Growing up, I lived ten minutes away from my Pop-pop, an Italian chef who built his career in Philadelphia, working in restaurants and hospital kitchens. He wore newsboy caps and had a hatred of undercooked pasta, microwave dinners, sauce from a jar… and, well, anything he hadn’t made himself. Every Sunday, my mother, father, brother, and I would go to Pop-pop’s house for dinner; or, at least, what we called dinner, although it usually started around 3 in the afternoon. I can still remember the way his house always smelled of cooking oil, bacon fat, tomato sauce: his beige carpet had turned black after years of spills and the footsteps of dinner guests and family.
I shudder to think what Pop-pop would have said had he seen me eating lukewarm ravioli out of a can as I watched the films I want to discuss today. I’ve chosen five films that place a focus on food and cooking, ranging from light-hearted comedies to magical realist dramas, to answer the questions that brought me to this project: why do people want to watch movies about food? Why do people make them? What is so attractive about watching someone prepare a meal that you will never taste, and what is it that makes film an effective instrument with which to examine food?
The following are the films I salivated through in preparation for this post: Like Water for Chocolate (1992), directed by Alfonso Arau; Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), directed by Ang Lee; Julie and Julia (2009), directed by Nora Ephron; Romantics Anonymous (2010), directed by Jean-Pierre Améris; and The Lunchbox (2013), directed by Ritesh Batra. Each of these films is in a different language, and each (with the partial exception of Julie and Julia and Romantics Anonymous, which are both concerned with French cuisine, though the former has as much to do with American cooks as it does French) are concerned with different styles of food and take place in different cultural contexts. By discussing an international sampling of films (although it is by no means exhaustive) I am hoping to demonstrate the universality of what food signifies; although the meals and the tables at which they are eaten may change, people from all over the world want to watch films about food for similar reasons.
So, let’s start where most great meals do: in the kitchen. A great deal of the appeal of these films is watching chefs at work: in Julie and Julia, a film about a woman making every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,we see raspberry jam being folded into white cream, red beef patted down in paper towels and seared in an orange frying pan, a chicken perfectly browned and emerging from the oven; here we are reminded of how beautiful food is, the truly engaging and surprising ways in which food resembles art, resembles painting, how delicately and artfully each ingredient is paired to another, and the visual play between parts of a meal.
In The Lunchbox—a film set in Mumbai about a man who accidentally receives another man’s lunch, and strikes up a relationship with his wife, Ila—we hear the sizzle of dough fried in oil, the clicking of a stove as it’s being turned on; we are invited aurally into a woman’s kitchen, hearing sounds that are familiar even to those of us who don’t cook (who, like me, don't even have an oven). Our senses are engaged in more than just a visual way; we hear the food as music and we think of how it would smell, the frying oil, the gas from the stove, the aromatic sauces and spices. We recall how food engages the entire body as we see Ila slowly stuffing peppers with rice, when we watch her eat with her hands or dip her palm into a sauce to test it. Sound serves to more fully immerse us in the musical, corporeal pursuit of cooking, reminds us that a film about food is more than a picture on a screen, it should be an experience that stimulates all of our senses.
In Eat Drink Man Woman—a film set in Taipei, about an aging master chef living with his three adult daughters, all of whom are struggling to figure out what they want—we watch Mr. Chu carve warriors onto the skin of a watermelon, or break a fish’s neck and debone it so carefully that a perfect skeleton emerges, and we see the care it takes to prepare food, the precision that great cooking requires. There is something oddly life-affirming about watching a man slice tofu into millimeter thin strips, or chop a root vegetable into perfectly even segments; the kitchen is a place of control, detail, exactitude. It is beautiful to see a person work so carefully at a pursuit that is entirely nutritive, that will be shared with others, and that, although it will be eaten and digested and entirely gone soon, for the moment deserves complete attention.
In Romantics Anonymous Anglique, a woman with crippling social anxiety, spreads melted chocolate across a cool metal counter, and her colleague whittles a perfect Eiffel Tower out of a block of chocolate, and we understand more than just texture (another means of engaging the viewer’s bodies with a filmic experience), we understand how cooking is therapeutic, how precision in the kitchen is more than just carefulness: to Anglique, who is typically a nervous wreck, the care and exactness of her profession allow her to heal, to exert power and demonstrate competency. Cooking is more than just ‘feeding work’, more than supplying fuel for a body; its intentional nature also does the ‘emotion work’ of improving the chef’s internal condition.
In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita, a young woman from a conservative Mexian family, in love with her sister’s husband, kneels on the floor she grinds corn for a tortilla, and we see her bare shoulders, a flash of her breast, the sweat on her neck: the film is deeply erotic, and we see how cooking becomes a means for Tita to express her sensuality in a socially acceptable way. Although she lacks power and agency in her life, controlled as she is by her mother, when she cooks she is free to use her body, to be passionate; she engages with her body erotically, and cooking becomes a way to end not only literal, but also sexual hunger.
In all five films, among these other images and sounds, there is the perpetual billowing of steam from pots, an ethereal presence in the kitchen that reminds the viewer how ascendant the process of making a meal is. Steam is the closest any visual can get to the otherworldly: it is a literal, visual means of communicating the mystical, of indicating that something if not divine, then at least fantastic is happening.
And food does allow fantastic things to happen: in The Lunchbox, two strangers pass notes along with bowls of paneer and rice, and start to fall in love; as the man eats Ila’s food, his life and hers become more aligned. She swats a fly away from her face at the same moment he swats one from his; as he reads her description of a fan slowing down and stopping, the fan whirring above his head slows and stops.
Even in Julie and Julia, a fairly down-to-earth film, two women who are separated by a span of sixty years are brought together by Julie Powell’s project to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes: in the film, scenes of Julie’s modern life are woven in between scenes of Julia’s in late 1950s Paris (in one scene, a room Julie is looking at in a museum literally becomes a scene from Julia’s life, as the camera zooms in and the light changes, and Julia Child bustles into the kitchen with her husband), and Julie constantly talks about feeling Julia’s presence in the kitchen as she cooks. Although this is not precisely ghostly, there is something magical about one woman being so connected to another (who she will never meet) through her recipes.
Another important and related thread connecting these films is the idea that cooking is a way for women to claim power, to reassert control over their lives and become meaningful, contented people: and, although there is a part of me that wishes cooking was not the only way women in these films could prove themselves (after all, who isn’t tired of the phrase “get back in the kitchen!”), there is something empowering about them. Although cooking is seen as a feminine pursuit domestically, the professional world of food is still male-dominated: seeing women enter that space is actually quite radical and feminist.
Still, it should be noted that even when women aren’t entering cooking in a professional sphere, food allows them to connect to others, to express things that they are forbidden to in regular life: through the lunches Ila prepares in The Lunchbox, she connects to a man who appreciates her, and eventually gains such a feeling of self-worth that she leaves her unfaithful husband (and not for another man, but for herself!—she remains single at the end of the film); in Like Water for Chocolate Tita pours her emotions into her food, causing those who eat it to weep if she is sad, to kiss if she is feeling sexy, to throw up if she is angry: she becomes powerful in a very literal way.
Food, too, creates a network between women: Julie learns to cook from Julia Child, Tita learns from her nanny Nacha and cooks with her friend Chencha, Ila borrows ingredients and gets advice from her “Auntie” in the upstairs apartment: cooking connects people, connects women, in a way that empowers them, draws them together and gives them strength.
Food is such a meaningful part of our lives, whether our parents made us dinner, or our babysitters, or our Pop-pops did, whether we eat out every night or make mac and cheese in a microwave. It is important both as something we experience every day out of necessity, and as something we use to mark special occasions, to pass on cultural values, and to bridge distances (both personal and temporal) that might otherwise be insurmountable. Food is a lens through which to view female agency, sexual politics, romantic and filial love, and internationalism; and, most basically, it’s fun. People (or, most people I know) enjoy eating, especially when the food is good, just as people (at least, all the best people) enjoy good films. So, I invite you all to make yourself some popcorn (with extra butter!), and dig in to all of the movies in this post; I promise you, you’re in for a real treat.