Dinner & a Movie: ‘Grey Gardens’ and Buffalo Chicken Sandwiches
Serving up Recipes and Reels Each Week
The stars of Grey Gardens, Little Edie and Edith Bouvier Beale, are cousin and aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The aging, mostly bedridden mother and erratic daughter live in a few of the 28 rooms of their decaying mansion, for which the documentary is named. It’s a study in contradictions: aristocrats eating liver pâte on twin beds surrounded by filth, a 56-year-old reading horoscopes and giggling like a teen, Little Edie’s constant threats to move out despite our certainty that she will not. While it sounds depressing, the two take so much pleasure in their bickering, performances and reminiscence that it’s hard to pity these charming, eloquent characters. After Little Edie’s complaint, “I’m gonna die on this diet. I don’t like it at all,” Big Edie replies, “Don’t do it. Have a sandwich.” I didn’t want us to have to eat pâte, so that’s what we’re going to do, too. If I was going to break a diet with a sandwich, this one – buffalo chicken cooked with onions and hatch chiles, topped with a slaw relish – would be the one I’d break it with.
Part of the film’s appeal is its visual interest, which comes from the crumbling mansion full of cats and raccoons. Little Edie feeds the raccoons Wonder bread and pet food as they scramble through a gaping hole in the attic wall. When Edith notices a cat going to the bathroom behind a large oil portrait of her, she says, “I’m glad somebody’s doing something he wanted to do.” We learn from news articles that the two had faced eviction when the city found Grey Gardens a health hazard, but Jackie O. paid to have the mansion cleaned so it would pass inspection. Since then, however, it doesn’t seem that Big or Little Edie has paid much attention to the housework. And although they employ a gardener, Brooks, the manor is enveloped in what Little Edie calls “a sea of leaves — a complete sea of leaves.”
Little Edie, though she’s bizarre, has an approach to style that was truly revolutionary and made her a fashion icon. She devotes an enormous amount of energy and thought to costuming. As she explains to one of the producers, brothers Albert and David Maysles, “This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don’t like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt …and you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape.” She wears bathing suits, the curtains, furs and skirts upside down. Little Edie is never without a turban, which may be a sweater or towel fastened with a jeweled brooch. Although it’s never explained, she mentions that she has no hair and hopes for it to grow back.
Although there are moments when viewers may doubt both Edies’ sanity, they’re both so happy to have the cameramen as an audience that the film doesn’t feel exploitative. Little Edie in particular exhibits some schizotypal tendencies. She explains, “I can’t stand being in this house. In the first place, it makes me terribly nervous. I’m scared to death of doors, locks, people roaming around in the background, under the trees, in the bushes, I’m absolutely terrified.” She suspects someone of creeping into her room, removing books,and leaving them in the attic. Although Little Edie threatens to leave constantly, we know that her mother requires care, and it’s written between the lines that she does, too. Her mother hints that when she moved back home twenty-odd years ago, it was Little Edie who needed looking after.
But despite the urge to join Edith and Edie in their constant retracing of where Little Edie lost out on fame, a husband, perhaps a family, and pity what she hasn’t had, it’s clear that this is the life they chose. Little Edie rejected all suitors, while her mother would never consider remarriage because she doesn’t recognize Mr. Beale’s “fake Mexican divorce.” Subtle but nuanced editing work shows us Edith’s grin whenever she and Edie begin to squabble. The two have chosen to live in memories, lost potentials, stories of what they will do — the idea of themselves — instead of experience.
Chicken, cut of your choice, skinless or with skin removed
onions, sliced finely
Hatch chiles, seeds removed and finely chopped
Frank’s Red Hot sauce
In a slow cooker or Dutch oven, cook the chicken with the onions, chile, and hot sauce, adding 2 T. each of butter and brown sugar at the end and adjusting to taste, until the chicken is cooked through. Shred, removing bones if your cut included them. Add the chicken back to the sauce in the pot.
Mix the pepperoncini and cabbage with yellow mustard to make a slaw/relish. Top the buns with sliced Cheddar, buffalo chicken (drained with a slotted spoon), another dash of hot sauce, and the slaw.