Chef: More than just food

I was unable to attend the premiere screening of Chef at SXSW this year, much to my chagrin, so I’ve spent the ensuing two months on tenterhooks, waiting for it to open here in Austin (I was all set to see it when it opened in limited release on May 9, even going so far as to book a babysitter, but it didn’t open here until the 23rd).  So, once it opened here on the weekend, I got my butt in a seat as soon as was humanly possible. On the whole, I thought it was a very pleasant movie, if not a little formulaic. While many folks have mentioned the visceral delight of the food porn on display (which, frankly, I found a little distracting — Jon Favreau’s character makes this enormous, gorgeous meal alone in his apartment for no one, which made little sense to me. But it sure was pretty to look at!), I saw some other things going on as well, points of interest that I don’t think should be overlooked even though this film 100% capitalizes on this current food-obsessed cultural moment. _DSC9959.NEF There are very few things I find more delightful as a consumer of culture than watching Jon Favreau’s semi-autobiographical characters tear themselves down into a broken, ego-bruised mass, usually via an epic meltdown, then slowly rebuild from a place of abashed humility. The first time I saw Swingers, I couldn’t sit still while watching the answering machine scene; it made me so anxious, I was pacing back and forth in front of the TV saying, “no, no, please god no, don’t do that, just stop for the love of … he’s not going to stop, is he?” There is a similar meltdown in Chef, only his shame isn’t private — it’s viral. It’s through this mechanism that Favreau communicates his particular brand of vulnerability, one that provides a counterpoint to all the puffed-up masculinity on display in the rest of his celluloid life.

There’s no small amount of dick swinging in Chef, and the showdown between Carl Casper, whom we are to understand is a creative culinary mastermind, and Dustin Hoffman’s irascible, inflexible restaurant owner is but one particularly aggressive example. Carl’s banter with his loyal sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) is simultaneously macho, semi-filthy, and respectful (the chemistry between the two actors is as refreshing as a watermelon paleta on a blazing summer’s day), and together they do the work of teaching Carl’s son, Percy (Emjay Anthony) the intricacies of being a man, from applying cornstarch to one’s “huevos” in humid climes to learning the hierarchy of the working world to the profound responsibility imbued in a chef’s knife. mmmmm And it’s that male-centric view that troubles this film. Typical of most Hollywood movies these days (I guess technically this is an indie? But it’s got Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson in it, so it can’t be THAT indie), there are women present, but only in relationship to the man and his needs. Por ejemplo, Johansson’s sultry sommelier serves only to warn Carl that the boss is coming, provide calm encouragement to spread his wings and fly, and moan lasciviously over a mouthful of pasta he’s prepared for her while she lounges on his bed. Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl’s ex-wife, offers friendly support, encouragement, as well as gentle chiding when Carl lapses in his fatherly duties. As likable as Inez is, she’s something of a cypher. Why does she have that amazing house with the huge staff? Why does she have a publicist (brilliantly and skeevily played by Amy Sedaris)? We know nothing about Inez other than that she adores her son, clearly still cares deeply for Carl, and has a famous Cuban musician for a father. Put another way, the three women in the film are essentially there to reflect Carl back to himself in one way or another. (For a brilliant and devastating takedown of The Amazing Spider Man 2 along these same lines, check out Amanda Ann Klein’s “The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy [SPOILERS!!!])

In addition to the film’s “woman problem,” Favreau is blind to his economic privilege in telling this story. Despite the fact that Carl kvetches that he’s broke, he magically receives an apparently no-strings-attached truck from a Miami connection of Inez’s (she’s so useful like that!), then proceeds to max out his credit cards outfitting that truck to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention secure the appropriate permitting in each city they visit on their drive from Miami to LA, have startup cash to purchase ingredients (and beer and cigars). Yes, it’s a feel-good story about implementing your own creative vision in the interest of living your best life, but it was extremely difficult for me to suspend my disbelief when it came to Carl’s overnight success as a food truck operator.

But there are things that I appreciate in the film, too. People of color in the movie aren’t depicted as comic relief, they are the main characters. And I think that’s particularly interesting considering the dominant discourse of celebrity chefs, which tends to privilege white males. I like that Cuban food is the link to Carl’s identity and reignites his creative fire without any anxiety about being Other, and I also like that in each city he visits, he effortlessly crafts a hybrid sandwich reflecting that city’s culture (po’boys and beignets in New Orleans, brisket sliders in Austin). He embraces an easy fusion, a subtle argument for food as the vehicle for inclusiveness.

I also loved the role of social media in the film, particularly as it concerns Percy. It’s through his son that Carl discovers the possibility of connection — and the destructive power — of social networking. Percy, a digital native, negotiates the truck’s viral marketing and is instrumental in his father’s success. It’s also the boy’s technological savvy that helps Carl connect to his son — just as Carl teaches Percy how to be a man, Percy teaches Carl how to get out of his head and be of the world. While I am uncomfortable with the idea of my own son, who is close to Percy’s age, being so comfortable with how to talk to people on the internet (I require my son to turn off the chat function when he plays Minecraft, and he will not have an email address, Twitter account, Instagram, Facebook, etc until he’s a few years older), Chef makes the argument that parents should learn to stop worrying and love the bomb, so to speak, because on the other side of that worry is true connection.

Ultimately, Chef is an enjoyable narrative of a man’s quest to rediscover his creative voice. The theme of pursuing your own vision in service to a professional endeavor resonated with me deeply. I laughed frequently and heartily, and drooled obediently on cue at the food porn scenes. I just wish that the women had been more than just set dressing while the men were busy learning from one another.


On cultural appropriation, “pioneering,” and Georgia Pellegrini

Those of you who’ve spent any amount of time in my presence sometime over the past two weeks know that I have Some Thoughts on Georgia Pellegrini. It has not been a particularly slow burn, though; I’d never heard of her before my sojourn at Foodways Texas back in March, right around the time Pellegrini’s newest book, Modern Pioneering, came out. When my friends showed me the cover of the book, my first question was, “what’s pioneering about a watermelon keg?”


Now then, I’ve gone on record as being less-than-impressed with people who call themselves pioneers from a position of white privilege, and Pellegrini seems to be at the forefront of this next wave of privileged “pioneering” women. Like Ree Drummond, Pellegrini participates in spinning a romanticized angle in the house with her DIY domesticity, but raises the stakes through her narratives of hunting, killing, field dressing, and cooking her own food (particularly in her first lifestyle book, Girl Hunter). This lady is all about getting her hands bloody, and you know what? Good for her. I’m all for women who embrace self-sufficiency to that degree (I’ll go about as far as buying pork chops from the ones what raised the pigs at the farmers market). But when that self-sufficiency becomes a product, one that’s flogged on the backs of indigenous people, is where I part ways with Pellegrini, philosophically.

Maybe we should define our terms here. For Pellegrini, “pioneering” involves making lip scrubs out of raw cane sugar, cornmeal, and organic peppermint extract to combat the chapping effects of winter weather, stenciling one’s staircase, and the aforementioned watermelon keg. I suppose that’s trailblazing in some way or another, but as my fellow mom and wine-guzzling buddy said, “It’s like she went to goop University. I can’t imagine that her audience includes anyone over age 35.” In truth, Pellegrini has basically developed a lifestyle portal for women who want a little more personality to their Pinterest and who can afford a $2200 “adventure getaway” in Montana, during which Pellegrini will help them “unravel” while they’re up to their elbows in entrails.

To my mind, pioneering is a notion that’s heavily romanticized in American history. For me, it’s connected to Manifest Destiny and the subjugation of this country’s indigenous people as legislation like the Homestead and Dawes Acts institutionalized and legitimated the seizure of land and displacement of its rightful owners. I’ll quote myself from that Pioneer Woman post:

The pioneers (think Laura Ingalls) are romanticized icons of Western progress, fighting harsh weather, uncertain food supplies, and — worst of all — Indians (*gasp*) in order to realize the promise set forth by Manifest Destiny. The American Dream, while certainly accessible to and enacted by all Americans, is rooted in a rhetoric of whiteness. 

Today, there’s a movement among various American Indian tribes to recover and preserve their foodways, including gathering of edible plants and herbs, as well as improving nutrition and health on reservations. The federal dam system has encroached on native salmon fisheries to such a degree that several Pacific Northwest tribes have been deprived of a significant food source and cultural touchstone, not to mention untold environmental devastation. (More information.) At the same time, indigenous languages are dying out, kids in rez schools don’t have school supplies thanks to last year’s sequestration (I’m sure that won’t help close the achievement gap between American Indian kids and their white counterparts), and the unemployment rate for American Indians still hangs out at around 11%.

Ooooh, this is bad, you guys. Super bad. A Modern Pioneering-branded  Minnetonka Moccasins giveaway. Oy.

Ooooh, this is bad, you guys. Super bad. A Modern Pioneering-branded Minnetonka Moccasins giveaway. Oy.

So that’s why it really chapped my ass at the Austin Food & Wine Festival when I saw Georgia Pellegrini giving cooking demonstrations and participating in panels focused on “old-school cooking methods” while clad in fringed leather moccasins, an embroidered blue tunic lashed with a leather thong, and an Indian princess feather fascinator stuck in her expensively highlighted blonde hair.  I’ll explain more in a minute, but first I’m gonna pass the mic to Thomas King in this very short excerpt from his novel, Green Grass, Running Water (the title is a reference to the US government’s promise that indigenous people would retain the rights to their land “as long as the grass is green and the water runs”). The scene is the Dead Dog Cafe, in a Blackfoot community in Alberta, Canada:

One of the secrets of a successful restaurant was to keep things simple. Every day Rita cooked up the same beef stew, and every day Rita or Billy or Cynthia or Latisha thought up a name for it. It wasn’t cheating. Everybody in town and on the reserve who came to the Dead Dog Cafe to eat knew that the special rarely changed, and all the tourists who came through never knew it didn’t.
“Toilet’s working.” Billy let the door swing shut behind him. “You want me to change the gas on the dispensers?”
“No, get dressed. We may need help out front.”
“Plains, Southwest, or combination?”
The itch was more persistent. “What’d you do yesterday?”
“Do Southwest.”
Latisha would like to have been able to take all the credit for transforming the Dead Dog from a nice local establishment with a loyal but small clientele to a nice local establishment with a loyal but small clientele and a tourist trap. But, in fact, it had been her auntie’s idea.
“Tell them it’s dog meat,” Norma had said. “Tourists like that kind of stuff.”
That had been the inspiration. Latisha printed up menus that featured such things as Dog du Jour, Houndburgers, Puppy Potpourri, Hot Dogs, Saint Bernard Swiss Melts, with Doggie Doos and Deep-Fried Puppy Whatnots for appetizers.
She got Will Horse Capture over in Medicine River to make up a bunch of photographs like those you see in the hunting and fishing magazines where a couple of white guys are standing over an elephant or holding up a lion’s head or stretching out a long stringer of fish or hoisting a brace of ducks in each hand. Only in these photographs, it was Indians and dogs. Latisha’s favorite was a photograph of four Indians on their buffalo runners chasing down a herd of Great Danes.

In this scene, King satirizes cultural tourism and cultural appropriation by having the First Nations staff of the Dead Dog Cafe don “uniforms” of “authentic” indigenous garb because they know that the visiting tourists won’t know the difference. Latisha and her employees exploit the stereotype for economic gain and subvert the entertainment value of their native-ness. They acknowledge their “Otherness” and use it to their advantage, with the (presumably white) tourists as the butt of the joke.

Georgia Pellegrini at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Please forgive the blurriness. Not shown: fringed leather moccasins.

Georgia Pellegrini at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Please forgive the blurriness. Not shown: fringed leather moccasins.

But when people like Georgia Pellegrini, a former Wall Street financier, affects American Indian dress in the process of marketing herself as a “modern pioneer” (who draws heavily, I imagine, on indigenous methodologies of hunting and gathering), it’s a problem. Using another culture’s clothing/customs as part of your “brand” is Not Okay. (I’m sure GP’s a very nice person; I have nothing against her personally, and it’s not like she put on a war bonnet and then acted shitty about it. But still.) When a member of the dominant group (in this case, a privileged white woman from an affluent hamlet in downstate New York, home of the Tappan tribe, who hunted, fished, trapped, and companion planted for food) appropriates or “borrows” attire and practices from groups that have been historically “Othered,” it distracts from the lived experiences of the people being borrowed from, perpetuating their “Other,” exotic status.

Having your $40/head book launch party on the “Wet Deck” at a luxury hotel downtown? I’m not sure where that fits into anyone’s definition of pioneering, unless it’s within the context of finding a place to park in Austin’s condo-blasted downtown hellscape.  But it certainly suggests a tone-deafness on someone’s part, to the tune of unexamined white privilege.

Downton Abbey recap: Week 2!

Previously on Downton: Matt and Mary got married. Anna is contacting everyone in Vera’s address book to see whether she was suicidal, in hopes of exonerating Mr. Bates. Matt is Reggie Swire’s heir, but doesn’t want to profit from Lavinia’s death. Shirley Maclaine popped in and out, was American. Edith gave the Crypt Keeper his life back.


The house staff are preparing Downton for Edith’s wedding. Flowers are being arranged, floors are being scrubbed, a carpet is being rolled up. Edith twirls around the house, smugly observing the goings on. “Something happening in this house is finally about me!” (Marsha Marsha Marsha! etc.)

Mrs. Hughes is worried, Carson overhears her talking with Mrs P about how she hasn’t heard anything from the doctor. Carson haz a concerned.

Thomas suggests to Poor Molesley that O’Brien will soon be vacating her job as Lady Grantham’s maid, in retribution for O’Brien’s dress shirt shenanigans. I want there to be a Downton spinoff, a sitcom called, “Oh, that Thomas!” imagesThe opening credits would be jaunty, with cuts of him looking cheeky and mischevous, sneaking out of cupboards and whatnot interspersed with O’Brien looking annoyed and/or cunning and Carson looking vexed. The end of the opening song would end with a female chorus chiming, “Thom-as!”

The upstairs folk talk in the library about putting Downton on the market and taking over a smaller adjacent property in the village. “Let’s take a picnic to Downton Place!” chirps Cora. Poor Molesley wants to put forward a candidate for O’Brien’s spot; of course, none of the staff will have jobs soon! *sad British trombone*

Tension between Matt and mary about the Swire fortune. *yawn*

Lord Grantham and Cora talk about Edith’s upcoming marriage to the Crypt Keeper. Cora sees the bright side, natch, and LG gripes that she’s giving up her life to nurse a one-armed corpse old man.

Downstairs, Daisy is on a fishing expedition about Alfred’s attitude toward progressive, modern women. “That Eyebrows sure was forward, eh?” “Sure,” sez Alfred. “I liked that so modern. She said what she thought even though she was a woman.” “Maybe I should be more like Eyebrows,” says Daisy. In a conceit I am blatantly ripping off from my friend Pete, I give this scene 1 out of 5 Gloria Steinems. Image

Meanwhile, Carson pumps Mrs P for information on Mrs Hughes by suggesting that they lessen her workload. “Don’t say anything,” says Mrs P. I WONDER IF CARSON WILL SAY ANYTHING.

LG intimates to the Crypt Keeper that he ain’t so thrilled about the upcoming nuptials. The subsequent exchange between CK and Edith underscores their age difference. Edith exlains that she loves CK because of his disability, and that she intends to make caring for him her life’s work. I give this exchange half a Gloria Steinem.

The disgraced maid comes to Mrs Crawley’s Shoppe of Fallen Laydeez. Boring, for now. This storyline will obviously develop further, later, but forr now, whatevs.

Picnic time! But first Mary must shame Matt some more about the money, honey boo boo child. Carson hips Cora to the fact that Mrs Hughes is ill. UGH. This is like an unfunny Three’s Company episode.

Bates-gate continues apace. Anna pays off some fishwife who knew Vera. (For a split second I thought the fishwife was Judi Dench, but no such luck.) In the prison yard, a prisoner tips Bates that he’s due for a cell check and he needs to stay a step ahead of the guards because he’s being set up. The fishwife tells Anna that Vera was acting frightened and strange aheard of Bates’ final visit, that she was about to post a letter, and had just made a pastry (arsenic pie!) and was scrubbing her hands vigorously. Dun dun DUN! Fishwife heard the next day that Vera was dead, so she was sure it was Bates what dunnit.

At the Downton Place picnic, the family discusses how the new, smaller (but still palatial) home will only require eight servants and will be more economical. Violet reckons she’ll open a shop and trade in good manners and lively conversation. “You’ll do a roaring trade in minutes,” says Mrs Crawley, whose hat I LURHVE.

Back at DP, Carson confronts O’Brien about her imminent departure. Thomas escapes, having successfully sown discord betwee O’Brien and Poor Molesley. “You’re in the soup,” says Daisy somberly to Poor Molesley. “I wouldn’t be in her bad books for a gold clock.” Poor Molesley is gobsmacked. Oh, that Thomas!

ImageEdith gloats about her upcoming honeymoon to Italy. Violet advises her to go to bed so she won’t look tired and slutty on her wedding day. “I won’t sleep a wink,” says Edith. “Tonight or tomorrow,” Sybil says slyly, slurping tea. “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit,” chide Violet. “You started it,” smirks Sybil. I give this scene two Gloria Steinems.

Meanwhile, Mary took it upon herself to read the letter from Reggie Swire that Matthew got from his lawyer. Turns out, Lavinia had written a letter to her father from her deathbed, letting him know that Matthew had been willing to marry her even though he didn’t love her. Regardless of that fact, Reggie wanted Matthew to be his heir because deus ex machina. Matthew refuses to believe that Lavinia wrote any such letter, and Mary refuses to believe that her husband is such a drama mama. As such, she goes downstairs to see if any of the help had mailed Lavinia’s letter for her (recall that Lavinia died at Downton). No one knows anything, but WAIT! Daisy comes in and is all, oh, “I mailed that letter. Me and Lavinia were tight.”

People are heading out for the wedding, and Carson is being particularly, obviously solicitous of Mrs. Hughes. “I wish people wait to find out if I’m dying before boxing me up!” she cranks.

Edith looks very pretty in her wedding dress. “All of us married, all of us happy, and the first baby on the way,” she coos. “I know, let’s preserve this AUSPICIOUS DAY via the Imagephotographer!!! WE’RE ALL SO EFFING HAPPY, RIGHT?? RIGHT?!?!!?” Meanwhile, the Crypt Keeper is at the altar looking like, well, he’s “waiting for a beating from the headmaster,” says Violet. Edith walks down the aisle and adorably greets the Crypt Keeper with a breathy, “good afternoon!” “Good afternoon, my sweet one,” creak the Crypt Keeper’s jawbones.

We all know where this is going. The Crypt Keeper peaces out, knowing that marrying Edith is, as we say in our house, a “bad choice.” Edith leaves, weeping, and later, when Cora, Mary, and Sibyl enter her room to console her, we see that marrying the Crypt Keeper wasn’t really about loving him, but about having internalized the marriage plot, so to speak. “Look at them,” she sobs through her tears, her hair askew. “With their husbands! Sibyl pregnant, Mary probably pregnant! Go! Get out!” I give this scene negative one million Gloria Steinems.

I’ll just leave this here.


LG goes for a walk while the house staff unroll the carpet and replace the furniture. Matthew catches up with him and lets him know that he’s going to save Downton with the Swire fortune because of course. Bro hugs!

At dinner, Matthew wonders how to help Edith. “You can help her by giving her something to do,” says his mother. Cue thoughtful looks.

Downstairs, Daisy and Anna are having a talk about women’s role in society. Daisy wonders whether women should be able to speak their minds about romance and stuff. Anna reckons that the times, they are a’ changin’, and the vote won’t be long now, so they might as well get used to the wimmins and their infernal mouths, but Anna, we learn, is a bona fide Rules girl and warns Daisy that boys don’t like to be courted. (Cue Alfred popping in and snitching something crunchy and delicious.) (He really is adorable. What’s not to love about a too-tall ginger?)

Upstairs, Edith has decided to embrace her role as a spinster, and spinsters get up for breakfast. So, I think what I’m picking up here is that, in some ways, feminism and equality is more of a reality for the downstairs women because they aren’t quite as

Imagebeholden to the rigid social structures imposed upon the upstairs women? Am I understanding that right? I think I will award myself a Gloria Steinem in a bunny suit.

Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. P go to the village to learn the test results. A grim-looking nurse escorts Mrs. Hughes in to meet her doom, who prefers to go in without her buddy.

O’Brien swears to Thomas that she will have her revenge, one way or the other.

Mrs. Hughes doesn’t have cancer. Carson is happy and sings. The end.