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.

The Single Person’s Cookbook-Lessons in Life, Love and Food

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“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” This vintage quote by the late columnist/film critic Harriet Van Horne is the perfect introduction to this week’s interview with Tony Wilkins, author of The Single Person’s Cookbook – Lessons in Life, Love and Food. When he’s not stirring up fun, dolloping heaps of wisdom, and serving timely tips to fans of his weekly San Francisco talk show, this multi-talented entrepreneur can likely be found conjuring culinary magic – and courting romance! – in his home kitchen. Whether you’re young and just starting out, older and unexpectedly starting over, or simply savoring the simplicity of singlehood, Tony’s book is a tasty blend of approachable menus and saucy anecdotes.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Are you a self-taught cook or did you spend a lot of time in your mom’s kitchen growing up?

A: I’m self-taught. However, I grew up watching Julia Child a lot as a kid.

Q: What was your favorite comfort food as a child? Is it something that still fills you with bliss as an adult?

A: My favorite meal as a kid was fried chicken with buttered corn and mashed potatoes. And to this day if I have a rough day it’s my “go-to meal”. With a glass of wine, of course.

Q: Are there any foods you run away from?

A: Yes. Cooked rutabagas. I can’t stand the smell.

Q: What’s your favorite spice or herb?

A: Herbs de Provence. It classes up everything from veggies to meat.

Q: So tell us what inspired you to write a cookbook.

A: I was inspired to write the book because writing my (first) book on telemarketing was more labor intensive. The cookbook was my way of telling my story thru my love of food. The rationale was that because it wasn’t about marketing or business, it would be a fun project. It turns out that it was a lot more difficult to write than the first book because I don’t measure anything unless I’m baking.

Q: Most cookbook recipes are written to accommodate 4-6 hungry people. What were the challenges in creating tasty meals for a person who lives – and goes grocery shopping – alone?

A: That’s the strange part because I grew up watching my mom cook for the entire family (4 people) so I had to teach myself how to cook for 1-2 ;which took years to get right. Grocery shopping was easier because I tend to buy in bulk anyway although it can be difficult to see a sale on a 20 pound bag of chicken wings and not throw it in my cart. I think the real lesson to remember when cooking for two is this: buy in bulk but break things down into smaller packages whenever possible for faster, easier cooking. So, for example, meat can be purchased in bulk but cut into smaller pieces for easy freezing and cooking. The same with veggies, stocks (for soups) and sauces.

Q: Speaking of grocery shopping, are you someone who makes it a snappy and efficient expedition or a leisurely one?

A: Leisurely. I rather like the experience of finding new items to buy.

Q: What’s your favorite aisle?

A: I love the meat section. I don’t know why. I just do.

Q: It has long been said that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Tell us about how this applies to your three-date rule.

A: LOL. My friends would tease me all the time about cooking for my dates because they felt that it was a sure fire way to run off a man. It’s funny women love having others cook for them but many men feel trapped in a relationship if someone (male or female) cooks (for them) by the third date. Other than that, at my age I don’t really believe in the 3 date rule. Whatever makes you feel comfortable is what you should do. And no, I don’t listen to my friends’ advice anymore about cooking for someone I like.

Q: Do you have a signature “date night” dish when you want to impress someone new?

A: Yes. Chicken Linquica is a favorite or a roasted chicken always goes over well. Both are very simple one pot/pan dishes I can make without much thought or prep.

Q: Do you ever invite your guest(s) to help or do you prefer to run the whole show yourself?

A: I hate others in the kitchen with me. I often tell my guests to choose a movie while I’m in the kitchen but truthfully by the time they arrive dinner is usually already done.

Q: Have you ever had a kitchen disaster?

A: God yes. I think every cook has had a disaster at one point or another. It’s how we learn. It was when I was very young and really wanted to impress someone by cooking a dish in a pressure cooker for the first time. Needless to say I haven’t used one since.

Q: Do you set a formal table when it’s just you or do you carry your plate to another room?

A: I eat in the living room because I want to watch TV or work while eating. I know it’s bad but one should be comfortable when eating. There’s something a bit pathetic about (me) sitting alone at my large wooden kitchen table and eating a meal. For some reason it feels as if the neighbors are watching me with pity in their eyes.

Q: The book is filled with anecdotes about your love life. For you, which food is the most potent aphrodisiac?

A: Again, a really wonderfully roasted chicken is comforting and comfortable and puts everyone in a relaxed amiable mood for whatever comes next.

Q: With the holidays just around the corner, what do you do to keep yourself from stressing out as a party host?

A: Besides going to someone else’s house? I keep it simple and have cooking time down to 2 hours. I taught this trick to my girls, Leslie and Robyn, and now every year they call me with a report on how their cooking experiences. Here’s the secret. First handle as much of the prep work a few weeks in advance because it’s not the cooking that takes so much time; it’s the prep work. So any chopping of veggies can done weeks ahead of time and stored in the freezer until you need them. Next, if you’re cooking for 1-2 people buy turkey parts – legs, thighs, etc. separately instead of a whole turkey. This way you’ll cut down on prep as well as cooking time. Also I try to have all of my spices (for the day) seasonings, etc. all in one place or grouped together so I’m not spending 10 minutes searching for nutmeg. Lastly, keep things simple and on your terms because it’s supposed to be a time to relax and enjoy family and friends. So make sure that whatever you decide to do this holiday season, you do it on your terms.

Q: What are the 10 most important staples in your pantry?

A: I’ll give you a few extras. Salt, pepper, butter, olive oil, chicken, pasta, sausage, bacon, Herbs de Provence, tomatoes, corn, onions and shrimp. If I have these in my kitchen, then I can cook just about anything.

Q: What’s your most treasured kitchen appliance or accessory and how long have you had it?

A: I’d say my 3 cast iron skillets, all of which I’ve had for over 20 years.

Q: You live in San Francisco, one of the most foodie-centric cities in the country. On the nights when you’re not cooking, what are some of your favorite haunts?

A: Hmm. That’s a tough once since I tend to eat in a lot but when I do dine out I love The Sausage Factory for Italian food (in the Castro). I also love dives and since I live in the Tenderloin part of the city there are several to choose from. Here’s an interesting fun-fact. Although the “TL” as it’s called is considered a low income neighborhood, we have some of the best restaurants in the city. Most tourists, college kids and anyone wanting a good meal for not a lot of money will come to the TL instead of going to one the more expensive haunts

Q: Who do you think make better chefs – men or women?

A: Now that’s a great question. I think men and women approach food differently. Men tend to have a technical approach to cooking which in theory would make them better chefs (I suppose). But women tend to be more creative and approach food from an emotional standpoint which would make them better cooks (again in theory).

Having said that, both are equally important to the food industry. Nigella Lawson, for example refers to herself as a “cook” but she’s got more passion for food than just about anyone on TV today. On the other hand, Julia (Child) was a chef and was equally passionate about cooking but she focused more on the technique of cooking. Keep in mind that Julia also trained at Le Cordon Bleu and was the only female in her class.

Q: If you could invite your favorite celebrity to dinner, who would it be, what would you serve, and how would the table be set?

A: Oh that’s easy although I would invite several people including singer Julia Fordham, her sister Claire, and Nigella Lawson. Ironically, a singer, a writer and a cook who all happen to be British. The dinner would be a simple roasted chicken with veggies or my new favorite comfort dish – fried catfish over Campbell’s Chunky chicken gumbo. The dish sounds (It’s a Creole dish I came up with one night) very odd but trust me, not only is it delicious but it’s done in about 15 min. The table would be simple, elegant but welcoming with a bit of candlelight and Julia Fordham playing in the background.

Q: What are you having for dinner tonight?

A: I’m making a deep dish sausage pizza

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

A: I guess the only thing I want your readers to know is that they should always be curious and creative when it comes to cooking. Try new things including herbs and veggies that you wouldn’t ordinarily try.  I’m not much of a baker but every now and then I really love the process of learning to bake something from scratch. My book is available at http://www.amazon.com/Single-Persons-Cookbook-Lessons-Life-Love/dp/1463721064