Christmas music: Snoopy vs. Red Baron(The Royal Guardsman)


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Christmas Music: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a popular Christmas carol but the version you hear today is not the original version. In 1793 Charles Wesley, the brother of Methodist Church founder John Wesley, wanted the tune to be slow and solemn. So it was a very different song people heard back then. In 1840, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate the invention of the printing press. English musician William H. Cummings adapted this cantata to fit the lyrics of  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing which is the carol known today. The YouTube video is a performance by Amy Grant with Art Garfunkel on her Christmas special in 1986. Amy Grant’s performance of this song is considered by many the strongest voices of this song in recent years. Enjoy!


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MasterChef Junior Season 2 Finale: Wrapping It All Up

MasterChef-Junior-LogoSeason 2 of MasterChef Junior concluded with its finale Tuesday night crowning the bow-tie wonder Logan as Masterchef Junior for 2014. It was quite a ride though the season was short (unlike the full run of regular Masterchef which spans six weeks or more). They really had some very talented kids this year making it worth watching. Once again there was no one really to hate and most of the kids were adorable. And once again many are amazed as to how talented these kids area. More on that later. In the finale we saw two very talented junior chefs take the stage, each cooking the best meal in their lives. They just had to convince Gordon, Graham, and Joe they were worthy of the title.

And it was not so easy at all. Both of them were exceptional so it came down to very fine technical points in the end. Was the sauce right or wrong? Did the flavors go well together or did the olives make it too strong? It was those kinds of things that the judges had to sort through because both, quite frankly, could win the award. They were that good. In the end they awarded the win to Logan. I have to admit he was my underdog in the challenge.When he decided to do the salted fish I was both amazed and shocked at his decision. It is not for the faint of heart but is something you see in Sicilian dishes and elsewhere in Italy. If you ever attend an Italian Christmas Eve Dinner you probably will see a large fish that was likely cooked that way. It is very delicious and worth the effort. But not for the squeamish either. The fact he pulled it off shows Logan’s boldness and it paid off.

This season had a lot of  bright, creative kids doing things in the kitchen that astounds many and raises questions I see all the time on the Internet. Is it staged? Do the kids get coached? Is it faked? My answer is no but these are not your normal kids either. If you go into any elementary, junior high, or high school and select a random number from each and ask them to roast a chicken, many might not know what to do. The reason for this success of this show is that they pick kids that are cooking at home. The parents may be foodies or old fashioned families that want the kids to learn how to cook (in the old days that is how cooking was learned). And so at an early age they are shown how to cook. Think about how that helps out down the road. You open up a cupboard and find canned beans, spam, tuna, and rice. In the fridge are some mushrooms, bell peppers and in the pantry some onions. A clever cook or chef will make use of those ingredients to produce a decent meal while someone else might just pop open a can of beans and warm it up.

The show is enjoyable to watch and clearly is winning viewers but it not toppling the competition either. According to TV By The Numbers Tuesday’s finale had 5.5 million viewers (live plus dvr recording) while a new episode of NCIS on CBS had 17.21 million viewers. Masterchef Junior came in second place. It beat out A Charlie Brown Christmas on ABC, another Christmas show on NBC, and a rerun of The Flash on CW. It will need to get a lot more viewers to topple CBS from the perch it now has on the 8-9 p.m. time slot. But the producers and schedulers are very confident in the show. So confident that season 3 will literally start on the heels of the last one and premiers on 6 Jan 2015 at 8 p.m. That seems odd to bunch them so close together like this. It is certainly a risky move and could backfire if people find more interesting things to watch.

There is also the danger of what I call déjà vu programming, When you run reality shows so close together, people might get tired of it thinking they are seeing the same thing all over again. After all, the danger for shows like Masterchef Junior is becoming formulaic lacking depth and breadth. Libby Hill over at Grub Street had this to say on this point:

The thing about both Logan and Samuel is not that they’re bad chefs or uninteresting boys. But the fascination they exhibit with the cooking process seems to be just that: a fascination with the process. It doesn’t seem like either of them really like food all that much. In other words, the finale of MasterChef Junior was missing any sense that the people involved loved food, and so a certain level of warmth was lost, too.

Her concern is that the show is more concerned with process less about the food itself. She has a point in that but regretfully in cooking shows of this kind, process is going to be desired. This is not a food science or food cooking show like on the old Food Network but a competition. Perhaps competitors will try to get that into their shows. Fox probably knows or expects that other networks might be looking at their own kids food shows to compete with Fox. Food Network probably has someone working on it right now and planning either Booby Fool or Gina Italian to handle it (Alton Brown is too grizzled looking like someone out of a Friday The 13th movie). Again people watching television make decisions: do I want to watch my favorite comedy/drama or watch kids cook like adults? So far millions are making the choice not to watch Masterchef Junior so running the shows nearly back-to-back makes little sense to me.  Time will tell on this one.

A problem I see is that fine line between adults and kids seems to becoming blurred on this show at times. I get the impression that while Gordon, Graham, and Joe treat these kids on one level as children, that it changes as the competition goes on. There is a shift and often comes as the challenges get more difficult and more suitable for adults. Like running a professional kitchen. It is one thing to have the adult contestants do a restaurant shift (and it is very tough on them)but to throw 8-12 year old kids into a professional kitchen seems unwise to me. I just wonder if some child experts out there will eventually start criticizing the show on these lines.

Masterchef Junior Season 2 Winner Logan Guleff Photo: Fox

Masterchef Junior Season 2 Winner Logan Guleff
Photo: Fox

At any rate, we wrap up this season with big congratulations to Logan. The bow-tied wonder proved he was the best. And more importantly shows bow ties are not a bad thing to wear anymore. And I look forward to eating in his restaurant one day (even if it is underwater!).



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Christmas Movies:A Christmas Carol

First Edition of A Christmas Carol With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843 Image: public domain

First Edition of A Christmas Carol With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843
Image: public domain

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol has been made into several movies and made-for-television productions. Most movies keep the basic story though make small changes that do not effect the overall story (there is one notable exception to this). The story of how a miserly man named Ebenezer Scrooge transforms from a cold-hearted man to one who cares and loves has been a favorite since it was published in 1843. His tale of redemption has become an important tale during the Christmas holiday. Although the novel does not deal with Christianity directly, its message is with important tenets of that faith: mercy, love, and redemption. His book, along with others, helped people realize the importance of Christmas and resulted in being a public holiday in just about every English speaking country in the world. And the word Scrooge has entered the vocabulary as someone who can be both mean and miserly during the Christmas season.

Most of the movies are decent and some are better than others. It is a subjective thing to decide which is better than the other. What it comes down to is whether they do a decent job of delivering the story with believable characters. And so here is my list Christmas Carol movies you might want to consider for the holidays.

1. Scrooge (1935)
This was the first sound version of the story starring Seymour Hicks as Scrooge. The major deviation is that none of the ghosts (Marley or any of the Christmas ghosts) are shown just the faces. Both Scrooge’s sister Fan and Fezziwig are left out as well. The movie is not bad but because copyright lapsed horribly butchered cuts are out there. An uncut version can be found at YouTube and you can also download it here.

2. A Christmas Carol (1938)
This has Reginald Owen playing Scrooge and Gene Lockhart (the judge in Miracle on 34th Street) playing Bob Cratchit (his wife Kathleen plays Cratchit’s wife). Owen plays Scrooge a lot lighter than other actors have done but gets the mannerisms and tempo of the character just right. It is easy to overplay Scrooge and make him unbelievably mean. Those with sharp eyes will recognize Leo G. Carroll as Marley’s Ghost, who played Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. A major deviation in this rendition is Cratchit is fired when he is with a gang of boys throwing snowballs at passersby. Unfortunately one of them is Scrooge.

3. A Christmas Carol (1951)
This was originally titled Scrooge in U.K and retitled A Christmas Carol for the U.S. While popular in Britain, it was not as well received here. Initially many critics panned it as grim and sombre although the performances were praised. Over the years that criticism has waned as the movie became more popular (again thanks to television syndication). Alistair Sim played Scrooge depicting him more grim and unpleasant than earlier treatments. The mood of the film goes between light and dark; images of happiness and images of loss and pain. A very good version of the tale and the one I often watch the most.

4. Scrooge (1970)
This is a musical adaptation of the story with Albert Finney as Scrooge. This is one of those either you like it or hate it because it is a musical. The music is good and Finney’s acting is superb (he got the Golden Globe for Best Actor for this role)but there are times when you wish it was not a musical as it detracts from the story. The trip to hell sequence was a major deviation from the story. An interesting take on the Dicken’s story worth a look (note some versions are edited because of the graveyard and hell scene were too scary for young audiences).

5. Rich Little’s Christmas Carol/Scrooge(1978)
This one man show for HBO is a treat as Little impersonates famous celebrities in the various roles in the story. Fun to watch but hard to find shown on television these days so you have either borrow from a library or purchase from Amazon. His impersonations are spot on and hilarious.

6. A Christmas Carol (1984)
This was a made-for-television movie that starred George C. Scott as Scrooge. It aired on CBS on 17 Dec 1984 and Scott was nominated for an Emmy for his performance. The movie is a fine telling of the story but does have some changes as noted here on Wikipedia. The changes add a bit more to the story and the only one to show Scrooge’s father. Scott’s depiction of Scrooge differed as well. He was not mean in the way others have portrayed him, but a ruthless and prosperous businessman. This is a personal favorite of mine at Christmas time. Watch the Alistair Sim version and this one for contrast. Both are the same story but with some added twists that do not detract one bit from the story.

7.  The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
This is another musical adaptation of the story but using Muppets along with live actors. Michael Caine plays Scrooge and does it well. And the movie follows the story closely but with the usual Muppet twist. You will see most of the Muppet cast in this movie (Kermit is Bob Cratchit) and the songs are pretty good as well. Alas when the movie was released it was in a sea of very popular movies resulting in box office receipts being not that good. But it mostly got a favorable reception from critics. While many will say it is not the best of the Christmas Carol movies out there, it is worth watching because of its humor and family-friendly telling of the story (no scenes of hell here!). And if you like the Muppets, it is certainly the movie you will probably like.

8.  A Christmas Carol (1999)
After portraying Scrooge on stage, Captain Jean Luc Picard Patrick Stewart does the same for the cable network TNT. The movie is based on the Alistair Sim movie and follows its grim and somber tone. While the story is fine I find Stewart’s depiction as the meanest Scrooge ever. Not one of my favorite adaptations.

Honorable Mentions
Scrooged (1988)
This is a comedic modern day retelling of the classic take starring Bill Murray as Frank Cross, a very cynical television executive. I will not spoil the tale here, watch it for yourself instead (note this movie is PG-13 and marketed to adults and not kids). It got a mixed reception from critics.

Ebbie (1995)
The is a gender-reversal of the tale with Susan Lucci (All My Children). Ebbie is the owner of Dobson’s store, mean to her employees, hates the Christmas holidays, and never gives to charity. So she ends up meeting her past, present, and future when the ghosts take her on tour. Surprisingly the story is good and the acting decent.


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Mystic Aquarium To End Titanic Exhibit

Image: Public Domain (NOAA)

Image: Public Domain (NOAA)

Back in October it was announced that Robert Ballard was ending his long term relationship with Mystic Aquarium. Ballard said the reason was to focus on other projects. Mystic Aquarium announced its discontinuance of the Titanic Exhibit on 5 Jan 2015. The exhibit opened in 2012 informs visitors about Titanic’s discovery and of Robert Ballard’s part in it. A new explorers exhibit, yet unnamed, will replace it in 2015.

Source:
Titanic Exhibit At Mystic Aquarium To Close(15 Dec 2014,CBS.local.com)




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Christmas Music: Carol of the Bells

Carol of the Bells originally came from the Ukraine likely based on a pre-Christian folk chant. It was introduced to Western audiences in the 1920’s and became a popular tune of the holiday. It usually is sung a capella (meaning no musical accompaniment) though there are many variations out there. The video, courtesy of Libera on YouTube, is from the dvd “Christmas In Ireland:Angels Sing.” You can shop for the dvd and cd at www.libera.org.uk/shop. Their music is also available through Amazon (cd and mp3). Please click on the appropriate Amazon image after the YouTube player. Enjoy.


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Titanic of The Golden Gate Revealed

City of Rio de Janeiro, 1898 Photo: public domain

City of Rio de Janeiro, 1898
Photo: public domain

On 22 February 1901, the SS City of Rio de Janeiro, inbound from Hong Kong in thick morning fog, struck rocks near Fort Point-close to where the now famous Golden Gate Bridge is located-and sank taking with her 128 of the 210 passengers and crew aboard.  The sinking was so sudden (due to the catastrophic nature of the damage on the underside) that a nearby lifesaving station was unaware of it for 2 hours. Fortunately fisherman rescued survivors but the captain, William Ward, went down with the ship. Most of the passengers were Chinese and Japanese immigrants but one notable passenger was  Rounsevelle Wildman, who was the US Consul General at Hong Kong enroute with his family to Washington D.C. for the innaguration of President William McKinley. He and his family were lost in the sinking. Due to the depth, it was impossible at the time to dive to the wreck. Rumors of gold or silver have persisted despite the cargo manifest showing 2,423 slabs of tin aboard. Bodies of the dead would wash up on the nearby shore for a few years including that of Captain Ward.

Credit: Coda Octopus/NOAA

Credit: Coda Octopus/NOAA

Most attempts to locate the wreck failed. One notable claim from 1931 was that it was located via submarine but the person making the claim later disappeared. In 1987 it was announced that it was found and a consortium named Seagamb Inc. would go down, look around, and see if the could find the rumored cargo of silver. While they initially got a permit it was revoked in 1990 because they did not live up to the terms specified. Another problem emerged more recently when another expedition sponsored the National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program (part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration or known simply as NOAA)to document shipwrecks around San Francisco Bay found a discrepancy in the wreck’s location. The 1980 coordinates differed from U.S. government sonar scans of the area. At any at the problem has been cleared up. And with newer technology much clearer scans of the wreck along with three dimensional images allow us to see this wreck as never before.

Sources:
1. First Images Of ‘Titanic Of The Golden Gate’ Revealed(11 Dec 2014,CNN)
2. Revealing the Secrets of “San Francisco’s Titanic” (NOAA)



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Today is Third Advent Sunday

3rd Advent Sunday

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Today is the feast of Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy)

Santa Lucia (St. Lucy)

Santa Lucia (St. Lucy)

Saint Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and eye disorders and her feast day used to coincide with the Winter Solstice which is the day often celebrated as a festival of light in many places. Many stories and legends have become associated with her but research has failed to substantiate many of them. It is known she lived in Sicily early in the fourth century and was persecuted and executed for her faith. One story that is likely true is that she was denounced as a Christian by a suitor after she turned him down because of her faith. She faced torture and death for her beliefs. Because it is believed she was blinded during Roman torture, she is the patron saint of the blind.

Her feast day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries as a festival of light during the long winter night. A young girl in a white dress and red sash carries palms and wears a wreath of candles on head. Special rolls or cookies are made for the day and often handed out to the elderly. It is also celebrated in parts of Italy particularly in Sicily and in many places of the world today. There are many churches dedicated to her and the island of Santa Lucia in the Caribbean is named for her.


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Science Friday Christmas Edition: Preserving Fruits and Nuts Through Fruitcake

Photo by Stu Spivack(Wikimedia Commons via Flickr)

Photo by Stu Spivack(Wikimedia Commons via Flickr)

We are the beneficiaries of wonderful technology that allows us to have produce, nuts, meats, and dairy year round. A trip to your basic grocery store shows the bounty we enjoy thanks to important developments in food technology both in its preparation and storage. In different times, you literally lived by the season. Food storage was limited to cellars, storing in jars, and even buried in the ground. In places with harsh winters, the necessity of food storage was essential to survive. Nuts and fruits would spoil during the winter so people had to come up with creative ways to keep them around longer. Aside from pickling, drying, or canning,baking cakes was also a popular way of doing this. Fruitcakes or variations of what we call it, had been around for a long time. The ancient Egyptians had a version and the Romans had festival cakes that led to panforte. The version most are familiar with is English style.

English style fruitcake is a dense cake often soaked in a liquid, usually alcohol, to keep it moist. Contrary to popular belief, a fruitcake does not last forever but properly taken care of will certainly last during the winter season. Spices were expensive back then so the rich could afford the more luxurious spices while most had to use what they could afford or find locally. Since most homes back then did not have ovens (the rich did of course), most everything was fried, boiled, or steamed. Anything that had dried fruit was called a plum pudding, which traditionally is served at Christmas. Then it evolved from this to the more current version of fruitcake known today. It became associated with the holiday (though it is often consumed at other times of the year as well) as it became a symbol for good luck and other things. It also had a practical use being a source for fruits and nuts during a time when they were not generally available.

Fruitcakes can vary in sizes, shapes, and ingredients. Today most fruitcakes are not that expensive but widely vary in quality. Often the best source are reputable bakers that make them with fresh ingredients and spices. Many of the industrial ones sold in discount stores are cheaply made. Alton Brown noted a telling fact in his examination of fruitcake: that it is the sum of its parts. Does not matter if you use the best and most expensive alcohol if one of your ingredients is dull or too sweet. Most of the industrial fruitcakes tend to be too sweet and earn the moniker of being called doorstops. But there are many bakers that create very fine fruitcakes. The blog Mondo Fruitcake takes a look at them and some of the best come from abbeys or monasteries where a religious order bakes them as income. A long time ago Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma)discovered a fruitcake made by the Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri. He liked it so much that he put into the Christmas catalog (others now carry it as well) and increasing their popularity so much they do not advertise anymore. That is how much they sell at Christmas time but they make them year round (they take a break in January from all the baking!). And it points out that well made fruitcakes are still part of the Christmas tradition.

So when you see a fruitcake, remember it comes from a time needing to preserve fruits and nuts during the winter months. And how much has changed for the better with refrigeration and modern storage techniques.


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