It is not like food has not been depicted in films over the ages. An integral part of our lives and survival, food or at least eating has been showcased or implicitly refereed to through different mediums of art. Remember the dinner feast of Macbeth when the guilt ridden hero of Shakespearean tragedy comes face to face with the ghost of Duncan? Or the reactionary painting of the Last Supper which is wrought with emotional and social complexities? Depiction of food is strewn throughout the history of art.
The coming of the moving picture made realism that much inevitable and led to some of the best exposure of food and its aesthetics.
While films did bring art closer to realism, making films completely focused on food faced many technical constraints. This is because showcasing cooking requires all our sensory involvements. A lot of food’s appeal comes from the vibrant colors and lively sounds that are closely related to food. The appeal of bacon has a lot to do with the sizzling sound it makes while a dessert from any country needs color to fully showcase its aesthetic appeal. Despite such technical issues, when we look at some of the first film stocks of Lumiere Brothers, there are many scenes of eating and drinking that are featured. There is one particularly memorable one named ‘Tea Time with Babies’ (1895), where a couple is seen enjoying lunch while the father is trying to feed the baby. These are 45second short documentary style shorts which essentially show glimpses of family life in 1890’s France. So, food and eating in particular has always been subjects worth capturing from the very beginning of film history.
In an article Food in Films: A Star is Born Steve Zimmerman writes:
“…hindrance to food photography was the use of black-and-white film stock, which often depicted food unflatteringly and failed to convey its sensual nature…Another stumbling block that prevented the glamorization or, at the very least, the appetite appeal of food was the lack of sound.”
But with the introduction of talkies in 1927 more and more films started having scenes with people eating or about to eat. It was only after World War II that cinema actually took interest in food as a subject matter. Introduction of strobe lights, electronic flash and high intensity beams which could produce brighter and clear pictures aided in photographing food.
At the same time it is my belief that prior to the two Great Wars food was taken for granted by the major part of Europe and America. The World Wars and the fall of colonialism showed not only the impermanence of life but the real impact of hunger and death. The aftermath of war made the importance of food pronounced and its direct relation to vitality of life which led to depiction of food in films.
Another interesting shift in world cinema was the direct relation between the portrayal of female protagonists and food in films. Here was a subject matter that cannot shy away from portraying women in substantial roles, compelling directors to think differently and cast women as protagonists. The feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s also had an impact in making food and food studies mainstream since this was the subject that has continued to confine women in the kitchen for centuries.
By 1990 there was a steady stream of foreign films which dealt with food in varying degree of importance. Babette’s Feast won some of the major awards firmly securing and paving the path of glamorizing food in films.
Consequent films such as Like Water for Chocolate(1992) , Tampopo (1986), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) or Chocolat (2000) showcased food and its receptions among the eaters in varied lights. By the turn of the century food films had made a mark of its own.
Food and the Individual
I remember the first time I had seen food shown in all its extravagance in Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone. The first film of the Harry Potter franchise came out in 1998. I remember going to the theaters (a privilege in itself), to watch this particular movie and when Harry reaches Hogwarts for his first year of magic education he comes face to face with the Great Hall tables filled with different kinds of food. I was around the same age as Harry when I watched the film. The tables filled with food and the abundance of it captured my imagination. I did not care what the food was, but the fact that there was food as far as the eyes could see only increased my curiosity. That was probably the first time I really thought about food as more than something you need to chew and get over with.
Then I watched Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), where the protagonists could just think of a particular cuisine and it was instantly available for them. This increased my curiosity about food. The thought of having so many tastes at my disposal had me completely mesmerized. The possibility of abundance of food and sweets and delicacies was a privilege that a child from a middle class family could not imagine.
An individual’s relation to food is continuously seen not only in the characters within the films but also in the spectator who goes to watch films. May be that’s why, every major film directors over the decades have cast food in a significant way in their films.
This continual importance put on food and food scenes in films is due partly to the power of representing individuality of characters. In Chocolat this point was heavily explored. When Vianne Rocher first comes to the orthodox village in France, she is immediately met with difficulty. After she first opens her chocolate patisserie, the major reason that people started coming to her was for her genius of understanding people and their taste preferences. She has a chocolate for every kind of people and chocolate is the solution for every domestic trouble people might be going through.
Chocolat showcases the power of a single ingredient which when flavored with different stuff has the power to melt the hardest of hearts. Even though this film has deeper social representations, which I will not discuss here, one thing that people will notice is the way the people of the village are shown at the beginning of the film, like one single black mass, which by the end of the film is completely disrupted by the exuberance of individuality that it depicts.
Films also are representation of cultures and societies unexplored. Food is very specifically related to culture and society. Food can be both local and global making it an important marker of individuality. In Tampopo, director Juzo Itami, carefully opens up the culture of modern Japan through the people and their relation to food. To talk about all the food depicted in Tampopo would need a separate book but broadly speaking we see two different kinds of food- Japanese cuisine and global cuisine- being represented which farther underscores individuality. There is one particular scene which heightens the ideas of individuality in Tampopo. As the search of the perfect ramen continues, Tampopo and her sensei Goro meet this group of mismatched lowlifes who scavenge in the dustbins of various restaurants of Tokyo and get to taste the best of the culinary world. Each of these people has a particular affinity. One is a wine connoisseur, while other knows all the different kind of rice dishes. Then there is this old man who has the best knowledge of making broth for ramen. We see these groups of people who are from the lowest section of society having the best knowledge of world cuisine with deep love for their respective obsessions. In direct contrast, Itami satirically places the businessmen of Japan who blindly conforms to the eating habit of their superior and goes on to order the exact things that their superior ordered. This contrast between how different economic groups interact with food also exposes the deeper questions of identity and individuality in a world where everyone is trying to emulate someone or the other.
Food and Identity
Food is not only about the ingredients but it is also about the cook and the eater. Food has the power to reinforce identity of the cook or instill within the taster of a dish a need to explore her identity. Food is also emotional. It brings out many emotions within us. Food can be marvelous filling us with joy, food is nourishment filling us with peace, food is a reminder of our baser instincts filling us with caution, and food is tenderness filling us with love. Food is emotion and expression of it. At the front line of all these emotions are the women of our lives. Women, who have, since eternity been confined to the kitchens, a space where all their dreams and aspirations grow and shatter into infinite pieces. That is why a lot of female protagonists in food films see cooking as a space to explore their identity and a medium of expression of their identity. In The Lunchbox (2013), Ritesh Batra, shows Ila who is an earnest doting wife craving some attention from her largely dispassionate husband. Ila’s world is a lonely world. The only companion she has is a voice who gives her easy guide to enhance her cooking.
Ila has only one wish that her husband gives her attention and she tries to convey all her love and tenderness through her food. It is her labor of love and years of social conditioning have taught her that food makes everything better.
Then there is Babette who fully expresses her identity at the very end of the film, Babette’s Feast, through the extravagant dinner she throws for the people of the quiet town she moves to after she flees war torn France. From the moment she enters the lives of the two religious sisters the only space she uses her agency is in her cooking. There is a moment in the film when Babette is expressing her wish to the sisters and she earnestly says that, ‘I have never asked for anything until today.’
Throughout Like Water for Chocolate, Tita constantly struggles to express her identity as a woman and her repressed sexuality through food. Tita’s birth which was like ‘a great tide of tears that spilled over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor’ anticipates not only a life of sadness for Tita but the flood of emotions that will wash away the family. Tita falls in love with her neighbor Pedro, going against the traditions of her family and this is the turning point in the film. For the rest of the narrative we see Tita making food that will have different emotional outbursts from her taster. She creates the Quail in Rose Petals Sauce with the roses that Pedro got her, pouring all her love in it, so much so that her sister on tasting it runs around naked unable to control the passion Tita’s food ignites in her. Tita’s hatred for her sister is so intense that her sister dies after eating the food Tita made in her fit of anger. Using magical realism, Laura Esquival, the author of the novel which was adapted into the film, expresses Tita’s overpowering emotions which have no outlet other than in the food she cooks. It also underscores how a cook has an emotional connection to the food she cooks. The food is her identity and her emotions.
In I am Love (2009), Tilda Swinton’s character Emma seems to wake up to her identity as a person and as a woman when she encounters Antonio, a chef. Before Emma meets Antonio, we see Emma as the matriarch and a mother. The film opens with Emma meticulously arranging everything for the party thrown in honor of the Head of the Recchi family Edoardo Sr. She is seen interacting with her oldest son Edoardo in familial love but she is never shown as a woman or an individual with her own sense of self. Her Russian identity has been erased with her Russian name. She never went back to Russia since she came to Italy after her marriage and speaks fluent Italian. Even though she has constructed herself as the ideal Italian wife with modern sensibilities she has not been shown the warmth of being a part of the family and has remained at the fringes- observing everything and always available for her children. She is the woman who is expected to play the role of the wife and a host to perfection by taking care of household responsibilities with almost robotic precision without having any agency.
The character of Antonio is in stark contrast to the industrialist family that Emma is part of. He is a chef, working in the kitchen (primarily a feminine space), a complete opposite of every ideals held in the Recchi family. In that sense, Antonio was a wave of fresh air with fresh set of thoughts to Emma. The first time Emma meets Antonio he is someone her son Edoardo lost to in Polo. Later she observes him preparing a Russian salad for her son’s engagement party. This awakens the long forgotten memories of her Russian heritage which till now she had to suppress unless Edoardo requests her special Ukha soup that he loves. But the turning point in Emma’s existence came when she tasted the shrimp dish at Antonio’s restaurant. The awakening she felt expressed by the bright light that seemed to emanate from the dish brings out Emma’s inner light that till now was carefully repressed. We see her opening up for the first time about her own opinions.
Food and Female Representation in Films
Counihan and Van Esterik is quoted in the introduction to Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Films and Politics of Representation to say ‘feminism and women’s studies have contributed to the growth of food studies, by legitimating a domain of human behavior so heavily associated with women over time and across cultures.’ Hence, some of the earliest so called ‘food films’ all had women at the center of action. Women and food go hand in hand in most cultures, making any food film heavily women centric if not feminist.
Babette’s Feast was the first food film that was highly applauded in all major award shows like Cannes Film Festival (1987) where it won Prize of the Ecumenical Jury- Special Mention Award, apart from Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film.
Story of transformation of a quaint, close knit village when Babette, one of France’s greatest chefs, arrives and makes a space for herself in the heart of all the residents is a story of the struggle between the restrictions placed on individuals by Lutheran ideals and the human want for indulgence in bodily pleasures. But I want to concentrate on the question of Babette’s representation in the film. When she first comes to the village she is the helpless woman who will, as she claims herself, will die if not given shelter by the two sisters. Once she starts living in the village she has strength of character to understand situations and knows how to stop trouble from brewing. Piety and religion no longer has the strength to bring people together. It is Babette’s feast that brought smile and peace among the villagers who before that was becoming suspicious of their neighbors and disrupting the general peace that was the essence of the village. Babette became the strength of the two sisters after their father’s death. This is significant, especially since the Pastor was the symbol of restrictions (he discouraged his daughters to get married or pursue their talents), rejection of the body and orthodox beliefs while Babette becomes the symbol of tenderness, emotions and sensual pleasures.
In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita is not only a symbol of female repression but also the metaphor for the upcoming change in the politics of Mexico. She does not shy away from exploring her emotions despite staying true to her mother’s wishes. Tita is Mexico, going through years of unrest to earn their sovereignty and freedom from old bourgeois ideals.
Tita as well as her sister Gertrudis finds their calling and has the strength to take their dreams forward. At the same time, Tita’s emotions and exploding love has grave consequences. After the death of her mother, Mother Elena, and her sister Rosaura, also the wife of Pedro, Tita and Pedro sees the possibility to consummating their love for each other. But the ghost of Mother Elena’s ideals is so strong that Pedro dies right after both their bodies meet. Throughout the film Tita is seen grief stricken and hysteric to the point that she has to be institutionalized. Tita has waited for decades for Pedro, rejecting the marriage proposal of the doctor because she wants to ‘save’ herself for Pedro and cannot accept anyone else. Pedro, on the other hand, marries Rosaura and even has two children with her. Neither does he try to speak up against Mother Elena’s strict ideals, nor does tries to help Tita break out of her mother’s grasp. In the end, Tita’s love could not be saved and it remains unfulfilled. The only silver lining is that the next generation could break free in the end.
In Tampopo, there are lots of different narratives which bring out the different ways society puts expectations on women. The scene where the a group of ladies are being taught how to have spaghetti like Italians, or the narrative about the woman on her deathbed getting up to prepare one last dinner for her family is poignant. But these are juxtaposed by the primary narrative of Tampopo who takes her own decisions and does everything in her power to succeed in making the best ramen. While Goro is there to guide her through the maze that is ramen, in nowhere in the film do we see Goro trying to decide what Tampopo should do? By the end of the film we see Goro going off on his own journey once Tampopo’s education is over.
In I am Love, despite the intimacy between Emma and her eldest son Edoardo Jr. is showcased, Edoardo cannot accept his mother’s indiscretion in loving Antonio. He sees Emma sharing the recipe for Ukha as a betrayal rather than her way of sharing her love for Edoardo with Antonio. The death of Edoardo Jr. at the end of the film can be seen in two ways: it is the death of Emma’s connection with the Recchi family since prior to that Elisabetta has already broken out of the family by her choice and Emma has accepted that. Edoardo was the only person who had some power over Emma’s identity as part of the Recchi family. The other perspective can be that Emma’s indiscretion led to her losing one of the closest person in her life, becoming a direct consequence of her illegitimate relation with Antonio.
In The Lunchbox, we come across three different women, one albeit just a voice in the background (acted marvelously by Bharati Achrekar). But all their lives are surrounded by the men in their lives. Ila wants to rekindle her love with her husband and carefully prepares lunch for him. Mrs. Deshpande is heard talking about taking care of her come induced husband, while Ila’s mother has only one goal in her life procuring money for medicines, making food or getting her husband cleaned up who has lung cancer.
In direct contrast are the three men seen in the narrative. Ila’s husband who takes Ila’s household responsibilities and cooking for him as a right he has gained from marrying her. Mr. Fernandez and elderly widower who has to rely on parceled food since his wife’s death and Shaikh, an orphan who had to learn how to cook because of the lack of a mother figure in his life as a child. The fleeting glance we have into the relationship between Shaikh and his wife-to-be informs the viewer that Shaikh does not put the responsibility of cooking on her. But that relationship is not given enough time to explore making it difficult to comment on it farther.
There are numerous films which have given significant priority on food to take forward the narrative. I have chosen only those films which are by Steve Zimmerman’s definition has all the tropes that make them come under the genre of ‘food films’ and have women in the lead. Food is an important tool in making multi-faceted commentary on social, economic, cultural and political reality of countries and it will remain an important medium of observation in times to come. The 21st century has seen a surprising growth in the production of food films and has gained momentum in the last five years. As quoted by Anne L. Bower in Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, genres go through ‘cycles leading from innovation to emulation to exhaustion.’ She also says that food movies are in the cycle of emulation and the future will determine the path this genre will take.
“Introduction.” Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation, by Cynthia Baron et al., Wayne State University Press, 2014, pp. 2–3. Accessed 30.06.2020. 7.45p.m.
Bower, Anne L. Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, Routledge, 2004, pp. 5–6. accessed 30.06.2020 8.03p.m.
Zimmerman, Steve. “Food in Films: A Star Is Born.” Gastronomica, vol. 9, no. 2, 2009, pp. 25–34., doi:10.1525/gfc.2009.9.2.25.
A graduate of philosophy and literature, Tias specializes in aesthetic and food studies. Cinema has been an important part of her life since she can remember. She is a full time baker and a part time writer.