One of my favorite movie quotes is from the 1980 film “Ordinary People,” Robert Redford’s directorial debut about a suburban Chicago family going through some very dark times. Although the movie is a heavy drama, for me it has it lighter moments. Such as a breakfast scene early on in the film.
It’s early in the morning and the beautiful but cold mom, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) , takes a stack of the most perfectly made French toast ever away from her handsome but troubled son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), after he has the nerve to announce that he’s not hungry. When I say that French toast was perfect, I mean it was perfect. Made out of actual French bread instead of the sliced generic white stuff most of us use, cut on the bias and grilled to a golden sheen, it is heaven on a plate under a pat of melting butter amid a swirl of syrup. The French toast Beth whipped up bore absolutely no resemblance to the French toast my mother used to serve. My mom’s was good but it was definitely low-rent when compared to Beth’s gourmet creation.
Back to the movie. Upon hearing that her son doesn’t want even one little bite of the breakfast she made for him (and that’s an important point since the whole movie is about how the mom never seems quite able to show love for her son, a point I’d argue with since she went to the trouble to make him that damn French toast instead of serving him, say, a Pop Tart), Beth carries Conrad’s breakfast over to the sink and violently shoves it down the garbage disposal. In the background the audience can hear her good looking but befuddled husband, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), loudly protesting as he asks her what she’s doing.
“You can’t save French toast,” Beth calmly, if frigidly, explains as Conrad’s breakfast disappears with a gurgle.
That sentence has resonated in my mind ever since and over the years I’ve tried to ponder its deeper meaning because obviously it’s not true. You can save French toast. It might not be quite as delicious when it’s reheated but you can definitely save it from breakfast to lunch, possibly even to dinner if you put enough syrup on it when you reheat it. So what was Beth talking about?
Did Beth mean that once something is reheated it’s never the same? And can that logic be applied across the board, metaphysically speaking? Because if that’s what the scene was going for I’d have to argue with Beth since I think a lot of things taste a whole lot better once they’re reheated including pizza, spaghetti and anything with cheddar cheese in the recipe. Flavors need to mingle for a while to really come to the surface. They need time to ripen.
The same thing is true about all other kinds of relationships. Every relationship I can think of from casual acquaintances to marriages need time to ripen. We all know people we enjoy one day and are really not too fond of the next. If I applied Beth’s logic and smushed all those relationships down the garbage disposal every time somebody irritated me, well, let’s just say I’d be eating lunch alone for the rest of my life.
After much contemplation over innumerable stacks of my own (and far from Beth’s standard) French toast, I’ve come to the conclusion that Robert Redford knew exactly what he was doing when he made Beth/Mary Tyler Moore shove all that glorious golden goodness down the garbage disposal: this character was clearly complicated. She knew how to create love but she never quite figured out what to do when that love was rejected other than get rid of the evidence as expediently as possible.
What that means in the larger scheme of things, I have no idea. I only know that this mom isn’t nearly as complicated and welcomes any and all French toast, perfect and otherwise.