food in the arts


  What's Cooking?/2000/ Dir: Gurinder Chadha/Lions Gate/FOOD FILMS
What's Cooking What's Cooking?
art and food

literature and food
music and food
photography and food

What's Cooking? transposes the realities of universal concepts and ideologies related to family, community, gender, status and cultural identity of four different middle class families over a cultural signifier of Americanism: Thanksgiving. As we watch these four families prepare for the same event we slowly come to realize that the enthusiastic ideology with which the ritual begins is transforming into a series of conflicts. An analysis of the explicit message that Thanksgiving is a series of celebratory rituals reveals more than the obvious ideology. As What’s Cooking? takes the viewer through four different families process of food acquisition, preparation, and consumption, viewers come to realize that Thanksgiving is a great American equalizer not only in ideology, but also in reality. All families are using food as a way to come together and to forget problems and issues that surround their lives and relationships. However, instead of allowing them to forget and ignore, Thanksgiving in fact, forces them to confront their issues and seek resolutions.

The entire film is a metaphor a preparation for heated confrontation and the eventual cooling of issues related to cultural identity, unity, family harmony, gender, status, power. The domestic realities that engulf each of the four families are simmering through the process of procurement and preparation and come to a boil and cooling off at the dinner tables. The viewer realizes this is not the idyllic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving but ultimately the creation of something better. Moreover, it is not until the end of the film that the viewer also learns how these families are connected beyond the symbols and ideologies related to cultural identity, belonging and equality represented by the Thanksgiving meal hat it has, in fact nourished them both physically and spiritually.

The obvious, stereotypical symbols of gender are portrayed through a light-hearted series of rituals. The families shop for the turkey, the women prepare the meal, the men talk, enjoy sports, drink beer or wine, and the families set up and sit at the table to partake of the meal. Early in the ritual one sees the gender role distinctions. Although some men are seen shopping, they are really accompanying the women. The male who is shown shopping, Mr. Aviles, is shopping because he is now alone and it is obvious that he is out of his forte. Men help carry, lift, bring, talk or watch television, drink beer or wine, and occasionally hold or watch the children for a short while. They are the eaters, the ones who will compliment the women and validate their hard work with hearty consumption of the food.

The women pre-prepare the turkey, cut, cook, garnish food, set the tables and decorate. In the homes where there the females have a stronger sense of community and gender and where generational or identity conflicts are not as prevalent, the older women teach younger ones how to prepare traditional dishes. Together they prepare mainstream American dishes.

While the Aviles are blending mainstream American values and symbols of gender with traditional Mexican culture, the Jewish Seeling family is struggling with the blatant challenge by their lesbian daughter and her partner as to proper and fit gender roles. Rachel never lets me in the kitchen” says Carla to her Mom, thus implying that even among this couple each partner has different roles. But for the traditional Jewish mother, this makes it difficult to determine what role each partner plays – what is fit or unfit, clean or unclean extends from food to relationships.

Mrs. Williams is an African American woman caught in the role of superwoman and someone who has made it into middle – better yet, upper middle American life but still has to deal with her mother-in-law’s constant questioning of her abilities. Although she is preparing a gourmet meal she has not included some traditional dishes, and the fitter female - the grandmother - will step in and prepare the macaroni and cheese. Traditional female struggles for power come to head in the kitchen, no matter how strong the attempt at civility. This struggle to adhere to traditional roles of gender and propriety is later highlighted when the Vietnamese daughter is accused of having “No sense of modesty and shaming the family.”

The Nguyen family, caught in intergenerational conflict, finds the mother and grandmother working together to prepare the Thanksgiving dinner but Jenny, the teenage daughter is absent from the preparation. Interestingly enough, in both the Aviles and Nguyen families, the more acculturated daughters are the least involved in food preparation.

For Elizabeth Aviles, Thanksgiving finds her with newfound independence, strength and power. Her spouse has left due to an infidelity and she has a new role as head of household. This is represented by her seat at the head of a long table. Her boyfriend’s significance and role is highlighted when he brings dessert and is seated at her side. There is a man in her life; he is bringing her newfound sweetness and she has affirmed her role and strength in this traditionally macho environment.

Cultural Identity

In true American style, we see each family with the traditional Thanksgiving symbol, the turkey, and the accompaniments that further cement a dual identity – tamales (The Aviles), shitake mushroom dressing (the Williams). rice (The Nguyens), or polenta (The Seeligs).

At the Aviles’ home the women are working together at the kitchen table making the tamales. It is a communal task. Jimmy’s entry into the Aviles’ kitchen is an entry into the women’s world, a symbol of a modern male who is comfortable entering a women’s domain.

But at the Williams’ household, the conflict over making the macaroni and cheese is not only about gender, it’s also about asserting the African American heritage and identity, which has been usurped by the shiitake mushroom stuffing. In addition, cultural values and norms concerning body and health are highlighted when Audrey Williams’ mother-in-law, Grace, says to her “You’re so skinny – been eating?” and later says to her son, Ron, “See you are living alright – got your daddy’s belly on you.” For the Williams organic turkey, wine, stuffing and white dinner guests represent well-to-do African American family. Identity is not only about what it there – but also about what is not there. Macaroni and cheese and Michael are a reminder that class and status matter, but roots and tradition are as important as these modern day accoutrements. Moreover, the broken dinner table and crashing down of the turkey are a premonition of the revelation of a broken life, a broken heart. Mrs. Williams' voracious consumption of the pie is not oral gratification, she is swallowing her pain and the humiliation brought on by her husband’s infidelity.

The Nguyens have four acculturated children but unbeknownst to them Jimmy, who lives at college, is dating a Mexican American female college student and Jenny, a teenage daughter who, lives at home, is secretly dating a Caucasian male. Although the Nguyen children are acculturated, the parents and grandparents value cultural persistence. Thanksgiving highlights these differences through the conflicts over how to prepare the turkey. The attempt to harmoniously merge both cultures is represented by the wife and grandmother, who together, season half of the turkey with Vietnamese spices, the other half American style. Jenny, who is not helping the mother and grandmother, quips “Why do you want to make the turkey taste like everything else we eat? and the mother responds “Why do you want everything to taste like McDonalds’?” After the turkey burns, the destruction of the element of conflict requires a creation of something new. This new meal of fried chicken, rice, soup and other Vietnamese dishes becomes a compromise and resolution about an angst concerning cultural loyalties, generational conflicts, cultural persistence and change.

For the Seelings, what is kosher or proper, takes on dimensions that extend beyond food as they confront and try to deal with their lesbian daughter’s relationship. For a cultural and religious group where rituals related to tradition, gender roles, and what is acceptable are strictly defined, a lesbian daughter and her partner are a confusing and a confrontation to all that is right and proper. What should they expected of the daughter’s partner? Should she help with the food preparation, a role reserved for women? Where concepts about proper foods, gender roles and strictly demarcated concepts of cleanliness and pollution exist, these women present dilemmas that the parent will have to resolve.

Thanksgiving is, by nature, a holiday that celebrates dual identity in North America – originally Native American and the English. Despite its celebratory origins and nature, the saga is ultimately about the conflict over ongoing issues related to cultural identity. In many ways the characters in What’s Cooking? are all part of one community and what they share in common both symbolically and realistically will ultimately become clear to the viewer.

Judith C. Rodriguez, PhD, RD

Department of Nutrition and Dietetics

Brooks College of Health

University of North Florida

Jacksonville, FL, USA


2000. What's Cooking Director: Gurinder Chadha  DVD-Video. Lions Gate Studio.

Studio: Lions Gate

Bower, A, Ed. (2004). Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film. Routledge Publ., Taylor & Francis Group: Kentucky


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