I love automats. Besides their amazing history automats were a distinct signifier of a specific time and place in urban existense. No matter how rough your day was, a few cents could buy you a slice of pie which was waiting for you in a small glass chamber; the automat was a compact world which distilled the persistent burdens and unspoken yearnings of city life into neat rows of mac and cheese, ham sandwiches, hot coffee and, of course, pie. Redolent of an era when big-city life was rough-and-tumble in the most colorful ways, automats suggested the intense energy and paradoxical loneliness of urban living, when a cheap meal was served in an anonymous method, with a minimal of human contact. The perfectly aligned rows of glass doors suggested small pockets of aspirations and unfulfilled expectations, and in no small degree alluded to the anonymity and ordered randomness of life in a merciless city. One of the more memorable films from Joan Crawford’s MGM years, Sadie McKee (1934) contained a remarkable scene in an automat which condensed in a few seconds the solitude and bleakness of urban life in the mid-1930’s.
Crawford’s MGM career pegged her as a working-class career girl, a glamour-puss with a platinum core of proletariat righteousness. In films such as Possessed (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Mannequin (1937) and The Shining Hour (1938), Crawford defines her persona of the plebian conqueror who doesn’t quite shake the class divisions pigeonholing her as riff-raff no matter how many Adrian gowns she might be wearing. Her sense of moral probity inevitably prevents her from succeeding in the down-and-dirty style of a Barbara Stanwcyk or Ruth Chatterton; clearly she’d rather walk away from a pile of gold than sell herself out.
At this point in the film Sadie McKee’s eponymous protagonist has escaped her roots as a servant’s daughter in a big estate. Mouthing off to her moneyed employers over their callous indifference to the struggles of her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, she and her lover run off to New York City where they plan on getting hitched and starting life on the seven dollars left in his pocket. He soon abandons her for a third-rate singer and Sadie’s left alone in the cold, indifferent city which barely notices another broken heart on its pavement. When things go from bad to rock-bottom, where to go but the automat?
We don’t see Sadie’s reaction to the cigarette in the meringue, but I like to think that a pragmatic girl like her wouldn’t have any compunction about eating around the cigarette butt.
As we can see, Joan and pies go way back.
Lucky Lemon Cream Pie
I’ve had good luck with this “Lucky Lemon Pie”, which is an award-winning pie from Lorraine Parry of Kingman, Arizona and which I found through the Global Gourmet. The original recipe suggests a lard crust which is certainly good if you want to go old-school with your pie. For vegetarians like me, a good butter or shortening crust works just fine.
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons cornstarch
2-1/2 cups boiling water
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 teaspoon grated fresh lemon peel
9 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 to 4 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
Baked, cooled pie shell
Combine sugar, salt and cornstarch in a 2- or 3-quart saucepan. Blend well. Add boiling water and place over medium heat, stirring rapidly until mixture is smooth. Bring to a full, rolling boil to thoroughly cook the cornstarch. Remove from heat. Add a little of the hot pudding to the eggs while stirring rapidly. Return egg mixture to hot pudding and reheat, stirring constantly until smooth and bubbly.
Remove from heat, add butter, lemon juice, lemon extract and lemon peel. Stir until butter is melted. Pour filling into cooled, baked pie shell. Chill. Serve topped with whipped cream sweetened and flavored with lemon extract to taste.