Friday, December 17, 2010

A Dickens Of A Christmas

Marley was dead. Dead as a doornail.

I have seen Charles Dicken's classic holiday tale A Christmas Carol in many of its variations, from the Albert Finney version on TV to the Jim Carrey 3-D animated extravaganza in the movie theater to my own elementary school play. I would come to realize many moons later that I had not truly experienced A Christmas Carol until I'd seen it performed by the great, great grandson of Charles Dickens himself...one Gerald Charles Dickens.

More than a decade ago, Keith had learned of Gerald touring the world and performing his great, great grandfather's work; quite often at historic hotels and in conjunction with a multi-course meal. Keith booked Gerald for the Lafayette Hotel in Marietta, Ohio and would travel to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis to preview his performance (K and I would stop by that very hotel many years later to witness the Peabody Duck March). After Keith and I had gotten together and moved to Jekyll Island, we discovered that Gerald was performing at the venerable Jekyll Island Club. It was fascinating enough to watch this descendant of Dickens perform his work but I was utterly mesmerized by the enormity of Gerald's performance....his one-man show brought to life all 26 characters of A Christmas Carol in vivid detail.

We would later watch him perform in DC and then reacquaint ourselves with him once again in Kansas City. Early in our KC days, we learned Gerald would be performing in partnership with the Mid-Continent Library. I missed that event due to holiday retail responsibilities but was able to join Gerald and Keith for a glass of vino later that night. Since then, Gerald took a break from touring the States for a time, Keith would take his job with the historic Elms hotel and we would think of Gerald every holiday season and wish that we could bring him to the hotel for a performance. This year, Gerald would finally return to the States for a tour and we were thrilled to learn we had indeed secured him for a holiday show at the Elms. This past Thursday, Gerald Charles Dickens performed two sold-out shows at the Elms.

The first performance was an afternoon tea in the Regent Ballroom. Plates of cheese and onion scones, currant scones, cucumber and herb cheese sandwiches and Black Forest Roulade were served. The evening performance would be woven in with a five-course dinner. My original intention was to solely attend the dinner that night as a full team of my bookstore compatriots would be attending. Keith convinced me to attend the tea as well and as the banquet room was standing room only, I sat on a bench in the back to watch a bit of Gerald's performance. As I heard the words that I began this post with; the words spoken by Gerald that would begin A Christmas Carol, I was instantly beguiled by his stately and strong voice. In time, I was lost in his eccentric characterizations and found myself under his spell.....I wound up watching the whole performance. What more can I say than this.....I have read and watched A Christmas Carol multiple times; I know what happens, for heaven's sake. I've seen Gerald perform it himself twice. Yet, when he portrayed the first appearance of The Ghost of What's Yet To Come, I caught myself gasping. I was actually teary-eyed during the passages regarding Tiny Tim. There is something so indescribably profound about witnessing Gerald perform his great, great grandfather's work and every time he manages to make it feel fresh and new....so much so that I would have the same reactions at that night's performance.

The evening dinner event was notable for the strength of not only Gerald's acting tour-de-force but the hotel staff's hard work as well. A Christmas Carol was performed in conjunction with a multi-course dinner. At certain moments during the performance, Gerald would ring a bell and the doors would swing open and servers would pour into the room and serve a course. I have worked catering events as a banquet server and I have coordinated them as well. The idea of weaving the serving of courses with a live performance is a delicate balancing act, to be sure. Will the timing be right? Will the food suffer? It's one thing to know that the stalwart Jekyll Island Club or Peabody could do this with flair but its another thing for our humble hotel to pull it off and I was more than a little nervous. Gerald was finally here and several of my friends were attending including some of my 'foodiest' friends. I've worked many a wedding here and I'm all too well aware that we have pulled off miracles time and again, but this was something quite different. The menu was also a twist on an English feast and this was also uncharted territory for the Elms kitchen. Nancy and her catering crew were truly flawless....their timing was perfect and the food was fantastic. The kitchen magicians had us at the first course....an amazing warm and savory Roasted Chestnut Soup. Each time the bell would ring and another course would arrive. 'Pigs in a Blanket', or bacon-wrapped sausages in a slightly sweet cherry sauce was another course. The main course was a titanic slab or roast beef with roasted potatoes, brussel sprouts, sage and onion stuffing and cranberries. Dessert was a sweet Plum Pudding. The Elms banquet and kitchen staff have much to be proud of this evening...they pulled it off beautifully.

While we were enjoying our own repast, one of the many highlights of Gerald's performance was the holiday dinner scene at the home of Bob Cratchit. There was "vigorous mashing of the potatoes" and when the knife carved into the breast of the bird, "stuffing would pour forth" and the audience was encouraged to emit a gratifying "Ahhhhhhhh..." in delighted response to the carving. Gerald would then hilariously portray Bob Cratchit's increasingly nervous wife who was panicking over the Plum Pudding which would emerge in delicious fashion; a "great speckled cannonball" brought forth as the perfect ending to the Cratchit's dinner.

The personal highlight of our own dinner would be that Gerald and his lovely companion Liz would sit at our table with us during each course. Gerald is as delightful a dinner companion as he is an artist. He would enthrall us with stories of his tours as well as life in London and stories of the Dickens family. It was thrilling to watch my bookstore co-workers listen in rapt silence as this direct descendant told the tales of his own life as a member of the Dickens family.

The dinner as well as the performance would conclude with a toast with Smoking Bishop, a drink that would be shared between Scrooge and Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. It's a warm drink made from strong red wine, port wine, fruit and sugar. We would enjoy a comforting sip as Gerald said those final words that would serve as the conclusion of A Christmas Carol:

God Bless Us Every One.

The event in its entirety was a great success and a personal highlight. During this time of retail madness, it was also a grand reminder of what this holiday is meant to be about....the blessings we have and the people we love. We were the last stop on Gerald's U.S. tour and he would fly back to London the following day. Gerald will next perform at St. George's Hall in Liverpool where Charles himself did readings in the 19th century. Safe travels, friend, and thank you for yet another momentous holiday memory.



Following is a recipe for Smoking Bishop from www.food.com.......Cheers!

Smoking Bishop

Ingredients:

Servings:

15

Directions:


Prep Time: 1 hr
Total Time: 1 day
  1. 1 Wash the fruit and bake it on a foil lined baking sheet until it becomes pale brown, turning once.
  2. 2 Heat a large earthenware bowl and add the fruit. Stud each fruit with five cloves.
  3. 3 Add the sugar and the red wine, and store covered in a warm place for about a day.
  4. 4 Squeeze the fruit to extract the juice, and strain into a saucepan.
  5. 5 Add the port and warm thoroughly, but don't boil.
  6. 6 Serve in heated glasses.
  7. 7 Note: There are many suggestions for variations in this recipe, including the addition of star anise and cinnamon sticks.
  8. 8 There was also a suggestion to bring the mix to a boil, simmer for an hour, and add brandy, brown sugar and orange juice

8 comments:

willie said...

Greg, as usual, it sounds delicious! I would have loved to see a performance by Mr. Dickens. When was he at the Lafayette?

Confounded Cook said...

More than a decade ago, Willie. He's as amazing as ever. You would have loved it!

Kristy said...

Yes. God Bless Us Everyone!

Anonymous said...

I am so happy to have been able to bring Gerald to the Elms and truly enjoyed the evening with friends. The Elms is hoping to make this an annual tradition.

Keith

Charlotte's Web of Books said...

What an absolutely delightful post. It sounds like you had the most enchanting evening. I miss you guys so much, especially around this time of year.

Does Mr. Dickens (feels funny to say that) have a website? I would love to see if he will be in my area at all.

Confounded Cook said...

www.geralddickens.com Char, the season is not the same without you. No matter how bleak it got, I knew it was your favorite time of year and seeing you with your Santa hat always perked me up. Have a very merry Christmas, love.

Kitten said...

Mr. Dickens is kind of a handsome bloke. Grr. See you Tuesday!

Lisa Mandina said...

I am going to save money to make sure if he comes back next Christmas I can go see this. I wanted to go so bad, but Sydney's surgery and Christmas presents just had to come first for me this year. Next year I will have to make some decisions about my finances, and hopefully that will mean I get to do more things like this.

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