19 January, 2007

a fine humour

Well, certainly the comedy class is good fun! But I must say, and I hope this will fall on the ears of my British readers with all the Anglophilic affection that infuses it, it's like living in a, dare I say it, foreign country.

By this I mean that a lot of the time, living in London, carrying on one's daily life as a sort of stranger but a sort of person who belongs here, it can seem as if our two cultures, America and Britain, are quite similar. Actually I say that when in point of fact, I make an absolute fetish out of noticing and getting to the bottom of all things that are different between us, so I don't know why I would go all astonished when it comes to the comedy class. Think of it: from morning to night, daily life is fettered with ways in which one can either fit in, or not. Bacon on your morning sandwich? An American will, as I've observed before, have to ask for "streaky" to get what you expect, and even then it will be already cooked and sitting in the refrigerator section: none of that greasy, freshly-grilled stuff that so delights or repels the New York deli patron. Then do you get on the subway or the Tube? It's enough to give you a headache. You could possibly toddle into the drugstore (although you'd best call it a "chemist") and ask for acetaminophen, but "paracetamol" will more likely get you what you want. Now, do you offer to help the lady struggling up the steps to lift her child's stroller up to the sidewalk? No, because without illustrative hand gestures she wouldn't perhaps understand. Best to carry the "pushchair" up to the "pavement." Lunch is no easier. Asking for "tuna salad" will get you precisely that: tuna, and some salad. You'll have to say "tuna mayonnaise" to get what you expect. By the time you've shopped for a zucchini and an eggplant for your dinner, only to find you need to ask for a "courgette" and an "aubergine" instead, you'll simply want to whack your head against a lamppost and cry. So it's best just to learn the ropes and follow them.

It really is not the same language. And dig a little deeper and you'll find out how much more you don't know about your adopted country. That's what the comedy class is doing for me.

For one thing, writing comedy, and talking about comedy, seems to take people back to their childhoods, and lots of cultural references come up that I simply have to ask about, or write it down intelligibly and come home and google like mad. This week's class was no exception. Now, you'd have to be living on Mars in this town not to have heard of the Jade Goody-Shilpa Shetty controversy on "Celebrity Big Brother. Briefly, it's this: Jade Goody is saying nasty things that people are interpreting as anti-Indian racism, to Shilpa Shetty, who is a huge star in the Bollywood galaxy. It's gotten so controversial that various sponsors of the show are backing out, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and would be next Prime Minister) Gordon Brown is having to address it during his visit to India. I hope he still has time to negotiate between India and Pakistan over their nuclear ambitions. But first things first, obviously.

So the tutor, Guy, decided our task was to come up with a sketch combining the situation with another, having established already that combination was one of the three keys to writing comedy: putting two things together that don't ostensibly belong, and making them work. I was so pleased that my two ideas were received graciously! Actually I was glad to be able to say anything to contribute at all, the conversation and suggestions were flying so fast and furious, but I really wanted to keep up. So my ideas were to combine "Big Brother" with the programme "What Not To Wear,", and turn it into "What Not To Say," or to combine the Big Brother House with the House of Commons (where believe it or not, the issue is being debated) and have "Big Brother House of Commons," where the Jade-Shilpa drama could be played out with the support of various cabinet ministers. Whew. It was exhausting! So we broke up into small groups and tried desperately to flesh this out.

While discussing it all, my pen was flying as fast as everly it could to capture everything that was going on, among the classmates who all spoke the same language. For example, one girl wanted to introduce "Mallet's Mallet" into the Big Brother house, which reference turned out to be from a children's television show where kids get bopped over the head if they can't think of a word fast enough. Then Guy suggested that we go with my basic idea, and then flesh it out, or as he expressed it, "put a little Meccano around it," which after I slunk over to him during the break and asked, turned out to be a kind of kids' scaffolding game! Too funny. We had a great time, but I'm not sure any great comedy was turned out. Not yet.

For that we had to be content to listen to an audio tape of a television programme Guy actually wrote himself, for an episode of a wonderful-sounding show called "Not The Nine O'Clock News," which was later developed in America as "Not Necessarily the News," something I remember from my childhood. In the episode we heard (which made it to #2 on the LP charts in 1970-something!), Guy combined two totally odd ideas and came up with a completely hilarious sketch, but again, only if you understand British culture. Remember my short-lived crush on Bamber Gascoigne? Host of "University Challenge," which is truly one of the most entertaining programmes on television, even if Bamber has retreated to greener pastures upon retirement. Anyway, Guy combined the setting of "University Challenge" with two teams of prison inmates who were studying with the Open University, and had them quizzed on the history of crime and criminals. Totally hilarious. Oh, we had fun.

Bamber notwithstanding, off course I have returned to my Matthew roots, with a slight detour into Daniel Craig land. I rented "Layer Cake" this week, and my, I can certainly pick 'em for doing unappealing violent films, can't I? I have to say I enjoyed it anyway, and he's memorable for all kinds of things, namely his incredible blue eyes and lovely pecs, and... he can act. And there is just nothing cuter than Sienna Miller in this film, even if she isn't given two words to string together. What on earth she was doing still orbiting around Jude Law after her lips were allowed to lock with Daniel Craig's I cannot fathom. As for the divine Michael Gambon, well, he is perfection.

Speaking of fine acting, our homework this week is to watch as much comedy as possible. So we're tracking down a very funny show called "Spoons," starring one of my favorite occasional actors, Tom Goodman-Hill; I mean I see him in things occasionally, among them just one letter off, "Spooks." Perhaps his next role will be as a seamstress in an edgy drama called "Spools." Then he can do a send-up of it and call it "Spoofs." Stop me, already.

Well, Avery is off at her classmate Francesca's wall-climbing birthday party in Westway, and I'm getting ready to underchef one of our favorite "we don't have to feed her" dinners. Give it a try. It's loosely adapted from one of my favorite Asian cookbooks, Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cooking, given to me lo these 20 years ago (can that be true?) by my mother in law. I have to tell you what happens to me and recipes. My dear friend Jeanne complains that I cannot leave a recipe alone, and as soon as I make something once, from a recipe, I immediately launch into a speculative discussion as to what I could do differently next time. "It doesn't need garlic!" she scolds. "And no, leaving out the cornstarch would not be an improvement." But I do tinker.

In my defense, as far as methods go, I have had to adjust my thinking. Back before I had a child and I had all the time in the world to cook dinner, I really doted on what I would call "precision undercheffing." I would have little porcelain dishes all over my countertops with elaborately prepared ingredients, just waiting for the final flourish of the actual cooking, and I was inordinately fond of the different stages of the preparation. Through the years of having a very small child crawling up my leg as a scorpion might do, as I handled hot oils and chili peppers over her golden head, I developed a truncated method of cooking that skipped every unnecessary hand motion. Forget the little dishes of scallions. Just throw them in anyoldhow. To these depths I have sunk. So the following recipe is much less elaborate than Mrs. Chiang's original instructions. I assure you that if the flavors suffered, I'd go back to her wishes, but as it is, I'm happy. And the scorpion on my leg still gets attention for her homework.

Szechwan Red-Cooked Shrimp
(serves four)

3 tbsps peanut oil
1 lb uncooked large shrimp, shells on, heads off (call them prawns in England)
3 bunches green onions, sliced thin (white part only)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob fresh ginger, minced
1/2 tbsp coarse sea salt

4 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps Japanese mirin (rice wine)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp chili paste or sauce

1 cup basmati rice

Arrange your shrimp in a single layer on a platter and scatter the garlic, ginger, green onions and sea salt over them. They can sit there, thawing as mine will have to from the freezer, while you do everything else.

Mix all the rest of the ingredients except the rice in a bowl and set aside. Put your rice on to simmer with a little under 1 1/2 cups water. Now, in a wok over high heat, heat your peanut oil. It has a very high smoking point, so you can get it good and hot. I find the shrimp are more tender if they're cooked hot and short. Throw in the shrimps with their garnish, and toss very quickly until the shrimp turn pink. Take them out with a slotted spoon and place them in the bowl you intend to serve in (no sense messing about with extra bowls!). Pour the liquid mixture into the wok and bring to a boil, mixing in the garlic and ginger left behind in the wok. Boil high for two minutes, then throw the shrimp back in and toss for 30 seconds. Serve with rice.

Now gather up a bunch of paper napkins and start pulling their little legs and shells off. This dinner is messy, spicy, and glorious. Thanks to Mrs. Chiang and my mother in law!


Kristen In London said...

Nonna, is your post showing, or just mine?

Cecily Marla Smith said...

Thank you so much for linking to my Tom Goodman-Hill fanlisting! Your blog has been linked to from the site. Thanks again!