For the past couple of weeks, wildfires have burned through California’s Sonoma County, choking the Bay Area with smoke and the internet with neoliberal panic pieces about the devastation the fires will have on the wine market.
Last weekend, a friend and I drove from San Francisco to Santa Rosa to drop off evacuation supplies. We wanted to go to one of Guy Fieri’s restaurants, because the Bay Area is a topsy turvy world of proletariat exhibitionism where people who have the world’s cuisines within bus distance of their house fetishize the homogenized dining of Old Spaghetti Factory , in the same way that people in capitalist societies romanticize the minimalism of communist statist aesthetics but not, you know, the notion that everyone should have enough food to eat.
The nearest Fieri restaurant was too far to drive on an empty stomach so we settled on a diner with a comic sans menu, which seemed an appropriate substitute.
My friend ordered eggs benedict. What she got instead was hard-boiled eggs served with cheese sauce.
“Maybe a bechamel”, said a third comrade at the table. It struck me that this was the first time, maybe ever, bechamel sauce had come up in conversation outside of maybe reading off a recipe.
How far we have fallen from the loving embrace of our mother (sauce).
Capitalism has co-opted feminism. It is empowering to be a woman who can lay off workers, or dictate drone strikes in the middle east — but to be a mother (sauce), which is different than simply being giving birth (to other sauces, like Mornay sauce), is still a reviled occupation, and those who do the work instead of foisting that labor on others are pitied and derided.
How can we tell if our media is adequately revering our sacred feminine culinary traditions?
I propose The Bechamel Test. To pass it, your film must mention bechamel by name, and not as part as a larger recipe.
Let’s take this to the test kitchen, and see how these iconic films about cooking hold up.
1. Simply Irresistible
But there’s a magical crab and at some point the brother from that white supremacist propaganda film, Boondock Saints, who didn’t make it to the majors to play a white supremacist in The Walking Dead communicates his love to Sarah Michelle Gellar with a magical paper airplane, which is as good an explanation as any for how heterosexuality continues to exist in a time where anyone can download Grindr or buy a Hitachi vibrator in a store.
This movie beckoned the wane of the “alpha male tortured artist chef” trend born of Bourdain, in the same way that Waiting marked the end of Ryan Reynolds as a raunchy comedy lead, because when Ryan Reynolds doesn’t groom he is indistinguishable from Dane Cook (who is also in Waiting in a bit part as the anti-social, cantankerous reminder to hopeful producers of summer blockbusters that Ryan Reynolds is not Dane Cook).
Men don’t want to be chefs in 2017. They want to be libertarians. In 2020 Bradley Cooper will win an Oscar playing a disgraced topiary gardener who processes his divorce by making his own license plates. If any of us live to 2020. I’m typing this with a respirator mask. I bit into a burger the other day and it tasted like smoke and ash.
I was grateful that the ashes had a flavor profile and I hadn’t just burned out my sense of taste.
Honestly, there is just so much food in this movie. Whereas most films about men who cook use cooking as a metaphor for learning to reconcile your talents with the stultifying expectation that you not be a piece of garbage to everyone close to you, Ratatouille is a film about the joy of food, and how the systems we build to control it — like patriarchal kitchen culture — ultimately serve to estrange us from that joy.
Not to suggest this film is only for foodies. There’s an easter egg for history buffs; in the scene where Anton Ego is reminiscing about eating ratatouille, a dish compromised almost entirely of New World ingredients, you can see, briefly in his face the weight of the realization that nostalgia is a weapon of nationalism to make us beholden to its thefts.
Blink and you’ll miss it.
4. Mystic Pizza
They don’t really put bechamel sauce on pizza. Or is it in pizza? If pepperoni goes on pizza, then it implies that there’s a point in a pizza that exists as a pizza in itself; is that the crust?
We have committed ourselves so heartily to the debate of whether deep dish or grandma pie is real pizza that we have side-stepped the more pertinent discussion of what is the base nature of pizza, to what degree is it contextual based on its utility in our society, and how do we present a definition of that base nature that accommodates the growing diversity of things that identify as pizza while also pushing back against being defined by how it can be commodified?
See, pizza is just a metaphor for gender.Or at least it could be, if cis-supremacists would could let the abolition of a womanhood based around notions of white, middle-class aspiration hit them in the eye like a big pizza pie. Or a rock.
That doesn’t mean it’s still not one of the best, if not the best, film about cooking. The French restaurant scene, where an abused junior executive humiliates his conformist coworkers with his knowledge of French cooking, is the American Psycho of culinary cinema. By this I mean just as the men’s fashion painstakingly described in American Psycho would in reality look clownish to people who understand men’s formalwear, Tampopo uses a similarly outlandish sense of taste to critique corporate culture and the assimilationism of post-war Japan.
In a seafood restaurant, quenelle would be the equivalent of potted meat. Shaping it into a sausage, then serving it with pastry with caviar sauce is something the under-achieving heir to a frozen food empire would do as an art school project for a pity B+.
The pairing of a 1981 Corton Champagne with an apple walnut salad is legit, though. Taste recognizes taste. And, better yet, when you’re done, you can point out that Corton doesn’t make champagne, because Corton is made in Burgundy, the geographic and historical rival of the Champagne region. It’s technically not in the rulebooks, more of a “gentleman’s agreement”, that if a restaurant commits a crime against you during your meal, you don’t have to pay the full tab. Personally I’d negotiate for 50% off and getting to keep my plate and silverware, but go for what feels right to you.
It’s not a film about food as much as it it’s a film about a guy who, as my comrades who fear the callout dynamics of twitter would say, becomes extremely online and quits his job and tries to start a fight with a dude. Then his ex-wife convinces him to try the slightly less online pursuit of running a food truck.
The worst part about all this is that in five or so years, video games will be the new cooking. Whereas chefs now redeem themselves for ruining cooking for women and people who don’t like having racial slurs thrown at them as part of “workplace bonding” by learning how to like making sandwiches again, the fallen men of the 2020’s will recuperate from the burn out of sending their female colleagues videos of beheadings by restoring an old Pac-Man cabinet and learning that games are about keeping your violent, brooding, antisocial inner child on life support for as long as inhumanly possible.
7. Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?
Not someone who can make a bechamel sauce.
Which would include me. I’m sure I’ve made it incidentally, along the process of making country gravy or cheese sauce. I’ve taken cooking courses, but as those courses weren’t “How To Prepare Dinner for the French Ambassador to Ecuador”, we just never got around to making it.
That’s pretty small of me. In truth, good sauces are hard. They have to be both less than and more than — they can’t overwhelm what they’re served with, but they need to add something intrinsically unique to what they’re served with that you couldn’t get just eating it plain.
One of the things I miss the most about not living with my mother anymore is her red sauce. It’s hard to even describe. The flavor is so unique and singular and unleashes a cascade of crossed wires when I taste it.
I’ve tried making it, based on her recipe, and it never matches up to hers, which she learned from her mother, who learned it from my great grandmother — the culmination of decades of pot-bottoms blackened while simmering the week’s rations of spaghetti sauce. When I can’t get my mom’s sauce, or am not batch cooking a sauce that I will reuse time and again, I buy pre-canned sauce and embellish it to my needs. Which you should feel empowered to do. Because restaurants do this all the time.
Batch cook a roux, or a tomato sauce that can go into soup or pasta. But if you don’t need to make your own bechamel, it’s mostly indistinguisable from country gravy mix.
Don’t feel pressured to make it, or anything for that matter, just to impress the sort of person who thought you couldn’t tell the difference between hollandaise and cheese sauce.
Also, the Bechdel Test is a useful tool for appraising male gaze but isn’t necessarily applicable to the larger social context of a large proportion of women receiving sexual abuse from men and only being able to confide and receive support from other women.
Two women talking about a man isn’t necessarily sexism if that man has hurt one or more of them.
Author: Jetta Rae
Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae