Words and Movement from January Jones

May 15, 2011

I caught Unknown at the dollar theater recently and it got me thinking about January Jones’s strange performance style, as it’s very similar there to her Betty on Mad Men. She has a weird cadence that is nearly the makings of flat, terrible acting but isn’t—and that’s one reason why I find her so interesting. She brings you out of her fictional circumstances a little bit and makes you think about the way in which she’s saying things. Normally I hate this in actors but with her the distraction actually adds a level of enjoyment in thinking about how she fits into the work (speaking mainly at this point about Mad Men since there’s not much in Unknown to think about).

With her terse enunciation, her words come out quickly and feel confined to a small range of possibility, as if she doesn’t really care what happens once they’re out of her mouth. But in action she can be deft and forceful. She is by far Mad Men’s most seductive smoker, much more effortless and hungry than Don and his showy switch of fingers taking cigarettes into and out of his mouth. And who can forget Betty shooting the pigeons in season one? That moment was also a dip into the surreal, but indicative of this inner force January Jones taps into sometimes to give her actions a merciless feel. When she begins to carry out the assassination plot in Unknown—stealing things and smashing through a wall to get to a bomb—she moves confidently and almost with irritation at the novelty of her reversal of energy. I think irritation is actually one of the most successful, visceral emotions she communicates as an actress. Normally it would feel utterly useless and dumb to parse an actor’s “successful emotions” but she invites this kind of critical thinking and it doesn’t detract from the emotional potency of her work.

One of the most electric moments in all of Mad Men so far is when Betty is fighting with Don in the bedroom about disciplining Bobby and she pushes him and he pushes her back. The way she takes the push, her chest like a hollow block as she spins and is forced to take a couple clumsy steps, was more startling than Don’s actual act of pushing. Her movements have the bluntness of  shock, less at Don’s audacity and more at the lack of impact caused by her initial action. When you watch January Jones you get the feeling that she doesn’t really trust speech. Her commitment to it is technical; she never lets a syllable get swallowed. As an actress she just seems more comfortable with movement, and perhaps that is why her actions feel so purposeful. So when she moves with intent and doesn’t get what she wants, her body doesn’t quite know what to do.


Texas Forever

April 30, 2011

(Beware of spoilers if you haven’t finished the series)

The characters in Friday Night Lights are not ones you shake easily. Besides just appreciating them as well-drawn I care and think about them a lot. Knowing I can only go back with them and not forward is tough. Much of the show’s emotional impact stems from the central foundation of Eric and Tami Taylor’s marriage, one of the most honest and affectionate portrayals of a relationship I’ve ever seen. It’s a study of love confronted by the everyday. The Taylors face plenty of big, dramatic problems but we all know that often it’s under the assault of minutiae that love gets killed. Friday Night Lights shows us what it takes for a marriage to survive over the long run, what that looks like day-to-day.

The last season was good despite some distracting plotlines like Julie’s affair with her TA, Vince’s dad’s descent into evil, and Tami’s attempts to get through to Epyck (yes that’s how her name is spelled). But there were always distracting plotlines in this show, even not counting season two, as well as tiresome themes like Dillon vs. The Taylors and Athletes vs. Journalists. In the end they don’t matter enough to take you away from the characters, who remained truthful and deeply felt despite the digressions.

A lot of the characters introduced in season four felt more settled-in and real in season five, particularly Madison Burge’s Becky. When Becky was introduced last year I couldn’t stand Burge’s hyper delivery as she cocked her head and talked out of the side of her mouth. But she lost that edge this season, and when Becky felt uneasy it was sad rather than chirpy. This patience gave an added weight to Becky; her friendship with Mindy and slow courtship with Luke produced some of the sweetest moments of the series.

The finale was a little saccharine at times, but I think finales have a right to indulge. It gave us some lovely images, particularly when Matt, Julie, Tim, and Tyra are dancing at Buddy’s bar. As Matt spins Julie around they exult in their happiness with easy steps, while Tim and Tyra clutch each other with closed eyes. This is not a juxtaposition that sides with either of the couples but one that gives space for all of their emotions. Julie and Matt’s engagement at first seemed unnecessary, like the writers were trying to squeeze it in as a way of letting you know what the future held. But bringing it up when Eric and Tami are seemingly going through the hardest time in their marriage was very moving. And Julie’s calm entreaty for trust from her parents made up for the focus on her selfish, impetuous tendencies throughout the last season.

Bringing Tim and Tyra back together at the end felt right, with both of them having started out the series with so little energy to reject the stereotypes that defined them. While Tyra eventually did rise above the path that was laid out for her, things weren’t as simple for Tim. He knew what he was and what he could easily turn into. He wrestled with wanting to give in to that, to embrace what he felt people expected of him, and being disgusted by it.

For me the soul of the show will always reside with Tim, because of this half-indifference towards what kind of life he led wound up with so much integrity and unfailing compassion for everyone around him. His struggles always felt the saddest and his aspirations were always the humblest. The relationships in his life were so precious they inspired an almost desperate devotion. And so when I think of my favorite moments from the show, the top will always be Tim crying as he watches Jason reconcile with his girlfriend Erin in New York while Sun Kil Moon’s “Gentle Moon” (the most irresistibly sentimental of songs) plays. After being so close in with Jason and Erin during that scene, almost forgetting that Tim was there, cutting to him and getting this uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion was like a punch in the gut. You tend to forget, or at least I did, how deep-rooted Tim and Jason’s friendship is. The show would kind of leave it alone for long stretches, make you think maybe they’d grown apart too much, and then all of a sudden you get this blow of Tim mid-sob, watching his dearest friend slip away from Texas for good. That the emotional force of this shot is enough to make me cry even now is what I love, and will miss, about Friday Night Lights.

Little Miss Marker

March 12, 2011

This photo, a still for Little Miss Marker, meant a lot to me growing up. It is included in Shirley Temple’s autobiography Child Star, which I had a copy of in my room. I had a very big floor-to-ceiling bookshelf and her book was on one of the weird upper shelves. Some adult books had been left there and forgotten about by my parents. They weren’t adult in any kind of exciting way, just serious and thick. Child Star was hardbound in black cloth that had collected a coat of fuzzy dust and some milky stains. It was a long time before I actually read the book, not until I was 12 or 13, but I would pore over the pictures in the inserts, and especially over this one.

Part of what intrigued me about this picture is how not like a child’s picture it feels. The energy is more like that of a pouty twenty-year-old who thinks she knows a lot. I also particularly liked pictures where smiles could disappear and return just by staring long enough. When Shirley’s smile is there she’s casual and matter-of-fact. Without it a weighted, almost accusatory sexuality creeps in. The dress she’s wearing is itself defiant, the worn chambray splitting at her shoulder and above the babydoll seam. That latter hole was mesmerizing, not just because it was suggestive but also in its deliberateness—there would be no normal source of stress to cause a tear like that.

I remember thinking that there was a quality here that I wanted someday. Shirley’s movies were often about a hardscrabble, streetwise little girl. It was a persona I romanticized; I wanted that toughness which was also cute and a little sexy. I thought girls’ faces looked prettiest with a sour mouth and smudges of dirt. I never saw Little Miss Marker (it wasn’t at my video store, nor part of the pink Playhouse Video VHS collection that I had) which increased its mystique. The harsh syllables of the title fit with that scrappy dress. There’s another Shirley movie called Little Miss Broadway that I had found pretty uninteresting. I imagined this to be its darker, more vital cousin.

The still is used on a DVD cover for the film now, and it’s colorized—they put a patch under the hole!

Fried Chicken and The Secret Garden

November 30, 2010

The other day I had real wings for the first time in a couple years (from our favorite place here in Pittsburgh, Spak Brothers) and as I was maneuvering my teeth around the bones to get at all the bits of meat, I was struck by a vivid memory of fried chicken eating in a movie. It was such a strong and familiar sensation that I thought it must be from something I watched a lot in my childhood, but I couldn’t place it. Sure enough it hit me as I was trying to fall asleep the next night—Maggie Smith in the carriage with the drumstick in Agnieszka Holland’s Secret Garden! It strikes me now that the chicken in the movie could very probably just be roasted, even though I would have sworn it was fried as a kid. I felt fried chicken was anachronistic, and yet I was so distracted by the audacity of that choice that I didn’t question it. Either way it feels like a funny thing to pack. She picks up Mary from Liverpool very late, hours past when all the other orphans from India get picked up, and then they ride all night and Maggie Smith eats cold chicken in the carriage for breakfast. It sets the tone nicely—Maggie Smith’s Mrs. Medlock smacking away as she nonchalantly drops devastating details of Mary’s forthcoming life at her uncle’s manor, a large estate surrounded by an expanse of beautiful damp moors.

I recently rewatched my childhood VHS tape of the movie with my boyfriend. He liked it pretty well; I was overjoyed to see how little difference there was in my experience of it now compared to as a child. Plus there are all these treats that I was oblivious of as a kid, like Irène Jacob, Zbigniew Preisner, and Roger Deakins. The atmosphere created by the film is so wondrous and enveloping, in large part due to Preisner’s score. It still feels big and dangerous and vital to me. I love Kate Maberly, I love the way she over-enunciates (“My name is Mary Lennox”) and the way she looks at things with a little restrained pout.

This film has figured quite prominently in my history, helping shape my love of looking in cinema, as well as my inclination towards an aesthetic of dull cold and heavy clothing. Even though this is a movie about spring, it really romanticizes the mystery of winter. There are other little visceral moments that have stuck with me in addition to the fried chicken. There is a part when Mary approaches a breakfast tray that was set in her room hours earlier, and drags her index finger through the cold porridge and puts it in her mouth. I was startled upon rewatching it how quick and unexaggerated that moment is. I so relished it as a child that I used to whip my ice cream at night (I ate Breyer’s vanilla ice cream before bed every night; if you know me this should make perfect sense) with a spoon until it resembled porridge consistency and then tried to make a defined path with my finger as I drug it across and ate a glob. Swirled-up ice cream of course has a different texture and weight than cold porridge, so I had to perfect a way of cradling the glob so that it wouldn’t slide off my finger.

There is also the scene where Mary learns to jump rope in a hallway off of the kitchen. (In the background a cook is rolling out dough—elsewhere in the film we spend more time with her as she sings “Greensleeves” while slapping around and rolling a beautifully pliable little mound of dough. I think of that dough when making bread; it has the most dreamily perfect consistency.) Mary scuffs her little boots on the stone floor as she attempts to skip over the rope. I loved these noises, like scratchy, quick flaps in tap dancing. I hated my world of sneakers and carpets and I loved how her skirt kept getting snagged by the rope. It made me associate heavy full skirts with stone floors and dark hallways.

The scene where Mary, Dickon, and Colin chant and try to contact the spirit of Colin’s dead mother is the only thing I cringed at when rewatching the film. This movie also contains the lamest onscreen/offscreen kiss ever. It happens right at a cut as Mary and Colin laugh their way out of a weirdly loud smack, the physical component of which we never see. As a girl I was not amused by a kiss surrounded in giggles. Was it important or not? I refused to believe it really was a kiss for a long time until I sadly conceded that that was the intention.

While writing this post I discovered that the whole movie is on YouTube preserved in the beloved 1.33:1 of VHS, probably the only way I’ll ever want to see it. Around the eight-minute mark you can watch the chicken scene. I see now Maggie also has a hard-boiled egg to snack on. Again I am struck by how short this scene is. It’s strange how your mind grips on to little gestures in films, enough to create a sort of faux sensory memory. And there are other gestures you just want, so much that you appropriate them to create a brief, private cinematic feeling. This was very important to me as a child and still is.

Balibar via Assayas and Desplechin

August 10, 2010

To the dismay of every male I’ve discussed it with, I have problems with Jeanne Balibar. I think part of it is I don’t care for actresses with high-pitched or nasally voices (this is also why I don’t like Jean Arthur, another point of contention). On top of that, I thought of her as always playing characters who indulge in this kind of smug impetuousness and think that men really go for it, and then men do go for it and it makes me crazy.

But two things lately tempered my aversion to her–Panique au village and Ne change rien. Obviously her voice is very well-suited for the hyper-exclamatory style of Panique–when I first heard she was involved, I thought, “Oh right, of course.” But her character, Madame Longrée, serves as a regal counterpoint to all the craziness and her voicing is very fluid and charming.

And I think it’s near impossible to see Pedro Costa’s film and not fall for her. She offers herself up completely and Costa captures it all quite lovingly. She was there for the Q&A after the NYFF screening that I saw and she seemed very gracious and warm. So after all my emphatic dismissals I felt I judged in haste and wanted to revisit my first impressions. I realized they were based just on Late August, Early September and My Sex Life, which I saw very close together.

I watched Clean on Friday night for the first time. I think she’s quite good in her small part, but Laetitia Spigarelli and Béatrice Dalle dominated all my extra-Maggie attention. I didn’t care for the film much but I deeply adore Assayas, so right after I was in the mood to rewatch Late August, Early September. Beyond confusing Jeanne’s two roles, I couldn’t remember definitively which things were in it and which were in My Sex Life and I wanted to rectify that. Also I saw it before seeing any of Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, before she took on this mythic quality of living the female cinephilic dream, and I wanted to watch her performance again.

I really love Late August, Early September, much more fully now than the first time I saw it. With regard to Jeanne, I have an unfortunate tendency to prejudge characters when I don’t like the actress, or prefer another actress in the film; here it was Virginie Ledoyen. Since Mathieu Amalric goes back and forth between the two, the first time I watched the film my mind put them in competition and I sided with Virginie. And so Amalric’s relationship with Balibar became devalued in my mind; I saw her as scheming and manipulative. But I felt none of that this time. All of the relationships in this film are portrayed so tenderly, with such a real feeling of history.

Another thing I didn’t care for before is the way she can twist her lines around with this kind of juvenile cuteness, in a sort of truncated rhythm, twisting her face for emphasis. I still think it can be very off-putting but it didn’t bother me as much. And actually, I found the part where she keeps changing her coffee order in the café with Arsinée Khanjian especially endearing.

Not as easy to reconcile with her performance in My Sex Life, which I watched the following night. I forgot about the scenes where she puts those stick things in her hair, and when she visits Amalric in class, and when she smashes his keyboard. She’s always sticking out her lips and raising her eyebrows and taunting him, going on and on about how terrible she is. I found nothing sympathetic in her, which is why I thought she was a bad actress before. I also remember her being the main sore note in the film, the thing that kept me from fully embracing it, but now I have trouble connecting to the whole thing.

I always have a problem of connection with Desplechin, though. I think we are just not on the same wavelength. He puts in these things that just don’t work at all for me, like the dead first husband in Kings and Queen (my favorite film of his) and the boy who sees wolves in A Christmas Tale. And to me his characters often feel too contrived. Also, he loves bad rap, which annoys me because his French contemporaries can make such devastatingly perfect music choices. My Sex Life all feels very crafted and dramatized, especially juxtaposed to the Assayas. Everyone is always analyzing each other in this way that feels very fake. That scene of Emmanuelle Devos in the shower though is still a knock-out. I love all the scenes of her in her little dorm room (washing her little café au lait bowl!) and at translator school. I could watch a whole movie of that. But she’s a goddess.

At any rate, I now associate Jeanne Balibar’s unpleasantness in My Sex Life a little more with Desplechin than with her as an actress, though I still think she can have annoying tendencies. I’m eager to see how she is with other directors; I still haven’t seen Ne touchez pas la hache, Va savoir, Mange ta soupe… Lots still to delve into, as always.

Golden Eldorado

August 7, 2010

I tracked down the song that plays during the amazing café/bar scene at the beginning of Pialat’s Passe ton bac d’abord. It is “Golden Eldorado” by Voyage. It sets the mood quite hauntingly in the film, kind of ambling and casual with little pushes where it soars. Love the jubilant chorus too. It reminds me a lot of Toto’s “Africa” in how it tries to cram in all this specific vocab–letting you know they’re not joking around with the theme.

While looking for the song I also came across this article, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of the film by catching up with some of the locals in Lens who acted in it, particularly Bernard Tronczak (the one who has the thing with Agnès and the lion bathing suit girl) and Patrick Lepczynski (with the brown hair and mustache).

My Top Ten of 2009

January 7, 2010

The films that touched me most this year.

1. 35 Rhums
2. Still Walking
3. Two Lovers
4. Summer Hours
5. Liverpool
6. Adventureland
7. Public Enemies
8. Tulpan
9. An Education
10. Unmade Beds

Jeune Anne

December 9, 2009

Durant le tournage d’Au hasard Balthazar, j’ai pris conscience de ce que pouvait être le bonheur de vivre ou, plus exactement, le bonheur de se sentir vivre. Cela ne ressemblait pas tout à fait à ce que j’avais pu lire dans des romans ou voir dans des films; c’était plus brutal, plus sauvage et, me semblait-il, plus ouvert.

[During the filming of Au hasard Balthazar, I became conscious of what the joy of living, or, more precisely, the joy of feeling alive, could be. It didn’t quite resemble what I had been able to read in books or see in films; it was more brutal, more savage and, it seemed to me, more open.]

In Au hasard Balthazar Anne Wiazemsky is a beguiling mix of awkwardness and assertiveness, defiantly unglamorous and inattentive to the romantic possibilities of the camera. In look and mannerism she straddles the line of childhood and adulthood from moment to moment—appearing disarmingly beautiful and poised, then suddenly gangly and graceless. Her deep, unrefined voice and weighty pronunciation add to the contradictions and undeniable magnetism of her screen presence.

Wiazemsky used her memories of the shoot of Balthazar to write a novel entitled Jeune fille, published in France in 2007 by Gallimard and supposedly now available in English from the British publisher Telegram Books, though it has been suspiciously out of stock on Amazon UK since the release date, and I haven’t seen much written about the translation.

Despite the professed fictional nature of her book, it reads like a memoir and I felt her emotional struggles were based in truths, even if the fictionalized Anne has a neater trajectory than Wiazemsky’s own.[1] I approached the book armed only with impressions formed by her fervent political collaborations with husband Jean-Luc Godard, and an awareness of her illustrious family background (her maternal grandfather being the Nobel-winning writer François Mauriac, and her father Polish royalty). I was startled to discover the world of a painfully insecure almost-18-year-old, still trying to cope with the death of her father two years before and entirely untrusting of any unique or artistic capacity within herself.

The book opens as Anne is taken by the effervescent and worldly Florence Carrez (who played Jeanne in Bresson’s 1962 film Procès de Jeanne d’Arc) to meet Bresson at his posh apartment on the Île St. Louis in Paris. The Bresson of my mind was not the dapper, smooth-talking, espadrille-clad man who comes to the door—the stale and grimly serious interviews I’ve seen with him removed any anticipation of romance. But such is the way Anne encounters him. Intimidated by his poise and “discrete elegance,” she feels her own awkwardness amplified. Over and over Bresson has her read a chunk of dialogue from his first film, Les Anges du péché, and despite her sense of doom that she will be exposed for the dull girl she believes herself to be, Bresson quickly becomes enthralled with her (though he doesn’t confess it completely at first).

While this jittery jeune fille may not have made an impression on every director, her rough, unaffected composure played perfectly into Bresson’s philosophies on acting. With strict regimentation, Bresson endeavored to tap into the automatic, unthinking aspects of human nature and interaction. In his mind, for an actor’s performance to be truthful it must be free of inflection, premeditation, and psychologizing. Anne’s lack of confidence made her desperate to please Bresson and this eagerness combined with her “naturally blank” voice struck him passionately.

As their collaboration progresses, predictable warning signs appear in succession, leading you to assume this will be a very familiar story. Bresson’s sudden entry into Anne’s life and his immediate praise of her qualities makes her believe he is somehow able to gauge who she is before she knows herself. And so, she gives herself completely to his instructions and opinions, trusting that he knows how to bring out and accentuate her best tendencies (as both an actress and a maturing woman). She takes pleasure in doing so, letting his visions and idealizations play out on her to his satisfaction.

The bulk of Balthazar was shot on location in Guyancourt, near Versailles. For the two-month summer shoot, Bresson shields Anne from the rest of the crew by insisting she board with him in a separate house, with connecting bedrooms. He claims he needs her with him at all times, that her presence calms him and helps him understand the film he is making. Anne soon becomes acquainted with the Bresson of the night, who takes her on long walks and desires submission from her in a troubling new context. Repulsed by his advances, she consistently pushes him away and wrestles with reconciling her immense admiration for Bresson as an artist and mentor with her uneasiness about his ideas on the nature of their relationship.

Having now been equipped with a base level of confidence and purpose, Anne looks to defining her participation in it, as well as the terms of her relationship with Bresson. More than a few times his behavior disgusted me, especially in moments where he manipulated her to force results for the film and tried to guilt her into being sexual with him, and yet Anne resists vilifying him. Sometimes this was hard to take. But Anne’s presence of mind prevents her from simply being a victim of his idealizations, and both sexually and artistically she asserts herself. (The latter leads to an empowering and devastating act of creative rebellion late in the book that I won’t spoil.)

Anne’s story is really quite a simple and typical coming-of-age account, except it’s set within this tremendous artistic context. What I most relished about it was the way Anne resists succumbing to a potentially dangerous relationship without jeopardizing the wonderful self-realization that Bresson’s encouragement had brought about in her.  And not only that, she achieves an amazing artistic collaboration with him that feels rare within his career, in that it truly feels like a collaboration. On set, Anne has an innate sense of Bresson’s philosophy and aesthetic and slips into the world of his film with ease. Perhaps this accounts for a feeling of immediacy and generosity from Wiazemsky in the film. Usually I don’t respond to the engineered-feeling demureness of Bresson’s actors (I’m thinking of how so often they look down, as a seeming stand-in for actual reflection or feeling) but with Wiazemsky it feels like a natural extension of her own lingering awkwardness. And she shows us warmth I find lacking in most Bresson performances. (Dominique Sanda in Une Femme douce is another exception that comes to mind.)

Jeune fille also offers a delicious peek at Wiazemsky’s first meeting with Godard. The story of her progression from an eighteen-year-old with burgeoning confidence to Godard’s wife and incendiary intellectual partner is a story I hope we can soon read too.

[1] In an interview with Gallimard, she suggests that her own state at the end of the film was much more confused and scattered than the buoyant, expectant ending of the character in the book. But she also implies that her portrayal of Bresson is very much founded in reality, as it was her fascination with his enigmatic persona that in part compelled her to write the book.

Ma Nuit Chez Panisse

October 14, 2009

Chez Panisse was really all I dreamed it would be. Cozy, utterly welcoming, full of delightful culinary surprises. I went with my brother, sister-in-law, and boyfriend last Monday night, after exploring Berkeley for the day.

Coming into the restaurant, I was overwhelmed with an elated anticipation. It’s hard not to sound trite, but I really had the feeling I was entering some uniquely wonderful realm. The first-floor restaurant in Chez Panisse’s converted house has rich chocolate beams, simple wooden chairs, comfy booths, soft, warm light, and a generous view into the kitchen. The kitchen looked like the loveliest place on earth. Elegantly worn furniture and counters, calm and attractive chefs, an aura of easy happiness. Perfect.

We were each presented with beautifully printed take-home menus with that date’s unique first course, entrée, and dessert. It was the first time I’d been in a restaurant where you are entirely vulnerable to the chef’s judgment. I am anxious about the idea in general, being a notoriously picky eater with an abnormal sensitivity to spiciness. And yet I wasn’t especially apprehensive about the menu at Chez Panisse. I think I’d practically convinced myself that foods I couldn’t stand elsewhere I would eat here with relish.

First course: Leeks vinaigrette with shaved porcini and Parmesan. This was my favorite dish of the night, probably because it was also the one I was most nervous about. I hate onions and was worried about the oniony taste of the leeks, but in the very tart vinaigrette it was severely muted. In fact, the leeks tasted almost creamy. The Parmesan was stiff and sharp, and the porcini were extra acidic. It was so wonderful that no one spoke for several minutes because of our sensory distraction. Putting energy into talking at that moment felt kind of absurd.

Entrée: Canard aux olives – Liberty duck leg braised in white wine with green olives, ratatouille and soft polenta. This was a very homey, comforting meal. Really good, but not particularly exceptional. The duck was crispy and delicious. The olives were the second case that night of a delicate acidic flavor tasting creamy, and it was delightful. There was jus all around, making for a thoroughly enjoyable dish. I found out later, while reading Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, that canard aux olives was also the main course served on opening night in 1971!

Dessert: Black Mission fig tart with Sauternes Sabayon. I’m not a big fig fan, but I loved this. The figs had an alcoholic, kind of burnt taste which was terrific. Definitely added a complexity to the fig flavor, which I think tends to be boring. But the real genius of the tart was the crust–wow! It was incredibly flakey. The bottom layer of the crust had barely let any fig juice soak into it, and it flaked apart in your mouth. It was also sugary and very tasty, unlike lots of bland crusts I’ve sampled. I’ve only baked one tart so far (which was, in fact, from the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook) and my crust turned out nothing like this. Something to aspire to! The Sauternes Sabayon was a very nice accompaniment–a barely sweet, thick whipped cream. The flavor of the Sauternes complimented the alcoholic taste of the figs very nicely.

However, despite all this gastronomic elation, something happened at the start of the second course that drastically altered the meal for me. I’d intended to take some pictures of my food that night, primarily with this blog in mind. The first course was so surprising and enticing that I had forgotten about picture-taking until I was halfway through, and then reasoned the main course might be more appropriate anyways. After the beautiful plate of duck arrived, I fished my phone out of my purse as inconspicuously as I could. I thought I would even pretend to be checking my email or something to appear less noticeable. At this exact moment of mimed casualness, I became aware that a guy at the table next to us was talking about me. He was about my age, there with his girlfriend, both of them dressed in an expensive preppy way. They also apparently knew much of the Chez Panisse staff and dined there often. He was saying, “Wow, those people are taking pictures of their food. I mean, they could be doing something else on their phone but it looks like they’re taking a picture.” What? My heart was beating fast. He went on to say how ridiculous it was,  how I obviously didn’t appreciate the food, being primarily interested in taking a picture like some tourist. His commentary was loaded with the judgment that here was this ignorant, tactless person for whom the whole Chez Panisse experience was a novelty, who could never understand the caliber of the food. I think he even made an overtly classist remark, like, “You or I would never take a picture of our food.”

I felt so scared and shamed that I copped out altogether, finishing my actions on the phone as if I really had been looking at an email, and started to eat my duck with shaking hands. Aaron saw that I hadn’t taken a picture and sensed something was wrong, and quickly took his own picture of me and my food. He didn’t get much of the food in there, mostly my nervous smile, but he did capture the jerky guy in question in the background (which gave us a good laugh later).


I couldn’t believe how expertly they had preyed upon my exact anxiety. I had thought I might attract a disapproving look, maybe, at the most, but never anticipated this attempt at humiliation. Being the intensely sensitive person I am, I felt shamed to the point of tears and dropped out of table conversation almost completely as I struggled to concentrate on my food. What especially saddened me was that this attitude was so out of step with the philosophy of Chez Panisse. Alice Waters intended it to be the most unpretentious of restaurants, where even the food would play second fiddle to warm conversation in a homey atmosphere. How was it that these people had appropriated it and made it an elitist, exclusive place? I guess it’s inevitable that a restaurant that great, no matter how informal its intentions, must end up cultivating a snobbishness about it from a certain portion of their clientele. I did notice that the wait staff agilely and subtly adjusted their behavior to give off a “one of you” vibe to the preppy table and a few others, without losing the general friendliness and openness that had established such a nice feeling in the dining room.

I was extremely frustrated, in the moment and long afterward, as I viewed myself from the outside. I happen to be a financially stable young woman who’s been fortunate enough to do a lot of traveling and can indulge in extravagance every so often. But what if I wasn’t financially stable, and had been saving up for this meal for a long time? Anticipating it for months in advance, my chance to try this fabled divine food? And what if, finally on that special night, I overheard such brutal, wounding comments? Or to go down another speculative path, what if I had been taking a picture for a loved one physically or financially unable to come to the restaurant, but who wanted to share in the joy of my experience?

This capacity for cruelty, simply to reaffirm the couple’s own superior positions, was so frightening to me. All the implications of their behavior shook me up for the rest of the night, until I was back in the car with my family and we could laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Of course I shouldn’t care about such small-minded opinions. Of course those people are laughably irrelevant to me. I thought then that maybe I could let it all pass without too much further worry. But after the contained safety of the car, being alone with my own mind, I knew I couldn’t forget it. Thoughts of how I could have and should have responded to those comments began to plague me. I’d focus on another topic and then suddenly be dreaming up deliciously mean retorts without even realizing it. I am forever cursed to let the moment of engagement pass irrevocably in these types of situations before I can figure out how to answer. I become so flustered physically and so unsure of whether my internal pain deserves to be voiced that I say nothing. It’s only long after that I realize all the things I should have said. I torment myself by playing the scenario over and over in my mind, vowing to keep an arsenal of verbal self-defense at the ready for next time.

What the experience most made me think about was the capacity for everyday cruelty that strangers have towards other strangers, and how some people are totally able to deflect this cruelty, and others (like me) absorb it and agonize over it, falling into a deep pessimism about human nature. This is a big problem for me living in New York. The subway is a regular source of pain for me, a minefield of injurious moments, both received and given. (I too participate in moments of anonymous brutality, the effects of group mentality boring into me, and it’s disgusting.) I keep reasoning that I just need to move away from the city, but I’m not really sure that would change much. I feel I should work on becoming less sensitive, but I also don’t see that as my responsibility.


Butternut Squash Pie

October 8, 2009

After focusing on pie baking for the past few years I’m finally developing a more instinctual understanding of construction and the balancing of flavors. Last weekend I took a maple pumpkin pie recipe from my trusted book Pie by Ken Haedrich and modified it a little with great success.

Pumpkin has a monopoly on squash-centric desserts, which I suspected was probably unfair and I wanted to play around with other delicious varieties of winter squash. Butternut squash was the obvious first divergence without being too adventurous. It has a less pointed flavor than pumpkin while still boasting a strong, creamy taste. The recipe called for 1 3/4 cup puréed pumpkin but I used all of a medium-large butternut squash, about 2 1/3 cups. Coming home from Vermont two weekends ago, we picked up some strong, dark Grade B maple syrup which I thought would be great to give the pie a bold flavor profile. For the creation of the custard, the recipe called for three eggs and a cup of half-and-half or light cream. When my local Compare Foods turned out only to have heavy cream in one-cup cartons, I didn’t hesitate to make the substitution but was also wary of letting my love for dairy push the pie into too-rich, heavy territory. The last element in the recipe that I wanted to rethink was the spices. The recipe suggested ginger in addition to cinnamon and nutmeg. I omitted the ginger in favor of some beautiful allspice we’d just purchased in bulk from the Aphrodisia herb store in the West Village.

The pie turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever made. Though my modifications were modest, this pie encouraged me to trust my developing instincts in altering and creating recipes. The extra fat in the cream deliciously accented the creaminess of the squash, and I think adding the extra squash helped prevent it from tasting too heavy. The maple was subtler than I expected, but bolstered the squash’s taste in a really nice way, as if it were there to help out and not draw attention to itself. I loved how the allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg worked well in concert but weren’t lost individually, and I felt it was just the right amount of flavor to accompany the squash and maple. Refrigerating the pie enhanced everything, bringing out more of the spices and letting the creaminess excel as a flavor and not be simplified in the mind as simply a texture.

As my pie baking has matured, I’ve become less focused on choosing and planning which pie to create ahead of time, and more eager to explore what fresh, beautiful produce is on hand and how to most deliciously present it. The chefs I admire most are those who are only trying to create something worthy of the ingredients they use, and it makes me feel good to make small advances towards achieving that goal.

Update: See recipe below! Perfect for Thanksgiving, and since I think it tastes best served cold, you can make it the night before.

Maple Butternut Squash Pie (adapted from Ken Haedrich‘s Maple Pumpkin Pie)

1 medium to large butternut squash

3 eggs

1 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. Grade B maple syrup

1 t. vanilla extract

1/2 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 1/2 T. all-purpose flour

1 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. ground nutmeg

1/2 t. ground allspice

1/4 t. salt


1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1 T. sugar

a pinch of salt

1/4 c. cold unsalted butter

1/4 c. cold vegetable shortening

1/4 c. cold water (more/less as needed)

1. Prepare the crust. Put the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and toss with your hands. Cut the butter into quarter-inch chunks and throw onto the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you have evenly sized crumbs. Add the shortening, also cut into small or quarter-inch chunks. Cut into the dough until it all looks even. (Recipes often say “pea-sized” but my crumbs are always smaller than this and the crust still comes out beautifully.) Add the water, a little bit at a time, and tamp down with a fork until all the crumbs stick together and the dough can be gathered into a ball. Flatten the ball to a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm (about an hour) or overnight.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the squash. Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place the halves face-down in a glass baking dish. Cover the bottom with an inch or so of water. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the flesh is tender and a fork will pierce it easily. Let the squash cool a bit, then scoop out the flesh and purée in a food processor.

3. Roll the dough out on floured wax paper until it’s a couple inches wider than your pie pan. (I use a 9 1/2-inch deep-dish ceramic pie pan.) To get the dough into the pan, either put your hand under the wax paper and invert it over the pan in one quick motion, or lightly fold the crust in half two times (so you have a folded quarter) and then unfold over the pan. Center the dough (and peel off the paper) and tuck into the side of the pan without stretching the dough. It helps to readjust the dough by letting it fall into the bottom, rather than pushing the dough down to make it fit. Sculpt the edge however you prefer (I like to do an upstanding ridge or fold the edge in towards the center) and redistribute excess dough where needed to make an even crust. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm the dough.

4. Prebake the crust. Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Tear off a generous piece of aluminum foil and tuck it into the bottom and side of the pan, hugging the dough as snugly as possible. Let the excess foil flare out over the sides, and don’t bend it over the edge of the crust. Fill the pie with pie weights or dried beans. Bake on the center rack for 15 minutes. Then slide out the rack and slowly lift the foil to remove the weights. The crust should look more or less set. Prick the bottom and sides generously with a fork, twisting a little to make the holes bigger. Lower the oven to 375˚F and bake for an additional 10-12 minutes. Keep watch and if the pastry starts to puff up, prick it with a fork to release the air. When you take it out, the crust should look just slightly golden. Mixing the filling won’t take too long, so you can keep the oven on, reducing the heat to 350˚F.

5. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs together lightly. Add the cream, maple syrup, and vanilla. In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, flour, spices, and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet. Add the squash purée, and whisk until everything is blended well. Pour into the cooled pie shell.

6. Bake the pie for 25 minutes, then rotate 180˚ and continue to bake for another 25 minutes, until the filling is set. The edge of the filling will look rounded and a little puffy, and the center should look slightly shiny (but should not be soupy).

7. Put the pie on a wire rack, let cool, and then cover with loose aluminum foil & refrigerate for the best and most complex taste. I think it’s creamy enough that whipped cream is a little redundant. Enjoy!