Appropriately enough, the topic pops up over lunch. Food in film. How much of an impact does it have? I’m surprised at the intensity with which the discussion gathers force. “Meg Ryan’s cafe scene in Harry Met Sally,” says one friend. “What about Brad Pitt eating throughout Ocean’s Eleven,” asks another. “Pasta in Eat Pray Love,” she counters. “Penelope Cruz cooking in Woman On Top,” he says. “Catherine Zeta-Jones searing a steak in No Reservations.” “Paul Giamatti chugging Chateau Cheval Blanc from a Styrofoam cup in Sideways.” An impasse.
The third friend’s busy eating a dosa. But at this point she looks up and cryptically says Salt N’ Pepper. We pass her both. “No,” she snaps. “The movie.” In this 2011 Malayalam love story Kalidasan, a foodie from Thiruvananthapuram, accidently connects with Maya when she rings up a restaurant to order a ‘Thattil Kutti Dosa’. Their telephonic romance blooms as he teaches her the secrets of baking, via a multi-layer cake called ‘Joan’s Rainbow.” My friend adds, “The dosas! At the end of the movie I just had to go to a restaurant and eat one.”
Is that the mark of a successful food film? Should it make you want to cook or eat immediately? I know at least one young restaurateur who was inspired by Ratatouille. But sometimes, a good food scene is satisfying because it allows you to simply luxuriate in it. You don’t need to leave the theatre, you don’t need to cook — you just sit back, and vicariously enjoy all the protagonist’s unabashed food pleasures, and all the metaphors they represent.
It’s not just movies. Cartoon characters can give Hollywood actors a run for their money. I’m betting most of you developed a passion for spinach as children thanks to Popeye. As kids, my sister and I ran to the fridge and grabbed carrots at the beginning of every Bugs Bunny cartoon, because that sneaky rabbit made them look so delicious. The scene in Lady and the Tramp, where he takes her to a restaurant for spaghetti and meatballs is described as one of Walt Disney’s most romantic scenes. All I know is it triggered my addiction to spaghetti sputtering with sauce.
Judging by the success of Julie & Julia, which drew foodies, bloggers and aspiring cooks to the theatre in droves, I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a lot of food-centred TV and films over the next few years. The movie’s about love, and ambition, and grit, sure. But more importantly it’s about perfect food shots: from fish sizzling in butter sauce to Julia’s heady boeuf bourguignon.
When it comes to favourites, most ‘best food movies’ lists include the 1992, Spanish Like Water for Chocolate. A movie replete with magic realism, based on the popular 1989 novel by Mexican Laura Esquivel, it demonstrates how powerful food can be. Tita and Pedro want to get married, but he ends up marrying her sister. Forced to make the wedding cake, she pours all her sadness into it, and it sweeps through the guests as they begin to eat.
Then there’s the quirky Women On Top, featuring the stunning Penelope Cruz discovering how cooking sets her free. And Chocolat released the same year, where Juliette Binoche, a charming drifter, wins over a conservative 1960 French town with chocolate.
Bollywood’s given us Cheeni Kum, featuring Amitabh Bachchan as a talented, but grouchy, 60-something Chef Buddhadev at a top London restaurant. The Hyderabadi zafrani pulao became so popular; there are food bloggers who painstakingly took down the recipe from the movie and recreated it.
Increasingly, far from being just a prop, food is often a narrative tool. When it’s filmed with passion, and intensity, it makes for memorable cinema. It stops just being something on a plate and becomes part of the story. As real, and essential, as any of the characters. With enough power and momentum to propel stories forward. In this age of glossy cooking shows, it’s only natural that food-centred movies are getting made more often. But, food has always been romanticised on celluloid. And after the credits have rolled past and your last bit of caramel popcorn has been eaten, often, what you remember are the food scenes.