Gonzo and Fozzie Bear are back, and I can’t wait to see what type of havoc they intend to wreak. Today is the premiere of “The Muppets,” the most anticipated feature
starring the celebrated cast of puppets to hit theaters in 27 years. Jason Segel was intent on reviving the franchise -- essentially shelved since Disney’s 2004 acquisition -- by staying true to creator Jim Henson’s comedic voice and early technical style
. Given the talented colleagues with whom he’s surrounded himself*, not to mention his work with felt dolls
in the past, I’m confident Segel will capture the whimsy and sincerity Henson deployed to charm audiences three decades ago.
Just as Segel cites
Henson as an early comedic inspiration, the Muppets’ mastermind counts Burr Tillstrom
as one of his primary creative muses. There’s a strong case to be made that Kermit and his friends would never have gained a foothold on PBS, much less graced the silver screen, were it not for the innovative (and often overlooked) Chicago-based entertainer. As Henson admitted
in a 1979 profile with the New York Times
, “Tillstrom had more to do with the beginning of puppets on television than we did.”
That man, born on the city’s North Side in 1917, saw puppeteering as his calling. At the tender age of eight, Tillstrom started wiring teddy bears so he could put on shows mimicking Buster Keaton movies for his parents and neighborhood friends. After graduating from Senn High School and briefly attending the University of Chicago, he picked up a job in 1935 with the Chicago Park District managing a puppet theater, an operation that was bankrolled by subsidies from the Works Progress Administration. This financial support gave him the flexibility to try more experimental pieces, choreographing puppet versions of classics like "Romeo and Juliet” and Saturday morning kids shows influenced by European Punch and Judy
plays. Tillstrom was invited to the 1939 New York World's Fair and by the mid-1940s had built a steady, if humble, career
starring in vaudeville revues and at private parties and shows for schools and women’s clubs.
The invention and popularization of television altered the trajectory of Tillstrom’s career dramatically. In 1947, RCA suits came to Chicago to develop a children’s show and asked Tillstrom if he’d perform for an hour, five days per week, on WBKB, the station owned by movie palace tycoons Balaban and Katz
. Tillstrom agreed on the condition that he could have one human actor with him on set. At the suggestion of a WBKB official, they hired Fran Allison, a former Iowa schoolteacher turned radio singer. The pair settled on a simple premise for their show: Allison would play an exaggerated version of herself and would hold normal, improvised conversations with a series of hand puppets manipulated by Tillstrom, including Kukla (described
as “an earnest, strangely bald youngster”) and Ollie (an “irresponsible, one-toothed dragon”). Named “Junior Jamboree,” and later “Kukla, Fan, and Ollie,” it premiered on October 13 and became “in a little over a year and with a cast of only one visible human, one of the most popular of all TV programs.”
What made the series work? For starters, viewers who watched Tillstrom’s puppets perform alone and with minimal sets and costumes for five hours every week developed a deep attachment to the characters. “They ‘lived’ on television,” Tillstrom would later say
. “It went from characters in a play to living people.” And while the humor was “tailor-made for a juve audience” (as one obnoxious reviewer for Variety put it
), adults appreciated that “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” treated its subject matter seriously and its audience with respect. (In a fan letter
, John Steinbeck noted that the "show’s ease and naturalness delight me.”) For his part, Tillstrom was convinced that filming on the Third Coast as opposed to the East Coast set his series apart. "In his opinion,” wrote TV Forecast,
“Chicagoans are fearless, take chances, experiment with new and original ideas, whereas New York is massive, rich, and traditional."
Tillstrom took his show off the air in 1957, 10 years after it launched. Along the way, he earned a Peabody Award and an Emmy for Best Children's Program. Yet he made arguably his greatest contribution to American popular culture in 1960 at the Puppeteers of America festival in Detroit. That’s where he met Henson, a young college graduate who still didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with his life. The two struck up an immediate friendship
. Burr later introduced Henson to puppet builder Don Sahlin, who created Rowlf the Dog (Henson’s first puppet to make regular appearances on network television) and helped hone the Muppet “look.” When Jim and his wife moved to New York in 1963, they rented an apartment in Tillstrom’s building, allowing the two artists to discuss their craft with regularity. Sesame Street was optioned six years later.
For those interested in Tillstrom's career, the Chicago Historical Society houses dozens
of crates filled with his puppets, props, and musical scores in its archive. Rich Samuels has posted a great collection
of KFO links and videos online, too. Before you go see “The Muppets” this weekend, give them a glance.
*Nick Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), Bret McKenzie and James Bobin ("Flight of the Conchords"), Amy Adams.
For logophiles the nation over, the quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary’s Third Edition
is like a small, nerdy holiday. Every three months, editors of the most comprehensive single-language print dictionary in the world add
to its pages “new words and meanings that have made it into common usage.” OMG and LOL, neologisms favored by the pre-teen set, were hot this past spring
. In 2010, OED staffers included several zeitgesity vocables like “tweetup,” “bromance,” and “vuvuzela.” They also embraced a Thanksgiving Day treat with one of the sillier names in American cuisine: Turducken
If one giant bird isn’t enough to sate your holiday appetite this year, the turducken -- an innovative Cajun concoction with a disputed history -- may be just for you. As the portmanteau suggests, it’s a deboned turkey, stuffed with a deboned duck, stuffed with a deboned chicken. Seasoned stuffing is jammed in between each layer of fowl, and the turkey’s skin, including the wings and legs, is then sewn and trussed around the mass of meat before roasting. The result
is an entree that looks like a Thanksgiving turkey but has the consistency of meatloaf and a lot more flavor than the traditional, and often bland, bird of choice.
Like a lot of southern Louisiana specialties, turducken is influenced by 19th century French fare. Aristocrats across the Atlantic loved to eat nested birds, the most outlandish of which was the rôti sans pareil, or “roast without equal," a royal feast organized in 1807 by famed Napoleonic gastronome Grimod de La Renière. (That sucker featured 17 distinct avian varieties.) Acadian exiles subsequently perfected other stuffed dishes like Chaudin, the stomach of a pig filled with smoked pork and sausage, among other aromatic ingredients. But nobody has been able to identify specifically who pioneered this odd regional holiday meal, even though several chefs and butchers claim the invention is theirs.
Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme is most closely tied to the recipe. The longtime proprietor of New Orleans’ K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen maintains that he made turducken while working as a young beef carver at a Wyoming sky resort in the early 1960s. (A recipe for turducken first appeared in one of his cookbooks 25 years later.) But when pressed for details
by a New York Times
reporter in 2002, he would not divulge the name of the Wyoming lodge where he says he came up with the daring idea or the year he actually masterminded the technique. (What’s he hiding?!?) Calvin Trillin, on the other hand, links
turducken to Hebert's Specialty Meats in the tiny town of Maurice, Louisiana. Co-owner Junior Hebert contends that an elderly farmer walked into his shop in 1985 and asked whether or not three birds could be crammed into one meal. The butcher pulled off the feat successfully, sold a few more the following year, and has been shipping out thousands annually ever since. Cajun poultry expert Charlie Faul also takes credit, having “spent years test-tasting various combination of poultry and stuffing,” according to a 1996 Wall Street Journal
While the origin story is still up for debate, the meal’s undisputed champion is NFL mainstay John Madden. For years, the football commentator brought a turkey to his Thanksgiving Day broadcast and awarded a giant leg to the player of the game. On a trip through New Orleans in 1997, a p.r. official for the Saints lugged a turducken up to the play-by-play booth, and Madden was enchanted. “It smelled and looked so good,” he later told the Times
. “I didn't have any plates or silverware or anything, and I just started eating it with my hands.'' During the next five seasons, until Madden stopped announcing Thanksgiving Day games, the former coach and California native would send away for a turducken to award to the winning team, giving the Cajun bird its first major exposure nationally.
Despite the growing hype, turducken has not made major inroads north of the Mason-Dixon line, probably because it’s so damn hard to make. (On top of deboning three separate animals, Prudhomme’s modern recipe
calls for 32 ingredients and nine hours of baking). Instead, some unconventional chefs have taken the general concept of the dish and gone in their own direction. Last year, Angelino Charles Phoenix created
the “cherpumple,” a three-layer cake with an entire pie
baked into each layer. While it sounds intriguing, the gaudy dessert has “little structural integrity in their mid-sections,” so it falls apart basically every time it’s made. Something tells me it won’t show up in the OED’s Third Edition
, or on your Thanksgiving table, anytime soon.
Somewhere in the Greater Boston Area, Cliff Clavin
is shaking in his shorts. Thanks to problems technological
, and political
, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lost almost $20 billion
over the last four years and is in desperate need of a bureaucratic overhaul. The postmaster general has already proposed eliminating Saturday delivery, 120,000 jobs, and thousands of post offices across the country, changes that require Congressional approval. A few weeks ago, USPS even raised
the cost of mailing a letter by another cent, the first increase in over two years. Every little bit helps, I guess, though the price bump -- expected to bring in $888 million
-- won’t stave off insolvency very long. And I do wonder whether or not the D.C. bureaucrats considered one potential repercussion of a rate hike: would-be philatelists may decide to pursue a different, marginally cheaper pastime.Stamp collecting
is one of the world’s most iconic and enduring hobbies. The earliest collectors emerged almost immediately after stamps were initially issued, in 1840s Britain. (It’s rumored
that the first stamp gatherer, looking to spruce up her London flat, slapped her collection on the wall.) By the turn of the century, the American Philatelic Association was holding regular national conferences and claimed that 100,000 fellow citizens shared its love of “this interesting pursuit.” (Chicago Tribune
, August 12, 1895) During the Great Depression, with some encouragement from fervid philatelist
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, interest in the hobby soared. Although estimates vary widely, it’s save to assume that roughly 50 million collectors now participate worldwide, many of them in China
It’s easy to parody modern stamp collectors, in the same way one would bird watchers or Star Wars fans. I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s “John Henry Days,” a novel loosely centered around the unveiling of a new stamp, and one jaded USPS employee claims that “they’re always licking their lips because they got all those stamps but they can’t lick ‘em.” That’s pretty funny, but almost certainly untrue; these days, all sorts of people stockpile stamps, and their motivations for doing so differ greatly. Those who enjoy the thrill of the chase seek out rare or quirky prints, like the famous and expensive Inverted Jenny
, a 1918 24-cent stamp featuring an upside-down airplane. Some are interested in preservation for its own sake. “Conserving something easily discarded,” writes
sociologist Michael Kearl, “is a victory against time.” Others just like to own pretty things
Most compellingly, all humans have a neurological drive to collect stuff, even things like stamps that aren’t needed for survival. Scientists are just beginning to figure out why structures deep in the brain crave the acquisition of objects, and what they do know comes mainly from studies of people who exhibit abnormal
collecting behavior, popularly known as hoarders. In 2004, researchers at the University of Iowa
looked at dozens of patients who had focal brain lesions, tiny injuries to small portions of the noodle. The Hawkeyes divided their sample between those who started hoarding after sustaining his or her injury and those who didn’t. They found that individuals who exhibited pathological tendencies all showed damage to the right mesial prefrontal cortex, the sophisticated portion of the brain in charge of impulse control. And by demonstrating
how these abrasions “release the primitive hoarding urge from its normal restraints,” the lab staff actually proved that we all experience, to various degrees, that primitive urge to squirrel things away.*
Ironically, while the Internet is destroying the postal service itself, it’s reviving
the stamp trading game, once dominated by now-shuttered local shops and collecting clubs. Websites like eBay have made stamp buying and selling “more customized than traditional stamp shows ever were,” and values are rising as a result. The Royal Philatelic Society in the U.K. goes so far as to claim
the recession is making this low-cost hobby “fashionable amongst young people for the first time in decades.” I’m not sure I buy that conjecture, but I really have no reason to doubt it. The brain works in mysterious ways.
*As a kid who collected baseball cards and an adult who collects books (when he can afford them), I can relate.
There are “locavores,” and then there is Sean Brock. The Virgina-bred and South Carolina-based molecular gastronomist is performing, in the words
of Burkhard Bilger, “a grand culinary reclamation project,” farming and preparing heirloom greens and grains that literally have not been cultivated below the Mason-Dixon line in two centuries. At his two Charleston restaurants, the second of which was just named best new restaurant
in the nation by Bon Appetit
, watery grits and fried chicken make way for Sorghum-fried green tomatoes and meat off the fatty, dwarfed Ossabaw Island Hog
. It’s “Southern food as conceived by space aliens,” and it sounds totally delicious.
As a poor teen in Coal Country, Brock was inspired by his grandmother, a woman who spent her life in Appalachia collecting seeds that had been passed down her family tree for generations. And in between chores, the wannabe chef would plant himself in front of the television and watch an unlikelier muse, Yan Can Cook
. “I was fascinated by how fast he could chop an onion,” Brock remembers, “So I’d try to do that and throw that shit in the wok.”
I’m sure Brock isn’t the only culinary superstar who was shaped, in part, by the career of Chinese cook Martin Yan. A pioneer* of the televised cooking show, Yan’s “Yan Can Cook” aired weekly on 240 public broadcasting stations in the late 1980s and early 1990s and, with the help of cable syndication, ultimately reached 90 percent of television viewers nationwide. In 30 years on the job, he’s filmed more than 3,000 original episodes. That’s an astonishing amount of slicing and dicing.
While their cooking styles are diametrically opposed, Brock and Yan both grew up humbly and were unafraid of taking risks. At the age of 13, after the death of his father, Yan’s mother shipped her son (and $20) from their home in Guangzhou to live with a distant uncle in Hong Kong. His kin put him to work at a restaurant, where Yan slept, because “there was no room for me anywhere else." He quickly schemed his way into culinary school, earning a scholarship by purchasing and then lugging back to the school all of the ingredients needed for class each day. In 1969, he moved to California in hopes of continuing his education at UC Davis. With no money (again) to pay tuition, Yan approached the dean of the campus’ extension school and offered to start Chinese cooking classes, a skill few people were teaching in the Western Hemisphere at the time. The administration allowed it and Yan’s demonstrations were an immediate hit.
With a food science master’s degree in hand, Yan ultimately landed in Calgary, where he helped a friend open a new restaurant. On weekends, Yan ran a “lunch and learn” program, allowing diners to observe his process before they ate their meals. A local TV producer participated one day and had a blast, so he asked Yan to come onto his talk show as a guest. “I went on once, and they thought I was a little different," he remembers, in this great San Francisco Chronicle profile
, "so they asked me to come back. After the second time, they asked me to do 130 shows.” After batting around
a few potential names -- Wok with Yan, Wokking with Yan, Yan’s Wok -- Yan landed on “Yan Can Cook,” a title he thought best embodied his populist teaching approach. The rest was history.
What made “Yan Can Cook” so popular? For one thing, it’s just fun to watch someone cook in a wok, the round-bottomed pan found in most every Asian kitchen. “You are hearing the oil when it gets hot, you are watching the food changing, you are smelling the aroma as the food cooks. You have total contact with the food, you are using all your senses,” he told the Chicago Tribune
on August 23, 1984. “It is so much more exciting than putting a pot roast in the oven and setting the timer.” Timing helped, too. Although Americans have been eating Chinese cuisine (in some form
) since Cantonese laborers migrated to California in the 19th century, there was a certifiable Chinese food boom
in the 1970s and early 1980s, prompted by the Nixon-inspired “authenticity revolution" and an influx of Asian immigrants following the abolition
of the Natural Origins Formula in 1965.**
Yan rode that wave, using his natural charisma and honed knife skills to teach Americans the basics about the ethnic food they so enjoyed but had no clue how to fix. Aren’t convinced of his entertainment chops? Watch him yuck it up with the audience and then bone a chicken in a thrilling 18 seconds:
Yan, at 62, still travels 250 days a year, teaching cooking classes around the world. He also opened Chef Martin Yan's Culinary Arts Center in Shenzhen, China, where he’s become a kind of cult hero. According to the St. Petersburg Times (July 15, 2009), it’s his hope that “chefs from all over will come to Shenzhen for an intensive program taught by Asian chefs, and will use that knowledge to bolster authentic and regional cuisine elsewhere in the world.”
In other words, Yan Can Cook isn’t done lighting a fire under a new generation of chefs.
*Along with the Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child.
**There are now more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants nationwide, more than all of the fast-food outlets put together.