Wednesday, December 22, 2010

TV Bites: A Christmas Story

Chinese Turkey aka Peking Duck

Being raised Jewish, I never celebrated Christmas in any way, shape, or form. I can only understand it the way a cultural anthropologist might. Dahlia Lithwick wrote an article in Slate a few years ago covering the issue of how Jewish parents deal with Christmas, and especially Christmas TV specials. Like she describes, I didn’t watch Christmas TV specials growing up. They weren’t “illegal” to watch, we just never watched them because we didn’t relate to them. Never really thought about them. It was one of those things we just didn’t take part in.

But A Christmas Story isn’t so much about Christmas, as it’s about being a kid trying to make his way through life. The "every" kid, you might say. I also share a deep love for this movie because I was a child of Jean Shepherd.

Not by genealogy, but you see, when I was 14, my family moved from the city to the suburbs and I was lost in this new world. As I forged my way through suburbia, I figured out something real quick-like. I wasn't particularly taken by it. But I was stuck in it. And then I discovered Shep. I would listen to him religiously. And the world of Flick, Scott Farkus, et al became my home away from home where I could retreat to five nights a week on WOR radio. Shep was a grown-up, like the best grown-up you could ever know who told you, man to man, great tales of the things you needed to know to be a grown-up, or maybe just to survive the grown-up world and still be a kid. With A Christmas Story, Bob Clark made one of the most faithful film adaptations of a work of literature as ever there has been. Yes, I just said that. It’s up there for me because it completely captures the spirit of those late night tales of Shep. The great writer/cartoonist Jules Feiffer once said, "Listening to [Shepherd] was like a religious experience." He was my hero, role model, and a virtual mentor. He made it much more tolerable in those years.

I got to see him live during one of his college shows. I ran in front of him with my Instamatic camera to take a photo. He kicked me away, the bastard. But I didn’t care. "I was going to grow up and be just as much of a curmudgeon someday", I told myself, planting a seed then that would grow right along side me. I sat rapt in the school auditorium, listening to his words, watching him tell his stories face to face - amongst a couple of hundred others. But that was his gift, he always sounded like he was talking directly to you. And he got me thinking that I wanted to be a storyteller too.

You can watch A Christmas Story on its annual TBS 24-hour Marathon on December 24. Or on Demand @ Amazon. And it is for rent from Netflix.


"Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid year revolved...."

The film's director and co-screenwriter Bob Clark tells a story, on the 20th Anniversary edition DVD, of how he first discovered Jean Shepherd, which is really a riff on how almost everyone I've known stumbled upon him.

I first turned on to Shepherd when I was in Miami, where I was living at the time, around 1968. I was driving through Coconut Grove and he started to tell the story [on the radio] about the tongue sticking to the light pole. I was going to pick up a date and I said ‘My God, this is wonderful.’ I had never heard of him. ‘I gotta hear this. Maybe I’ll just drive around the block.’ Well, he took forty minutes to tell THAT story of the tongue and I picked up a very irate date who didn’t give a crapola who Jean Shepherd was. And I determined at that time that someday I will do a movie of this man’s work.

Eventually, he took steps to make good on that promise, but it took some added determination to get Shepherd to talk to him. “Finally, he agreed to meet with me," Clark said. "We sat down and worked on a treatment, totally unsolicited, with no support. I paid Jean a little money, something like $1000. It was all I had, and I think he knew it. Thirteen years later, after I'd done Porky’s, and could pretty much do what I wanted to do, I said 'I won’t work until I can do A Christmas Story.' [The studio] basically said, ‘Give him the money.’

What he and Shepherd did was cobble together several of Shepherd's published and unpublished stories about young Ralphie (Shepherd's fictional self) into the film. It was shot on a pretty tight budget and schedule in both Toronto and Cleveland. An enterprising couple of fans sells a DVD of their search to visit all the film's locations. If that's too much traveling, you can just make a pilgrimage to the house in Cleveland used for the exteriors which another enterprising fan bought & furnished the interiors to match the film. They also run an annual convention where you can meet some of the actors, and shoot BB rifles in the backyard. (The guy who owns the house, also sells replicas of the leg lamp on his website. Did I say “leg lamp?” Because you can also get a leg lamp tapestry throw blanket as well as a leg lamp door knocker.)

Clark said he originally wanted Jack Nicholson to play the "Old Man," but is so glad he didn't as Darren McGavin's performance was dead on. He also said he hesitated casting Peter Billingsley to play Ralph because he seemed "too obvious," but after seeing other kid actors he decided to stop fighting his gut and gave the part to Billingsley, who is still in show business producing little projects with his buddies Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn.

Although for the most part, the kids had a lot of fun working on the film together, it was still work. Scott Schwartz, who played Flick, explained what it was like having your tongue stuck to a flagpole. "The pole itself was plastic and it had a hole where they had put a vacuum tube. The motor was buried in the snow so you couldn't hear it; they turned it on and it was just like putting your mouth over a vacuum cleaner. There were several takes where I pulled off because I tried to stand a little too far away from the pole."

"We shot it for about 12 hours the first time," he continued, "which was actually my first day of shooting on the film. But when it was developed it turned out too dark, so we had to go back to Cleveland and re-shoot it. The second shoot took a little less time -- it was only 11 hours! And it was really, really cold."

The film had a limited initial release, only playing for four weeks preceding Christmas, and only in a few theaters during Christmas. It built up a small cult following once the home video market began, and some cable network screenings in the late 1980's helped. But it was in 1997, when TBS began its annual 24-hour Marathon did the film really explode into the American consciousness.

Ten years after its release, Clark took a shot at a sequel which is known both as A Summer Story and It Runs in the Family. It is generally considered to be a flop. PBS, however, developed some other Shepherd stories, including The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, in which a teenaged Ralph was played by Matt Dillon. There was also a theatrical play adaptation of A Christmas Story which has become an annual event in some places.


Jean Shepherd of WOR in New York regards radio as a new medium for a new kind of novel that he writes nightly. The mike is his pen and paper. His audience and their knowledge of the daily events provide his characters, his scenes, and moods.... [H]e is the first to use radio as an essay and novel form for recording our common awareness of a totally new world of universal participation in all human events, private or collective,” wrote the great Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, the first and still important study of mass media and how it has and continues to change us, published in 1964.

[He is t]he inventor of free-form radio, shtik radio, hip radio... [H]e was an artist and an innovator, and one of the tiny handful of radio geniuses ever to exist,” wrote journalist Daniel Pinkwater in a remembrance of Shepherd in the New York Times Magazine.

But why I happen to be able to pull it out of my vast Kodachrome file - busted-up slides of memory, is because, one it happens to be my profession,” Shepherd once said. “You know, my job, the work that I’ve chosen in life, is mostly, totally, introspection - and then transmitting it out. That’s what an artist does, really. He pulls things out of his memory and his - and his perceptive nerve endings, and he tries to pour it into some form where he can tell the other people - see what ‘it’ is? It’s what Norman Mailer does, it’s what all people who attempt to interpret life do - whether they’re doing it on the radio, or television, or movies, newsreels, sculpture, or scratching in the sand... or writing dirty words on the subway. They’re all trying to say - ‘it.’ Whatever ‘it’ is. Nobody can quite grab a hold of it and say why they say it, but they do - and that’s it.

I’m not sure I can add to that. But the line between the real Jean Shepherd and his radio persona remains somewhat of a mystery. No one seemed to ever know where one ended and the other began.

According to the NY Times, "Accounts differ on when Jean Shepherd was born. It was either July 21 or July 26, from 1921 to 1929." Though it's been established, Shepherd actually grew up in the town of Hammond, Indiana, spitting distance from Chicago. He became a fan of ham radio as a kid and segued into commercial radio as an adult. He got fired more than once in his early days on the radio for talking too much and not playing enough music.

He would often say to his audience that his stories were true, but I think what he meant by "true" is not literal truth, but another kind of truth. Apparently, the NY Times had one of his books on their nonfiction best seller list and Shepherd insisted they switch it to the fiction list.

"I take people out of my past or I put them and use them as composite characters just as any good writer would," he said. "You don’t write in a vacuum. And Flick, Schwartz, and Brunner are real people. I used real names, but they’re not really exactly like they are in the stories."

Elsewhere he's quoted to have said, “You can be really truthful when you’re talking into a faceless microphone instead of a living individual....”

One gets the sense, though, he was never truly happy with his accomplishments, as great as they were to his fans. He often said he came to New York to do radio (he spent 21 years on WOR) as a stepping stone to a Broadway career. And while later he had two television series, Jean Shepherd's America and Shepherd's Pie, he never became the actor he probably dreamed about from when he was just a kid. Hopefully, he came to appreciate the passion people have and inspiration people have gotten from his works. Many people saw him as, and he might well have agreed to this description, as ajazz musician with words.”

He pulled one of most amazing (and maybe the first?) media jamming pranks in the mid-1950's. He learned that the NY Times Best Seller List at the time was not based on sales, but on requests. Shepherd told his late night audience - he dubbed them "the night people" - his gospel: "At 3:00 am the people who believe in lists are asleep. These are the people who get all the latest hit show tickets. Anyone still up at 3 am secretly has some doubts. There are only two kinds of people. Us and Them. And they don't know that we exist!" He then led a charge for them to go to bookstores and ask for a title "I, Libertine." This book did not exist. But they did even more than that. Stories were planted in celebrity columns and written up in Time magazine and more. The Catholic Church of Boston banned the nonexistent book. Eventually it was on bestseller lists all over the world.

Friends would call to tell me that they’d met people at cocktail parties who claimed to have read it,” Shepherd wrote. “One of the professors at Rutgers casually mentioned the book at a Sunday literary meeting and somebody present said he’d just finished it. When pressed, he was evasive about the plot.”

Finally, it was exposed by the Wall St. Journal. Though Shepherd had the last laugh, teaming up with sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon to write an actual book... which became a bestseller. They gave all the profits to charity.

A prolific writer, he wrote regularly over the years for publications including the Village Voice, Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, The Realist, and Playboy (including a 1965 interview with the Beatles). Yes, I actually bought Playboy to read the articles.... a couple of times.

And with that in mind, let me close with this quote by fellow reporter of the human condition Paul Krassner: "My idea of a hot date would be to find a girl who also liked Shepherd and lie in bed with her all night listening to Shepherd." That's more than a statement, I think that's a prayer.


"That Christmas would live in our memories as the Christmas we were introduced to Chinese turkey. All was right in the world."

It's a very well established fact - that has even been put to song - Jews eat Chinese food for Christmas. Yes, we do. That's a fact.

In fact, it was recently mentioned on the floor of the US Senate during Elena Kagan's confirmation hearing to become a Supreme Court Judge:

SEN. LINDSAY GRAHAM: No, I just asked you where you were at on Christmas? (Laughter.)
MS. ELENA KAGAN: (Laughs.) You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.
SEN. GRAHAM: Great answer. Great answer.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: If I might.... No other restaurants are open.

Ah, our great politicians asking the tough questions and doing the work of the people.

Peking Duck, now Beijing Duck, was once known as Nanking Duck. The Chinese have roasted duck for centuries (though not until recent times, it was strictly consumed by the emperors and their friends), with the earliest written recipe dating back to 1330. Traditionally, the ducks are forced-fed, but if you really want to get technical, the traditional written recipe was 15,000 words long, though a lot of that were instructions on building and preparing the kind of oven, including which tree's wood should be used for cooking. Chefs had to take a one year class devoted exclusively to this one dish. But in the 15th century, when the capital was moved from Nanking to Beijing, the ducks, who were the star ingredient in this favored dish of the Imperial Court, were packed up and relocated.

And now it gets really interesting. According to the Oxford Companion of Food:

"The story goes that the transfer of the capital from Nanjing to Peking brought unexpected results for the duck which lived along side the canal used for grain supplies. These ducks, which like the Nanjing ducks were mallard ducks, were now able to feast on grains which fell overboard from barges, and they gradually became larger. In the course of time there evolved a new variety of duck, not only larger but plumper, and with white plumage."

Quite the journey, wouldn't you say? Oh, but there's more.

Now in America, the major breed of duck consumed is known by two names - Pekin duck (no, leaving the "g" out is not a typo) and Long Island duck, since they were first raised on Long Island (New York).

According to the Official Suffolk County, New York website, the Long Island duck is not a native bird. On the contrary, they are, in fact, survivors of a slow boat from China. Yessir. In 1873, "legend has it," a gentleman named Ed McGrath was quite taken by the ducks he saw in Peking and somehow managed to procure 25 eggs. "He took these eggs with him to Shanghai, had them incubated and raised from them 15 ducks." He then paid one James Palmer to transport the birds back to Long Island. Only nine survived the 124-day journey. Palmer delivered five of the eggs to McGrath's family (but with apparently no instruction from McGrath, the family cooked and ate them). The remaining four Palmer kept, and... so -- believe it or not -- all the Long Island ducks in your supermarket are descendants of those four seafaring mallards.

And so, Merry Happy Whatever You Celebrate. And as always... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Chinese Turkey aka Peking Duck
adapted from Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4-6

1 4-5 lb. duck (if frozen, make sure to thaw thoroughly)
4 cups water
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (not the thin stuff)
2/3 cup Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 large lemon, cut in 1/4" slices
1 teaspoon sesame oil
flour tortillas, chopped scallions, and hoisin and/or plum sauces, for accompaniment

Wash and pat duck dry. Give it a little massage to loosen up the skin. If you've got the meat hooks and a place to hang the duck, by all means do so. I didn't, so I put it on a rack, set in a baking pan.

The next step is to make your scalding mixture. Mix water, honey, rice wine, soy sauce, and lemon in a pot and bring to boil. Let boil for a few minutes, then reduce to a simmer for 20-25 minutes.

Again, with this next step - what works best for you. What you want to do is baste, coat the duck with the mixture (still hot). If you can hang the duck, do so, with a pot/pan underneath to catch the mixture as you ladle it. Another technique is simply to hold the duck over the sink with a pot in the sink and then have a friend do the ladleling. I kept the duck on the rack over the pan and ladled that way. Halfway I turned the duck upside down and then a bit on the sides too. Drain mixture from the pan, if using one.

Now, one method is to hang the duck (with something to catch drippings) in a cool place in your kitchen (you could turn on a fan to help dry the duck and accelerate the process so it might only take 4 hours). Another is to figure out a way to hang it in the fridge. I simply kept it on the rack and put it on the bottom shelf of the fridge. I left it in the fridge for 24 hours and then for an hour before cooking, I sat it on the counter with a small fan blowing on it. I could have easily have kept in the fridge for 48 hours, I think.

Just before you're going to put the duck in the oven, pour teaspoon of sesame oil in your (clean) hands and rub the duck all over with the oil. Also, I replaced the pan with a clean one to put the rack & duck in. Pour about 1-2 cups of water in the pan so it won't splatter fat all over your stove.

Stick duck in oven, breast side up, and raise temp to 475* and then keep it there for 15 minutes. Then, lower oven to 350*. Open oven, flip over duck, breast side down, for 30 minutes. Then, flip over duck to breast side up again for additional 40 minutes. If skin isn't crispy enough, stick it under the broiler for a few seconds.

When done, remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes.

Slice up the duck and serve with flour tortillas, chopped scallions, and hoisin and/or plum sauces.

Jean Shepherd reads the Red Ryder Story on his WOR Radio Show
TBS A Christmas Story Marathon Page
Huge FREE collection of Jean Shepherd radio shows @ The Internet Archive
A Voice in the Night, a 2-hour radio tribute by Harry Shearer @ KCRW
Voices in the Dark by Daniel Pinkwater, NY Times Magazine (a remembrance)
The Night People versus the "Creeping Meatballism," by Jean Shepherd, Mad Magazine, 1957
Steely Dan's Donald Fagan "What I learned from Jean Shepherd" @ Slate
Visit A Christmas Story House
Ken Hom Video on How To Make Peking Duck (3-parts)

A Christmas Story (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, by Eugene B. Bergmann
All Things Jean Shepherd @ Amazon
The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson
Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery


  1. Great article about A CHRISTMAS STORY, Jean Shepherd, and Peking duck!

    I recognize some bits in the article that I wrote about in my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD. And you link to my book and mention it in the BUY STUFF section. Thanks.

    Your piece gives a nice sense of the movie and Shepherd and I smiled while reading it. As maybe the world's biggest Jean Shepherd fan (Not only my published book but a second manuscript seeking publication, as well as several published articles about Shep) I gotta promote my book and his creative legacy, which is what my book is all about. Spread the word about Jean Shepherd--he was a genius!

  2. Thanks, Eugene. So many people were inspired and influenced by Shep and he deserves a better known place in the history books. But as he might also have thought, he's for the night people, the malcontents and the discontents, and perhaps one needs to stumble upon him as so many of us have or else "the magic" doesn't work. can you imagine if kids read him in english class? they'd hate him. Good luck wiht the future Shep projects.