Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Offal Truth: A Chicken Liver Bruschetta Recipe To Convert The Skeptical

My interest in (and eventual love for) what has been dubbed "variety meats" has somewhat murky origins. No doubt, it helped having one parent born on European shores and therefore unapologetically fond of the more gristly and funky cuts of meat - my father's enthusiasm for old-world liverwurst and "blood/tongue" cold cuts from the German and Polish butcher shops easily found in our Wisconsin town must have rubbed off in some small way (I still find myself hungering for a liverwurst sandwich now and again, and when the small deli a few blocks from our apartment in Albany began offering kosher liverwurst with hot mustard as a lunch special, the man behind the counter remarked that I was one of the few people under sixty to regularly order it, and probably the only goyim). Of secondary and perhaps only symbolic importance is my possible 1/32 Native American heritage, or at least my inherent sympathy when reading of the horror experienced by prairie tribes after witnessing the waste of buffalo-slaughtering white men, leaving full carcasses to rot under the Kansas sun. Wasting perfectly good cuts of meat, I guess, has always seemed a tad barbaric.

But of utmost importance, I suspect, was the careful consideration I gave the option of vegetarianism or veganism once upon a time. While I ultimately ended up rejecting either option as a life doctrine, the impulses behind such choices are sensible and worthy of consideration. In an odd way, one does some sort of honor to the concepts behind adopting a vegetarian lifestyle by refusing to indulge in carnivorous activities while pretending what one is eating was not the result of an act of violence against a living creature. Put another way, saying it is perfectly acceptable to slaughter a chicken or murder a cow but please don't hurt that lamb or touch that rabbit is an odd act of moral relativism. Feasting hungrily on a plate of fish sticks but gagging at the sight of a head-on oven roasted trout is assuming a sort of willful ignorance. And tucking into a thick steak while turning up one's nose at a bowl of tripe or sauteed liver is to suggest that perhaps one would be better off attacking leeks or potatoes, rather than sacrificing an entire life so as to better pick daintily around the edges.

This is controversial ground, I'm aware, so time to back off the soapbox. But what never ceases to be surprising is how many supposed meat-lovers can't bring themselves to sample the rich variety and flavorful sections of those easily affordable cast-offs that butcher shops tend to refer to as offal. Perhaps it is our knowledge of anatomy that keeps so many from enjoying stewed kidneys or fried sweetbreads ("Enjoying your filter?" is how my wife tends to comment during the rare occasions I've been allowed to sample kidneys). One might suggest that if a hungry audience was simply not told what part of the body they were about to enjoy - if a variety meat-heavy stew was served up as simply consisting of "beef" - wary carnivores might clean their plates and ask for more. Tempting though such an approach is, I remain of the opinion that it's cruel and unfair to trick people into eating something they remain morally or digestively opposed to (except in the case of young children, of course - what they don't know can't hurt them).

So in the spirit of full disclosure, what follows is a recipe I whipped together after coming across a small container of organic chicken livers (one pound total) for sale at Whole Foods for $2.35. Any habitue of Whole Foods knows that there are very few items to be found on their shelves for $2 a pound, let alone anything of the meat variety. In the back of my mind, some sort of rich, onion-heavy, alcohol-laced dish began to assume formation, but the livers were purchased without a full mental inventory of what existed back home to help turn these cold lumps of chicken innards into something my lovely wife might sample. Call it a challenge.

The result was something I've named, for the sake of convenience, a Chicken Liver Pate, but don't think of this as an example of the traditional creamy, whipped terrine often found in better French restaurants. Rather, this "pate" was of the coarsely-ground variety, and rather than spreading it onto bread with a knife, toasted slices were instead topped with the crumbly mixture. It is a rustic yet elegant variation on bruschetta that incorporates diced scallions, drained capers, brandy, garlic and pancetta. The second most enjoyable part of making this dish was taking the cooked mixture from the pan, heaping it into a warm pile on the cutting board, and chopping the rich pyramid into coarseness, with glugs of olive oil added periodically. This was primal kitchen time. The most enjoyable part of making this dish was consuming it, and beaming with pride as my initially extremely-wary wife asked for seconds.


Chicken Liver Pate Bruschetta (or, if this sounds too gauche for you, try something like Terrine de Foies de Volaille)

1 pound chicken livers
3/4 cup olive oil
2 oz. pancetta
salt and pepper
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons brandy / Cognac
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 tablespoons chopped onions
2 tablespoons capers (rinsed and drained)
1 lemon, zest grated (and 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice)
toasted bread slices

1) First, clean the livers - an easy task. I used a small knife to disconnect the connecting veins, as these aren't necessary for the completed dish. After lining a plate with paper towels, place the chicken livers onto the plate and pat them with paper towels to remove extra moisture (this will really help the sauteing go smoothly). Season both sides with salt and pepper, rubbing in.

2) Heat one-fourth cup of olive oil in a large saute pan over high heat. One by one, add the chicken livers until the pan is full. Cook the livers until they turn a deep brown, 2-3 minutes per side. It may be helpful to cover the pan with a lid if the oil begins to spurt.

3) Add pancetta to the pan, reduce heat to low. Cook until pancetta fat renders, 2-3 minutes. Stir in garlic, cook for a few minutes.

4) Stir in the brandy (hopefully good Cognac), stir to deglaze pan, and cook briefly. Add onions, stir several times until softened, and remove pan from heat.

5) Dump the contents of the pan onto a large cutting board, and scrape the bottom of the pan for additional flavorful scraps. Add parsley, capers and lemon zest to the mound, and drizzle with lemon juice and 1/4 cup olive oil.

6) Chop coarsely. Drizzle more olive oil, and continue chopping, gathering up ingredients into a mound periodically. Chop till you drop. Add olive oil as needed.
7) Serve immediately over toasted bread, maybe scattering diced parsley over the top. We ate our bruschetta warm, but one could also refrigerate it and serve it cold.

The leftover pate was very tasty a few mornings later served alongside scrambled egg whites and warmed tortilla, as seen below. Coffee mug from Sacramento's best record store The Beat not included.

Friday, November 12, 2010

15 Great Authors Who Just Happen To Be Female

I do my very best to dodge, ignore and otherwise avoid the social media games that surreptitiously appear in my daily Facebook feed, choosing not to sow seeds in imaginary farms or ponder my autistic tendencies on a gliding scale. But it’s hard for a lifelong reader and bibliophile to pass up a chance to list and/or rank the authors or works that have stubbornly lodged themselves into my skull and to compare my choices with those of equally enthusiastic friends boasting long lists of their own.

So when the following challenge appeared in the status updates of several acquaintances -

The Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what authors my friends choose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, list your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note.)

- I had to play along, and not just because I had earlier in the week posted a photographic spread of unapologetic bookporn to my photo blog. It was an interesting exercise, because it forces one to set aside authors one merely respects in favor of those one truly adores, which can make for some interesting company. I discovered, for example, that the sports/psychological breakdown semi-memoir A Fan’s Notes by one-shot writer Frederick Exley has continued to haunt and trouble me since I stumbled across it midway through college - more so than other obviously important cultural touchstones like Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. And seeing how the decidedly ambiguous memories of reading A Fan’s Notes so easily and insistently entered my mind, Exley went on the list while Joyce and Pynchon did not. Crazy, I know.

I’ll stand by my fifteen choices, even as the lists compiled by friends reveals authors I skipped over that should have made the grade (how could I deny the impact made by Hunter S. Thompson or Franz Kafka on my literary sensibilities?). But more interesting to me than any list was the comment made by a friend as an addendum to her own list of fifteen favorites – “I need to read more female authors,” following a not-at-all-exclusively-male list (although still pretty male-dominated with 11 male vs. 4 female authors represented). I was struck by this because of similar thoughts I’ve been having about the role played by gender when evaluating works of art. The recent fracas over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom brought this into sharp relief, especially when the fracas had less to do with Franzen himself and more to do with the critical accolades and reviewing attention bestowed upon Freedom while the works of other equally notable yet female authors went, so the argument went, unnoticed.

This debate seemed more than a little disingenuous, for several reasons, almost none of which have anything to do with the very real fact that female artists undoubtedly receive less attention and respect than their male counterparts. Had truly obscure or neglected authors stepped forward to point out the egregious double standards at play in the world of literary reviewing, the grievance might have proved easier to swallow. But when the put-upon wordsmiths inveighing against “white male literary darlings” arrive in the guise of Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, one must take a step back. While neither Picoult nor Weiner could be easily dismissed as purveyors of tripe, to confuse them with engaged, committed, and challenging authors is to degrade the profession. With Picoult having sold 14 million copies of her books and Weiner an estimated 11 million, it’s difficult to conjure much sympathy for their tales of woe in a landscape where a small-press poetry publication is considered “respectable” if it breaks 500 copies in sales. And finally, while the argument is certainly worth having, Franzen seems an odd choice to attack when discussing the relative dearth of female authors in the canon, as he has repeatedly gone on record expressing the same concerns, has written several lovely essays or reviews filled with fulsome praise for neglected female authors (his lengthy June 2010 essay in the New York Times on the relatively forgotten Christina Stead and her unique 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children is an impassioned rave), and tends to fill his novels with extremely remarkable and sympathetically crafted female characters – far more so than the vast majority of his male contemporaries.

I recognize that Picoult and Weiner were taking aim primarily at the fact that Franzen was reviewed twice by the same publication in the span of a few weeks, but again, I fail to see the outrage in this – after all, Franzen tends to publish large, multifaceted novels once every decade, while both Picoult and Weiner seem to deliver relatively slimmer novels every twelve months or so. Again, absolutely nothing wrong with that – Philip Roth does the same thing, as does Joyce Carol Oates (although her yearly efforts are far from slim). But to sit atop yearly successful releases and accuse a writer as thoughtful as Franzen of nefarious deeds in support of cultural patriarchy is pretty ridiculous. And upon further reflection, I was wrong about Weiner, at least (not so sure about Picoult). Her oeuvre actually does look pretty tripe-like.

And yet. To ponder how the literary establishment and critical gatekeepers evaluate the literary landscape – to examine who and what they corral off into “great works of art” and “admirable examples of craft” – is to observe a clear line of demarcation that tends to separate, shall we say, the boys from the girls. That is, the very notion of what certain critics and reviewers (and readers, it must be noted) deem as the hallmarks of a literary masterpiece are those very qualities that one might define, however imperfectly, as “male”. It goes without saying that many male authors and their heartiest backers maintain an obsession with length and girth that would seem to be little removed from their early encounters in the locker room. While female writers undoubtedly appreciate length and girth as much as the next woman, they also seem to have developed a healthier approach to winnowing out its limitations – how a hefty volume can sometimes obscure the relative emptiness inside, or the way an author may pad out two or three interesting ideas with hundreds of pages of extraneous and often less-than-enthralling detail. To glance over the handful of tightly-sprung, perfectly selected paragraphs of a Lydia Davis short story, say, is to marvel at the work of a master unafraid to pare subjects down to the bone. To flip through the one thousand and thirty pages of Adam Levin’s new McSweeney’s release The Instructions is to be impressed and also to wonder what Maxwell Perkins is doing these days.

I have no desire to venture any further into a topic as fraught with misstep as the perennial “how are male writers different from female writers,” and not only because I suspect it’s a useless discussion. It would be far more productive to instead list fifteen authors of the last century that have indeed been unfairly overlooked by the literary establishment and who all are amazing and talented writers who just happen to have the good fortune of being female. “Historical” authors have been left out of the list, which explains the lack of Jane Austen and George Eliot. I’ve also chosen to ignore those writers which have broken through the glass ceiling and regularly get tossed about with any number of male greats – Joyce Carol Oates, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood. The list is in no way exhaustive or complete or anything other than introductory. However, all fifteen authors display stunning erudition and emotional complexity, possess unique and wonderfully composed prose styles, and tackle subjects ranging from personal psychology to ancient myth. They will all add immeasurably to your life. And they are all much, much better than Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner (and Jonathan Safran Foer).

(ranked alphabetically, to avoid any sense of relative comparison)

1) Anne Carson

A professor of classics with equal interest in the world of graphic arts, anthropology, and literature, Carson is less a traditional poet than a translator who decodes existing texts into an artful whole, and less a traditional translator than a poet eager to dissect the imperfection of words into a messy yet enthralling cross-section of tradition. Her careful resurrection of the scattered fragments of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho is something to lose yourself in. Her accordion-fold collage-poem NOX, released earlier this year, is a facsimile of an art piece she created following the death of her estranged brother. She could be icy cool, with an intellectual sheen painful to contemplate. But she remains earthbound, generous, always mindful of the reader.

Recommended works: The Beauty of the Husband (2001); If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002); NOX (2010).

2) Kathryn Davis

An American far more likely to channel Danish folk tales or the court of Marie Antoinette than contemporary yankee landscapes, Davis is a decidedly quirky – no, make that bizarre – chronicler of the uncanny and the just-slightly absurd. But her novels never devolve into mere whimsy. Think of her as having the heart of a Celtic balladeer who just happens to be working in prose and once taught at Skidmore.

Recommended works: The Girl Who Trod On A Loaf (1993); The Thin Place (2006).

3) Lydia Davis

One could spend most of this space extolling the virtues of Davis’ eye-opening translations of Proust and Flaubert, but to ignore her equally great achievements in the realm of short stories would be obscene. Perhaps astonishingly, Davis seems to effortlessly straddle the world of unique, scholarly translation (in French) and unique, postmodern prose (her short stories). Blasting the tradition of 80s minimalism clear out of the water, her stories at times are less than three sentences long – “some of them among the shortest ever written,” as admirer Dan Chiasson noted. But never glib. Think John Cage, think Samuel Beckett, and hope that someday she easily coexists with those giants. With her entire short story output now available in one volume, there’s no reason she can’t.

Recommended works: Swann’s Way (2004), trans.; The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009).

4) Joan Didion

Another uncategorizable writer, whose output has veered contentedly between journalistic essays and piercing fiction, we have no better voice on the contradictory nature of the state that is California than Didion. Her political essays are impressionistic pieces nevertheless immersed in detail and detached outrage. And her exploration of death and mourning in The Year of Magical Thinking has few equals. Long after the metafictional experiments of the big boys from the 1960s have faded away, Didion’s work stands as some of the finest prose put to paper during that heated decade. And in many ways, she’s only gotten better.

Recommended works: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); Play It As It Lays (1970); The White Album (1979); Where I Was From (2003); The Year Of Magical Thinking (2005).

5) Elaine Dundy

Given her tumultuous childhood and lifelong struggles against domineering men, Dundy could be forgiven had she chosen an output of morbid observations. Lucky for her and lucky for us, she chose morbid wit, instead, and her cult 1958 novel of an American girl abroad, The Dud Avocado, seems to trickle back into the mainstream every generation or so. She wrote other equally admirable books, including a 1985 mock-bio of Elvis that ranks up there with the best, but it’s her creation of Sally Jay Gorce that she’ll be remembered for. This charming novel is the unacknowledged genesis of Sex And The City, and while that might not sound like much of a recommendation, it stands as one nonetheless.

Recommended works: The Dud Avocado (1958); The Old Man and Me (1964); Elvis and Gladys (1985).

6) Deborah Eisenberg

While Raymond Carver casts a deep shadow across the short story landscape, I suspect the form would be in much healthier straits if writers swapped out Carver’s easily-copied brand of minimalism for the unique approach of either the aforementioned Lydia Davis or Deborah Eisenberg. For the past twenty-five years, Eisenberg has been calmly releasing masterful collections of stories brimming with novelistic detail and utterly believable character studies. Her work celebrates the individual nature of people and families while always acknowledging the darkness and pain that comes along with such individuality. Her eye for the emptiness of American landscapes and the ways in which Americans hope to fill them places her obviously in the contemporary literary scene, but she has set an equally large number of stories in South America – an “exotic” setting that never feels strained. The recent collection of her entire output into one affordable volume is cause for celebration.

Recommended works: The Collected Stories (2010).

7) Mary Gaitskill

Try to forget that one of Gaitskill’s characters was the inspiration for the 2002 sado-lite film Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhall – if only because the film timidly approached then scurried away from topics Gaitskill fearlessly tears into. Quite frankly, she’s a writer who says things other writers won’t, unless those other writers are Michel Houellebecq or, um, Michel Houellebecq. She disdains the prettified metaphor, draws unforgivably brutal portraits of scarred young women, and thinks sex is dirty and really fun (and at times really awful) because it is dirty. She is not for everybody. She is one of my favorites.

Recommended works: Bad Behavior (1988); Two Girls, Fat And Thin (1991); Veronica (2005); Don’t Cry (2009).

8) Tove Jansson

Damion Searls recently attempted to explain to American readers how remarkable the career of Swedish / Finnish novelist Tove Jansson really was. She was not only one of the most gifted and beloved illustrators and composers of children’s stories from the last hundred years, but an equally legendary master of adult fiction. Searles writes, “It is as though Jonathan Franzen not only admired Charles Schulz but was Charles Schulz, retired from comic strips and deciding to try his hand at a family novel”. Perhaps you’re already familiar with the magical world of the Moomin books, perhaps not. At the very least, readers suddenly enthralled by Swedish fiction in the Year Of Stieg Larssen would do well to seek out Jansson’s novels – Scandinavian prose of a far calmer yet equally unforgiving bent.

Recommended works: The Summer Book (1972); The True Deceiver (1982); Fair Play (1989).

9) Pauline Kael

As the tradition of film criticism slowly slumps off to the great beyond, it can be hard to imagine a time when an idiosyncratic writer was allowed to explore at great length opinions running sharply counter to the grand narrative of the day. Here was a feisty and disarmingly witty woman capable of catching the whiff of bullshit emanating from the artiste and exploitation salesman alike – she gagged at both The Sound of Music and Michelangelo Antonioni. She embraced onscreen brutality when she found it to be earned (some Peckinpah), denounced it when she found it contrived (Dirty Harry). Her colorful curses were edited out by William Shawn, her celebration of feminine carnality tsk-tsked by New Yorker readers. If you only watched the films she praised, you’d be missing out on some great cinema. And yet there’s more honesty, passion, and insight (not to mention wonderful writing) in her criticism than can be found in the efforts of Clement Greenberg and Theodore Adorno combined.

Recommended works: For Keeps (1994)

10) Lorrie Moore

Leaven your writings with too little wit, and you stand in danger of being dismissed as mirthless. Become too fond of the bon mot or the witty aside, and you stand the equal danger of being damned with faint praise as a humorist. Moore has managed to walk the tightrope of comedy and tragedy through a small yet impressive body of work that stands alone in American fiction for its self-deprecation and an almost tourette’s-like inability to avoid a good pun. Her latest novel suffers only when Moore tries too hard to sweep current American history along with her mannered oddities. But the short stories remain sublime.

Recommended works: Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? (1994); Birds Of America (1998); A Gate At The Stairs (2009).

11) Iris Murdoch

A philosopher who deigned to write fiction, or a fiction writer eerily adept at philosophy? Dame Murdoch was perhaps both, and one would be hard pressed to nominate fellow writers equally capable of composing luminous, thoughtful fiction while pondering the weighty matters of 20th century philosophy. Sartre, maybe? Camus? At any rate, it’s not a long list. Where to begin with a writer with over twenty-five novels to her name, novels that both parody and celebrate such matters as religious faith, erotic obsession, poverty, domination, and intellectual wonderings. Why not start at the beginning, and work forward?

Recommended works: The Bell (1958); A Severed Head (1961); The Black Prince (1973); The Sea, The Sea (1978).

12) Flannery O’Connor

You can keep Stephenie Meyer and her young-adult vampiric concerns. If I want a jolt of Gothic horror, I’ll take Flannery, thanks. If Edward and Bella romantically swoon to the rhythms of the undead, O’Connor’s doomed characters crawl out of a fetid mixture equal parts southern backwoods and Catholic guilt. Prosthetic limbs get stolen post-coitus, bulls gore hapless victims among blades of grass, and oversize statues of racist iconography loom out of the kudzu. It’s wrong to focus on the grotesque nature of O’Connor’s stories and novels at the expense of her very real concerns of the possibility of achieving divine grace, yet even these aspects are colored with a unique and deeply morbid sense of humor. In the end, she towers above both regionalism and southern gothic. She belongs to literature, full stop.

Recommended works: Wise Blood (1952); A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955); The Violent Bear It Away (1960); Everything That Rises Must Coverge (1965).

13) Cathleen Schine

Yet another example of the lengths to which the literary establishment will go to shut out those authors daring to tread in the semi-bastard zone of comedy and farce, the comic novels of Cathleen Schine deserve wider acceptance and adulation. Who but a comic writer would think to pen a novel of a nineteen-year-old girl’s lengthy stay in a hospital and rehabilitation center’s bed, and actually make it funny? Without a dose of self-pity? And entitle it Alice In Bed? Likewise, a story like Rameau’s Niece, in which a historian translating Diderot becomes overtaken by the manuscript and begins to view life through sex-obsessed lenses, might only be conjured up by a writer willing to embrace farcical convention and unafraid of the so-called “happy ending”. One races enjoyably through her books, only later stopping to consider Schine’s powers of craft and storytelling.

Recommended works: Alice In Bed (1983); Rameau’s Niece (1993); She Is Me (2003).

14) Muriel Spark

Standing proof that a-new-book-each-year need not imply endless chaff or gristle, Spark’s releases flew fast and furious, and her mid-life religious conversion led her to embrace an odd and unique worldview – a worldview that seemed ever mindful of the spiritual goings-on in a world not quite unlike our own, yet far more interested in the upheavals of the Final Judgment than any paradise in the hereafter. Which is not to say she was completely nihilistic. Call her cruelly refined, or just a little warped. Throughout her long career, she never ceased marveling at the indignities humans heap upon one another, and it would take an obnoxious little Pollyanna indeed to fend off the accuracy of Spark’s barbs.

Recommended works: Memento Mori (1959); The Public Image (1968); The Driver’s Seat (1970); The Abbess Of Crewe (1974); The Takeover (1976).

15) Christa Wolf

If a reinterpretation of the Battle of Troy as a decisive shift away from matriarchal tradition sounds to you like the keynote speech at a literary critic’s conference, I wouldn’t disagree too strenuously. But seeing how the former East German writer Christa Wolf is not only a literary critic but a gifted novelist, you’d be wrong to dismiss it as a dull conceit. One might describe her as rather ponderously aware of history, until one notes that anybody spied on by the Stasi for over thirty years would do well to remember the more ponderous lessons of history. Yet she never despairs, and she never condescends. Among the corpses of East German literature lies her warmly beating heart.

Recommended works: Divided Heaven (1963); Cassandra (1984); What Remains (1990).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Copyright and Copywrong: Marx V. Warner

I'm in the midst of penning a long-ish entry concerning domestic politics and supposed voter apathy, but in an attempt to briefly lift my spirits (and quite apropos of nothing), I thought a few words from a great American might suffice. The simple re-posting of other's words is something I try to avoid here at Cerebral Decanting, but there seems little reason to apologize when the words in question are as witty and enjoyable as the following. The excerpt is from a letter Groucho Marx wrote in 1946 to the top honchos at Warner Brothers Studios after receiving rumblings of legal action and cease-and-desist orders after the Marx Bros. set to work on a spoof on the then-four year old film Casablanca. Characters for the planned A Night In Casablanca included Humphrey Bogus and Lowan Behold. As the good folks at Chilling Effects note, Warner Bros. found this letter a good deal less funny than you probably did, and requested a formal outline of the film's premise. The overview supplied by Groucho was utterly absurd and un-filmable, leading to a follow-up Warner Bros. letter requesting more details. Groucho's third letter offered even more ludicrous plot points, at one point claiming that the role of "Bordello, sweetheart of Humphrey Bogus" would be played by himself. The record notes that after this communication, "Warner Brothers did not respond".
Dear Warner Brothers,

Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers. However, it was only a few days after our announcement appeared that we received your long, ominous legal document warning us not to use the name Casablanca.

It seems that in 1471, Ferdinand Balboa Warner, your great-great-grandfather, while looking for a shortcut to the city of Burbank, had stumbled on the shores of Africa and, raising his alpenstock (which he later turned in for a hundred shares of common), named it Casablanca.

I just don’t understand your attitude. Even if you plan on releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don’t know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about “Warner Brothers”? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. We were touring the sticks as the Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor’s eye, and even before there had been other brothers—the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (This was originally “Brothers, Can You Spare a Dime?” but this was spreading a dime pretty thin, so they threw out one brother, gave all the money to the other one, and whittled it down to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”)

Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well it’s not. It was used long before you were born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacks—Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.

As for you, Harry, you probably sign your checks sure in the belief that you are the first Harry of all time and that all other Harrys are impostors. I can think of two Harrys that preceded you. There was Lighthouse Harry of Revolutionary fame and a Harry Appelbaum who lived on the corner of 93rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Unfortunately, Appelbaum wasn’t too well-known. The last I heard of him, he was selling neckties at Weber and Heilbroner.

Now about the Burbank studio. I believe this is what you brothers call your place. Old man Burbank is gone. Perhaps you remember him. He was a great man in a garden. His wife often said Luther had ten green thumbs. What a witty woman she must have been! Burbank was the wizard who crossed all those fruits and vegetables until he had the poor plants in such confused and jittery condition that they could never decide whether to enter the dining room on the meat platter or the dessert dish.

This is pure conjecture, of course, but who knows—perhaps Burbank’s survivors aren’t too happy with the fact that a plant that grinds out pictures on a quota settled in their town, appropriated Burbank’s name and uses it as a front for their films. It is even possible that the Burbank family is prouder of the potato produced by the old man than they are of the fact that your studio emerged “Casablanca” or even “Gold Diggers of 1931.”

This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to. I love Warners. Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers. It is even possible that I am doing you an injustice and that you, yourselves, know nothing about this dog-in-the-Wanger attitude. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that the heads of your legal department are unaware of this absurd dispute, for I am acquainted with many of them and they are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits and a love of their fellow man that out-Saroyans Saroyan.

I have a hunch that his attempt to prevent us from using the title is the brainchild of some ferret-faced shyster, serving a brief apprenticeship in your legal department. I know the type well—hot out of law school, hungry for success, and too ambitious to follow the natural laws of promotion. This bar sinister probably needled your attorneys, most of whom are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits, etc., into attempting to enjoin us. Well, he won’t get away with it! We’ll fight him to the highest court! No pasty-faced legal adventurer is going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes. We are all brothers under the skin, and we’ll remain friends till the last reel of “A Night in Casablanca” goes tumbling over the spool.

Groucho Marx

Monday, November 1, 2010

Postscript to "Two Perspectives on Sports as Prelude to the American Football Season" - A Millionaire Speaks

Several Sundays ago, I reflected at length on the point of diminishing returns common to the expanding world of American professional sports, and while the season has largely managed to slip past our household unawares, only a true hermit could be oblivious to the cascading news reports of disturbing concussion research, a brutal body count as starting players fall to the wayside with season-ending injuries, and the ugly display of an aging quarterback stumbling under the spotlight as equally ugly news of unwanted naughty sex texts surfaced. There may indeed be something noble in the spectacle of an athlete past his prime valiantly struggling to stay upright and ward off a vicious defense. But the concept of nobility has clearly left the building when said athlete skips training camp, fires off endless interceptions, and gets busted sending shaky photos of his limp manhood while sprawled on a bed wearing Crocs.

One suspects that Brett wasn't quite ready for the big wide world when he tossed off a sneer in Green Bay's direction and decamped for New York, or at least he wasn't prepared to find available admiring ladies in much shorter supply than he was used to in the cozy environs of Brown County. I don't for one second believe that Favre's texting misadventures with Jenn "Gameday Host" Sterger during the 2008 season were the first or last occasion on which he's dropped his pants to impress somebody besides his dutiful wife of fourteen years. In all likelihood, it was Favre's celebrity that kept potential partners mum during his stay in Green Bay - a celebrity that was perhaps a little less impressive when dumped into the uneasily impressed world of The Big Apple.

But it's easy to get sanctimonious about a millionaire with a current quarterback rating of 69.8 percent and deluded enough to think a woman would be flattered and intrigued by grainy photos of an organ in a non-aroused state (not that said organ in an aroused state would prove flattering and/or intriguing, either. But it would at least offer something to, as they say, hang your hat on ). No prude myself, I'd prefer to let Favre take the reins and personally demolish his reputation, as he kind of does in this revealing post-game interview taken after the Vikings fell once again, dropping to a rather dismal 2-5 standing:

"I was shocked that I was able to play and move around the way I was. My prayers were answered. I wanted the chance to play. I wanted the chance to play and play at a high enough level to give us a chance to win. I didn’t want to play just to play. I didn’t want to come in for one play to get a start; I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to come in and help this team win. It was touch-and-go even before the game today. I think what would keep most guys out for a long time obviously hasn’t kept me out.”

For the record, that's ten "I's" in nine sentences, all of them glowing in self-adulation, none of them seemingly aware of the fresh loss or the 2-5 losing season or even the fact that he's playing alongside a team of players besides himself - in fact, a team that he's currently being paid $16 million to play for, which works out to one million dollars per regular season game. Or, if you want to be brutally accurate (and I do), about $500,000 per turnover (if he continues at his current pace, that is).

After penning my original post on the launch of the football season, I heard from a business partner of my father's and old family friend, who added these helpful statistics to my more abstract musings:

"The 2010 Green Bay Packer payroll for 53 players is approximately $126,000,000. On average a teacher earns about $50,000 a year. Is the value of 53 players really the equivalent of 2,520 teachers?"

Much as it pains me to say it, given the weekly spectacle of a vain and hobbled ballplayer yakking on about answered prayers amid picked-off lobs and pocketing $1 million per week between sexting sessions, it would seem to be that 53 players really do seem to have more worth and importance than 2,500 teachers.