Monday, July 26, 2010

The Class: Casablanca

Borani Laboo (Beet & Yogurt Dip) with Pita Chips
Sultan’s Tajine (Chicken Tajine w/Preserved Lemons and Sultanas)
Whole Wheat Couscous with Toasted Almonds and Dried Cranberries
Moroccan Mint Tea Sorbet

The inaugural “Chef du Cinema” class was a huge success. I want to thank all the folks who showed up as well as the Central Market Cooking School (especially Meredith, Scott and Louis) for helping to make it all happen and go so smoothly. We were sold out and everyone left satiated and happy.

Unfortunately, this is the only picture I took. Next time, I promise food pics.

As I began the class, if you haven’t seen Casablanca, skip to the recipes if you want, ‘cause there’s going to be some spoilers here!  What follows are excerpts of my presentation regarding the movie, the food, and even some world history.


"It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by."

Casablanca began life as an unproduced theatrical play entitled Everybody’s Comes to Rick's written by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. Warner Brothers bought it for $20,000, the largest sum ever paid then for an unproduced play. They bought it in December 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

While some people like to note that Ronald Reagan was at one time considered to play Rick, in actuality he was only mentioned in one press release right after the play was bought. He was never seriously considered for the role. It might be assumed that since Reagan was getting ready to ship off for his stint in the military, Warners may have planted that story in case they wanted him around a few extra weeks for some other project. Almost immediately, Bogart was the guy producer Hal Wallis wanted to star in the production which was now renamed Casablanca.

In the play, the Ilsa character is an American named “Lois Maxwell” and she’s, well, basically she’s what they called then, a “tramp.” She had cheated on Rick in Paris, and now cheats on Laszlo with Rick. The main thrust of the play is the plight of the Bulgarian couple who are trying to leave Casablanca, who became a very minor subplot in the movie. Laszlo isn’t a hero of the underground, but rather a wealthy financier whom the Germans (Col Strasser) will permit to leave only if he turns over his bank accounts to the Nazi government. In the end, Rick is arrested by Strasser & Renault (of the local Police) after helping Ilsa & Laszlo leave with the letters of transit.

As you can see, the screenwriters made a lot of changes to the original play. The first writers on board were the team of Julius & Philip Epstein. The brothers Epstein had recently finished writing The Bride Came C.O.D. (starring Cary Grant & Bette Davis) as well as doing some uncredited rewriting on Yankee Doodle Dandy, the film which director Mike Curtiz was finishing up before taking the reigns of Casablanca. However, the Epsteins had also taken an assignment with director/producer Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) to write for his Why We Fight? series for the US Government. Soon enough, they had decided to turn the slutty Lois Maxwell into the mysterious foreigner Ilsa Lund.

Besides the Epsteins, two other writers were brought in - Howard Koch (Sergeant York) and Casey Robinson (Now, Voyager). Koch developed the characters and the Epsteins kept developing the humor. Robinson, who didn’t receive screen credit, worked on the romance aspect and the ending.

The character of Sam had always been written as not just Rick’s employee, but his confidante & friend. This was a bit of a problem for Hollywood as Americans, especially in the South, mostly didn’t want to see black actors at all on the screen. Producer Hal Wallis, however, was very firm about wanting a non-stereotyped black for the role. Though at one point, they considered changing the character to a woman and thought about Ella Fitzgerald or Lena Horne. Nevertheless, Wallis had been impressed by Dooley Wilson, whom he had seen perform in several plays directed by Orson Welles (Citizen Kane). Also, Dooley wasn’t a piano player, he was a drummer. He just mimicked the piano playing in his scenes.

As the story goes - while directing Casablanca, director Mike Curtiz (who had a thick Hungarian accent and was renowned for his mangling of English) kept going on and on about wanting a “black poodle” for a street scene. A big black poodle. The prop people ran around trying to find a big black poodle. Eventually they did and when it arrived on the set Curtiz was flummoxed. “What the hell is this?” It’s the poodle you wanted. “What do I want with a dog? I said I wanted a poodle – a big poodle of water in the street....”

The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards - best picture, actor, supporting actor (Claude Rains), director, screenplay, cinematography, film editing, and score. Ingrid Bergman was nominated for best actress but for For Whom the Bell Tolls. In the end it won 3 - screenplay, director, and best picture.


For us non-history buffs, why did Casablanca become this place where life is cheap? What happened was that Southern France, including Algeria & Morocco were considered a “free zone” of sorts. As the movie itself explains in the opening (skip to 1:10 in the video), from July 1940 to late 1941, for those Western Europeans seeking to escape the Nazis, going thru Southern France, into Algeria and then into Morocco in the hopes of getting eventually to Lisbon and then to America was the best way to go. Heading through Spain was very difficult, even though Spain was neutral, they were a war torn country having just gone through their Civil War. There were still areas fighting amongst each other, and foreigners in general, and Jews in particular, weren't too anxious about crossing through. Spain wasn’t at all equipped to deal with a slew of refugees and/or travelers, nor were they excited about pissing off the Nazis. Going to Sweden or Switzerland came with its own problems in that it was nearly impossible to leave once there. So those who went to Casablanca had made it as far as one could go to almost get to out of the war zone. Now if you had an entry visa to another country (Canada, Mexico or the US, for example) you could get through without much hassle, but those without were stuck hoping to somehow get such an entry visa. The Jews suffered the worst as they fled Germany because in the beginning they had to leave with no money or belongings by law. Soon later, they couldn't leave at all.

Lisbon was the port of choice, because by this time the only ships were crossing the Atlantic were pretty much Portuguese ships. Lisbon had become the refugee capital of Europe.

It should also be noted that President Roosevelt waffled between pro-Vichy or pro-Gaullist support, so there was some concern by the Office of War Information (whose job it partially was to make sure American movies made our allies look good and our enemies look bad) over how the Vichy government comes off in the movie. They also thought it took too long for Rick to commit to "the cause" which would have pretty much ended the movie an hour early.


Moroccan food is a mix of several influences – Persian, then the Moors, who brought many foods and dishes from their years in Spain including agricultural skills and the love of olive oil. When the Moors were finally kicked out of Spain in 1492, also came with them were thousands of Jews who brought skills of preserving fruit & pickling. Later, Ottomans brought grilling & BBQ skills. And finally the French, with their pastries, confections, and fine wine.

Sultanas: The sultana was "invented" when a famous Sultan left his grapes in the sun after fleeing a tiger attack. You are free to believe this story or not, yet it was folklore of its time.

The sultana grape is known in the United States as the Thompson Seedless – almost all California raisins are produced from the Thompson Seedless grape. What makes some dark and others light has to do with different drying processes.

Cinnamon: The spice routes were long controlled by Muslim Arabs who were prone to invent stories to protect their precious sources. Cinnamon was said to come from the nests of large dangerous birds. The story retold by Herodotus, the Greek historian, that the birds would be tempted to take large chunks of meat to their nests left by the “cinnamon herders.” The nests, because of the weight of the meat, would break off and the men would gather the sticks below.

Borani Laboo (Beet & Yogurt Dip)
adapted from Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serve 8-12 as an appetizer

2 Cups Plain Low-Fat Yogurt, drained
6-8 Small Beets (or 1 can of whole beets, drained)
1 Clove Garlic, crushed with a pinch of salt
2 1/2 Tablespoons Fresh Lemon Juice
Salt & Pepper, to taste
3 Tablespoons Tahini
1 Pinch Sugar, optional
Sprigs of Fresh Mint, for garnish, optional
Pita Chips, for dipping

Drain the yogurt.

(If using canned beets, skip these next steps.) Cut off all but 1 inch of the beet stalks and leave the roots intact. Rinse the beets well but do not peel. Cook the beets in boiling salted water until tender, 25 to 35 minutes. Drain, slip off the skins under cold running water, and cut away the root ends and stalks.

When cooled, coarsely grate the beets, using the large holes of a hand grater. (Wear a smock to ensure you won’t spoil your clothes with stray beet juice!)

Combine the garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Add the beets, yogurt, and tahini and mix well. Taste and add a pinch of sugar if desired. Transfer to a serving dish, cover and refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour. Garnish with sprigs of fresh mint just before serving.

Vincent's Casablanca Page
IMDB Casablanca Page
TCM's Casablanca Page
Casablanca as Great Art by Lucius Furius
Casablanca Piano Man was Tyler Native, by Melissa Crowe @

CASABLANCA COMPANION: The Movie Classic and Its Place in History
The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II
Casablanca (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

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