Some Like it Hot
Tales From the Artichoke Queen, a Serial Diet for Matinee Idols and Soap Stars. On stage and coming soon to a table near you: Marilyn Monroe, Mia Farrow, Woody Allen, Bogart and Bacall, Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Michael Caine, Orson Welles, Laurel and Hardy, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Marlon Brando, Liz Taylor, John Wayne, Richard Burton, and Sofia Loren.
Where once there had been the sweaty tangle of sex, there would be food: this was the key to a successful marriage in Hitchcock’s world. And the sight of his wife, Alma, carving a duck, while Hitch uncorked a good wine, looking for all the world like a grocer in his apron, was emblematic to friends of the couple’s long and happy marriage. Hitch explained his views on food and marriage to one journalist: “As they get on, after five or six years, in most married couples ‘that old feeling’ begins to dissipate. Food oftentimes takes the place of sex in a relationship.” Thus spoke an expert. And Hitchcock’s waistline is enough to tell you that he thought food was pretty damn sexy … even down to the slight flutter of earthy, intimate repulsion he felt for what he most desired … To ingest, he liked to confide over dinner, as he slowly swallowed, was an act he almost disliked the idea of, linking it to sex and nausea. “I hate to say it,” he might continue, “but I always thought a good red wine put into one’s mind the thought of menstrual blood.” No doubt one would be left toying with one’s wine. An ambition of his, he told Francoise Truffaut, was to: “do an anthology on food, showing its arrival in the city, its distribution … the cooking … the various ways in which it’s consumed. […] And, gradually, the end of the film would show the sewers, and the garbage being dumped out into the ocean… Thematically, the cycle would show what people do to good things. Your theme might almost be the rottenness of humanity.” What fun to have for dinner.
Being Hitchcock of course, he invites dark psychological readings of his relationship with eating and playfully, gloomily, beckons us to speculate. For instance, his earliest memory of fear and comfort was food-related. Aged 5 or 6, Hitchcock’s parents tucked him into bed, checked he was sound asleep, and went off for a stroll in Hyde Park (about an hour away by tram from the family home). Little Hitchcock woke to find himself all alone and wandered from cavernous room to cavernous room, calling out for his parents. Eventually, sobbing, he discovered the kitchen and a plate of cold meat, which he began to eat, slice by slice, each mouthful helping to stop the tears. His favourite room in any of his homes was to remain the kitchen.
Indeed, Hitchcock was to pass his formative years in close proximity to food. First, there was his father’s fruit and veg shop in Leytonstone, full of the tantalising aroma of bananas, the metallic tang of tomatoes, the heavier zing of citrus fruit, the grassy aroma of green peas (Hitchcock was to write in 1920 a comic newspaper piece on ‘The History of Pea Eating’). He would watch golf balls of green walnuts being husked, leaking their skin-blackening juices. The shop provided the Hitchcocks with a staunchly loyal supply of good potatoes, fluffy, buttery tasting, leaving Alfred with a profound love of these. (If you were at the Hitchcock table in Hollywood you could count on potatoes for dinner, in many incarnations; gravy-soaked roast potatoes, or baked, fried, sliced, chipped and, when Hitch’s teeth gave way, mashed.)
Mr Hitchcock Senior decided to move into the fish business, and he opened a fishmongers at 130 Salmon Lane in London’s Limehouse district, the mongers using up extra stock by doubling as a fish and chip shop. Deep vats of bubbling lard, crisp chips, the battered fan of fresh crisp haddock or skate and the immense joys of salt and vinegar now filled Alfred’s life – there was a downside, though, in that Alfred not only had to endure a ribbing at school for being chubby but now for smelling of haddock too.
Having been reared in this culture of food, Hitchcock adored it, but, ever-dramatic, claimed immense loyalties and passionate dislikes. Cheese and eggs were on the firing line, worst of all was the white jellified shudder of a poached egg on a plate … He paid homage to Dover sole by eating it often, plus he loved steak – as he was to say in later life, “There will obviously be a lot of drama in the steak that is too rare.” Young Hitchcock’s mother would send him off to convent school with a tuck-box containing … believe it or not … a cooked fillet of Dover sole and some bacon.
Eating signalled the happiest of moments when Hitchcock married Alma Reville, his assistant director, in 1926. Staying in the Palace Hotel in St Moritz, the newlyweds, happy to be in each other’s company, would wash down buttery local pastries with cups of hot chocolate, order long lunches. Hitchcock insisted on slipping into very fancy ski pants – wriggling into ever tighter pants in later more portly years – not in order to ski, but in order to give the appearance of having skied or being about to ski as he sat perched on the porch smoking cigars. Hitchcock, sampling Swiss wines, developed a permanent love of Apfelwein on his honeymoon (he’d later have this cider delivered to US) with plates of bündnerfleisch. Before this leaves a misleading impression that Hitchcock’s tastes were European, we are speaking cider and a plate of cured beef here: there is a solid Anglo-Saxon conservatism to Hitchcock’s predilections: he would navigate any menu by a rack of lamb with roast parsnips, even if he was staggering from one of his lethal ‘White Lady’ cocktails.
Hitchcock needed the security of the British-style table, and went so far as to secure storage space for himself at the Los Angeles Smoking and Curing Company, where he stashed survivalist quantities of Dover sole and English bacon, replenished several times a month. Alma and Hitch had fish and meat flown in weekly from Britain, these delicacies enhancing the menus Alma liked to compose.
Alma and Hitch fitted together ideally, Alma was a spirited and clever cook and Hitchcock took considerable pride in washing up by hand afterwards – much later in life he refused to allow their daughter, Pat, to help him with the washing up until she had demonstrated (he watched, and she washed) that she could meet his standards. Hitchcock liked to follow a daily routine that was in Alma’s words, “conducted like a railroad timetable”: coffee for breakfast was followed by lunch on set. At three o’clock each day, he phoned Alma to discuss and plan what they would have for dinner. That way there would be no nasty surprises. Alma liked to be very hands-on with cooking, and did much of it herself (she made a homemade pâté that won Hitchcock’s heart.)
Although Hitch claimed that his very favourite dinner was roast chicken and boiled ham, this was not framed by any particular experience, unlike the one perfect evening he shared with Alma: he and Alma chose a fine wine from their cellar and ate roast duck and string beans cooked by Alma, followed by Hitch washing up. This they both universally declared the ‘Best Evening Ever’.
Although Hitchcock wasn’t to move more permanently to America until 1939, he had still handpicked many favourite eating haunts before then: in New York, he loved the former speakeasy, the 21 Club, with its surreal row of clay-faced dwarf mannequin jockeys outside, and it was there, in August 1937, that he lunched with journalist H. Allen Smith. The two delicious American food greats, Hitchcock explained, leaning back in his chair, were steak and ice cream. What could be better than vanilla ice cream with a lick of brandy for breakfast (which he’d enjoyed that very morning)? Hitchcock polished off his steak, set down his knife and fork, and called for an ice cream. Then, before the incredulous journalist, Hitchcock ordered another steak. Then another ice cream. He called the waiter … was he going to ask for his bill? No, you guessed it. Another steak … and an ice cream … oh, and a cup of tea. Dabbing his lips, he told Smith: “There are two kinds of eating – eating to sustain and eating for pleasure. I eat for pleasure.” Hitchcock wasn’t averse to secret eating, either; it was conducted like an extra-marital affair, in his private rooms. An ice cream was often taken late at night, between the sheets perhaps… two-in-a-bed vanilla.
By about 1939, Hitchcock had settled for the most part in America, and he set down his eating ‘roots’ quickly. Their cook had fled but Alma had memorised Hitchcock’s favourite recipes and all she needed, as Hitchcock put it, was an understudy, who they found in an excellent German cook, Chrystal (Alma’s menus make her mastery clear, listing ‘Chrystal’ as her ‘extra help’). They had moved into 10957 Bellagio Road in 1942, but then bought another property at Santa Cruz, and would transport their cook there from Bellagio Road: Chrystal sitting in the rear of the car scribbling out menus while Alma drove.
An honour paid to anyone working with Hitchcock was to have dinner in the inner sanctum of Hitchcock’s kitchen, seated at the kitchen table: when Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly turned up for dinner they found themselves at just this spot. Hitch would tipple on a pre-dinner gin and orange and might make some of his wonderful own-recipe champagne punch, or share a brandy after dinner with his guests (watch how many of his films feature brandy drinking); he also had a wine cellar and considered himself a bit of a connoisseur.
Hitchcock could be pretty picky with his dinner guests too: he didn’t like Paul Newman’s rough ways – Newman tossed his jacket over the back of his chair, turned down choice wine from the cellar, ambled across to Hitch’s enormous walk-in fridge, got himself a beer and then drank beer out of a can! But Hitch did like Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant and he loved the couple, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard (Gable was starring in Gone with the Wind at the time and Lombard was, tragically, soon to die). The Hitchcocks rented a house in Los Angeles for a period of time from Lombard (‘The Farm’ at 609 Saint Cloud Road) and really appreciated her story about when she found a shrunken head in Gable’s possession. Completely spooked, she chucked it into a ravine, then, feeling pangs of guilt, retrieved the head and buried it in the back garden of the house Hitchcock was renting. She couldn’t quite remember where she’d buried it, though, and Hitch desperately wanted to hold a dinner party in which dinner guests were given shovels to exhume the skull.
If he were about some kitchen business himself at Bellagio Road, Hitchcock would drape a large white apron about himself, as if he indeed might also be a course. Pre-dinner, Hitchcock would secretly hit the bottle, wildly swallowing a tumbler’s worth of Cointreau, keeping out of sight from Alma (disarmingly, despite this secrecy, Hitchcock was always happy to attribute weight gain to booze rather than food, enjoying the wicked drama of claiming that he’d piled on the pounds since he “took to drink”).
His food generosity could be staggering, whimsical … he sent one friend 400 kippers .... Gregory Peck went to dinner with Hitchcock and Alma at Chasen’s: Hitchcock was very interested in getting just the right match between the food and the wine. Soon after he sent Peck a case of 12 assorted bottles of vintage wine, all individually labelled by him, handwritten recommendations of what to eat with each bottle: this is best with Roast Beef, said one … this with fillet of sole said another. Or there was his famous blue dinner, “It seemed such a pretty colour, I couldn’t understand why hardly anything we eat is blue,” mused Hitchcock and served up a dinner at Bellagio Road with blue martinis, blue soup, blue steak, blue chicken, blue trout, blue potatoes and blue ice cream. Jimmy Stewart showed up for this and was less keen on coming to dine ever afterwards … In March 1953, on the brink of filming The Wrong Man, Hitchcock held a “Ghost-Haunted House Party” in a house he was renting on New York’s East Eightieth Street, for which he sent out tombstone-shaped invitations with a ‘Carte de mort’ listing such lovely schoolboy nonsense as: “Morbid morgue mussels, suicide suzettes, consommé de cobra, vicious-soise, home-fried homicide, ragout of reptile, charcoal-broiled same-witch-legs, corpse croquettes, barbecued banshee, opium omelette, stuffed stiffs with hard sauce, gibbeted giblets, mobster thermidor, tormented tortillas, ghoulish goulash, blind bats en casserole, python pudding, fresh-cut lady fingers, Bloody Marys, Dead Grand-dad, formaldehyde frappe.” The Vicious-soise would have been made to Alma’s recipe, which she recorded carefully and which was subsequently reproduced in her daughter, Pat’s, biography of her.
Beyond the Hitchcock kitchen in Bellagio Drive, Alfred made one of his great discoveries: Chasen’s restaurant in Beverley Hills, where (when not on one of his parsimonious diets), he and Alma would turn up on Thursday nights. They always ordered a steak fillet for their dog, who would wait patiently for them in their car with the chauffeur. Chasens was not so much Hitchcock’s New World food-wise, as he tended to simply elaborate on old favourites there: a smidgen of lobster soufflé, fresh Dover sole, a couple of steaks … True to form, unable to tolerate alcohol well, Hitchcock would nod off during Chasen dinner parties (he was also famed for snoozing after lunch every day – even in the middle of directing). When he had chosen Tippi Hedren for her part in The Birds she turned up for dinner with the Hitchcocks at Chasen’s, only to find at her place a box containing a pin, three seagulls, wrought in gold. Guess who had the part of Melanie?