Monday, October 26, 2009

Special recipe: Houdini's last meal

On Sunday, October 24th, 1926, Houdini collapsed after struggling through a show at Detroit's Garrick Theater. For quite some time he'd been suffering from crippling abdominal pains and a very high fever, but then, he'd always been accustomed to ignoring pain.

After the show, despite pleas from his wife that he go to the hospital, Houdini stubbornly returned to his hotel. There, the hotel's house physician, a 25-year-old just out of medical school named Daniel Cohn, insisted that Houdini go to the hospital immediately. It still took some time to convince him, but Houdini finally relented, and was taken to Detroit's Grace Hospital late that night. Around 3:00 the following afternoon (October 25th), doctors operated, and as soon as they opened him up they knew Houdini was doomed. They removed his gangrenous, ruptured appendix, sewed him up, and assumed he would die in a matter of hours.

By sheer force of will, he lasted almost a week. He died at 1:26 on Sunday afternoon, October 31, 1926 -- Halloween.

During Houdini's last week, Houdini told Dr. Cohn that he had a "yen for Farmer's Chop Suey," a dish popular with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. This craving was no doubt one of nostalgia rather than hunger, as Houdini was gravely ill with peritonitis and virtually unable to eat. It may also have been a response to his very high fever, as the chilled, creamy salad was traditionally eaten on hot summer days.

Eager to do anything that might make Houdini's final days more pleasant, the young doctor hurried over to a nearby deli and returned with some Farmer's Chop Suey, which he shared with his famous patient. It is apparently the last meal Houdini ever ate.

Houdini was a man of substantial wealth, who had traveled all over the world and who frequently dined with celebrities and royalty. So it's interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that his final meal request would be for a simple peasant dish: comfort food.

In honor of Houdini, I bring you a recipe for his "last meal." Please note: there is no single "right way" to make Farmer's Chop Suey (though your Jewish grandmother will no doubt insist that HER way is the right way). It is by its nature a mish-mosh of available raw vegetables, so feel free to adjust it to suit your tastes. But do keep the radishes -- they give the dish its zing.


1 cup sour cream
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper

Raw veggies:
1 cup lettuce, shredded, or 1 cup chopped celery, or 1 cup shredded cabbage
1/2 cup radishes, diced
1/2 cup cucumbers, chopped roughly
1/2 cup carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1/4 cup sweet onions or green onions

Mix together sour cream and cottage cheese, salt, and white pepper.
Gently fold in veggies, until all are well-coated with the cream.

Chill mixture well before serving.

Next time: The 1936 Hollywood seance; or, What's the deal with "Houdini's secret vault" anyway?

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