Secrets of the M*A*S*H Mess: The Lost Recipes of Private Igor

MASH Mess082

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

In 1950, a country bumpkin named Igor Straminsky answered his country’s call to duty and, as an unwitting Army private, soon found himself in the most hostile environment the planet could ever serve up. No, we’re not talking about Korea. We’re talking about the men and women of the 4077th who queued up three times a day with plastic trays, growling stomachs, and growing suspicions they’d more likely meet their deaths at the inept hands of their new cook than they ever would in confrontations with the enemy they’d come to fight. “Dear Ma,” Igor wrote home, “Instead of letting me work at something I’m good at, they’re gonna make me do a job I don’t know anything about! Radar, the company clerk here, told me that he thinks the Army does that on purpose.”

Suffice it to say, Igor had plenty of time to hone his craft (such as it was). His stint in a mess tent chef’s hat, in fact, lasted eight years longer than the actual Korean War. When the hit television series M*A*S*H finally bowed out in 1983, almost 125 million viewers tuned in to say goodbye, the largest audience ever for a TV show. Fortunately, Igor’s efforts to please the palate weren’t left behind on a helicopter pad. His alter ego-Hollywood actor/writer/entrepreneur Jeff Maxwell-has compiled the best of Igor’s mess tent magic into a hilarious book entitled “Secrets of the M*A*S*H Mess: The Lost Recipes of Private Igor.”

Testimonial from Colonel Potter: “There seems to be a misconception here. Those recipes weren’t lost! We did our best to hide them.”

Within these wacky pages—which are replete with black and white production stills, “dog-tag” quotes, and letters home—the author not only gives us generous dollops of homegrown culinary advice but demonstrates a talent for memorializing his Army experiences and friendships with his own brand of signature recipes such as Hot Lips Tri-Tips, Radar’s Teddy Bear Turkey Loaf, and Hunnicut’s Homesick Cookies.

As clueless as Igor seemed to be whilst unveiling inventive concoctions such as “Cream of Weenie Soup” or “Hot Potato Pucks”, he shows remarkable clarity in laying out instructions that are fun and easy to follow. Whether you’re mustering your troops off to work or school with “Frontline Flapjacks with Chocolate Gravy”, settling in for an evening flick with “Movie Night Popcorn Shrimp” or dazzling your next book club group with “Forward Marsh Melts”, there’s no denying that Igor knows what it takes to please picky eaters.

Testimonial from Hawkeye Pierce: “Can’t wait to try the recipes. There are several people I’m trying to kill.”

In real life, Maxwell loves to chat about the convoluted journey that took him from the bowels of the Print Department at 20th Century Fox to stand-up comedy to the elation of playing a character with an actual name on a hit series instead of just a credit as “Soldier 1”. The proliferation of candid shots throughout the book suggest the slap-dash happiness of an overgrown kid who has not only found himself at the summer camp of a lifetime but in the thick of new friendships destined to last forever.

Q: Did you know anything about M*A*S*H before you joined the series?

A: Not really. I thought it was something you fed to chickens! Okay, okay, for a short time I worked as a casting director at Twentieth Century Fox and was responsible for casting some of the smaller parts in a film titled M*A*S*H. I saw the movie when it was released and loved it. I knew nothing about the television version or the actors in it until the first day I showed up on the set.

Q: What were your impressions of the film?

A: Robert Altman’s raw, improvisational and bloody approach made me feel very uncomfortable. It also made me laugh which, I believe, is the true genius of both the movie and the television show.

Q: Had you read the novel on which the film was based?

A: Shortly after joining the show, I did read the book and enjoyed it. But don’t you think it would have been a better novel if Igor had been in it?

Q: Did you think M*A*S*H was going to be a huge hit when you first read the script?

A: No. As a matter of fact, the show was getting less than super ratings in the early days. Shortly after I made my appearances, the ratings shot through the roof. Draw your own conclusions.

Q: So what were your impressions of Private Igor?

A: I really liked Igor and thought of him as a person struggling to get used to a job that wasn’t familiar or comfortable. Like everybody else in the compound, he was stuck there. I played him as a mechanic who was forced to trade motor oil for butter fat. The thing I liked most about him is that no matter how tough people treated him, he always tried to be a little funny.

Q: Tell us what inspired you to write a book.

A: Several year before the show ended production, I thought it would be funny if Igor were to write his own cookbook. I had planned to write it during the last season but got involved in another project. Better late than never.

Q: Did you come up with all the recipes yourself?

A: In the book you learn that Igor created them. He didn’t know it but he was really a gifted chef who was forced to cook-by-the-book. Okay, maybe he had a little help from a couple of friends and Mrs. Igor.

Q: And how about you? Are you a good cook?

A: You bet your creamed weenies I am!

Q: Have any of your fellow actors tried the recipes?

A: I don’t know. But I haven’t heard from any lawyers yet.

Q: Do you have a favorite go-to comfort food?

A: I’ve become a major student of the art of smoking food. I am an animal lover, and this will not sit well with many of my respected friends, but I admit to loving smoked ribs. Successfully blending seasonings with just the right amount of smoky flavor to build the perfect flavor profile on a rack of ribs is an art.

Q: Getting back to the show, do you recall a favorite episode?

A; Adam’s Ribs stands out in my mind as one of the all-time greats. The “river of liver, ocean of fish” scene between Hawkeye and Igor is a classic.

Q: Which character was your favorite (besides Igor)?

A: Tough question to answer. All the characters and their behaviors were so integral to the comedy and theme; it would be hard to suggest any one was a favorite. I enjoyed each of them for what they contributed to every episode.

Q: When was it determined the 11th season would be the last?

A: I think at the end of the 10th.Everybody knew that all of the stories had been told. To continue into a 12th season would have put the quality of the writing, acting and producing in great jeopardy. Although there was talk of moving the show to Alaska and re-naming it MUSH.

Q: What was it like on the set that final day?

A: It was warm and fuzzy—kind of like that nice fog you’re in after a big Thanksgiving meal. There was a lot of hugging and a few teary outbursts but, for the most part, surprisingly upbeat. All the agents, however, were sobbing daily.

Q: Was there any talk about you appearing on “AfterM*A*S*H?”

A: If there was, nobody told me. If they had only researched how Igor affected the ratings on M*A*S*H, AfterM*A*S*H might still be on today. But seriously, the stories and humor of M*A*S*H were driven by one of the most powerful, horrendous human endeavors one can imagine. Taking those characters out of the war and putting them in a benign setting for any kind of reunion show would be as wrong as moving Gilligan’s Island to Korea.

Q: Are you still acting?

A: Not really, although ask me and I might. I enjoy bringing projects to fruition and have become very involved with fund-raising, producing movies and selling television shows. Raising budgets for independent films is challenging and exciting. And it can make you nauseous and sweaty even in winter.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: Probably that I am an extremely serious person. The secret about comedians is that their desire to be funny is usually born out of difficult childhood experiences. I’m not talking about abuse, but something that makes them feel fragmented from their family and/or peers. Cool kids are not usually motivated to do stand-up comedy. They’re too busy fielding offers from the CIA or Apple. It’s the not-so-cool kids who make their classmates laugh to gain acceptance and to avoid getting beat up by the cool kids. Many funny folks are serious and shy. I guess I have that in my DNA, too.

Q: What’s the oldest, weirdest or most nostalgic item you currently have in your closet?

A: My brother.

Q: Rumor has it that you have a new book in the works. What is it about?

A:  My wife recently endured Breast Cancer and its treatment. I’m planning on writing about the experience and its impact on us as a couple, but mostly how it affected me. I’m going to take the reader on the difficult path of the event while highlighting some humorous moments nobody expects. It will definitely not be a medical textbook or a maudlin tome. Still thinking about putting some recipes in it.

My wife is now doing quite well, by the way.

Q: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?

A: Whether they remember it or not, I’d like them to know that M*A*S*H was a magical moment for everyone connected with the show. I was fortunate to have worked with incredibly talented, vibrant and intelligent people, cast and crew, for nine of the eleven-years the show was produced. I gained life-long friendships and learned a lot about acting, writing, and behavior in the very heady environment of a successful television show. The late Larry Gelbart developed the show for television and wrote most of the episodes in the first four years. Gene Reynolds was the executive producer of the show and directed most of the episodes in the first four years. Larry’s writing genius combined with Gene’s wisdom and incredible talent for the daily maneuvering of a gaggle of high-powered actors was the fuel that allowed the magic to happen on the stage and in our living rooms. And it helped me grow up. Although I’m definitely still a work in progress.

I’d also urge your readers to watch the reruns of M*A*S*H whenever possible. I like the residuals.

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So Much for Buckingham

So Much For Buckingham cover art

Former actor and stage director Anne R. Allen is a wonderfully funny mystery writer who loves to bring some levity to what can be dark, heavy topics. Anne also co-authors a well-written, widely read blog and has worked on joint projects with other writers, so in addition to penning her own books, it’s clear she knows how to operate as a team player. What a pleasure it’s been getting to know Anne and her work, and if you haven’t already read her books, we’re thrilled to introduce her to you.

Interviewed By Debbie A. McClure

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Q         You combine comedy with mystery writing. That can’t be easy, or is it? What is the easiest and/or most difficult aspect to writing this type of book?

A         Actually, what’s hard for me is taking the comedy out of my writing. I find humor in everything. Always have. When I was about seven, I used to put on puppet shows in my back yard. Lots of carnage. Lots of laughs. I was a twisted kid. LOL.

When I try to write heartfelt, deeply emotional stuff, it falls flat. I like fast-paced stories that are fun, but leave you with something to think about later.

Mysteries were an obvious choice for me. I’ve been a mystery fan since I read my first Nancy Drew book, and since then I’ve read all the classics: pretty much everything by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Chandler, Hammett, etc. I’ve written a few books that aren’t standard whodunnits, but they always have a mystery element. I think I like the structure involved with the mystery genre.

My newest book, So Much for Buckingham, is the 5th in my Camilla Randall series of comedy-mysteries. It deals with some major issues: cyberbullying and character assassination. I also delve into the mystery of whether Richard III really killed the princes in the Tower (I don’t think he did.). Camilla’s best friend gets accused of killing an historical re-enactor dressed as the Duke of Buckingham. The only witness is apparently the ghost of Richard III. I hope people will find it funny and thought provoking.

Book #4, No Place Like Home, deals with homelessness and “bag lady syndrome”—the fear many older women have of ending up homeless.

Because I write funny mysteries, I get to deal with these issues in an unsentimental, detached way that examines all sides and still provides a lot of entertainment.

Q         Many writers today struggle with how to fit into this new e-landscape we’re seeing. What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

A         Number one: let go of the idea that paper books are the only “real” publishing. Most authors now make the bulk of their money from e-books.

Also, accept social media as a necessary evil and then find aspects you can enjoy. For me, it’s blogging. Every author needs to find a place online where they can interact and make friends. That’s where we find readers and mentors—and maybe an agent and publisher.

I’d also add this advice to new writers: don’t believe everything you read online. Lots of the publishing advice on the internet is old, misguided, or just plain wrong. Always consider the source and read widely.

Q         Who has been your greatest life or business mentor, and why?

A         I’m very lucky that I made friends with my Central Coast (CA) neighbor, Catherine Ryan Hyde (author of Pay it Forward and Amazon superstar) early in my career. She has been an inspiration and mentor to me for the last two decades. She’s an amazing human being. I am so blessed that she agreed to co-write a handbook for writers with me: How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.

Her ups and downs over the last twenty years have shown me that there is no certainty in this business, and you need to keep in touch with your readers and stay true to your voice no matter what.

Q         You and I are both representatives of the “Boomer” generation. What advantages would you say we have over our mother’s and grandmother’s generations?

A         Oh, there are so many! Tech alone has totally changed the process. I started writing in the days of typewriter ribbons and carbons, and younger people don’t realize how time consuming all that stuff was. No cut and paste. One typo and you had to start the page over with a carbon.

And now we have email queries. I still have some of those old nesting boxes we used to send out our manuscripts with postage for return. Expensive! Plus all that postage …

And of course there’s the fact women have so much more freedom and respect than they did in the early and mid-20th century. As an unmarried female, I’m not expected to live with other family members as their live-in servant, the way “old maids”, divorcees, and widows did in my grandmother’s day.

Even my mother had to fight hard for respect, even though she had an Ivy League PhD in English literature. People accept me as an authority because of what I say, not my gender. That’s such a huge thing that younger women take for granted.

Q         Writing is far more difficult than most people understand. Was there anything in your past professions as an actress and/or stage director that helped prepare you for this role of writer?

A         Acting and directing are great preparation for a novelist!

As an actor, you learn you always need motivation for whatever action you take on stage. A novelist needs to remember that even the most minor characters need to have a goal and a purpose in every scene.

As a director, I learned what short attention spans audiences have, and how to keep up the pace and never let up. The immediate feedback of rapt attention and laughter vs. coughing, rustling programs, and trips to the restroom lets a director know what works and what doesn’t.

Q         What would you say has been the most difficult personal lesson for you to learn in life?

A         I used to be way too trusting and giving. When I was younger, I always judged other people by myself and assumed everybody had honest, altruistic motives.

I’ve had to learn that accepting people as they present themselves can lead to grief. Learning to recognize narcissists and sociopaths and avoid letting them dominate my life has been a huge (and tough) life lesson for me.

But I’ve had so much fun killing them off in my novels! LOL.

Also, I’ve had to accept that I have more highly tuned senses than most people, so I can easily get over-stimulated—which leads to health problems. So I can’t push myself past my limits with things like NaNoWriMo, big conferences, or marathon book tours. Learning that I’m a “highly sensitive person” has finally allowed me to learn to say no to overload and overwhelming situations.

Q         What do you see as the future for publishing and the new e-technology, and why?

A         Obviously the e-reader has changed the publishing industry in a major way, and the changes keep coming.

I’d like to believe the publishing industry won’t go the way of the music business, where everything is expected to be free and people think artists shouldn’t be paid. Definitely the new paradigm has led to a lower bottom line for most traditional authors.

It has also given rise to the self-publishing movement, which is great for a lot of authors, and I’ve even self-published some of my own books.

But the “Kindle gold rush” is over, and lots of amateur writers who hoped to make millions are giving up now. Kindle Unlimited has cut into the self-publishing bottom line in a major way for a lot of us.

Self-publishers will need to spread a wide net on many platforms and many countries in order to succeed.

Things will never return to business as usual  pre-Kindle days, but we also can’t party like it’s 2009. Self-publishing will continue to be a viable option, but only the savvy and hard-working will make a living at it.

I think bookstores will continue to exist, the way movie theatres do, in spite of Netflix, Hulu and other streaming sites. People like the whole experience of visiting a bookstore.

Q         You’ve collaborated on three projects now, one with author Catherine Ryan Hyde, and two with NYT million-seller author, Ruth Harris. Can you tell us a little about them, and what you feel are the advantages of writers partnering?

A         I have co-written one book with Catherine Ryan Hyde. Ruth and I collaborate on our blog and we put together a two-fer boxed set of two of our novels, CHANEL AND GATSBY, but we didn’t write them together. We just combined her CHANEL CAPER, and my GATSBY GAME in between digital covers.

I’ve also worked with other novelists on some boxed sets and anthologies, when we worked a lot on co-promotion. These were fantastic opportunities to network with other authors in my genre and meet new readers. I think authors should jump on any chance to collaborate with other authors in boxed sets and other co-promotions. It’s a fantastic way to expand your readership.

The book I co-authored with Amazon superstar Catherine Ryan Hyde, How To Be A Writer In The E-Age, came together very easily because it was a nonfiction book and we wrote alternate chapters. We were already good friends, so it was a great experience.

Q       Blogging has become something more writers are discovering, but often struggle with how to create a “voice” or meaningful content. What recommendations would you give to writers just starting out on this blogging path?

A         Actually, I’m writing a book the subject. Because I’ve managed to build a very successful blog, averaging about 90,000 hits a month, with nearly 4000 subscribers, I think I am uniquely qualified to help new authors build a blog.

The most important thing to remember about blogs is that they are part of social media, and social media is, well, social. Authors need to interact and respond to comments, as well as visit and comment on other blogs.

A good way to find your voice is to pay attention to how you comment on other blogs. Use that voice on your own. Don’t preach, brag, or condescend. Just chat. Treat people as if they’re visitors in your living room.

Q         What are your thoughts on the traditional vs self-publishing debate so prevalent in our industry right now?

A         I don’t think all authors are cut out to self-publish. It’s very hard to make the big time if you’re starting to self-publish right now and you’ve never been published before.

The days of breakout Amazon stars like Hugh Howey are pretty much over because Amazon’s algorithms no longer favor indies, and Kindle Unlimited has drastically reduced royalties. It’s also hard to get traction on other retailers like iTunes and GooglePlay if you’re an indie.

But self-publishing is fantastic for established authors who get dropped by their publishers, or who want to supplement their income with novellas and stories between “big books”.

I would recommend that non-tech-savvy writers try for traditional publishing first, especially if they write literary fiction or children’s lit—which sell better in brick and mortar stores.

I don’t know of any literary writer who has an exclusively indie career that’s taken off. I think that’s because literary writers depend on reviews in established print magazines.

And children’s books (except for YA) don’t sell as well in e-books as adult genre fiction does.

But it is true that writers going the traditional route need to be much more wary than in earlier times. They need to find agents or small presses that understand the new paradigm and will allow them to self-publish between books, and won’t offer odious contracts that tie up work for your lifetime plus 70 years.

I’ve been with a series of small presses, some of which were better than others, but they always gave me my rights back with no problem. I also learned a lot and got great editing.

Now I have some books with a small press and some are self-published. That works for me.

I think most authors should plan to self-publish at some point, but I don’t think it’s a good first step for most genres, unless you’re really a savvy marketer with a lot of books in the hopper ready to go.

Romance, mystery, and thriller writers may be an exception. I think they can do well self-publishing right out of the gate, especially if they write fast and have a lot of titles. I know a number who do.

Q         What is it about writing mysteries, especially those with, ahem, older female protagonists that draws you in and holds you?

A         I love writing stories that mix mystery and romantic comedy, especially when the protagonists are older people. In No Place Like Home, 60-yr old former billionaire, Doria, reconnects with her homeless high school sweetheart. That was so much fun to write.

And how often do you read romantic stories about older people? It’s fun to do something different.

Q         What’s next for you, Anne?

A         So Much For Buckingham launched July 8th and is now available.

After that, I’m working on a series of short books for new authors on subjects like blogging, building a platform, writing that first chapter, etc. I’m calling them “two-hour courses” –simple, “just the facts ma’am” type information you might have to plow through a lot of big books or blog archives to get. Plus, I put my own humorous spin on things.

I’ll also be starting my next Camilla book, which has the working title, The Knight of Cups.

Anne blogs with NYT million-seller Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris (http://annerallen.blogspot.com/), named to Writer’s Digest for Best 101 Websites for Writers. She is also the author of eight comic novels, including the hilarious Camilla Randall Mysteries. SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM, which launched July 8, 2015, is #5 in the series but can be read as a stand-alone.

For more on Anne, please check out her links below:

Amazon.com author page: http://www.amazon.com/Anne-R.-Allen/e/B005R2SBI4

Goodreads author page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5304269.Anne_R_Allen

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/annerallen1

Twitter: https://twitter.com/annerallen

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/anne-r-allen/10/262/493

Google+: https://plus.google.com/+AnneRAllen/posts

Email: annerallen.allen@gmail.com