food in the arts


Dir/ Wr: James L. Brooks/ Cast: Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni/ Music: Hans Zimmer/ USA/ 2004

In the literal sense, “Spanglish” is a hybrid of Spanish and English, a dialect spoken by nearly 40 million Latinos living in the United States. As used in the refreshingly honest look at such life-altering commitments as marriage, parenting and devotion to family, it refers to the intermingling of these disparate cultures when they end up living together under one roof.


The movie has so much to do with where they meet, and where they can never meet.  One of the places where they can meet, and where the characters of Flor and John find common ground, is in their approach toward raising their children. Each is comfortable with their children being pre-eminent in the living of their lives.


At the beginning of the film, Flor, a native of Mexico is left with little money and few options as a single parent to her beloved six year-old daughter, Cristina. Flor feels enormous guilt for having married a man who couldn’t properly be a parent and buries all her needs as a young woman to devote herself to her child. This devotion is neither a sacrifice nor martyrdom, but the most natural thing in the world to her.


Seeking a better life for her daughter, Flor flees Mexico and settles in a Latino community in Los Angeles, which she never leaves. She effectively remains rooted in a world and language with which she is familiar and removed from American culture until the day she is hired as the Clasky’s housekeeper. As the narrator (Christina, six years after the close of the film) puts it, “After all her time in America, she finally enters a foreign land.”


John and Deborah Clasky (Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni) are having difficulty in their marriage. John is a loving, patient and steady father and husband as well as the chef and owner of an up and coming restaurant.


Well-intentioned, but high-strung and unconsciously nutty, Deborah is always striving for self-worth and it is constantly eluding her. Her two children, Bernice and Georgie (Sarah Steele and Ian Hyland), fall victim to Deborah’s idealized vision of how they should be. Deborah’s mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), is painfully aware of her daughter’s internal chaos and its consequences — but her warnings fall on deaf ears.


When a prominent newspaper gives John’s restaurant a four star rating, dubbing him “the best chef in America.”  His reaction is ambivalent because he had worked for a restaurant in New York that received four stars and, as he says, “It was like a line formed to become an asshole. People’s accents changed.”  He is convinced that three and a quarter stars would be perfect: “You get enough respect so good people will still work with you. Business is good, not crazy. You’re right there underneath the radar where you get to mind your own business.  That’s a solid life.” 


The inherent difficulties of communication and the shortcomings of language plague every relationship in Spanglish.  The word ‘Spanglish’ is a metaphor for the collision of cultures within this household. It’s also a metaphor for the overall inadequacy of language. To some extent, whether or not we speak the same language, we’re always interpreting one another’s behaviour.


The narration accompanies Flor and Cristina’s journey from Mexico to the United States and it served as the starting point for Brooks. One of the central issues was the reluctance of some of the women to learn English for fear of sounding foolish, particularly in front of their children.  Furthermore, English is not a necessity in Los Angeles where some of these women have managed to live in an entirely Spanish-speaking world.

Sandler traveled to the Napa Valley to visit chef Keller. The actor’s first exposure to The French Laundry was as a guest in the dining room.   Sandler returned to the restaurant and, like Brooks, spent time in the kitchen working alongside the staff.


“Keller also came up with the ideas for all these special dishes that are alluded to in the script  — Bernice’s amazing French toast and the world’s greatest BLT sandwich. The tip is to cook eggs over easy so the yolk spills all over the sandwich,” according to Ansell.  “Another very important part of his job was teaching Adam to make these dishes as though he were the best chef in the world,” she says.


The actor focused on perfecting such techniques as handling a knife skillfully, seasoning a dish with finesse and learning how to delicately arrange food on a plate.  “For someone who had never picked up a knife or boiled water before, he achieved a great deal,” says Keller. 


Since most of the story takes place in Deborah’s home and rented beach house, the overall tone of the film’s design was dictated by Brooks’ take on the character. They found a small home on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu for the Clasky’s rented summer beach retreat. Once owned by legendary entertainer Al Jolson, the charming two-story house built in the 1920s, is now rustic by neighborhood standards. I


The final weeks of the production were reserved for scenes taking place in the restaurant, the only substantial set in the film that was constructed. The French Laundry was recreated in detail and took Random and her team months to complete.


Although the layout of the set was almost identical to Keller’s restaurant, the décor of the main dining room was altered at the last minute. Still, Keller was quite taken aback when he first walked onto the set.  “Walking through the set’s main entrance, I felt I was at the French Laundry. It was uncanny: The ceiling, the floor, the bar, the fireplace and banister – it was exactly like the French Laundry.”  Keller was also struck by how closely the kitchen represented his own with everything from striped tile lining the walls to the positioning of the stove and skylights.


In addition to guiding the movement of the actors as they busied themselves preparing food, Keller also kept a watchful eye on the food itself – its handling, preparation and presentation.  “All of the dishes we used for Adam’s big chef scene had been prepared at The French Laundry – in fact, the beet and leek dish and the lobster dish are straight from the restaurant,” confirms Keller.


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  Spanglish (dvd)
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