Doing Thyme With Martha!- Cornmeal-Thyme Cookies! -231 eggs, 173 3/4 cups of sugar, 175 sticks of Butter, and 216 3/4 cups of flour used so far- 41 recipes to go!

July 30, 2011

Martha's Cornmeal-Thyme Cookies

André's Cornmeal-Thyme Cookies

Walking to-and-from my house and work each day I pass a small hipster café nestled on a corner just across from the Kansas City Juvenile Courthouse. Ironically, they don’t have a kids’ menu. They do, however, have a small herb garden in desperate need of weeding along a tiny strip of green and cigarette butts next to the sidewalk. I had been eyeing the fresh thyme desperately reaching out among the weeds and on my way home one afternoon I decided to liberate a twig or four to use in one of Martha’s more unusual recipes, Cornmeal-Thyme Cookies. I realize that I am confessing to criminal activity but I doubt the owner of this restaurant is concerned with losing a handful of her herbs. -Well, at least not those particular herbs.

You might be thinking that thyme is a strange ingredient for a sweet cookie. You’d be right. Thyme is a wonderful herb that is usually used to season poultry. It has a slight floral note and is one of the more subtle herbs in the seasoning spectrum. This particular recipe is a simple concoction of flour, cornmeal, egg, sugar, vanilla, butter, salt, currants and fresh thyme. The flavor of the cookie itself is that of buttery, sweet corn with a lingering savory note. It is an unusual, although not unpleasant flavor and not a bad choice for a sophisticated afternoon tea cookie. The texture is slightly chewy and a bit grainy from the cornmeal and the tiny thyme leaves have a tendency to get stuck in your teeth but all-in-all its a pretty good cookie. I baked these for my partner, Dan to bring to his co-workers. He was recently promoted to a management position so I guess the cookies were a hit.

“This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians.”

– Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

In the Summer of 1994 I had taken a gig in Dallas, Texas directing a couple of shows for the Dallas Children’s Theatre supplementing my meager directorial income as a barista and clerk for a local upscale bake shop. I relocated to Dallas after serving as the seasonal music director with a newly formed theatre company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana called Swine Palace Productions named so after the decaying campus building the company had been bequeathed by Louisiana State University. It had been a livestock auction house almost a century ago and had stood abandoned for decades in a dark corner of the university’s campus. BK, the artistic director had big plans for this large and quirky structure.

BK was a famed director from the Royal Shakespeare Company in London where he served as an associate Artistic Director directing such notables as Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Patrick Stewart and Ian McLelland. He was a short, bug-eyed man who was fond of vests, puffy shirts and skull caps from which wisps of thin, dyed hair escaped in ringlets encircling his rather large head lending him a proper mad-man aura. He also had an incredible vocabulary which he would pronounce with clipped British eloquence. This skill was charming but also quite intimidating. BK was often brilliant, although not as brilliant as he would like you to believe and his brilliance could only be matched by his fits of anger during which his clipped eloquence would morph into the sounds of a North London gutter-punk. On more than one occasion he produced tears among his cast and crew, me included.

Regardless of BK’s frequent rants and underhanded insults, he was an impassioned man and passion like his is infectious. I believed in his monumental vision to create a world-class theatre company in a remote part of the United States that most people know very little of, Baton Rouge. He moved his young wife into a large colonial home surrounded by weeping oaks in a thickly verdant and quiet neighborhood just a mile or two from the campus. His wife, Lottie was a talented actress, dramaturg and playwright who had a promising career back in merry ol’ England. Like the rest of us, she followed BK into swamp-world to help realize his impossible vision.

“Andre, how are you, my friend?” was how the phone conversation started. BK then went on to tell me about the season he had planned for the following year. One show in particular grabbed my attention. BK’s wife was writing an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The rights for this particular book are managed by Louisiana State University Press who had granted permission for Swine Palace to adapt and mount a stage production. Six years prior to this they had granted a musical adaptation to be performed on campus. Even though it was deemed mediocre at best by the critics it sold our every performance. Staging Confederacy was a smart move. The novel is a bit like a literary Holy Grail in Louisiana. No book has ever truly captured the mannerisms and attitude of New Orleans quite like the story of Igantius J. Reilly’s adventures in the Big Easy.

“I want you to write the score and Music Direct the cast and band,” BK offered.

Without hesitating I said yes. I had always loved the book and its cast of wild and wacky characters. BK went on. “I would also like for you to play the role of Gonzales,” the painfully introverted manager of the lackluster Levy Pants. I was thrilled and two months later I found myself settled back in Baton Rouge with my alcoholic, poet boyfriend in tow. I should point out that I didn’t like myself very much during this point in my life and therefore I had a tendency to attract people who were even more broken and needy than myself. I would spend my days in rehearsals and work odd jobs when I could to pay for my theatre addiction and the boozy boyfriend would stay home writing children’s stories and drinking himself into oblivion. It was not a happy time.

A Confederacy of Dunces’s road to publication is an interesting one. The author, John Kennedy Toole took his life in 1969 after battling depression and delusions of persecution for many years. He was only thirty-two. Toole wrote Confederacy  a few years before his suicide, submitting several revisions to the publishing house, Simon & Schuster only to end with a final rejection of the project. He was a student at Tulane and Columbia Universities and after whirlwind careers as a professor at Hunter College, a Ph.D. student at Columbia and a military sergeant in Puerto Rico, he returned to New Orleans  under a hardship discharge to assist his parents who were in financial ruin. It was upon his return he taught at the all-women’s Dominican College and completed Confederacy. Toole sank deeper into his depression and his paranoia grew. While dealing with a father battling deafness and dementia, Toole drank heavily and frequently searched his home for electronic mind-control devices. His erratic behavior and increasing classroom rants against church and State caught the eye of the Dominican staff and he was replaced. Feeling hopeless and after a heated argument with his mother, Toole took an extended road trip across the U.S.. He checked into a small cabin in Mississippi and ran a garden hose from his car’s exhaust into the room.

Eleven years later, Toole’s mother, Thelma, a flamboyant and outspoken former elocution instructor marched into famed Louisiana author, Walker Percy’s office with a manuscript copied in the bright purple, hard-to-read mimeograph ink. She demanded he read her late son’s novel. Thinking he could read the first paragraph and tell her why it was bad, he obliged. Instead he read the entire book and knew he had just devoured something extraordinary.

In Mr. Percy’s own words:

“…the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained — that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.”

The title of the book comes from a passage by Jonathan Swift – “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” It is not hard to believe that this is how the author, John Kennedy Toole felt. He had been the youngest professor in Hunter College’s history. He was an accomplished over achiever and eleven years after his death his novel was finally published earning him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

Now that you know a little of the history of the the book you might appreciate what a monumental task it was to stage such an honored piece of literature. The story revolves around Ignatius J. Reilly who Walker describes as a- “…slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one — who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age…”

Bringing Ignatius and his band of merry misfits to life was a challenge- A challenge I will happily address in my next post.

Meanwhile feel free to take thyme to make cookies. (Bad pun, I know… but I couldn’t resist.)

One Response to “Doing Thyme With Martha!- Cornmeal-Thyme Cookies! -231 eggs, 173 3/4 cups of sugar, 175 sticks of Butter, and 216 3/4 cups of flour used so far- 41 recipes to go!”

  1. Jocelyn Says:

    I really loved that book. Looking forward to the next post!

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