Robert C. Baker, Who Reshaped Chicken Dinner, Dies at 84
Robert C. Baker, an agricultural scientist who looked at chickens and envisioned chicken nuggets, not to mention chicken hotdogs, helping transform what is now a $29 billion poultry industry, died on Monday at his home in North Lansing, N.Y. He was 84.
The cause was a heart attack, said his son Dale.
Cornell University hired Dr. Baker in 1957 as a professor and as a liaison to growers and marketers. His mission was to find ways to persuade people to eat more poultry, rather than viewing chickens as just egg-laying machines or Sunday luxuries. He took them to places no bird had been before, including the sausage department.
It was part of a fundamental transformation of the poultry business. It was after World War II that plucked chickens became generally available in supermarkets, and prepackaged chicken parts arrived only in the late 1960's. Now more than 40 percent of chicken sales involve processed meat, like patties and nuggets.
Among the more than 50 chicken products that Dr. Baker and his team of technicians and graduate students developed were chicken baloney, chicken steak, chicken salami, chicken chili, chicken hash, chicken pastrami and chicken ham. He performed similar magic for turkeys and eggs, doing some of the earliest work on frozen omelets.
Part of the magic lay in extracting all the meat from the poultry carcass and reshaping it. In 1982, Forbes magazine credited Dr. Baker with having invented processed chicken in 1963. De-boning machines, which Dr. Baker helped develop, made the new shapes possible — even nuggets in the form of dinosaurs.
Just about all these foods found their way into supermarkets, though some took more than a decade to do so. The new products promised convenience to harried households, and they used chicken parts — including backs, necks and skin — that would otherwise have gone to waste.
"Robert Baker is something of a chicken Edison," The New York Times reported in 1984 in discussing the transformation of the industry.
Glenn Froning, professor emeritus of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska, said Dr. Baker's contributions ranged from basic research on microbiology to marketing strategies.
"He stimulated a lot of the early work in developing new products," Dr. Froning said.
Chicken hotdogs were a particular success, though naming them was problematic: in virtually equal numbers, women preferred "chicken franks," and men liked "bird dogs."
McDonald's is often given credit for inventing chicken nuggets in 1979, but the groundwork was laid by Dr. Baker's contributions in the 1960's in developing ways to bind chicken meat together and make the coating stick to the reconstituted meat.
McDonald's version sold. Dr. Baker's did not, but Cornell was interested only in promoting agriculture and shared its research freely in detailed bulletins and consultations. The professor said in an interview with The Ithaca Journal that he had particularly enjoyed his collaborations with Frank Perdue.
Among Dr. Baker's innovations were ways to barbecue chicken, helping establish what was for many people a new and enjoyable ritual. He went to every county in New York State to promote barbecued chicken, and sold it for many years at the annual state fair in Syracuse.
Robert Carl Baker was born on Dec. 29, 1921, in Newark, N.Y. His family scraped by on sporadic earnings from an orchard and 400 or so chickens. His mother made chicken and biscuits every Sunday.
Dr. Baker admitted that his experiences with poultry as a youth were far removed from today's mass-produced poultry products. He said to The Times:
"Some people say the flavor used to be better. I grew up on a farm. We'd chop the head off the chicken and it would bounce around the yard and lay there for a while before we picked it up; then we'd scoop it into a pail and it would lie in the house a bit before my mother would get around to cooking it. Probably it did taste different. But do you want to put up with that to get the taste?"
He received his bachelor's degree from Cornell in 1943, majoring in pomology, the science of fruits, and then got a master's in marketing from Pennsylvania State University. In 1957, he took a yearlong sabbatical to earn a Ph.D. in food science.
He joined Cornell's faculty in 1957, and in 1970 founded the university's Institute of Food Science and Marketing, of which he was director until 1975. It was here that he honed his awareness of the importance of naming foods.
For example, when students at Ithaca High School were served minced-fish-in-tomato-sauce, made from a trash fish, they revolted. But when Dr. Baker's team changed the name to sloppy Jonah, they loved it.
While in college, Dr. Baker met Jacoba Munson, whom he married in 1944. He often brought home a product he had invented for her to cook.
"Some of it was really bad," his son said, mentioning an early version of chicken bologna.
Dr. Baker is survived by his wife; his sons Dale, of Lansing, and Kermit, of Boston; his daughters Regina Robbins of Knoxville, Reenie Sandsted and Johanna Baker, both of Lansing, and Karen Applebee of Towanda, Pa.; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Dale noted that there were still few chickens on the fruit farm his parents operated.
"I'm trying to figure out what to do with them," he said. "Do you want some chickens?"
Also, Ann Calvello, 76, a Legend in Roller Derby's Rowdy Rinks, Dies
Ann Calvello, whose bad-girl attitude, madcap makeup, polka-dot hair and savage style of play made her a legend in the flamboyantly indecorous sport-cum-circus that is roller derby, died on Tuesday at a hospital near her home in San Bruno, Calif. She was 76.
The cause was liver cancer, her partner, Bill Prieto, told The Associated Press.
To her fans, she was known as Banana-Nose, and as she outlasted other roller pioneers — skating in every decade from the 1940's to this one — Ms. Calvello was unofficially crowned the Roller Derby Queen. Other printable nicknames included Meanest Mama on Skates.
She embellished her image with a gift for colorful, often off-color, remarks. "Joe Namath is the Ann Calvello of football," she once said.
Roller derby epitomizes the corner of America's spirit where the flashy intersects with the tawdry. It began as a variation of Depression-era marathon dance contests, with skaters covering the distance between New York and Los Angeles, 57,000 laps on the banked track, in 40 days or more. As it was transformed into a professional sport, more or less, spectators crowded into arenas like Madison Square Garden or Oakland Coliseum to marvel at the spectacle of men and women crashing into one another at high speeds.
Roller derby, often compared to professional wrestling, became a popular feature on national television. In the 1972 movie "Kansas City Bomber," Raquel Welch seemed the consummate roller queen.
Ms. Calvello's importance to the sport is suggested by small articles in The New York Times during the 50's, 60's and 70's announcing that a roller-derby exhibition was coming. She was often the only player mentioned. She was honored by a documentary about her life made in 2001, "Demon of the Derby."
Ann Theresa Calvello was born in Newport, R.I., on Aug. 1, 1929. That made her a Leo, something she loved to emphasize with lion rings on every finger, lions on the frame of her glasses and eight tattoos, all lions. Her nickname for herself was the Lioness.
She developed a reputation for a rough-and-tumble, elbows-flying play, and was usually cast as a villain in the manner of pro wrestling. Often, she played opposite Joanie Weston, the showily goody-goody Blonde Bomber. Ms. Calvello relished the negative role, saying she preferred boos to cheers.
She got as good as she gave: her injuries included 12 broken noses, four broken elbows, a broken collarbone, a broken tailbone and numerous cracked ribs. When Indianapolis declared April 15, 1972, Ann Calvello Day, injuries kept her from attending.
In 1951, she met Roy Langley, a handsome referee, and she retired after they married the next year. In 1954, she left him and her baby to go back to the rink. The marriage, her only one, ended in divorce in 1956.
In addition to her partner, Ms. Calvello is survived by her daughter, Teri Conte, of Los Angeles, and two brothers, Tony and Joey Calvello.
Ms. Calvello's career took her to teams all over the country, from the San Francisco Bay Bombers to the Jersey Jolters, as well as to Australia. Her habit of wearing different colored skates, her varying hair colors — purple, green and polka-dot, to name three — and ultra-white white lipstick against skin tanned to deep chocolate became trademarks. Ms. Calvello skated with the original Roller Derby, which began in 1935, until its demise in 1973. She appeared in successor leagues and exhibitions into the 2000's. She felt unappreciated, to say the least.
"I've got too many knives in my back," she said in an interview with The Asbury Park Press in 2002. "Every time I go to the airport, all the knives in my back go off.
"You think I'm kiddin' ya?"
Finally, Peter Halasz, 62, Playwright Who Staged His Funeral as Theater, Is Dead
I have edited this one slightly.
Peter Halasz, a Hungarian-born avant-garde playwright, actor and director, who founded the Squat/Love Theater collective, an Off Off Broadway ensemble of the 1980's, died last Thursday at the home of a daughter in Brooklyn. He was 62 and lived in Budapest and Staten Island.
Mr. Halasz died just a month after staging his own funeral on Feb. 6 at an art museum in Budapest, where he was born. The Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel reported that he had himself enclosed in a glass coffin for a final farewell to friends and hundreds of theater fans.
"I'm curious how a funeral looks from the other side," Mr. Halasz told the BBC World Service's "Outlook" program as he prepared for what he termed his last appearance. "I want to take a look at my friends and listen to the eulogies."
Peter Halasz was considered a pioneer of the free-spirited theater scene in Hungary, arousing the suspicions of Communist cultural functionaries with the first theater company he founded in 1966. Barred from performing in public in 1972, he took his players underground to perform, mostly in private homes. The ensemble left Hungary in 1976, and after a stopover in Western Europe, settled in Manhattan the next year, associating for a time with Andy Warhol and taking cues from happenings and conceptual performance art of the time.
The collective became known as Squat and received attention with award-winning pieces like "Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free." Two other well-known productions in its repertory were "Pig, Child, Fire!" and "Andy Warhol's Last Love."
Another noted production was "She Who Once Was the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife," by Mr. Halasz and Seth Tillett, first staged in 1992 at the Performing Garage in SoHo.
With the fall of Communism in his native country, Mr. Halasz spent more time there in the theater and, in recent years, won prizes in independent European film productions.
These days, I've been too busy looking for a new job and going to amazing pizza parties to write any new content in this space. In the meantime, marvel at the fascinating dead folks.