Friday, January 24, 2014

Norma Shearer's apple shortbread meringue, updated with Pama

This may take a few minutes.

Last week I learned about a recipe contest sponsored by the good people making Pama, the pomegranate liqueur (the packaging alone is lovely). To enter this contest -- and anyone can do so -- you must create an original appetizer, entree, or dessert featuring at least 3 Tablespoons of Pama, and submit the recipe to the company's Facebook page by November 15th. The grand prize is a trip for two to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado, next June.

What does this have to do with Norma Shearer? Not much, but I'll make it fit.

Occasionally I like to take the train downtown and visit the Chicago Public Library, to have a look at the cookbook section on the fourth floor. I pluck from the shelves the oldest and oddest books I can find, and copy down recipes from authors with names like Jinx Kragen (Saucepans and the Single Girl, 1965), or books firmly titled Food For Men (by Glenn Quilty, 1954).

On my last excursion to the library, I caught sight of a thin black book spine squeezed in among all the others, its lettering all worn away from the passing years. I took it out and found I had in my hands something called What Actors Eat When They Eat!, published in 1939. It's a substantial collection of recipes ostensibly offered up by the big Hollywood stars of the day, including one of the biggest, Norma Shearer. Of course, what the book also is, is a genuine production of the old Hollywood studio system, whereby the public's adored favorites were made by their employers to behave themselves, dress appropriately when out, make pictures as assigned, get married and/or have their names used to sell cookbooks as needed, and otherwise carry on more or less like extremely glamorous civil servants who knew on which side their bread was buttered. All in all, not a bad system, and I'll bet they enjoyed more true privacy than their poor, liberated, paparazzi-harassed professional descendants do now.

At any rate, on Norma Shearer's page we find, beneath her well coiffed and bejeweled studio photograph, two desserts, one for "Chocolate Antoinette" and one for "Porcupine Dessert with Vanilla Sauce." Chocolate Antoinette is not very interesting, simply a good chocolate pudding covered in a meringue. The "Antoinette," of course, refers to her movie Marie Antoinette, released in 1939. All the recipes in the book pertain somehow either to the stars' roles or to their backgrounds or tastes, real or perceived. Clark Gable submits a manly "Hunter's Breakfast," Merle Oberon something suitably exotic. And so on.

Miss Shearer's second proffered dish, the Porcupine Dessert, is a little more intriguing, and it's this which is going to lead us eventually to our pomegranate liqueur contest. Porcupine Dessert is essentially a simple shortbread crust, such as you would bake to go beneath a lemon bar or a date bar recipe, piled with a stewed apple-raisin-and-sherry filling, and then topped again with a meringue. To render the whole thing a "porcupine," the instructions say to cover the meringue with precisely arranged slivered almonds to represent the animal's spines, and then add two raisins for the eyes, finishing with grated pistachios to represent the grass he is sitting on. The resulting mental picture strikes me as ghastly and unnecessary. Besides, what was the connection between Norma Shearer and porcupines? Could it have been some sort of reference to her birth in Canada? -- albeit Montreal hardly qualifies as a wilderness outpost overrun with porcupines.

I have summarized the recipe loosely, but not much more loosely than it is in the book. The authors gave "Chocolate Antoinette" the full treatment, with measurements and proper directions; "Porcupine dessert" is thrown off in the casual way of really old cookbooks, which make assumption that the reader understands this:

Bottom: One cup flour, one-half cup butter, one-fourth cup sugar. Mix well together and bake. Filling: Apples, raisins, citron, sherry, and sugar. Cook long and slowly. The filling is piled high on the bottom crust, covered with meringue and long pieces of almonds ....

And that's it.

I think -- and here comes our entry, with trepidation, into the pomegranate liqueur contest -- I would replace the sherry with Pama, or PAMA as it apparently should be called, and perhaps mix the apples with more fruits. Berries and dates might be nice. After assembly, the meringue topping should be briefly browned in the oven.

And that's it. The question is, would this constitute, as the contest rules insist, an original creation? What Actors Eat When They Eat! is almost, almost out of copyright, and anyway the Porcupine thing is not a recipe as we accept them now. This may require deep thinking.

And who was Norma Shearer, actually? One of my favorites, to begin with. She was a bit like the Demi Moore of her day. A very big star and a big moneymaker, pretty in a sort of determined, angular way, half of a high-powered Hollywood marriage, and a terrific onscreen weeper. In 1938, when Gone With The Wind was about to go into production, she was for a while considered the absolute shoe-in for the part of Scarlett O'Hara. But rumor had it that the very character was going to be rescripted to fit her, and her weepiness. In a private letter, author Margaret Mitchell acknowledged this as a jaw-dropping development which would "thereby [make Scarlett] a poor put-upon creature instead of a hellion." The public, too, was not enthusiastic about Norma Shearer for this role, and in the summer of 1938 she graciously withdrew from consideration for the part -- or her studio made her do so, or made her be gracious about it, or some combination of those circumstances. Or so it seems. She may have been powerful enough in her own right by then to make her own decisions and write her own announcements. She said, according to the Hollywood papers, "I have decided that I should not play Scarlett. I am convinced that the majority of fans who think I should not play this kind of character on the screen are right. I appreciate tremendously the interest they have shown." For the quotes here, consult Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind" Letters, 1936-1949, edited by Richard Harwell and published by Macmillan in 1976.

And for a taste of Miss Shearer's poor put-upon screen work -- a rather harsh judgment, I think -- watch The Women, Marie Antoinette, Romeo and Juliet, Idiot's Delight, or The Divorcee. There were many more, but I'm not sure how easy it will be to find gems like The Stealers (1920) or He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Better, perhaps, to spend the time baking porcupines.

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