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Deutch Treat


Published December 3, 2004 at 10:00 a.m.


Despite some tepid reviews from mainstream critics, Mostly Martha should be savored by audiences for the same reason they responded to Babette's Feast in 1987 and Big Night nine years later: gourmet food so painstakingly prepared and stunningly photographed you can almost smell it.

Although Germany is not renowned for its cuisine, the new film — now at the Nickelodeon in Burlington — could make Deutchland a popular destination for hungry tourists. But writer-director Sandra Nettel-beck's refreshingly schmaltz-free story is really more about the heart than the tastebuds.

Martha Klein, played by Martina Gedeck, is a master chef in a four-star Hamburg restaurant. She is so obsessed with the job that her boss insists she see a therapist. Their sessions involve long, detailed descriptions of mouth-watering meals she has crafted; pigeon with truffles is one of her specialties, for example. Martha can't be coaxed into talking about her personal life, largely because she doesn't have one — until a tragedy immerses this lovely, repressed woman in human emotions that go beyond her passion for perfection.

When her sister is killed in an accident, Martha must take care of a young niece she barely knows. Lina (Maxime Foerste) is a bright but sorrowful 8-year-old who finds refuge from grief by refusing to eat. It's anathema to her aunt's belief system. These personal developments coincide with the hiring of an Italian sous-chef at work. Mario (Sergio Castellitto) is a gentle, gregarious soul who manages to charm Lina. But paranoid Martha sees the poor man as a threat to her exalted place in the kitchen, and she treats him with contempt.

Martha is in for a few surprises, though, thanks to a child-care learning curve that is almost as frenetic as Diane Keaton's in Baby Boom — a far less subtle picture with similar themes that was set in Vermont. In the German saga, the reluctant mother must balance tentative nurturing with fabulous nourishment, definitely food for thought.

road warrior: In the spring of 1903, a Burlington physician wagered $50 that he could drive coast to coast in a newfangled invention then considered unreliable: the automobile. It hadn't been done before. On May 23, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson left San Francisco for New York City in a one-cylinder, open-top Winton Motor Carriage with no windshield. It was dubbed "The Vermont" — a vehicle on exhibit since 1944 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Civil War filmmaker Ken Burns has been in California, Oregon and Idaho recently to shoot Horatio's Drive, a chronicle of the Jackson journey. PBS will broadcast the two-hour production next fall, not long after the 100th anniversary of the feat. The documentarian was no doubt fascinated by the saga of this determined American pioneer, whose "voice" will be supplied by Tom Hanks.

The 31-year-old Jackson was accompanied by a mechanic, Sewall K. Crocker, and a stray bulldog named Bud they picked up in Idaho. All three wore goggles to protect their eyes from the dust. At the time, the country offered no paved roads outside big cities, but the Winton chugged along at almost 20 miles per hour — unless stuck or broken.

In the isolated towns of the West, people who had never seen a car before took to calling it "the devil wagon." According to the late Ralph Nading Hill, a local historian who wrote a book on the subject in 1950, one astonished onlooker in Wyoming asked them: "What in hell will you Vermonters do next?" Some things never change.

The adventurers got lost, received faulty directions, waited for parts to arrive by stagecoach when the motor carriage broke down, recruited a team of horses to yank it out of deep mud, and hired a cowboy to help them navigate the Great Plains. Axles broke. Tires blew. Equipment went flying. Nonetheless, Bud and his two weary companions arrived at their Fifth Avenue destination in Manhattan on July 26.

About two months after completing the trek, Jackson was arrested in his snail-paced hometown for exceeding the speed limit, which was then a mere 6 miles per hour. The "mad doctor," as Nading Hill referred to him, might have been the first person to drive a car across the continent, but he was apparently just another lawbreaker to the no-nonsense Burlington Police.

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