Like so many others, I contributed towards making The Help a bestselling book. So, it was with great anticipation that I paid my $13.50 to see the film adaptation shortly after it hit the big screen. The movie does not disappoint. It’s a graceful translation of a story from one medium to another, something that is not very often done well, and I cried as hard as the credits rolled as I had when I turned the last page.
I am a sucker for sentimentality and I’m sure there are critics and purists who would take issue with the swells of music or the lingering shots over the stoic, privately wounded expression of Viola Davis. To them I say, “Be quiet.” If something moves and reaches you, does it really matter if it isn’t the highest of art?
Despite depicting the inhumanity of the Jim Crow South, the movie is ultimately “feel-good”—the main character gets to realize her dream and the Jackson, Mississippi housekeepers whose lives she chronicles are brave enough to participate in the Civil Rights movement that will change their world and ours forever. You walk out full of righteous indignation thinking, “How is it possible that segregation existed? Why was racism acceptable?” And, “Thank goodness that time has passed.”
But has it?
Until second grade I attended a very progressive, heavily diverse grade school. I don’t remember learning to read, write or add but I do remember learning about Dr. King and our teachers, Peter and Lenore, leading us in the various spirituals and folk songs that became anthems of the era, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Let My People Go,” and “We Are Marching to Pretoria.” (Which I confused with ‘Peoria’ and could never figure out what Illinois had to do with South Africa but was too embarrassed to ask). We also went to the movies a lot and the Friday we saw Sounder was totally devastating to me. Again, dealing with the injustice of the pre-Civil Rights South, I was so shaken by the film I had nightmares for weeks. Luckily a few months later a friend’s mother took us to a taping of The $10,000 Pyramid when one of the film’s stars, Cicely Tyson, was a celebrity contestant. Seeing she had swapped her sharecropper’s rags for something gorgeous and glam was very reassuring and I was able to move on with my childhood.
In those days my family had a housekeeper named Mary Otey. Mary was sweet and fat and from Norfolk, Virginia. I never knew her age but she was older than my parents and younger than my grandparents. She had a ton of mostly grown children and entertained me with stories of her son Sonny’s exploits (I loved that her son was named Sonny) or daughter Deborah’s achievements in school. Mary wore her hair like the Peanuts’ Lucy in the winter and Violet in the summer. Unlike The Help’s wig-wearing Aibileen, Mary’s hair was real, although her teeth were not, something I learned when she came to Connecticut with us in August and I saw her full set of dentures in a cup by the sink in her bathroom one night. But when she first started to work for my parents she didn’t sleep over and on the evenings when my mom would ask her to babysit, she would put us to bed and then sit in a stiff–backed, wooden chair in the dining room, reading the Bible or just dozing off. I remember suggesting she sit on the couch in the living room or watch our only TV in my parents’ bedroom. I knew Mom and Dad would want her to be comfortable. She looked at me like I was nuts and just shook her head no.
On one of those babysitting nights she was eating her dinner, a favorite concoction of spaghetti, ketchup and a hard-boiled egg, and I was talking to her at the kitchen table. I was learning about Pharoah and the enslavement of the Jews in Sunday school and I had a great idea I thought I should share with her; if all the Jewish people and all the black people worked together we could end discrimination completely! She indulgently nodded in agreement and went back to twirling her pasta. Thinking about that now, I am mortified. What must she have thought that this seven year-old living a comfortable life on the Upper West Side was suggesting anything to a black woman who had grown up in the segregated South? Who was I to draw a parallel of any kind?
Walking out of the movie last week of course I was thinking about Mary and about food. I was starving, and much of the film involves cooking. Passing Magnolia Bakery on my way home I spotted a pink layer cake on a stand and was reminded of the strawberry birthday cake Mary made for her daughter that I wasn’t allowed to touch. And I thought of Minny’s infamous chocolate pie in The Help. The pie plays a key role in the film, a plot spoiler I will not give away. Last month’s Food and Wine had a big piece on the food in the film and provided a recipe for the pie, which of course I had to try. (For those of you familiar with the story don't worry, Minny's special touch is omitted.)
When I was gathering my ingredients I noticed a front page story on the cover of the Times I had just brought in my apartment and thrown on the counter. Kim Severson reported on the investigation into the horrific death of James Craig Anderson, “a middle-aged black family man with a quick wit and a demanding sense of style.” Deryl Dedmon, a white teenager, has been charged with the crime and could be facing the death penalty. The FBI has been brought in and questions surrounding the motivation for the killing are being explored. My heart sunk. The crime occurred in Jackson, Mississippi.
So, while you’re eating this rich, brownie meets fudge pie—so sweet and chocolatey and only complete when topped with freshly whipped cream—take a minute to think about the Aibileens, Minnys and Marys you might know. Maybe they were your grandmothers or aunts, housekeepers or friends. And think about how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in our march to Peoria.
Minny's Chocolate Pie for Mary
From Food & Wine, August 2011
1 packaged pie dough crust, such as Pillsbury
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, beaten
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Whipped cream, for serving
Preheat the oven to 350°. Ease the pie crust into a 9-inch pie plate and crimp the edges decoratively. Prick the crust lightly with a fork.
Line the crust with foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans.
Bake for 15 minutes or until set. Remove the foil and weights and bake for about 5 minutes longer, just until the crust is dry but not browned.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk the sugar with the cocoa powder, butter, eggs, evaporated milk, vanilla and salt until smooth.
Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for about 45 minutes, until the filling is set around the edges but a little jiggly in the center. Cover the crust with strips of foil halfway through baking. Transfer the pie to a rack and let cool completely before cutting into wedges. Serve with whipped cream.
Yield: 8 slices