The Help, which rolled into theaters this week, has been condemned as a racist film which "distorts, ignores, and trivializes" black women's experiences. But many food magazines have skipped over the movie's racial politics, focusing instead on the fried chicken and collard greens which appear onscreen.
Rather than hire Hollywood food stylists and caterers, director Tate Taylor hired women in Greenwood, Miss., to make the cakes and cheese straws needed for a Southern drama with a domestic setting. Cookbook author Martha Hall Foose, who won the James Beard award for Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, recruited a team of fellow cooks to help recreate the foods of 1960s Mississippi. She called upon a reporter, teachers, and a cafeteria manager from a local nursing home.
"It was all women making food for this movie about women making food for other women," Foose says, nearly losing herself in her recitation of the levels of sisterhood.
The history of women cooking for men is well-documented: Preparing supper is perhaps the most traditional wifely duty beyond the bedroom. Women were long taught that a way to a man's heart is thorugh his stomach, and urged to develop their culinary skills accordingly. But there's far less literature devoted to the topic of women cooking for women, a central theme of The Help, whether out of economic necessity or compassion.
Foose maintains women forge important connections through food. She cites the example of two Greenwood friends with different religious backgrounds who've cooked for each other's life-cycle events. "They've been there for every christening, every bris," Foose says. "Gail [a Southern Baptist] steps in and cooks kosher food."
The Help showcases a canon of ladies' luncheon foods that are still almost always prepared by women, for women. Tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad and cocktail meatballs haven't yet migrated onto co-ed menus, although Foose believes a few "feminine" dishes are deserving of increased attention.
For her newest cookbook, A Southerly Course, Foose rescued and reinvented a recipe for floating island, a meringue dessert.
"It was quite the rage back in the day," Foose says. "I made it and everyone was going berserk for it. Instead of looking at it as kitschy, it was just good."