For many of us, especially those of us who love movies, there are three great pleasures in life: Food, sex and cinema ... though not necessarily in that order.
Of the three, cinema is the only pleasure which can roll food, sex and countless other feelings, themes and experiences into one interesting batch of tiramisu. Food on film elicits all kinds of reactions and yearnings that underscore just how much emotion we sometimes invest in day-to-day eating or... binging or whatever sensible eaters do (I don't understand that concept, so I wouldn't know). Which is why Richard Linklater's latest movie, Fast Food Nation, (adapted from Eric Schlosser's notorious non-fiction novel) works not only as the big screen screed against fast food, but as a more personal look at what we shove in our gullets as well.
And yet, as gastronomically gruesome as Fast Food Nation can be, I want to eat something. And watch something too. So with that, I've thought of some of my favorite food on film moments.
Sugar High: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Though the much loved and romantic Chocolat will pop into many a sweet tooth's head, I find that film much too corny and not really all that scrumptious when it comes to whetting my appetite for candy. And yes, yes, I know the chocolate in said film is of a finer quality and, I presume, magically enhanced by the charm of Juliette Binoche, but please. When it comes to wishing Halloween came twice a week (or twice a day), it's all about Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The story of five lucky kids winning a visit to the famous and magical candy factory run by the wild and weird Willy Wonka (a tremendous Gene Wilder) is a confectionary dream that turns nightmarish once the kids (sans Charlie) reveal their varied and insufferable personalities. But no matter how many of the children endure dire consequences for their gluttonous temptations, we still want, as the song goes, candy. And come on -- cut these kids a break. One of Wonka's rooms is entirely edible. Would you be acting normal after shoving your face in a river of chocolate?
Best Restaurant Order: Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Nope. Sorry. I'm not going with the obvious -- When Harry Met Sally. First off, contrary to popular opinion, Meg Ryan's fake orgasm, "I'll have what she's having" -- diner display is the least funny moment in the otherwise charming romantic comedy. And secondly, no one beats Jack Nicholson in the inappropriate, though completely understandable restaurant behavior department. The masterful film (directed by Bob Rafelson) really has little to do with food, but it tops our list simply for Jack's iconic way of ordering a side of toast. Nicholson plays a slumming oil rigger/talented pianist who embarks on a trek to visit his dying father with a saucy girlfriend (Karen Black) and, at one point, two surly female hitchhikers in tow. The four make quite a tall order when a seen-it-all waitress won't bend the rules ("no substitutions") on a breakfast order of a "plain omelette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee, and wheat toast." When the waitress insists she can only bring Nicholson a roll or an English muffin, he asks the perfectly reasonable question, "You make sandwiches don't you?" and proceeds to order a chicken salad sandwich, hold the butter, mayonnaise and lettuce. But where to hold the chicken? "Between your knees," Jack famously and disdainfully coos. I never tire of this moment. And right now I'd really enjoy some wheat toast.
Prison Food: Goodfellas (1990)
From stirring the Sunday sauce just right (no matter if helicopters and cops are on your tail), to dinner with Joe Pesci's ma (actually Scorsese's), to shoving the mailman's head in a pizza oven, there's no shortage of delicious and murderous food sequences in Martin Scorsese's stylized Goodfellas. But the primo moment has to be when the bosses go to a prison so cushy, not even Martha Stewart could have conceived it. As Ray Liotta genially narrates, we watch the delivery of a ridiculously plentiful assortment of food -- delicious, hearty Italian food -- to the delight of the drooling but discerning jailbirds. The topper is when Paul Sorvino slices strips of garlic with a razor blade to such thin, such translucent perfection that when you see it gently combine with the olive oil and sizzle in the pan, you can practically smell the delectability. Makes you want to go to jail...only as a mobster of course.
Another Reason You Shouldn't Eat at the Olive Garden: Big Night (1996)
Big Night is a filling, high calorie, good for you movie in more ways than one. The story of two Italian brothers, Primo (Stanley Tucci -- who directed the film alongside Campbell Scott) and Secondo (the poignant Tony Shalhoub), attempting to save their wonderful New Jersey restaurant is funny, touching, musical, heartbreaking, sexy and yes, absolutely, almost painfully mouthwatering. The brothers argue over just how to save their establishment in a greedy world that doesn't care for quality and artistry. But, after learning jazz great Louis Prima will be stopping by, they set out to create the ultimate multiple-course Italian meal. The centerpiece dish is Timpano, a layering of meat, pasta and pastry that requires two days of preparation, but all of the picture's food is staggeringly delicious. Though our favorite scene is the film's finale, a quiet moment where the fighting brothers wordlessly forgive one another over the simple act of making eggs and eating bread. If you think having an emotional response to food is a bad thing, then Big Night will remind you that it's exactly what makes us human. And happy to be alive.
French Kiss: Babette's Feast (1987)
Babette (Stéphane Audran) is some family cook. The French woman, who originally fled Paris after her son and husband were killed, has worked for a family in Denmark for 14 years, preparing food with little zest. But when she wins a lottery, she decides to use her winnings on crafting an elaborate "real French dinner" for her employers in honor of their deceased father's 100th birthday. What transpires is an overwhelmingly tasty, exotic and even, at one point, scary French meal (the sisters suspect Babette might be a witch in one scene). As a result of her luscious meal, filled with French delicacies that'll make even food philistines wish to sample the country's cuisine, all kinds of emotions are revealed, prejudices are broken and the family is bonded.
Greatest Incentive to Diet: Super Size Me (2004)
Though the exploding gluttony of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life might make you pass on that second slice of pie, it's Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me that'll cause many to re-think not only their diet, but your entire country's diet as well. The Academy Award-nominated documentary in which Spurlock takes on McDonalds via a 30-day test of eating and drinking only food from that fine fast food establishment, is kind of a no-brainer, but horrifying nonetheless. Sure, sure, I know fast food isn't good for us, but the state of Spurlock's body, mind, emotional state and inner workings were so compromised after eating the stuff, even the hamburger heathen in me was completely grossed out.
It's People!: Ravenous (1999)
This one's tough. We've got some great cannibal contenders in this category, chief among them, the classic The Silence of the Lambs, the hilarious Eating Raoul, the remarkably disturbing Parents and, of course, Soylent Green, which always sounded kind of yummy to me. But I'm partial to that underrated war/vampire/horror picture Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird with flesh eating flair. The title itself is wonderfully evocative, even while being blatant, and the movie, about a Mexican-American war captain (played by Guy Pearce) who's sent to an outpost in which the inhabitants are cannibals (led by a terrifically devious and sexy Robert Carlyle), is clever, scary, gory and deeply layered. It may be people, but it's good eating. And oddly arousing. Makes me want to try a bite of that stuff.
Revenge is A Dish Best Served ... : The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)
Working like the anti-Babette's Feast, Peter Greenaway's brilliant though at times deeply repulsive film will make many never want to eat French food ever again. The story concerns the deviant (and, symbolically, political) happenings at a fine French restaurant in which the gastronomically gifted chef, Richard (Richard Bohringer), crafts elaborately artistic meals while the restaurant's boorish owner (Michael Gambon) holds obnoxious court with his abused wife (Helen Mirren). When the wife takes a lover, things, as they say, heat up, but not in any way you have or ever will imagine. Gorgeously shot and costumed and filled with succulent and sickening examples of cuisine, the film's (spoiler alert!) special of the day involves the murdered corpse of the wife's lover served up for her husband to eat. There's many lessons to be learned from this picture, but here's a simple one -- don't mistreat the cook, the waitstaff and a woman who is deservedly cheating on you. Also, didn't you see Fight Club? Would you like an extra wizz in your soup?
Top Ramen: Tampopo (1987)
Juzo Itami's Tampopo truly is a Spaghetti Western. Well, maybe more a noodle Western ... but its humorous blending of the old school Western with the, in this case, dizzyingly creative task of creating a perfect bowl of ramen, is giddy, delirious fun. The story has an aspiring restaurateur receiving aid from a cowboy drifter whose mission becomes noodles. From this fanciful plot, short sub stories evolve with meditative gusto, including a supermarket manager chasing an elderly woman who squeezes too much produce, a gangster's kinky fun with food and sex and an old man who nearly chokes to death on noodles only to be saved by a restaurant patron with a vacuum cleaner. It's a wonderfully inventive essay underlining that our passion for food can invoke innumerable and often bizarre scenarios. And it really, really makes me yearn for some noodles.
All You Ever Needed to Know About Chicken but Were Afraid to Ask: To Catch A Thief (1955)
For most people who enjoy a good meal (and a good roll in the hay) food and sex are so inexorably linked, we're frequently uncertain what's more tempting. In simple terms -- which would you rather gorge on? The greatest sushi you'll ever eat in your life or the greatest sexual gymnastics you'll ever perform with ... let's just say a young Brigitte Bardot? I'd probably pick the sushi, but what if Bardot was the chef? That's where movies happily come into play. Though there are many classic food and sex films and moments, including the egg incident from In the Realm of the Senses, the fridge raiding sequence from 9 ½ Weeks and the "I can't believe it is butter!" milestone of Last Tango in Paris, our favorite has to be Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. Eating their chicken lunch picnic, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are at their most sensual and human when the question of which piece of chicken arises. When he asks, "You want leg or breast?" and she answers "You make the choice," it's a true double entendre. She's flat out just telling him he can have both of...all of it.
Just As Good:
Cool Hand Luke’s Paul Newman eating fifty eggs in one hour.
Catherine Deneuve's rabbit insanity in Repulsion.
The maple syrup moment in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe in The Gold Rush.
Mickey Rourke’s popcorn surprise in Diner.
The great rare steak stand-off in Mommie Dearest.
James Cagney shoving a grapefuit in Mae Clark's face in Public Enemy.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton attempting to cook lobster in Annie Hall.
Chianti, Fava Beans and liver from The Silence of the Lambs.
The drugged, demonic chocolate "mouse" served to Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.