Mildred Pierce

Assiduous mother, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) becomes a successful restauranteur in an effort to support and placate her spoiled daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth).

Released in 1945, Mildred Piece is film noir meets maternal melodrama with a narrative essentially centered around the restaurant business. As one would suspect, due to the film’s culinary subject matter, there is quite a lot of food (as well as plenty of booze) featured throughout Mildred Piece, making it an essential “food film,” and therefore, an obvious choice for a food & a film pairing.

After a murder is committed in the first few moments in the film, we travel to Santa Monica Pier where Mildred is dazedly walking along the boardwalk at night. In the establishing shot of the pier we see a seafood shack to the right with a list of seafood—’Oysters, Shrimps, Lobsters, Clams, Scallops, Abalones’—painted on the side of the shack. Across from the shack is a bar & cafe with a large neon sign in the shape of a fish that says: ‘Entertainment – Cocktails.’ There are also the words “Hawaiian” and “CAFE” painted on the front and side of the building. As Mildred walks back from the end of the pier, Wally Fay (Jack Carson) spots her from inside and invites her into his establishment for a drink. Mildred accepts the invitation and once she joins Wally inside we see that it is a tropical themed bar offering live entertainment. We see Mildred knock back the drink that Wally has ordered for her before telling him, “That’s rotten liquor. There’s better stuff to drink at the beach house, Wally.”

Mildred and Wally then head to her beach house where Wally fixes drinks for both of them from behind the impressively expansive home bar. After Wally hands Mildred a drink, the two of them cheers and each take a sip from their drinks, with only Wally continuing to drink his throughout the scene. These back-to-back boozy scenes are just the beginning of the seemingly endless array of liquor soaked scenes that comprise this film.

Following the scene at the beach house, the next scene to feature food and drink is when Mildred arrives at the police station, where we see an officer seated at his desk drinking a cup of coffee (presumably). A photographer then walks into the station, grabs himself a paper cone and fills it up at the water cooler. The officer drinking coffee continues to take sips from his cup while also chewing, and we can see a plate on his desk with food of some kind, possibly a sandwich.

As Mildred begins to relay her story to the police detective, we flashback from the police station to Mildred at home in her kitchen. In the kitchen we see a baking table with a large plainly frosted cake on it, as well as a cannister that says ‘SUGAR’. We hear a voice over narration of Mildred explaining to the detective: “I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I’d lived in a kitchen all my life…except for the few hours it took to get married.” During this narration Mildred puts a bowl of eggs in the fridge and takes out a mixing bowl that has a spoon in it. Mildred’s husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) arrives home and Mildred shortly thereafter receives a delivery: a dress for Veda. When Bert asks Mildred where she got the money to purchase the dress, Mildred replies, “Baking cakes and making pies for the neighbors. That’s where I got it. l earned it.” When Mildred goes back into the kitchen, we see her fitting a piping bag with a nozzle so we can assume that the mixing bowl contains frosting to decorate the bare cake. Mildred then puts the piping bag down and goes to the stove to stir the contents inside one of the two lidded pots simmering on the stove. Although we cannot see what is inside the pots, we can see steam escaping when she lifts the lid and stirs. Mildred then lifts the lid of the other pot and gives its contents a stir as well. Upon putting the lid back on the pot, Mildred goes into the fridge and takes out a pitcher of milk and brings it over to the baking table. Mildred then spoons a flour-like substance into a bowl and pours some milk into it before giving it a stir. She then returns to the stove where she takes off the lid of one of the pots and pours the flour mixture into it as she stirs.

Following the scene between Mildred and Bert, we see Mildred’s daughters Veda and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) return home from school and greet their mother as she is putting the finished cake, beautifully decorated, into a cake box. Kay asks who the cake is for and Mildred tells her it is a birthday cake for Eddie Whitley. Kay also asks her mother, “When do we eat?” as she runs over to the counter and attempts to put a spoonful of soup into her mouth before Mildred stops her telling her she will spoil her dinner. We can also see a plate of cookies on the baking table.

The next major food sequence occurs when Mildred is out searching for a job and stops at a restaurant for a cup of tea. Upon entering the restaurant Mildred is shown to a table by the hostess, Ida (Eve Arden). As Mildred is looking over the menu, Ida informs her that the “roast chicken is very nice.” Mildred, barely audible, responds saying, “No, thank you I’ll just have tea and some toast.” A few minutes later, after Ida gives Mildred a job as a waitress (as well as delivers her requested a cup of tea), we cut to Mildred in her gingham uniform holding a tray in the kitchen. We hear a chef say, “Chef’s salad. Hold the mayonnaise.,” followed by one waitress saying, “Two plates, hold the potatoes.,” and another requesting, “Two chops, medium and rare.” Mildred then says, “Two chicken dinners. One without gravy.,” before Ida corrects her saying, “Two chickens. Hold one gravy. You can’t say ”without,” you gotta say hold.”

Following this kitchen scene is a montage of Mildred working at the restaurant as a waitress where we see her clearing tables and placing orders in the kitchen. Mildred’s voice-over describes her experience working, stating, “I learned the restaurant business. I learned it the hard way. In three weeks, I was a good waitress.” We then see Mildred’s progress with ordering as she requests, “One chicken. Hold veg.,” as well as, “Steak, medium. Club san. Roast beef. Hold one. Combin salad.” Mildred’s voice-over then explains, “In six weeks, I felt like I’d worked in a restaurant all my life. And in three months, I was one of the best waitresses in the place. I took tips and was glad to get them. And at home I baked pies for the restaurant.”

We then cut to a scene of Mildred baking at home, her kitchen filled with pies for the restaurant. Mildred tells her assistant, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen) that the pies in the over will be done in another couple of minutes before reviewing the list of pies in her notebook. Mildred recounts aloud, “Let’s see now, we have a dozen peach, a dozen berry, a dozen pumpkin, a dozen cherry. After we finish the apple, we can quit.,” before she begins to roll out a pie crust for yet another pie.

Following the pie-centric scene in Mildred’s kitchen, the next major food sequence in the film occurs when Mildred opens her first Mildred’s restaurant. On its opening night we first see the exterior of the restaurant, with the parking lot overflowing with cars. The restaurant has a drive-in section outside where we see a waitress attaching a dining tray carrying food to the driver’s side window of a car. We then overhear some food orders being placed with the kitchen: “Short stack. Easy on the butter. Adam and Eve on a raft. Hit me hard.” Inside the restaurant, Mildred is giving menus to patrons upon seating them at a table, telling them, “We have wonderful fried chicken.” We then make our way into the kitchen where Mildred proceeds to prepare some fried chicken. In addition, Wally is lending a hand by frying up some French fries, Lottie is working at a large table behind Mildred, and a chef in uniform is cooking in the background of the frame. As a waitress goes to exit the kitchen with a tray of food, Mildred stops her telling her, “Don’t ever go in like that. Put more potatoes on.,” as Mildred takes some French fries and puts them on the plates. The waitress responds, explaining, “You’ll never make money that way.,” but Mildred replies saying, “It’s alright, as long as the customers are satisfied.” At the end of the very busy opening night, Ida informs Mildred that, “the last customer just folded his tent.” Mildred replies, “That’s good. We’ve only got one chicken left.,” to which Ida responds, “Put my initials on that.”

Following the restaurant’s successful first night, Mildred’s voice-over explains: “The restaurant was a greater success than I knew that night. Profits were enormous. ln a few months I opened another place, and then I started a chain. In three years I built five restaurants. Everywhere you went, I had a restaurant.” During this voice-over we see the four new Mildred’s locations (the still above is of the second). 

Following the Mildred’s chain expansion sequence, the next time we see food or drink is when Mildred and Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) are having drinks in a booth of a fancy establishment while watching Veda dance. Less than ten minutes later we are back at Wally’s Hawaiian cafe, where Wally is pouring champagne for himself, Veda, and her date. Shortly following this scene at Wally’s is a scene between Veda and her mother where Veda, upon receiving her divorce settlement check, tells Mildred, “With this money I can get away from you… From you and your chickens, and your pies, and your kitchens, and everything that smells of grease.”

The next scene featuring food and drink occurs when Mildred and Ida day drink, having themselves a couple of straight bourbons. When Ida remarks, “You never used to drink during the day.,” Mildred tells her, “I never used to drink at all. It’s just a little habit I picked up from men.”

The final few scenes of the film to feature food or drink include Bert and Mildred having a couple of Rum Collins at Wally’s, Monte offering Mildred a drink, but telling her, “I have the heel of a bottle, no ice or seltzer. Sorry I can’t be more hospitable.,” to which Mildred responds, “That’s all right. I prefer it straight.” And finally, Veda’s birthday party scene featuring trays of coupe glasses being filled with champagne, as well as a birthday cake decorated with frosting flowers and adorned with candles, which we see Veda and Monte enjoying slices of while talking to Ida.

Lastly, additional food and drink moments in the film worth mentioning include: Wally fixing himself a scotch and soda in the Pierce kitchen; Monte fixing martinis for himself, Wally and Mildred; Bert drinking tea while having a conversation with Mildred; Kay asking Bert if they can stop and have a hamburger on their way to Arrowhead for the weekend; Monte fixing himself and Mildred a couple of drinks while outside at the beach house, and Mildred taking a sip of her drink before running into the ocean.

Naturally, a proper Mildred Pierce-inspired menu needs to have fried chicken and pie, and so I made sure to include both in my vegan food pairing for the film. In addition to vegan fried chicken, I added a side of French fries (just like the menu at Mildred’s) for the entree. Then to balance out the fried foods, I incorporated a salad inspired by the “combin salad” mentioned in the film. Apparently a “combin salad” is short for combination salad, which is essentially a salad that consists of meat or cheese in addition to greens and vegetables. Therefore, I opted to make a wedge salad complete with a wedge of iceberg lettuce, diced tomato, and vegan versions of bacon and blue cheese dressing.

Then when it came to decide what pie I would bake for dessert, I could not choose just one so I went with the two pies mentioned by Mildred that are made with fruit currently in season: apple pie and pumpkin pie. I also was not able to choose just one beverage for this pairing so I went with champagne (featured a couple of times in the film), straight bourbon (Ida & Mildred’s day drink of choice), and a cup of tea as a non-alcoholic option (also featured a couple of times in the film).

Finally, for the table setting, I found a gingham fabric inspired by Mildred’s waitress uniform to use as a tablecloth, and included a small arrangement of bougainvillea as a nod to the Los Angeles area, where the film takes place.

Thank you so much for tuning in for November’s installment of food & a film! Be sure to check back on December 1st for the final blog entry of the year. Until then!

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