It’s a busy month. My Aunt Katie’s birthday was on Dec 3rd…which always sent me into a panic when I realized after all the Thanksgiving festivities and prepping for the upcoming holiday season, that I was often late getting a card in the mail. My birthday falls on the 12th…and then there’s all the social gatherings and merry making and shopping and working in retail and…and… But it’s all FUN!
So this month’s blog entry is a continuation from the last…with 2 more GREAT recipes for crowd pleasing party bites for your next STAR PARTY! As promised last month, I included some video of our local olive harvest that’s going on right now (although the weather didn’t cooperate with my production schedule…a couple of torrential rain storms, a flood, and too many cool, cloudy days…I didn’t get the footage I really wanted). But both of these recipes involve olive oil.
First up is Jim Backus’ incredibly addictive Avocado/Blue Cheese Dressing (I’ve slightly adapted this recipe from a salad dressing to a party dip, and upgraded it from the use of corn oil, to the much more flavorful and healthy olive oil) and then Natalie Wood’s delicious Eggplant Caviar. Both of these recipes are real winners and both Jim and Natalie co-starred with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
I had always thought of Rebel as a Christmas movie…come to find out, I’ve been wrong all these years! That mistaken thought came from the deleted opening scene…Buzz and his gang of delinquents harass a fatherly man arriving home after midnight, with his arms full of wrapped presents. The man drops the packages as he runs to his house for safety. The actual movie opens after this event…starting with James Dean’s character, Jim Stark stumbling down the sidewalk drunk and finding, amongst bits and pieces of discarded wrapping paper, a mechanical, wind-up toy monkey, as the sound of sirens become audible in the background, alerting us that the police are coming (responding to the gang activity earlier, that we didn’t see). Christmas presents I assumed!
But NO! In reading Stewart Stern’s original script this last week, the openings shot was to depict the camera panning down a church steeple as a clock tower in the background strikes midnight, and children’s voices are heard singing EASTER hymns! I guess I might have figured that out, due to the lack of Christmas decor in the movie…or the gardenia corsages worn by Jim’s mother and grandmother when the family arrives to pick him up at the police station (presumably coming from a midnight Easter mass, not a holiday party as I had assumed).
No matter…Rebel still provided me a wonderful backdrop for this blog entry, celebrating party foods and gathering with friends and family.
Early in the film, Jim Stark is on a field trip with his high school classmates at the iconic Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles…one of my favorite scenes. The lecturer in the planetarium narrates a tale of man’s insignificance in relation to the vast scale of the universe and time. This is the question has been plaguing teen-aged Jim, as he struggles to find his identity and place in this world of dysfunctional adulthood.
In the original script, Stern describes Dean’s character as, “JIM: The angry victim and the result. At seventeen he is filled with confusion about his role in life. Because of his ‘nowhere’ father, he does not know how to be a man. Because of his wounding mother, he anticipates destruction in all women. And yet he wants to find a girl who will be willing to receive his tenderness”.
The scenes were shot on location at the Griffith Observatory. The Observatory opened in 1935 and located in the 4210 acre Griffith Park (gifted to the city of Los Angeles in 1896). The planetarium (since renamed The Samuel Oschin Planetarium) was the first of it’s kind on the west coast. The unchanged, copper-clad, concrete dome still graces the landscape, overlooking downtown LA and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and world famous “Hollywood” sign.
The Zeiss Model II planet projector (as seen in the movie) astounded audiences of the time (even though the show was strictly in black and white). In 1964 they upgraded to a Zeiss Mark IV projector and 40 years later, renovations brought the current Zeiss Universarium Mark IX.
The Zeiss company was founded in Gernany in 1846, manufacturing microscope lens, and later binoculars, telescopes, and eventually camera lenses. In the 40s, the Zeiss Model II projector at Griffith was used to train WWII pilots on how to navigate by the stars at night. There are a few Model II’s that have been restored and still in operation, but most sit unlit and unmoving in museum displays
In the very early 1970s, Griffith Observatory became the birthplace of laser light and music shows. The first exhibitions consisted of 45 minutes of classical music, flipping the record over, and another 45 minutes of classical music while audiences sat entranced by the laser display.
In 1988 the bronze bust of Dean and monument, designed and sculpted by artist Kenneth Kendall, was erected on the west side of Griffith Observatory commemorating the spot where the “knife fight scene” from Rebel Without a Cause was shot. 30 years earlier, Kendall had installed a casting of the bust at Dean’s burial site in Indiana (the bust was later stolen and never recovered) and donated a hydrostone copy that was displayed at Fairmount High School. In 1995, a 3rd bronze casting of the bust and monument was installed at the James Dean Memorial Park in downtown Fairmount, IN.
I wrote extensively about Natalie just short while ago in the Days of Wine and Rebels posting…check it out to see lots of behind-the-scenes pics and stories about her and Dean. Amusingly Lew Bracker, a good friend of James Dean during his Hollywood years, wrote me after that posting, telling me that he was surprised that Natalie even knew how to cook… When Lew knew her, “The kitchen was just a room she passed through to get to the other room.” It’s very true…she even stated so to a fan magazine, “If I never learn to cook, perhaps I won’t have to”. But maybe the inevitable process of aging and family life changed her mind…her children claim she was a good cook and all the recipes I found attributed to her have been wonderful! The first celebrity recipe I ever made (many, many years ago) was one of hers and I’ve got 4 fabulous other ones in the Recipes for Rebels cookbook.
Jim Backus on the other hand, I haven’t written about lately. He was one of America’s most beloved comedic actors from radio, TV and film. Backus is best remembered as the voice of animated character Mr. Magoo (1949-), and as Thurston Howell III on the TV series Gilligan’s Island (1964-67). Amongst his extensive 245 other TV and film credits, Backus starred in the TV sitcom I Married Joan (1952-55), the screwball comedy film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and popular TV series Blondie (1968-69).
Backus had just finished his run with I Married Joan, when he was atypically cast in the father role of Frank Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. Jim believed this would be just another 1950s typical father role. The character was described by Stewart Stern as, “JIM’S FATHER: Frank is an unfeathered man who has never been able to have fun. He is anxious to be a real father to Jim, but has never learned how”.
Backus first met Dean on Thanksgiving evening, 1954 (shortly before East of Eden had been released). Backus’ wife Henny was out of town, so he accepted the invitation of friends Shirley and Keenan Wynn for Thanksgiving dinner. Backus noticed an awkwardly shy young man in attendance…dressed in a poorly fitted navy blue suit with black shirt, over-sized horn rimmed glasses and black motorcycle boots. Backus confided in his hosts that he thought it was awfully kind of them to invite their garage mechanic to the dinner.
“Four months later, I was signed to play the ‘garage mechanic’s’ father,” confessed Backus in his 1958 memoir entitled, Rocks on the Roof. “Before we started the actual shooting of Rebel Without a Cause, Nick Ray got Jimmy and me together and we spent a lot of time discussing the relationship between father and son and analyzed the motivation of each scene, rather than simply going over dialogue. We studied the script in continuity instead of the usual movie practice of learning isolated scenes as they come up in the shooting schedule. The picture was shot that way too…from beginning to end…”
First day on the set, Dean implored Backus, “Teach me one thing, how to do Magoo.” Three days later according to Backus, “He did it better than I did.”
The fight scene between Jim Stark and his father is one of the more heart wrenching moments of the film. “We did the master shot yesterday,” said Backus, “and Dean was so carried away once that he grabbed the (stair) railing and broke part of it. We went over a couch and knocked over a table. I thought I was a goner. I might have been, but this boy is as strong as a bull. Even while he was flinging me around, he held onto me so that I wouldn’t fall.”
“There is only one way to do such a scene. I had to remain completely passive and put my trust in Jimmy. If I, for any reason, got tense, we both could have been severely injured or even possibly killed.”
“I was 200 pounds of dead weight, and this boy, who could not have weighed more than 140 pounds, tossed, carried, dragged, and lifted me down those stairs, across the room, and into the chair over and over again all day long, while they shot their many angles.”
Hope you enjoy!
*A couple of notes about the soundtrack…The Leonard Rosenman pieces from Rebel Without a Cause were a no-brainer, it’s just great music! I considered sticking with all film scores, when it came to the Greek portion of the video…and I really LOVE the theme from Zorba the Greek or Melina Mercouri’s version of Never On a Sunday…but those were just TOO obvious. Tsifteteli (the song I eventually chose) is a traditional belly dance from northern Greece. The West Side Story songs were a nod to Natalie Wood’s portrayal of Maria (and I just couldn’t bring myself to use anything from Gypsy). The Dave Brubeck song was meaningless…just plain great music. But that strange irritating space age music at the end is from Johanna Beyer and is called Music of the Spheres (1938). Scriptwriter Stewart Stern references this piece of music as playing in the background of the planetarium scene in Rebel (Leonard Rosenman wrote his own music for that scene instead). It’s very strange (as is everything I’ve heard from her) and if you’re brave enough, you can hear the whole piece here on YouTube.
The Jim Backus recipe actually comes from his wife Henny. Jim wasn’t allowed back in the kitchen after an incident about trying to hard boil eggs in a pan without water…which resulted in Henny getting a freshly repainted kitchen. But this is a favorite recipe of his.
I’ve made 2 minor changes to the recipe… 1) I use olive oil instead of corn oil, for both improved flavor and health. And 2) I vary the amount of olive oil, depending upon if I want to use it as a salad dressing or as an appetizer dip for crackers or part of a crudité platter. It’s incredibly addictive and delicious either way!
A small food processor (like the one I used in the video) makes pretty fast work of the job. The recipe is pretty much straight forward otherwise.
It’s best if made the same day as you plan to serve it, but can be made a day ahead. Just make sure to cover the surface of the dip COMPLETELY with plastic wrap (pressing the wrap down into the dip), letting absolutely NO air touch the surface. The avocado will turn an ugly brown. (I have had some carefully covered leftovers last more than 4 days with no damage though.)
If the day of your party comes, and your avocados have refused to ripen (soften)…try baking them in a medium oven for 3-5 minutes. The flavor is only slightly affected and it really does work! Although I hate to have to do it…this trick has saved me a couple of times.
And a couple notes on olive oil. Buy the best you can find. The big commercial brands are uniformly crap! (Bertoli, et al are not what they claim to be). Of course I suggest trying to seek out Greek olive oil if possible. In the video you’ll see that the oil in my bottle is cloudy…that’s because it’s non-filtered and end of the barrel from last year. This is the GOOD STUFF…with all the flavor and nutrition. The Greeks refer to it as “the margarine.” So clarity is not really a benefit when shopping for oil…but color is! It should be green. NOT that yellow corn oil looking stuff (but be warned, many Italian, Spanish, and German olive oil producers dye their oil). GERMAN oil? Huh? Ha, ha…yes Germany is THE largest exporter of olive oil in the EU…how does that work? EU politics I guess. Anyway, look for small estate oils, extra virgin of course (there is no such thing as Premium extra virgin…that’s just marketing). “Extra virgin” is the first cold pressing. “Virgin” and “pure” oils use boiling hot water or even chemicals to extract more oil from the leftover skins and pits. Use this kind ONLY to burn in your oil lamps. When taste testing good oil (from the spoon…not on bread) the best oil will have a slight bite or zing on the end of your tongue. Eventually you’ll find the brand that has the taste you’re looking for. I didn’t really mean to go on this long about oil (and I COULD go on soooo much longer), but there you have it.
Natalie Wood’s Eggplant Caviar might be a nod to her Russian heritage (at least in title anyway). It’s a rich, delicious, complex mix of flavors, and I recommend using All of the items she lists as optional.
In Greece, we tend to prefer smaller eggplants than those customarily sold in US grocery stores. The smaller, younger ones are less bitter and don’t require that step of salting and letting them drain in a colander. So use several smaller ones if you can find them.
This keeps very well refrigerated and can be made a day or more ahead of time. I don’t know how long it keeps afterwards, because the leftovers are never around long enough (we ate the leftovers from the video that same evening as a pasta sauce…it was great)!
The onions are sprinkled with sugar before cooking to produce a smokey, caramelized flavor. The eggplant could also be grilled to really enhance the smoke.
If you’ve never peeled a hard-boiled egg with a spoon (like you see me do in the video), try it! Mr. Alex taught me this trick and it works perfectly 99% of the time for me. Fast and easy!
I’ve never been able to cook it long enough to have “no lumps” as she says in the recipe. Not sure how smooth she really intends it to be anyway. Sometimes (if I didn’t chop my veggies small enough before cooking), I’ll puree 1/2 the finished batch in a food processor and mix it back together.
I like to use a grater for tomatoes, rather then peeling as Natalie says in the recipe (I learned this from the Greeks). It separates the skins from the pulp and maybe even avoids all those “lumps” that Natalie was worried about.
It’s delicious and I prefer the dark bread to be toasted…it holds up better for serving.
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