2000s Archive

I Like to Watch People Eat

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I gravitated to the era’s domestic dramas in which supposedly normal life crumbles into despair—often at family dinners. I was like so many adolescents who grew up in the 1950s and I found in James Dean my avatar of frustration. Dean’s sense of alienation in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause is epitomized by the nearly farcical scene in which he writhes in agony as he watches his spineless father (Jim Backus) tidy up the kitchen while outfitted in a ladies’ apron. Likewise, James Mason’s demented rage when his frightened son spills milk in Ray’s Bigger Than Life was a fierce reminder that the dinner table, which conventional wisdom tells us should be a place of comfort, was sometimes fraught with fear and menace.

A turning point in my life came in August 1968, during one spectacular week in which I was beaten by Chicago police outside the Democratic convention and introduced to the films of director Douglas Sirk. In Sirk’s precisely crafted morality plays about polite, middle-class people who find their world collapsing I found the perspective of a kindred outsider. Sirk savored the nurturing myths of American culture while exposing the desperation of people who felt betrayed by it. As a middle-class collegian roughed up by Mayor Daley’s troops in Grant Park, I could relate!

The Sirk picture that became my touchstone for seeing material culture as an expression of spiritual condition was All That Heaven Allows. It presents Jane Wyman as a suburban widow with a clear choice of men: predictable old Conrad Nagel, whom her children think is appropriate, and studly young Rock Hudson, the gardener whom her children consider beneath her. Nagel, who moves through scenes with all the verve of a mummified Richard Nixon, drinks meticulously made Martinis (one per night) and dines in a tuxedo with the nabobs of the country club; Rock, in the pink of well-muscled manhood, takes Jane to a potluck party on a makeshift table of wood planks and sawhorses where the eccentric, artistic guests wear plaid shirts. They drink “The Anderson Special”—a little of this, a little of that, with none of the stultifying rituals of 1950s Martini culture—and they eat lobsters brought fresh from the boat by a jolly guest known as “The Lobster King.” There is far more to this movie than a choice of food styles, but the clear dialectic of country club versus pot-luck supper had a profound influence on my own taste and appetite, steering me to seek out informal meals and unpredictable dining companions, and to try to define a genre of eating that my future wife, Jane, and I eventually called “roadfood.”

When Jane and I started traveling in the early 1970s, the simmering discontent that had insinuated itself into Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s had surfaced as on-screen rebellion. I set off to eat my way around America with long hair and a surly attitude—ready, willing, and eager to reenact Jack Nicholson’s contretemps with the diner waitress in Five Easy Pieces when he tries to get an order of toast. But I never had the opportunity to take my stand against the establishment and sweep all the glassware off the table in a fit of justifiable rage about meaningless rules. Waitresses we met in the early days of our Roadfood books were nice; we could always get an order of toast on the side, even if the menu said “No Substitutions.”

I also set off with a good measure of paranoia, thanks mostly to Easy Rider, which featured a café scene in which nasty rednecks hassle the free-spirited travelers (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) whom the staff refuse to serve. That confrontation loomed as ominously in my mind as the shower scene in Psycho, and for years every time I walked into a small-town café, I was poised to run or to fight. It took a long time to realize that the locals’ stares were not malicious, as in the Hollywood fantasy of rustic life; the regulars were just curious about strangers. Eventually, we found our home in all those diners and cafés that, like the Toddle House, once seemed so exotic.

All my life I relished movies because they offered a window into other worlds or a new perspective on my own. As I have eaten around the country, countless plates of food shared with fried-bologna trailerites and tea-sandwich socialites have provided the same sort of insight. For me, the way we eat is a reflection of who we Americans are—on a blue plate instead of a silver screen. Thirty years ago I was watching six movies a day; now, I eat six meals a day. Either way, I’m always hungry for more.

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