True Grit: Yaller Bread with Pintos

Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon
(PG-13, 110 min.)

"By God. She reminds me of me." Rooster Cogburn

Like the ghost of a lost lover, John Wayne’s shadow looms tall and proud over the Coen brothers’ 2010 reboot of the 1969 classic that won the Duke his sole Oscar.

Yes, their vision is probably truer to the original 1968 Charles Portis novel serialized for the Saturday Evening Post, but as the Duke would say, “Every time you turn around expect to see me.” (Red River, 1948) 

And it’s almost as if the normally snarky duo know the 6 foot 4 icon is hovering over them, and they are, in fact, scared straight. Unlike some of their recent exploits, such as A Serious Man, a treatise in condescending nihilism masquerading as dark comedy, their 2010 True Grit lets the film and the characters speak for themselves.

One who finds a full-throated voice is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross. In fact, in a way, this is really Mattie’s picture, told with the righteous clarity of a fourteen-year-old, one who would bargain with the devil to avenge her father’s death. And unlike 21-year-old Kim Darby who took the part in the 1969 film, Hailee really does look like a 14-year-old, probably because she is one. Her braided hair and not quite yet fully aligned two front teeth add to the authenticity.

But just because she is 14, doesn’t mean she acts like it. With the zeal of a Valley Girl camping out to be first in line for a Justin Bieber concert, Mattie endures some pretty terrifying sleeping conditions with steel equanimity. Her first night in town she beds down in the makeshift mortuary along with three others; these guys don’t bother her with foul breath or loud snoring, seeing as how they’ve all been fresh-hanged that day complete with semi-comic blubbering deathbed confessions and justifications. After that, lying next to Grandma Perkins in the boarding house is a piece of cake, even if she snores like a feedlot hog. And the line of rope around the campfire to deter snakes offers cold comfort, or at least it would to me, but Mattie sees through these inconveniences to her greater purpose: “I won’t rest until Tom Chaney’s barking in hell.” The Duke would support her stark vision.

“If everything isn't black and white, I say, 'Why the hell not?'”

Which brings us to the caption under our picture. “By God. She reminds me of me.” That’s one of the one-eyed fat man’s best lines from the original, but it never surfaces in this outing. Maybe that’s because Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn lacks the endearing polish Hollywood and Wayne himself put on the drunken miscreant now working this side of the law with the same ruthless abandon he did the other in his youth. Wayne was determined to imprint his Cogburn with the trademark heroic “grit” for lack of a better word, as he told his director --

“This is my film. You’re just along for the ride.”

Putting the cinematic reins firmly in his hands or between his teeth – whichever the case might be – like some mythic centaur galloping across the plains, a pistol in the left hand, and a repeating rifle in the right, Wayne’s Cogburn recocking it in midstride. The Coens redo that scene, but the close up is not there, more of a distant pan with a quick glimpse of that ultimate breathtaking double act of horsemanship and marksmanship, one that tantalizes rather than satisfies those of us who remember the original.

Bridges is wonderful in his role; don’t get me wrong. He brings a thoroughly disheveled pathos to his Cogburn, where we hear his whiskey breathed regrets, smell his sweaty resignation, and recoil at his abandonment of Mattie's quest in a drunken slur. Bridges is also an actor’s actor who steps back in gentlemanly deference to give this film to young Mattie, as it is written in the book. The low depths to which he allows his character to sink would never be tolerated by John Wayne nor his audience for that matter, but perhaps it makes his redemption, the 24 hour ride to get snake-bitten Mattie medical help, all the more poignant. Little Blackie, Mattie's horse, breaks down and dies, but the one-eyed fat man carries on, huffing and puffing his way to a lone smoke stack that promises succor. 

And yes, I prefer Hollywood’s more hopeful ending in the original, where John Wayne, maybe not one-eyed, but in reality one-lunged due to cancer surgery in 1964, waves goodbye to Mattie. He has bragged that his new horse – his beloved Bo had fallen to gunshot in his final shootout with the Pepper gang –can jump a four-rail fence. 

“You’re too old and fat to be jumping fences,” Mattie warns.

“Well, come see a fat old man sometime,” Wayne’s Cogburn replies, jumping over the four rail fence with as much abandon as a one-lunged 62-year-old can muster and giving hope to all of us sexagenarians along the way. This legend I choose to believe in spite of some who disabuse us of such a romantic exodus, saying John Wayne’s stuntman did the jumping. 

It sure beats the Coens' true-to-the-book downer ending with a one-armed, bleak 40-year-old spinster Mattie sorrowfully learning of Cogburn’s death before she has a chance to see him again.

Maybe, as Mattie says, in real life, time gets away from us, but at the movies, sometimes we want things bigger and better than life, as the ghost of John Wayne seems to tell us over the credits. 

“Sorry don’t get it done.” (Rio Bravo 1959)

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

One of the staples Rooster, Mattie, and La Beouf take along with them is corn bread, “also known as corn pone, johnnycake, and yaller bread.” Texas cowboys like La Beouf liked to eat their “yaller” bread with molasses and frijoles. Our recipe has the frijoles in it.

Most of the corn bread Rooster carries in his saddlebag gets used for his drunken display of his shooting skills, the one-eyed marshal blasting away at them as if they are his own personal clay pigeons. 

Not only does he fail to hit most of them, but he then falls off his prized stallion, Bo, and then blames it on the patient steed, saying he “put his foot wrong.”

The one who likes them the best is Little Blackie, Mattie’s horse. Rooster tells her it’s because of the salt.

Ours are too good for target practice or feeding to your pet. Save these delicious cowboy treats for yourself. They are from a tremendous book, A Cowboy in the Kitchen by Grady Spears and Robb Walsh.

And remember this parting wisdom from our cowboy cooks. “Fill your hands” with it, as Cogburn advises the Pepper gang, and adapt it to your own life:

“You can judge a man by the hoss he rides; you can judge a cow outfit by the grub it serves.”

Yaller Bread with Pintos 

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups buttermilk
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ cup ranch beans (pinto beans cooked with cilantro and bell pepper)
  • 1’2 cups corn kernels,
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 ½ cups fine yellow cornmeal
  • ½ cup melted butter

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 
Combine the buttermilk, eggs, sugar, and soda, and mix well.
Add the beans and the corn.
Sift together the flour and the cornmeal.
Slowly add the flour mixture to the liquids, whisking until well incorporated.
Whisk in the melted butter.
Pour the batter into a greased 8 by 8-inch pan or cast-iron skillet and bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Recipe Source: A Cowboy in the Kitchen