In Off Menu, Edward White serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
Within the shifted reality of an Alfred Hitchcock movie there is no steady fact of existence that cannot be undermined. The ambiguity extends even to food and drink. In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman’s heroine is poisoned in her own home by a cup of coffee, while homebodies in The Man Who Knew Too Much feel discomfort in foreign lands because of the exotic food they are fed. In mid-twentieth-century America, nothing could be more wholesome and nourishing than a glass of milk—except when it’s handed to an unwitting guest at the Bates Motel as part of her final meal.
In his private life, Hitchcock felt the same unease about comestibles. He adored food and the experience of dining but resented the impact that consumption had on his body: “I’m simply one of those unfortunates who can accidentally swallow a cashew nut and put on thirty pounds right away,” he explained. Of the various aspects of Hitchcock’s identity that I wrote about for my book The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock, it was his existence as a self-described “fat man” that most revealed him as a cultural figure ahead of his time. Hitchcock being Hitchcock—an expert self-mythologizer—he turned his anguish about his appearance into a joke and then exploited its potential for publicity. Though he made his love of food a prominent part of his reputation, he also shared his dissatisfaction with his body image in a way that no male celebrity had ever done, posing for photographs that charted the progression of his weight loss and expressing the pain of counting calories.
As with so much else in his life, Hitchcock’s accomplice in this peculiar gastronomic odyssey was Alma Reville, his wife, best friend, longest-serving creative collaborator, and, to quote Hitchcock, “as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen.” Their partnership began in the mid-’20s, when Reville worked as Hitchcock’s assistant director on the silent films that launched him to fame in his native Britain. For the next fifty years, she was his steel girder, lending her talents to scriptwriting, casting, editing, and promotion, in both official and unofficial capacities. And at their residences in England and America, it was Reville’s exceptional cooking that made their home a living extension of the Hitchcock screen universe, a place of sensory stimulation, both earthly and transporting. Read More