Monday, May 17, 2010

Ludwig Bemelmans Goes for the Yuks

We’ve all got an uncle like this. The kind who tells the same tired joke each and every time you see him. Everyone has to laugh because, hey, somebody told a joke, and not to laugh would be the acme of rudeness.

Then again . . .

Maybe this setup is a little unfair to Ludwig Bemelmans, whom Louis Untermeyer describes as “a small continent of varied cultures.” He did, after all, create the beloved – at least by some – character “Madeline,” of the popular childrens’ books of the same name.

But the Bremelmans selection Untermeyer picked for his Treasury of Laughter is an echo of the bad joke-telling uncle. It is entitled “The Elephant Cutlet.”

The story carries a lot of currency, in fact, it was the subject of a letter to the editor of TIME magazine in 1950, among other cultural references.

Te story goes like this: Two men in Vienna open a restaurant named “Cutlets from Every Animal in the World,” and have as their first customer a “distinguished lady, a Countess,” who orders an Elephant Cutlet.

“How would Madame like this Elephant Cutlet cooked?” said the waiter.

“Oh, Milanaise, sauté in butter, with a little spaghetti over it, on that a filet of anchovy, and an olive on top,” she said.

[Editor’s note: I can feel my acid reflux bubbling up already.]

The waiter places the order, much to the chagrin of the restaurant’s owners, a dentist who bankrolled the restaurant but had doubts on the premise, and the chef, who comes through with a zinger:

The Chef said nothing. He put on a clean apron and walked into the dining room to the table of the Lady. There he bowed, bent down to her and said, “Madame has ordered an elephant Cutlet?”

“Yes,” said the Countess.

“With spaghetti and a filet of anchovy and an olive?”


“Madame is all alone?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Madame expects no one else?”


“And Madame wants only one culet?”

“Yes,” said the Lady, “but why all these questions?”

You already know what’s coming, but I’ll still give it to you smack between the eyes:

“Because,” said the Chef,” because, Madame, I am very sorry, but for one Cutlet we cannot cut up our Elephant.”

To that, all that can be said is this:

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