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Chef du Cinema: Elevator to the Gallows

I hate to admit it, but as much as I enjoy watching Elevator to the Gallows, I think I’d be just as happy if everything were cut out of it except for Jeanne Moreau wandering the Champs-Élysées at night, accompanied by Miles Davis’s elegiac soundtrack. It’s those scenes that really make the movie for me.

The music and those wandering sequences share an improvisational quality. Moreau and director Louis Malle and a small crew would go out at night and just shoot wherever they could get good light and wherever the night took them. She notes in the Criterion DVD extras that “the only time, maybe, [Malle] spoke to me on the set about the film was, he is in the film at one time, our paths cross, as though he is a young man who thinks I’m a prostitute, and we whisper things—but that’s all.”

Malle said he was listening to a lot of Miles Davis recordings as he wrote the script, and in fact, the cover of one of Davis’s albums is featured in the film. Malle practiced his own form of improvisation, both in his work with actors in his narrative films and in his documentaries. Of the latter, he once said, “You work with a minimal crew, you don’t try to organize reality, you just try to find where your interest or curiosity takes you, you try to film what you find interesting or surprising, and later try to make sense of it in the cutting room. It’s a cinema of instinct, of improvisation, a cinema very much of the present. As something happens, you try to catch it.”

Now, there is a quote attributed to Miles Davis that appears in various forms. It could be “There are no mistakes in jazz—only opportunities” or “In improvisation, there are no mistakes” or “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake” or even “Do not fear mistakes; there are none.” Or maybe he made all those statements at different times—maybe one of them was the original quote and the rest are improvisations on that theme.

This principle holds true in cooking too. Yes, you can simply follow a recipe, in the same way you can play a song from sheet music just as it’s written. If that was all there was to it, every time you heard a song played, no matter who was playing it, it would sound exactly the same. There would be a uniformity of product, just like the way you can walk into any Chili’s restaurant, from Bahrain to Venezuela, and the chili will taste exactly the same. But what makes two performances of a song or two people’s versions of chili different is the departures from what’s written, the improvisations here and there, the attempts “to find where your interest or curiosity takes you,” even to make mistakes, and thus to create something original that can still be called a song—or a bowl of chili.

The documented history of chili may date back as far as the 1500s and Cortés’s conquest of Mexico; in The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the author, one of Cortés’s soldiers, describes the Aztecs of Cholula cooking up a dish that included “the salt, the pepper, and the tomates”— to which they intended to add meat provided, in the most literal sense, by him and his fellow conquistadors. According to the International Chili Society, cowboys in Texas used to use whatever was handy for the protein in their chili—beef, buffalo, jackrabbit, armadillo, or even rattlesnake. And while some swear you must include beans in your chili with the meat, others will swear it’s an abomination. Still others make vegetarian chili, with beans instead of the meat.

Why all this talk of chili? Well, in Miles Davis’s autobiography, he writes, “I just loved good food and hated going out to restaurants all the time, so I taught myself how to cook by reading books and practicing, just like you do on an instrument. I could cook most of the great French dishes—because I really like French cooking—and all the black American dishes. But my favorite was a chili dish that I called Miles’s South Side Chicago Chili Mack. I served it with spaghetti, grated cheese, and oyster crackers.”

In John Szwed’s biography of Davis, he provides a list of ingredients for that chili, which he notes was taught to Davis by his father, a doctor. Dr. Davis “insisted that all cooking be done from scratch—he had come from a family in which everyone cooked (his sister Josephine was head cook at a WPA center during the Depression). And he himself always cooked his specialties—spaghetti and meatballs, oxtail stew, chili—on Saturdays, the night when he came home early.”

As for this thing called “chili mack,” no one really knows who was the first to pour a meat chili over some kind of noodle (the mack refers to macaroni). And as far as a Chicago-style chili, there really is no such thing. While there used to be a restaurant called Chili Mac’s in Chicago, it was simply making Cincinnati-style chili, which is kind of what Davis’s chili is. “Real” Texas chili almost never has beans and is never served over spaghetti (or any kind of noodle). Cincinnati chili is, however.

Since neither Mr. Szwed nor Mr. Davis offers any directions for preparing this dish, and they are vague about amounts (How many beans? What size can of tomatoes?), you’re going to have to improvise. While it is often said that Davis improvised the score for Elevator to the Gallows while he was recording it, that is not entirely true. He described watching the movie, then working on some themes, ideas, and modes before actually recording it. So I’ll make some suggestions, offer some technique in the directions—but for much of it, you’ll be on your own. Will the result be exactly what Miles Davis made at home? Probably not. But I think he would appreciate your variation on his theme.

Miles Davis’s South Side Chicago Chili Mack
From a list of ingredients in So What: The Life of Miles Davis, by John Szwed
Serves 6–8

(My measurements and suggestions in parentheses)
Bacon grease (2 tablespoons)
3 large cloves garlic (minced)
1 green and 1 red pepper (cut into strips)
2 pounds ground lean chuck (I used 75/25 ground chili beef)
2 teaspoons (ground) cumin
½ jar mustard (4 tablespoons)
½ shot glass (white) vinegar (2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons chili powder (1 tablespoon)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Pinto or kidney beans (2 15-ounce cans, drained)
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes
1 can beef broth (2 cups)
For serving: linguine or spaghetti, oyster crackers, grated Parmesan cheese

Fry up some bacon and reserve the grease (enjoy the bacon!). Pour bacon grease into large pot over medium heat and add garlic. When garlic becomes fragrant, about a minute, add peppers and ground beef. Continue to cook until meat is browned. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to boil, then lower to simmer, uncovered, for 20–30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook and drain pasta.

To serve family style, put pasta in large serving dish and spoon chili over it. Serve with Parmesan and crackers on the side.

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