The Food We Watch
The sheer abundance of food documentaries and food series available on Netflix alone - a company that relies heavily on analytics to dictate its content - is an indication of the public’s obsession with food in visual media.
Spoiler Alert: While we do not believe this article to truly spoil your experience in viewing the following movies, we do reveal some of their secrets. Proceed at your own risk. Movies mentioned are: Eat Drink Man Woman, Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Tampopo, Chocolat, The Lunchbox, and Ratatouille.
This goes beyond the world of streaming. Cooking competitions have inundated primetime, mainstream television as well, rendering the Food Network virtually obsolete. When the TV’s off, our food content consumption doesn’t end. We browse food photos on Instagram or watch cooking shows on Youtube.
If there’s one thing that’s all too common about all of this, it’s that it’s all so real. The documentaries, the series, the cooking shows, the cooking competitions, the Instagram accounts; it’s all reality. Or at least perceived reality. It’s all nonfiction.
These days, food is rarely placed in a fictional context; where it takes on the role of a character or is used as an important tool to drive narrative. And often when it is, it is severely under-utilized, banished to the role of simple bystander in the story of a character that just so happens to cook. It’s a pity. There are so many ways to draw on food and cooking to convey interesting and complex narrative themes.
They say the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach.
Very few films are able to draw on food to convey emotions with such depth and mastery as Eat Drink Man Woman.
Unable to freely express their thoughts and emotions to each other, there is tension between Chef Chu and his three daughters, which reaches a boiling point every Sunday when they sit down for their weekly family dinner. Cooking absurdly elaborate Sunday banquet dinners is the only way Chef Chu knows how to express love and affection for his daughters. His daughters, on the other hand, dread their weekly obligation. Middle sister, Jia-Chien, refers to it as their “Sunday Torture Ritual”.
The dining table overflows with culinary representations of things left unsaid. Rather than indulge and delight in the array of beautifully prepared dishes, the daughters feel overwhelmed and suffocated by the uncomfortable silence. The dinners get progressively worse as we learn that Chef Chu has lost his sense of taste; the dishes taste off and no one wants to address the issue until Chef Chu repeatedly confronts Jia-Chien.
With, literally and figuratively, everything on the table, Sunday dinners become the platform for life-changing announcements. Through each Sunday dinner as the film progresses, each of the daughters - and finally the Chef himself - announces their departure from the family home. This comes as a surprise to the other family members, who are unaware of the series of personal events that have led to the departure; which only we as viewers are privy to.
More obvious and literal uses of food to convey emotions can be found in Alfonso Arau’s Like Water For Chocolate. Tita, the main protagonist, has the magical ability to convey her strongest emotions through the foods that she cooks. As the last daughter of the family - and, as per family tradition - Tita is reduced to the life of a servant who must care for her cruel mother until her death.
Banished to the kitchen from a young age and forbidden to express the most natural of emotions, Tita uses her cooking to communicate. All who consume her dishes inexplicably find themselves experiencing Tita’s emotions first-hand. We see this in the intense sorrow after eating the wedding cake Tita helped prepare for Pedro - the man she loves - as he weds her sister. Or the debilitating arousal from the quail she cooks using the roses that Pedro gives her. Much like someone keeps a diary to write down her most private thoughts, Tita keeps a cookbook where she documents her recipes in dramatic fashion.
In Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, food becomes a direct metaphor for love itself. When Ila unsuccessfully attempts to seduce her husband with her cooking, she discovers that the lunch she had prepared for him was in fact delivered to the wrong person. An impossible mistake by the apparently flawless Indian dabbawala lunch delivery system. Her husband doesn’t notice that the lunch he received was not cooked by her; a sign of his neglect and rejection of her love for him. In fact, he quite enjoyed the meal cooked by someone else: a foreshadowing of his infidelity. Similarly, Ila proceeds to cook her husband’s favourite dish for the stranger who ate the entire lunch; in essence, Ila is giving her love away to someone else.
Food is used in the movie to show the protagonists’ friendship and affection for each other grow. When Saajan mentions his favourite dish in a letter to Ila, she promptly prepares it for him the next day. When Ila is stood up by Saajan, he receives an empty lunchbox the next day without a note. This plays a dual purpose; the lunchbox is a vessel for their letters to each other and, without words, Saajan knows that he owes Ila an explanation. However, it is also suggestive of Ila depriving Saajan not only of food, but of her affection and love until an explanation is produced.
Food is Freedom
Indulgence in food is often interpreted as gluttony: a sin. And, in some cases, the temptation of food is also viewed as synonymous with lust - another deadly sin. It is likely no coincidence that the words “sexual appetite” are often used together, or that many allusions to sex use words that are mostly related to food or eating. In many films, indulgence in rich and opulent foods is regarded as a sin by religious groups who encourage members of their order to resist the temptation. Those who struggle with controlling their craving are also identified as being repressed overall by their moral obligations, unable to live their life as they wish. When a repressed character allows him - or herself to indulge, there is often a visible sense of liberation; the character is transformed in every way.
Lass Holstrom’s Chocolat is a prime example of liberation through food. Vianne arrives and sets up her chocolate shop in a small French town of repressed staunch Catholics, shortly before lent. The mayor, whose control of the townspeople relies heavily on his righteous moralizing, immediately identifies Vianne as a threat to his control. Vianne, through her decadent offerings, pedals free will and pleasure. The mayor consequently attempts to discourage the townspeople to indulge in her chocolate. Initially, those who do seek Vianne’s sweets are the town’s moral outcasts, but in time, the townspeople succumb to temptation and, after eating Vianne’s chocolate, appear to have regained their taste for life. The mayor, having reached the tipping point of his repression as he attempts to destroy Vianne’s chocolate window display, ultimately gives in with a grotesque act of gluttony. Having devoured an obscene amount of chocolate, the mayor - the most repressed of all the characters - finds peace and acceptance.
In Babette’s Feast repression is not only depicted using food itself, but also through its preparation. When the sisters teach Babette how to cook a fish and ale-bread soup, the dried fish and stale bread get the same, repetitive, and joyless treatment; they are soaked and then boiled. One can say that any flavour left in the ingredients are drowned. Here, food is sustenance and not to be enjoyed. Later, when Babette prepares for her French feast, it is the carts full of extravagant ingredients and the days of ritualistic preparation that cause elder sister Martine to have a nightmare. She likens Babette to a demon and the food to sin, without knowing what the food even looks or tastes like.
The sisters and the disciples of their father’s Protestant sect agree that the night of the feast, their tongues will not taste and that they will avoid to discuss the food completely. As tension within the group has been high from constant and increased in-fighting, this is the first thing they have all agreed to in a long time. Their taste buds fail them on the night of the feast as, one-by-one, dish by dish, they let down their guard. They learn to enjoy the moment and make peace with one another.
In Eat Drink Man Woman, the elaborate Sunday dinners are meant to exhibit the tension between the Chu family due to the repressed emotions that each character feels. However, food is also what liberates them. No matter how uncomfortable the dinners are, they each culminate with one character finding the courage to reveal their secrets. More notably in the case of Chef Chu, his good friend Old Wen remarks that he’s “as repressed as a turtle”, a strong possibility for why his tastebuds are failing him. Chef Chu only finds his sense of taste after revealing his secret to his family and living the life he’s wanted for so long. Finally, Jia-Chien, responsible for giving her father his sense of taste back with her soup, cooks the last Sunday dinner in their family kitchen; something she has pined for for years. Having been banished from the kitchen and deprived of her true passion, Jia-Chien is finally free to be herself and do what she loves. The last dinner of the movie is the only one without tension. Both father and daughter have found freedom, and the meal offers the one and only moment of true physical affection between them.
That Ratatouille Moment
I use the term “Ratatouille Moment” all the time and funny enough, people always get it. It specifically refers to the moment taking a bite of a particular food takes you back to your childhood. It gives us a moment of comfort; more importantly, just as in the movie Ratatouille, nostalgia is a powerful thing that can also lead to a revelation. Reminding us of something we’ve forgotten, or seeing something from the perspective of a younger, more innocent, more hopeful version of ourselves.
In Ratatouille, dubbed the “Grim Eater”, food critic Anton Ego (in my opinion, a fantastic satirical representation of most food critics) does not appear to particularly enjoy eating at all. Rather, negative reviews give him a thrill. When he eats Remy the Rat’s ratatouille, he is transported back to his childhood, to the humble dish his mother prepared to comfort him. The dish transforms Anton Ego by reminding him why he loved to eat. His Ego is humbled, he finds pleasure in eating again, and therefore finds pleasure in life again.
Babette’s Feast presents a similar moment of revelation through food. A last-minute guest to the feast, Martine’s former suitor, General Lorens, delights in the sumptuous meal which takes him back to a similar dinner he remembers from years ago. General Lorens marvels at every dish and every libation served to him with wonder. In his youth, he had lived in the village for a short while and had grown accustomed to their modest lifestyle. Realising that he could never have the life he wished to have with Martine, Lorens left hopeless. Now years later, experiencing such an exquisite display in the most unlikely of places, Lorens declares his undying love to Martine and leaves hopeful after delivering arguably the most beautiful lines in cinematic history: “You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”
Anyone can cook and anyone can eat.
Food is universal and serves as a perfect device to represent equality.
In Ratatouille, Anton Ego despised Chef Gusteau for his motto and belief that: “anyone can cook”. A reflection of the elitist opinion that culinary genius can only come from chefs of award-winning fine dining establishments, who have been trained in other restaurants of equal renown. After the humbling experience of being served by Remy the rat, Anton Ego realizes that what Gusteau’s motto truly meant was “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere”. The ability to become a great chef is not limited to those with the Michelin-starred pedigree, but is open to anyone who has the talent, the passion, the ambition, and the discipline.
If Ratatouille has taught us that anyone can cook, Juzo Itami’s Tampopo shows us that anyone can eat. The main storyline focuses on Tampopo, a widow struggling to make ends meet after taking over her deceased husband’s mediocre ramen shop. She enlists the help of a trucker, who then assembles a gang of unlikely ramen enthusiasts, to teach her how to improve her ramen recipe and her business.
Tampopo is also peppered with absurd Monty Python-esque vignettes that effectively make poignant statements about the universality of food and its appreciation. A group of salary men go to a posh restaurant and, one by one, each of them orders the same thing, attempting to save face by hiding their ignorance of the more worldly offerings. The most junior of the associates, constantly abused by his superiors, unknowingly schools them in their foolishness by asking the waiter the most astute culinary questions, displaying a thorough knowledge and experience in fine dining.
Then there’s the ladies etiquette class where the students are taught to eat spaghetti with a spoon as Westerners do, without a sound. The class is interrupted by a Western man in the same restaurant happily slurping up his noodles. The ladies drop their spoons and follow suit.
In Tampopo’s main story line, Tampopo learns how to make good ramen from a trucker and his partner, a renovation contractor, a personal driver, and the master of a gang of gourmet vagabonds. The gourmet vagabonds have the most refined taste and knowledge of food, as they regularly dumpster dive behind the most exclusive restaurants and sneak into their kitchens in the middle of the night to cook their favourite dishes.
Food brings us together in so many ways, but if there is one lesson that films like Tampopo and Ratatouille teach us, it’s that the appreciation for good food and good cooking is something that anyone in the world, at any stage of life or any social status, can relate to.
Before I was ever so passionate about food and cooking, I came across a DVD of Eat Drink Man Woman. The opening scene alone captivated me in an indescribable way; I had never understood food as art before that moment. It opened up my appetite and opened up my mind.
As food continues to be a topic of discussion and of popular culture, I hope to see more interesting uses for it in the world of narrative films. It is clear, more than ever now, that food is art. That chefs are artists and creators. But like any work of art, it shouldn’t stop there. Art is meant to propel us into larger discussions about the world that we live in. To see food in the context of reality television or documentary film does quench our thirst for information and does give us a higher sense of appreciation for food. But it can sometimes feel very limiting compared to what food in the context of a bigger picture can do to inspire us.
Special thanks to the TIFF Library for their assistance in our research. It is a fantastic resource that is free and open to everyone.
If you would like to see Eat Drink Man Woman on the big screen, the TIFF Food on Film series will screen it as part of its last instalment on June 7 at 7:00pm, with a discussion with none other than Susur Lee.
Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate