“What’s Cooking?” Family Discord

Posted on November 22, 2011 by


Readers, please forgive the delay in part two of my examination of Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking? Immediately after finishing drafting this post last Tuesday, my laptop got a particularly annoying bit of malware. Fortunately it was not a very bright bit of malware, so I managed to patch things up technologically in time to bring you the rest of my thoughts on What’s Cooking? before Thanksgiving.

. . .

Last week I discussed how the characters of What’s Cooking? hold a traditional American Thanksgiving as an ideal, yet must learn to adapt when their culturally blended multigenerational families create discord in the dinner plans. Discord is a big theme in WC?, as both perfect meals and harmonious families are so easily put off balance by a harsh word or a burnt turkey. As we saw last week, the Thanksgiving meal is a reflection on the amount of discord the family is dealing with and how much they attempt to keep that discord under control. Unexpected problems in the preparation and consumption of the meal mirror underlying tensions bursting through the perfect facade of Thanksgiving. Audrey Williams makes a perfect high-end meal, much like the image of perfection she wishes her family to be, only to have it fall on the floor just like her family’s facade of happiness. Johnny Nguyen’s visions of good old American turkey and pumpkin pie must share time with his elders’ dumplings and rice, just as his family must find a way to balance the needs of both generations.
The Avilas and the Seeligs, two families we did not delve into so deeply last week, also express their discord through their meal. The Avilas appear to have a relatively happy homemade meal until dessert, when matriarch Lizzy’s new beau shows up unexpectedly with store-bought pies and infuriates Lizzy’s ex. The Seeligs try to convince Aunt Bea that they are “normal” by serving a perfectly boring dinner, except for one vegetarian character’s polenta sitting in plain view the entire meal.
Discord doesn’t just bubble up unexpectedly, though. Some characters in WC? purposefully sow discord or deviate from the family’s plans in order to express their needs independently of the group. For instance, Michael Williams uses food choice to express the difference between himself and his corporate upper-middle-class parents. He underscores his desire to study African American Studies at Howard instead of business at UC Santa Barbara with his preference of his grandma’s mac and cheese over his mother’s Moroccan fruit compote (a dish I’m certain was put into the script for its status as the most yuppie-sounding food ever). However, the expression of difference from family can be seen best when it comes to food preparation; for instance, Audrey and Grace, her mother-in-law, express their dissatisfaction with one another by criticizing each other’s cooking habits. Audrey balks at Grace’s calorie-laden macaroni and cheese, while Grandma isn’t familiar with the shiitake mushrooms in the stuffing, thinks the turkey is undercooked, and is weirded out by Audrey’s planning the serving dishes ahead of time.
Sometimes a difference in food preparation can smooth discord instead of creating it, though. Jimmy intrudes on the Avila women’s space in the kitchen, and they all wonder why he isn’t in the living room watching football. However, he smooths this over by helping them; he holds the baby (albeit awkwardly) and reaches for items on the highest shelf (giving the women a chance to praise his posterior in Spanish). Jimmy’s presence in a women’s space would normally misbalance the food preparation ritual, but he redeems himself by playing along with their banter and revealing that he also speaks Spanish.
Conversely, family members who express their needs are blamed for sowing discord. Family members with special dietary needs are considered an inconvenience, and they often also have contentious points of view, as with the vegetarians Monica and Jerry. Monica generally has a bad attitude but rightly points out the imperialist roots of Thanksgiving. The Seelig’s vegetarian dinner guest, on the other hand, tries to defend Rachel from Bea’s comments but gets burned himself when Bea says that his polenta looks like jello.
These microaggressions are simply late-occurring expressions of existing family dynamics. Here, “What’s cooking?” is not just a reference to the act of cooking, but to the structure of the film itself. You ask “What’s cooking?” when someone’s already in the middle of cooking something, to see what’s already going on. The viewers are dropped into the middle of these people’s lives, late in the action. The film starts specific, with the characters’ once-a-year culinary choices, then leaves the general big bits – the fact that they all live on the same street – until the very end. Similarly, families begin this film with underlying issues, but even more problems are dropped upon them suddenly like surprise dinner guests or the accidental burning of a turkey. What the families do with those surprise problems is a reflection on what’s already been simmering for awhile. It’s not just about what’s in the oven, but what bubbles up when the heat gets turned up.

Posted in: Film, Food & Beverage