food and the arts



Understandably, your immediate response is likely to be a literal and not an intellectual one. But unlike cookery programmes, whose main purpose - entertaining apart - is to teach you how to feed your body, the makers of foodie films are more intent on feeding your mind.

In contemporary cinema, screenwriters and directors have produced a powerful and thought-provoking body of performance art -  in which food plays a key role.

This role has never been properly acknowledged or registered. For many of these film makers, points out Cambridge lecturer Jennifer Wallace, ‘food is never unambiguously material and its metaphorical possibilities are endless.

Sometimes, the use of food in films is marginal, little more than a prop or set piece. The meal depicted simply as an ordered social ritual set the stage for the unravelling of a shameful family secret in Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s FESTEN, which premiered at The London Film Festival in November 1998.                                                     

In others, it plays a hidden role, subtly illustrating a particular age or social gathering. Take Martin Scorsese’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993), a study of prejudice in America’s repressed upper class society of the late 19th century, in which the director utilises food and etiquette to depict a social jungle.

Alternatively, food can become ‘the star of the show,’  the centre of a ‘cinematographic plate.’ Film studies professor Ian Christie goes even further: ‘Cinema itself is a kind of consumption, hoovering up reality and feeding it to us in bite-sized chunks.’

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a rash of ‘anti-food’ films based on a denial of food and drink, such as in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), the DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972) or GANDHI (1982).

During the XXth century, typically and traditionally, food or its scarcity has been featured as a graphic metaphor for poverty, wealth, greed, lust, sex, loss, death or even contradiction.                                                     

Charlie Chaplin fans will recall his 1925 American masterpiece, THE GOLD RUSH, which centres around the hunger of its main character, a tramp, and his fixation with food. Two classic scenes - the one where he cooks and ‘eats’ a boot with laces as spaghetti, and another where he makes two bread rolls dance in a play for a girl - draw attention to his poverty and his need for sex.

If ‘famine’ marked the portrayal of food in the 1920s, then in the UK, ‘feast’ was the theme of the next decade. Alexander Korda’s PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY V111 (1933) with its hedonistic, banqueting king representative of a sentimentalised Merrie England is typical of the genre.         

During the Second World War, film makers concentrated on the population’s pressing need to survive. With the development of sound, the cinema became an essential educational tool in disseminating messages about rationing, household economy and nutrition.

But food can also be an expression of religion, myth, ritual, ordinary life or even human goals.

It took till the 1980s for film makers to regard food as important enough to depict as an affirmation of life and celebrate it for its own sake, as well of course, for the creative skills of the cook.

Decades previously, food had been depicted in the form of lavish feasts served in court to the nobles and royalty, and became a metaphor for riches and wealth, from which the poor peasants were excluded and could only look on in envy. Director Gabriel Axel’s treatment in BABETTE’S FEAST (1987) marked a dramatic departure.

By showing that food as pleasure is not just the prerogative of the privileged, Axel reflected the sociological drift away from the privileged classes towards a meritocracy. Babette’s banquet was classy but classless - haute cuisine that could be enjoyed for its own sake, whoever you are.

Telling scenes show the Count and the kitchen boy enjoying the same priceless vintage wine.

More recently, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994), BIG NIGHT (1996) and SOUL FOOD (1997) all feature food that ordinary people recognise as everyday home fare and use that as part of the cinema experience to make another statement.

In these films, the meals are closely bound up with messages about family unity or disunity and the striving for perfection. But what they all have in common is that the food depicted is no longer alien to them and is part of their everyday lives. Directors for the first time are putting food centre stage as an actor in its own right.

Director Ang Lee took 18 hours to get the food on the table on the first day’s shoot of EAT DRINK, and the film boasted a cast of over 100 dishes.

Likewise in BIG NIGHT, the piece de resistance was an 11 kilo kettle drum pasta pie called a timpano, which took two people to carry. The food stylist had to create over 30 of them.                     

Director and actor Stanley Tucci was anxious to get away from Italy’s portrayal as a nation of mafiosi.

So BIG NIGHT cherishes the ideal of the truly professional, perfectionist chef and restaurateur dedicated to his art and to introducing the best of their homeland to the New World. That includes the way their food should be served and eaten.

All credit for its authenticity, due to its two co-stars who trained for the cooking scenes for nearly a year in actual restaurants. It is the perfect food film for the 1990s, the era of chefs as heroes.

The ritual of the family meal is an essential cultural marker, graphically and sometimes painfully illustrated in films like Steven Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST (1994), George Tillman Jr’s Afro-American SOUL FOOD (1997), and Martin Scorsese’s Italo-American GOODFELLAS(1990), where it may be the only unifying and constant element available to an immigrant clan trying to assert their identity in a foreign culture.

But in Scorsese’s gangster movie, it serves an additional purpose; it is a sign of status and ‘arrival’, the fruits of the good life, and it expresses mastery. Hence the fastidious attention of the mobsters to ensure culinary perfection. Even in prison, they insist on a gourmet menu that includes fresh lobster, the best wine and garlic sliced so fine “it liquefies in the pan with just a little oil.”

Movies connecting food with sex are legion. Take that archetypal scene in Tony Richardson’s TOM JONES (1963), where a simple tavern meal became the foreplay to a raunchy love-making session and the food itself is merely a prop to express their lust.

The director pans back and forth between Albert Finney as Tom and Joyce Redman as Mrs Waters as they feast on huge bowls of soup, suck lobster meat suggestively from its shell, dive into baked chicken in between a salacious lip-rubbing wishbone come-on, gnaw on roasted lamb shanks and lewdly slurp down that classic aphrodisiac - oysters.

But oysters aren’t the only dish to spark lust on the silver screen. The late Juzo Itami uses egg yolks in TAMPOPO to stage what must be cinema’s sexiest scene ever.

Let’s end, appropriately, with food on film as a metaphor for death, decay and excess, unforgettably portrayed in Marco Ferreri’s LA GRANDE BOUFFE (1973), known as BLOW OUT in the UK.

The story of four men and one woman who assemble to guzzle the mother of all banquets in a frenzied orgy of debauch and self-destruction, it has been epitomised as a perfect specimen of the ‘cinema of disgust, ’ a metaphysical rejection of consumer society.

Similarly in Peter Greenaway’s THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989). A restaurant dressed as the set for a Jacobean tragedy and a cavernous hell’s kitchen are the backdrop to a parade of the basest aspects of human nature.

The cook as artist and creator serves as a foil to the thief as ignorant glutton, paralleling the feeling that many chefs must have of sweating over a superb dish for customers who have more money than taste.

Note the prevalence of black foods like caviar and truffles and the association of this colour with death. The film climaxes with cannibalism, the ultimate link with death, and the dissolution of the meal as order into chaos.  



Eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace, Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, ch. Feasting in the Dark by Ian Christie, Mandolin, Manchester University Press, 1998, pp183-191

Susan Wolk, Director of London Food Film Fiesta, and Maria Jose Sevilla, TV cook and author

A modified version of this article appeared in Rotana Magazine, July 2008


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