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Kelly Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’, A Different Way To Explore American History, Offers Food For Thought – Contenders Film

Todd McCarthy
·2-min read

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, which won the New York Film Critics’ Association award for best picture of 2020, significantly centers on food and food preparation two centuries ago in the Pacific Northwest region we now call Oregon, four decades before the area became an American state. Fish, game and vegetation were in abundance, and the director and her frequent writing partner and historian Jonathan Raymond saw food, and specifically Lewis and Clark’s cookbooks, as a useful way in to defining an important aspect of frontier life at the time.

So did actor John Magaro, who recalled during the A24 movie’s panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film awards-season event, “I spent a month-and-a-half before we began filming reading my way through those cookbooks. I found it very helpful to catch a rhythm of the world, the very slow process of cooking, a very basic way of cooking, with tremendous results.”

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To immerse themselves in the spirit of the early 1800s, he and his co-star Orion Lee “just went away into the woods outside of Portland and did a version of a frontier boot camp to get accustomed to the food, clothes, weather and the many other rigorous demands of life in the region’s pre-history.”

Raymond, the film’s screenwriter and author of the novel it’s based on, found in Oregon “a way to write about American history that was contrary to that story of East-to-West manifest destiny, to try to find a way to write about American history that moves in different directions.” In his view, “That particular time in the Pacific Northwest was really the beginning of global capitalism, it was there already, it was part of the whole network of the fur trade. You had people in the Columbia River basin who were from Russia, from England, from Spain, from all over the world brought together through their commerce. And then you had hundreds of bands and tribes of people who had already been using the Columbia as a trade highway for millenia. This is an interesting counterweight to the kind of American history that we read in fourth grade civics class.”

Check out the panel video above.

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