Wes Anderson, as a young man growing up in Texas, had a dream of becoming a filmmaker. He came up with a few ideas for movies when applying to film school that eventually evolved into his first three feature films. The idea of family is present in the first two films (Bottle Rocket and Rushmore) but in the third, The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson made it explicit.
“The other films [I made] did deal with the issue of family, but they were metaphorical families, groups of friends, someone obsessed with a school and wants to be part of it. This one is more directly connected with issues of family, issues that are deeply personal, emotional, and serious,” Anderson said in the press notes for The Royal Tenenbaums.
“Well, it’s about a family of geniuses,” he continued elsewhere, “except that I always feel that’s wrong, because it’s really more about failure. Then I want to say it’s a comedy, but then I think it’s as tragic as it is comic. So I’m terrible at explaining it.”
“What the story says,” cowriter and costar Owen Wilson explained, “is that even though everyone goes through hell with their family, still—as corny as it sounds—family members are still the ones you have to be close to, and really the only ones who will understand what you’re going through. We don’t balk at showing some of the rough stuff families endure, but we show in the end that it’s worth it.”
“Certainly most families are to some degree or other dysfunctional. But the capacity to forgive can help us to heal and overcome our dysfunctionalism,” said Danny Glover, who plays Anjelica Huston’s suitor Henry Sherman in the film.
“You know, Ben Stiller’s, Gwyneth Paltrow’s, certainly Anjelica Huston’s . . . all those families are real kind of achievers, and fame is an issue for their whole families,” Anderson told Film Monthly. He also noted the similarities between Huston’s character, the matriarch of the Tenenbaum clan, and his own mother. “You know, my mother was an archaeologist,” he admitted, “and also just her approach to raising the children and the kind of household—that character runs, I think is, you know, connected to my mother.”
The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite films of the past fifteen years. It’s a fairy tale for grown-ups. It’s one of those cases when the classic Hollywood ending—where the story wraps up all its elements in a nice little package—doesn’t leave you feeling cheated. There isn’t much in the way of food in the movie, though; I think the only person we actually see eating is Gene Hackman’s character, Royal, gobbling down a greasy (but tasty-looking) cheeseburger (a Royal with cheese?).
I did find, however, a video from a few years back of Glover demonstrating how to make sweet potato pie on The Martha Stewart Show. “This recipe was my mom’s,” he said. “She was an absolutely wonderful cook, a wonderful baker, and she always used to tell my dad that he didn’t know how to boil water before he met her . . . We all had to learn to cook in my family.”
One of the great African American traditions is the passing down of one’s family’s sweet potato pie recipe. It is without a doubt the crown jewel in the soul food recipe box. And its roots run deep through African American history.
African slaves arriving in the Americas thought they recognized a food they had known back home. They called it the nayami, but eventually it was referred to as the yam. It was not the vegetable they were familiar with, however. This was a sweet potato. Yams are native to Africa and Asia, while sweet potatoes are from Central America. In fact, the two are only very distantly related. Yams were, however, beginning to be grown in the Caribbean around the same time, brought over by the very same slave ships from Africa. By the eighteenth century, both yam and sweet potato varieties were being farmed in the United States. And both George Washington and George Washington Carver grew sweet potatoes.
So it just seemed fitting to make this sweet potato pie recipe from Mr. Glover, which has its own family history, to go with the story of the Tenenbaums and theirs. And besides, it’s some real fine pie.
Danny Glover’s Sweet Potato Pie
Adapted from a recipe at MarthaStewart.com
Makes one 9-inch pie
1½ pounds sweet potatoes
½ cup (1 stick) room temperature butter, cut into pieces
1¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 9-inch deep-dish unbaked pie shell
Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook sweet potatoes either in microwave (Pierce a few holes in them with a fork, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and cook on high for 5 to 8 minutes, until soft. Carefully remove—they’re hot!—from microwave and let cool a minute or two before removing plastic wrap) or on the stove (Put 2 inches of water in a medium saucepan; place over high heat and bring to a boil. Fit saucepan with a steamer basket, add sweet potatoes, and cover. Steam until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork, about 1 hour. You may need to add more water as sweet potatoes steam.). Let sweet potatoes cool slightly, then remove skins.
Put sweet potatoes in bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until well mashed and, if any stringy pieces have wrapped themselves around the paddle attachment, remove it, wipe clean, and return to mixer. With mixer on low speed, add butter and beat until well combined. Add sugar gradually. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and lemon juice. Continue beating until well combined. Pour mixture into pie shell.
Transfer to oven and bake until the center has set, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool. Serve with whipped cream.
Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.