Our contemporary culture is so stuffed with food—in movies, on television, on YouTube—that we seem to enjoy gazing upon meals and meal prep almost as much as we enjoy eating. Culinary guru and activist Michael Pollan has even speculated that many people would really rather look than cook. Enthralled Food Network viewers, he suggests, feast their eyes on Giada De Laurentiis or Emeril Lagasse while dining on takeout. Fans of Iron Chef America scarf up pizza while impassioned teams of cooks chop, grill, juice, blend, and brawl over outré ingredients like scrimmaging football players in their own Kitchen Stadium.
Food, of course, has always been depicted in the arts. Drunken revelers banquet on the walls of Pompeii. Bosch, Brueghel, Steen, Goya, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cassatt, Picasso—what painter has not produced luscious or (sometimes) disturbing gastronomic tableaux? Charlie Chaplin boiled and carved a shoe in The Gold Rush, and in Modern Times he was the subject of a tormenting experiment with a feeding machine. Sid Caesar gagged on a basket of plants billed as “health food” in a skit on Your Show of Shows. Jessie Royce Landis infamously stubbed out a cigarette in a fried egg in To Catch a Thief. Every version of A Chrismas Carol has featured a celebration at which the impoverished Cratchits share the rare pleasure of a roast goose, while yearning for turkey. Albert Finney and Joyce Redman lasciviously consumed a chicken in Tom Jones. And in 1963, just after watching that scene in Tom Jones (and then fasting for a day), the artist Robert Indiana soloed in Andy Warhol’s Eat, a cult (and maybe occult) flick in which he spent 45 minutes nibbling on a single mushroom.
But the food movie as we know it today is a relatively new genre, one that increasingly preoccupies us in an era in which chefs are often accomplished showmen. Just recently we’ve had at least three instances of food romance—two that I’d call food fluff (or maybe, in keeping with contemporary kitchen techniques, food foam) and one that is a tenderer sweetmeat. Part glitzy travelogue, part sentimental paean to downward mobility, Chef stars Jon Favreau as a gourmet practitioner who leaves a fancy restaurant job to find happiness as the master of a food truck dispensing spicy Cuban sandwiches on a cross-country pilgrimage with the young son he has previously neglected for his work. Set in the south of France and glossily produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, The Hundred-Foot Journey dishes up a simmering feud between the Indian family that opens the Maison Mumbai and the haughty owner, played by Helen Mirren, of a Michelin-starred establishment nearby. The subtler Indian film The Lunchbox reels in viewers with an epistolary romance in which the “epistles” aren’t just letters but exquisite lunches, supposedly dispatched by a lonely housewife to her adulterous husband but instead received by an equally lonely widower through a surprising mix-up in Mumbai’s dabbawala delivery system.
Ah, the joys of cooking! As Hemingway once said, “I have discovered that there is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else.” And although Papa, womanizer though he was, really didn’t mean boy meets girl romance, many current filmmakers define the romance of food as the kind that ends in wedding banquets or at least teasing teas for two. Consider some of the most popular precursors of our latest box office delicacies—Eat Drink Man Woman and its remake, Tortilla Soup; Soul Food; Chocolat; Like Water for Chocolate—almost all featuring what New York Times critic A. O. Scott has labeled “soft-core culinary montage” as a background to courtship.
But wait! There isn’t just romance in cinematic food. There’s also fantasy (Ratatouille), science fiction (Soylent Green), nostalgia (Julie & Julia), comedy (Le Chef), crime (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; Dinner Rush), horror (La Grande Bouffe), and even elegy (Babette’s Feast). And then there are films that don’t fall into such tidy genres—restaurant epics (Big Night; Tampopo), work-life stories (Mostly Martha and its remake, No Reservations), and kitchen documentaries, some political (Supersize Me; Food, Inc.; Forks Over Knives), some essays in culinary history (El Bulli: Cooking in Progress; The Soul of a Banquet), some meditative and philosophical (The Gleaners and I; How to Cook Your Life).
Just when you think you’re so bloated with celluloid food that you’ll expire of satiety like the world-weary protagonists of La Grande Bouffe, who determinedly eat themselves to death, you turn on your TV and there are your quotidian regulars—Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, Alton Brown, the whole foodie crew!—and the brilliant Brits. For example, Heston Blumenthal does literary history through techno food on Heston’s Feasts, with an Alice in Wonderland show featuring a mocking mock turtle soup, and Gordon Ramsay does a kind of Sons and Lovers memoir, boasting revisionary baked beans on potato cakes for breakfast, fish fingers with “chip butties” (French-fried potato sandwiches) for lunch, and after bringing his own mum onscreen to help him reconstruct his favorite childhood meal, steamed date pudding with butterscotch sauce for dessert. “There’s something quite magical about a spoonful of treacle,” Ramsay opines as he pours it into a bowl.
Want second or third helpings? Don’t just watch cooks cooking; watch them play the role of daring diner as well. Andrew Zimmern gobbles everything yucky, from rotten fish to bats and tarantulas, and Anthony Bourdain moves from exotica to elegance and high-tech innovation, eating everything in between. On an episode devoted to René Redzepi, the chef of the world-famous Noma in Copenhagen—where a recent menu featured shrimp and goosefoot; radish and yeast; beef tartare and ants; cured egg yolk, potato, and rose oil; and aged reindeer moss—Bourdain began a meal with a photogenic bouquet of flowers, as if recycling Sid Caesar’s parodic health food show from the ’50s. But Caesar was a comedian, and Bourdain, well, no, he’s a serious contemporary eater.
More and more, it begins to seem as if a quirky reciprocity exists between the dinner theater we watch onscreen and the actual food we eat in restaurants and even at home. As culinary historians tell us, meals have always been both texts (produced by cooks for the delectation of diners) and performances by both those who serve the foodstuff and those who are served. Increasingly, however, we can categorize cuisine—some of it haute, some of it quotidian—by aesthetic genre. There’s ironic food, most notably, perhaps, Thomas Keller’s “ice cream cones” (cornets of salmon tartare), “oysters and pearls” (oysters with caviar), or “coffee and doughnuts” (cappuccino semifreddo with doughnut holes). There’s pastoral food, much of it modeled on the locally sourced dishes pioneered by Alice Waters: “herb roasted Elysian Fields Farms lamb,” “grilled Becker Lane pork loin,” “eggplant porridge.” There’s nostalgic food: Mom’s fried chicken, Grandma’s apple pie. There’s travel food: name your favorite ethnic eatery. There’s faux food: “garden burgers” and their ilk, as well as the ever-elusive McDonald’s McRib, which imitates a barbecued rib but is neither barbecued nor a rib. And there’s even elegiac food: wake cakes, funeral “hotdishes,” Mexican sugar skulls, Italian ossi dei morti, maybe even our own Halloween candies.
Am I speculating this way because, like so many other culinary enthusiasts, I watch so much dinner theater? Or do I watch so much dinner theater because our menus have themselves become ever more theatrical? I can’t tell, and it’s easy enough for me to laugh at our current gastronomic proclivities. In “The Food Wife,” an especially witty episode of The Simpsons, Marge and the kids become bloggers, presenting themselves as The Three Mouthketeers and visiting a restaurant called El Chemistri, where they feast (or try to feast) on test tubes filled with “deconstructed Caesar salad,” “pine needle sorbet,” and “pork chops 100 ways.” Homer, who prefers La Fridge, declares, “I don’t want to think about food, I want to like it.” But can we truly “like it” without thinking about it? Food must be “not only good to eat, but also good to think,” observed Claude Lévi-Strauss, a wiser theorist than Homer Simpson.
Yet thinking about food doesn’t, after all, mean that we should succumb to culinary obsessions. Do we make theater out of our meals because we in the developed world have so much to eat that we can’t physically swallow it—thus the need to consume with our eyes rather than our mouths? We know that millions of people right now (including a significant number in our own country) live with what is euphemistically called “food insecurity”—that is, they lack access to safe and nutritionally sound food. How to reconcile spectacles of plenty with the knowledge of lack? Among the movies I’ve mentioned here, such documentaries as Food, Inc. and How to Cook Your Life do focus on the notion of mindful eating. But perhaps just as powerfully, so do two of the greatest films I’ve contemplated: Gabriel Axel’s brilliant adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s story Babette’s Feast and Agnès Varda’s cinematic essay The Gleaners and I.
In the first, the grateful and self-sacrificing Babette, formerly the acclaimed chef of the Café Anglais in Paris, spends all her lottery winnings on a magnificent banquet for a group of austere Nordic Lutherans, who are mysteriously transformed by a gift she’ll never be able to give again. And in the second, Varda, inspired by Jean-François Millet’s painting The Gleaners, follows the road of contemporary French gleaners—frugal or homeless people who salvage potatoes, oysters, grapes, apples, tomatoes, and bread that would have otherwise been left to rot after harvests and markets. “I never forget those who shop in the leftovers and trash,” she explains. And throughout the film she returns to the image of a heart-shaped potato that she found early on in a mound of discards.
A potato in the shape of a heart. Just as Babette’s beautifully crafted one-time dinner represents the material goodness that might reanimate our spirituality, so Varda’s potato becomes a symbol of what this innovative filmmaker wants to tell us, an icon of food that’s both good to look at and good to think, despite the caveats of Homer Simpson.