The movie Labor Day is a story within a story. It focuses on the relationships among three people over a holiday weekend, and on cooking food right.
If you are a from-scratch cook who hates to measure anything, you will identify with Labor Day. If people ask you how to make something and you say, “There is no recipe, and I do it differently every time,” you will enjoy Labor Day.
Adele (played by Kate Winslet), the divorced mother of a teenage son, Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith), hates to leave home. She buys food for the freezer and for dry foods in bulk enough to last a long time. They go out to shop for food for Henry’s pet hamster and back-to-school clothing.
Driving is an issue for Adele. Henry has to remind his mother to put the car in reverse to back out of the driveway. Henry and Adele go to a local discount store, where Frank (played by Josh Brolin), an escaped convict, catches Henry’s eye and asks to be introduced to his mother. Frank is gentle with her and asks to stay with them for the weekend.
Adele, Henry, and Frank come home. Frank wears clothing, including a baseball cap, he has shoplifted.
Now the food story begins. Frank is hungry, looks around for something to eat, and starts cooking for all of them. He uses what is there and feeds them canned soup better than Adele usually feeds her son.
Coffeemaking becomes Frank chore when he discovers and dislikes Adele’s coffee.
He finds a big cast-iron skillet and starts making chili. It looks so good that when he spoons it into Adele mouth (her hands are tight), you want some. This is the first indication that he cooks from experience. Adele is amazed that he also cleans up the kitchen.
The next morning Frank makes from-scratch biscuits and wishes he had eggs to go with them. He and Henry agree that going to the 7-Eleven to buy some would not be wise. “Our diet,” Henry says, “mostly features canned goods and frozen foods.”
Making Peach Pie
Adele and Henry live in a small town where neighbors drop by to share.An example of this is when Mr. Jarvis down the street (played by J. K. Simmons) brings a bucket of fresh peaches from his yard.
To Frank, this is an opportunity to teach Adele and Henry how to make a peach pie as his grandmother taught him. He sets out the ingredients, takes what he needs, and makes his pie crust and filling. Frank peels the peaches and Henry cuts them up. Frank doesn’t need to measure the flour. To help Henry learn, he mentions that he likes to start with about three cups of flour.
Frank allows for extra pie crust to make a turnover or to cut up shapes with cooking cutters. That extra dough is known in my household as pie-crust cake, a name we made up long ago. We cover it with honey and cinnamon and bake it in the same oven as the pie.
There is a discussion of the right kind of shortening to use in the pie crust – lard, Crisco, or butter. Frank uses a mixture of Crisco and some butter borrowed from a neighbor. This is the kind of thing my mother and I have never done before, Henry thinks.
Frank cooks from knowledge. “When you pay too much attention to recipes, you lose the ability to simply feel,” he tells Henry.
Movie and book
The movie is based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, also entitled Labor Day. The movie’s story line is slightly different; the book offers more details. The screenwriter did a good job capturing the essence of the story, but the book is worth reading, too.
The movie is dramatic, but not in the end a tragedy. Frank goes back to jail. Adele writes to Frank and gets no response.Years go by. At the end of the movie, Henry is a pastry chef featured in a national cooking magazine. In the article, he credits a friend with teaching him to make pie. Frank sees the article and contacts Henry.
The book ends with Frank and Adele living in northern Maine near the Canadian border, which Frank, who has an arrest record, cannot cross.