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Gift of George Abbott never embraced enough in Forestville

George Abbott Theater and George Abbott Way are located in New York City.

The only famous person to come from Forestville was George Abbott — the Broadway actor and impresario who reached the biblically old age of 107, making revisions for the script of his “Pajama Game” revival the day he died.

I don’t recall his name ever being mentioned when I was a kid. I was in my 30s before I ever connected the two, and that was when he died in 1995. It sure seemed like Forestville people would lead with that, naming streets and buildings after him. New York City sure did — George Abbott Theater and George Abbott Way. The fact that he was forgotten in the place of his early, key development was telling; it was not a place to foster arts and culture. Life was too hard, and organized around the rhythms of the land. Not the showy glitz of the Great White Way. Would that it were.

I wondered if George Abbott left Forestville and never looked back because he didn’t fit in. Even though he was a legendary ladies man, as a sensitive, artistic person he would have been viewed as a fairy or sissy in his own hometown, the pejoratives du jour in the 1960s and 1970s. I can only imagine if someone, anyone, had shown him an extra dose of kindness it could have been different. Or maybe that early alienation fueled his tremendous achievements?

Forestville could have had a thriving theater community with an endowment, scholarships, a thriving summer stock scene and my own life could have turned out much different — that I could have found my way into the world through the theater arts and music, instead of soldiering (though that has its own advantages, as anyone who has received a VA loan can attest).

Since there’s more and more people dealing with and exploring gender identities, I struggle to understand them. It’s hard for people of my tail-end of the Boomers to come to grips with. It wasn’t like this when we were growing up, even when my own kids were growing up. It’s a Generation Z innovation for it to be so open and accepted. I am getting there, though. Possibilities and potential are expanding and I can’t believe that’s a bad thing. Whenever you question your assumptions you are usually the better for it.

It’s taken me decades to realize that there’s great power in gender fluidity. Growing up on a farm with Great Depression-era parents and a World War II hero dad, there was a bright clear line between men and women. It had served us well in our context with a clear division of labor and the partnerships it takes to thrive, or even survive, in the harsh farming life.

But I’m coming to understand that if you want to be a whole, fully realized human being you must seek that balance of masculine and feminine energies within yourself.

Think of history’s greatest conquerers and military leaders — nearly all of them had well-developed feminine qualities: Alexander the Great’s feminine traits were part of his mastery over his men; he was clean shaven when other Macedonian men were bearded, his adoption of Persian clothes and customs gave him an epicene look that added to his air of mystery. Napoleon was a dandy with bespoke fragrances and hair product and he spent as much time designing his men’s uniforms as they did in them. Did you know that buttons on men’s coat sleeves are of Napoleon’s innovation? He could not stand seeing snot-smeared sleeves during parades and present arms.

Actually, the sleeve buttons were adapted from an earlier conqueror: Frederick the Great of Prussia. Born far down the order of succession, his older brothers died young, thrusting him into the limelight. His militaristic father loathed Frederick for his effeminate mannerisms and for the time he spent dancing, at theater, writing books of philosophy and composing music, some of which is still performed. He was a virtuoso flute player. Born today, he’d probably become a rainbow flag warrior with a love of gender-bending costumes and dramas. He’d put Ru Paul to shame.

Tensions between him and his father got so bad at one point, that Frederick, having formed a close attachment to another Prussian officer, tried to escape. His father threatened to have his son executed, then tried to have him removed from the succession in favor of a younger brother. The king had Frederick’s friend and likely lover, Hans Herman von Katte, publicly beheaded, and forced Frederick to watch. What trauma he must have endured?

And yet his subjects came to love “Old Fritz” as they called him. Mostly for his astonishing military victories, but also because of his exuberance for the arts and architecture, building the Berlin State Opera and State Library, which still stand today. He earned his title ”The Great” honestly.

I’m not sure why Frederick the Great isn’t more remembered today.

It could be that he’s been shadow-banned by history because Hitler, among others, extolled him for his military victories, or that he’s been simply been obscured by the mists of time. But I propose him as a role model for young people coming to grips with their gender dynamics, or those like myself who seek to understand what it’s all about.

He first came to my attention when I was reading about Napoleon’s twin smashing victories over the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806. Afterward, he went along with his marshals to visit the tomb of Frederick the Great. “Hat’s off gentlemen. Were this man still alive we wouldn’t be here,” he said. Who was this guy? I’d barely heard of him.

In “Ulysses,” Joyce vividly demonstrates gender fluidity through Leopold Bloom’s phantasmagoria in the chapter “Circe,” when he turns into a woman and Bella Cohen turns into a man. Carl Jung posited that every man has a hidden feminine persona, his anima, and females, their masculine counterpart, their animus. Perhaps these hidden gender counterparts are lingering shadows of our parents — the mother for men and father for women.

I’ve always been most physically attracted to feminine women, girly girls or as the Big Bopper put it, “the wiggling walk and the giggling talk.” But I’ve learned that they did not complete me or me them. Whatever I thought about coming together as a complete unit with my gender mirror opposite was wrong.

Now I believe that you must integrate those parts of yourself before you can come together with anyone in a truly whole and healthy relationship and that it is the work of a lifetime to truly get to know yourself. The whole must be greater than the sum of its parts or what’s the point?

Maybe that’s why I love cooking — it satisfies that feminine urge to bring people together around a table with delicious food. I get that from my mom, though my dad also knew his way around the kitchen.

Every three months after our flagship magazine, the Ojai Quarterly, hits the streets I gather up my crew of writers, editors, salespeople and assorted other oddballs and misfits and cook them a big batch of something delicious along with a custom cocktail. Since I can’t afford to pay them much (or myself for that matter) the least I can do to show my appreciation is feed them and get them boozed up.

The most recent party it was gumbo with chili cheese cornbread and for the cocktail, bourbon (traces of my Kentucky mom) with elderflower liqueur, bitters and a splash of blood orange juice. I don’t have a name for it. Maybe you can suggest one.

Gumbo is an old Creole stew. It’s a bit of work but so delicious I know you’ll thank me.

Make the roux. in a large pot, combine flour and oil and cook, stirring constantly on medium low heat. You have to be careful to stir it constantly, on medium low heat, so that you don’t burn it. It’s easy, but takes patience. A lot of patience – easily 40-45 minutes to get it to that chocolate-y color. The darker the roux, the richer the flavor.

Chop the vegetables. When you’re ready to make your gumbo, start by chopping celery, onions, bell pepper, parsley. I love the freshness from the green bell pepper, onion, celery and parsley. You can also add okra, if you want. Add it at the same time as the other vegetables.

Slice the sausage into coins, then brown them. Spread the sausage in a single layer on a hot, large skillet. Once browned, flip each one over individually, to make sure they all get nice and brown on both sides.

Add to large pot. Add chicken broth, chopped vegetables, parsley, and roux to the pot and stir well. (Skim off any foam that may rise to the top of the pot.) Stir in cajun seasoning, to taste.

Add meat. Add chicken, sausage, and shrimp and taste. Add more seasonings to your liking – salt, pepper, chicken bullion paste, garlic, more chicken broth – until you reach the perfect flavor. Taste it ever now and again until the flavors come together.

Serve warm over hot cooked rice. This recipe tastes even better the next day as the flavors have a chance to blend.

Store Gumbo covered in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. The roux can be made 3-5 days in advance, stored in a large resealable bag in the fridge.

For the roux:

1 heaping cup all-purpose flour

2/3 cup oil (vegetable or canola oil)

For the gumbo:

1 bunch celery , diced, leaves and all

1 green bell pepper , diced

1 large yellow onion , diced

1 bunch green onion , finely chopped

1 bunch fresh parsley leaves , finely chopped

2-3 cloves garlic

1-2 Tablespoons cajun seasoning.

6-8 cups Chicken broth.

12 ounce package andouille sausages , sliced into ‘coins’ (substitute Polska Kielbasa if you can’t find a good Andouille)

One whole chicken, chopped up as best you can. A rotisserie chicken is a good option, too. Though I much prefer chicken thighs or breasts.

2 cups pre-cooked shrimp

cooked white rice for serving

It’s great for a large family gathering. I guarantee that petty family arguments — including those about gender and identity — will be drowned out in its deliciousness.

Bret Bradigan is the editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk of the Town.”

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