Made with white bread and gelatin – my, these cherry pies are awful

Each year, I participate in an annual Pieathlon with a host of food bloggers from around the globe so that I can share some of Vincent Price’s own recipes from his repertoire.

This year, however, I thought I’d go a bit surreal and select a dish from Salvador Dali’s decadent 1973 gastronomic tome Les Dîners de Gala. Devoted to the pleasures of taste, it comes with a warning from the legendary artist: ‘If you are a disciple of one of those calorie-counters who turn the joys of eating into a form of punishment, close this book at once; it is too lively, too aggressive, and far too impertinent for you.’

The basic principal of the annual Piethon organised by Yinzerella (who runs dinneriserved1972.com) is for everyone to send in a recipe, whereby we are then assigned a pie of her choosing. Now, I think she’s making me pay for my choice: which was Dali’s Oasis leek pie, a very rich dish filled with bacon, cheese, heavy cream and leeks.

For me, she selected a 1970s Weight Watches recipes for Cherry Pies sent in by Surly over at VintageRecipeCards.com. It’s pretty simple to make, but has some ingredients I truly dislike: white bread, artificial sweetener and gelatin. And aside from the gelatin (I went for a vegan version), I played by the rules. The results were – very stodgy indeed.

There are no sizes given as to how big the pie dish should be and when I crumbed up the 2 slices of bread, it didn’t reach the ends of the apple pie dish that I normally use. So I opted to make 12 mini-pies instead. For this first effort, I ended up crumbing 6 pieces of bread and added 5 teaspoons of the crumb mixture into each case before pressing them down. Then I popped the tray in the fridge to cool down for 10-minutes.

Next, I made the cherry mixture using 250g of Tesco’s Sweetheart cherries from Kent (you get 32 in a box, just perfect for this recipe). Now, I don’t have a cherry pitter, so I had to cut them up a bit (unlike in the picture, where they are most full). The recipe called for one envelope of unflavoured gelatin, so I used one packet of Dr Oetker Vege-Gel. There’s no indication as to how long to stir this over a low heat (just ‘until dissolved)’. So I did it for 5-minutes to allow the cherries to break down a bit. Big mistake, the resulting mixture came out thick and rubbery.

I certainly had the right amount of mixture for the 12 cases, though, and used Olive Oil margarine (the recipe calls for imitation or diet margarine, but I couldn’t find that). Into the oven they went and I had to extend the 10-minute baking time to 25-minutes to get a pale golden colouring on the pies.

The first batch of Weight Watches Cherry Pies were too bready

The test taste proved hilarious – everyone agreed they were just eating warm bread with something tasteless on top. The pies lacked any flavour from the cherries, and they missed the sweetness.

So, for the second batch, I replaced the artificial sweetener with some Caster Baking Sugar, reduced the Vege-Gel to just 3g, and made the cases thinner, with just 3 teaspoons of crumb. I also used a US measure of water instead of a UK measure. The result: more flavour in the cherry mixture, but the base was still bready and now too soft. None of my tasters liked them.

So will it be third time lucky? I don’t think so. Now, I can’t wait to see who got my choice of recipe.

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Burt Shonberg | The psychedelic 1960s artist behind those haunting House of Usher portraits

If you have ever seen Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher and wondered who did those haunting portraits of Roderick Usher’s disreputable ancestors – then wonder no more, for it was the magic realist Los Angeles artist Burt Shonberg (1933-1977).

I have just finished reading a terrific biography, Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg, by author Spencer Kansa, and it’s a real eye-opener, not only about this psychedelic artist, but also about LA bohemia in the 1960s and 1970s.

From the late-1950s until his death in 1977, Shonberg was the premier psychedelic artist of Los Angeles. His surreal murals adorned the facades and interiors of hip coffee-houses and clubs (including his legendary Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach); which brought him to the attention of actor Mel Welles and his Little Shop of Horrors director Roger Corman.

It was while working on project for the 7 Chefs restaurant on Sunset Boulevard that Shonberg was hired by Corman to create the ancestral portraits that hang in the Usher mansion in his 1960 Gothic horror. Corman felt Burt’s work had a ‘mystical, mysterious quality that would be perfect to capture the evil inherent in the faces of the ancestors’ – and he gave the artist a series of character histories to interpret.

‘He captured their tormented spirits and the spirit of the film perfectly,’ said Corman in a later interview; while art director Daniel Haller, who oversaw the artist’s progress, said, ‘he was unique and produced such great work for us’.

Vivien Usher ‘ Blackmailer, harlot, murderess – she died in a madhouse’

Shonberg conceived five family portraits and two pieces that Vincent Price’s aesthete character, Roderick Usher, paints – a colourful figure and a landscape featuring the Usher mansion.

According to Kansa, the blacked-out eyes in the Vivien Usher painting were eerily similar to a self portrait created by Shonburg’s lover, Marjorie Cameron, entitled The Black Egg.

Cameron’s story is also somewhat amazing, and the subject of another Kansa-penned biography, Wormwood Star. The occult artist – who later appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide – introduced Shonburg to the teachings of Aleister Crowley and to the mind-warping properties of peyote; which helped inform his unique artistic style, as did his participation in Dr Oscar Janiger’s ground-breaking study into the effects of LSD on the creative process.

Marjorie Cameron’s The Black Egg

For the depiction of Bernard Usher, Shonberg used his friend Ray Shevin as his model. Shevin was an adherent of George Gurdjieff, the Sufi-inspired mystic who developed the Fourth Way system to help people became fully conscious to every unfolding moment in their lives. Meanwhile, Francis Usher is a self portrait, but there’s no info as to who the subjects were for Anthony Usher or Captain David Usher.

Anthony Usher – ‘Thief, usurer – merchant of flesh’
Bernard Usher – ‘Swindler, forger, jewel thief, drug addict’
Francis Usher- ‘Professional assassin’
Captain David Usher – ‘Smuggler, slave trader, mass murderer’
This psychedelic painting comes from the warped imaginings of Roderick Usher

Being an art connoisseur and a champion of young artists, Vincent Price was intrigued to meet Shonberg, who was later invited to the set, where the two of them had a long conversation about art.

Artist Burt Shonberg (left) with Vincent Price

In the fiery climax of the film, the family portraits appear to perish in the flames. However, Shonberg’s paintings survived as they had been sprayed by a flame retardant beforehand.

Now this is where things get interesting. According to Kansa’s book, Vincent was said to have been given the portrait of David Usher, while Corman took two others, including the Usher mansion paintings. Unfortunately, they were stolen from Corman’s office at Amco Studios, shortly afterwards, a theft that still stings to this day (according to Corman).

The whereabouts of all the other pieces is today unknown – and that includes the one that Vincent took because, according to his estate, no Shonberg paintings were ever recorded in his collection. So did he ever have possession of it – even for a brief time? And will the missing paintings ever be found again? Only time will tell.

Shonberg’s association with Corman didn’t end with Usher. He was later employed to create several new canvases for 1963’s The Premature Burial. Like Roderick Usher, Ray Milland’s aristocrat, Guy Carrell, enjoys dabbling in painting, and the two share similar techniques – probably due to their individual torments (Guy suffers from taphephobia, the fear of being buried alive, while Roderick suffers acute sensibilities).

Shonberg was also commissioned to provide some paintings for Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial, starring Ray Milland

One of the pieces is entitled Sin Consummations Devoutly to be Wished, which Guy keeps in his tomb. In this piece, Baphomet looms over a grisly hell-scape, where condemned souls are nailed to crosses; beheaded by guillotines; burnt at the stake; and over flaming cauldrons. It’s a powerful piece, that could very well have been influenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, but Kansa doesn’t say what happened to the piece after filming wrapped on the production.

Shonberg’s Sin Consummations Devoutly to be Wished as featured in The Premature Burial

As for Shonberg (who died in 1977, aged 44), his life story was a heady fusion of ‘magical inspiration, psychedelic experience and artistic production’, all the while ‘walking the thin and dangerous between dimensions’.

His artwork was all about beckoning us onward into the realm of our dreams, and Kansa’s book goes along way into helping us understand Shonberg’s artistic mindset. I so recommend you get your mitts on this and also Wormwood Star.

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