A Macabre Twist
by Caity Weaver
If you’re like me, you watch a lot of TV and also, stop biting my style, it’s so desperate, everyone thinks you’re really desperate.
Sadly, new episodes of the Real Housewives of Downton Abbey can’t be on the air 24/7, and TeenNick doesn’t show up as part of your cable package anymore. (Why? So mysterious.)
In the early stages of television addiction, the Food Network can generally be relied upon as a source of new (to you!) content. But what happens when even the Food Network shows become reruns?
Chill out, girl. Knock back a drink and turn on The Barefoot Contessa. Now get ready to experience Ina and the gang as you’ve never experienced them before. It’s time to insert:
A Macabre Twist
Hopefully by this stage in your television addiction, you’re already extremely familiar with The Barefoot Contessa, or, as close to extremely familiar as one can get to a woman so shrouded in cream-colored secrets. Just to be sure, here’s a quick refresher:
The Barefoot Contessa is an incredibly soothing cooking show hosted by an easy, breezy upperclass lady named Ina Garten. A former White House nuclear policy analyst (!!!), Garten does the show right from her own East Hampton kitchen, serving up expert cooking tips like, “Make sure your salt is really good salt” and “Make sure you’ve got some really, really good tomatoes.”
For the most part, every episode is contrived around a little meal-related plot. Examples include: “Ina throws a surprise welcome home dinner to celebrate her friends’ return from France!” “Ina prepares a ladies’ lunch for volunteers of the East Hampton Historical Society!” and “Ina caters a backyard charity luncheon — Alec Baldwin needs to pick up vegetables!”
As such, the show features a small cast of rotating minor characters made up of Ina’s real-life friends and loved ones. The composition of the “cast” can be broken down into five rough groups:
Older Gay Men (Frank, Stephen, Michael, T.R.)
Tony Women From New England Beachtowns (Barbara, Sinead, Pam, Valerie)
Celebrities (Alec Baldwin, Mariska Hargitay)
Not Jennifer Garner (“I tried to get on Ina’s show,” Garner explained in an interview for W magazine, “… But eventually she just said, ‘I’m sorry, I only use my real friends on the show.’”)
Ina’s husband, Jeffrey Garten, is a huge part of the show. While only seen in person occasionally, Jeffrey garners at least one on-air mention in almost every episode. A former Dean of the Yale School of Management, he also served as Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade under the Clinton administration, on the White House Council on International Economic Policy under Nixon, and as a managing director for both the Blackstone Group and Lehman Brothers on Wall Street.
One time Ina sent Jeffrey to the store to pick up charcoal and he suffered a minor on-camera meltdown, fretting that he’d choose the wrong type or size bag, or, worse, come back with a Tupperware container full of clamshells like he did that one time, and then, when he finally arrived home with his purchase, Ina opened up the sack of briquettes to reveal that Nervous Jeffrey had squeezed them all into diamonds and the two of them laughed and laughed but you can’t grill steaks on diamonds and something cold in Ina’s eyes sent a shiver up Jeffrey’s spine.
One way to make The Barefoot Contessa even more compelling than it already is, is to imagine that Ina’s dearly beloved and oft-mentioned Jeffrey is actually deceased.
In this version of the show, which I like to call The Shoeless Dowager Contessa, Ina Garten spends her days muttering recipes to herself, blissfully trapped in a prison of her own imagining. You can mix and match sinister plot elements to craft your own Macabre Twist, but here’s the gist of mine:
1. Jeffrey Garten, a Great War veteran, was due home from the Second World War in the spring of 1945. Weeks before his scheduled return, Jeffrey’s plane was shot down over the Pacific.
2. For his wife, Ina, time stopped the day she got the news. Following the rapid deterioration of her mind into total insanity, she continues to live her life as though expecting Jeffrey home any minute.
3. Nowadays, Ina spends her time meticulously narrating her housewifely duties to an audience of no one.
– “I’m going to prepare a real treat for Jeffrey’s lunch tomorrow,” Ina explains, smiling at an empty room.
— “I have to hide these pots de crème in the back of the fridge so Jeffrey doesn’t spoil his dinner!” Ina confides to silence.
— “Make sure you have really good tomatoes,” she whispers to herself as she chops.
4. The guests Ina so frequently entertains are actually individuals whose sole purpose in visiting is to check up on her, their ward. Ina remains unaware of this and crafts roles for all in her desperate, elaborate fantasy.
– The men she thinks of as fab gay pals are, in fact, trained home caregivers, paid to ensure her safety in the kitchen.
— Sometimes celebrities like Alec Baldwin visit. These are Ina’s children, whose faces she fails to recognize.
— Hearing of Ina’s circumstances, a childhood pal, little Jennie Garner, wrote to Ina asking if she might pay a visit. “I’m sorry, but I don’t care to entertain strangers when I’m so busy preparing for my husband’s return,” came the frosty reply.
5. From time to time, Ina even hallucinates that she sees Jeffrey. These reunions, during which they talk and laugh and love easily, are short-lived. Time resets itself every night when she falls asleep.
Voilà! You can now re-watch every episode of The Barefoot Contessa/The Shoeless Dowager Contessa with new eyes.
Previously: Sometimes State Quarters…
Caity Weaver would like to write for you. Watch her practice on Twitter.