Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

What to eat, read and watch while you’re quarantined

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Part 1

My survival kit includes Toll House cookies, good mystery novels and classic noir films

 

I’m a slow learner.  But yesterday I dredged up useful cooking tips from a silt-laden inlet of my brain to help me turn out a batch of Toll House cookies.  They are the quintessential homemade comfort sweet to help you through the days ahead.  Chocolate is a mood enhancer; dark chocolate contains antioxidants.  So let’s talk cookies. 

While I’m at it, I will recommend some good mysteries I’ve been reading and offer a few words about streaming noir. Here is my survival guide, a delicious tonic for your confined isolation and a supplement to the daily dose of numbers TV news so efficiently serves you.

Chocolate chip cookies are as American as baseball, which regrettably is on hiatus, and they’ve been a hit since 1937 when Ruth Graves Wakefield accidentally invented them. She and her husband Kenneth started the Toll House Inn near New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1930s. According to the Facts About Chocolate website, Mrs. Wakefield wanted to bake chocolate cookies one day but didn’t have any Baker’s chocolate.  Substituting, she chopped up a Nestle semi-sweet chocolate bar and stirred it into her dough.  The chocolate was supposed to melt and spread throughout the dough.  It didn’t, and the chocolate chip cookie was born.   

Unfortunately for Mrs. Wakefield, in 1939 she sold the recipe to Nestle for $1, according to a 2013 New Yorker article, although she became a paid consultant for Nestle, published successful cookbooks and her Toll House name will forever be attached to the cookie.

As to the recipe, it has no doubt changed over the years, but the one you find on the back of the yellow Nestle semi-sweet morsels package can hardly be improved upon.  As we live at 5,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I modify most cookie recipes for the altitude and I occasionally experiment with different recipes, but for Toll House, I stick to the package.  It even includes perfect high-altitude adjustments. Be sure to stir in pecans.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things to make the chocolate chip baking experience a little easier—mainly on the clean-up. Having baked these addicting treats for more years than I care to admit, improvements in my technique sadly have come but slowly. 

One recent revelation involves the annoyance of being showered by flour dust as you add dry ingredients to the butter, sugar and eggs in a running mixer.  I figured out—all on my own—that if you stop the mixer, pour in some of the flour mixture and use a spoon to cover it with the batter already in the bowl, you can start beating again without the snow storm.

My second epiphany: parchment. Even though I use insulated cookie sheets to prevent burning, Toll House cookies sometimes stick. Simple solution: put a sheet of baking parchment on the cookie sheet.  The cookies will slide right off the sheet.  I realize this is not a culinary secret known only to an exclusive set of Cordon Bleu pastry chefs, but for someone who bakes just two or three times a year, it was a breakthrough.  One tip that might be a little less than a century or two old:  get a non-stick silicone baking mat. 

After you’ve eaten half the batch of chocolate chip cookies, even before you’ve pulled the last cookie sheet out of the oven, you might want a change of pace.  (Full disclosure: I have eaten about seven—no, maybe eight cookies—in the time it took me to write this.)  The change of pace I recommend is one of the easiest cookie recipes I’ve ever seen. I received the recipe for these delicious treats from my daughter in law, Brandi.  Taste them and you won’t believe there’s only three ingredients—and that they are so easy to make:

Brandi’s Peanut Butter Cookies

Ingredients:
1 egg
1 cup of peanut butter – crunchy style optional
1 cup sugar

Mix all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes or until they are light brown.  As they cool on a rack, the cookies will become firm. I’ve been using massively rounded teaspoonfuls to make a good-sized cookie.

Now that you’re getting comfy with a plate of cookies and milk, (or tea or coffee), the next step is a good book.  My reviews include Where the Crawdads Sing, a sort-of mystery; The Zebra Striped Hearse, an oldie from one of the masters of the PI genre; a chilling story of contagion from a Nobel-winning author; an unabridged-dictionary-size collection of short noir, and more. 

The next episode of my survival guide will arrive in this space tomorrow.

Links:

A history of the chocolate-chip cookie, The New Yorker  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/sweet-morsels-a-history-of-the-chocolate-chip-cookie

Facts About Chocolate  https://facts-about-chocolate.com/history-of-chocolate-chip-cookies/

Nestle chocolate chip cookie recipe  https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/174864/original-nestle-toll-house-chocolate-chip-cookies/

Rock music: setting a tone for murder?

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The Marijuana Murders

Nostalgia City, the theme park setting for the mysteries in this series, is a 1970s town complete with period cars, clothes, hairstyles, music, fashions, food, fads—the works.  One of the most important of those elements is music.  In The Marijuana Murders (as in the previous Nostalgia City books) I use the names of real songs (and artists) to establish the decades-past setting of the park and sometimes to contribute to the mood of individual scenes or chapters.

It helps if you remember some of the songs or at least recognize the names of the old singers and groups.  Recollection of the music can help you slip into the ambiance of a scene, and nowhere is music more important to a setting than in Chapter 3 when Kate walks into the park’s famous headshop.  Imagine the aroma of incense, the fluorescent glow of psychedelic posters, and the sound of Ravi Shankar’s sitar.

In this book, Lyle has chosen a few bars of Chuck Mangione for his cell phone ringer.  He uses an upbeat section of Mangione’s Grammy-nominated “Feels So Good” from 1977.  Lyle must have chosen the selection on a particularly bright day considering the grief he faces in the novel.

Two other notable songs from the book are “Treat her Like a Lady by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose and “Take It to the Limit” by the Eagles.  It’s the rhythm of the former song that sets a pace in a later chapter and the lyrics of the latter song that more accurately reflect Lyle’s general feelings.

The books ends with the light touch of Olivia Newton-John singing “Magic.” The song sat at #1 on Billboard’s pop chart for four weeks in 1980. Other groups and artists mentioned include The Village People, Barry White, The Monkees, The Who, Captain and Tennille, and The Animals. 

Finally, to get into the retro spirit of the book, try to remember these oldies, also mentioned:  “Along Comes Mary” – The Association, “Puff the Magic Dragon” – Peter, Paul and Mary, “Maggie Mae” – Rod Stewart.

Heard any good books lately?

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How a talented author/actor gives his PI a voice

Red Desert (An Eddie Collins Mystery Book 2)
Clive Rosengren
Coffeetown Press   186 pages
September 2017
Audible $17.95, Kindle $5.95, Trade paperback $14.95

I have mixed feelings about audio books.  They’re convenient when you’re driving, flying, walking or doing something that precludes reading.  The spoken words of a good actor or announcer can carry you away as when you’re engrossed in the printed page.  But sometimes the narrators sound as if they were auditioning for a Broadway play and their intonations  overwhelm the story.   This can be especially true of male actors doing female voices and vice versa. 

Another popular option for recorded books is to have the author read.  Authors know where their stories should speed up or slow down and which words require emphasis.  But authors are not trained announcers.  Some do a remarkably good job, others, not so much.  I recently listened to a book read by an acclaimed Australian author.  His heavy down-under accent added authenticity, but you had to listen closely to catch every word.

Now comes Clive Rosengren and his Eddie Collins mysteries.  Rosengren is a retired actor, Ed Wood, Soapdish, Seinfeld, Cheers, who writes PI novels.  A good combination for an audio book?  I read his debut mystery, Murder Unscripted.  It’s original, engaging and funny. So when I faced a long driving trip and thought about listening to a book, I downloaded Rosengren’s Red Desert from Audible. 

Rosengren reads the book like he wrote it. Because he did.  The first person point of view, common for PI novels, lets Rosengren talk directly to us as Collins.  He often sounds as if he’s telling us a story, recounting something that’s happening to him, rather than reading a book.  He renders the voices of the various other characters with enough difference in tone or pitch—and sometimes speed—so you know someone else is talking, but he doesn’t try to do impressions like Dana Carvey. 

Actors reading others’ books can recognize an argument or fight scene and ramp up the vocal tension, but an author who wrote the novel should have a good idea of how to voice the entire book.  Thus, for example, Rosengren is able to deliver Collins’ offhand observations and asides with the appropriate deadpan or enthusiasm depending on the circumstances.

And the story here is not beside the point.  It is the point.  Collins is a part-time Hollywood actor who started a detective agency to supplement his on-again, off-again show business career.

When someone breaks into the home of Mike Ford, a top leading man, Ford’s girlfriend is killed—drowned in the swimming pool—and the actor’s Oscar is stolen.  Ford taps his friend Collins for help.   He shows Collins anonymous, threatening letters he’s received and says he has no idea who might have sent them or what the motive might have been.

Collins’ investigation takes him from his Hollywood office to Venice, Calif., a seaside suburb developed after the turn of the 20th century with canals serving as residential streets. 

As Collins tries to determine why Ford is being hounded, a fire is burning in the San Gabriel mountains above LA. “A bloodshot moon hovered over Burbank. The air was pungent with the smell of smoke from fires burning in the hills—a yearly occurrence.”  The fire casts a pall over the city and colors the story.

During his investigation, Collins comes across Reggie, an old Army buddy who is now homeless and on the street.  Collins tries to rehabilitate his old friend, offering him a job doing surveillance on the case.  Reggie turns out to be one of the strong, likable support characters in the book in addition to Collins’ secretary, Mavis.

One thread in the case leads Collins to Red Desert, a film Ford directed and starred in.  Ford recalls his remake of a 1949 pot boiler as a “tough shoot: heat, script problems, casting snafus, you name it.”   

When Reggie is watching Ford’s home, a photograph he snaps turns into a valuable clue. Then things get hot. As the fire rages in the mountains, an assault and a kidnapping raise the stakes and Collins and Reggie find themselves on the defensive.

The affable Collins with his porkpie hat and lack of tech savvy is a PI with a sense of humor and a knowledge of Hollywood he uses to good effect.  Following him and Reggie around is a kick, and Red Desert is a delight that will keep you entertained from start to finish.

—————

Clive Rosengren was an actor for nearly 40 years, 18 of them pounding many of the same streets as does his fictional actor/PI Eddie Collins.  Rosengren is a multiple Shamus Award nominee by the Private Eye Writers of America.  His other Eddie Collins books include Murder Unscripted, Martini Shot and Velvet on a Tuesday Afternoon. He lives in southern Oregon.

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