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Investigating Food in Film: "The Crab Thing" in The Hours

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It's little surprise many famous movie scenes involve food; there's a certain pleasure in watching characters eat the foods we enjoy in real life or grapple with familiar challenges of cooking, say, lobsters. But have you ever been watching a film and someone mentions a food you've never hear of? Or there's a dining scene and you can't pay attention to the dialogue because you're too distracted wondering what the heck they're eating? This series is devoted to answering those questions.

Note: It is pure coincidence that both the first and the second installments of this series have involved crab-centric dishes. The author promises not all posts will focus on crustaceans in cinema.

The Hours is one of the best film adaptations of a novel I've ever seen. Reading the book almost, almost converted me from a Victorianist to a Modernist and certainly secured my undying adoration of Virginia Woolf. Watching the movie has become sort of a tradition with me and my sister Margaret, and come Christmastime, we often pop in the DVD and proceed to recite the dialogue word for word. Granted, The Hours isn't exactly a cheery holiday flick, but since Margaret and I are both Ed Harris and Meryl Streep fans, we really get a kick out of it. We've particularly latched onto these few lines of dialogue:

Clarissa: Just to let you know, I am making the crab thing. Not that I imagine it makes any difference to you.

Richard: Of course it makes a difference. I love the crab thing.

Explaining how this and other seemingly mundane exchanges between Clarissa (Meryl Streep) and Richard (Ed Harris) successfully capture the storied and tragic complexities of their relationship is beyond the scope of this blog post. Let me instead simply focus on "the crab thing," a dish so compelling it can motivate the dying Richard to attend a party in his honor.

Margaret and I have endlessly speculated as to the exact nature of "the crab thing." Although there are plenty of scenes that show Meryl Streep preparing for the party in her home kitchen, none show her assembling this mysterious crab concoction. Michael Cunningham provides a few more clues in the book, noting "there is, in its earthenware dish, the crab casserole Clarissa made herself for Richard, because it was his favorite."

I don't need to tell you that typing "crab casserole" into your search engine of choice will yield thousands of recipes, so until Michael Cunningham reveals his exact conceptualization of "the crab thing," I will just have to do as others have done and imagine what Cunningham might have envisioned, or, rather, what Richard would have found appetizing despite his waning appetite.

I think "the crab thing" would be something decadent, something not particularly good for you (somewhat of a moot point for the terminally ill Richard). Something, then, with lots of butter and starch (perhaps in the form of bread crumbs or noodles), maybe some cheese, and more butter. Blogger Mother Rimmy has produced a version that I could see Richard craving and Clarissa making even if it didn't quite fit in with the other, more sophisticated party foods. For perhaps the "crab thing" is an analogue to Richard, the dying poet, who doesn't fit in with his thriving party guest admirers. A most, I think, delicious metaphor.

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