Vincent Price’s Pasticcio di polenta – a rich, but simple lockdown larder recipe

As we are all in lockdown mode at the moment, I’ve been trying to avoid heading out to the shops as much as possible and so am relying on what’s in my kitchen cupboards to rustle up some tasty dishes with the minimum amount of ingredients and fuss.

Well, I found some leftover cornmeal (AKA polenta) that I had bought to make a lemon drizzle cake ages ago and decided that would be my key ingredient. OK, the expiry date was 2014!!!!, but I was not going to throw it out. Now what to make?

My go-to…. Mary and Vincent Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes

My go-to book is Mary and Vincent Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes which was first published in 1965, and got a 50th anniversary reprint in 2015. I have tried quite a few now (check them out in the Cooking with Vincent and his Co*Stars section of this website), and I found one that seemed not to elaborate and required just some basic ingredients: Pasticcio Di Polenta – or Cornmeal with Mushrooms.

INGREDIENTS
Yellow cornmeal
Salt
Butter (I used unsalted)
Bread crumbs (I used panko)
Mushrooms (I used chestnut)
Cream, (I used double)
Parmesan cheese, grated

POLENTA
Vincent and Mary’s method of making polenta required a double boiler, which I do not have. So I used two saucepans. Also there was no amount given as to how much cornmeal to add to the quart of water, so I just made a guess (it worked I think).

Firstly, I brought the water (3 UK cups) to the boil, added salt, then gradually mixed in the polenta (I used 2 cups as I wanted to use up what I had left in the packet), and stir quickly.

Once it had thickened (which was very quick), I placed the saucepan on top of another one half filled with boiling water, covered it, and left it to simmer for 2 hours.

Then I poured it into a casserole dish (there was too much mixture for a loaf shape dish, which is in the original recipe) and chilled it overnight.

PASTICCIO
1. Preheat oven to moderate (350/4).
2. Turn out chilled polenta and slice it into 3 horizontal layers.
3. Butter the baking dish and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of bread crumbs.
4. Place a sliced layer of polenta on bottom of dish. Dot with 1 tablespoon butter. Cover with: 1/2 cup sliced mushroom caps and 3 tablespoons cream. Sprinkle with: 1 tablespoon grated parmesan.
5. Do the same with the second slice.
6. Put last slice on top. Dot with 1 tablespoon butter and sprinkle with 1 tablespoons grated parmesan. Cover and bake 1 1/2hours in a moderate oven.

Not the most even of horizontal slices are they?
I used two mushroom caps for each layer. Top tip: there’s no need to waste those leftover mushroom stalks, keep them for use in a stir fry or soup
Yum! Was it rich? Yes siree!

MY VERDICT
Delicious with a capital D and It didn’t matter that the cornmeal was four years past its expiry date. Although in retrospect I think a loaf tin would have given me extra thickness so as to cut the three slices more evenly.

Now what also attracted me to making polenta, was that it is very versatile. I’ve already made chips (which went very well with the homemade strawberry and chilli jam that I had made a few days ago with some strawberries that were just about to go off), and I shall next try Vincent’s suggesting of frying some slices, then wrapping them in bacon and baking them until golden brown and crisp. I’ve also found another packet of cornmeal, so I think I’m going to whip up some muffins next.

These polenta crisps were light and crispy.
Here’s the actual recipe (with my notes) from A Treasury of Great Recipes
This classic culinary tome got a 50th Anniversary reprint in 2015

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The Mad Magician on Blu-ray

Produced on the back of the expected success of 1953’s House of Wax, The Mad Magician returned Vincent Price to the world of three-dimensional horror for a third time (Dangerous Mission was released in March 1954, with The Mad Magician following in May).

Here he plays Don Gallico, a creator of illusions for stage magicians, including the Great Rinaldi (John Emery). But his opening night is thwarted by his boss, Ormond (Donald Randolph), who has already stolen Gallico’s wife (Eva Gabor) and now wants his latest invention – the buzz saw. In a moment of madness, Gallico decapitates his employer.

To cover up the crime and the ones that follow, Gallico dons a series of elaborate disguises, but he hasn’t counted on his assistant Karen (Mary Murphy), her detective boyfriend Alan (Patrick O’Neal) and mystery writer Alice (Lenita Lane) from getting in his way…

Originally released on Blu-ray in the US by Twilight, The Mad Magician gets its UK premiere Blu-ray from Indicator with a Limited Edition (3,000) release featuring the following special features…

• 2K restoration
• 3D and 2D presentations
• Original mono audio
• New audio commentary with film historians Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons
Three-Dimensional Magic (2020): and appreciation of The Mad Magician and the 3D filmmaking boom of the 1950s by cinematographer Frank Passingham and archivist Tom Vincent, presented in 3D and 2D
• Super 8 version: cut-down home cinema presentation in anaglyphic 3D
Pardon My Backfire (1953), Three Stooges short presented in 3D and 2D
Spooks! (1953), Three Stooges short presented in 3D and 2D
• Image gallery
• Original theatrical trailer
• New and improved English subtitles
• Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Kat Ellinger on Merv Taylor, a look at the career of producer Bryan Foy, an archival interview with director John Brahm by David Del Valle, the promotional campaign of The Mad Magician, contemporary critical responses, Jeff Billington on the Three Stooges’ 3D shorts, and film credits

READ MORE ABOUT THE FILM HERE

Check out the trailer and a gallery of shots from the Indicator Blu-ray

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Screaming now – Vincent Price-wise on Amazon Prime in the UK

As we are all now at home in lockdown, if you have an Amazon Prime subscription, then why not check out what’s screaming now – Vincent Price-wise here in the UK!

And decorate your at-home workspace with these wicked limited edition posters from Mad Duck Posters : https://bit.ly/39Bpv2h

FILMS:
The Invisible Man Returns (1940) – £0.00 with a Studio Universal Classics trial
Shock (1946)
The Bat (1959)
House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Original b/w and colourised versions available
The Tingler (1959)
Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile (1961)
The Last Man on Earth (1964)– Original b/w and colourised versions available
Theatre of Blood (1973)
The Monster Club (1981)
Escapes (1986)
Backtrack (1990)
Trailers From Hell: The House of Poe – £0.00 with a Full Moon trial

TV:
A Christmas Carol (1949)
Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1974)
The Red Skelton Hour – He Who Steals My Robot Steals Trash (1968)
Red Skelton’s Christmas Dinner (1981)
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In – Episode #5.11 (1971)

COMING SOON! THE BEST OF VINCENT ON YOUTUBE…

And if you are based in the US, follow this link to find out what’s streaming there: https://www.facebook.com/MasterofMenace/photos/a.715232391837670/3411724472188435/?type=3&theater

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Please vote for Into the Velvet Darkness: A Celebration of Vincent Price for a Rondo Award

Fantastic news everyone! Into The Velvet Darkness: A Celebration of Vincent Price is one of the nominees for Best Book of the Year in this year’s Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, which honour the best in classic horror research, creativity and film preservations.

But in order for it to win, it needs your vote.

Can you please send off an email to taraco@aol.com with – I vote for Into the Velvet Darkness: A Celebration of Vincent Price for Book of the Year – in the both the subject and message lines, and include your name in the message.

The ballot closes at midnight, 29 March 2020.

If you’d like to vote for any of the other great talent up for gongs, then here’s the link to the full ballot: https://rondoaward.com/rondoaward.com/blog/

Thank you so much for your help!

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Goodbye 2019! Hello 2020!

Follow us on…

FACEBOOK

THE SOUND OF VINCENT PRICE

ESC TOURS

And do please join our mailing list

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Elizabeth Shepherd reads Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia

In rich husky tones, English actress Elizabeth Shepherd (Tomb of Ligeia, Damien: Omen II) brings a chilling sensuality to her reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic romance on this brand new CD.

Published in 1838, the haunting tale revolves around an unknown narrator who is married to the enigmatic Ligeia – a woman with whom he is so in love with that she seems almost unreal in both appearance (her eyes are described as orbs, her hair like ravens, her lips blood-red) and intellect (she knows all about ‘forbidden’ wisdom, the metaphysical, and has a proficiency with classical languages).

But their love is suddenly cut short when Ligeia falls ill and dies. Grief-stricken, our narrator turns to opium and marries again – to the Lady Rowena. But Ligeia is always on his mind. And when Rowena also falls ill and dies, the painful memories of Ligeia come back to haunt him – so much so that he is horrified to witness Rowena coming back to life, now transformed as Ligeia…

There’s a wonderful androgynous quality to Elizabeth’s deeply rich tones as she take on the role of Poe’s ‘male’ narrator, and the way she describes the qualities of the titular character: a beautiful, passionate and intellectual woman, raven-haired and dark-eyed, feels quite sensual. Elizabeth also masterly brings out all of the anxieties and fears that our opium-smoking narrator endures, and it all comes to a chilling climax when he has his drug-induced hallucination, wherein he believes Ligeia has returned from the grave.

Taking on Ligeia as her first spoken word project is great idea, especially as Elizabeth originally played both the Lady Rowena and the wilful Ligeia in Roger Corman’s final Poe adaptation, Tomb of Ligeia, starring Vincent Price.

In the film (which was released here in the UK on 6 December 1964), future Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne expanded on Poe’s recurring themes about death and resurrection by incorporating elements of mesmerism and necrophilia; but he left in Poe’s fabricated quote attributed to the philosopher Joseph Glanvill, which fans of the film will be familiar with:

‘Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor
unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.’

Hearing Elizabeth utter those lines again is a real thrill – and will certainly send shivers down your spine. But there is more…

Poe’s tale also includes The Conqueror Worm, his five stanza allegorical poem about how mankind’s fate is controlled by unseen forces. The title was erroneously used by American International Pictures for the US release of 1968’s Witchfinder General in a bid to link the film to their Poe cycle, but Vincent Price did go on to perform it during his many college lecture tours and presentations – and one of those recordings can found on The Core’s 12″ green vinyl record (check it out here) alongside a super electronic score.

Recently, I had the honour of meeting with Elizabeth at the famed theatrical restaurant, Sardi’s, in New York. She was a special guest at a private dinner celebrating Vincent Price organised by myself and Victoria Price as part of our week-long ESC Tours Spooky New York programme. It was during this dinner that Elizabeth officially launched her CD release and, as a treat, she performed the poem to our dinner guests. Here it is in full.

If you love the works of Edgar Allan Poe, spoken word, or are a fan of the Price/Corman Poe films, then this CD is a must-have for your collection. It also includes readings of the poems Annabel Lee, Romance and Elizabeth.

The Vincent Price Legacy UK has a handful of CDs signed by Elizabeth and these are available (to UK and European residents only) on our Vincent Price Store (click here to order).

If you are in the US, then you can order by clicking here: https://etsy.me/2Y946K0

And if you want to know more about Elizabeth, then check out her official website: http://www.elizabethshepherdactor.com/

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Murder, He Cooked | Cesar Romero’s Arroz con Pollo

Last year, my foodie friend Jenny Hammerton, who curates Silver Screen Suppers, published the Columbo cookbook featuring recipes from all the show’s guest stars. It was great fun to be asked to contribute by taste testing some of the recipes.

I naturally chose the Vincent Price episode, Lovely but Lethal, which featured Vera Miles as that week’s guest villain. Her recipe, Mexican Casserole, was super cheesy but a little disappointing , but I also chose to test out Roddy McDowall’s poached pears, which has since become a firm favourite.

Jenny’s next book will be based on Murder, She Wrote and she’s hosting a cookalong to get everyone to sample the recipes she intends to feature in the forthcoming book. Now, being a huge Batman fan (in which Vincent egg-celled as Egghead), I’ve chosen Cesar Romero (aka the Joker) and his Arroz con Pollo, a traditional dish of Spain and Latin America, closely related to paella, that he came across in Havana when he was a little boy.

ARROZ CON POLLO: THE RECIPE

MY VERDICT:
So how did the dish turn out? Rather good, I must say. This is a really simple one-pot dish, but with tasty flavours. I’d never used lard before, but it works a treat in giving the chicken a nice golden colour, and making this recipe did give me a chance to use up some of the saffron I bought on my last trip to Spain.

As for the small can of pimientos (red, heart-shaped sweet peppers ), I had the devil of the time tracking that down – only to find it readily available at Lidl and Waitrose. I had been looking for tiny ones (like those you see stuck in olives) – duh!

Cesar Romero’s Arroz con Pollo looks good even before adding in the water and rice

THE MEASUREMENTS:
And as for the chicken, I opted to use my local butcher and boy that really made a difference. It was so plump I ended up keeping one breast to make one of my faves (yellow curry with potatoes). If you do end up trying this recipe yourself, there’s enough here for four servings.

Final touches: Pimientos, peas and good splash of sherry

As with most vintage US-based recipes, I had to revaluate the weights and measures. So for 1/2 can tomatoes, I used 0.88mls (as the standard US measure is 355ml); 1 pound of rice became two cups; the wineglass of sherry (I used Tesco’s Jerez-Xeres’ Fino Sherry) worked out to be 2/3 US cup; and I used 59g of Pimientos, which I sliced. The whole thing cost around £16. I’m certainly trying this again, but next time I might add more of the pimientos and a bigger pinch of saffron.

Interestingly, Batman isn’t the only thing that links Cesar Romero and Vincent Price. Just the other day, I was re-watching Irwin Allen’s all-star 1956 epic, The Story of Mankind, and who should pop up but Cesar playing the Spanish envoy to Philip II opposite Agnes Moorehead’s Elizabeth I (Agnes of course was in The Bat with Vinnie and worked with him on the touring stage production of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell in the early-1950s). To bad they didn’t have any scenes together though. But here’s Cesar’s bit in the film.

Now, here’s something you don’t see every day. My friend Robert Taylor in the US was good friends with Cesar and he’s sent me this hilarious picture (see below) of his personalised travelling bag. It’s rather camp, don’t you think and screams the 1970s?

Well, the story goes that it was custom-made by some artisans in the Mexican village that Cesar used to vacation at and they gifted it to him – along with a couple of other items. Robert’s not sure if Cesar ever actually used them, but he was gracious enough to accept them. They now reside alongside Robert’s other film memorabilia of Hollywood’s golden age.

The Murder, She Wrote episode in which Cesar appears in, Paint Me a Murder, is chock full of famous faces, including Ron Moody, Stewart Granger, Robert Goulet, Cristina Raines, Judy Geeson and Capucine. Cesar plays a famous painter who thinks someone is planning to kill him so they can make a fortune from his paintings (which could triple in price once he’s dead).

It’s just a shame that Vincent never appeared on the long-running show, and being an art expert in real life, he would have been perfect for this episode, which would have not only giving him the chance to team up with another Batman alumni, but also to work once again with Angela Lansbury, who played Queen Anne in 1948’s The Three Musketeers opposite villainous Richelieu.

Now, if you want to know more about Cesar, here’s a wonderful tribute courtesy of A&E.

For more about Jenny’s Murder, She Wrote cookbook, click on this link: https://www.silverscreensuppers.com/jerry-orbach/lansburied-alive-in-seattle-a-murder-she-wrote-extravaganza

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Our Weird Weekender was a howling success

What better way to celebrate Friday the 13th and the Harvest Moon than with a tour of London’s iconic Highgate Cemetery, followed by a weekend in Wales exploring haunted locales, classic castles, and the real-life locations used in An American Werewolf in London.

On the morning of Friday 13 September, 20 of us joined Victoria Price and expert guide Peter Mills for a private tour of Highgate’s West Cemetery Highgate where we heard about the history of Victorian burials, the famous and infamous people resting there, and the classic horror movies filmed there — including, of course, The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

The two-hour tour was followed by a fun scavenger hunt devised by Victoria in which everyone paired up with someone they didn’t know and, armed with eight clues, searched the East Cemetery for the answers to Victoria’s cryptic quiz (which we’ve included at the bottom of this post).

Then it was off to lunch at the nearby 17th-century pub, The Flask , where the likes of Dick Turpin, and Keats and Shelley were regulars — and where the first public autopsy was performed! Luckily, the only incisions made today were on our veggies and roasts.

After lunch, Victoria and I loaded up the Mystery Machine (aka our rental van) with a small group of fans and headed out to Wales for our weird weekender adventure.

Our first stop on Saturday was Raglan Castle. Built and occupied between the 15th and 17th century, this impressive ruin is steeped in local legends and spooky apparitions, with visitors reporting sightings of a man in a Shakespearean garb, the ghost of the castle’s former librarian, and a ghostly figure of a man with hollowed out eyes. But for one our group, film location fan Andy Ellis, it was particularly special, as it was also used in Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy Time Bandits (for the Napoleonic War sequence).

Next up, lunch at the Mountain Skirrid Inn, said to be the most haunted pub in Wales. Standing for over 900 years, the inn is built on a mountain that once ‘shivered’ and Shakespeare himself is said to have taken inspiration from this place. It also claims to be the home of several ghosts or spirits as well as the scene of numerous supernatural occurrences or paranormal activities. We didn’t find any spirits ourselves – except for the ones poured into our glasses of course!

Back on the road, we stopped off at the ruins of Llantillo Castle (aka the White Castle), which was established by the Normans in the wake of the invasion of England in 1066, and ended up playing a key role in defending the region for several centuries. Then we explored the magnificent Tintern Abbey, which was founded by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow, in 1131 and was the first Cistercian foundation in Wales. Unfortuntately it fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the England’s religious houses in the 16th century.

Newport came next, where Victoria gave everyone a big challenge – to find the grave of her maternal grand-parents at Saint Woolos cemetery. And thanks to an eagle-eyed Roni, Victoria was able to take some snaps of the grave where Marianne Grant (1825-1913), William John Grant (1850-1930) and Alice Diana Grant (1865-1958) are all buried together.

With the full moon on the horizon, we ended the day at the Riverfront performing arts theatre, where Victoria gave a heartfelt presentation about her dad, followed by a screening of The Abominable Dr. Phibes to a full house of local VP fans. Thanks to everyone who came along. You were a fantastic crowd, and hope you all enjoyed the books and records that we brought along.

Howl!

Sunday was all about An American Werewolf in London. First, we headed to the Black Mountains through the Brecon Beacons National Park for the tiny village of Crickadarn, which stood in for the Yorkshire hamlet of East Proctor in John Landis’ 1981 horror classic.

It was here that a small cottage was dressed up in the film to become The Slaughtered Lamb pub where David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) get a not-so warm reception from the locals.

No pints were ever pulled here (the interiors were actually shot in The Black Swan in Cobham, Surrey), but our gang did take the opportunity to recreate all the scenes shot that were shot around here. Check out the Vincent Price Legacy UK and The Abominable Crypt that Dripped Blood Facebook pages, for more now and then snaps.

Then it was a short drive to Hay Bluff, where the opening scenes were shot. This a truly stunning place, with some spectacular vistas, and it was packed with people out hiking and taking pony rides – (Now, I wonder how many of them knew of the area’s horror film heritage?).

Our weekend concluded with a super lunch at the 17th-century tavern, The Old Black Lion, in Hay-on-Wye, which is book heaven and famous for its annual literary festival. Safe to say, I came away with quite the haul – as well as some fantastic memories. Thanks everyone for making it such a fabulous time – and to Victoria and Sarah who took on the driving and navigation duties. And also thanks to Joni Rogan, Stu & Roni, Simon Flynn and Andy Ellis for letting me use some of your pics in the montages I’ve created here. And finally, a big thank you to Graham Humphreys for the fantastic poster you designed especially for our guests. Cheers!

If you are interested in joining one of our tours: register your interest now. Just click on the link: https://www.esctours.com/contact

TRY VICTORIA’S QUIZ – HOW MANY CAN YOU GET?
1) She said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” She took that to heart — and became one of the greatest writers in England. . .though many thought he was a she. So don’t be fooled by her name!

2) He wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Mark my words: That certainly proved true for the way his philosophical manifesto manifested in the 20th century!

3) He hated being thought of as a Pop artist, but his gravestone certainly reflected the witty gimmicky ethos of Pop Art in pronouncing this artist deceased AKA DEAD.

4) Critics confounded this pop punk impresario his whole career. They continue to hound him after death, wondering whether his headstone is a spectacular failure or a benign success.

5) The daughter of a famous composer, this woman became a famous sculptor in her own right. But many of her most famous subjects were musicians like her father. Her grave sculpturally reflects her talent.

6) If you’re hitchhiking through the galaxy, be sure to donate a pen to the writer who helped you find your way there!

7) Vincent Price’s third wife gave this actor — himself the son of a famous actor and brother to two famous actresses — his start in acting. 

8) Though the Lumiere Brothers might believe otherwise, on his grave at least, this man was the father of movie technology!


7) Vincent Price’s third wife gave this actor — himself the son of a famous actor and brother to two famous actresses — his start in acting. 

8) Though the Lumiere Brothers might believe otherwise, on his grave at least, this man was the father of movie technology!

Love this pic that Joni Rogan took.

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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, if you want to read how Yinzerella got on making my selection, then check it out here: PIEATHALON 6: SALVADOR DALI’S OASIS LEEK PIE (1973)

And here’s what the other the other Pieathletes baked for you!

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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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