Food’s Role in Reinvention in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
by Amirah Jiwa
The opening of the cinematic interpretation of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s captures Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly nibbling on a Danish pastry, paper coffee cup in hand as she stands on a deserted Fifth Avenue, gazing longingly through the window panes of ‘Tiffany’s’. Clad in layered pearls, a black cocktail dress with her highlighted hair perfectly coiffed, this iconic scene gives the classic its title and serves as the perfect introduction for the protagonist: a country “hillbilly” turned New York cafe society girl, who finds calm and peace in the “quietness and the proud look” of the jeweller, Tiffany & Co. Most analyses of the transformation that Holly Golightly undergoes focus on her fashion choices or mannerisms, but a closer examination of the use and significance of food adds another dimension to Holly’s remaking.
As the storyline progresses, Holly’s past is slowly uncovered, the key reveal coming with the arrival of Doc Golightly, Holly’s estranged husband. He reveals that ‘Holly’ was “Lula Mae Barnes” until “she married [him]” after Doc had caught her and her brother, Fred, “stealing milk and turkey eggs” outside his house. Despite all the differences between his ‘Lula Mae’ and our ‘Holly,’ Doc focuses in on the change in her figure with constant references to her weight, highlighting the importance of food in Lula Mae’s transformation into Holly. He describes Lula Mae as having become “positively fat” while she lived under roof, as all the housework was done by their daughters so she “could just take it easy,” and when he first re-meets Holly exclaims, “Gosh. Lula Mae. Gee, honey, don’t they feed you up here? You’re so skinny.” In his goodbyes once Doc realises that Holly will not return to Texas with him, points out her weightless again, urging Paul to, “Keep an eye on her, will you, son? At least see she eats something once in a while.” Doc’s observations bring to light the fact that Holly’s transformation is directly linked to her choice in dismissing sustenance in favour of sophistication, something that is reinforced with every inclusion of food and drink in the film.
For a film with ‘breakfast’ in the title wherein the principal character earns her living though the collection of the “$50 for the powder room” she receives from the rich men she accompanies to dinner each evening, Tiffany’s features surprisingly little actual eating. Instead we often see Holly drinking: at the bar when she sends her Doc away from New York; for breakfast when champagne is opened to the celebrate Paul’s story being published; and most significantly, at the cocktail party she throws to gather an assortment of potential suitors. It is at this party where we first get a sense of how Holly’s operates; her plan to find a rich husband is revealed as she dismisses the handsome Brazilian, Jose da Silva Pereira, who she does not realise is well-connected and wealthy, to entertain the boring but rich — she thinks — Rusty Trawler. The cocktail party illustrates how Holly uses food and drink as the means to her end of social climbing. This system of priorities is a world apart from the mindset she used to have — Lula Mae recognised food and drink as vital to her survival, and spent her day-to-day seeking out and stealing food to feed herself and her younger brother.
These hearty and wholesome foods that Lula Mae once sought out contrast with the lighter, more exotic provisions that Holly now prefers. Returning to the only time we actually see Holly eating, her breakfast at Tiffany’s, her choice of the light, flakey pastry and coffee highlight this contrast. Both have little nutritious value compared to the staples of “milk and turkey eggs” that she used to steal. The former is also much less likely to satisfy her appetite than the latter. An inference about the change in Holly’s ideas about the importance of the preparation of food serves to further highlight the transformation. The stolen eggs could not have been eaten raw and so the assumption is that Lula Mae must have been able to cook to provide for herself and her brother. Holly however, elects for foods that have been prepared for her, the Danish is taken out of a paper bag and the coffee, which she could have easily made by her own hand at home, is instead purchased and drunk from a disposable paper cup. The only other scene in the movie that centres around a meal reinforces both of these changes by featuring a botched attempt at preparing a dainty and fanciful meal — Holly burns the “chicken and saffron rice served with chocolate sauce” that she is cooking.
The story of girl with simple, rural roots, aspiring to a grander lifestyle and doing whatever it takes to get there is not particularly unique, it is for example, the main theme of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, first published in 1856. Many parallels can be drawn between Flaubert’s Emma and Capote’s Holly, they both enjoy surrounding themselves with the wealthy — the previously examined Cocktail Party for Holly and the banquet thrown by Marquis d’Andervilliers in Emma’s case — for example, and take lovers who have no intention of marrying them and leave them via letter just before a planned elopement — as Jose does to Holly and Rodolphe does to Emma. Furthermore, like Holly, Madame Bovary’s aspirations are reflected in her choices of food: she similarly prefers for dainty and exotic edibles and often opts for drink rather than food, in fact, the scene where Emma seductively drinks curaçao, “with the tip of her tongue passing between her small teeth she licked drop by drop the bottom of her glass” is reminiscent of Holly using a cocktail party to seduce Rusty.
What separates Holly Golightly, however, from Madame Bovary and others of her archetype is that Holly really believes that she has become the person she aspires to be. “Is she or isn’t she a phony?” poses O.J. Berman, the Hollywood agent that “discovered” Holly and helped along her transformation by “smoothing out that hillbilly accent,” before immediately continuing with, “So, you don’t, huh? Well, you’re wrong. She is. Uh, on the other hand, you’re right, because she’s a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes in.” The idea that Holly attempts to live the life the fanciful character she has constructed for herself would live explains her choice to eat the most important meal of the day dressed to the nines and alone, with only jewels behind glass to keep her company, while the rest of New York is still asleep.