In Otto Preminger’s 1965 thriller, Bunny Lake is Missing, a four-year-old girl vanishes from a London nursery school. The film lovingly assembles an impressive cast of British character actors (Noel Coward, Martita Hunt, Finley Currie among others) as red herrings – any one of these eccentric characters might have kidnaped the little girl.
One of the most sinister of these minor roles, the Cook, is played by Lucie Mannheim. The Cook ladles a creamy white liquid from a pot into rows of cups. In a heavy German accent, the Cook asks Bunny Lake’s mother: “do you know what this is?” Carol Lynley, playing the mother, answers: “Why it looks like junket!” The Cook snarls: “It not only looks like junket, it is junket – junket is junket, and no matter what, it still tastes like swill and swallows like slime.”
Throughout the first half of the film, the junket in cups congeals on the counter in the nursery school kitchen. The substance, it seems, is a kind of clock, keeping track of how much time has passed from the film’s opening scenes to each episode occurring in the school. Junket, you see, requires one-and-a-half hours to coagulate – apparently, in 1965, most people knew enough about junket to be able to interpret the schedule that the food entails.
What is junket?
Junket is a kind of sweetened milk pudding. Once, it was a staple dessert in the British Isles. The Detective Inspector, played by Sir Laurence Olivier, confesses that he “loves the stuff” and every chance that he gets spoons the pudding into his mouth.
The formidable Irma Rombauer in her Joy of Cooking provides the recipe for junket:
Take two cups of milk and warm to exactly 98 degrees fahrenheit.
Add two teaspoons of sugar.
Stir in either two teaspoons of rennet or one teaspoon of essence of rennet.
Add two teaspoons of brandy.
Let coagulate for one and one-half hours.
Sprinkle with nutmeg and cinnamon and serve cold.
Rennet is an extract from the lining of the first stomach of a calf. Other authorities say that rennet is made from a cow’s fourth stomach. We will learn more about rennet anon.
Junket is sometimes called rennet pudding. The etymology of the word “junket” is fascinating. The term derives from Norman patois imported to Britain in the eleventh century. Norman cream cheese was coagulated in rush baskets. The French word for reed or rush is jonc. A jonquette is a reed basket. By 1547, the word jonquette or junket had come to mean any dainty cheesy sweetmeat. The container in which the pudding was served becomes the name for pudding itself. By mid-sixteenth century, the work junket had also come to signify the woven baskets in which people transported food to feasts and picnics. So junket also meant a picnic basket for carrying all sorts of food. From picnic basket to picnic to feast or banquet is a relatively short leap. Today junket primarily signifies an official trip or occasion that is really more about pleasure than business – instead of work a junket is a picnic.
Rennet, a coagulant, transforms milk and sugar into a pudding. Today, the work of junket is done by pulverized hooves and other connective tissue – this is jello from word gelatin. Rennet originally seems to have signified a mass of curdled milk found in the gut of a slaughtered calf. In Old and Middle German, the word gerennen was like “cleave” – it had two exactly opposite meanings. Gerennen meant both to run apart as thin, watery liquid and also to run together or coagulate into a curdled or gelatinous mass. Cleave means to “cut apart” and “to cling together.” So similarly Gerennen, the past participle of the modern German verb “to run”, once meant two equal and opposite things: to dissolve and to coagulate. This is another example of a word carrying within its penumbra opposite meanings. Rennet, the stuff derived from Gerennen could be used to coagulate milk. This explains why Irma Rombauer insists the milk be warmed to exactly 98 degrees – this is body temperature. At body temperature, the rennet perceives that it is in the belly of a calf, triggering the operation of curdling enzymes. Presumably, at colder or hotter temperatures, the rennet enzymes fail to curdle or coagulate dairy products. Dioscurides, so says Rombauer, said that rennet was the paradigm of all substances, an alchemical wonder, that could either join all things together or disperse them apart. If you can’t find gelatin or rennet as a coagulating agent, Rombauer advises that agar made from dried seaweed, gum tragicanth, or carragernen, that is Irish moss, will do in a pinch.
Otto Preminger was a precisionist director, a martinet for details. Rennet pudding or junket signifies a very precise locale in history and class. Furthermore, the congealing time required in preparing the dish could be used, again in very precise ways, to calibrate and define time as elapsed on screen. The use of junket in Bunny Lake is Missing is an instrument exactly calibrated to signify a variety of minor meanings. The junket doesn’t have any major significance in the plot and can’t be said to assume any symbolic importance – it is simply a precisionist detail establishing credibility for milieu. Since Bunny Lake is Missing is widely thought to be “over-the-top,” hysterical, weirdly undisciplined and grotesquely unconvincing, the reference to junket in the opening scene is a kind sleight of hand, a feint in a direction that the film can not achieve except in its minor details. In a Preminger film, it is always important to know what doors are locked and what unlocked. Minor details persuade even when the film’s principle mise en scene goes astray.