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Russell Baker, Pulitzer-Winning NYT Columnist and Humorist, Dies at 93

Robert D. McFadden, writing for the NYT:

But it was as a columnist that Mr. Baker made his name. Based at first in Washington, he recalled that he had to feel his way in the new genre of spoof and jape. “Nobody knew what the column was going to be,” he told the writer Nora Ephron. “I didn’t. The Times didn’t.”

But soon he was doing what he called his “ballet in a telephone booth,” creating in the confined space of 750 words satirical dialogues, parodies and burlesques of politicians and the whirling capital circus — then stoking the fires of the antiwar and civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard M. Nixon from office in 1974.

Baker retired at the end of 1998, but I was a regular Times reader in the 1990s, and loved his column. Such a distinctive voice and deft touch. McFadden cites a 1975 column, “Francs and Beans”, spoofing a report from the Times’s restaurant critic on a $4,000, 31-course meal. Here’s an excerpt:

The dish is started by placing a pan over a very high flame until it becomes dangerously hot. A can of Heinz’s pork and beans is then emptied into the pan and allowed to char until it reaches the consistency of hardening concrete. Three strips of bacon are fried to crisps, and when the beans have formed huge dense clots firmly welded to the pan, the bacon grease is poured in and stirred vigorously with a large screw driver.

This not only adds flavor but also loosens some of the beans from the side of the pan. Leaving the flame high, I stirred in a three‐day‐old spaghetti sauce found in the refrigerator, added a sprinkle of chili powder, a large dollop of Major Grey’s chutney and a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda to make the whole dish rise.

Beans with bacon grease is always eaten from the pan with a tablespoon while standing over the kitchen sink. The pan must be thrown away immediately.

This, from the man perhaps best known as the host of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre”.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019