(Banner image: Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help.” © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.)
It may not have been nominated for one of the academy awards, but the food in The Help certainly played an important supporting role.
To begin with, it was all authentic, that’s the way director Tate Taylor, a native of Mississippi, wanted it. “There’s a way we cook in the South,” he explains. “Vegetables get a certain color to them, [something] that gets lost a lot of times unless the right people make the food.” Taylor recruited real Southern women to cook all the traditional foods for the movie. Caterers and food stylists just would not do.
They made such Southern classics as: fried chicken, deviled eggs, black eyed peas salad, ham and pineapple casserole, tomato aspic, cocktail meatballs, braised collard greens, tomato stuffed with chicken salad, finger sandwiches, cheese straws, molded salads, cakes and lots of chocolate pies. (That was the pie with the “extra” ingredient that Minny baked for Miss Hilly!) They cooked much of it at home and delivered it to the set.
So, when Hilly’s mother (played brilliantly by Sissy Spacek) ate her ambrosia while watching The Guiding Light, it was the real thing. When Aibilene (Viola Davis, SAG Best Actress award winner and Oscar nominee for the same), placed the platter over the crack in the table, it held chicken salad garnished with green grapes, and when Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) at the bridge luncheon wanted another deviled egg, it was served from a platter of them, all sprinkled with paprika.
As for the fried chicken, it was in a class by itself. The process was key to the final product. In the 60’s it would have been soaked in buttermilk first, then coated in a paper sack with flour, salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne and fried in Crisco, which was the preferred shortening of the time. They didn’t know then, what we know now, that it was hydrogenated cottonseed oil—a trans fatty acid. (Crisco has taken a few twists and turns in its formulation over the years.)
In fact, Minny (played by Octavia Spencer, this year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner), the short, fat and sassy maid, who was hired to teach Miss Celia how to cook, had high praise for Crisco. “ I reckon if there’s anything you ought a know about cooking, it’s this. It’s the most important invention in the kitchen since jarred mayonnaise. “It ain’t just for frying. You spread this on a baby’s bottom, you won’t even know what diaper rash is. I seen ladies rub it under their eyes and on their husband’s scaly feet. Clean the goo from a price tag, take the squeak out a door hinges. Lights cut off, stick a wick in it and burn it like a candle. After all of this, it’ll fry your chicken.” She then placed the chicken legs, dark side down in the frying pan and waited for the Crisco to bubble up around them. When they turned brown, they were done.
The food with the leading role was Minny’s chocolate pie with the mound of whipped cream in the center. She made one for the bridge luncheon, one for Miss Celia to offer as a token of acceptance into the ladies’ group, and one for the auction at the benefit. But it was the infamous chocolate pie that Minny baked for her revenge on Miss Hilly that truly deserved an academy award. No one will ever face a chocolate pie quite the same way again.
The Edible Finale
The finale for the role of food in the movie was the table spread with all the Southern classics that Miss Celia cooked herself to thank Minny for all she had been taught. All the classics were there—the molded salad, the fried chicken, the corn bread, braised collard greens, ham, beans, black eyed peas and, of course, chocolate pie with the mound of whipped cream.
All the food, in all the scenes, truly was “good enough to eat.” Nearly all of the actors were superb in their roles in The Help–but the authenticity of the food deserves praise for the delicious (and sometimes horrifying) way it furthered the plot.
“The Help” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. © 2012 DreamWorks II Distribution Co. LLC.