French Toast with cinema on it

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.

c'est pain brulee

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.

Unlike sometimes with people, the kitchen gives instant and honest feedback

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.

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2 Responses to French Toast with cinema on it

  1. Joanna says:

    I saw that film when it came out, too, but haven’t seen it since. I do remember how raw it was though because my parents had just split up, and I was processing it wordlessly by having an attack of all-body eczema. One of my earliest memories is of the three of us kids sitting in our high chairs (3 kids in 4 years) when my mom had to have surgery and my dad had to make breakfast for us, probably for the first time. It was just like what you describe: didn’t know where things were, burned the oatmeal, banged pots and swore. I remember vividly realizing that he did not know how to take care of us and wondering what would happen to us if mom didn’t come back. I wish I could say that he learned a different currency to express his feelings for us. We would have been thrilled with offerings of food.

  2. jimsakeeper1 says:

    Joanna — that’s so beautifully written. I can’t tell what age you were a that time but clearly it was a difficult period. And also for me personally the idea of my dad wanting custody or being able to care for me alone was ridiculous. I guess it means something that it was inconceivable for my dad but only a stretch for me.

    With Allie so sick all day, I got a reminder of what it would entail to be the primary caregiver, as they say. I guess the prodression I’ve made is that I can take care of her for a while, and I’m OK with it. Thanks for sharing your story.

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