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    Saturday, January 30, 2010
     
    She Could Cook and Act



    As you may know by now I like to collect cookbooks. I got an early start thanks to reading our local paper, the Los Angeles Times, which for many years (though it's not as good these days) had a wonderful food and cooking section. One of the Times' great strengths was its ability to draw on the L.A. Public Library's wonderfully detailed cookbook collection. It was thanks to the Times that I first read about one of the all-time great celebrity cookbooks, ZaSu Pitts' Candy Hits. Most celebrity cookbooks are mediocre, a here-today-and-gone-tomorrow collection of ordinary recipes with famous people's names attached to them as if by glue. ZaSu Pitts actually was a candymaking enthusiast - and I mean candy cooked the old-fashioned way, with a candy thermometer, the kind where you had to pay attention to "soft crack stage" and "hard crack stage" if you wanted your candy to turn out edible. Her cookbook also contains a fair amount of autobiographical detail, which is especially interesting today: she started her career during the era of silent movies. In a stroke of luck she, an unknown actress, was cast to play Mary Pickford's sister due to their resemblance; she never looked back. She played in Hal Roach comedies for years and then graduated to character roles once sound pictures came in. If you remember her at all you will probably remember her as the spinster aunt in Life With Father (starring William Powell).

    The chapter she wrote on chocolate dipping is both funny and educational, especially when describing her failed first attempt to work with chocolate. Chocolate is a temperamental ingredient to work with and she makes no bones about it (quote: "Chocolate is the devil incarnate.") No cheating with paraffin for her. Her list of ten lessons for mastering chocolate dipping begins as follows: "1. Pray." By a stroke of luck she wound up taking candymaking lessons with the staff of Littlejohn's Candies in the Los Angeles Farmer's Market - the store is still there, and I think of Pitts every time I walk past it.

    I found this interesting piece of trivia on Ms. Pitts from the IMDb website: When the "Thimble Theatre" comic strip became the "Popeye" animated cartoon series, the producers used ZaSu's hand-wringing and nervous speech pattern to characterize the on-screen persona of "Olive Oyl."

    This means that when Shelley Duvall was playing Olive Oyl in the film version of Popeye, she was actually imitating ZaSu Pitts. I wonder if she knew that? What a pleasing irony for Pitts to have her trademark acting style pop up onscreen fifty years later.

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    By Blogger Dr. Alice, at February 21, 2010 at 8:23:00 PM PST  

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