Cooking is an aesthetic and visual pleasure. That’s why cooking shows are so popular. Even for those who don’t like to cook or can’t boil water to save her life, watching cooking shows can be a joy because the process about creation is far easier to depict visually and to understand than any other art form. Sure, there’ve been movies about writing, painting, and music making, but cooking is so nakedly upfront in its process that filmmakers have perfected the art of making movies about cooking with far more success. Over the years, some of the best movies about art have had to do with cooking.
But movies about food and cooking have been more than simply about process. They have also been used as a way to reveal how food creates bonds. There is an intimacy inherent in the way we use food to define relationships. The act of eating is sensual––the way we put food into our mouths, savor its tastes on our tongues, rip, tear, and masticate it with our teeth, then swallow it into our bodies. The preparation of food therefore becomes an intimate act that binds those who prepare food and those who eat it. Movies do a good job of revealing those intimacies in ways that are both sensual and loving.
Visually, the dinner table is a motif that goes back to the Last Supper and to Norman Rockwell paintings of families gathered around for a Thanksgiving feast. So it makes sense that movies about family will have food and cooking central to its theme of familial togetherness. In 1997, writer/director George Tillman, Jr. released Soul Food, which later became a series on Showtime, about his own memories of growing up in Chicago and the way food was used to create family bonds. The Sunday dinner sit-downs are depicted as a way to show the importance of food in the African American culture. As the film’s family slowly falls apart after the death of its matriarch Mama Joe, young Ahmad, determined to repair the rifts in his family, convinced his mother to hold a Sunday dinner get-together similar to the ones Mama Joe used to throw. Though the film is heavy on the soap opera and features some moments that are decidedly un-family friendly (actor Michael Beach sexing up on-screen wife Vanessa Williams’s cousin, for instance), Soul Food is a wonderful movie about food, family, and togetherness. Though it doesn’t feature nearly as many cooking scenes as I would like, there is one shot of the three sisters played by Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, and Williams preparing the Sunday meal. Ironically, the very food which brings the family together is the very one which caused Mama Joe’s diabetes-related stroke, though the film doesn’t address this very real health issue among African Americans.
The 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman from director Ang Lee, like Tillman, Jr.’s Soul Food, is about family. Shot in Taiwan, Eat Drink Man Woman is rife with many cooking scenes, each one more delightful and tantalizing than the next. It tells the story of a master chef who has lost his taste buds after the death of his wife. Living with three grown daughters with issues of their own, Chu struggles to maintain his equilibrium as a chef and father amid so many personal changes. Again, like Soul Food, Eat Drink Man Woman follows the complicated lives of the three daughters, each one struggling to deal with her own desires and ambitions while trying to find a way to relate to their aging father. Food is used in many ways to create and strengthen relationships, whether it is through the father and his relationship with the young girl of the widow he eventually marries, his friendship with the fellow chef at his restaurant, or his own daughters.
Released in 2003, Pieces of April was a different kind of foodie movie, but it nonetheless explored ideas about family. A young woman struggles to create the perfect Thanksgiving dinner for her family, but everything that can go wrong does as April (Katie Holmes) tries to find a way to cook her turkey, including borrowing the stove of a very eccentric tenant in her apartment building. While April and her boyfriend try to make the perfect dinner, her family travels from their suburban home. They must deal with issues of their own, namely the fact that April’s caustic and brutally unsentimental mother is dying of cancer. No one quite gets or understands April, much less wants to spend Thanksgiving at her place. April’s boyfriend (Derek Luke), who is African American, also opens a sore spot between April and her family. To say that April’s family is dysfunctional doesn’t begin to describe it, but the desires of children who want to reconcile familial differences is very much a part of Pieces of April‘s theme, and again, food and cooking becomes a means for April to reconcile with her mother and restore their bond.
Other foodie films are not necessarily about family, but do address the communal aspects of food and eating. Babette’s Feast (1987), starring French actress Stephan Audran, is based on the Karen Blixen novel about a French housemaid and cook who prepares a sumptuous meal for a pair of Dutch sisters as they celebrate their late father’s 100th birthday. Addressing issues of religious differences, food and cooking becomes the means in which these differences are crossed and a real community can be formed. The 2000 Miramax film Chocolat, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, likewise uses food, in this case chocolate, as a means to create acceptance and understanding within in a small and conservative French village. The 2007 CGI-animated film Ratatouille crosses other boundaries, in this case species boundaries, as a rat befriends a young French chef and cooks up culinary delights. The pure joy demonstrated in this film about the creative art of cooking is a rarity in films. Movies also use food to express and define culture, as depicted in the Martin Scorsese 1990 film Goodfellas. Scorsese brought to the film his own memories of growing up Italian American in New York, including the way food defined his cultural identity. Many of the meals shown in the film, in fact, were cooked by his own mother, Catherine Scorsese, a mainstay of his films until her death. There are two important cooking scenes in the film which add to the depth of our understanding of mob and Italian culture: the prison scene in which Paul Cicero, played by Paul Sorvino, slices onions with a razor blade thin enough to melt in the meat sauce. And later in the film, when an exiled and demoralized Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, prepares a meal of cutlets and pasta in between making a drug run. Even in the midst of prison or drug paranoia, these men are still cooking up great meals through which family and friendships are bonded. Scorsese shoots the bubbling meat sauces and frying sausages in such a way that make you want to break through the fourth wall and grab a plate.
Eating and cooking is a deeply sensual act, one that has been exploited to great effect by many Hollywood movies. But the Mexican delight Like Water for Chocolate boldly explored the association. Released in 1992, Like Water for Chocolate was a revelation. One of the first Mexican films to capture the American box office, the independent film, directed by Alfonso Arau and written by his then wife Laura Esquival, who adapted it from her novel of the same name, was a sensual feast of delectable Mexican cuisine, all wrapped around a romance that rivaled Romeo and Juliet for its star-crossed fate. Like Water for Chocolate, whose title is taken from one of the film’s many recipes, reveals close relations between the sensual pleasures of food and sex. One scene that brings this idea home is when the heroine Tita creates a meal to welcome her beloved who has married her sister in order to be near her. Tita puts her whole being into the meal, thus transferring her repressed desires to those who eat it.
- Soul Food Junkies (isitworthtime.wordpress.com)
- Foodie Flicks: Eat Drink Man Woman (a.k.a Yǐn Shí Nán Nǚ) (1994) (gastronomy-aficionado.com)
- On Our Bookshelf: Adrian Miller’s Soul Food (okramagazine.org)
- Apple-licious Sunday Dinner (flirtatiouslyfunfood.com)
- Heritage (agray16.wordpress.com)