“Bananas” by Lucas Blalock. Courtesy of the artist and Ramiken Crucible, New York
By Chris Offutt
Every Sunday my mother removed the rings from her fingers and placed them on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. She mixed ingredients in a bowl—flour, milk, salt, baking powder, and Crisco—then gently spread the dough on a board covered with flour. To form precisely shaped biscuits, Mom pressed the open end of a water glass into the dough, creating a row of discs. She pried free the leftover lattice of dough and gave it to me. I dutifully mashed it together to make two or three of the ugliest biscuits in culinary history. In an attempt to save face, I made biscuits that resembled rabbits with long ears.
Like many women who came of age in the 1950s, my mother eventually began cooking from cans and from cartons of frozen vegetables. This shift found its way into the Sunday biscuits when Mom bought prepackaged tubes of Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh biscuits. My job was to peel away the wrapper and reveal a cardboard tube lightly scored in a spiral pattern. Handling it required skill and care to prevent premature popping, and the proper technique was to tap the tube lightly against the edge of the countertop. I turned the task into a form of entertainment for my siblings by giving it a swift karate chop. The cardboard flew apart at the seams! White dough began to expand from its innards, forming biscuits on its own.
Around this same time, I read several versions of the legends of King Arthur and became fascinated by Merlin the Magician. This led me to Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, about Hank Morgan, an accidental time traveler who runs afoul of Merlin. Condemned to death, Hank saves himself by using his understanding of science to predict a solar eclipse. This overlap between science and magic interested me, and I read every book in the school library about science. My conservative school considered magic to be anti-Christian and didn’t offer any material along those lines.
I turned to the recently opened public library in town, beginning with Martin Gardner, who wrote about the intersection of science, mathematics, and magic. I read books about Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, Howard Thurston and Marie Curie. They taught me that the key to science and magic was consistency of effect. Each scientific experiment and magic trick had to produce the same result every time. Otherwise they veered into metaphysics, a realm over which no mortal had control.
(It should be noted that the relationship between food and metaphysics runs back thousands of years. The first miracle attributed to Jesus occurred at a weeklong wedding in Cana during which the host family ran out of wine. This concerned Mary, mother of Jesus, who appealed to him for help. He responded as any dutiful son would, using his power to keep the wine flowing. A couple years later he fed five thousand people with five loaves of barley and two fish. I recall hearing this story as a boy on numerous occasions. It was presented as “feeding the multitude,” but no adult explained the term “multitude.” In my ignorance I thought Jesus’ disciples had mullet haircuts like my friends and me—the El Camino of hairstyles.)
The library also offered a selection of how-to magic books that explained simple tricks with clear illustrations. I soon began building and painting elaborate cardboard props and outfitting a card table with a secret compartment. At age twelve I proclaimed my ambition to be a professional prestidigitator. My stage name would be “Christo Dantes,” a variation on Edmond Dantès from The Count of Monte Cristo. This period coincided with my mother’s shift from homemade biscuits to store-bought, and the Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh container gave me an idea for a trick.
If biscuits could emerge from a closed container, maybe I could do something similar. I wanted the illusion of a presliced banana, but first I had to figure out the trick. Alone in my room, I worked on it for days, eating dozens of bananas, before discovering the proper technique for cutting a banana inside its skin. It’s not as hard as you’d think. The primary skill is gentle deftness with a needle and the ability to visualize the dark interior of a banana.
One foundation of magic is known as the “Magician’s Choice,” which is a way of controlling options until a volunteer “freely chooses” what the magician wants. (Politicians and parents use the same method of control.) During my next magic show, I displayed three bananas and asked a volunteer to pick one. I then passed that freely chosen banana around to prove that it was real and intact. Next I asked someone to pick a number between four and nine, utilizing the Magician’s Choice to ensure the result of five. The audience counted with me as I dramatically performed five karate chops in the air at a significant distance from the banana holder. I then asked the volunteer to peel the banana above a plate. Lo and behold, the fruit inside the skin came apart in five separate pieces! I passed them around as a snack.
Stage and close-up magic relies on presentation, which consists of three ingredients: patter, misdirection, and psychology. The patter is the story the magician tells during performance. Misdirection is a means to divert attention away from a clandestine move of the hands in service to a trick. The psychology is basic—people want to believe, which explains the outcome of most elections. Food professionals also know this. For example, restaurant customers frequently ask what’s “good” on the menu. They want freedom of choice but appreciate the insider’s tip—the Waitron’s Choice, so to speak. Most food servers utilize misdirection—away from this item and toward that one, usually more expensive.
Magic and cooking are based on the same principles of transformation, cutting and restoring, vanishing and reappearing. A blue handkerchief suddenly becomes red! A woman sawn in half returns intact! A coin disappears from the hand and reappears in a child’s ear! An egg becomes an omelet! The simplest act of boiling water makes water disappear! Like in a magic performance, presentation is paramount. The flourish with which a magician produces a fanned deck of cards is matched by a chef unveiling his creation amid swirls of steam. Tableside flambé is as dramatic as a vanishing elephant. Houdini was not a good magician, but he excelled at showmanship. The same is true of certain celebrity chefs as well.
Magic tricks with food are a staple in the history of legerdemain, with eggs being a favorite, due to their inherent fragility. As a kid, I swore my mother to secrecy and asked her to sew me an “egg bag” from heavy black cotton. It had a hidden compartment that was concealed by the color and thick fabric. Established and well-financed magicians would put an egg in the bag and withdraw a dove. My variation was to vanish the egg in the bag, make it reappear elsewhere, then crush the egg into a spray of multicolored confetti! The stunt is simple, based on something I’d learned in grade school for Easter decorations. To prepare an egg, I pierced each end with a needle, then used the needle to break apart the yolk inside the shell. I held one end of the egg to my mouth and blew hard enough to force the yolk and white out of the hole in the other end. This process was known as “blowing an egg,” a decorating technique from ancient Ukraine.
I found a library book misshelved in the magic section that featured a fiend who ate Welsh rarebit and had wild dreams. I assumed the book contained misspellings: it was supposed to be “friend” and “rabbit.” I decided to catch a rabbit and use it in my magic show. In the yard I propped a shoebox with a stick, tied kite string to the stick, and ran the string across the grass to my bedroom window. I baited the trap with a large carrot. Every morning for a week I waited with great vigilance. My plan was to yank the string, which would pull the stick from the ground, make the shoebox fall, and trap the rabbit.
Unfortunately, no animal ever appeared. Worse, the carrot vanished from the trap. I resolved to stay up late and catch the mysterious big bunny, the one that hopped late. I fell asleep with my head pressed against the window. The sound of the front door opening woke me just before dawn. My mother crossed the yard in her bathrobe and carefully removed the carrot from my trap. The same carrot reappeared in the refrigerator by breakfast.
Years later I was extremely disappointed when I finally ate Welsh rarebit—which is nothing more than melted cheese on bread. British food is horrendous as well as misleading. Blood pudding, pork faggot, jellied eel, and spotted dick are common menu items. These and other foods are the primary reason that Great Britain is now known simply as Britain.
Just as chefs never reveal their secret ingredients, magicians keep their mysteries to themselves. Individuals in both groups have filed many suits against rivals, claiming theft of recipes and tricks. A recent case between two restaurants in Massachusetts is Dumpling Daughter v. Dumpling Girl. The suit alleges culinary plagiarism that includes such legal terms as “misappropriation of trade secrets” and “unjust enrichment.” All reports indicate that the lawsuit is fraught with emotion. Everyone involved is down in the dumplings.
Raymond Teller, the silent half of Penn & Teller, sued a Belgian magician for stealing part of an act. Teller won the case, possibly because the presiding judge was astounded by Teller’s verbal ability. Another lawsuit involved Robert Rice, a.k.a. “The Mystery Magician,” who wore a mask and revealed magic secrets on videotapes that he sold. A few years later the Fox network began developing a TV special with the same premise. Rice sued Fox for copyright infringement. Rice believed that he was the only person in the world who could tell magic secrets on television. Not surprisingly, he lost. Possibly the name of the suit worked against him: Rice v. Fox Broadcasting Company. In the complex hierarchy of nonhuman law, an animal is superior to a grain.
The ambitious chef conceives his own recipes just as a magician designs tricks. They are inventors: creative people with an underlying pragmatism. Sometimes they steal from a competitor, but it’s best if they are merely influenced by a colleague! Prehistory’s most ambitious inventor was Daedalus, who killed his nephew for inventing the handsaw. Daedalus fled to Crete, taking along his son Icarus. After a few adventures involving a sexualized cow suit for the queen, a labyrinth, and a mean Minotaur, Daedalus needed to leave Crete fast. Apparently he was also a part-time beekeeper and bird-watcher because he cobbled together two sets of wings made of wax and feathers, one for Icarus and one for himself. Amazingly, the wings worked, and they headed for the nearest coast. Daedalus told his son not to fly too close to the water and not too close to the sun. A good son, young Icarus trusted his father implicitly, evidenced by having strapped on fake wings and jumping off a cliff. However, he forgot to ask his dad the crucial question—how close to the sun is too close?
His father was flying too far ahead for adequate communication, and Icarus soared higher and higher. The wax melted, which dislodged the quills, and he fell into the sea and drowned. Poor Icarus. This story is regarded as a metaphor for too much ambition, and of course not listening to one’s father. But then again, Daedalus’s instructions were pretty lame—don’t fly too high or too low, continue in a straight line, follow orders, and avoid risks. Very shabby paternal advice. I have always provided my own sons with more concrete and pragmatic advice, such as: don’t kill your nephew, eat before you drink, always wear a condom, and don’t jump off cliffs with fake wings. But the real question is why in the heck didn’t Daedalus teach his boy to swim? Maybe he was too busy inventing things that didn’t work. Maybe he should have tried magic tricks and biscuits.
The inventor of the modern biscuit container was the delightfully named Mr. Lively Willoughby, who ran a bakery in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He experimented with compressing biscuit dough into tubes, then refrigerating them. A problem arose during the process of thawing—the biscuits exploded and coated the ceiling with dough. By 1931 Willoughby had perfected the recipe and began selling “Ye Olde Kentuckie Buttermilk Biscuits.” He joined forces with Ballard & Ballard, a company later acquired by Pillsbury, which manufactured the biscuits I ate as a child. In 2013 Lively Willoughby was posthumously inducted into the Refrigerated Food Hall of Fame.
During my bachelor period, I met a woman from Kentucky who claimed her grandfather had invented the technique of packing premade biscuits in a spiral form. Due to the proceeds, she was free from economic necessity and was able to indulge her hobby of raising rabbits. She was a lovely woman, smart and sensitive, practical in her beliefs. We dated for a few months. I liked her but neither of us were “in love,” and soon we both moved on. I hope she found happiness, a friend who shared her devotion to bunnies and biscuits.
Nevertheless, at varying times over the years, I wondered if I should have married her, a genuine heiress. Such financial liberty would have allowed me to pursue a career in stage magic. I could have produced no end of exotic rabbits from hats! Instead I married a great cook and got fat. Goodbye Christo Dantes, hello “Cooking with Chris”!
How to Cut Up an Unpeeled Banana
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