It’s a little-known fact that the first book by renowned food writer Betty Fussell (author of Raising Steaks, I Hear America Cooking, and The Story of Corn) was a film book, an exploration of silent comedienne Mabel Normand, “America’s First I-Don’t-Care Girl.” Normand was a proto-example of what Fussell dubs the “sexy clowns”: Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Mae West, Jean Aurthur, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Judy Holliday. And Fussell herself is like a lost member of this tribe. In her early eighties, she’s dazzling beautiful, and speaks in crescendos and exclamatory noises that are difficult to duplicate in print. She also has a mercurial intelligence that can cover the basic issues of humanity in a few fragmented sentences. This is not surprising from the feminist food writer who once wrote—of learning how to write succinctly as a reporter instead of in the academic-ese in which she was trained—that the history of the world could be written in two words: “Adam wept.”
At 92Y Tribeca tonight, Fussell will be on hand for a Q&A following Cooking History, a fascinating documentary of European war told through wartime food and recipes. (It’s part of Reverse Shot and Edible magazine’s “Eat This Film” series.) I had a chance to chat with her recently at her Greenwich Village apartment in a converted church. Under high beams and Sante Fe style art, she pitted a bowl of sour cherries (with apologies for her multi-tasking, “but they’re only in season for two weeks!”) and talked about the connections between writing about film and food, as well as about some of the themes that interested her in tonight’s film.
Betty Fussell: War is the conditioner. And why? Because death is the conditioner. And I live in a culture where death is a taboo subject! You can talk about sex, you can talk about dicks, orgasms, boobs, but don’t talk about death. Because we don’t want death. Because we don’t want age, and the two go together… And today we’re fighting wars and battles that don’t exist? War is at the basis of human life because survival is. So there’s no life without death, but we don’t face that.
The L Magazine: How did your involvement in this screening come about?
BF: The organizer, Sabine Hrechdakian, approached me. And I liked the sound of it. I said, sure, because that’s a topic I like.
The L: What topic? Of war, of food?
BF: Of relating! Relating food to war. If you relate food to anything basic, I’m going to like the topic. I just don’t like the silly little entertainments! They distract us from what food is about.
The L: The silly little entertainments?
BF: I mean, I never ever watch the food shows, never. I mean… what for?!
The L: In the movie we see all these recipes of life in battle…
BF: Ah, the recipes are wonderfully witty and hilarious.
The L: Right, but I think what’s interesting is we think of food in terms of recipes, but really it’s this whole other language. In your books you’ve really emphasized the language of food.
BF: A recipe is simply a musical notation. So it’s not another language, it’s just a short cut, an abbreviation… It’s a comedy! Why do I like this movie? Because it’s funny. Why is it funny? Because it’s dark. Revenge on the Germans with arsenic bread, and a recipe for it? Ter-rif-ic. Funny! The pretend objectivity of the recipes… Four tons of arsenic?
The L: The invisible meal for the invisible soldier?
BF: Absolutely. That’s brilliant. Brilliantly touching and brilliantly funny. It’s the mold of mock-heroic. Take a heroic subject: war, battles! And just by centering it around food it’s already funny. It’s like slapstick. You take a banana peel, and it brings you down from looking up in the air too long.
The L: Why the special interest in comedy?
BF: Why do I like comedy? Because it’s American! It’s egalitarian.
The L: You’re known primarily as a food writer, but you’ve written some pieces recently about film, about how the the last two presidential regimes were like a cowboy movie transitioning to an elegant old fashioned musical.
BF: Why am I really interested in the meat industry? Because of cowboys! The history of cattle in this country is all about images: the cowboy movie.
The L: Your interest in the history of beef is…
BF: Oh yes. It’s entirely about film. I love cowboy movies. I love the west. But it’s a fake west, I knew that. But I love the fake west. I love the image. I love the myth.
The L: But all of your books, the food books and the book on Mabel Normand, are about investigating the myths. You love the myths, but you want to debunk the myth, too.
BF: Because that’s the same thing…
The L: Not for everyone. Some people are happy to accept the myth. But you’ve made that search your structure. And all of your books are about the American myth.
BF: Because that’s my subject. It’s always about who am I as an American.
The L: So if you’re writing about a silent comedienne, or beef, or corn, or cowboy movies….
BF: Yes it’s the same subject. An exploration of self.
The L: A lot of the genres and actresses you’ve mentioned are older, the 30s through the 50s, I don’t mean to sound like a fuddy-duddy, someone who says, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to…” But do you think that’s true?
BF: Oh no! What About Bob? I LOVE that movie! But I don’t like Steve Martin, not until he goes completely slapstick, like the one with Michael Caine [Dirty Rotten Scoundrels].
The L: Why?
BF: I don’t think he’s funny enough. Not funny in my way… I don’t like him serious at all. And I don’t like him when he’s simply slapstick. He doesn’t surround himself with the right guys or the right lines… or something!
The L: I think you should write about comedies more, because you’d write about them so well, obviously, and also because film still doesn’t take them seriously enough.
BF: And they won’t. You know why?
The L: No, why?
BF: You have to be relaxed about everything. And we’re not. We’re uptight.
The L: Especially some of these film writer guys…
BF: Ah, ah, ahhhhh! Why don’t the Oscars ever reward a comedy? Because our culture is “tragedy, a tragedy!”
The L: Because they’re trying so hard!
BF: We’re trying to take our place in the world, that’s right. Film has not come of age until—as is rapidly happening—it’s been made obsolete. And then it will achieve the condition of high art. Once it’s over. Which is true of other things, like Renaissance Drama for instance. Shakespeare.