The doughnut has become fundamental to the country’s understanding of Portland food. America sees Portland, the home of Voodoo Doughnut and Blue Star, as a place where people will put just about anything on fried dough — a place of possibility, unpretentious and creative, where anyone could buy a food cart, some flour, and some oil to get started.
Fried dough also plays a fundamental role in First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, set in the frontier of the Pacific Northwest. Two men form a partnership to make and sell oily cakes, to bankroll each man’s dreams of comfort and stability.
Kelly Reichardt, the writer and director of First Cow, doesn’t see her movie as a food film. For what the director doesn’t see as a food movie, however, so much of the action, set in 1800s Oregon, involves cooking, hunting, foraging, fishing. “The chores are always a big deal to me,” Reichardt says in an interview. “People say, ‘How do you work with actors,’ and like, my way of working with actors is to give them things to do.” Those things, in this case, are so frequently tied to the process of eating — or, perhaps, survival.
The image of the Great Northwest portrayed in the film, now available on Video on Demand, is worldly but brusque: People from all over the world have descended upon the Oregon territory with an idea that they would be able to escape poverty through the emerging fur trade, in a place where history hasn’t arrived, in the eyes of one of its characters. But like some of the earliest stories about the Pacific Northwest, this myth of a fresh start can’t stand up to the pervasive nature of capitalism and the fragility of the American Dream. All the while, throughout First Cow, this story is told through a series of meals, through the labor of gathering enough to live, and showing what it takes to create some rickety semblance of social capital.
The first time we see Cookie Figowitz, played by John Magaro, he is in the forest, foraging for mushrooms. He’s a cook for a group of traveling ungrateful traders; the gruff nature of his diners only accentuates his gentleness, the way he gingerly dislodges bright-orange mushrooms from the forest floor, the way he responds to complaints about his limited menu in hushed tones. When he comes back with only mushrooms to serve, one of his customers growls, “It’s the cookie’s job to improvise. This is the land of abundance.” Cookie sees the west that way as well — a place that would allow him to take what he needs without harming anyone in the process. “He’s a nurturer,” Reichardt says, describing Cookie in a March interview with Eater PDX. “He’s fishing, he’s foraging, he’s berry-picking, he’s cleaning mussels — he’s kind of an artist in the rough and tumble of the west.”
When Cookie discovers King Lu, played by Orion Lee, naked and deep in the woods, the first thing the man says to Cookie is the word “Hungry.” King Lu is in Oregon for “that soft gold,” referring to the thriving fur trade in the Pacific Northwest; he sees Oregon as “a land of riches.”
And when the two see a potential path forward, a chance at security, it comes in the form of stolen milk from the first cow in the territory, transformed into oily cakes sold in the developing village.
Cookie and King Lu’s second meeting in the settlement, after likely months of travel, reveals the labor-intensive nature of sustaining themselves. The settlers spend hours preparing and, in some cases, selling food. Life within the fort feels something like an open air market, women cooking meals for settlers, fishermen hustling oysters and clams, farmers walking through the space holding pigs and cages full of chickens. The simple act of making a meal involves the chopping of wood for fire, the setting of traps for meat, the picking of each individual berry.
Cohabitating in a drippy shack, the two consider the lives they want in the west: King Lu wants a farm where he can grow hazelnuts; Cookie wants to run a hotel with a bakery, but they know they’re missing the funds to actually fulfill these dreams. “It’s the getting started that’s the puzzle,” King Lu says. “No way for a poor man to start. You need capital… or a crime.”
The Chief Factor, played by Toby Jones, of a wealthy trading company, has shipped in a cow — the territory’s first cow of any kind — and the two decide to steal the milk. Cookie has images of cookies, scones, and buttermilk biscuits, “tired of this flour-and-water bread.” Milk, the first food we all eat, is considered a luxury here, and he treats it like one — When Cookie milks the cow for the first time, he coos to her, consoling her about her male counterpart and calf, which perished during the arduous journey. “It’s a terrible thing, terrible,” he says to her as he gently gathers the milk he needs and no more.
They settle on oily cakes, little knobby doughnut-hole-looking treats they hawk in the main village. They sell, well, like many doughnuts in Portland — accruing long lines and selling out fast. On the first day, everything is gone in 30 seconds. The oily cakes get more intricate, drizzled with honey and topped with freshly grated cinnamon, until they attract the attention of the very man whose milk they’re stealing.
The Chief Factor, who is never named, asks Cookie to make perhaps the opposite of an oily cake: a clafoutis, a delicate French dessert of berries suspended in an eggy custard-like pastry. It’s to impress a visiting captain, and the Chief Factor is “tired of all his jests about the savagery of life on the frontier,” he says. He knows the captain is fond of the basked custard dish, and he’d “like to humiliate him.”
For the Chief, food is something so separate from survival, more than a small joy in an exhausting world; it can be a tool for social one-upmanship, made simply for the statement.
The delicate clafoutis seems unsuited to this rough world, until we see where the chief factor lives, a fine home with servants and artwork on the walls, alien to the leaky shacks and cabins inhabited by many of the territory’s residents. The contrast is intentional: the oily cake “is the treat for the people, sold at the fort, and that’s all presented in this austere, filmmaking approach,” Reichardt says. “When we’re in the lush Chief Factor’s world, it’s the clafoutis.”
In this picturesque living room, the conversation is nonchalantly cruel; over imported Chinese tea, served with milk, the Chief Factor discusses the cost and benefits of the physical punishment for a mutiny, how much labor someone could get from workers if they witnessed someone tortured to death in front of them. When Cookie and King Lu arrive with the clafoutis, however, there’s an immediate recollection of the alternative; the gentleness with which Cookie does his work.
All the while, the indigenous Oregonians in the room — Totillicum, played by Gary Farmer; his unnamed wife, played by Sabrina Morrison; and the Chief Factor’s wife, played by Lily Gladstone — are listening to the white men in the room talk about how the influx of trappers are going to deplete the beaver population completely, and how out-of-fashion those beaver pelts will be in due time. The trappers are completely oblivious of, or perhaps willfully ignoring, the fact they’re wasting the resources of the land that have survived for centuries before them, hunted sustainably by the Chinook who predate these new settlers — men who toss the meat and tail of the beavers in favor of the soft gold of the pelts. “They’re sick of salmon,” Reichardt says, and they “can’t understand why these trappers are throwing away the beaver tails when the tail is the best part.” The settlers “are taking these essential elements to the survival of the Chinook completely for granted.”
The indigenous residents of the Oregon territory stand in direct defiance of the myth of a blank slate. This moment, this tea party in a bubble while people fend for themselves on the outside, is emblematic of the persistence of capitalism in this new land, filled with people from around the world. King Lu says that, in this land, “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but we got here earlier this time.” It’s clear, in this moment, that they weren’t there quite soon enough — the malaise of the wealthy continues, and the people around them scrounge for what’s left. All the while, the indigenous tribes watch the abundance of fish and beavers in their homelands slowly dwindle. “I guess it’s really about who has the guns and the money, as always,” Reichardt says in an interview with Vox. “Somehow the levels of race and class exist from the get-go.”
And still, food exists as this sort of art form in the middle, a product that’s sold but also reliant on and respectful of the nature it requires. Cookie’s relationship with food is steeped with so much love. The process of making his oily cakes — even the clafoutis — is born out of a genuine passion for the process, and gratitude for what it took to make it come to be.
Cookie’s nurturing spirit, and his friendship with King Lu, can’t survive in a place where capitalism has turned the joy of baking into a desperate fight for survival, an argument over ownership as resources run out. Eventually, they are discovered as the milk thieves, and they spend their last moments running from people, including the Chief Factor who enjoyed the baked goods made with his stolen milk, who want to punish them for making respectful use of the land’s abundance. “Why is a baker like a beggar?” Cookie says to King Lu in their last moments together. “They both ‘need’ bread.”
For Cookie, baking is an act of love; the fact it’s also a potential avenue toward peace in the Great Northwest is the honey on top. But the inequities of the colonized United States will continue in the newly settled Pacific Northwest, that those with the cargo, with the cows and the money, will survive. Reichardt doesn’t see her movie as a food movie; in her words, it’s “just a movie about capitalism versus nature... If those two things can co-exist.”
First Cow is now available on VOD platforms like Amazon Prime.