There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Eight

Ruth Wakefield (1903 – 1977)

Now, here’s an intriguing question. What would you do to secure a lifetime’s supply of chocolate?

The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame is Ruth Wakefield, who ran a restaurant cum travel lodge called the Toll House Inn, situated halfway between Boston and New Bedford in Massachusetts. One of the specialities of the house was a thin butterscotch nut cookie served with ice cream, known as the Butter Drop Do pecan icebox cookie, a bit of a mouthful but it sounds delicious.

Ruth was experimenting with variations on this popular item, deciding to add some chocolate fragments to the batter. She wanted to use an unsweetened chocolate without milk or flavouring called Baker’s chocolate. Finding that she didn’t have any, Ruth used chocolate from Nestlé’s proprietary semi-sweet bar. Chopping the bar into small bits, allegedly with an ice-pick, and putting them into the brown sugar dough with nuts, she was surprised to find that the chocolate hadn’t melted. Instead, they remained as chunky as when she added them to the mix.

What the enterprising Ruth had created was what we now know as the chocolate chip cookie, but back then it was known as the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie. Ruth added the recipe to her best-selling cookbook, Toll House Tried and True Recipes, in 1938. In truth, the chocolate chips do melt but they retain their shape because of the way the fat in the chocolate is aligned.

In her recipe book Ruth explained her methodology; “At Toll House we chill this dough overnight. When ready for baking, we roll a teaspoon of dough between palms of hands and place balls two inches apart on greased baking sheet. Then we press balls with finger tips to form flat rounds. This way cookies do not spread as much in the baking and they keep uniformly round.”

The cookies sold like hot cakes in the New England area and the recipe was published in a Boston newspaper. Noticing that the sales of his semi-sweet chocolate bars had rocketed since the development of the cookie, Andrew Nestlé of the eponymous company decided to make an unusual agreement with Ruth. He secured the right to print the recipe for the Toll House Cookie on the package of his chocolate bars, reportedly paying the princely sum of one dollar for the privilege.

To sweeten the deal still further, Ruth was offered a consultancy position to assist in the development of further recipes. Her fee for this? Free chocolate for the rest of her life.

Sounds like a good deal.

In what we would now call a series of re-branding exercises, the Toll House Cookies became Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels and then chocolate chips. Their popularity extended beyond New England, principally because during the Second World War soldiers stationed in the area spread the word and took the delicious biscuits home with them.

It soon established itself as America’s favourite cookie and Nestlé, thanks to the unusual agreement struck with Ruth, owned the rights and, more importantly, took all the profits from the cookie. This cosy arrangement was interrupted in 1983 when a Federal judge ruled that here were ambiguities in the deal struck in 1939 and that Nestlé was no longer entitled to retain exclusive rights to the Toll House trademark.

So the market was opened up.

It is estimated that around 7 billion chocolate chip cookies are eaten in America a year, 50% of which are home-made.

Ruth sold the Toll House inn in 1967 – it burned down on New Year’s Eve in 1984 – and retired to Duxbury in Massachusetts, where she died in 1977.

For inventing America’s favourite cookie and giving it away for a dollar, Ruth is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame. At least she got thirty-eight years’ worth of chocolate!

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone



Gift Of The Week (2)

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and the race is on to find that perfect gift for your beloved to show the depth of your love and affection for them.

If that is not hard enough, what about finding something really appropriate for your ex. The enterprising folk at the Hemsley Conservation Centre near Sevenoaks in Kent think they have the answer for that one.

For just £1.50 a pop they are offering us the opportunity to name a cockroach. If that is not tempting enough, the name, first name only, will be displayed at the exhibit and as an added bonus you will get a downloadable gift certificate. Monies raised will go towards funding other projects at the zoo.

For more information, follow this link

What is there not to like?

I hope they have enough cockroaches to go round.

Street Of The Week (2)

The fight is on. The title for the world’s steepest street is under challenge.

For some years the burghers of Dunedin in New Zealand have been able to rest on their laurels (and their haunches) secure in the knowledge that their Baldwin Street has been acclaimed by no less an authority than Guinness World Records as the world’s steepest street.

But the residents of Harlech in Wales have just woken up to the fact that their 300-year-old street, Ffordd Pen Llech, which takes you up to the castle, may be even steeper. A challenge has been made, measurements taken, results sent off and the verdict is eagerly awaited.

Not any old footpath can qualify. There are high, if not steep, standards to be met. The street must be paved, be a thoroughfare and have houses. The highest gradient over a 10-metre stretch is the crucial piece of data which will settle the dispute.

The steepest stretch of Baldwin Street has a gradient of 35%, enough to make me puff and pant. But unofficial measurements taken in Harlech suggest that the steepest 10-metre stretch of Ffordd Pen Llech is a breath-taking 39.25%

I will await the result with some interest.

What Is The Origin Of (214)?…

Green room

Last autumn I was fortunate enough to wander around a number of radio studios, promoting my latest book, Fifty Scams and Hoaxes.  Being a neophyte in the world of broadcasting, I imagined I would be entertained lavishly in the green room before being invited to bore the British listening public on the merits of my book. But, perhaps indicative of my lowly status in the celeb stakes, this never happened and where I waited before being interviewed was neither green nor barely a room. It set me thinking, though; why is a green room so called and do they really exist?

The latter question is probably the easier to answer. Lack of space has seen the disappearance of specific communal holding or waiting areas for thespians in all but a few theatres but television studios often have such an area for guests to relax and compose themselves before and after their grilling.

The origin of the term, however, is more problematic.

In the 16th century, actors would wait to go on stage in what was known as a tiring house, probably so named because it was here that they put on their costumes or were attired. Peter Quince, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3.1, explains all; “and here’s a marvellous convenient place for our rehearsal. This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn-brake our tiring-house..” Quince’s tiring house may have been fictional but the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane certainly had one by the time Samuel Pepys went back stage to visit Nell Gwynne in 1667; “she took us up into the Tireing-rooms and to the women’s shift, where Nell was dressing herself..

Pepys provides us with an early reference to a green room but this was where petitioners for money, in Pepys case for the navy on October 7th 1666, were summoned to see the King. By 1667, though, the green room had been abandoned as a venue for clandestine negotiations, the Earl of Lauderdale noting in a letter, “now we have no green roome, all is fairely treated in Councell.” It may well be that the colour of the décor gave the room its name.

The first specific reference to a green room in a theatrical context is to be found in A True Widow, a play written by Thomas Shadwell and published in 1678. One of the characters, Stanmore, declares, “Selfish, this Evening, in a green Room, behind the Scenes, was before-hand with me…” and in The Female Wit, a play written with no attribution in 1697, a character, Praiseall, tells the assembled troupe of actresses, “I’ll treat you all in the Green Room, with Chocolate.

Colley Cibber, an actor and playwright, closely associated with the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, referred to the lay-out of the theatre in a passage from Love Makes Man, published in 1701; “I do know London pretty well, and the Side-box, Sir, and behind the Scenes; ay, and the Green-Room, and all the Girls and Women Actresses there.

But why green?

There appears to be no definitive answer but lots of theories, some of which are more convincing than others. Greengage is Cockney rhyming slang for a stage and so, perhaps, green is an abbreviation. Scene rooms were where scenery was stored and possibly green was a corruption of that name. On the other hand, green is said to be a calming colour and ideal for soothing the nerves of apprehensive thespians.

Perhaps more plausibly, some theatres, but not all, used curtains made of heavy green baize to separate the stage from the rear. As a consequence, a green costume was deemed to be unlucky because it blended into the background and theatrical types used the phrase “behind the green” to denote the backstage area.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Personally, I like the idea that its origin comes from the colour of the actors’ resting room in one of the country’s principal theatres, the Theatre Royal, with, perhaps, a nod to the King’s private reception room. But we can’t be certain.

Book Corner – January 2019 (3)

Cecile is Dead – Georges Simenon

It is difficult to kill off a popular detective. Conan Doyle tried it with Sherlock Holmes but had to bring him back due to public demand. Eight years after retiring Maigret off in Lock No 1 and Maigret Returns in 1934, Simenon brought his idiosyncratic Parisian ‘tec back to life in this book which is the first of six novels known as the Gallimard Cycle. Many critics regard these books, dating from 1942 to 1944, as the best of his canon.

The original was called Cecile est Morte and I’m glad the excellent Penguin series of reissues has restored the Anglicised version of the title as for years it was known amongst Anglophones as Maigret and the Spinster. Keeping track of the various aliases of Simenon’s novels is perplexing and would even test the little grey cells of Maigret.

I found this to be an enjoyable book and certainly a notch or two above many of Simenon’s earlier stories which often have the whiff of a pot boiler about them. Perhaps the writer’s batteries were re-charged after the lay-off.

In one sense, this book is about Maigret’s methodology. Indeed, a visiting American police inspector is introduced into the story line to shadow him and understand how he goes about solving his cases. The visitor must have great fun, visiting the eateries and bars that Maigret habitually frequented, and, unusually, finds him in a communicative mood. Maigret treats us to expositions on how he likes to feel what the case is about and understand what must have happened because of the way the suspects involved were and how they were likely to react. It provides a fascinating insight into Maigret’s idiosyncratic style but whether the American got anything meaningful that he could deploy is debatable.

The eponymous Cecile Pardon is a frequent visitor to the inspector’s office, often waiting for hours until he grants her an audience. Maigret’s fellow officers fail to take her seriously and on the face of it, her suspicions that someone gets into the flat she shares with her spinster aunt, smoking cigarettes and moving the furniture around seem a bit cranky.

On the fatal day, Maigret arrives later to the office than is his custom, enjoying the first of the Parisian autumnal fogs. Cecile is there and despite having written in the station log “you simply must see me. A terrible thing happened last night” he ignores. When he has time to see her, she has gone, alerting Maigret’s suspicions. After all, she “had once spent seven hours in the waiting room without moving.

Maigret investigates.

The old spinster is found dead in her flat and Cecile’s body is found in a broom cupboard on the Police Judiciaire premises. Are the two crimes connected and who perpetrated them and why? I will not spoil your enjoyment but in a sense both murders are variations on the locked room trope so adored by crime writers.

Maigret’s investigations lead him to discover a world of murky characters, brothels, dodgy lawyers and under-age sex. Very few of the characters have anything to commend them, save, perhaps, for the unfortunate Cecile and her impoverished brother. Money and dark secrets are at the heart of the case but the story has a final, unexpected twist which keeps the reader’s interest going right to the end.

It is one of Simenon’s better books and although the plot is a little contrived, it makes for an enjoyable few hours.

You can’t keep a good man down.

Vomit And Rabbits

The Favourite

If there is one art form to whose blandishments I’m pretty immune, it is cinematography. I often watch a film and think I am a modern equivalent of the child who spotted the flaw in the king’s new suit of clothes. Take Yorgos Lanthimos’ period drama, The Favourite, for example. If you want a perfect example of what is wrong with contemporary film making, this is it.

It’s as though there is a checklist for the woke generation in play. We have women in powerful positions, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) on the throne and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) pulling the levers of power as well as slating away the nation’s coffers. So, a tick in the box for women breaking through the glass ceiling. The men, on the other hand, are relegated to minor bit parts, foppish, ridiculous and stupid. By contrast, the female protagonists are beacons of wit, energy and ingenuity.

Then there is the LBGTQIA agenda to satisfy. Anne and Sarah are in a relationship. The film revolves around the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) at court and her manoeuvres up the greasy pole to displace Sarah as Anne’s favourite and bed companion. Abigail’s light bulb moment is when she realizes that Sarah owes her position of power to her willingness to pleasure her Queen and resolves to replace her as Anne’s paramour. Sarah wakes up to what is happening too late and loses out in the power struggle.

Perhaps even more surprising, and a tad unconvincing, is Abigail’s developing sense of social injustice. Part of her motivation to supplant Sarah in the Queen’s affections, the film argues, is to stop the injustices being visited on the plebs, in general, and women, in particular. The war on the continent, which is draining the country’s coffers, forms a backdrop to the story and it flits in and out of the narrative but remains and incidental to rather than the crux of the power struggle. Still, another box ticked.

If this wasn’t enough, there is the God awful soundtrack. The snatches from Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi were fine and welcome enough but the so-called experimental guff from Anna Meredith was distracting and irritating. At least the monotony of the wails and scratches stopped me from nodding off.

At least I learned why the rich and powerful had lots of tall, capacious vases. They were convenient as a vomitorium and were used with gay abandon as such in the film. I don’t think I’ve seen a film with so many of its characters having an upchucky moment.

And the rabbits? Anne surrounded herself with seventeen rabbits, each one representing a child she had lost during her wretched life, some still born, others barely surviving their birth.

There were some bright moments. The three leading actresses carried off their parts with aplomb and there were some moments of laughter from a script that demonstrated a degree of acerbic wit. The costumes and, particularly, the wigs were great fun and duck and lobster racing enhanced the sense of a decadent court full of people who had more time on their hands than sense.

A great film? I think not. I came away from the cinema thinking that if this was the best that movies had to offer, it was in a sorry state. The queen’s new clothes indeed.

Double Your Money – Part Thirty Eight

Alves dos Reis (1896 – 1955) and the Portuguese Bank Note Crisis

Some people get their bright ideas in the middle of the night, others whilst sitting in a bath but Portuguese con man, Alves dos Reis’ brainwave came to him in June 1924 whilst languishing in jail doing a 54-day stretch for embezzlement. His moment of genius was to hatch up a scheme to get rich quick by printing his own money.

It helps if you are an excellent counterfeiter, which Alves was, but he didn’t use his skills to make the escudos himself. Instead, he produced letters of representation which purported to show that he and his colleagues were representatives of the Portuguese government embarking upon a secret mission to fund development in one of its then colonies, Angola. They approached the British company, Waterlows, who printed the banknotes of Portugal.

Waterlows were suspicious but not so suspicious as to seek confirmation from the Portuguese government that Alves’ story stacked up. Instead they asked for letters of representation which Alves was more than happy to give them – after all, he had just forged them.

The printing presses rolled and soon Alves had his hands on 100 million escudos, the equivalent of around 1% of Portugal’s Gross Domestic Product at the time. So, what did he do with it?

With some of his new-found wealth, about a quarter in all, he went on a spending spree, buying a fleet of taxis some farms and jewellery. With some of the rest, in June 1925, he set up his own bank, the Bank of Angola and Metropole, ostensibly to fund infrastructure projects and the like in Africa, but in reality, in order to have the facility to launder his funds.

Alves used some of his funds to buy shares in the Banco do Portugal. Fearing that this was the one institution that could detect his fraud, he set about trying to buy a controlling interest in it, thinking, presumably, that once he had achieved a position of dominance, he could put pressure to bear if perchance evidence of his scam came to light. But, despite, his efforts on the stock market, that position of dominance.

And his own bank proved to be Alves’ undoing. The Portuguese press, particularly the daily paper, O Seculo, started digging into the bank’s affairs, their suspicions alerted by the low rates of interest on offer. They soon revealed what had gone on and the Portuguese government began to unravel the fraud. It was particularly tricky because the banknotes that Alves had used to finance his operations weren’t false. After all, they had been printed by the government’s own money printers.

The problem for Alves, though, was that the serial numbers on the notes had been duplicated. The government recalled all the 500 escudo notes in circulation, causing a panic and loss of confidence in the country’s monetary system which was to have a dramatic and damaging effect on the fledgling democracy.

Like all good scammers when they know the game is up, Alves fled but was arrested whilst on board the good ship Adolph Woerman, bound for Angola, on 6th December 1925. Whilst in jail, he was eventually sentenced to 20 years, Alves forged some papers to implicate the Banco do Portugal in the fraud but this scam failed. He tried to commit suicide, but the attempt failed, saw out his time, was released in 1945 and died in penury ten years later.

Some of his co-conspirators successfully evaded justice by arguing that they had been duped by Alves into believing that he really was authorised by the Portuguese government. The head of Waterlows, Sir William Waterlow, was sacked but later became Lord Mayor of London in 1929.

As for Portugal, the scandal had so destabilised public confidence in the government that the military staged a coup in 1926, democracy not making a comeback again until 1974.

If you enjoyed this book, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone