• Chef du Cinema: The Lady Vanishes

    By Ron Deutsch

    Ladyvanishes_chefducinema_current_large

    Sir Alfred Hitchcock once said, “I’m not a heavy eater. I’m just heavy, and I eat.”

    Hitchcock’s father was a grocer, so we can assume young Alfie grew up knowing his way around food. His films are filled with food and eating motifs, from the kitchen murder in Sabotage to the exotic dinner menus in Frenzy.

    I just taught a class on 1963’s The Birds here in Austin, and in preparing for it, I came across stories its screenwriter, Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain), had told about having dinner at the Hitchcocks’, which was considered quite the honor in Tinseltown. Alma, Hitchcock’s wife, cooked, and Sir Alfred would handpick bottles from his wine cellar and regale his guests with entertaining and often macabre tales. But it wasn’t always like that. Alma, who was always more than just a wife—she was also Hitch’s collaborator and confidante—took up cooking only after the couple moved their household to Hollywood after The Lady Vanishes’ release to make 1940’s Rebecca; once there, their cook was inspired to quit (to become a chiropractor, of all things).

    “With only cookbooks for a script, she memorized and executed my dishes to such perfection that there’s been no need to hire more than an understudy for the role,” Hitch wrote of his wife in McCall’s magazine in 1956. “I would pit Alma against a chef in any of the finest restaurants. She can prepare a meal perfectly and completely—except trample the grapes for the wine, and I’d rather she didn’t do that, really. The French need the business.”

    “We’re both fond of French cooking,” he confided, “and Alma duplicates my own eating habits. When I go on a diet, which I often do, Alma faithfully loses weight with me, although she’s not quite five feet and weighs less than 100 pounds. Contrary to what one might think from my measurements . . . I’m simply one of those unfortunates who can accidentally swallow a cashew nut and put on thirty pounds right away.”

    Elsewhere, he explained, “Most people think a gourmet is a food lover who tucks in his napkin and starts eating fine food. I’m a theoretical gourmet. I’m really more interested in the acquisition of hard-to-find foods than in eating them. We have oysters flown in from England each September, and we savor Pauillac. That’s milk-fed lamb that’s never fed on grass. We roast it lightly to keep it moist and tender.”

    But he was also famously forthright about one food he disliked—and I’m putting that mildly. “I’ve never eaten an egg in my entire life,” he once admitted to columnist Johna Blinn. “An egg cooked by itself, that is. And I can’t stand the smell of a hard-boiled egg.”

    We should note, though, that Hitchcock had no problem eating dishes that contained egg. In fact, he submitted a recipe for quiche lorraine to several celebrity cookbooks (actually, two different recipes—something to discuss another day, I’m afraid).

    To Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, the director said, “I’m frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes . . . Brrr! Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it. And then, I’m frightened of my own movies. I never go to see them. I don’t know how people can bear to watch my movies.”

    Joking aside, he seemed never to tire of the subject. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he ranted, “Oh, I really do [hate eggs]. I think the smell of a hard-boiled egg is the most horrible thing in the world. How people can eat them! I knew a very big man—he was a theatrical producer—and we used to have lunch together; the hors d’oeuvre trolley would go by and, without the trolley stopping, he’d stretch a hand out, pick up a hard-boiled, and pop it into his mouth. Oh, really, it was most revolting. Had he popped a sardine or something—that would have been different. But an egg!”

    This fear of eggs may well be from whence his famous story device, the Egg MacGuffin, comes from. (Please don’t hate me for that.)

    The Lady Vanishes is truly one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. It’s fun, it’s sweet, and it holds up more than seventy years after its release, not just as an engaging and romantic adventure but as a standard to which films of its type have to live up to even today. There’s not much food, per se, in the picture. The dining room in the small Balkan hotel is all out of food when the bumbling Brits Charters and Caldicott sit down to eat, except for some cheese and pickles the vanishing lady herself, Miss Froy, shares with them. Meanwhile, Margaret Lockwood’s character and her friends have “some chicken and a magnum of champagne” brought to their room. And while there are several scenes in the dining car of the train, we don’t really glimpse what the passengers are eating, except for Michael Redgrave’s soup. Then, of course, there’s Harriman’s Herbal Tea—“a million Mexicans drink it!” Sadly, and not just for the legions of thirsty Mexicans, there is no such product in real life.

    The Hitchcocks’ daughter, Patricia, wrote a biography of her mother, and in it she shares recipes from the Hitchcock kitchen. I decided to pair the film with one of those, something fun and sweet, engaging to the senses, romantic . . . and made with eggs.

     

    Crêpes Elizabeth
    Adapted from a recipe in Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, by Pat Hitchcock-O’Donnell and Laurent Bouzereau
    Makes 10–12

    1? cups all-purpose flour
    4 tablespoons sugar
    1 pinch salt
    3 large eggs
    1½ cups milk
    1 tablespoon butter, melted, plus more for frying
    1 tablespoon kirsch (cherry brandy)
    15–20 strawberries (depending on size), sliced or diced
    sugar for sprinkling
    2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds (Alma suggests shredding and buttering whole blanched almonds, but I got lazy on this step)
    Whipped cream or ice cream

    Combine flour, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Whisk in the milk. Slowly add the eggs and milk to the dry ingredients while whisking. Whisk until the batter becomes smooth (according to Alma, “It should coat a spoon. If it is too thick, stir in a little more milk.”). Add the tablespoon of melted butter and the kirsch and stir to combine. Let the batter stand at room temperature for an hour or two.

    Heat an eight-inch frying pan over a medium flame, then add about two teaspoons of butter and swirl the pan to coat it. Add ¼ cup of batter and swirl that around too. Using a spatula, keep the crêpe from sticking to the sides of the pan and check on its underside. As soon as you start to see some browning, gently and carefully flip the crêpe. When the second side is done, remove the crêpe to a plate. (Expect to mess up at least one or two in the beginning before you get the hang of it.) For the rest of the crêpes, you should need to add only about ½ teaspoon of butter to the pan between frying.

    Butter a shallow ovenproof dish or pan. Turn on the oven’s broiler.

    Using about two tablespoons of the strawberries, place them in a row across a crêpe, a little to one side of the center. Sprinkle sugar (to taste) on the strawberries. Gently roll up each crêpe and place it in the buttered pan. Sprinkle the crêpes with the almonds. Place the pan under the broiler, just until “the crêpes blister.”

    Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

    Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.

Leave the first comment