SFA members will receive issue #50 of our Gravy quarterly in their mailboxes later this month. If you’re not an SFA member, the easiest way to get on the Gravy train is to join us as a 2014 member. You can also find a limited supply of Gravy at Billy Reid (all locations), the Alabama Chanin Factory and Cafe (Florence, AL), Star Provisions (Atlanta), Highlands Bar + Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fon Fon (Birmingham).

What follows is an online-exclusive preview of the upcoming Winter Reading issue, brought to you by Theresa Starkey, the assistant director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Starkey’s exploration of pie, power, and womanhood in James M. Cain’s hardboiled classic Mildred Pierce has inspired those of us who haven’t read it to put the book at the top of our holiday-break reading list. It also serves as an excellent example of how to interpret the roles of food and foodways in literature. In other words, sometimes a pie is not just a pie. Fasten your thinking cap and read on…

mildred-pierce-book

Making Dough, the Hardboiled Way

The Pies and Fall of Mildred Pierce

by Theresa Starkey

Long before the real-life successes and scandals of Martha Stewart and Paula Dean, James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce depicted the rise and fall of a Depression-era woman who built her business empire from scratch by selling domesticity. Mildred’s evolution is told through the lens of pie.

Huckleberry pie and chicken dinner

She opened a can of huckleberries and a made a pie. While that was baking she stuffed a chicken.

Around ten after seven, Wally rang the bell…

Mildred joins the ranks of “the great American Institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to support,” when she kicks her deadbeat husband Bert to the curb. Cain reveals not only Mildred’s independence and no-nonsense attitude, but also the hurdles a single mother faces when reentering the dating world.  When Bert’s former business partner Wally asks her to an evening out on the town, his invitation is tinged with expectations of sex as repayment for time and money spent.

Mrs. Gessler, Mildred’s best friend, neighbor, and tutor advises Mildred to stay home instead and “give him one of those Mildred Pierce specials,” where if  “something just happened to happen, then it’s Nature.” The home-cooked meal may cost Mildred at the register, but as her friend points out, each purchase is part of a long-term investment, meanwhile protecting her reputation. Mildred learns how to flip the narrative and entice her gentleman caller back for seconds. Wally is one of the first people who steps up and helps Mildred launch her restaurant, and it all starts with a slice of huckleberry pie.

One apple, one pumpkin, and one lemon

It’s got to be his idea.

Pie is the economic wedge that enables Mildred to thrive in her new role as breadwinner for her two daughters, Veda and Ray. When Mildred takes a job as a waitress at the Tip-Top dinner, a restaurant that has a booming lunch crowd but serves up ugly, tasteless pies that have a “hard, indigestible crust,” she discovers a chance to snag the restaurant’s long-standing pie contract out from under the Handy Baking Company. Mildred learns that such a power play requires female finesse. As her friend and restaurant manger Ida (another of Mildred’s guides and teachers) observes, a delicate psychological method works best for an old-fashioned man like Mr. Chris, who owns the diner. A direct approach from a woman would come off as pushy.

Mr. Chris gives Mildred her first pie contract after she makes three samples to sell to the lunchtime crowd. Mildred’s pies sell out by one o’clock, and Ida enthusiastically informs the boss that his customers want to know “where they got such wonderful pies.”  He laughs and claims “he knew about Mildred’s pies all the time, and had already made up his mind to take them.”  When he tries to “beat Mildred down to thirty cents [a pie], but she [holds] out for thirty-five,” she has opened the way to her first large-scale success as a businesswoman.

A deep-dish apple pie with candied crabapples

It’s going to be a very special pie. It doesn’t appeal to his stomach, except incidentally. It appeals to his higher nature… that means his vanity.

As Mildred’s business grows, so does her self-confidence. She adopts the first personal pronoun: “my pies,” “my customers,” and “my marketing” are now part of her everyday lexicon. Her intimate connection with each pie, its delivery and consumption, enables her to achieve the personal and economic goals she sets. After Mildred bakes Bert a “deep-dish creation filled with crabapples cunningly candied with sugar so to bring out the tart of the apples” he quickly agrees to a divorce and even offers to wear the mantle of brute to expedite the divorce proceedings. That intimate exchange makes Mildred into an independent woman and, in the eyes of the law, the sole proprietor of Mildred Pierce, Inc. Like Martha Stewart’s after her, Mildred’s name becomes a trademark.

An empty shell

She couldn’t get used to it that the Pie Wagon was no longer hers, that she had nothing to do….

He was furious at the pies being delivered to him by Mildred Pierce, Inc.

Mildred’s pathological desire to curry favor with her snobbish daughter, Veda, “the only living thing she had loved,” drives her to expand her business. Veda is the sole reason Mildred tampers with the restaurants’ books, overextending herself financially.  Mildred relinquishes managerial control of the business that bears her name to others in a futile attempt to be closer to Veda, who wants nothing more than to escape her smothering love, and who loathes her and views the domestic roots of her occupation with disdain.  Until this point, Mildred’s success depended on her professionalism as a baker. Her personal touch, skill and emotional engagement with food were the keys to her business.

Mildred Pierce, Inc. becomes a hollow shell after a hostile corporate take over.

Her old boss Mr. Chris is surprised to discover that Mildred’s name, which has lost all meaning, is her last connection to the company. He suddenly understands why the pies he orders no longer taste the same.

Mildred realizes that she can turn her defeat on its ear, when she asks Mr. Chris “how he’d like to have some of my pies,” to which he “almost kissed” her. Mildred is back at the bottom, willing once again to get her hands dirty and make homemade success.