Hitchcock àla Carte

Jan Olsson

Alfred Hitchcock's reputation for meticulousness in conceiving his thrillers also extended to his kitchen.

Hitchcock à la Carte

Publisher: Duke University Press
Price: $23.95
Author: Jan Olsson
Length: 272 pages
Format: Hardcover
US Publication Date: 2015-03
Excerpted from Hitchcock à la Carte by Jan Olsson, © 2015, and reprinted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

When the Hitchcocks dined with Wade H. Mosby of the Milwaukee Journal in the Ambassador East’s Pump Room in Chicago in 1962, a time when eating with journalists was a rarity, diet talk was off the table. The venue was the hotel where Eve Kendall stays in North by Northwest. Mosby duly reported on what Hitchcock ordered, while the director spun an impromptu murder story built around characters with names made up from studio lingo: Pan Over, Dolly Shot, and so on. In the midst of the proceedings, Hitchcock pensively claimed that “restaurants are horrible places to eat. The things they do with food.” Hitchcock’s reflection prompted a parenthetical aside from Mosby: “Mrs. Hitchcock confided that she had a new kitchen in her home in Bel Air, Calif., and that Hitch liked everything she cooked -- except shellfish.” True to his current food moderation, Hitchcock had a fish for starters but did not finish his roast beef and even asked for a doggy bag to take away the remains for Stanley and Jeffrey, the Sealyhams. The jest about dreadful restaurants segueing to Alma’s new kitchen neatly illustrates the displacement of food enjoyment from restaurants to exquisite home cooking and moderate-sized portions. In this spirit, the food discourse predominantly moved from the public to the private sphere, Alfred and Alma’s house, which was obviously designed for cooking and eating. The makeover of the kitchen mirrors the makeover of Hitchcock’s persona, partly orchestrated by Allardice’s scripting of Hitchcock for tv, talks, and public performances.

At the Hitchcocks’ mansion the domestic routines revolved around food preparation. Hitchcock noted: “I designed the kitchen so madame can cook in the most elegant surroundings and serve those of us who patiently wait there, sipping good wine, for her to complete her culinary masterpieces.” As the conversation around eating turned more refined and erudite over the years, the Hitchcock figure and the food discourse became more complex and mediated in a broader context, especially in photo-essays. As food culture became theatricalized and abstracted, Hitchcock, with or without Alma, posed with food items before or during preparation, or carving, while mainly pushing actual eating off frame, thus eliminating the critical stuffing element of the former grotesque.

1.15. Alimentary modernism. "The Alfred Hitchcock Dinner Hour,"
Look, 27 August 1963, 42-44. Photograph by Cal Bernstein, courtesy
of LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division, LC-L901A-63-1256, no. 1.

The gourmet cooking at home reinforced this conceptualization, not least owing to the sleek style of photography deployed for a Look photo-essay from 1963, as a form of alimentary modernism displaying a sophisticated form of domestic food culture in matching visual style (fig. 1.15). The early rounds of home reportage, in contrast, operated with a down-to-earth, realistic photo style culminating with Louella Parsons’s visit and a close-up of Hitchcock eating. After the kitchen makeover, the style changed. Just as important, this retreat to the home underscored Hitchcock’s lifelong partnership and collaborative ventures with Alma Reville Hitchcock. She cooked, Alfred ate; he directed, she was the perennial script supervisor. So from inside the kitchen, Alma enters the picture. When they were eating in public in the era of the grotesque, she was at the table, but mainly mentioned in passing as a silent, small, and birdlike accessory, often painted in amusing contrast to her husband’s heft -- for example, as “half-pint missus.”

Louella Parsons’s reportage from 1956 offered a recipe for an English dish while the couple was preparing a French chicken specialty. The photo-essay in Look from 1963 came with three French recipes and was titled “The Alfred Hitchcock Dinner Hour” -- a reference to the new television series. Here Alfred is written into the cooking sphere. Alma is, in fact, jestingly pegged as his sous chef, even though she is credited for her own contributions to the dishes being prepared, to which Alfred can lay claim in the name of California community property. Cal Bernstein’s photographic style abstracted the alimentary sphere in a visual rhetoric, simultaneously playfully allegorical and hyperrealistic. The only full-page image is arranged as a Dutch still life, albeit with the Hitchcocks in the picture seemingly engaged in careful culinary deliberations indicative of their customary conversation at home. While he stands in the freezer, the “king-size chiller,” Hitchcock’s left hand gently squeezes the throat of one of the geese hanging along the wall. A Hitchcock quotation serves as lead-in by setting the tone for the intertwining of food and cinema: “Food, like pure cinema, is putting pieces together to create an emotion,… independently meaningless, together they mean something.” Consequently, “in his home, dinner is perfection, conceived and created with the same care he puts into his distinctive thrillers.” The remodeled home thus “provides the proper aesthetics and functional ‘props’ for their culinary productions.” Turning the page, we find a medium shot of Alma Hitchcock preparing a vanilla soufflé. A second, high-angle photograph shows off the many fully stocked racks of wine in the cellar. The heading for the recipes has a familiar but uncanny ring: “Recipes for specialties of the House of Hitchcock.”

1.16 (facing). Contact copies from a session for Harper's Bazaar,
no. 109 (December 1975):132-133.

As the television series came to a close in 1965, Hitchcock was less in demand, or more reluctant to pose for the magazines, while his films created considerably less buzz than they had during his television decade. The photoessays did not disappear completely, but they remained on point and rehashed familiar topics -- albeit at times imaginatively and by way of wonderful artwork -- with food and his body as constants. In conjunction with Family Plot almost a decade later, Hitchcock was back on the marketing track. He posed as “distinguished guest gourmet” in Harper’s Bazaar to present Alfred Hitchcock’s Christmas Dinner Menu. The title of the piece written in Hitchcock’s name gives away the main attraction: “Alfred Hitchcock Cooks His Own Goose.” The instructions for preparing the goose were quite elaborate, as with the recipes in 1963, and not for the squeamish. They began with removal of the goose’s head, in tune with the tenor of the carving piece. Two photos shot by Albert Watson featured Hitchcock and the goose before the preparations. Hitchcock again elaborated on Edwardian menus and Escoffier’s dozen or so small courses.

The very last instance of a journalist being entertained over dinner took place, appropriately, at Chasen’s in 1976, at the table where the Hitchcocks had dined every Thursday, when in town, for more than thirty years. Gene Daniels photographed Hitchcock at the table, glass in hand, for the cover of Holiday magazine and up closer as an illustration for the article. Hitchcock told Sylvie Drake that he was a “mixed gourmet” in that he “liked fine yet simple food” like boeuf bourguignon and oxtails. This latter dish shifted the discussion to home cooking, as Alma, according to her husband, had a very good hand with oxtails. While ordering barley soup, breaded veal cutlet, and ice cream topped with a strawberry sauce, Hitchcock entertained Sylvie Drake with a list of favorite restaurants in London and Paris before turning the conversation to imports for the private wine cellar. As a preamble, as it were, to Pat Hitchcock’s book about the woman behind the man, and as a holdover from the 1963 Look essay, the Chasen’s report is rounded off with detailed recipes for quiche lorraine, pork and veal paté, and two versions of soufflé (cheese and sweet). It also brought the couple back to where Hitchcock in 1939 demonstrated his habit of falling asleep after dinner.

When Hitchcock, very late in his career, received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, his succinct acceptance speech underwrote the tenets of the kitchen creativity and dynamics explored here: “I beg to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter, Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.”

Jan Olsson is Professor of Cinema Studies at Stockholm University. He is the author of Los Angeles Before Hollywood: Journalism and American Film Culture, (2009) among other books.
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