Before the picklers, before the craft chocolate makers, there was Diane Keaton making applesauce in Vermont
Welcome to The Reheat, a space for Eater writers to explore landmark (and lukewarm) culinary moments of the recent and not-so-recent past.
Baby Boom is a 1987 romantic comedy in which a yuppie businesswoman played by Diane Keaton inherits a baby from a dead relative and decides to leave her fast-paced life in New York City for a more bucolic existence in Vermont.
Co-written by Nancy Meyers with her then-husband Charles Shyer (who also directed the movie), Baby Boom provided a blueprint for every subsequent Nancy Meyers heroine (flustered but unsinkable white woman) and Nancy Meyers kitchen (huge). It was one of my favorite movies as a kid (honestly, it still is), and as such I interacted with it purely as a romantic comedy: I loved watching Keaton strut around in fabulous camel-hair coats and belted Donna Karan power suits, I loved watching her move to a 62-acre Vermont estate, and I loved watching her fall for a large-animal veterinarian played by Sam Shepard.
It was only much later, as an adult who had spent years writing about food, that I realized what else Baby Boom was: an uncannily accurate blueprint for the popular narrative surrounding the artisanal food movement of the late aughts. Specifically the one in which a burned-out corporate drone abandons their fast-paced career for the simpler, more honest life of an artisanal food entrepreneur, finding salvation and work-life balance in the process.
At the beginning of Baby Boom, Keaton’s character, J.C. Wiatt, has (a voice-over informs us) “a corner office at the corner of 58th and Park” and makes six figures a year as some kind of consultant at a firm that also employs James Spader. She and her live-in lover (played by Harold Ramis) co-own their co-op, collect African art, and have “separate but equal” IRA accounts. “One would take it for granted,” we’re told, “that a woman like this has it all.” But when the baby arrives out of nowhere (well, from England), everything changes. J.C. is late for work and often distracted. Her partner leaves her. And her (male) boss gives her prized Food Chain account to James Spader and demotes J.C. to a dog chow account, telling her she’s “gone soft.”
And so 56 minutes into the film, J.C. packs up the baby and moves to a 200-year-old Vermont estate she buys sight unseen. It has a pond, a barn, and fruit orchards, and it’s falling apart. But as J.C. frets about money and her total lack of personal life, she also starts making applesauce from the fruit in her orchards — “it gives me something to do while it snows,” she explains to a friend. J.C. makes so much of it that she soon starts selling it to the local general store. One day, a group of vacationing New York yuppies (including a very young Chris Noth), decides to buy two dozen jars on the spot. “Gail, look at this gourmet baby food,” one of them shrieks. “I can’t believe nobody’s come up with this before!” The next thing you know, J.C. is the owner of a business called Country Baby.
Success happens quickly, and in the form of a montage: After being turned down by a few store owners, J.C. begins selling the applesauce from a table in the town square. We see money change hands, and then a whole Country Baby catalog, and then boxes stamped with “Made in Vermont” shipped across the country. We see dollar bills raining over various American city skylines, a manufacturing facility, newspaper articles (“Country Baby Boosts Local Harvest” blares one), and a photo shoot for an Entrepreneur cover story headlined “Is It the Gerber of the ’90s?” All of this appears to happen before the next summer rolls around; the baby is still in diapers by the time J.C.’s former employers come weaseling around to try to persuade her to sell the company to Food Chain for $3 million in cash (almost $8 million today). “We’d like to see Country Baby on every supermarket shelf in America!” they tell her.
But despite the promise of riches and vindication (“I’m back,” she says to her reflection in the bathroom mirror), J.C. decides not to sell. “I’m not the tiger lady anymore. There’s a crib in my office and a mobile over my desk and I really like that,” she tells the conference room full of men. “I don’t want to have to make those sacrifices and the bottom line is nobody should have to.” So back to Vermont and the baby and Sam Shepard she goes, accompanied by a blousy, saxophone-heavy soundtrack.
In reviewing Baby Boom, Roger Ebert noted that “the film is careful never to confront the Keaton character with any of the real messiness of the world, such as poverty, illness and catastrophe… Baby Boom makes no effort to show us real life.”
You could say the same for many of the stories told about any number of the artisan food companies a decade or so ago; whether they were about jammers, picklers, or lavishly bearded chocolatiers, the narrative was often a fermented brew of triumph and whimsy, one that revolved around a hard-working, innovative (usually) white person with stars in their eyes and a stall at the Brooklyn Flea. Sure, there were growing pains and bumps in the road, but they added texture to the story of rustic striving. As it did for J.C., success appeared to come quickly: one day you were fermenting kombucha in a basement, the next you had your picture in the New York Times. And, of course, selling out to a corporate overlord was not an acceptable option — the point was to stay true to yourself and your ideals.
Few attempts were made to widen the lens to include the broader cultural and socioeconomic conditions that determined who came to prominence and succeeded in the movement, much less the “real messiness” attending the question of who could afford to buy what its artisans were selling. There were too many old-timey fonts and wee hand-crafted batches of lovage soda syrup obscuring the view; it was only later, as the movement fractured, evolved, and became absorbed into various corporate entities, that the romance yielded to clarity.
Of course, Baby Boom is a romance, to say nothing of a fantasy, and it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. I’m glad it’s not a documentary or Ken Loach film. But it’s telling how precisely cinematic fantasy mapped itself onto real life two decades later, and how it continues to do so, both in the way that brands small and large tell their stories and in the eagerness of many consumers to take those stories at face value. Who wouldn’t want to believe that everyone gets to live happily ever after in some sort of semi-agrarian utopia with their finances and sense of self intact? Just like any good artisan, Meyers knew what she was selling, and how to package it accordingly.