Editor’s Note: In honor of the Food Symposium, Russell and Tod agreed to hand out awards for Outstanding Achievement in Food Movies. The concept was to combine Russell’s ability to write with brilliance, wit, grace, and insight with Tod’s ability to string some occasionally correctly spelled words together in some sort of vaguely coherent fashion. And I daresay I think we’ve done just that.
Each offered two nominees for each category. Categories where there are fewer than four nominees reflect common nominations.
Feel free to cheer or rail against our nominees and winners in the threads below. Better still, offer up nominees for your own categories.
Russell: Years ago, the Better Half and I had Food Movie days. The idea was to watch a couple of great movies about food, and in between cook something together. Alas, we only ever made one of them actually happen. We watched a couple of movies I’ll discuss presently, and prepared a meal in the middle. (If memory serves it was chicken soup, but I may be mistaken about that.)
Which brings me to my confession. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, and I’ve never seen Big Night. Those are the two selections we have planned for when we finally have another Food Movie day, but our steadily growing family has made it hard to make happen. Along with Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night is the critically-lauded food movie I’m almost ashamed to have missed.
Tod: You and the Better Half were wise to do the actual food in the middle of the cinematic food. Knittingniki and I have tried to do a Food Film Festival in the past. Our thought was to make a meal ahead of time, and eat it during the movie. The problem with this is that “during the movie” inevitably ends up being the opening credits and maybe an additional five more minutes at the beginning, and then there’s no more food –but we’re still gazing at food porn for another two hours. And by the end of the film you’re getting in your car at 10:00 at night to go get $75 worth of takeout Chinese because you’ve just watched Eat Drink Man Woman and really how can you not?
Which brings me to a my confession: I have not yet seen Babette’s Feast — which I believe means that I have to pay some kind of fine and fill out a new application if I want to keep my status as a Portland foodie in good standing.
And with that, let’s go ahead and get started…
Best Movie Chef
Sihung Lung’s Chu Jia-Jen Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
Manish Dayal’s Hassan Kadam, The 100 Foot Journey
Tod: Movie chefs are always made out to be somewhat other-worldly in their culinary abilities. They’re like kitchen versions of Tom Hulce’s Mozart or Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs: demigods sent to walk briefly amongst we mere mortals, dispensing their magic and alchemy with a purity and ease the likes of which you and I will never know.
For the best of the best, I almost want to go with Eat Drink Man Woman’s Chu Jia-Jen. Do you remember that scene in the movie where he’s called to save a 1000-guest wedding banquet because the main dish has gone bad due to the kitchen having been sold fake shark fins? Dude walks in, tastes the rancid stew, and immediately figures out a way to use the failed dish as an ingredient in a brand-new-just-made-up dish created “in the bride and groom’s honor.” Twenty minutes later it’s done — and it’s a hit. That’s some serious game.
But I think I have to give the nod to Hassan Kadam from The 100 Foot Journey. An immigrant from Mumbai with no formal training, Kadam moves to mother-fishing France and cleans up, making Michelin stars fall upon whatever kitchen he steps into. What I most love about Hassan, though, is his desire to always keep learning. Most other movie chefs have their one thing and they stick to it, be that thing French cooking, noodles, or chocolate. But Hassan is constantly driven to explore new new cuisines, styles, methods, and flavors. In the movie he jumps from masala to pigeon to omelettes to fried fish to sea urchin to pasta to (seriously) hay-flavored ice cream, and each thing looks and sounds amazing. By the time he returns home in the movie’s final scenes, he does so only because he seems to absorbed the entire sum of the world’s culinary knowledge. He assimilates everything he sees and tastes, and makes it his own. He is like the Borg of movie chefs.
And on top of all of that, dude’s probably the handsomest movie chef of all time to boot.
Winner: Manish Dayal’s Hassan Kadam, The 100 Foot Journey
Best Individual Meal
A Weekly Sunday Dinner at the Chu’s, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
Dinner Party Honoring Louis Prima, Big Night
Titular meal, Babette’s Feast
Tod: I might have given my vote here to Big Night, which is fantastically decadent looking. But the signature dish of the evening — a giant pastry filled whole eggs, vegetables, various meats and sausages — frankly looks a bit garish to my taste. (Perhaps if I ever tried one I’d feel different?) So I know I’m being very biased with my love of exotic foods here, but if I could eat any movie meal it would be one of those Sunday dinners served by Chu Jia-Jen to his family.
I just watched the movie again this past week and here is what I noticed on the table when the four (!) family members sat down to eat: whole fried fish with ginger, smoked duck, steamed chicken with vinegar, noodles in broth with bok choy and pork belly, at least three different kinds of dumplings, winter melon soup, some kind of hot broth where the family dipped raw slices of fish for a kind of asian-fondue thing, sautéed kai-lan and other assorted vegetables, some type of eggroll, and a gelled dome of pork and sauce which, even though I cannot even begin to tell you how it is made or what exactly is in it, I would eat it in its entirety right now if you put it in front of me. And I’m pretty sure there are some other dishes I’m forgetting at the moment.
Seriously, how do these four people eat all of this food every Sunday? Not only that, they’re all slender and beautiful! Do they not eat anything else all week? Do Chinese houses come with some kind of vomitorium that they don’t show in the movie? Because if not, I’m pretty sure eating Sunday dinner at the Chu’s would probably kill you.
Still, ya gotta go sometime. So if I were ever to get an invite I would totally be there.
Russell: This category is a real challenge, since the hallmark of a great food movie is the great food in it. I can think of another couple of meals that I’d love to eat beyond just my two nominees [Eat Drink, Babette’s]. But if forced to choose two, these are the stand-outs.
As hazy as my memories of Eat Drink may be regarding plot details, the sumptuousness and sheer enormity of those meals remain clear in my recollection. Like you, I find the prospect of trying to eat such a dazzling array of foods both enticing and vaguely terrifying. But it cannot be said that it doesn’t look overwhelmingly scrumptious, and I’d gleefully join you at that table.
However, I’m giving the edge to Babette’s Feast, with Babette herself taking the title as chef I’d most want to cook for me. The Better Half introduced me to that movie, which was one of our Food Movie selections the one time we made a viewing day happen. The story of a French woman living in exile in Denmark, taken in by an austere religious community, it is a beautiful meditation on gratitude, sacrifice and the idea of feasts as sacred events, of pleasure as an expression of joy rather than mere indulgence. The glorious repast she lays out in thanks for the hospitality her community has shown her over the years is as pure a distillation of love as you’ll see in any movie about anything. And that’s to say nothing about the wine pairings.
Winner: Titular meal, Babette’s Feast
Best Food Movie Villain
Albert Spica, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Anton Ego, Ratatouille
Pascal, Big Night
Comte de Reynaud, Chocolat
Tod: When we were first talking about doing this I thought I was going to vote for Ian Holm’s Pascal in Big Night, if for no other reason than the fact that I love, love, love Ian Holm. Italian, French, Englishman, German, Hobbit — dude can play the whole range and make you believe that he was truly born wherever his character was. But then I re-watched Big Night this past week, and I decided that the Pascal character wasn’t really all that villainous.
So I’m going instead with Alfred Molina’s Comte de Reynaud, the over-burdening mayor of Chocolat’s sleepy French village who works day and night to ensure his citizens are denied chocolate, ice cream, chicken mole, feasts, holidays, gypsies, sex, dancing, and Sports Night reruns. (Note: I may be projecting on the Sports Night reruns.) The Comte de Reynaud is like a live-action, flesh-and-blood version of the Burgermeister Meisterburger — which is about the most horrifying thing I can possibly imagine that doesn’t have beets in it.
Russell: Honesty demands I admit that I only have one real nominee in this category. The other is a fudge.
Spica, the titular Thief, is a boor. He is also a brutal, violent man. Played by Michael Gambon with the overheated bombast Peter Greenaway seems to demand (it is a testament to Helen Mirren’s singular talent that she is able to turn in a subtle, restrained performance in that film), he fancies himself an epicurean. But no, what he mistakes for refinement is merely the posturing of a blowhard gourmand. Indeed, when Mirren’s character finally enacts her vengeance upon him, she does it in a gruesomely culinary manner, simultaneously calling his bluff and shoving him over a cliff. His failures of taste are depicted as an extension and reflection of his defects as a human being.
Ego, on the other hand, only sorta counts as a villain. A snooty restaurant critic on whose approval hangs the success of the rat chef and his human marionette, he’s set up from the beginning of the film to be the heavy. However, he’s given one of the most moving “redemption” scenes for any antagonist in film. One taste of the stew that gives the movie its title, and we immediately watch him flash back to a moment of maternal comfort and love, instantiated in a favorite dish prepared for her beloved child. Beneath the hauteur is a sensitive heart and a joyful soul. Truly refined yet deeply lovable in the end, Ego is the anti-Spica.
Winner: Albert Spica, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Weirdest Food Movie
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Tod: I saw Tampopo in the theatre when it first came out, back when I was in college. I’d never seen a movie like it. In Tampopo you have etiquette classes on how to slurp noodles, a woman with a food-squeezing fetish, a near-corpse cooking one last meal, and a dying gangster’s lasts words being a recipe for sausage. And that all swirls around a story of people making a Vision Quest out of making the perfect bowl of noodles.
But as weird as Tampopo is, it doesn’t hold a candle to Delicatessen.
If you have never seen Delicatessen, Russell — and odds are you haven’t — here’s a brief synopsis: After the apocalypse, an unemployed circus clown wanders into a seedy apartment building in the middle of nowhere, whereupon he falls for the daughter of the landlord-butcher, who kills and cooks maintenance men to sell to his tenants. Eventually, the the clown is able to get help from a splinter group of sewer-dwelling rebels devoted to the great cause of vegetarianism.
When you watch the movie, you have the sense that writer-director Jean-Perre Jeunet looked at his previous film City of Lost Children and said to himself, “That’s pretty weird, but I think I can actually do weirder.”
Russell: While I agree that both Tampopo and Delicatessen are strange, certainly by American standards, my nominee in this category makes them look like Frank Capra classics by comparison. I’ll get to Tampopo later, but Delicatessen isn’t so much “weird” to me as it is a comedy so dark it’s practically tar. (And yes, I’ve definitely seen it. I love Jeunet.)
But there is no escaping the surpassing weirdness of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. You can use lots of words to describe it, but none more than “weird.”
Now, saying that Cook, Thief is “about” food is a bit of a stretch. Asking what any Peter Greenaway film is about is rather like asking what the sky tastes like. Almost auto-erotically self-indulgent, his movies don’t concern themselves with such petty concerns as “aboutness,” which is why some are so art-housey as to make even the archest art house denizen yearn for a Julia Roberts palate cleanser.
But food is definitely central to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. It’s what you’d get if Rembrandt van Rijn and Jacques Pépin adopted a child together, fed it peyote every day from infancy, and then sent it to the Tisch School. An outre cinematic extravaganza set in a high-end restaurant, its characters copulate, brutalize each other and enact elaborate schemes between courses.
It’s incredibly weird.
Also, I’m pretty sure City of Lost Children came after Delicatessen.
Tod: No, you’re wrong. Here, I’ll just pull up IMDB and show you that… Oh. Holy crap, you’re right; Delicatessen did come first. My bad.
Plus, how did I not think to nominate The Cook, et al? That’s clearly and obviously the winner.
Here, I’ll make it official:
Winner: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Russell: Which brings us to…
Best Food Movie. Ever.
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
Tod: Which immediately raises the question, what exactly makes a great food movie great? Because, Russell, this is a more difficult question than it first appears.
Consider The Van. (I’m referring here to the 1996 Irish movie that capped off Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy, not the 1977 teen sexploitation flick that featured a young yet still troll-like Danny DeVito.) The Van is a movie about opening up a food cart before food carts were hipster, but it’s still somehow not really a food movie. The characters don’t care that much about food so much as they do being entrepreneurs. Food exists in The Van but it isn’t really a major character, if you will. Similarly, there are many movies where food does play a central role in a pivotal scene or two, but the movie itself still isn’t about food. (I’m thinking right now about the scene in Amadeus where Salieri sneaks away to give in to the sensual pleasures of food and spies Mozart and Constanze giving in to the sensual pleasures of a different sort.) I put it to you that a great food movie has to be about about larger, transcendent themes that are played out in the characters’ lives even as they are being played out metaphorically in the kitchens and dining room tables.
With that in mind, I’m a little tempted to vote for Big Night. I love how Big Night’s tension between the fantasy and the reality of the American Dream is played out in the fates of the competing Italian restaurants Paradise and Pascal’s, each owned by immigrants chasing that very dream. The former strives to be capital-G Great — and in terms of the quality of food, achieves this. The latter merely wishes to be mediocre enough to make some money. The fortunes of each are sadly predictable.
But for me, the greatest food movie of all time is hands down Eat Drink Man Woman.
In Eat Drink Man Woman, food is used to represent everything. It is courtship and sex; it is ambition and money. It is childhood memory and parenting, a clinging to family tradition and creating something new to make your own stake in the world. It is accusation and forgiveness. It is love and duplicity; it is about keeping secrets and finding truth. It is about being part of an exclusive tribe, and about reaching out to those not in one’s tribe. And as the family’s aging patriarch’s taste buds begins to fail, his dinners become a metaphor for the inevitable decay of our very own bodies.
Russell: Now, I’m conceding all over again that I don’t remember one of your nominees as well as I’d wish, and haven’t seen the other at all. But I cannot imagine a better movie about food than Tampopo.
It may not match the magnitude of Chu’s dinners or the detailed perfection of Babette’s feast, but a bowl of Tampopo’s perfect ramen is a meal I’d love to eat. Yes, the movie is decidedly off-beat, but in a way I find utterly charming. A cubist exploration of every dimension in which food plays a role in our lives, it serves it up as both a means and metaphor for understanding everything that makes us human, with the exuberant goodheartedness cranked up to 11. Love! Sex! Loyalty! Business savvy! Perseverance! Food is part of it all, and Tampopo makes every morsel look delicious.
Winner: Tie — Tampopo & Eat Drink Man Woman
[Image: Tampopo movie poster, via Wikipedia. Modified.]