Mildred Pierce (1941 book, 1945 Michael Curtiz film, and 2011 Todd Haynes TV miniseries) is currently occupying my thoughts and my tastebuds. In all of three versions of the story, food – namely fried chicken, waffles and pies – is central to plot and characterisation. Food also conveys much about the gender politics of the period in which the story is set, although each manifestation also says much about the time in which is was created.
The 2011 miniseries, starring Kate Winslet as Mildred, has a 5 1/2 hour duration and is extremely faithful to the original novel. The 1945 film, with a 110 minute running time and Joan Crawford in the Oscar-winning central role, moves away from the book, framing it with a murder and adding film noir stylings to the central maternal melodrama. But the basic plot of all three is as follows: Mildred Pierce is a California housewife who becomes a successful restaurateur and businesswoman after breaking up with her unemployed husband Bert, the father of her two daughters, Veda and Ray (Kay in the 1945 film). Veda is her mother’s favourite, despite (or perhaps because) being spoilt and precocious, and the film follows Mildred’s almost masochistic efforts to win her love.
As the book/series/flashback section of the film opens, Mildred is in the kitchen. She’s made a cake – not for her darling children, but as a money-making commission for a neighbour. As a woman who married young, Mildred has only a basic education and her main skill-set is around domestic work, most notably cooking. In the 1945 film, Joan Crawford’s voiceover tells us: ‘I married Bert when I was seventeen. I never knew any other kind of life. Just cooking and washing and having children’. She uses her baking to make money to buy treats for the children and to plug the gaps in household income caused by Bert’s unemployment (Cain’s novel is set during the Depression). Mildred is like many other women of the 1930s and then the war period, who have to become independent make good for themselves in the absence of male breadwinners (an idea widely seen as one of the underpinning elements of film noir, in which femme fatales frequently threaten to destroy, or symbolically castrate, the male protagonists).
After a brief argument with Bert, it transpires that Bert is having an affair with a neighbour, Mrs Biederhof. It seems like Mildred has merely been looking for an excuse to throw him out, which she immediately does. Although they stay amicably in touch, Mildred is now on her own. The rest of the story follows her efforts first to simply get by and put food on the table, and then to build and maintain a business empire in order to win Veda’s love and respect. Food is key to this and both helps and hinders Mildred’s efforts.
From Waitress to Restaurateur
Mildred’s lack of training and experience led her to take the the only sort of job she can get – waiting tables in a diner. Crawford’s voiceover tells us: ‘‘In three weeks I was a good waitress, 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’. She continues: ‘Only one thing worried me – that someday Veda would find out I was a waitress’.
She’s mortified when Veda cruelly and theatrically reveals that she has discovered her mother’s secret. Mildred comes home to find Lottie, her maid/kitchen helper, wearing Mildred’s own waitress uniform. She confronts Veda who retorts, ‘aren’t the pies bad enough, did you have to degrade us?’.
Trying to find a way to regain status in her daughter’s eyes, Mildred declares she’s planning on opening her own restaurant and is only waiting tables to learn how the business works (“Will we be rich?” asks Veda). No longer relegated to the status of ‘mere’ waitress, Mildred basks in a new-found, but short-lived, respect from Veda and takes pleasure in planning ‘Mildred’s’, a restaurant that specialises in chicken and waffle dinners, with pie for desert.
In James M. Cain’s book and the Todd Haynes series, a great level of detail is given to the food itself, and to the planning and economics of restaurant cooking. There is less of this in the 1945 film which focuses more on the fact that Mildred’s done her research on property prices, footfall/traffic and potential competition.
In book and series, the character of Monty Beragon is introduced when he comes into the diner in which Mildred works, on her last day before starting out on her own. In the 1945 film, the writers neatly introduce him by making him the owner of the property Mildred wishes to use for her restaurant. But in all versions he whisks her away to his beach house and they start an affair – one that will have ultimately destructive, and even tragic, consequences.
Pies are the foundation on which Mildred builds her business. Like chicken and waffles, the staple of ‘Mildred’s’, the pie is a simple, ‘honest’ food, cheap and filling, if not hugely refined. While waiting tables in the diner, it’s the recognition that she could bake much better pies that gets Mildred started as a freelance business woman. With the encouragement of fellow worker Ida, Mildred begins to sell her pies to the diner and slowly builds up a client base and a savings account that enables her to start out on her own.
The literary Mildred’s specialities include lemon, peach, cherry, pumpkin, apple and huckleberry. The 1945 film shows Mildred and Lottie in aprons in the kitchen making a dozen each of peach, berry, pumpkin, cherry and apple. The film was shot at Warner Brothers studios in late 1944/early 1945, during rationing, and the smell of pies being baked brought numerous curious (and hungry) visitors over to the set from all corners of the lot.
In James M. Cain’s novel, one admiring customer notes that the meringue on Mildred’s lemon pie ‘looks two inches thick’ and ‘by noon, the lemon pie was a few smears of filling in an empty plate’. The lemon meringue doesn’t feature in the 40s Mildred Pierce but is lovingly rendered on screen for the 2011 Haynes version, as is fitting in this era in which food fashions have returned to an appreciation of a simpler style of home-cooking and the pie can be elevated to work of art while remaining a symbol of comfort and reassurance.
There is an excellent interview with the TV film’s property master, Sandy Hamilton, online via LA Weekly in which Hamilton discusses his work on Mildred Pierce and the importance of the detail provided by Cain in his novel. To convey the unappetising nature of the diner’s pies before Mildred begins baking there, Hamilton used ‘store-bought pies. They were flat, the crust was sort of white and doughy-looking, kind of uninteresting. The filling was gelatinous’. Yum. By contrast, the pies Mildred makes were created by food stylist Colin Flynn, whose other credits include the foodie love letter that is Julie & Julia (Flynn also made the chocolate cake Kate Winslet is seen decorating at the start of the series, pictured above).
Demonstrating that food and cooking can be almost as important to characterisation as costume, Hamilton also talks about the long discussions he had with the crew over how Mildred would crimp the edge of her pie crust and how she would plan the menu in restaurant to ensure nothing went to waste. As a practical woman, everything would be meticulously planned to avoid wastage and to ensure the greatest efficiency and profit.
Chicken and Waffles
In the book and series, Mildred realises that all anyone orders in the diner is chicken. This inspires her to open her own essentially fast food concept restaurant that serves just chicken and waffle dinners (or chicken with vegetables if people prefer). It seems that in the 1945 film the menu is more varied – signs proclaim ‘Mildred’s Fine Foods’ – but even here, what we see Mildred cook is fried chicken and at the end of the very successful opening night we’re told there’s only one chicken left. Chicken is also what Cain focuses on in the novel, going into a lot of detail about how Mildred plans her menu and how her kitchen functions:
Feeling as though she were starting a well-tuned machine, she took out four each of the breasts, second joints, drumsticks, and wings, rolled them in the flour box beside the range, gave them a squirt from the olive oil bottle that stood beside the flour. She shoved them in the oven for the brief baking that preceded frying them in butter.
Mildred has noticed how most places sell chicken – in one big, unappetising, piece – and decides, as described above, that it would be better to serve hers in smaller pieces. Consequently, for the 2011 series Kate Winslet practiced chopping a chicken into pieces, just as the book’s Mildred does. But both Winslet and Crawford’s Mildred deep fry, rather than bake, or part-bake their chicken which is more visual and cinematic, and perhaps more in keeping with contemporaneous food trends. (Colin Flynn’s recipe for fried chicken can be found here).
I’m nervous about deep frying – for me this is something that should be saved for eating in restaurants, especially as I have memories of the bi-weekly cleanings of the deep fat fryer in a restaurant where I once worked – so when making my own Mildred Pierce dinner I used a medley of recipes that incorporated a shallow frying method, using about 1-1 1/2 inches of oil, frying the chicken on both sides for 6 minutes with the lid on the pan, and then for 9 minutes with the lid off (recipe to follow here, after one final testing).
As Colin Flynn observed in his LA Weekly interview, ‘Fried chicken doesn’t stay attractive for very long’ so please forgive this photo which does not make the chicken look as good as it tasted. In the UK it’s also hard to find the irons to make the shallow ‘old-fashioned kind of round waffle that people really like’ so I’ve had to content myself with the sort that cuts down into little heart shapes.
Appropriate perhaps, for Mildred, who puts her heart on her sleeve in her efforts to win the love of her ungrateful daughter. For the Mildred Pierce dinner, we served the chicken and waffles with salad with Green Goddess dressing (I tried serving with gravy as in the book, but it ended up feeling more like a Sunday lunch than a classic American dish), and followed it with a blueberry pie and buttermilk ice cream (both homemade).
And to drink…
Monty: How do you like your drink?
Mildred: Oh, harmless...
Cain and Haynes observe the end of Prohibition, with Mildred deciding to set up a bar in her already-successful restaurant. With its less distinct timeframe, Crawford’s Mildred has one there from get-go. She tells Monty before she opens ‘‘why should people come to my place to eat and go somewhere else to drink?”.
In the same way that Mildred’s changing clothes say much about her character (and the actresses who play her, especially in the case of Crawford), he drinking habits also chart her progress from housewife to woman of the world. In the opening sequence of the 1945 film, a near-suicidal Mildred joins Wally for a drink which she takes neat. As we flashback back to the beginning of her story, we see a more demure Mildred cautiously and inexpertly drink alcohol, warn Monty he drinks too much, and add extra soda to her whiskey to dilute it. As the film progresses, and Mildred gets more successful, wordly and cynical, she takes her drinks stronger and stronger – and earlier and earlier. As Ida says over a glass of bourbon, “you never used to drink during the day”. “I never used to drink at all” Mildred replies.
Alligators Eat their Young
Over the course of the book, film and series, we see Mildred rise to success by turning a domestic skill into a commercial one. She opens a chain of restaurants, all bearing her name, and her ventures brings her money, power and a glamorous marriage. None of these can make her happy though, as her daughter Veda is incapable of appreciating Mildred’s hard work. She can only see her humble beginnings and despises her for working for her money instead of being born to it. In this respect, Veda and Monty, Mildred’s second husband, are alike. Both take money from Mildred while disdaining its origins. As Crawford’s Mildred tells Monty ‘‘I don’t notice you shirking away from a 50 dollar bill because it smells of grease”.
With Monty comes the additional reversal of gender politics (in keeping with 1940s shift in gender power dynamics) with Monty as kept man relying on Mildred’s beneficence. Both Crawford and Winslet provide great portrayals of authoritative women who threaten the egos and sensibilities of the men around then. For Monty, attacking Mildred through class is one way to hit back. When Crawford’s Mildred gives him money, ending their relationship, he says: ‘Thank you, I’ve always wondered how it felt to take a tip’.
Likewise, Veda knows how to hit out at her mother. She tells that she wants to ‘get away from you [Mildred]. With your chickens and your pies and kitchens and everything that smells of grease’. While celebrating Mildred’s empowerment, Mildred Pierce also shows her misguided love for her daughter bringing her back down. She can never really value her success because Veda does not, and fails to hold on to it for this reason. As Ida tells her friend and colleague, ‘‘Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea – they eat their young”.