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  • Writer's pictureeclectic Stefan

First Cow:"Anything worth doing is dangerous"

Dead men tell tales. Before you correct me, I know that the adage should be, “Dead men tell no tales”. But let’s consider the story surrounding the discovery of tall tales from long ago that is central to First Cow. Set in the remote frontier wilderness in 1820s Oregon, First Cow depicts the bond formed between a Chinese entrepreneurial dreamer, King-Lu, and a baker, Morris, also known as Cookie.

First Cow opens in contemporary times with uncovered skeletal remains that immediately begin to unfold Morris and King Lu’s story. Their story exists in a time in the remote frontier in Oregon when, according to King Lu, “History isn’t here yet”. He believes he and Cookie can make history in their own terms. If they don’t seize the moment before new prospectors and new ventures arrive, they will have missed their moment in time to make their mark.

That opportunity comes in the shape of a cow. That’s right, a single cow brought to this remote wilderness region by a wealthy landowner. The cow has better breeding than the frontier men. Cookie and King Lu aren’t thieves who plan to steal the cow. Their idea is more subtle but equally dangerous with potentially serious repercussions. They decide that, although their idea is dangerous, anything worth doing is dangerous. It is a cautionary tale about the acquisition of wealth built on a foundation of thievery and subterfuge. That may be the underlying premise of so many stories of wealthy families and successful industries.

Anything worth doing is dangerous

A frontiersman

For most of the movie, First Cow is languid. That’s a deliberate choice by the filmmakers because life at that time in that place moved slowly. It was a matter of survival while pursuing the dream of finding “soft golds” to make the prospectors rich. There is no luxury here. Even the bare necessities are sparse, although the rough traders who exist in this wilderness call it a land of abundance. The indigneous people certainly know how to thrive in this environment by respecting the bounty that nature offers from clothing and food to shelter.

The languid nature of the movie reflects the life at that time before history with frontiersmen doing ordinary daily chores, sharing resources and trading goods while entertaining themselves with card games and rough whisky. First Cow brings verisimilitude. The lives of these men defines the notion of “roughing it”. The Oregon frontier territory is primal and savage.

Cookie and King-Lu immerse themselves awkwardly into this frontier life that offers them no quarter. They use Cookie’s skills as a cook and KIng-Lu’s entrepreneurial talents to sell oily cakes, a biscuit that looks like a donut but has a secret ingredient. The men of the wilderness crave these oily cakes. They taste like nothing they have tasted before. Because Cookie can only fry a limited number of cakes everyday, they sell out quickly at any price much to the disappointment of those who are at the end of the queue. All goes well and they amass a good deal of money which they hide in a secret location to avoid thieves and scoundrels stealing their wealth.

A dangerous endeavour: Cookie, men of power & wealth, a cow, oily cakes & King Lu

However, there is a complication to their successful enterprise scheme. Throughout the movie, there is an uncertain edge to what they are doing. King Lu, in particular, feels a foreboding and a premonition. Their sense of uncertainty and unease is well founded. Their secret ingredient that turns their oily cakes into gastronomic gold is attained through subterfuge. And the person from whom they acquire the ingredient has the power and influence to make their lives unpleasant if he discovers their sly methods. If caught, this powerful man will end their lives for their dishonest behaviour.

Don’t be concerned about the cow. It is definitely a significant character in the mystery of the secret ingredient for oily cakes and was not harmed in the making of this movie.

Whether or not you determine the ingredient, the cow and the secret ingredient reveal broader matters in First Cow: the survival struggles of men living in the frontier in 19th century Oregon, the development of entrepreneurship, the profit economy, class struggles between the the wealthy and the dreamers hoping to strike it rich and the mouthwatering, delicious oily cakes that spur a gastronomic revolution, as much as you can have a gastronomic revolution in 1800s Oregon.

Official Trailer First Cow

When I saw First Cow, flying from Sydney to Dubai aboard an Emirates A380, I thought that the movie was edited due to cultural reasons, which does happen in other jurisdictions around the world. There wasn’t a statement to this effect but the sequence of events and references to visual clues that don’t have an antecedent in the story are odd. They are not disruptive or destructive of the narrative but noticeable. In particular, when Cookie is shown wearing a new pair of boots, another frontier man makes specific mention of those boots belonging to someone other than Cookie. We, the audience, have no previous indication of why and how Cookie attained the new boots. It may reflect the raw nature of life in wilderness societies and the brutal consequences of people interacting with one another. Nonetheless, Cookie doesn’t come across as a violent man. Another option is that he purchases the shoes from the original owner.

The final shot relates to the opening of the movie with the discovery of human bones that are tied to Cookie and King-Lu’s apparent demise, but I sense that there is one more detail about how they might have met their end connected to a character who misses getting one of Cookie’s oily cakes and looks at Cookie in a menacing manner.

I investigated these concerns and read through the script and it appears that the writer and director filmed the scenes as shown in the script. I found the gaps jarring and disconcerting. It’s as if the filmmakers chose to allow the audience to fill the gaps. Or they may have run out of funding to shoot additional scenes. Perhaps I missed subtle references to what happened. Overall, the gaps don’t spoil the film but seem jarring omissions. I’m curious to know, if you watch First Cow, whether you notice these gaps.

Anyway, make a batch of oily cakes and munch your way through them while languishing through the life of early America in a different time when the wheels that eventually propelled the economy of the United States of America rose from the microcosm of life in the Oregon wilderness.

Release Date: 2019

Official Poster First Cow


How to Make the First Cow Oily Cakes

The recipe for oily cakes featured in First Cow. The recipe was provided by A24, the production company that produced the movie First Cow.

Oily Cakes

SPOILER ALERT: This recipe and the article from which it comes include the secret ingredient in First Cow.


• 1 and 1/2 cup whole milk (if you can’t steal some from a local bigwig, store-bought is fine) • 4 tablespoons sugar, divided • 1 packet of active dry yeast • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten • 1 and 1/4 stick unsalted butter (10 tablespoons), melted • 4 cups all-purpose flour • 1/2 teaspoon salt • 1/3 cup warm water • Lard (or vegetable oil)


1. In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, warm the lard or oil over medium heat. Use enough so that the liquid fat is at least three inches deep.

2. Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly to prevent a skin from forming.

3. In a small bowl, mix the yeast with two tablespoons of sugar. When the milk is warm, pour it in the bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap for five minutes.

4. While the yeast does its thing, add the flour, salt, and remaining two tablespoons of sugar to a large bowl. Mix. This is also a good time to melt the butter and beat the eggs.

5. Add the butter, eggs, and water to the flour bowl. Once the yeast mixture is ready — it should be frothy — add to the dough. You should have a light batter, solid but springy.

6. Now that you can devote your attention to the oil, increase the heat until it gets between 355° and 370°.

7. Scoop the batter into spheres, bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball. Gingerly add them to the oil one at a time. Be aware that each dough-ball you add will lower the temperature of the oil. Three at a time seems like a good amount.

8. As the oily cakes fry, rotate them occasionally to ensure they’re evenly cooked on all sides. Remove them once they get to the color of a Burnt Sienna crayon.

9. Top each cake with cinnamon and a spattering of honey. Sell for a healthy profit, as a metaphor for America.



Tampopo (1985)

The first Japanese Noodle Western, but not an Italian spaghetti Western.

Two Japanese milk-truck drivers (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken Watanabe) help a restaurant owner (Nobuko Miyamoto) learn how to cook great noodles.

Tampopo follows the search for the perfect bowl of noodles and the sensuous nature of food.


Babette’s Feast (1988)

Beautiful, pious sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) grow to spinsterhood under the wrathful eye of their strict pastor father on the forbidding and desolate coast of Jutland, until one day, Philippa's former suitor sends a Parisian refugee named Babette (Stéphane Audran) to serve as the family cook. Babette's lavish celebratory banquet tempts the family's dwindling congregation, who abjure such fleshly pleasures as fine foods and wines.

Babette's Feast is a feast for the eyes and the palate.

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