I remember watching Kramer vs. Kramer in its first release, at the Coronet theater on Geary. I might be wrong, but I’m certain. It was on TV just now and I saw the last 45 minutes after watching the last 45 minutes of Last Chance Harvey. Dustin with Meryl, Dustin with Emma 30 years later. I realized that the bookended scenes of Dustin Hoffman making French toast are imprinted on me in a way that is permanent. I can’t remember what I did at work last week, but I still remember the way in the beginning he
makes attempts French Toast.
The scene tells us everything: he doesn’t know where to find anything, he doesn’t know how much time he needs and he doesn’t know how to cook. He is as much a stranger to his son as he is to the kitchen.
He crams the bread into the mug, as he is trying to cram sudden intimacy into his boy:
By attempting to do too much too fast, he finds himself pressed for time. To try and cook faster, he turns up the flame. Like his attempt to accelerate his family’s recovery from the damage done by his divorce, he result is predictable.
The parallelism between the breakfast and his bond with his child hurts to watch. He can deny that he is being insincere with his child, but food on the stove will not allow this.
As his attempt to reproduce his wife’s morning routine fails, he is revealed to his boy: unknowing, unskilled and angry. The pan hits the floor and he shouts, “Damn it! Damn her!” and I knew that his inability to make French Toast meant he was not a good dad. I didn’t understand I had learned this watching the movie in 1979, but I realize it now, in 2010.
As the story progresses, you can see him make all the mistakes inherent in fatherhood. But he makes them and learns from them. In the closing moments of the story he makes breakfast with his son for what looks to be the last time, as Meryl is on her way to pick up the boy, having won the custody battle. Dustin and son knock out an order of French Toast wordlessly, with the efficiency that results from many successful run-throughs:
As I watched this scene today, tears flowed down my cheeks. I remembered the many meals my wife and I have made for our daughters and how much time I’ve spent in the kitchen working on a recipe called “I Love You.” It became easier for me to spend an hour on broiled salmon topped with hollandaise sauce than to sit with them and talk with them. Food had become my currency of love, a medium of exchange. Seeing Kramer vs. Kramer today gave me a hint of where it came from and I think that will allow me to disengage from it going forward.
I still intend to cook often and when I feed others, it will be a labor of love. But I want to stop seeing people’s reactions to my food as a reaction to my affection for them. Sometimes people just aren’t hungry, or they do not care for a certain ingredient, or they aren’t able to enjoy a dish for their personal idiosyncrasies. It is not a reflection on me and seeing K v. K today again has helped unlock that for me.