Episode Six: The Crucible, and creamed kale
Oh what a treat, our first Frasier party!
There’s a small joy in any long-running series where you witness the beginning of what will become a long-running joke, theme, or trope. A mere six episodes in, the characters themselves don’t know it yet but any one of them who throws a party is cursed to have it end up in disaster, and this is just how it must be. Much later, about halfway through the show’s penultimate season, Frasier will send itself up by opening an episode at the tail end of one such event where everything goes wrong, with Martin emerging, gamely wearing a sash and crying “Buongiorno!” before being told he doesn’t have to pretend to be an Italian count anymore.
We’ve seen already in the series that Frasier’s life is more or less the phrase “oh how the mighty have fallen” writ large, and in this episode he really has to dwell on his hubris. We open the episode on Frasier’s radio show, where he manages to drop into the conversation with a caller that he has acquired a Martha Paxton painting. We are to believe that Martha Paxton is a highly celebrated artist, we are also, highly dubiously in my opinion, to believe that she is listening to his show, because she calls in and Frasier, in a moment of star-struck flusterment, offers to host her at a party at his apartment. Obviously they needed to get her to his house somehow, but you know she was actually listening to something highly earnest and highly belaboured - although actually it doesn’t get much more earnest and belaboured than Frasier himself so...touché.
It all quickly unravels: Frasier hosts a soirée, the avante-garde Ms Paxton appears in a cloud of poncho and large jewelry, pronounces the work of art Frasier has bought to be a fake, and everyone leaves hurriedly.
So that’s it really, but there’s some absolutely splendidly Frasierian moments amongst it all. Like Frasier’s magnificent groveling to Ms Paxton: “the way you insinuate the palate but never lean on it.” The fact that it’s a fake is obviously terribly embarrassing, but even without that it’s so funny to me how Frasier and Niles are constantly, clawingly desperate to be amongst the high society of Seattle, and how they perceive the tiniest of setbacks as enormous slights upon their image. Like, you’re both rich white psychiatrist dudes who live in fancy apartments and spend lots of money, I think you’ll be fine, you know? And yet without the tension of their ever-present sense that it could all fall apart at any second, well, the show wouldn’t have a plot line to stand on. It’s what causes Frasier to throw the party in the first place, and it’s what causes Niles to stop him from throwing the rock through the windows of the cheerfully conniving art dealers (“If you act like a barbarian you become a barbarian!”) and to throw money at it after this advice is swiftly ignored (“We may be barbarians, but we pay for our pillaging!”)
It’s excruciatingly fun watching Frasier flounder as his party crashes to the floor around him - when Paxton says “I didn’t paint it” he says “of course you didn’t! You created it! You gave birth to it!” Equally amusing is Martin leading Frasier to believe that a fine arts forgery department exists at the Seattle police station; his longer take though, about how “all those things you thought would be around to help you, the courts and the police department? Well, sometimes they're just not there when you need them” - is sadly timeless.
For the accompanying recipe I thought it would be appropriate to do what’s known as a copycat recipe on the internet- that is, homemade versions of various fast-food items. The two most notable fast food places that I’ve been to in America are Sonic and Waffle House, both wonderful in their own way (Sonic literally encourages you to meddle with their menu and create your own atrocities; also you order, pay, get food delivered, and eat all from the quiet solace of your car, truly a boon for the lazy, the deeply introverted, the prone to social anxiety, or any Sonic-like combination thereof.) However, I had neither an inclination to recreate “Ocean Water” (a kind of blue coconut flavoured fizzy syrup from Sonic and the only recipe I could find online) nor do I have a waffle iron, and so I racked my brains further as to what I could copy, and found a recipe for Peter Luger’s Creamed Spinach. Peter Luger is this terrifying and accolade-emblazoned steak house in Williamsburg, NYC, the kind of place where everything you do is wrong and they only accept cash and tourists absolutely flock to it to be scared out of their wits while being charged US$80 for a steak. When I went there in 2012 with my partner at the time we were tartly informed by the older male waiter, “well of course you’ll be having the creamed spinach” and we were like, well, of course. It was - of course - delicious, although I haven’t paid the place too much thought since: apparently it’s still going and still winning both accolades and what’s left of the tourist dollar.
(Creamed is not a word that appeals to me for some reason - I grew up with cans of creamed corn, so it’s not unfamiliar, I love cream itself, maybe there’s something about putting cream in the past tense that makes it seem too drawn out and faintly nauseous, I don’t know!)
Oddly, the supermarket I went to didn’t have any spinach but did have kale in abundance, and I figured that at this point, swapping out one ferrous green for another would matter to no-one. Basically this recipe is just some wilted leaves in a thick white sauce, undoubtedly borne as a way to make eating one’s greens more appealing than appalling. It harks back to a simpler age where literally anything could get blanketed in white sauce and be pronounced a new and inventive dish, and I salute it.
- A large bunch of kale, washed and given a brisk shake
- 25g butter
- Two tablespoons plain flour
- One cup/250ml milk
- Nutmeg, preferably fresh
Throw your kale leaves into a good sized saucepan with a lid and pour over about half a cup of water. Turn the heat onto high and place the lid on, stirring occasionally till the leaves darken and soften and wilt and suddenly take up much less space. At this point, remove from the heat and using some tongs or whatever, remove the leaves to a plate. Place the pan back onto a lower heat - any remaining water can just be absorbed into the sauce - and melt the butter gently, then tip in the flour and stir to make a thick paste. Slowly add the milk, stirring with a whisk or a wooden spoon or something until it forms a thick sauce. Immediately remove from the heat and stir in the kale leaves, then transfer back into the bowl, grate over some fresh nutmeg or sprinkle over a pinch of ready ground stuff, add plenty of sea salt (to taste) then eat.
I should probably mention here that the recipe above ended up deviating a fair bit from the recipe I found online because I forgot to buy an onion and I didn’t have the money for a block of Parmesan (though I concede it would be a hugely welcome addition) and of course, I used kale instead of spinach, but! It was really, really delicious. Don’t skip the nutmeg, its gentle warmth and vague sweetness elevates everything underneath it.
Favoured quote: It goes to Kelsey Grammar, with “look, Niles, the dog is eating the food, the pianist is too intrusive, the Pinot Noir is far too stagey and it's five past seven and Martha isn't even here yet!” Firstly, I look forward to blaming any future mishaps on a too-stagey Pinot Noir, secondly, literally anything Frasier and Niles say about wine is just inherently hilarious. Not until Captain “it was the worst thing in the world, worse than a fruit-forward Riesling” Holt in Brooklyn Nine Nine would a sitcom character ever be as amusing on this particular subject.
My usual, please: Cafe Nervosa does not appear in this episode! However, we get Roz asking for “something light” when she gets to the party - “double bourbon, rocks, and spill a little in the glass”. As per usual, what a woman.
An Em-Maris-Ment of Riches: With every episode we get ever closer to the writers truly starting to push the boundaries of what can realistically be expected of a corporeal form. This time around we get a brief set-up and call-back in the form of Maris being “asleep under the guests’ coats” on Frasier’s bed because “she exhausts easily under the pressure to be interesting” (Oh! David Hyde Pierce’s wistful yet matter-of-fact delivery of his lines.) Later, whilst Niles hovers lingeringly about Daphne in the kitchen, like a bumblebee trying to work out where to land upon a delicate flower while also trying to remember how to remain in flight, someone leans in and asks where to put their coat. “Oh just throw it on the bed” says Niles dismissively.
TFW you never take off your poncho at parties because “it gives you an excuse to not shake hands with people”
(PS Martha Paxton is played by the late Rachel Rosenthal, who herself was an interdisciplinary artist and performance artist. She had extremely minimal film and TV credits, I would love to know how she ended up in this small but scene-stealing role.)