JWU’s Culinary Arts Museum Lends Its Historical Expertise to HBO’s “Mildred Pierce”

img HBO Mildred Pierce In Kitchen Anyone paying close attention to the closing credits of the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” might notice a familiar name in the list of consultants: JWU’s Culinary Arts Museum.

Todd Hayne’s slow-burning adaptation of James M. Cain’s period melodrama stars Kate Winslet as a single mother whose desperate attempt to build a respectable life for herself and her two daughters ends in tragedy.

The series opens in the Great Depression and spans roughly a decade, following the upwardly mobile Mildred on her journey from diner waitress to successful businesswoman.

Bringing 1930s Los Angeles to Life
Determined to get the period details exactly right for Mildred’s three restaurants, the production team called the Culinary Arts Museum’s director, Richard Gutman.

Mark Friedberg, the film’s lead production designer, says, “We knew we wanted to pay a lot more attention to detail, and to history.”

“They wanted to build a non-digital, interactive set that looked completely accurate,” notes Gutman.

1920s Steam Table with Wooden Work StationsThat’s where the museum’s 250,000 piece collection comes in.

Gutman sent dozens of vintage images to the film’s production team to help them visualize the time period, including stoves, ice boxes, French fry cutters, waffle irons, equipment catalogs and waitress uniforms.

Evoking an Era through Production Design

The attention to detail shows in the finished film, where the naturalistic, lived-in sets effortlessly bring the period to life.

“Everything [on set] really worked. Nothing was a façade,” marvels Winslet. That realism really helped the actors get into character.

“They accurately represented the feeling of an era,” says Gutman. “I haven’t spotted any anachronisms yet. The film is stylistically tremendous and so tightly composed.”

In the end, the museum lent a massive 1920s steam table with wooden work stations that had been rescued from a church basement. “I haven’t seen it on screen yet,” says Gutman. “I'm hoping it makes an appearance in [Mildred’s] next restaurant.”

Preserving Culinary History
For Gutman, projects like “Mildred” are great fun and gain visibility for the museum. They also underscore the importance of preserving culinary history for not just the university but the larger community.
Mildred Pierce Los Angeles Restaurant HBO/Andrew Shwartz
This isn’t Gutman’s first brush with Hollywood. As a diner historian, he’s consulted for a number of films, including Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” of which he says, “I had a chance to visit the set but didn’t.” He laughs. “Of course I’m kicking myself now!”

The museum’s next big project is “Creative Survival: African American Foodways in Rhode Island,” an exhibit tracing how culinary traditions survived and thrived during slavery and beyond. It is scheduled to open in September 2011.

Photos: Top and bottom images by Andrew Schwartz, courtesy of HBO. Center image: Stephen Spencer/Culinary Arts Museum.