission and boasted of it. After it was published, I spent a lot of time pondering the critic’s role in the community, and have since used this as a benchmark of where it can go wrong.


MANY YEARS AGO I saw Rudy Vallee in a dinner-theater performance that featured him alone. He lacked even an accompanist. He brought his piano tracks on a cassette and played it through a horrible-sounding machine. When he flubbed, he had to rewind and re-start. There was a desperate sense of unintentional humor about it all.

This came to mind while watching the Lake George Opera Festival’s “Pirates of Penzance” cast struggling to stay synchronized with an orchestra that’s hidden backstage. This took place during yesterday’s matinee premiere. It was a production that wore its humor in all the wrong places, and the absent orchestra only added to the chaos.

Adirondack Community College is the new venue for this group, and the small stage evidently necessitated the musical relocation. Based on this production, a happier alternative would be to fold the company. The LGOF has set far too high a standard in the past to stoop to such poor behavior.

We’ll let the kids who sing so bravely in the chorus off the hook right away: you worked hard and did a good job with what you were handed, but you were forced to follow the whimsy of a stage director who should be issued a court injunction keeping him away from the works of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Much of Jack Eddleman’s business surfaced at his Glimmerglass Opera “Pirates” a couple of seasons ago; now we were treated to a production further fouled by a senseless updating. The action was set in the year 2025, “somewhere along the Milky Way.” Apparently this was a move to save on the expense of costumes and setting, with the result that it looked as if a high school production of “Li’l Abner” wandered onto the set of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”