Food has been a popular and versatile film prop since the silent film era. It's a perfect cinematic propimple to prepare, readily understood by the viewer, and able to provide countless ways to move a story line along and advance the theme of a film, be it political, sexual, inter-personal, historical, or even mystery. At times food plays a supporting role enabling the main character to further the plot. At other times food itself plays a starring role.
The first and most enduring food prop is probably the pie, largely because it is easy to make and easily aimed at a person we don't necessarily want to hurt but whose dignity is at stake. According to Lorna Woodsum Riley's Reel Meals Movie Lover's Cookbook, Mabel Normand launched the first pie in film when she spontaneously threw someone's custard cream pie at Fatty Arbuckle in a Keystone Studio silent film, A Noise from the Deep (1913). This act garnered lots of laughs so Keystone studios, under the direction of Mack Sennett, repeated it in numerous other films, as did such silent film stars as Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, and Charlie Chaplin. Blake Edwards, in an homage to the silent era, placed Tony Curtis in the midst of an enormous number of flying pies in The Great Race (1965), and Nora Ephron in Heartburn, her semiautobiographical novel that was made into a film in 1986, tells her philandering husband just what she thinks of him by squishing a Key lime pie in his face.
Pies weren't the only food used in early films. Laurel and Hardy were major advocates of food in film, as best revealed in A Swank Dinner Party. Since they were the waiters at that party, it was, of course, anything but swank. Hardy slips on a banana peel while carrying a huge cake, and even the swanky guests wreak havoc trying to nab the cherry in their fruit cocktail.
The scenes most remembered in some films are those in which food has played a supporting role. In The Gold Rush (1925, reedited in 1942) writer, director, and star Charlie Chaplin best demonstrated the dramatic possibilities of food. Finding himself freezing, starving, and snowbound in an Alaskan cabin with another prospector at Thanksgiving, Chaplin is unwilling to spend the holiday without an appropriate meal. So he boils one of his boots, carves and delicately plates it, offers his companion the choice of "sole" or "boot," and proceeds to eat the shoelace as though it were spaghetti. Simultaneously funny and touching, it is the film's most remarkable scene. Chaplin used food to make a political statement in Modern Times (1936) by showing the plight of the worker, in this case an assembly-line worker, and the heartlessness of management. To speed things up, a robot is devised to feed workers so they can continue working. In a hilarious scene Chaplin is given a meal of soup and corn on the cob by a robot that eventually runs amok.
The seduction scene in the Oscar-winning Tom Jones (1963) created a big stir because of the way in which food was used in an overtly sexual manner. Albert Finney, at his best as the womanizing Tom Jones, seduces actress Joyce Redman whom he has just met. Dining together, they consume chicken, oysters, and wine in a manner that grows more deliberate and increasingly sensual.
Woody Allen used food in Annie Hall (1977) to illustrate the cultural and ethnic differences of the film's protagonists. Midwestern WASP Diane Keaton is shown ordering a pastrami sandwich on white bread with mayo and tomatoes shock to Allen's New York Jewish character (pastrami sandwiches are always on rye with mustard). In Five Easy Pieces (1970), restaurant dining was difficult for Jack Nicholson, who had to use convoluted means just to get some toast, while Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989) dictated in no uncertain terms exactly the way she wanted food served to her during lunch in a deli with Billy Crystal. This same dining scene also provided the perfect background for the film's most memorable scenehe fake orgasm.
Food and murder occur in equal proportion in Mafia movies. Francis Ford Coppola used lots of food in the first (1972) and third (1990) installments of The Godfather. Marlon Brando playing Don Corleone is shot while choosing fruit at an outdoor stand. And, after a rubout, Clemenza shows his priorities when he tells his partner "leave the gun, take the cannoli." Later Clemenza shows young Michael Corleone how to cook spaghetti with meatballs and sausage just in case he goes to jail and needs to know how. Near the end of the third Godfather film, Eli Wallach as Don Altobello waxes nostalgic about the virtues of olive oil just before he dies from eating a poisoned cannoli.
Director Martin Scorsese in GoodFellas (1990) presented a jail scene with actor Paul Sorvino carefully slicing garlic with a razorblade while a cellmate is preparing spaghetti sauce with beef, veal, and pork. Also on the menu are bread, cheese, prosciutto, steak, salami, peppers, and onions. This well-fed group of Mafia jailbirds sits down to eat a lavish meal with Frank Sinatra crooning in the background. Scorsese also showed he could film elegant dining. In The Age of Innocence (1993) there is a well-researched banquet scene resplendent with a floral and ice sculpture centerpiece, elaborate English bone china and silver tableware, impeccable service, and restrained table manners reflective of the late 1800s. The diners enjoyed oysters, fish, and other perfectly presented delicacies.
A septet of films has had particular success in casting food in a starring role. First among them is Babette's Feast (1987). Drawing from Isak Dinesen's short story, Gabriel Alex directed and wrote the screenplay for this Oscar-winning best foreign film set in nineteenth-century Denmark. Two adult sisters, the daughters of a pastor, live in a remote village where they have dedicated themselves to the service of God and relinquished all worldly desires. Babette, played by Stéphane Audran, is a French political refugee who is taken in by the sisters in return for working as their housekeeper and cook. Their meals consist largely of a humble gruel of bread soaked in ale. Some years after Babette's arrival, the sisters decide to hold a dinner to honor the hundredth anniversary of their father's birth and ask Babette to cook. She has recently won the lottery and sends her nephew to Paris to collect the necessary ingredients. Unknown to the sisters, she is a former chef, and she cooks for the sisters and the members of their little church the best feast ever shown on film. It begins with Potage à la Tortue, followed by Blini Demidoff aux Caviar Russe, Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine, La Salade, Les Fromages, Baba au Rhum et Fruits Confit, Champagne Veuve Cliquot 1860, Clos de Vougeot 1845 wine, and coffee. Although her humble and religious diners had vowed to remain unaffected by the food, they are quickly overwhelmed by the mastery of this culinary artist who forever changed their lives.
Tampopo (1986), kind of a spaghetti western with a culinary theme, which was directed by Juzo Itami, demonstrated Japan's seriousness about food. Tampopo, a widow with a son, seeks the recipe for the perfect noodle to serve in her restaurant. Assisted by a truck driver who would have looked more comfortable on a horse, there is much intrigue along the way to noodle perfection. What makes this such a good food movie is the inclusion of a series of unrelated but very smart food vignettes ranging from sexual seduction to a lesson in the proper way for the Japanese to eat Italian noodles.
Taiwanese writer and director Ang Lee serves up a multitude of enticing dishes in Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). The film opens with five minutes of master chef
La Grand Bouffe (1973) is a French film in which four men gather at a country house to eat themselves to death with fabulous food prepared by one of them who, fortunately, is a chef. A nonstop display of gorgeous food both cooked and uncooked includes the best wild boar, lamb from Mont-Saint-Michel, oysters, calves' heads, cod, beautiful pâtés, tarts, quail on skewers, pastas, pizzas, pullets, and pigs to name just a few. This film is an amalgam of beautiful food, ongoing sex, and a dismaying array of bodily reactions to too much food. Although it remains unknown why these four successful men want to eat themselves to death, the film does portray the horrors of excess. A food credit is given to the French store Fauchon.
Master chef Paul Bocuse is credited for the beautiful food in Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978), a whodunit filmed in some of Europe's best restaurants. Worth viewing just to see Robert Morley play Max Vandevere, the disdainful and pretentious editor of Epicurious Magazine, the film portrays the trouble that begins when he selects four chefs to prepare a dinner for the queen of England. Jealousy sets in, murder ensues, and chefs are killed in the manner in which they prepare their signature dishes. There are beautiful shots of baked pigeon en croûte, pressed duck, the fish market in Venice, and the interiors of legendary restaurants
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) is a complex and beautiful film in every way. Directed by Peter Greenaway, each frame looks like a Dutch genre painting. Costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and a haunting musical score add to the film's lavishness. Here food provides the basis for magnificent still life frames while the lush red restaurant and eerie kitchen provide ongoing tableaux and the setting for a story about a loutish thief who thinks that dining in a fine restaurant elevates him to a higher social class. Not all is beautiful, however, in this film that also portrays denigrating sex scenes and cannibalism.
Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate (1993) was written as a prelude to a screenplay and includes recipes. In the film, directed by Alfonso Arau, Mexican family food is the star, and much of it has mystical properties that can start fires and evoke passion, sorrow, and uncontrollable yearning when it is cooked by the romantically unfulfilled Tita.
The decade of the nineties brought hefty expense accounts and ambitious restaurant dining in the United States. Coincident with this came three American films that explore restaurant life in remarkably different ways. Big Night, produced by Stanley Tucci in 1996, again explores the cook as an artist, much as Babette's Feast did, but within the difficult framework of cooking authentic ethnic cuisine in 1950s America. In 1998 Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini directed a documentary entitled Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's. Filmed just before the closing of the famed Los Angeles restaurant, it is a close look at a bygone era of Hollywood glamour when stars and movie moguls, dressed to the nines, made nightly appearances at their regular tables in this family restaurant where they were treated like valued family members and catered to in ways unimaginable in today's restaurant. Dinner Rush captured a very different restaurant scene, that of New York circa 2001. Directed by Bob Giraldi and shot in his own Tribeca restaurant, Gigino, Dinner Rush forthrightly portrays the downside of the restaurant business with its intrigues, food fads, trendiness, fickle customers, power struggles, critic corruption, and more. What with all of this, the film is edgy and fascinating and most likely tells it like it is.
Food in television has mostly been of the "how to" cooking show genre. Gerry Schremp notes in Celebration of American Food (p. 99) that James Beard led the parade of cooking shows with weekly appearances in 1946, followed by Dione Lucas in 1947. Television pictures were black-and-white then, and only eight thousand homes had sets. Julia Child jump-started cooking shows with her 1963 inaugural series for public television, which was the leader in the production of such programs. Popular among viewers were the Victory Garden series and Jeff Smith as the Frugal Gourmet. Public television tends to feature cooking teachers and cookbook writers who are basically home cooks, creating food meant to be replicated at home. Capitalizing on an undeniable interest in good food, the genre catapulted to new and different levels when an entire cable network devoted only to food, the Television Food Network, was launched in November 1993, initially reaching three million homes and expanding to more than sixty million by the year 2002. The network experimented with a restaurant review show, a call-in show devoted to dieting and healthy eating, and, most notably, a one-hour live news show entitled "Food News and Views" that was, as its name suggests, devoted solely to the topic of food and drink. As the genre has matured, more attention has been given to the entertainment value of "cooking" shows, giving way to contests such as Ready, Set, Cook and Japan's entry, called Iron Chef, which features some unusual food video and involves a panel that judges the best dishes created during the time frame of the show. Attractive and youthful celebrity chefs have replaced home cooks on these shows, and celebrity food with refined ingredients and architectural presentation has replaced the homier presentations of earlier public television shows. A notably successful Food Network show has been that of Emeril Lagasse, whose catch phrases and natural good humor have made him its star. The Food Network, in turn, has given Emeril a live audience with which to interact, a band, and numerous other gimmicks to hold viewer attention. Martha Stewart became a television network cooking star in the late 1990s, combining her talents into a multimedia television, radio, cookbook, and magazine package.
Cooking shows are rarely done in real time. The standard format has the cook combining ready-to-cook ingredients, then going to a finished dish to show how it should lookhich is usually splendid since television studios have state-of-the-art kitchens staffed with professional cooks and stylists who turn out elegant creations that either inspire or intimidate the viewer.
The History Channel broke new ground by presenting a series of documentaries entitled America Eats: History on a Bun (1999). More than just bun food, the histories of fried chicken, ice cream, soda pop, and pizza were explored with excellent use of archival footage showing how food and eaters alike used to look in America.
See also Beard, James; Child, Julia; Humor, Food in; Styling of Food.
International Movie Data Base. Available at www.IMDB.com
Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's 2002 Movie & Video Guide. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002.
Poole, Gayle. Reel Meals, Set Meals: Food in Film and Theatre. Sydney: Currency Press, 1999.
Riley, Lorna Woodsum. Reel Meals Movie Lover's Cookbook. Lombard, Ill.: Wallace-Homestead, 1987.
Schremp, Gerry. Celebration of American Food: Four Centuries in the Melting Pot. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1996.
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