I come from a long line of bad cooks. My mother was way ahead of her peers with the natural foods craze, but, like a new vegan, she never learned to substitute anything for the bacon grease she’d been raised with; everything she made was bland. When we visited my maternal grandmother’s, all of our cousins would drop by with food. I remember the day I discovered why, when I witnessed Grandmother putting mayonnaise in macaroni and cheese. My fraternal grandmother supposedly was a good baker before her illness set in, but the only real meal I remember from the Williams family recipes was courtesy of an in-law.
For some women, this deficiency would be a source of shame, but it wasn’t for my grandmother, who bragged about her recipes as she put ketchup in her ratatouille, knowing no one was bold enough to contradict her. As for my mom, she took Greek salad to every holiday potluck, shrugged at all the better fare, and returned to her studies afterward. Who cared about culinary proficiency, when she could be mastering Aristotle? I’ve followed my family’s example, neither worrying about my lack of ability, nor feeling an impulse to remedy it.
With these tendencies and antecedents, it’s perhaps unsurprising that one of the few domestic comedies I find relatable is Christmas in Connecticut (1945), starring Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane, a food writer who can’t cook. The publisher of her magazine (Sydney Greenstreet) wants to please a hero who craves good eating and satisfy his own stomach in the bargain. He invites the sailor—and himself—to Christmas dinner at the columnist’s country home, forcing her to quickly accede to a friend’s proposal and thus be able to pretend owning the home—and baby—she’s been writing about for years instead of the actual tiny New York apartment she lives in as she spins stories about rocking chairs and fireplaces and pet cows.
The premise is absurd, of course, but with Stanywck as the faux-Martha Stewart, Greenstreet as the busybody, and S.Z. Sakall as Felix (the enterprising buddy whose recipes she’s been using for her articles), this film is a lot of fun. When Lane falls for the sailor (Dennis Morgan), she plots to avoid the promised marriage to her stuffy friend, John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner). She boldly flirts with the handsome hero, Jefferson Jones (Morgan), freed by his engagement and her own supposed marriage.
Even more entertaining than their flirtation is the treatment of Lane’s poor cooking as she pretends to be Mrs. Sloan. When he hears Felix will be handling dinner, the publisher complains, “…I won’t feel quite the same as if you’d cooked it, Mrs. Sloan.”
“Believe me,” quips Felix, “you will feel much better.”
In a famous scene, Felix teaches Lane to flip a flapjack, which she’s described in great detail in her writing. Repeatedly, she screws up, hitting the ceiling with the batter.
While she dodges having to display her bad aim at first, she’s finally put on the spot, and her shocked face when she succeeds—by a sheer fluke—is priceless.
She may be a poor pancake maker, but Lane’s courage and quick wit are worth witnessing when she finally confronts her bullying publisher, who tries to convince her and her faux-husband Sloan that they should reproduce again for the good of the magazine’s circulation. Once he discovers the deception, the publisher urges her to marry the “bore” (Sloan) and proceed quickly to child bearing. Even though she’ll likely lose her job and a promised raise, Lane still decides to have her say: “Listen to me. I’m tired of being pushed around, tired of being told what to do, tired of writing your galldarned articles, tired of dancing to everybody else’s tune, tired of being told whom to marry. In short, I’m tired.”
Of course, this exchange sets Lane up for becoming the housewife she’s been pretending to be, but in feminist fashion, it’s a choice, not a default—and quitting is in her case an act of liberation. I like to think of her using that big imagination to write the next great American novel while Jones, who already likes washing babies, tends to the children. (She knows what she’s doing, falling for this sensitive type.)
Surprisingly, the film is no more judgmental about her culinary failures than I would be. “Well, young man, I spose you know what you’re doing,” the publisher says to Jones once it’s clear the two are altar bound. “But I warn you, she can’t cook.”
Jones asks her if it’s true. “No, I can’t cook,” Lane admits, without a trace of embarrassment.
“She can’t cook,” Felix repeats. Then he adds for all of us who’ve fallen for her during the film, “But what a wife!”