Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Kitch Lit Series: Food Fiction

While a majority of books about the culinary world, at least those that gain any kind of traction, are written by chefs, restaurateurs or critics there is a plethora of fiction centered on the culinary world just waiting to be devoured.  

For me, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal kicked off my obsession with kitch lit. Well-written and highly engaging, KOTGM tells the story of Eva Thorvald. We meet Eva in her infancy, follow her through a difficult childhood where her unique palate begins to reveal itself and relish her journey to becoming the country’s most sought-after chef. Stradal expertly shifts the point of view throughout the book and, as a result, we end up with a smart, unbiased portrait of a woman for whom there was always only one destiny.

Another great entry in the genre is Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. Sweetbitter sometimes delves into millennial ennui a bit more than necessary but her story of back waiter work at an established New York City restaurant is captivating. Danler herself worked in a restaurant and one can’t help but presume that most of the novel is drawn from those experiences. The restaurant staff’s reaction to the surprise health department inspection is both fascinating and a bit unsettling.  

Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Sweetbitter both nicely balance the features of a traditional novel – exposition, character development and conflict – with tales from the kitchen, something a book written by a chef may have difficulty achieving at the same level.

Of course, if the science of baking is more your style, books such as The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller and How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal will fill that void. Both border on the edge of so-called chick lit, each relies heavily on a romance for the central character, but they also give us a glimpse into bakery life. The smell of baked goods wafting through the kitchen is always appealing and both are charming, breezy reads.

All of the books mentioned here are relatively recent works but there are decades of books I have yet to try. In the meantime, if you haven't had a chance to sample any of these books then head over to your local library or favorite online shopping emporium to check them out.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

An American in Paris: Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Stage adaptations of popular films have run rampant on Broadway for many years now and it has not always proven to be a recipe for success. When I had the pleasure of seeing An American in Paris a couple of weeks ago I was reminded that it can, in fact, be done right. An American in Paris is a breezy adaption that takes the strongest parts of its source material, builds on it and brings it to life before your eyes. With a charming story, beautiful design, wonderful music, strong choreography and one of the strongest touring casts out on the road today An American in Paris is one for the ages. 

Based on the 1951 film of the same name, An American in Paris tells the story of American Jerry Mulligan and his romantic entanglements in post-war Paris. When Jerry, an ex-GI and aspiring painter, meets the beguiling Lise the spark between them is instantaneous. But while initially the flame burns bright and quick their courtship is fraught with complication. Some of the plot points are easy to spot but there are just enough twists and turns to keep the story from becoming a predictable mess.

Just as important as the story itself is telling the story against a fitting backdrop. One can imagine that recreating post-war Paris on stage is no easy feat and thankfully the designers behind An American in Paris are up to the task. The show uses projection to great effect; Jerry’s paintings come to life and lend the show a wonderful fairytale patina, as if we have just taken a peak inside a painting whose subjects have come to life. Instead of seeming to compensate for a no frills set, the projection provides depth and dimensionality, particularly for exterior scenes.  All of the other design elements from the lighting to the 1950’s era costumes and makeup lend the show great authenticity.
McGee Maddox and Sara Esty

The authentic tone of An American in Paris is drawn not just from the set design but also from the musical elements. The show brilliantly utilizes George Gershwin’s tone poem (also called An American in Paris) and surrounds it and its’ themes with several other Gershwin standards. Hearing songs such as “I’ve Got Rhythm” performed on stage feels like reminder of a bygone era. And of course there is the dance. Dance does not often take center stage in modern musical theater. Several recent musicals use dance to great effect (The Book of Mormon’s “Turn It Off” comes to mind), but very rarely is dance as an art form leaned upon to express emotion. An American in Paris does so beautifully. Ballet carries a reputation for being difficult for audiences to interpret but weaving it into a show with elements that match that of traditional musicals is a very clever way to make ballet accessible.

All of the design and production elements would be lost if the story was not delivered by a group of capable performers. The cast of An American in Paris is top notch. Sara Esty, as Lise, is the very definition of  ‘ingĂ©nue’. Spritely and petite, Esty shines. Sweet but not cloying so she is a talented singer, actor and dancer, a true triple threat. McGee Maddox, as Jerry, is a supremely talented dancer if a little bit stiff as an actor. Etai Benson, Nick Spangler and Emily Ferranti round out the lead roles and all are pitch perfect. Benson, as pseudo-narrator Adam Hochberg, hits it out of the park with spot on comedic timing but also imbues his character, an injured GI, and the show itself with a sensitive soul.

An American in Paris exemplifies everything that is enduring about musical theater: great music, impressive dancing and a compelling story that balances humor and heart. Adam's Act II realization says it best, “Life is already so dark, if you’ve got the talent to make it brighter, give people joy and hope, why would you withhold that?” Thank you, An American in Paris for making life brighter and sending joy and hope into the world.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Kitch Lit Series: Reading Ruth

My first introduction to Ruth Reichl was through her fiction. Best known as the former restaurant critic for The New York Times, Delicious! was her first foray into fiction and I can only hope she returns. Delicious! tells the story of Billie Breslin, a young woman with an innate culinary acumen, who moves to New York to work for a food magazine. When the magazine is shut down she stays on to answer the magazine’s infamous reader hotline and, while leafing through archives in the empty office, discovers past correspondence between a young girl, Lulu, and famous chef James Beard. While uncovering Lulu’s story Billie begins to come to terms with her own. Bille’s weekend job at a local Italian food shop is a delicious (pun intended) subplot. 

After Delicious! I was hungry for more and decided to sample her memoirs. What a splendid decision that turned out to be. Reichl’s Tender at the Bone has been on the list of great culinary reads since it was published and both it and its’ follow up Comfort Me With Apples are wonderful journeys through her life told with an eye to the food she avoided, loved and cooked. Reichl has lead a life filled with varied experiences and from boarding school in Montreal to a kitchen collective in Berkley to the finest restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, dining, cooking, appreciating and enjoying food remained a constant. Whether tasting a dish for the first time or cooking her dad’s favorite meal Reichl appeals to the reader’s conflicting want for discovery and familiarity in food and in life.

Of course, no matter how interesting the life or how appealing the food these books would be laborious if poorly written. Luckily, Reichl was born to write. She has a gift for readability, a talent I love in a writer. I so appreciate writers that structure sentences, paragraphs and chapters in a way that flow so easily that the pages practically turn themselves. Her descriptions are never forced or overcomplicated and her characters jump off the page. Like a perfect meal, Reichl crafts beautiful books from soup to nuts.

If you love to eat, cook, read or write and have not yet read Ruth Reichl now is the time to start.
My favorites:
Tender at the Bone
Comfort Me with Apples
Garlic and Sapphires

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Kitch Lit

I’ve spent my entire life intrigued by the culinary life. After Doug wrapped up on Saturday mornings Top Chef and The Great British Baking Show. Last fall I read Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal and discovered a new way to consume culinary culture: kitch lit.
I switched over to public television to watch Julia Child and Jacques Pepin create dishes I had never even heard of. Then came Food Network,

Books by chefs and restaurant critics. Books about food. Books about chefs and bakers both real and fictional. I can’t get enough. And now I will pass along my obsession in the Kitch Lit Series, featuring reviews and information about some of the best in the genre. Stay tuned for the first installment!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sing It Out Loud!

Music exists and is created for thousands of different reasons. Some songs are written for a specific purpose, born to fill a need, while others are brought into the world from a moment of inspiration that brings forth a flood of melody and harmony. My musical taste spans genres and my list of favorite songs includes everything from The Weavers "If I Had a Hammer" to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight." When I stopped to think about the songs that might make my list of favorites I came to the realization that a few of my favorite songs are those written by fictional characters from movies and TV shows. Because writing a song in the persona of a fictional character presents a unique challenge - falling squarely into the 'written for a specific purpose' category - I thought it high time to give those songs their due. From songs about the great city of Miami to beloved tiny horses, below are some of the best.

Miami You’ve Got Style – This classic from The Golden Girls, written for a songwriting competition by Dorothy (Bea Arthur) and Rose (Betty White), is incredibly fun. Rose tickles the ivories (in the most literal sense of the word of course) and she and Dorothy harmonize about Miami’s blue sky, nightclubs and beaches. How do you not love a song whose early drafts include words that rhyme with ‘thrice’ and ‘intrauterine'? Second place? They were robbed.

Another Perfect Day – Ah, Even Stevens, a show that was ahead of its time. Even Stevens was quirky, think Arrested Development or Scrubs for tweens, and it’s actually rather astonishing that it lasted three seasons. "Another Perfect Day" was a hit for Louis (Shia LeBeouf) and best friend Twitty’s (AJ Trauth) band, The Twitty Stevens Connection. Beans (Steven Anthony Lawrence) performs the song with a hamster cage on his head, we’ll leave it at that.

Dance Rascal Dance – This song from the film Hello, My Name is Doris really rocks. Written by the very real rock star Jack Antonoff for the fictional band Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters the song features in a crucial concert sequence. With a pulsing beat and lyrics such as "Dance like you’re on fire" it is impossible not to get swept up in its’ wake. Doris (Sally Field) rocks her neon garb and we get to rock out.

I would be remiss not to give a quick shout out to the rewrite of “O Holy Night” from the film Cedar Rapids. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) rewrote the season classic for his employer’s Christmas party and the sweet refrain of "home, auto, life" is sung so earnestly that in spite of yourself you start to take it seriously. The reactions from Deanzie (John C. Reilly) are absolutely priceless. 

5,000 Candles in the Wind – The gold standard. This gem from Parks and Recreation is as catchy as it is absolutely ridiculous. Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), tasked with writing a song for the memorial of Li’l Sebastian, knows he has a hit on his hands when he envisions something better than a singular candle in the wind: 5,000 candles in the wind. Some renditions feature Duke Silver (Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson moonlighting as the Duke) on sax but all renditions demonstrate Pawnee’s strange yet sweet devotion to one very special tiny horse.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Here We Go Again!

Cashelle Butler, Betsy Padamonsky, Sarah Smith and the Company of the Mamma Mia! Farewell Tour
Mamma Mia! has been a part of my theater life almost from its' inception. I wasn’t able to see it on Broadway before it closed in 2015, but the tour has made its’ way to town several times and at every turn I was lucky enough to see it multiple times, including the three times I saw it last week. Since this is the farewell tour, I felt compelled to put down in words my appreciation for a show that celebrates joy, friendship and family. Mamma Mia! is not a complicated show, and the neon spandex and platform boots might belie the show's secret plan to change the world, but bringing joy to millions of people is exactly the way to go about it.

Mamma Mia! is built on a very simple plot: a young woman who wants to meet her dad invites her three possible fathers to her wedding. Oh, and she doesn’t tell her mother. Singing, dancing, heart and humor ensue. Woven into the story is the classic ABBA catalog of tunes. Mamma Mia! beautifully pairs heartfelt moments with songs such as “One of Us” and balances those moments with scenes like “Dancing Queen," which is pure, unadulterated fun.

This farewell tour is a non-equity tour and it feels like one. But the cast is so enthusiastic and working so hard that it is easy to forgive their inexperience. Betsy Padamonsky (Donna) shows off her strong belt on numbers such as “The Winner Takes It All” and Lizzie Markson (Sophie) is spunky on upbeat numbers such as “Honey, Honey.” And let’s not forget about the ensemble. Between the dance heavy numbers and the harmonies they provide even when not on stage, this ensemble is one of the hardest working ones around.

Mamma Mia! will surely live to dance again. I am hopeful that after the tour shutters the powers that be will start the revival conversation. The world needs more joy! Even if we have to wait for many years, at least we can remember fondly the nights when we were all dancing queens.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Welcome Back to Their Little Corner of the World

Since November 8th, as if sensing the seismic shift in the space-time continuum, my TV has utterly refused to tune into anything other than Gilmore Girls. Thus it is that I find myself prying my eyes away from Netflix during my fourth viewing of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. My obsession with the original series may elicit guffaws, but you will find no shame here. I will proudly regale you with favorite scenes, episodes ("Raincoats and Recipes!") and characters (Babette!).  Revivals can go horribly wrong and, given the way the original series ended (sans Palladino), the expectations for A Year in the Life were monumentally high. Creators/producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino did not disappoint. A Year in the Life is a love letter to fans built on the relationships, the banter, sly nods to the original series (Banks. They like collars.) and pitch perfect performances.

The heart of the original series lies in the relationships between the core characters and A Year in the Life nicely adapts those relationships to account for the passage of time, the affect of distance and the loss of a patriarch. Some relationships see resolution years in the making, namely Lorelai and Luke, while others, even those seemingly settled in the original series, end with a question mark rather than a period (Jess had some serious thoughts going through his head as he was gazing through that window). The biggest factor in the mix is the death of patriarch Richard (actor Edward Herrmann died in 2014). Richard’s death weighs heavily on Emily, Lorelai and Rory who must come to terms not only with his loss but also with its’ effect on their relationship with each other. Emily and Lorelai  whose relationship has long been complicated by years of hurt and disappointment, find common ground coping with the loss and then lose it as quickly as it was found. Rory, living a vagabond existence, feels more lost than ever and she and Lorelai find themselves disagreeing on the next chapter of her life.

If there is one reason A Year in the Life does not crackle with the same synchronicity as the original series it is because of the maturation of the relationship between Lorelai and Rory. As naturally happens with age, distance and time, Lorelai and Rory are quite literally not as physically close and the spark that came from Lorelai and Rory sharing nearly every scene in the original series is lost. The Palladinos have done a commendable job keeping the unique ‘friend first, mother/daughter second’ relationship alive while also accounting for a natural maturation.

Without Lorelai and Rory attached at the hip, the tone of A Year in the Life feels a bit muted but there are still plenty of the blink and you’ll miss them lines for which ASP and DP are known. The early kitchen scene in "Winter" lets Luke get in on the fun and kicks off A Year in the Life with a familiar exchange: Luke lobbies for healthy food while Lorelai and Rory beg for tater tots. And Lane, expressing mock disappointment at Zack's recent promotion (tie required) admits to Rory, “I tell him he looks like a young Leonard Cohen but really he just looks like his dad.” One of the standouts is the scene on the eve of the wedding that begins between Jess and Luke and morphs into an exchange between Jess, Luke, Kirk, Lorelai and Rory. It overflows with the kind of energy and rat-a-tat dialogue that only exists in Stars Hollow.

A Year in the Life perfectly sews up the patchwork quilt made up of the people who inhabited the Gilmore Girls world. There are pop-ins and updates from almost all of the old gang. From Paris (Liza Weil) and Lane (Keiko Agena) to Michel (Yanic Truesdale) and Sookie (Melissa McCarthy), the characters have grown but remain true to their original sensibility. Paris operates a top of the line surrogacy clinic, Lane runs Kim's Antiques, Michel is ready to take on new challenges at the Dragonfly and Sookie works for Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. As for the charming and eccentric residents of Stars Hollow, there are plenty of familiar faces. Taylor (Michael Winters), Stars Hollow’s master and overseer, is still in charge, Gypsy (Rose Abdoo) is still busy fixing cars and Kirk (Sean Gunn) turns any harebrained idea into a job, I would have thrown my vote in for more Babette (Sally Struthers) and a bit less Kirk; her one-liners (“Tevye move over there’s a new Jew in town!”) are preferable to Kirk’s thickheaded storylines, but beggars can’t be choosers. Overall, there is a satisfying sense that the characters’ lives have been moving along nicely and we just happen to be checking in on them ten years later.

Of course, strong dialogue, well-rounded characters and emotional depth will fall flat without great execution and, thank goodness, the actors are up to the task. Alexis Bledel’s Rory seems a bit tentative at times, especially in the opening episode, but gains her footing. Scott Patterson expertly revives Luke as the curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Kelly Bishop is force to be reckoned with. In the aftermath of Richard’s death, she imbues Emily with strength, vulnerability and, at the conclusion, a renewed sense of self. That said, A Year in the Life is Lauren Graham’s show. ASP and DP grant her superior material and she absolutely shines. Lorelai's grief, anger, pain, sarcasm, self-reflection and happiness are effortless in her capable hands. A quiet, soul-searching scene on a California hilltop relies only on Graham’s facial expressions to convey the literal and figurative journey Lorelai has taken and the realization she is finally able to reach.

A Year in the Life is not without faults. Some diversions are entirely too lengthy or should not exist at all. The best part about the Stars Hollow musical is the end and the excursion with the Life and Death Brigade is completely unnecessary. There is also an oddly excessive amount of day drinking among the Gilmore girls that feels misplaced. But perhaps most distressing is Rory’s flailing storyline. At the outset, and for much too long, her main objective is tracking down a lucky outfit and getting better cell reception. Weak. And without a steady source of income how is she funding her weekly trips back and forth to London? That is never made clear. At one point in "Spring," after Rory‘s one night stand with a guy in a wookie costume, Lorelai finally says to her, “What’s going on here. This isn’t you.” Amen. Rory’s storyline gains a bit of focus as the year progresses and perhaps the lack of focus was intentional, a way to underscore the crossroads at which Rory finds herself, but it came across as disjointed and void of the qualities that made Rory a likable character in the original series.

Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino faced a very difficult task: balancing what was beloved about the original series and updating both the tone and the relationships to account for the nearly ten year time leap. Will we see more of the Gilmore girls in the future? Who knows? The door was certainly left ajar. Maybe one day we will be lucky enough to be granted another opportunity to visit their little corner of the world.