The Help: Southern Food
"About 20 minutes into the movie, you're craving fried chicken," says director Tate Taylor. That movie is The Help, the new film based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel; it stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and costars platter after platter of incredibly delicious-looking Southern food. The Help examines the complicated relationships between African-American maids and their white employers in 1960s Mississippi, and since the story crosses race and class lines, the cooking does too. There are scenes of ladies' luncheons with tomato aspic and cocktail meatballs, and scenes calling for soul food like collard greens, black-eyed peas and, of course, that craveable fried chicken. "Food is just everywhere," says Taylor.
What's unusual is that almost all the food in the movie was made by real Southern cooksincluding teachers, a journalist and a cafeteria managerrecruited in Greenwood, Mississippi. Hollywood filmmakers typically work with caterers and food stylists, but Taylor, a Jackson native, wanted authenticity. "There's a way we cook in the South; vegetables get a certain color to them," he says. "That gets lost a lot of times, unless the right people make the food."
Taylor found lots of the right people in Greenwood. The 18,000-person town is home to Martha Hall Foose, author of the acclaimed Southern cookbook Screen Doors and Sweet Tea and the new A Southerly Course. Foose made fried chicken for the film based on a recipe described in the novel, prepared by a maid named Minny who's revered for her talent in the kitchen. The secret: Crisco. (Minny praises Crisco thusly: "Ain't just for frying. You ever get a sticky something stuck in your hair, like gum? That's right, Crisco. Spread this on a baby's bottom, you won't even know what diaper rash is. Shoot, I seen ladies rub it under they eyes and on they husband's scaly feet. And after all that it will still fry your chicken.")
Another real-life cook enlisted to prepare food for the film was Mary Hoover, who ran a popular soul-food restaurant in Greenwood's historically black Baptist Town neighborhood for nearly 30 years. "I've been cooking since I was eight years old," Hoover says with a wide, gap-toothed smile. Asked to reveal her mother's recipe for butter rolls, however, she balks: "I'll go to my grave with that." Growing up on a farm, Hoover helped her mother feed 10 children on what her father earned as a field hand. "Our chicken and pork all came from the yard. Dessertcame from the tree or the vine." She jokingly calls her culinary style "dirt-row cooking."
As for the food at the ladies' luncheons, many of the recipes haven't changed a bit since 1963. "There are some things that are eternally Delta," Foose says. "If you're having a ladies' luncheon, you're still going to have tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad and finger sandwiches and cheese straws." Cocktail meatballs are a staple, too. Debra Shaw, who manages the cafeteria at Golden Age Nursing Home, made batch after batch of them for the movie. "I've always been the one to take care of people," says Shaw, a shy woman who dreams about opening a garden-to-table soul-food spot.
The Greenwood cooks had to create a daunting amount of food, much of it in a sweltering outdoor kitchen, but they still loved working on a Hollywood set. Lee Ann Flemming, a newspaper columnist who baked the chocolate pie that's crucial to the plot, remembers meeting actor Chris Lowell. "Chris loved my cucumber tea sandwiches," Flemming boasts. "He said, 'I ate about 25.'"
Several Greenwood cooksincluding Foose and Hooverappear on-screen as extras, and their wisdom even shaped the dialogue. Taylor recalls trying to write lines for two characters discussing a pie. "I'm not a baker; I didn't know what the right compliment would be," he says. So he asked Foose how she would praise a gorgeous meringue. Her answer reminded him of why he'd hired real Southern cooks. "Oh, baby," she told Taylor. "You would say that's a mile-high meringue."
A Culinary Reading List
To Kill a Mockingbird
In Harper Lee's 1960 novel, young Scout finds security and discipline in her African-American housekeeper's kitchen. Food points at Alabama's racial tensions"low" versus "haute."
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston wrote this novel in 1937. Set in Florida, it's centered around a character named Janie who goes to great lengths to cook a healing soup for her sick husband.
Meditations from a Movable Chair
In Louisiana writer Andre Dubus's 1998 collection of essays, he describes making lunches for his children in a beautiful piece called "Sacraments".