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Although Shepherd didn’t seem to discuss food often, he did so more than I’d remembered. Enthusiastic Shep fan, Steve, commented that there is an extensive description of food in Shepherd’s fictional tale, “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” the opening story of Shep’s book of stories, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories–and Other Disasters (Doubleday, 1971). This is of special interest because it is the lead-up to the theft of the family’s holiday dinner by the neighbor’s dogs–the Easter ham in the book, transformed in the A CHRISTMAS STORY film into the Christmas turkey.
“Don’t Touch that Turkey!”
The book’s description of preparation for the holiday surely shows the delight Shepherd, as author, had in the anticipation and consumption of food:
When we got the ham home, my mother immediately stripped off the white paper and the string in the middle of our chipped white-enamel kitchen table. There it lay, exuding heavenly perfumes–proud, arrogant, regal. It had a dark, smoked, leathery skin, which my mother carefully pealed off with her sharpened bread knife….It just sat there on the stove and bubbled away for maybe two hours, filling the house with a smell that was so luscious, so powerful, as to have erotic overtones….The ham frenzy was upon him….
Grunting and straining, my mother poured off the water into another pot. It would later form the base of a magnificent pea soup so pungent as to bring tears to the eyes. She then sprinkled a thick layer of brown sugar dotted with butter, over the ham. She stuck cloves in it in a crisscross design, then added several slices of Del Monte pineapple, thick and juicy, and topped it off with a maraschino cherry in the center of each slice. She then sprinkled brown sugar over the lot, a few teaspoons of molasses, the juice from the pineapple can, a little salt, a little pepper, and it was shoved into the oven. Almost instantly, the brown sugar melted over the mighty ham and mingled with the ham juice in the pan….
All night long, I would lie in my bed and smell the ham….
By 1:30 that afternoon, the tension had risen almost to the breaking point….Finally at about two-o’clock, we all gathered around while my mother opened the blue pot–releasing a blast of fragrance so overwhelming that my knees wobbled–and surrounded the ham with sliced sweet potatoes to bake in the brown sugar and pineapple juice….
My father picked up his carving knife again, for one last stroke on the whetstone. He held the blade up to the light. Everything was ready. He went into the living room and sat down.
His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill, which would last for at least four months. We would have ham sandwiches, ham salad, ham gravy, ham hash–and, finally, about ten gallons of pea soup made with the gigantic ham bone.
When it happened….It was going to be a day to remember. Little did I suspect why.
We know what happened because we’ve seen the movie every year. We have been built up to the glory of the feast by the careful preliminary descriptions so that the invasion of the Bumpus hounds, exaggerated in their act–the slavering gustatory delight anticipated by the family: …the hounds–squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness….
Ham anticipated by Parker family.
Ham devoured by Bumpus Hounds.
From Ham to Hohman.
The same Shep story about Easter/Christmas feasting includes his classic description of his hometown, Hohman (aka Hammond, Indiana). Just reacquainted with it, I feel that it deserves more recognition:
Ours was not a genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation. there was a standard barbershop bit of humor that said it with surprising poetism: If Chicago (only a stone’s throw away across the polluted lake waters) was Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Broad Shoulders,” then Hohman had to be that city’s broad rear end.
Hammond Steel Mill.
If memory serves, Shep did not often talk about food. Yet memory and a recent encounter serve sufficiently to note that sometimes he made offhand references to eating, and at least one major reference to cooking.
He sometimes talked about fish and fishing, such as noting that Rosoff’s Restaurant in mid-town Manhattan had created a Jean Shepherd Sandwich: “There’s nothing I like better than whitefish. It was a whitefish sandwich, a cold whitefish sandwich with very thin white bread and a slice of thin, very fresh Bermuda onion, with salt and pepper and with a touch—just a touch—of horseradish! Ahhh!”
He participated in a TV program on ice fishing, in which he was served drinks by Playboy bunnies. He once mentioned that, in an important metaphor for him and his radio career, despite doing everything right he’d gotten a fishing fly caught in his ear. Lois Nettleton remembered that she and Shep, in Maine, fished all day and they’d cook the catch at night. She commented that he was a gourmet cook.
Returning from a European trip, he talked with some note of authority, and enthusiastically, about a good meal he’d just had in Germany. And he wrote the foreword/ intro to a Guide to New Jersey Restaurants so he must have felt that he had reasonably educated taste buds. (Book still not located–but some day! Although not too likely, who knows what important sheperdiana this volume’s intro might contain?) Let’s not forget that in one his stories focused on food, in an important college-years experience regarding the wonderful taste and after-taste of the previous abhorred thought of eating snails, he had an epiphany regarding all the possibilities in life he’d previously rejected so thoughtlessly.
A couple of early 1978 Shepherd’s Pie TV episodes deal with food (Note that the show’s title refer’s to a popular English dish): One titled “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry,”and another titled “Classic Diner”–“a salute to the unsung haven of every good buddy, the classic diner.” In one episode, with a segment titled “Chez Junque,” Crewmember of the week Leigh Brown, mock-seriously at the task, tests the relative quality of hamburgers from various fast food establishments:
So what? It seems that he was both a serious fisherman and a gourmet cook. Two aspects of his interests and abilities that he kept almost entirely away from his publicly known persona. Nevertheless, though food was at least somewhat of an interest to Jean Shepherd, who among his listeners would have thought that he’d have devoted an entire program–38 minutes of airtime–to food. To exposing to the world at large his favorite recipes for easy cooking?
Among the over 250 specially syndicated shows he’d recorded in the mid-1960s, “lost/forgotten” for decades, only 56 had been recently published on CD (with my liner notes in all nine sets), and now another dozen have been made available by another audio company. Each program at $14.95 each. As much as I’d like to hear them all, beyond my current desire to spend that kind of money per disc for the entire twelve-disc load, especially as they come with no descriptive notes at all. I took a chance and bought the one devoted to cooking–surely I’d find some part of an answer to the “So what?”
“How to Cook for Cheap”
Shepherd begins the audio by remembering, as he picks up his meal at a cafeteria, that he has been hooked on meatloaf since he’d been nine years old. As we remember that he’d focused on his fictional mother’s meatloaf in numerous stories, including in the movie A Christmas Story, one can imagine that, for creative purposes, he may be exaggerating his meatloaf-obsession. We can assume that he chose meatloaf for his various excursions into stories mentioning his mother’s cooking because it is such a typical, all-American, common food. Yet, a couple of his recipes include variations for this Great American Main Dish. He garnishes his descriptions of how-to-cook with various details, including the proper way to use garlic so that there’s just the hint of it.
What follows are a few lists of unexpected ingredients for some recipes and a few varied comments (but not entire recipes which, though possibly interesting to a few cooks, would not seem much of an addition to our understanding of an unexpected subject and the true nature of why and in what ways Shep holds his enthusiasts in thrall).
1 lb ground meat
One can of tiny shrimp
A tiny bit of garlic
Some plain, dried, dark raisins
“And you will have a meatloaf that just does not stop.”
Can of tomato soup
One tiny can of shrimp chopped up
Celery salt sprinkled on top
Pat of butter
Fine Norwegian sardines
I’m sorry, I had no intention of having a food show. Once you get started, you just can’t stop. It begins to pull you right in. [This would seem to be the kind of comment that only one obsessed with cooking–like Julia Child?–would think to say.]
He describes: cooking a broiler chicken in a way that the meat just falls off the bones; a cottage cheese mix; chicken bullion soup; soup with root beer mixed in; cooking fish. He comments on his stock of recipes:
I’ve got millions of them, I’ll tell you I’ve learned over the years that you can live, really, and I’ve had to do it in this business (you can live on the most minor of things–like bread). You want to hear some great ideas for making bread?
Many of Shepherd’s descriptions include dropping ingredients into hot frying pans, accompanied by the appropriate sounds: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh! or Pshhhhhhhhhhh! and he does a great mouth-sound of fine-chopping various ingredients: Chichchchchchchchchchchch! He comments, “Always remember–don’t overdo things. The trouble with most people–“
[A scrambled egg sandwich that involves bean sprouts…] “A combination that will make eggs like Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’ all the way down.” [He also describes how to make good-tasting veal.] Pshhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
You think you know all about chipped beef. There’s a great word for it in the army. [Laughs. He says it’s a fantastic Swiss dish.] I’ll award you the brass figlagee with bronze oak leaf–hey,I’ll tell you, if there’s any woman listening without their husband around it would be great when your husband comes home and he hollers, “What’s for supper?” Well, you pause for two beats–enough for it to soak in—and then you say, “SOS, dear!”
Americans are insane eaters. They love eating. And yet–they don’t really spend much time cooking. They seem to look upon cooking as a waste of time. I’m amazed at how many people I know–housewives–one thing and another, who say, “Ah, you know, cooking is such a–what do you mean, “waste of time”! It’s one of the great pleasures in life! Literally! And I think there are two great pleasures connected with cooking. One is doing it, and two is sitting down and eating it. Actually, doing good cooking can be an aesthetic kick in itself.”
These recipes made with ordinary ingredients do sound good! Some day the food deities will present us with a copy of that Jersey Restaurant Guide so we’ll know how ol’ Shep critiques some professional Jersey cooks. In the meantime, I’ve got an idea inspired by recently encountering a cookbook for kids: Sesame Street Let’s Cook!
Which includes such enticements as: “Elmo’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese ‘n’ Bits,” “Grover’s Asian Sticky Rice Balls,” and “Oscar’s Green-Like-Me Smoothie.” Why not publish a:
Jean Shepherd’s Monolog-athon for Reluctant Chefs.
Pardon my own attempts at possible recipe titles, but the book might include such delectable fare as: “Shep’s Meatloaf ‘n’ Raisin Madness,” “Shep’s Whitefish Wonder a la Whitebread,” “Shep’s Pshshshhsh!: Perky Rice-fried Pan-Sizzle,” and “Shep’s POP” (Poop on a Platter).
Over his show-ending theme music he describes what to do with leftover rice. Shhhhhhhhhhhh! Pshhhhhhhhhhh! He discusses how to fry it. What a fantastic dish! What a magnificent dish! What a fantastic dish! [Laughs.] Pshhhhhhhhhhh!
Tshhhhhhhhhhhhhh! His “Bahn Frei” theme raises in volume, and completes the gustatory repast! Pshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
A note regarding the importance of food in Shepherd’s thinking. In an interview for his Shep-documentary, Nick Mantis recorded a scene described by Irwin Zwilling, Shep’s close friend of his last years. The following represents the last time Zwilling and Shepherd saw or talked to one another. Zwilling got a call in New York (Shepherd’s favorite and fabled former abode), and was told that Jean was at death’s door and that he should come down to Florida. Zwilling took the next flight, and the nurses and doctors greeted him and his wife at the hospital room door, telling them that Shep’s vital signs were flat and that he might be unresponsive. In his bed, Jean was lying on his back with his eyes closed and his mouth open. Irwin thought Jean looked like he’d die at any moment. Faced with what would be their last words to each other, Zwilling said loudly:
“Jean, it’s Irwin!”
Shepherd opened one eye
“Did you bring a pastrami sandwich?”