Big, Bold and Blandings: The Dreamiest House of 1948

Last week I went in search of Mr. Blandings. More specifically I went in search of Mr. Blandings’ dream house. A challenging feat on both fronts since Mr. Blandings is a fictional character and his real life dream house no longer exists. This adventure of the seemingly impossible was all sparked by a little snippet of information about a clever marketing campaign produced by Hollywood in 1948. The movie company was promoting this film…

a romantic comedy starring one of the most beloved actors of the twentieth century. But before we get into the story of searching for a nonexistent man in modern day,  we must first travel back in time to the 1940’s,  an era when creativity flourished, outside of the box thinking was encouraged and unusual situations were captivating the country. The first half of the decade was spent in World War II. On the home front that meant conservation, frugality, victory gardens, rations, fundraisers and bond drives. It was a test in patience, positivity, confidence and emotional endurance as people lived day to day waiting to hear the fates of their loved ones away at war.  In those first five years of the 40’s people got used to making do, going without and utilizing every last bit of everything. Thankfully, in 1945 the war ended and Americans adjusted once again to a new normal as they recovered from years of uncertainty. By 1948, two and half years after World War II ended, America was ready for some fresh air and some new perspectives. A glance at that year’s pop culture highlights tells all about the country’s enthusiastic push for progress and for ideas that were new and stimulating and fun.  Post war, post trauma, post sacrifice, 1948 embraced some big ideas that were remarkably different, refreshingly new  and spectacularly exciting. Let’s look…

It was the year that Land Rover debuted, bucking tradition with their new all-terrain vehicles complete with a steering wheel that was located in an unusual spot – the middle of the front console. Tailfins showed up on Cadillacs, a nod towards sleek aviation design and a feeling that your car could take you anywhere. Monkeys were welcomed into NASA’s elite as they became astronauts bravely rocketing into space in order to test conditions so that men could make it there themselves a few years later. America’s affable laughable cartoon bird, Woody Woodpecker had a top 40 hit song on the radio, sharing the same spotlight with singing legends Doris Day, Perry Como and Ella Fitzgerald. Brand new air ferries started shuttling around the sky, transporting people and their cars from one city to the next. And most exciting of all, on the kitchen front at least, was a man named Blandings who built his dream house.  And then he built seventy three more.

While all of these interesting pop-culture tidbits of 1948 are worthy of their own individual blog feature, it is Mr. Blandings who is the topic of our post and our road trip through history today. He created a sensation that took up the last four years of the 1940’s, filling people’s heads with dreams of possibility on the home front. It all starts in 1946, when he was the subject of the runaway bestseller called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a fictional account of a real-life adventure  experienced by the author Eric Hodgins. In the book, Mr. Blandings embarks on the ultimate quest  – the American dream of the 20th century – buying a house for his wife and family.

To Mr. Blandings of 1946, a dream home meant extra closets, a private bath in each bedroom,  a game room for him, a sewing room for her and plenty of outdoor space for the kids. It meant everything that his cramped Upper East Side New York City apartment lacked – peace, security, space and a good dose of nature.  One day, when he just can’t stand the close city quarters a minute longer, he adventures out to the country to have a look around. One thing leads to another and a new domestic life comes into sight. In the book, it looks something like this, thanks to illustrator William Steig…

The Blandings choose the Connecticut countryside as their ideal homestead, and a historic house that was loved for both its shabby, need-of-repair appearance and its supposed storied place in American history. What develops as the family starts planning a move from NYC to Connecticut (just a train ride away!) involves a series of new house woes that they never expected including demolition and reconstruction.

Throughout the story, mishaps and unexpected scenarios test the metal of all that makes up Mr. Blandings, the man and the mission. At every corner, he and his wife are met with a new challenge. Nothing goes quite according to plan. There are time delays, contractor issues, escalating costs, tricky neighbors and all sorts of digging, drilling and hammering surprises.  An everyman story, a timeless tale, an homage to hope, optimism and the struggle to succeed, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House resonated strongly with the heads and hearts of the American public of the mid-20th century, many of whom were experiencing their own construction trials and tribulations  as the building industry boomed during the post-war years. The book was such a hit that two years after its debut, Hollywood made a movie out of it starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.

Just as entertaining as Eric Hodgin’s story, the movie was also an incredible success. Practically all of America fell in love (again!) with the Blandings and the predicaments they encountered. In addition to dealing with the baffling world of home construction, Mr. Blandings also frets over a relationship between his wife and a long-time family friend while simultaneously juggling a deadline for an advertising campaign at work. The trailer doesn’t really do the film much justice, but it does give you a glimpse of the humor that peppers both the book and the movie…

We never really get a good sense of the house the Blandings wind up building until the very end of the movie when the finished product is revealed. It turns out to be a beautiful colonial-style farmhouse set on a few dozen acres of rolling countryside…

The  real-life house that Eric Hodgin’s book was based on was built in Connecticut in the late 1930’s. The real-life house featured in the movie was built on pastoral studio-owned property in Malibu, CA in 1947. That makes two real-life houses built for the telling of one story. But by 1948, an astounding 73 more houses are added to that real-life list.  These houses are built in 60 different cities across the country thanks to a very clever and very generous marketing campaign put together to promote the film.  RKO Pictures and SRO Distribution Company teamed up with contractors, construction crews, designers, utility conglomerates and furniture companies all over the U.S. to build not one… not two… not three… but seventy three (73!) Blandings Dream Houses that were then raffled off in local contests. Not only was it epic promotion for the movie and the time period, but it was also an exciting opportunity for advertisers to showcase new products and cutting edge technology for the modern home.

General Electric was a big national sponsor advertising all their latest products including  wiring, appliances, air conditioning and even electric blankets. Many of their innovations greatly affected the kitchen and laundry areas, turning those rooms into two of the most technologically-advanced places in the entire house.

Imagine how exciting and inspiring this campaign must have been back in post-WWII  days when everyone was trying to get back on their feet and recreate their own semblance of home and shelter. The average house price in 1940 was about $3,000.00  (equivalent to $32,000.00 today) and the median household income was $956.00 a year (equivalent to about $17,000.00 today), not totally unaffordable by modern comparisons (the national median income today is $59,000 and the average U.S. home price is $230,000) but the Blandings dream houses in 1948 all came equipped with the most modern features, stylish interiors and the latest innovations which greatly extended their value.

For people who loved to cook, the idea of winning such a modern home would have been fantastically exciting, as the Blandings Dream Kitchen was one of the most modern and efficient rooms in the house.

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s most American kitchens looked something like this…

… a collection of precariously placed appliances and furniture of all styles that mingled with exposed heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing fixtures.  While these 1930’s kitchens were perfectly functional they weren’t necessarily set up for ideal ease, comfort or organization.  By the time the Blandings declared their dreams in the 1940’s, kitchens were becoming much more aesthetically pleasing and helpful. Built-in cabinets, long counter tops, hidden utilities, ventilation hoods, picturesque windows, bright colors and designated dining nooks made cooking more efficient, enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. You’ll notice that these 1940’s kitchens below also utilized corners, shelving and seating to maximize floor space.

When the movie first premiered in New York in March of 1948, ad campaigns began rolling out across the country announcing the Dream House Build-Up, so that by June when the Blandings were in theaters nationwide, the excitement and anticipation was at a fever pitch.

The Skokie. Illinois Dream House

Each of the cities that participated in the big build invited the local public in to view their custom version of a modern dream house.  What was especially intriguing about this promotional campaign is that not all of the houses built in each city were an exact replica of the Blandings dream house or its colonial style. Some cities chose to build houses that were more suited to their own local climate or aesthetic. The one built in Knoxville, TN was a one story rambler…

This one in Milwaukee was a smaller cape-style  cottage…

In Oregon, the dream house contained elements of brick and siding…

Read more about the Portland version of Mr. Blandings’ Dream House here.

Most of the Blandings promotional houses were built in suburbs  – the big city shadows where land, space and freedom offered opportunity for the American dream to grow and spread. From Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington; from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the Pacific Coast of California; from the top of Minnesota to the bottom of Texas fictional dreams were determining real-life destinies. Which brings us back to the modern day road trip that I embarked on last week.

This is the complete list of all the cities that participated. Is there one in your town?

Excited to see that Nashville was listed as one of the “Dream” cities, I went in search of Blandings in my own neck of the woods. This is what the Nashville dream house looked like in 1948…

Unlike the one built in Knoxville, the Nashville house was built in the exact same style as the one in the movie. Located in a very pretty section of town, noted for its gorgeous old growth landscaping and stately historic homes, I was excited to see what the Blandings dream house would look like now. Here is what I found…

Pretty! But not exactly the same house as the one pictured in the newspaper advertisement…

As it turns out the original Blandings house was torn down in the 1970’s. This new house occupying the spot now was built in 2016 and sold for $1.6 million. A little more expensive then 1940’s home prices:)  Although it’s not a historical design, it is fun to see that the roof line, dormer window and landscaping are quite similar and complimentary to the original Blandings style. Perhaps this house designer was a 1940’s fan himself!

As I was about to drive away, an old man came out from a garage across the street.  A much more modest house in size and scope, this old gentleman was shuffling down his driveway with the help of his cane, wearing a wool sweater, pajamas, bedroom slippers and a determined look.  I suspected that he was headed towards his mailbox. Immediately I thought of Blandings himself and I waved to him. But he didn’t wave back.  Obviously he wasn’t our hero of book and screen, but in that moment I imagined that this stooped over grey-haired guy, trembly and slow was once was a young man with a wife and two kids. I imagined that he used to live in a small apartment in a big city and that one day, he too got fed up and set out to build his own dream house – the sprawling brick ranch that he still lives in now.  Obviously he wasn’t Mr. Blandings. But then again… maybe he was.

Cheers to dreamers and to real-life houses that inspire books that then inspire movies that then inspire more dreamers and more houses! And cheers to Mr. Blandings, who is not real, but feels very much so.

If you are interested in reading the book that sparked this nationwide love affair seventy years ago, find it in the shop here. If you live in one of the dream cities that built a Blandings house please comment below and tell us all about your famous local icon. We’d love to hear more about it!

Gender Discrimination in the 1940’s: Why a Correspondent Turned From War to Cookbooks

Betty Wason (1912-2001)

In Sweden, in 1939, as Nazi troops began their invasion of Norway, a young American journalist staying in Stockholm began delivering eyewitness accounts of the historic event.  She was 28 years old and the only correspondent in that section of the world broadcasting live stories for CBS Radio. Her name was Betty Wason and her vantage point was intimate. Her reports were well-written, authentic and timely in the transmission of details. She was brave, dedicated and determined, eventually getting close to Nazi troops in Norway in order to tell the stories of wounded British soldiers and all that they had seen.  She was a woman alone in a war zone, a thoughtful writer in a chaotic environment and a new traveler out discovering foreign lands. But for all the things Betty was, there was one thing she wasn’t. She was not a man.

And that affected everything.

Gender discrimination runs rampant in every field throughout history, except maybe one…. radio news broadcasting in the 1930s and the 1940s. Mainly because there wasn’t any argument against the discrimination. Things were simply done and not done and there were rules to abide by.  One of those rules concerned women. Women  simply did not, were not, allowed to read the news over the air.  It was firmly believed that the feminine register could not convey the seriousness and importance of hard-hitting news stories. Instead, women’s voices were relegated only to entertainment-type shows… cooking lessons, homemaking stories, commercial ads and literature readings. Anything more serious or historically significant was left up to men to communicate on-air.  This proved a problem, for our gal Betty.

Growing up in Indiana in the 1920’s, Betty was a creative spirit from the start with interests in music, art and fashion design. After graduating from Perdue University with a degree in home economics in the early 1930’s, Betty bounced around a few jobs in her home state before realizing she wanted a more exotic life than Indiana could provide.  As a young woman full of vivaciousness and adventure and a desire to see the world, Betty went to New York and settled into a two-year job working at McCall’s magazine. But even in the exciting city of New York, her wanderlust could not be quelled. Europe was calling and Betty wanted to travel.

Vintage 1930’s travel posters to Czechoslovakia show the beauty and attraction of foreign travel. This was one of the countries Betty would visit and report from.

Not having the financial means to live abroad without working, Betty contacted TransRadio Press who was willing to pay young journalists overseas for eyewitness stories concerning World War II. A brief stint in Europe trying to make a go of it as a correspondent didn’t yield enough money for Betty to live on,  so she came back to New York only to try again less than a year later. On her second go-around though, she worked with CBS who was desperate to get any and all international news they could get their hands on in regards to the war. That’s when Betty headed to Sweden, just before Hitler arrived in Norway.

Betty’s contact at  CBS was Paul White who was in charge of news broadcasting.

There were many male war correspondents living and working overseas at this time, but they were mainly focused on print pieces suitable for newspapers and magazine readers. Radio was becoming more and more popular in terms of delivering news, but the seasoned overseas reporters, so focused on their writing, were out of the loop on the fact that radio news was rising in popularity. There was a niche market blooming in quick, short news briefs for ears instead of eyes and Betty saw an opportunity to be a part of it.

A 1940’s radio

Since Betty was the only correspondent in the Scandinavian region, she was recording and filing her own reports for CBS and being paid on a weekly basis.  But quickly, CBS determined that Betty’s voice was a problem (too light, too feminine, too high in pitch).  It was believed, even in times of war, especially in times of war, that radio listeners didn’t want to hear a delicate voice reporting on death and destruction. Her reporting content was strong though, so CBS said that she had to find a male counterpart to step-in as the voice in front of her work.

Betty was upset that she couldn’t speak the words that she was writing, but she wanted to keep her job, so she trained Winston Burdett, an American newly arrived in Stockholm, in the art of journalism for a radio audience, and he read her reports for her. Incidentally, she trained Burdett so well that she wound up working herself right out of Sweden. Burdett was after all a man and now (thanks to Betty) a good broadcaster.

Winston went on to have a lengthy career as a broadcast journalist at CBS. In 1955, he admitted to being a communist spy during the 1930s and 1940s when Betty worked with him.

Trying to find another unique vantage point like she had in Stockholm, Betty went to the Balkan Islands, and to Turkey before settling in Greece where she again sent reports home to CBS. Again, CBS said she needed a male counterpart to vocally relay her stories. And again Betty complied, this time working with a male Embassy secretary, who, at least, introduced himself on-air as “Phil Brown speaking for Betty Wason.”

Betty Wason in Greece. She made her own uniform to appear more professional since there was no dress code for correspondents. Photo courtesy of Hard News: Women in Broadcast Journalism.

As the Nazis occupied Greece, Betty’s bravery was called upon again as she reported eyewitness occurrences on a regular basis through her Embassy mouthpiece. While there, she endured house arrest under Nazi supervision for two months before the regime flew her and several other journalists to Europe for questioning. Concerned that Betty might be a spy, the Nazis detained her for an additional week by herself before eventually allowing her to fly back home to the US, where she was greeted with fanfare for having endured captivity and detainment.

Invigorated by the attention she received upon returning home and by the contributions she had made to broadcast journalism overseas, Betty naturally went to the CBS offices in New York to inquire after more work or a new assignment. Shockingly, executives at CBS refused to acknowledge that she played any significant part in the broadcasting realm overseas and denounced her requests for more story assignments. In an instant, Betty was dismissed like she had never been a part of the reporting team in the first place. Immediately, her work was marginalized even though CBS had been using her content repeatedly throughout the war, finding it valuable enough at the time to pay her for it. But upon Betty’s return, none of that seemed to matter. Had Betty been a man she would have been offered a position like Winston Burdett or handed a new assignment and sent to another corner of the globe. She would have been encouraged and supported by her colleagues and eventually been able to dispel the ridiculous notion that women couldn’t vocally report the news. But that didn’t happen.

After being turned away by CBS, Betty left New York and went on to Washinton DC, where she joined forces with other women in broadcasting, collaborating on various news shows and continuing on with her writing.  Those few years of dangerous foreign reporting and her budding career of broadcast journalism didn’t turn out the way Betty expected, but ultimately, good things came out of this redirection in her life.  Her ability to believe in her own talents and to creatively work around roadblocks with persistence and perseverance led her to a fulfilling career as a writer, on her own terms.

A sampling of Betty’s cookbooks published from the 1950’s-1980’s

Inspired by her travels and her curiosity to learn more about local cultures and customs, Betty was devoted to exploring the history and the food scene in all the countries she visited, each eventually yielding their own distinct cookbook. Through her explorations in The Art of Spanish Cooking, The Art of German Cooking… of Vegetable Cooking… of Mediterranean Cooking…  Betty wanted readers to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of her favorite places.  That genuine, awestruck wonder led to over 20 beautifully written books that pull readers (and home cooks!) in from page one…

How I wish I were about to fly to Greece again, to relive once more that special thrill of seeing from the sky the ragged ochre shoreline with its-jewel-like border of turqouise merging into the royal blue of the Aegean…(from the introduction of her Greek cookbook)

In the Vintage Kitchen, we were introduced to Betty through her Greek cookbook simply titled Betty Wason’s Greek Cookbook, a stained and splattered edition worthy of it’s adventurous war correspondent author.

 

If a cookbook could ever be a travel guide, it would be Betty’s style of approaching food. Not only does she include authentic recipes, but she writes about them with the eye of a curious tourist learning a country in detail.  In her Greek Cookbook, published in 1969, in addition to 200 recipes, she also included a state-by-state reference guide on where to buy authentic Greek ingredients in the US, a glossary of Greek terms and special tips and tricks to make sure that the cooking experience remained as easily replicated as possible.

Yesterday, it was Betty’s birthday and today it is International Women’s Day. We couldn’t think of a better post to publish than this one on the forgotten lady of broadcast journalism and now the remembered author of important vintage cookbooks.  In celebration, we made her recipe for Spanakopeta from her Greek cookbook. With spinach now coming into season,  it is an ideal dish for Spring and a guaranteed crowd pleaser for upcoming holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. If you have never had Spanakopeta before, it is similar to quiche…. a mixture of cheese and spinach and herbs stuffed between two layers of phyllo dough.

Betty Wason’s recipe for Spanakopeta, A Greek version of Spinach Pie

It’s light in texture and constitution so it can be enjoyed as a side dish or a small dinner or a brunch accompaniment. Betty suggested that it could be served hot or at room temperature, which makes picnic basketing an option too.  It reheats well and can sit in the fridge for a few days without getting soggy so if you are a make-ahead meal planner this recipe will be effortlessly easy and valuable.

Betty Wason’s SPANAKOPETA

Serves 6

12 phyllo pastry sheets

2 pounds fresh or frozen spinach (we used fresh)

1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced and chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

Salt to taste (optional)

2 eggs

1/2 lb. Gruyere-type cheese, feta cheese or dry pot cheese (* see notes)

1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil (we combined 1/4 cup of each)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If frozen spinach is used, cook as directed on package and drain well. If fresh spinach is used, wash and clean the leaves to remove any traces of dirt and pat dry. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Do not add any butter, oil or water to the pan. Working in batches, add as many large handfuls of spinach as will fit reasonably in the pan and toss with a wooden spoon until all spinach is wilted (about 2-3 minutes per batch). You may have to do this step in several batches depending on the size of your pan. Spread each cooked batch of spinach out on a cookie sheet to cool.

Once all the spinach is cooked, it will look like this…

At this point, you’ll need to wring as much water out of the spinach as possible. The easiest way to do this is to grab clumps in your hand and wring them out forming tightly packed meatball-like shapes. The drier the spinach the better so wring as much water out as you can.

Next, on a cutting board roughly chop each of the spinach balls. Mix in the dill, parsley, and salt to taste and toss until combined. I found there to be enough natural salt in the spinach and the cheese, so we didn’t add any extra salt to this dish at all, but season it to your preference.

Add one egg to the spinach and herbs and toss to combine. Grate the cheese. We can only find Gruyere at our grocery store occasionally, so I used Danish Fontina which is similar. Other options are Jarlsberg, Swiss or Feta.

Add the second egg to the grated cheese and mix to combine.

Butter a square 9×9 baking dish and place 6 sheets of phyllo pastry in the bottom. Brush each sheet with the olive oil and/or butter. Then add the spinach, and top with the cheese.

Cover with six more sheets of phyllo, each brushed in butter/olive oil. Don’t forget to brush the top layer.

Ready for the oven!

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes until pastry is golden. Remove from the oven, let cool until the dish can be handled,

then turn out upside down on a baking sheet and return it to the oven so that the undercrust can become crisp and golden (about 15-20 minutes).

Back into the oven!

Remove from the oven, flip back over and cut into squares. Serve while hot or wait for it to cool to room temperature. We served our spanakopeta with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a simple side salad tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Other additional sides that would be lovely with this include hard-boiled eggs, olives, mixed nuts,  prosciutto, or roasted sweet potatoes.

Light, airy and full of subtle flavors that are a little bit nutty (the cheese), a little bit zesty (the herbs) and a little bit earthy (the spinach), Betty’s spanakopeta is packed full of good, healthy nutrients, providing a simple introduction to the lovely world of Greek food.

It’s a good-for-your-spirit food mirroring Betty’s healthy outlook on life. She cast aside all the bitterness and resentment that could have filled her up in the post-CBS days and instead stuffed her life full of light, bright joy that enriched her spirit and fed her soul. Cheers and happy birthday to Betty for continuing to inspire women around the world with your writing.

Interested in learning more about Betty and her Greek recipes? Find her cookbook in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

Vintage Dinner and a Movie: With Moms and Daughters and Aunts, Family Style!

The last time we discussed food and film we were in Casablanca in the 1940’s with Ilsa and Rick and a batch of seasoned bar nuts.  Today’s post takes us to New York City in the 1940’s with a gal named Ilka and a platter full of chicken. It’s dinner and a movie day, and we are celebrating it family style!

On the screen is the movie Three Daring Daughters, a romantic comedy starring Jeanette MacDonald, who plays a single mom navigating the tricky waters of career, family and love. On the menu, is a vintage family recipe, Citrus Chicken with Fresh Oranges and Tarragon, which comes from the kitchen of my Aunt Patty, a self-taught gourmet cook who lived most of her life in California.

I was introduced to Three Daring Daughters thanks to an invitation to join the Singing Sweethearts blogathon, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society this week. Not very familiar with Jeanette’s body of work, I learned a lot about this dynamic actress who was a favorite of 1930s and 1940’s movie-goers.

Jeanette MacDonald (1903-1965)

Originally a theater actress, Jeanette was born in Philadelphia and received her acting start on the stages of New York City in the early 1920s before heading west to California for screen work. A trained singer from childhood, she hit her stride in Hollywood, appearing in over two dozen musicals showcasing her operatic voice and garnering several Academy Award nominations.

A collection of rarely seen photos of Jeanette MacDonald courtesy of Click Magazine, 1938. Images include a childhood portrait, a wedding day photo with husband Gene Raymond, a glamorous headshot revealing her new red hair color (previously she was a brunette) and a bridesmaid photo with Ginger Rogers.

Three Daring Daughters, was her second to last musical (released in 1948) and showcases the singing voice not only of Jeanette but also her three on-screen daughters, as well as the musical talents of famous real-life concert pianist Jose Iturbi.

In the movie, Jeanette plays Louise, single mom to Tess, Ilka and little Alix while also trying to balance a full-time editorial job at a popular magazine. Exhausted by work and home life, Louise’s doctor advises her to take a cruise vacation to Cuba, alone, in order to get some much-needed rest. On the boat, she meets Jose Iturbi, a handsome celebrity passenger who is immediately smitten with beautiful Louise. Meanwhile, her daughters, back in New York believe that their mother is worn out because she misses the companionship of her ex-husband (their father), so they arrange to have him arrive in New York just as Louise is returning from her vacation. As you can imagine, mayhem and misunderstanding ensue. We won’t give any more away to spoil the story, only to say that things don’t go quite as anyone expected.

Humorous, engaging and good-spirited, this romantic comedy is well-written, well-acted, beautifully presented and just a fun simple break from the action-packed movies dominating the modern theater scene today. The costumes and set design are gorgeous…

One of Jeanette’s lovely dresses in the film.

and the acting is marvelous, especially when it comes to the three daughters. Professionally trained child actors from an early age,  each of them had hopes of following in the career footsteps of Shirley Temple, so they were schooled in all areas of performance from singing and dancing to elocution, stage direction and character development.

Tess, Ilka and Alix played by Jane Powell, Ann E. Todd and Elinor Donahue.

Sweet without being sappy, Three Daring Daughters is a feel-good story full of the virtues of happy relationships and good intentions. In a combination that is reminiscent of  I Love LucyLittle Women, and An Affair to Remember it’s hard to imagine anyone finding fault with this movie, but, surprisingly it was flagged for immorality due to that fact that Jeanette MacDonald’s character was a divorced woman successfully living on her own. That being said there are no deep psychological dramas to explore here and the entire theme of the movie is cheerful and upbeat.

There’s also not much cooking going on in the film, so instead of recreating a dish from the movie, we pulled one from the family archives of Aunt Patty who was herself one of three young daughters in the 1940’s.

That’s Aunt Patty – the tallest one in the back, her middle sister Phyllis and then my mom, the youngest, in front.

Like Tess (the oldest daughter) in the movie, Aunt Patty was the great big sister to her sisters and was especially connected to my mom.

Aunt Patty holding my mom circa 1943.

Even though we lived on opposite coasts and didn’t see her as frequently as we would have liked she still looms large in my memory. She was a great hugger. Her husband, Buzz called her “Babe,” which my sisters and I thought was hysterical. And like so many ladies in my family, she was a talented seamstress and would often send us presents that she made. One year she sent a pair of three-foot-tall cloth horses for my dolls to ride around on. That seemed like magic! Even though she liked to keep busy and plan lots of activities when we were all together, she always found time to read the Winnie the Pooh series to my sister and I before bed or naptime. And she was a marvel at putting together big family theme dinners complete with decorations and costumes.

Tragically, she passed away in the mid-1990’s from her second round of breast cancer, just a few months after celebrating her 62nd birthday. But she’s never far from our thoughts. Small memories pop-up in my mind about her all the time and of course, I have her hand-written recipes to keep me company in the kitchen.

Living among the fog clouds of Half Moon Bay, California, Aunt Patty was the only woman in my family, when I was growing up, that had a vegetable garden in her backyard, which to me was absolutely fantastic. She gathered much of her creativity in the kitchen from what she grew, so if there was one thing we could always count on at Aunt Patty’s house, it would be super fresh vegetables, lots of herbs and a fun time in the kitchen. She also subscribed to the Julia Child philosophy on butter – the more the better!

Aunt Patty’s Citrus Chicken

This recipe (written in her own hand) is for Citrus Chicken and features fresh oranges,  tarragon and the infamous butter. Sometimes, when I make this I cut the butter in half, but it’s really best prepared as Aunt Patty directed. If you serve it with a simple green salad on the side, the whole meal feels a bit more redemptive! It serves 3-6 people depending on portion size and keeps well in the fridge for chicken sandwiches the next day if you have left overs.

Aunt Patty’s Citrus Chicken

3 boned chicken breasts, halved skinned and slightly flattened

1/4 cup melted butter

2 slices beaten egg

2/3 cup fine dry seasoned breadcrumbs (panko works great!)

1 stick butter, cut in small bits

1-2 cups fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon tarragon

1 tsp grated orange peel

Flatten chicken breasts. Brush with melted butter.

Roll in flour – dip in beaten egg and roll in breadcrumbs. Arrange in baking dish.

Dot with Butter. Bake 15 minutes at 400 degrees. In a bowl, mix orange juice, tarragon, and orange peel. Pour over chicken. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees. Cover and bake 35 more minutes, basting if necessary. (A little note: When it is done, the chicken will be wrapped in a soft breading blanket, if you’d like it to be a little bit crispy, simply remove the lid and place the dish under the broiler at 500 degrees for a few minutes until it begins to brown on top).

Aunt Patty’s Citrus Chicken with Tarragon and Orange Juice

There are many ways to present this chicken… on a plate with other seasonal vegetables, alongside or in a salad of mixed green lettuces, or on a sandwich as mentioned above. In addition to being served hot out of the oven, it can also be served at room temperature, which makes it a great candidate for picnicking. We used to picnic with Aunt Patty on the beach, just a couple blocks from her house. I think she’d be thrilled at the idea that her recipe might be in your picnic basket one day too!

I think if Jeanette MacDonald and Aunt Patty had ever met in California, they would have been great friends. Jeanette was one of the few actresses in Hollywood who had to work hard at keeping weight on instead of worrying about taking it off. Aunt Patty could have cooked lots of great dishes for her (with lots of butter!). I’m not sure if Aunt Patty ever saw any of Jeanette’s movies, but she was a big fan of vintage and antique items just like me, so its safe to say that she probably would have would have loved Three Daring Daughters too. Afterall, she was one herself!

Cheers to families who are funny and daring and happy. And to beloved Aunts whose spirits can still be felt in the kitchen.

This is my favorite photograph of Aunt Patty, taken among the wildflowers of California sometime around the late 1980’s.

Learn more about Jeanette MacDonald and her movies by visiting the Singing Sweethearts blogathon on the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’s blog here.

And if you find yourself in the kitchen with Aunt Patty sometime soon, send us a message and let us know how it all turned out.

Cocktails and A Movie: Discussing Censorship, Bar Nuts and Breen on the Set of Casablanca

 

This week’s post has us traveling all the way back to a cosmopolitan city in exotic 1940’s North Africa thanks to a lovely invitation from the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. This weekend, October 13th – 15th marks the date of the Great Breening Blogathon featuring Joseph Breen, an influential, but seldom remembered figure in filmmaking during the glamorous days of old Hollywood.

Joseph Breen (1888-1965)

Joseph was the enforcer behind the Production Code Administration, set up during the 1930’s, which acted as a morality censor for all film scripts, scenes, and storylines in the motion picture industry. Bolstered by his own Catholic beliefs and the bishops who originally wrote the code, Joseph was not interested in seeing sexy, sensual imagery on the big screen and the PCA wasn’t interested in exposing such immorality to the American movie-going public.  The thought of being subjected to plotlines involving extra-marital affairs, obscene language, excessive violence or varying degrees of nudity were offensive. Family friendly, American made films were not the place for such suggestive behavior according to Joseph and the PCA.

With line by line lists of cant-do’s and won’t-permits attached to each script that the PCA reviewed, screenwriters and directors were challenged with creative ways to express character’s motives and actions while also keeping their plots plausible and compelling. How do you portray magnetic chemistry without showing a steamy, passionate kiss? How do you elude to compromising situations without showing corrupt scandals? How do you make your central location not look or sound like the most unethical, debaucherous place in the world yet still convey to watchers that shady dealings are happening right and left? And ultimately, how do you tell one of the most romantic and dramatic love stories of all time without showing anyone caught up in the physical throes of passion?

The answer is Casablanca.

Many noteworthy movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood were questioned by Joseph and the PCA. The Outlaw (Howard’s Hughes 1943 western) showed too much of Jane Russell’s cleavage; the “damn” in Rhett Butler’s famous “Frankly  my dear, I don’t give a damn” line in Gone With the Wind was flagged for unnecessary profanity; and the fact that Casablanca’s Ilsa was married at the time she first met Rick was altogether too salacious for the PCA to greenlight.  All three movies managed to overcome these sticky spots eventually, but not without some major behind-the-scenes defense tactics for creative license.

The PCA and Joseph’s staunch deployment of it was frustrating but important to movie studios because it balanced political correctness with the expectations of what movie audiences wanted to see.  What was considered entertaining and appropriate to movie-goers in mainstream America in the 1930’s and 1940’s was laughter, light-hearted romance, and noble sentiment.  So if movie studios wanted to sell tickets, they had to comply with what watchers wanted to see. And the PCA was there to make sure that decorum and good manners reigned supreme as far as what was being showcased on the big screen.

On the morality level, Casablanca in particular, seemed like it was doomed from the beginning. It was set primarily in a bar, Rick’s Cafe Americain, where alcohol continuously flowed. It was fueled by desperation with characters willing to do anything and everything to garner exit visas to leave the country. It contained a smoldering, forbidden romance, murder and contempt for government officials.  All major issues when it came to the Production Code Administration.

The legendary ending of Casablanca

By the time the script came back from the PCA review office, it contained several red flags and numerous notations from Joseph Breen. No bed was ever to be shown in Rick’s apartment, (such an object would have signaled an intimate encounter with Ilsa).  The dubious character of Captain Renault (who was in charge of granting exit visas from Casablanca) was not allowed to verbally suggest or show that he was granting visas to women only in exchange for sex. And Rick and Ilsa’s fated love affair? Joseph found it highly immoral that Ilsa met and fell in love with Rick years before in Paris while she was  married to her husband Victor Lazlo. This long-simmering love business between Ilsa and Rick had to be cleaned up in order for the movie to go on. Even though sex does sell, in conservative 1940’s America these scandelous situations were considered way too over-the-top for the eyes and minds of mainstream movie-going audiences.

The smoldering attraction between Rick and Ilsa.

So how did Casablanca’s production team manage to get around such roadblocks and ultimately propel the film towards three Academy Award wins and iconic movie status? Through good writing and good direction and good acting. So much of the storyline that seemed PCA in-appropriate – the excessive drinking, seduction, womanizing and volatile emotions were so expertly staged and nuanced that the script eventually passed approval with Joseph Breen. Once Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa)  and Claude Rains (Captain Renault) delivered their performances there was no mistaking the precarious situations that the scriptwriters originally intended. Movie audiences still got the idea loud and clear even if wasn’t visually or audibly spelled out.

In today’s depict-anything-you-want movie plot experience, it seems so foreign to have such a morality cloud like Joseph Breen hovering over a film production. But I wonder if the beauty and ultimate success of Casablanca came in the act of being challenged to subtly hint at each impropriety. Perhaps that is what makes it timeless and still translatable in today’s cinematic scope. It leaves room for our own imaginations to sort out and further dissect the specifics of the relationships between characters.

I’m not a big fan of censoring art in any way. I think you lose the point of it then. I once lived in a town where plays were censored for language or risque content and it felt very limiting. Art is intended to provoke reaction and expand horizons so I’m not sure if Joseph Breen and I would have been on the same page in the philosophy department, but his impact on Casablanca was influential, so maybe his enforcement of the Production Code Administration ultimately helped the movie in the long-run.

For all the spicy current passing between Ilsa and Rick throughout the movie, there is not a lot of spicy food being passed around Rick’s cafe.  Originally I thought it would be fun to write a dinner and a movie post and feature some aromatic Moroccan food of the likes that would have been served at Rick’s. But apparently, the main thing on the menu at Cafe Americain, the bestseller of all bestsellers, was a cocktail or two or three or half a bottle. Champagne, bourbon, scotch, gin, whiskey are present in almost every scene. Alcohol swishes and swirls and sits in glasses while Rick broods, Captain Renault schemes and Ilsa seeks courage.  So in lieu of a traditional North African dinner, here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are staying true to the spirit of Casablanca by serving up a food accompaniment with this post that pairs best with your favorite cocktail…Sweet Spiced Nuts circa 1967.

This recipe comes from the vintage cookbook, A World of Nut Recipes by Morton Gil Clark and features three ingredients essential to Moroccan cooking: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This is a super easy recipe to make for cocktail hour, parties or late night snacking. The flavors are subtle, accommodating and interesting and with nut season now in full swing, you have a variety of options to choose from. For this recipe, I used a variety of mixed nuts which included peanuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts but pecans, pistachios, macademias, etc all would make delicious alternatives as well.

Find this cookbook available in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

Sweet Spiced Nuts – Makes 1 Cup

1 cup nuts

1/4 cup fine granulated sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8th teaspoon ground allspice

1/8th teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 egg (egg white part only)

Place the nuts in a small bowl and pour over them the slightly beaten whites of 1 egg. Mix so that all the nuts are evenly coated. In a separate bowl combine the sugar and spices and then toss with the nuts, mixing well again so that all the nuts are evenly coated. Spread seasoned nuts out into a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes. If you prefer ultra-crunchy nuts bake them about 10-15 minutes longer, but keep your eye on them so they don’t burn. Once done, let them cool on the baking sheet until ready to serve. Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation.

Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation. And while you’re at it, raise a toast to Joseph Breen, who made his mark, for better or worse, on one of the world’s most beloved movies of all times. Here’s look’n at you, Joe!

To learn more about Joe Breen and his influence on old Hollywood, catch up with other blogathon related posts here. 

For more dinner and a movie posts from the Vintage Kitchen, pull up a chair here.

And last but not least, find 200 more pages of interesting nut-related recipes in the World of Nut Recipes cookbook available in the shop here.