A dozen peach, a dozen berry, a dozen pumpkin, a dozen cherry: Mildred Pierce and redemption through pie dough
As you might have noticed from the title of this blog and my preoccupation with pies, “Mildred Pierce” is one my favorite films. Most famous as the film that got Joan Crawford her one and only Academy Award, it’s also one of the most durable and pitch-perfect films from the Forties, an era which offers no short supply of near-perfect Hollywood studio product. “Mildred” works on so many levels and is endlessly watchable, due to several weapons in its arsenal: a lean and lethal script by Ranald MacDougall and uncredited co-writers William Faulker and Catherine Turney which results in one of the quotable films ever, lines read by a pitch-perfect cast of thoroughbred actors led by Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth and the divine Eve Arden, and direction by Warner Bros. auteur Michael Curtiz three years after he’d made “Casablanca”. The film’s merits are obvious to any discerning film lover and I won’t waste anyone’s time with a recap of why it’s a classic. The book and novel are also a (sort-of) tribute and time-capsule view of my current home of Glendale, California.
As an avid pie maker, “Mildred Pierce” strikes me as an essential cinematic essay on pies (or pie-making if you will) as an allegory for the substance of its central character. A housewife who is abandoned by her husband, Mildred finds that her chief occupation in life leaves her unprepared for the job market, except for her one sale-able skill which is making pies and cakes for the neighbors. After the prologue of a character’s murder and the ensuing police investigation/interrogation, the film flashes back a few years to Mildred in the kitchen, prepping a cake for a neighbor’s child. Even as her marriage falls apart during a heated exchange with her philandering husband she never stops measuring flour, milk and the assorted components of the pastry which signifies much more than a few extra dollars of spending money; unable to get a decent living for her daughters and herself from her failure of a husband, Mildred bakes pies and cakes to earn the fancy dresses and dance lessons and music lessons for her two daughters who, she has determined, will lead a better life than she. Pie baking isn’t just a skill or hobby, it begins as Mildred’s only method of earning her own way, and indicates how few avenues of economic survival are open to her when her husband abandons her and the children. Pie making is Mildred’s salvation, the only place where her methodical, determined nature results in an evenhanded reward for her efforts. Her husband and children might let her down, and Mildred begins the story as a seriously freaked out woman unsure of where the money for the house payments and her daughter Veda’s piano lessons will come from, but the pies won’t ever let her down.
Wages for working women in the 1930s were extremely low: sewing and production of toys and other goods from home yielded only $5 per week. Although it was easier for women to find work during the Depression than men, there was still high unemployment among women. Two million women who had had jobs before the Depression, or were seeking jobs because of the Depression, were unemployed in 1931. By 1933, that number had doubled. For the 20% to 50% of unemployed women who were solely responsible for supporting their families, unemployment was life threatening. – from Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s by Susan Ware
Despite its trappings as a “woman’s picture” of the time, “Mildred Pierce” serves up a tough, crackling story of amorality, betrayal, and misbegotten love that goes trainwreck-bad for nearly all its participants. James M. Cain’s original novel offered an even grimmer picture of how limited the options were for women on their own in the early Thirties; much of the novel is a unsentimental listing of the hardscrabble details of Mildred Pierce sweating out the few jobs she can find and barely making a living, exhausting her body and spirit in the process, all the while frying chicken, assembling sandwiches in greasy spoons, and yes, baking pies. In the film, Mildred goes from scared naïf in the working world who doesn’t understand that you can’t say “without gravy” (you have to say “hold”) to one of the restaurant’s “best waitresses” in a short span of three months. The novel isn’t so generous to Mildred, as she’s barely competent as a waitress and it’s a long, hard, calloused-spotted road to eeking out a living. In Cain’s novel, the restaurant barely lets her stay on after she demonstrates little talent or temperament for waitressing, but it’s Mildred’s gifts as pie-maker which offer a last-ditch chance at survival and eventual success at the restaurant business. Unfortunately Mildred conflates earning a living and moving ahead in the world with pleasing her ungrateful wretch of a daughter who shows only contempt for her working-class mother.
Pies in this context represent the possibility of victory in an unsympathetic universe, even though Mildred is ultimately doomed in a cycle of unrequited love (if you want to look at “Mildred”‘s film-noir trappings then Veda Pierce is up there with the best femmes fatales, and this is even more striking because it’s in a narrative of mother-love which in certain respects is way kinkier).
My own experience with pies had a rough start. As pastries go, they aren’t necessarily the easiest thing to make; my first effort at making a pie at the age of thirteen was a sad, brittle excuse of an apple pie that had a tough, dry crust which as I recall was from the “Better Homes and Gardens” book and which failed at providing enough dough to cover a decent-sized double crust pie. Pretty much everything went wrong with that first pie—I overworked the dough, the filling was bland and the baking time was excessive (overbrowning the pie doesn’t save a lousy dough or so I learned). I’ve had more luck in recent years, as my boyfriend and I have done a minimum of research and experimentation with pie crust, as well as finding a good resource in the book Pie by Ken Haedrich which my boyfriend’s brother amusing refers to as the “Pie-ble”. Most of our efforts have been aimed at making fruit pies, but there is a pretty good rendition of a peanut pie in the Pie-ble. In that spirit, here’s a pretty good recipe for peanut pie, which is basically a peanutty spin on pecan pie (this is actually “Grandma Gert”‘s recipe which is similar to Ken Haedrich’s):
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups dry roasted peanuts
1 9-inch unbaked pastry shell
Combine sugar, corn syrup, melted butter, eggs and vanilla in large mixing bowl. Beat with mixer until thoroughly blended. Stir in dry roasted peanuts. Turn into unbaked pastry shell. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. Great warm with some whipped cream
There’s really nothing like a perfect slice of pie on a plate. As Veda Pierce would say, “that would be dreadfully, n’est-ce pas?”