Why is French toast such an effective storytelling device? A generation ago, in two consecutive years (1979 and 1980), the Academy Award for Best Picture went to a film in which French toast serves a pivotal role in developing character in two early scenes.
In Kramer vs. Kramer, Joanna (Meryl Streep) suddenly leaves her husband, Ted, (Dustin Hoffman), a workaholic advertising executive, on the day he comes home to share the news that he was just handed the firm’s most valuable account. Ted is oblivious, unbelieving, and left to care for the couple’s six-year-old son while still managing his workload. He is helpless as a parent or even in taking care of himself. He depended on his wife for everything. On the first morning after Joanna leaves, Ted struggles to make his son French toast for breakfast, which is a perfect metaphor for the transition he is facing—learning to become a loving, caring parent and person.
Ordinary People was Robert Redford’s directorial debut about a suburban Chicago family going through some very dark times. One son dies in a sailing accident and the other, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), attempts suicide some months later. The twin tragedies tear apart the carefully stitched, but fragile, seams of the family. Mary Tyler Moore plays Beth Jarrett and Donald Sutherland her husband, Calvin. In the French toast scene, Conrad has been back for a month from inpatient treatment, but his adjustment to life, school, and family is fraught with peril. When mother serves her son breakfast, he says he isn’t hungry, and she quickly dumps the French toast in the garbage. Her actions alarm her husband, who is slowly awakening to the reality he is married to a controlling woman who cannot love her surviving son. The film is ostensibly about Conrad successfully navigating his life, but is equally about the dissolution of a marriage.
Two excellent films from another era, both based on novels, by Judith Guest (Ordinary People) and Avery Corman (Kramer vs. Kramer). Now, I’m feeling like I need to use French toast as a literary device. Or at least make some for breakfast.