Welcome to our Dinner and a Movie series, where we feature nostalgic essays on some of our favorite films from the '80s and '90s, and share recipes inspired from movie moments.
It’s challenging to imagine a stronger ensemble cast than the one in 1989’s Steel Magnolias. Starring Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah and a young Julia Roberts — who was just on the cusp of superstardom when the film was released — it presented six extraordinary women who embody strength and joy, no matter what life threw at them.
Set in the fictional Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, in the 1980s, the film follows these women as they navigate love, motherhood and incredible loss; also, what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter and above all a friend. Indeed, Steel Magnolias is perhaps the ultimate exploration of sisterhood in the South.
The film opens on the bespectacled Annelle Dupuy (Hannah), a young cosmetology school graduate with a murky past, headed to a job interview at Truvy’s Beauty Spot. After Annelle aces her tryout, Truvy Jones (the delightfully perky Parton) offers her a job as a “glamour technician” on the spot. Shelby Eatenton (a very bright-eyed Roberts) is getting married that afternoon, and each of the other main characters is headed to Truvy’s to get coiffed for the ceremony. As the women catch up, gossip and reminisce about their own romances, Shelby reveals she almost backed out of her wedding because she may not be able to have children. The type 1 diabetic was warned by doctors that pregnancy may be too much for her body to bear.
Then, a pregnancy reveal. Shelby weighed her options, she tells M’Lynn Eatenton (played by the incomparable Field) and was willing to take the risk. “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special,” she reasons. And soon after giving birth, Shelby goes on dialysis, before eventually receiving a kidney transplant from her mother and ultimately dying of kidney failure.
The heartbreak and extreme loss was real for Robert Harling, who wrote Steel Magnolias as a play to honor his sister, Susan Harling Robinson, who died at age 33 in 1985 due to complications from diabetes, and the real-life steel magnolias who supported their family in Harling’s hometown of Natchitoches, Louisiana, where the movie was filmed.
When diagnosed at age 12 with diabetes, Susan — like the film’s Shelby — didn’t believe her life should have to be altered to accommodate an illness. “Absolutely nothing was going to keep her from anything she wanted to do and becoming anything she wanted to become,” Harling told Garden & Gun’s Whole Hog podcast in 2017. “So from the day that she got ill ... I noticed a strength. There was a strength there. She was true to her word.”
When Susan died, she left behind a 2-year-old son. Her widowed husband soon remarried, and Harling recalls the first time he heard his nephew call someone other than his sister “Mamma”: “It did something quite devastating to me. It tore me up. It was a very dark place,” Harling tells Garden & Gun. “He will never know what Susan went through, what my mother went through, what the community of women went through to support her.”
Good friends encouraged Harling to write for his nephew, as a way to show how wonderful his mother was. Harling, a struggling actor in Manhattan at the time, wrote Steel Magnolias in about 10 days. “The events that inspired it were so powerful that, after I found the story arena, it just poured out into my typewriter in a 24/7 tsunami of Southernness,” he told Garden & Gun’s Julia Reed in 2012.
Harling’s play opened off-Broadway in 1987 before being adapted into a movie two years later, falling right into dramedy territory — heavy- and lighthearted. The bruising back-and-forth between best friends Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux (the spunky MacLaine) and Clairee Belcher (a very sweet Dukakis) in particular provides a warm levity and balance to the film’s headiest moments. Plus, Parton as the hairdresser with a heart of gold can give anyone optimism.
And because this is the South, food is a thread through some of the movie’s most important moments. At the hair salon, the women beg for Truvy’s beloved Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa cake recipe; at the town’s Christmas festival, Truvy and Annelle serve up a Cajun shrimp boil (“We’ve already pulled their little heads off and everything,” Annelle says); Truvy calls iced tea “the house wine of the South”; and of course, there’s the iconic red-velvet armadillo cake from Shelby’s wedding (which has its own cult following and has been lovingly recreated many times by fans).
Acclaimed Savannah, Georgia, chef Mashama Bailey has been reimagining Southern cuisine for several years. Food & Wine named her restaurant, The Grey, one of the world’s best in 2019. That same year the James Beard Foundation named her the best chef in the Southeast. Her recipe for Chicken Country Captain is precisely the kind of dish we can imagine preparing with love and sharing with a group of good friends — like the ones at the heart of Steel Magnolias’ story.
So, fill up your plate and your heart with a great meal and a classic movie — just remember to keep some Kleenex handy.
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