Chicken à la Providence

Chicken à la Providence. An oldie but… obscure-y.

So I cooked I first learned about Chicken à la Providence yesterday. It’s pretty damn tasty.

My Colleague is out of town for a night or two and took Test Subject V with her, so I’m left to my own devices. Gloriously so. Any period of time to myself is such a luxury in these, our plague days, so I’m spending my time doing housework, grading, and cooking.

This might not sound like a relaxing respite, but believe me, it is.

Before My Colleague left, I asked her to get me a whole roaster chicken from Market Basket. (Since COVID, she’s taken over grocery shopping duty, much to both our frustration. She hates grocery shopping and I love it.) I didn’t know what I wanted to make, but I knew that with a whole chicken and what was on hand in the house, I could make something that would make several dinner’s worth of food.

I was reading through the poultry section of the Fanny Farmer 1896 Cookbook looking for inspiration. I stumbled onto that recipe. The name caught my attention because of its connection to New England. And it fascinated me because I’d never heard of it. After reading the recipe, I decided to look up some other recipes and figure out what I wanted to make from there.

Googling around, I was surprised at how few recipes can be found for the dish online. One website included several recipes, mostly historical. It even had the Fanny Farmer recipe that led me to look for the recipe in the first place. I was even more interested in was this recipe on Lt. Dan’s Kitchen that is adapted from the 1966 Woman’s Day Encyclopedia. Over the sixty years between, the dish had taken a decided turn for the more complex, but the tweaks all seemed like they would imbue so much more flavor.

The lemon chicken gravy had the addition of lemon, there was a bit more seasoning, some extra ingredients, and most fascinating to me, the process of boiling then browning the chicken. (Predictably, because I basically live for the Maillard reaction.)

There was also bacon, and bacon is always a nice plus. We didn’t have any, but I could walk to the closest deli and ask for three strips.

I was actually relatively faithful to the recipe, with a few exceptions. One exception is that I didn’t have peas or carrots, but I had a frozen bag of “mixed vegetables” from Market Basket, so I used those instead. And then, the biggest other difference– white wine.

When I went to get the bacon, I also grabbed a cheap bottle of pinot grigio. I boiled the chicken in water and pinot instead of broth, letting the chicken imbue its own flavor. (And then, following Fanny’s recipe, I boiled it all to heck and reduced it significantly.) And when I went to add the veggies later on, I deglazed the pan in far more wine than necessarily.

I was shocked, when it came out of the oven, at just how rich and flavorful this dish is. It’s interesting, when you look at early 20th century American cookery, especially in New England, there’s not a lot of spices or herbs… It often strikes me, reading recipes from that period, that they seem kind of bland. And sometimes they are.

But it seems to me, looking at the food trends between the sixties and now, that Americans for a variety of reasons made a move toward more herbs and spices, and a more global selection of flavors, at the same time that they moved away from valuing richness as a quality in food.

This is incredibly rich. It’s the richest thing I’ve tasted in a long, long time. You are going to want to reduce your portion size. But it’s a heck of a meal.

Plated. It’s not pretty, but it’s pretty delicious.

Like most of my favorite foods, it tastes a hell of a lot better than it photographs.

It’s also simple but painstaking. This is not a weeknight meal. It’s definitely comfort food, but it’s something you have for Sunday dinner. I made it over two days, boiling the chicken and reducing the broth one day, and then refrigerating them overnight, before boning and browning the chicken and cooking the veggies and making the gravy the next day.

I’d recommend this to anyone who tries to make this, because a) chunking time is nice, and b) it’s so much easier to debone a cold, cooked bird than it is to endure the maddening wait for it to cool. (Also, cooling time is so unpredictable, so difficult to factor into getting dinner on the table at a specific time.)

I am curious about the connection to Providence, and the history of this dish. I might have to do a little more research.

Time for a Hug…

V loves this book. I have to admit I do too.

Look, first off, America is a garbage fire right now, and it seems to get worse every day. We’re now months into the COVID-19 outbreak, and this week, with the police’s murder of George Floyd, there’s been riots all across the country. There were literal garbage fires on the streets of New York last night. It feels inappropriate to talk about anything else, but that’s not what this blog is for. I’ve said plenty over on my Twitter, as well as trying to boost the voices of Black activists all around the nation. Go there for that.

This blog, on the other hand, will continue to be a place where I talk about my journey through fatherhood. Which hasn’t just stopped due to national and international events. It’s actually gotten tougher, and more intense, and more profound. Being locked up in a small apartment with My Colleague and Test Subject V for months on end has left us all frayed and tired.

Last week, we had an opportunity to get out for the first time. My Colleague’s family has a camp up by Lake Winnipesaukee. We went up for the better part of a week. For the first time in ages, my family had some room. We had fresh air. We could go outside without worrying about running into anybody. It was beautiful.

Test Subject V has been insisting on falling asleep on the couch ever since I let her do that one night at the cabin. It’s annoying, but she’s doing the rest of her bedtime routine, so I’m not complaining.

Last night V was on the couch, and My Colleague was reading a book to her. In between books, V turned to me– I was on the floor next to the couch,– and handed me one of her books. “Hold on this dad.”

It was Time for a Hug, one of her favorites. It’s one of her top bedtime stories. I like it because every few pages, it says that it’s TIME FOR A HUG, and I get to give her a little squeeze. She usually giggles and pushes me away.

About a half a minute after giving me the book, she looked at me and said, “Dad go my room.” My Colleague asked her why Daddy had to go to her room, and she replied “My room nice!”

So I went to her room, just to humor her. And I brought the book with me, because she had told me to hold onto it.

I was playing around on my phone, lying on her bed for a few minutes. I assumed My Colleague would come back soon and tell me the baby was asleep. Instead, Test Subject V suddenly stumbles in, lies down next to me, points at the book she’d given me, and said, “Read me.”

So we read it, and then we read it again.

“Time for a hug! / A big bear hug / and a little hug, too. / Every hug says / I love you!”

And in no time, she had drifted off to sleep.

Wendy’s Spicy Bacon Jalapeño Chicken Sandwich Bisque

Finished results. Seriously delicious.

I follow a couple different food communities on Facebook. On one of them, there was a discussion of no-chew foods the other day. I think someone was having surgery or getting their jaw wired? I looked back and I can’t find it.

But one of the respondents said that one of her favorite things when she was in a similar situation was simply to take a pulled chicken sandwich, bread and all, and put it into the blender with chicken broth. She swore it was delicious. My reaction was… complex? It sounded wrong some how, but at the same time, kind of delicious?

My mind also immediately went back to a trip to Wendy’s with my sister and her kids last week when we were visiting our parents in Ohio. I had a Spicy Bacon Jalapeño Chicken Sandwich. Have y’all tried this sandwich? It’s so good. Spicy chicken patty with bacon, fried onions, and this jalapeño cheese sauce… I mean, it’s definitely a “sometimes food,” but damn.

Test Subject V and her older cousin await their Frosty.

When the lady on Facebook mentioned the blended chicken sandwich, my mind immediately went to the idea of a Wendy’s Spicy Bacon Jalapeño Sandwich Bisque. I don’t know why, and I had no idea if it would be good. But I wanted to try it.

So today I decided to try out my potentially horrible idea. Around lunchtime I went to Wendy’s and got the sandwich. They were out of jalapeños, so I drove over to the nearest grocer with parking and when I couldn’t find the canned pickled jalapeños that people like to put on nachos. I paid sixteen cents for a fresh jalapeño and was on my way.

My Colleague played prep cook today and set everything up so it was all ready when I got home.

This image is basically the recipe. The only thing used not in the image was a medium size pot.

I sliced the sandwich into smaller pieces, sliced up the jalapeño, and tossed them into the blender with a can of chicken stock. I blended it for under a minute– though I think it would be even better if I had blended it longer. Blend it for a good long time. Then I poured the contents of the blender into a pot on the stove and cooked it on medium-low until it heated up. I added roughly a cup of heavy cream, and stirred it frequently as it went to a boil.

The moment of truth had arrived. I tasted a spoonful of my potentially disgusting creation. Reader, it was pretty damn good. I was over the moon. It was a little less spicy than I’d expected, with the cream and the broth diluting the fire, so I drizzled some Thai sriracha from the “ethnic foods” aisle of Market Basket that we had in the house. It kicked up the heat and added a little visual embellishment.

Please forgive the poor lighting– I don’t do a lot of food photography. Also, please ignore the weird use of a sheet as a backdrop. I didn’t want to show the whole world how dirty my kitchen is.

My Colleague enjoyed it too. The bisque had just the right amount of fire, it was rich and creamy and weirdly, kinda subtle. It was very rich and very filling. We agreed that it would make a great soup course in a small bowl, or could even be good in a small ramekin, served as an amuse bouche.

Frankly, I was surprised that something that tastes so “white tablecloths and a dress code” could be made with something from a fast food restaurant. It made me wonder what other transformative ways you could use fast food as an ingredient.

How Do You Explain Christmas to a Two Year Old?

V in her happy place, drawing away.

Test Subject V is two now.

Two is not always fun.

Her favorite three words are, in no particular order, “no,” “mine,” and “me.” Often in long strings. For example, “No no no MINE MINE MINE Daddy MINE.” She’ll do that when nobody is even touching anything of hers.

Her birthday was a few weeks ago, and for the month or so beforehand, all the way through this week, she has been having a ridiculously tough sleep regression—this kid has always been a good sleeper, and suddenly we were living with a teenager who wanted to be up past midnight and sleep all morning.

She has been emotionally very raw, and we’re both exhausted. She has not been handling external stressors—or even internal ones—well at all. And toddlers in general… they just have such big emotions inside such tiny little bodies.

Before her birthday, we read a book called Corduroy’s Party that really helped her understand what a birthday party was. She knew there was singing and cake with a candle and gifts and friends, and she was ready for it.

In a way it was similar to when we flew out to Dayton last summer, when I had her watch several videos of planes taking off and landing, and one video made by a father for his son who had ASD that really tried to prepare him for how boarding a plane etc. worked. V watched it for days before the flight, and she knew what to expect. She was a great passenger, and I attribute it to that video.

When a toddler is in one of these raw phases, or at least when V is, anything that is not part of her routine can be deeply destabilizing. With Christmas coming soon, and after a week in which many days involved literally hours of crying, I was starting to get worried about the holiday, and started trying to look for a video that explained Christmas.

I couldn’t find any videos that quite did what I wanted—something that just explained the very basics of Christmas, that there’s a tree and decorations and family, and that unlike her birthday, everyone gets gifts, not just her. So My Colleague and I sat down with V while she was drawing today to have a little talk with her.

V loves to draw, and can occupy herself for an hour or more, just drawing with her colored pencils, or markers, or crayons. She’s starting to make shapes, now, too. She’s been drawing circles lately and telling us they were balls.

I thought it might be a good time to talk to her because she was quiet and focused. My Colleague had the brilliant idea to draw with her. It brought V into the conversation in a way she wouldn’t have been otherwise. She began to draw a Christmas tree with a Crayola marker.

And as she did that, we talked to V about Christmas, and how it’s a day in our culture where families get together with people they love, and everyone sits by a tree, and under the tree everyone puts presents.

I drew three little red presents with a green bow on each. And one of the presents was for V, and one was for Mommy, and one was for Daddy.

A somewhat crude and messy drawing of a Christmas tree with three red presents underneath it.

Then V took the red marker and drew a crude square and colored it in. I hadn’t seen her draw squares or rectangles, really before. I asked if it was a present like the ones I had drawn, and V nodded. I started to draw a green bow on her present, like I had drawn on the presents I drew, and I asked her who that big present was for.

She looked at me with a look of almost euphoric pride and said “ME!”

We might not get past the “MINE MINE MINEs” before Christmas, I know. But I think she got some of the basics. I asked her which present was for Daddy and she pointed to the one I had said was for me. So maybe she might understand that other people might get gifts.

I’ll probably do that again for the next couple days. She’ll at least make a few associations, and hopefully, the day will be just a little smoother for it. Anyway, that’s the hope.

I hope everyone who celebrates the holiday has a wonderful, warm, and merry Christmas. And for them that don’t, I hope you at least get a couple days off to rest and do some self-care, or barring that, you know, time-and-a-half.

The Christmas tree drawing again, this time cropped less so that you can see V’s enormous present.

This is 40

Poster promoting Judd Apatow’s This is 40.

You know, I used to say things like “I don’t feel 35,” or “Even though I’m 38, my life hasn’t changed that much since my late 20s.” I had an illusion of continuity, of age not being much more than a number.

But right now—in a room at a Marriott in Tampa that My Colleague’s work paid for, getting photos of Test Subject V from her grandmother, putting on some workout clothes and downloading a potty training book to listen to while I’m in the hotel fitness center…

I really feel 40.

Children age you. It’s weird because you don’t even notice it until you’re so far gone that you can’t even figure out how the change happened.

And because I know people are here more for V than for me, here’s an image of her at the same place My Colleague and I got married, yelling at some ducks today:

Ducks are awesome.

We went to the Oregon District today.

V looks at her reflection in a sign that reads “Our grief is not a commodity. DO SOMETHING” while news crews get b-roll in the background.
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So like I mentioned before, V and I are in Dayton for a little while, visiting my parents. I had originally planned to take V to the Oregon district on Sunday or Monday, just to show her an important place where daddy grew up.

Then the shooting happened at Ned Pepper’s… Not a bar I frequented, but a bar I’ve gone to more than once.

My mom was a principal at a school in the Oregon District when I was in late elementary school. My best friend’s mom—he was best man at my wedding—taught at that school, and we hung out in the Oregon district on afternoons.

When I was older, in high school, I would sometimes go to a coffee house in the Oregon District. Gem City Records—which is now Omega Records—was there, probably my favorite record store in Dayton.

In my early 20s, I would go to the Oregon District for the night life. My favorite was the Southern Belle, but I’d hit different places on the strip from time to time, from the Oregon Express to Sloopy’s, depending on where the night would take me.

The parents of a good friend from high school later bought the Southern Belle building when they moved, and converted it to a house. It was crazy going over and visiting and seeing an old haunt so radically re-done.

By the time I hit my 30s, I wasn’t visiting the district as much, and wasn’t going out for nightlife as much. But I still always visit the Oregon at least once every time I come back home to Dayton. It was one of the first places I took My Colleague when she first came to visit my parents.

I’m not sure what to say here. I’m not trying to make the shooting about me. I wasn’t there, thank god. I am not trying to horn in on others’ pain or grief. And yes, I think that we are well past due for a talk about gun control, but frankly we have a lot more to take care of here—gun control would at best be a band-aid, though a sorely needed one. It’s sad that we can’t even get to the point where we get that fucking band-aid.

It makes you feel pretty dismal about our chances of taking care of racism and toxic masculinity and the stigma around mental health care and everything else that makes this bullshit happen.

And while I’m for gun control, I’m very pro second amendment, for the record. I just think we need some common sense here.

All I wanted to talk about is a sense of grief and loss that came over me when we walked down fifth today. There were camera crews and evangelical televangelists on the street. They’ll stay for a few more days before they move on to the site of the next tragedy.

V came up to the sign in the picture above. It was reflective, she could see herself. She liked that. I liked the message:

OUR GRIEF IS NOT A COMMODITY. DO SOMETHING!

It was in front of a hat store, just feet from all the camera crews, and right across from Ned Pepper’s. Some ladies came out of the shop and asked if they could take her picture.

I said of course, I wanted a picture of it too.

Some of you who aren’t from the region might not recall, but Dayton was hit by a whole series of tornadoes a few months ago. It’s been a hard summer here. But Dayton’s been through a hell of a lot, over the years, from floods to race riots to the wholesale evacuation of industry. It abides.

I don’t want to feel like I’m a tourist in other people’s misery, as someone who has left the area. And I worry about being perceived that way. But part of me will always be here. This is home—not my daughter’s, but always mine.

I love the Oregon District. I love Dayton. I always will. That’s what I really wanna say, I guess. My heart goes out to everyone effected by what that asshole decided to do. And yeah, fuck him.

I stopped by Omega Music and bought a tee-shirt and a couple musical toys for V. We’ve gotta keep supporting local businesses, right?

“Fahts” from Ohio

I wake up with this view every morning while I visit my parents.

Test Subject V and myself are visiting my parents in Ohio, this week, while My Colleague is busy working at Very Prestigious University. It’s one of the best things about the whole online-adjunct/stay-at-home dad gig: I can do it anywhere.

So right now I’m in Ohio, visiting my parents and enjoying their air conditioning and their pool, and enjoying seeing my daughter interact with my side of the family for a change.

Anyway, there’s no high-minded thought behind this post, just to say that I love seeing my daughter interact with her grandparents, and to share this little anecdote:

Test Subject V has a mild linguistic delay when it comes to her expressive verbal vocabulary. It’s common among kids who walk early, I’ve been told, and she was cruising at six months and walking at eight, so I’m not super concerned. She has learned the occasional word, but usually forgets them within a few days. The only words that really seem to have stuck are “dis,” “dat,” and “no.” With those words and a whole host of signs, nods, head shakes, and points, she’s pretty good at getting her needs met, so speech is just not really on her radar.

Anyway, this morning, shortly after waking up and snapping the above picture, V and I were in my room at my parents’ house getting ready for the day. I was sitting on the couch and bent over to get something, when I passed gas.

Test Subject V’s eyes lit up. She smiled and pointed at me, and said—clear as day — “FAHT!”

I looked at my progeny in disbelief. “Did you just say ‘fart?'”

Her reply was to giggle and nod.

“Can you say ‘fart’ again?”

This time, she shook her head gravely, ran to me, and pointed between my legs, before bursting out laughing again. I guess she decided I needed an explanation of where farts come from.

Test Subject V may not be speaking yet, but at least I know she’s got my sense of humor.

“Whose Street?”: On the Gentrification of Sesame Street

Below is a mildly edited version of a presentation I made at the New England American Studies Association on 8 June, 2019 at Fitchburg State University, in Fitchburg MA.


Hello, my name is Tad Suiter, I study the history of media and communications, and I hate Elmo.

…So I had a baby daughter about a year and a half ago.

Personally, I don’t try to eliminate screen time. I limit it, and I understand it’s dangers, but I do set my daughter in front of the TV sometimes, and part of the reason for that is Sesame Street.

I grew up on Sesame Street. Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and comic books taught me to read. While I had close relatives die earlier, the first death I remember was the 1983 death of Mr. Hooper.  I still get choked up when I think about it, if I’m being completely honest.

So when my daughter reached the age where Sesame Street was capturing her interest, I had no problem setting her down in front of the TV to watch “the Street.” That said, I had an issue—I, as I said before, hate Elmo. 

I can’t stand Elmo’s voice. Can’t stand how he is written, can’t stand the puppet’s design…  I did not want my daughter loving Elmo.

Of course, now she loves Elmo. Elmo is unavoidable. Elmo is everywhere. Elmo is life.

Elmo is insidious.

But if she was going to love Elmo anyway, I was at least going to track down old Sesame Street, pre-Elmo Sesame Street, to start her out with.

What I discovered was a small community of Youtubers (who exist in a legal gray zone, to be generous) who track down old VHS tapes of Sesame Street, digitize them, and upload and share them. There are occasional takedown notices etc, but they are a small enough community and I doubt they are worth anyone pursuing.

So my daughter and I started watching episodes from before 1988 or so. Before the ascension of Elmo. Cumulatively, we have easily watched between fifty and a hundred hours of vintage Sesame Street in the last year.

We also have HBOGo and Hulu both of which have episodes of the program that aired between 2004 and today—shows that aired during my adulthood, in other words. So eventually I gave up and started watching more recent episodes as well.

And what I saw was that my old television neighborhood was gone. My immediate impression was akin to seeing the impact of gentrification transform a neighborhood you once knew. We’ve all experienced this at one time or another. You used to live or work or spend lots of time somewhere, and you come back years later, only to find it transformed to the point where it’s unrecognizable.

Everything seemed cleaner, somehow. Hooper’s store was still there—they have free wifi now!—but many local fixtures have been replaced with hipper, newer options. Sometimes there’s a farmers’ market, and there’s a rooftop garden on the top of the brownstone at 123 Sesame Street.

Everything seems to have been repainted in brighter colors. You might see an occasional familiar face, but the folks you knew from way back don’t live there anymore. The demographics have shifted.

I wanted to figure out what had happened to the show. Why it was so different. It had to be more complex than the simple passage of time. And because I’m a historian of media and my mind just works this way, I began a seriously deep dive into the history of Sesame Street. Because that’s what you get trained to do, when you do a PhD. You learn to obsess, to go down rabbit holes, to dedicate months of research to questions that other people would just shrug and forget about.

This is most of the Sesame Street books I’ve put together in the last few months. I’m already toying with the idea of going down to College Park MD to go through the CTW Archives.

The more I researched the show’s history and evolution, the more episodes I watched and the more I learned what was happening behind the scenes, the more I had my initial impression confirmed—Sesame Street has, in fact, been almost literally gentrified.

Over the years, the show has responded to economic pressures much the same way many cities have– by trying to “clean up” the neighborhood, force out minority communities, and thereby raise the metaphorical real estate values.

Sesame Street may be populated by monsters, but there is no single “evil developer” character to be blamed for the gentrification of the Street. Rather, it can be understood as a series of rational decisions based on audience response and funding.

The initial germ of Sesame Street can be found at a dinner party held at the Gramercy Park apartment of Educational Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and her husband Tim. Among the guests was psychologist and Carnegie Corporation exec Lloyd Morrisett, who had recently marveled at how his daughter would watch test patterns waiting for the Saturday morning “kiddie shows” to come on; and how she would memorize a whole host of jingles and slogans from ads.

Morrisett and Coony, center, look to one another during an early CTW meeting.

Morrisett, whose work centered around children and education, asked if Cooney thought that television could be used to educate youngsters. Cooney replied that she didn’t know if it could, but she would like to look into it further. Cooney led a feasibility study, which led to a series of pilots—effectively iterative prototyping followed by outcome testing, which led to the series’s launch.

Empirical testing of educational outcomes has always been a cornerstone of the Children’s Television Workshop, the company that produced Sesame Street. (It has, in the 21st century, been rebranded as Sesame Street Workshop, but I will just refer to it as CTW from here on out for simplicity’s sake.)

But just as much as it has always been about learning the alphabet, numbers up to twenty, and lessons about sharing, Sesame Street has always been a show about representation. This was baked into the show from the beginning.

Sesame Street Season 1 cast sit on the stoop of 123 Sesame Street.

The show was funded in its initial season with grants from the Carnegie Corporation, the US Department of Education, and the Ford Foundation. It was the Ford Foundation that insisted the program target in particular inner city poor and minority children. Morisette and Cooney strike me as Great Society Democrats, I assume they were both very much on board with this decision.

It was Jon Stone, who essentially served as Sesame Street’s show runner over the show’s first twenty-some years, who had the idea to imbue the set with a sense of inner-city verisimilitude. If the program was to target young inner city youths, Stone reckoned the best way to do so was to present those children with a location that looked like where they lived. To that end, Stone demanded a “movie quality” main set—one with a much higher degree of detail than most television programs would have for their sets in the late 1960s. Trash cans and light poles, to that end, were scuffed up and grime-covered. There were signs of age and wear everywhere. The street set looked lived-in and real, in a way that children’s television at the time simply didn’t.

Jon Stone, center, with Ernie and Cookie Monster.

Thus, from the beginning, we see that CTW has two commitments—first off, there is a commitment to empirical research, to always testing and making sure the show is effectively teaching its curriculum. But there is another element that is just as key: a commitment to a specific vision, of television as a teacher, and specifically (though not exclusively) as a way of bridging educational gaps in early childhood that lie along class and race lines.

From the first episode, the African-American characters of Gordon and Susan were the emotional center of the show, serving as surrogate parents. They owned the brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, and served as hosts and educators to the children who visited, in their home or on the street.

Sesame Street Season 3 cast.

The cast expanded, and the neighborhood took on a diverse Latinx community as well as more Black characters. Season 3 introduced multiple Latinx characters, including Sonia Monzano’s Maria, Emilio Delgado’s Luis, and Raúl Juliá’s Rafael. Later in the 70s, the show would diversify in multiple interesting ways, including the addition of Native American folk singer Buffy St Marie, and the deaf actress Linda Bove.

There was even some diversity among the Muppets. Created and voiced by the original Gordon, Matt Robinson, Roosevelt Franklin was a little boy who would sometimes take over his elementary school classroom, teaching lessons that ranged from the amusing to the deeply Afrocentric, as in the picture here where he teaches a geography lesson about Africa being far richer and more vast than how it is portrayed in Tarzan movies.

Full disclosure: I freaking LOVE Roosevelt Franklin.

Roosevelt Franklin’s classroom was chaotic and anti-establishment, and all the students spoke in African America Vernacular English. This actually led to the segment’s downfall, as it was ultimately killed in deference to certain voices of respectability politics.

Over the years, economic pressures exerted themselves on the show. The grant funding that seeded the show eventually dried up, but merchandising was able to serve as a stopgap. The show’s dependence on merchandising deepened even further in the early 1980s as government funding shrank.

But this was not a problem, as the show was—from its first season—phenomenally popular. Dolls, books, records, and later videotapes all provided a lucrative source of income to supplement what dwindling funding could not.

Then, in 1992, Barney happened. The big purple dinosaur started eating into CTW’s ratings and their ancillary merchandise dollars.

It was in this environment that Kevin Clash’s Elmo became a breakout character. Elmo had been growing in popularity, especially in mid 1990s. Data showed that younger kids especially loved Elmo—he was especially popular with children as young as one or two, where the show had originally been targeted at 3 to 5 year olds. Perhaps not coincidentally, Barney similarly attracted children on the younger end of the five-and-under set.

The show got a major reprieve in the form of the Tickle Me Elmo Doll, which was propelled to success by the endorsement of talkshow host Rosie O’Donnell. That’s when the show’s producers went full throttle into Elmomania. By the end of the decade, the last fifteen minutes of each episode were dedicated to Elmo’s World, a segment where Elmo is the only character from the world of the rest of the show. 

In the same decade, many of the show’s original creators passed away or retired. Joe Raposo, who composed so many of Sesame Street’s most classic songs, died in 1989. Jim Henson died in 1990. Joan Ganz Cooney stepped down as the head of CTW the same year. Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who played many smaller characters including Forgetful Jones, Don Music, and Sully the silent construction worker, died in 1992. John Stone, the show runner, died of ALS in 1997.

This show, which had always been steered by both evidence-based testing and a crew with a shared vision for what the show should be, began to lose its institutional memory. The keepers of that oh-so-important vision started to disappear, replaced with a new generation.

And instead of being steered by data and vision, the show slowly came see data collection as a way to combat dropping ratings. Coming into the 21st century, we see the rise of smart phones and tablets, of streaming video online and health organizations increasingly advising no television for children under five. Ratings slipped further, as they did across television generally.

In 2015, Sonia Monzano (who played Maria) announced that she would retire at the end of the season. The same year, CTW announced that it would partner with HBO, granting first run rights to the pay cable network for a six month window. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the show had operated at a $11 million loss the year before.

CTW angered many during this transition, not just by putting one of the most beloved public television shows behind a paywall, but by somewhat unceremoniously dropping the actors who played Bob, Luis, and Gordon. Bob McGrath had been with the show since the first episode, and the other two actors had been with the show since the 1970s. CTW later claimed that this was a misunderstanding on the older actors’ parts, and has invited them to make some brief cameos, but they are no longer part of the fabric of the show.

The show that Sesame Street has become is, as I said before, gentrified. It has literally been cleaned up—the original set was (unheard of for the time) a “movie quality” set, with an artificial but lifelike patina of urban decay. The set used today lacks the signs of use, wear, and damage. It uses more brightly colored paint, because these have proven more eye catching to young children.

The contrast between the original set, above, and the contemporary set, below, is dramatic.

It is also much less of a recognizable, organic-feeling urban community. The human cast in the show’s early years felt like a community that might exist in a neighborhood in a large city—it was a mix of Latinx folk, African Americans, white creatives like Bob (a voice coach), and Mr Hooper—a Jewish shopkeeper with a distinct accent who had clearly lived there all his life, and who let his customers put groceries on their tab.

The contemporary cast feels very much symbolically multicultural—a “one from each column” approach—while the majority of screen time goes to the Muppets, especially to newer characters who are coded younger, as the show’s core audience is now much younger. (It is also worth noting that CTW has almost never created merchandise that centered on the human cast members. Muppets can be marketed, muppets can be sold.)

…And all of this makes me sad, not just because of nostalgia, but because it means that the new Sesame Street looks a lot less like the neighborhood I am raising my daughter in. 

You knew I was going to bring it back to her, right?

I grew up in a former sundown town of under five thousand in rural Ohio. My neighborhood did not look at all like Sesame Street. But I kind of wished it did. When my wife and I moved to Massachusetts, we gravitated to a small, densely populated, urban neighborhood in Salem with a large Dominican and Puerto Rican community, where kids still play in the street and nobody calls it “free range parenting.” And part of me wonders if Sesame Street doesn’t have something to do with that.

Because far more than any other media I can recall from my youth in the early 1980s, Sesame Street presented an aspirational vision of a utopian urbanism… And did so when most cultural representations of urbanity were viscerally dystopian. Sesame Street took place in New York City, but the New York City it represented wasn’t at all the same “Fear City” that much media presented us with in flyover country. There was a superabundance of hope on Sesame Street. And cooperation, and love. And counting.

And I want my daughter to be able to watch episodes of Sesame Street where she can see a neighborhood that looks like the one she is growing up in: where the actors look like our neighbors, and the street looks a bit like our street.

And thanks to Youtube video archivists, she can. The fashions are a bit dated, a few of the technological references are pretty outmoded, but at the end of the day, Sesame Street has aged very well. The lessons, from letters and numbers to accepting and loving your neighbors, sharing, being patient—these things are timeless.

She loves Elmo, sure, and we both enjoy the new “Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck” segments. But that in no way detracts from her enjoyment of the old episodes. She doesn’t care about the lower video fidelity or the fact that some of the old episodes are incomplete. She gets to live in a world with multiple Sesame Streets.

And I guess that’s the next best thing.