Just like James M. Cain's 1941 novel Mildred Pierce and the Oscar-winning 1945 feature film based on the book, HBO's Mildred Pierce, a five-part mini-series which starts on March 27th, (and which hews more closely to Cain's book than the post-war noir classic starring Joan Crawford) gives a glimpse into the life of an enterprising, hardworking single mother in 30's-era pre-feminist Glendale. But along the way, as Kate Winslet's Mildred goes from overwhelmed diner waitress at Cristofer's Café to launching her own chicken-and-pie restaurant and becoming a multi-restaurant maven, it also offers an intriguingly detailed portrayal of life in the Los Angeles restaurant world of that period.
How big of a role does Mildred's dazzlingly precise culinary technique play in this melodrama about social striving, gender inequality and mother-daughter relations, and that is gloriously directed by Todd Haynes and shot in Super-16 millimeter film? Let's just say that her gifts as a pie-maker actually serve as bookends to the 5 1/2 hour long saga. We caught up with Mildred Pierce propmaster Sandy Hamilton, the man whose selection of pies, cakes and buttermilk-marinated fried chicken are so appetite-stimulating that the line at fried chicken mainstays like Pann's or Flossie's will surely get longer in coming weeks. Turn the page...Squid Ink: Food is such an important through-line in "Mildred Pierce." What was your strategy when it came to figuring out what Depression-era pie, cake and chicken should look like?
Sandy Hamilton: It all comes from the script or the book. The book actually has some passages that gave fairly detailed descriptions of what's going on.
SI: For example?
SH: Before opening her own restaurant, she goes to work in a diner run by a Greek guy. Again, in the book specific dishes are mentioned -- heavy on steaks and chops, stuff like that. There's a character who works in the kitchen at the diner, a guy who is always flinging meat, who she will later hire away. So we knew we needed steaks and chops. When she's working at the diner she realizes that even though there was a large menu, people always ended up ordering the chicken. That's what gives her the idea of opening a restaurant that only serves chicken. So we knew that chicken in various forms had to be at the diner. So when there would be a scene of people eating at the diner, we heavied up on the chicken. If someone is really paying attention, when it comes to the part where she says, "Everyone always orders the chicken," you'd go, "Oh! Righhhtttt. Chicken was very popular at the diner."
SI: What were some of the ways you came up with suggesting how innovative Mildred is about the food she serves at her restaurant?
SH: The good thing for us is that the restaurant she opens has this very, very limited menu. But there's an expository sequence where she explains the concept of her restaurant to the help. She says something like, "Oh, I hate it when you order chicken and they give it to you in one big piece and you have to cut it all apart. I'm going to do it differently. I'm going to serve my chicken in pieces." That meant that at the scenes at the Greek diner, we'd made sure to have the half chicken on people's plates so that at her restaurant the chicken would be in pieces. There were a lot of clues in the book as to what we should be doing. When we were shooting diner scenes not a whole lot of effort was put into making the food look particularly appetizing, there was not a lot of styling, so that the food at her restaurant would look better by comparison. The diner pies had to look bad, too.
SI: What can one possibly do to make pie unattractive?
SH: We used store-bought pies. They were flat, the crust was sort of white and doughy-looking, kind of uninteresting. The filling was gelatinous.
SI: On the other end of the spectrum were Mildred's pies -- apple, cherry, lemon meringue, pumpkin -- all of them had beautifully crimped crusts and were lit as meticulously as a Hollywood studio-era ingénue. Who made those?
SHf: We hired a food stylist, Colin Flynn, who did some of the food on "Julie & Julia," to make some and we bought pies from a couple of different bakeries - The Little Pie Company, Baked - until we figured it out. When we actually were filming sometimes Colin made pies for stuff you see up close -- he also made the chocolate birthday cake that Mildred iced in episode one -- and then we bought store-bought pies for pies you see in a case across the room. You can't have a food stylist make every scrap of food.
SI: What did you want from the best pies?