Alfred Hitchcock Presents...
Dial F for Food
(e-SoupSong 37: May 1, 2003)
I was just about to send you a soupsong and thought better of it.
It was too violent.
I detest violence. That is why in these soupsongs I resort to poisoned gazpachos, chicken soup drownings, and fatal chowder burnings only when absolutely necessary. Or, otherwise, when the fancy takes me.
Our present soupsong, however, begins in a greengrocer's shop at the turn of last century in Leytonstone, a district in London's East End. It is a story of appetite, greed, cruelty, and piggishness, which I know you will enjoy. I need say no more than that it takes us into the home, the restaurants, the film studios, and the insatiable imagination of a man who ate too much.
Our hero, I regret to say, was born chubby. He grew up chubby. And he ceased existence on this planet precisely one hundred and fifty pounds overweight. Why? I think it should be obvious. He adored lamb chops. He doted on Dover sole. He could not restrain himself when it came to potatoes.
Some say these last were his downfall. His father, a London grocer, enforced a rule of potatoes at every meal. A young lad's habits can grow into obsession and, in this case, they did. One night, he would dine on boiled potatoes. Another night, baked potatoes. Another, double-baked. In later years, with failing teeth, he peckishly insisted on mashing them.
Who knows the heart of man? In this sad case, it seems that our hero's fears and frustrations--and they were considerable--would unfailingly be placated by food. As a young man he was given a medical deferment from military service by reason of obesity. At age 27, standing at a full 5'8", he tipped the scales at 200 pounds. At age 36, 300 pounds. By age 40, 356 pounds. At 44, he admitted, "my ankles hung over my socks," and under a doctor's care he lost 100 pounds on a 39 step weight-loss program. Alas, by age 51, he had regained his full 300-pound amplitude.
How could this happen?
Possibly it was his favorite American breakfast: vanilla ice cream with a dash of brandy poured over it.
Possibly it was dinner. For example his meal at Club 21 in New York with foreign correspondent H. Allen Smith. I hope you won't be shocked when I tell you that our hero ordered a double-thick steak and topped it off with an ice cream parfait. But that was not all. When the waiter arrived to take coffee orders, he ordered a second double-thick steak and a second ice cream parfait. When the waiter appeared with the check, he said, "I believe I'd like another double-thick steak. And please bring it with an ice cream parfait so I don't needlessly delay my friends."
By now I believe you suspect the identity of our hero. It is, of course, that extraordinary Master of Suspense, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. I think you will agree that his obsession with food would have a profound impact on his artistic ventures.
Let us take a short and necessarily imperfect look at the evidence.
In 1926, The Lodger would show hearts being cut out of freshly rolled cookie dough, then torn in half by the hands of a frustrated lover. A year later children cruelly throw eggs at a man in a dunking stool at the The Ring's Carnival--a re-enactment, of sorts, of "Cocky's" own mischief at parochial school, where he was notorious for stealing eggs from the priests' henhouse and smashing them against their bedroom windows. In 1929, no amount of Blackmail could help the murdering heroine cut the loaf of bread for her father at breakfast. Hitch's Rich and Strange couple autobiographically travels the world in 1932 from one boiling soup pot to the next, punctuated by a meal of rice and black cat on a Chinese junk; "Fred" and "Emily" finally find domestic peace, of sorts, in a steak and kidney pudding back in London. Secret Agent stages a climactic scene in a Swiss chocolate factory. Sabotage (1936) intimately links a bomb with tomato catsup and strawberry jam. Young and Innocent lingers over the lovely Erica covering up the suspected murder's whereabouts at a prolonged and passionate family dinner: "Christopher, please try to not be so noisy with your soup!" When The Lady Vanishes in 1938, Gilbert is so focused on eating his soup in the train's dining car that he completely fails to notice Miss Froy's name being inscribed on the train window. Poor girl Rebecca picks at her scrambled eggs in Monte Carlo when she meets the dashing Maxim de Winter, a far cry from the formal dinners she endures with him at Manderley. Ann and David, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, discover in 1941 that their marriage isn't valid and go soul searching at Mama Lucy's restaurant, where they'd fallen in love--suddenly a cat pops up on the table, eats some olives, and stares balefully the soup.
"Eat your soup, dear."
"There's something wrong with that soup."
"It's your imagination."
"Why doesn't the cat eat the soup? Animals know what's good for them. You notice he ate the olives."
"The pits, too."
"Well, that's roughage."
"Oh, make the best of it darling. Don't let it spoil our evening."
"That cat knows something."
"Where shall we go after this?"
"Home? Well, aren't we supposed to go someplace before we go home?"
"All together, it would make it too late."
"I'd give five bucks to see that cat take a sip of that soup."
Saboteur opens in the 1942 cafeteria of a wartime airplane factory in California, right before the plant goes up in flames, and proceeds to the New York City kitchen of wealthy Mrs. Sutton, Nazi-sympathizer. Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt waxes philosophic on "faded, fat greedy women...Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat or too old?" Ingrid Bergman is Spellbound, eating dinner at Green Manor manor with her psychiatrist colleagues, daintily spooning sip after sip of soup while awaiting the arrival of the mysterious Dr. Edwards. In Notorious, she sets fire to the chicken she's cooking for government agent Cary Grant, discovers uranium in the vintage Pommard, and nearly dies from poison in her coffee. Rope, one long dinner party, reveals Farley Granger's aversion to chicken stems from his old job of strangling chickens. Strangers on a Train share overdone lamb chops. Grace Kelly brings a sumptuous lobster dinner to wheelchair-bound James Stewart, sitting at his Rear Window. One year later, in an effort To Catch a Thief, she dines with Cary Grant and seductively asks him if he fancies a leg or a breast...of chicken. He, then, meets Eva Marie Saint in the dining car of a train going North by Northwest. And how about Janet Leigh's last meal in the Bates Motel? Psycho Norman Bates makes her a ham sandwich.
My friends, I don't wish to bore you with too many facts. Suffice it to say that our hero's preoccupation with food found its way onto the silver screen. Food, romance, food, intrigue, food, sex, food, danger, food, nausea, food, murder, food, death, food, food, food. Sir Alfred (he was to be knighted by the Queen in the last year of his life) may run his dashing heroes, his attractive villains, his hapless investigators, and his adorably cool and blond heroines all around the world and place them in extreme situations, but inevitably he seats them a dinner table and dollies a camera around them as they lick, sip, bite, savor, chew and swallow.
Let us end our little story with a scene from Frenzy (1972), where Inspector Oxford is perplexed less by the serial necktie murders than by his wife's French cooking. When Mrs. Oxford brings a tureen to the table, he recoils in disbelief.
"It's soupe de poisson, dear. I know you'll enjoy it."
"I have no doubt of it...what exactly is it, this soup?"
"Why, don't you like it?"
"Hmmmm! It's delicious. But I find the ingredients are somewhat mystifying."
"There's smelt, ling, hung eel, John Dory, pilchards, and frogfish. And now, since that must have been fairly satisfying, I thought a simple roast bird would be enough...."
On that note, let us join the good Inspector at his table with one of the grandest soupes de poisson of them all, Bouillabaisse:
Garnish: croutons rubbed with raw garlic
- 3 lbs. of fish (any combination of eel, haddock, red snapper, bass, monkfish, etc.), cut into bite-sized pieces
- 3 lbs. lobster, broken into pieces
- 3 dozen mussels, washed and beards removed
- 3 leeks, slivered
- 2 onions, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- bouquet garni of thyme, bay leaf, parsley, and rosemary
- meaty pinch of saffron, heated, crumbled, and dissolved in a little hot water
- salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven and add leeks, onions, garlic, and tomatoes--cooking over a low heat for at least 15 minutes. Add the bouquet garni and the heavy pieces of fish--cook gently for about 5 minutes. Add the remaining fish, lobster, and saffron and cover with water (or fish stock). Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne, and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, then add the mussels and cook until they open their shells.
When ready to serve, strain the ingredients into a serving dish then pour the hot broth over top. Serve the croutons separately.
I hope you enjoy this tasty dish, and I wish you a very pleasant good night,
Resources: Paul Condon and Jim Sangster's The Complete Hitchcock, Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Connolly, a bunch of articles and websites, and a boatload of movies. I may never recover.
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NEXT MONTH: Feng-Huang and the Emperor's Salted Soup