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Film

The 10 greatest celebrations of food in cinema

@SamWKemp

Food and film, has there ever been a better pairing? Cinema is the perfect vehicle for what is surely one of the most important aspects of our lives. Food encompasses everything. It is the thread that holds all of our experiences together, forming a map of our most formative moments. Think about the first time you ate a mussel, a prawn, or an oyster – all strange and terrifying but also so utterly delicious that, decades after you first tasted them, you can still recall the weather outside, your mood, and the smiles on your companion’s faces.

Almost as long as we’ve had the ability to write, we’ve been describing our feelings about food. In both the Aeneid and the Iliad, there are passages instructing people on how to make wine and bread. In these ancient stories, food is an essential way of preserving century-old traditions. With the advent of cinema, not much has changed in this regard. In many of the films on this list, food is used to explore so many aspects of culture and heritage. In some, it is a vehicle by which examine our deepest desires and our greatest fears. In other’s, it is a symbol of life itself.

In this article, we’ve compiled some of the greatest celebrations of food in cinema. We’ll look take a look at some key scenes and explore how it is they manage to evoke such profound feelings of nostalgia, joy and, as is the case with this first film, disgust.

So, join us as we lift the lid and take a peek at some of the most simmering celebrations of food of all time.

The greatest celebrations of food in cinema:

10. La Grande Bouffe (1973)

It’s best to think of this first entry as a pre-pre appetizer. In fact, I’d suggest putting down whatever you happen to be eating when you watch La Grande Bouffe because it is not, to put it lightly, the most appetite-inducing film on the list. It follows the surreal story of a group of men who go to a villa in the French countryside where they intend to eat themselves, quite literally, to death.

It is an artery-clogging caricature of decadence, consumerism, and the bourgeoisie, all served with a side order of repellant male sexuality. We see the characters gradually eat themselves into oblivion as a schoolteacher and the various prostitutes the men have invited along become embroiled in their quest for self-destruction. Perhaps the most hilarious scene is one in which a giant plate of mashed potato is fed to one of the now-supine gentlemen with a long spoon: “Imagine you’re hungry, very hungry.”

9. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

The third highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time, Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding tells the story of a shy Greek woman who falls in love with an American man. It is a hilarious portrayal of two people escaping the confines of tradition, as well as a celebration of those traditions.

Like many of the movies on this list, this film is something of a cookery book. You’ll want to bring a pen and paper to jot down the many Greek recipes that crop up throughout the film; one that showcases the unique glory of Greek food. Zwick gives credit where credit is due. After all, the Greeks have perfected the art of making vegetables delicious better than any other European nation, aside from perhaps Italy. Think peppers stuffed with feta, spanakopita, and vine leaves stuffed with lamb.

8. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (1971)

Many of us will remember this one from our childhoods. The classic adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s children’s book of the same name is a mind-bending exploration of all things cavity-inducing rendered in glorious technicolour. We follow a kid named Charlie, who finds a golden ticket in his chocolate bar and wins a tour of the elusive Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

For sweet-tooths all over the world, the scene in which the children step through the cold iron door and into Wonka’s colourful (and entirely edible) pastoral candyland is perhaps the most mouth-watering scene of all time. I’d even go so far as to say that the chocolate river in the original 1971 version looks far more delicious than in Tim Burton’s remake.

7. Tampopo – (1985)

The name of this 1985 Japanese ‘ramen western’ by Juzo Itami translates as ‘dandelion’. It follows the simple story of a cook trying to find the perfect recipe for making noodles. Along the way, this journey takes in simmering romances, brawling cowboys and etiquette-obsessed housewives. The name ‘dandelion’ seems so fitting for the way Itami’s camera floats – as if on the wind – over shots of steaming ramen, balls of sticky milk-white sticky rice, and yolk-yellow noodles.

In Itami’s film, the chef takes on the quiet power of a zen master, as is wonderfully depicted in the ‘ramen master scene’, in which an older diner teaches his pupil how to eat the bowl in front of him: “First,” he begins, “Pbserve the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt, savor the aromas. Jewels of fat floating on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed solely sinking.” In Tampopo, eating is not just a necessity – it’s an art.

6. Chef (2014)

Following Iron Man, Jon Favreau decided to go back to his indie roots with this tender celebration of American food and music. After quitting his job as the head chef in a prominent restaurant, Carl Caspar decides to buy a food truck and sell Cubano sandwiches to the masses. These toasted Cuban sandwiches are perhaps Tampa and Miami’s favourite snacks, consisting of ham, roast pork, cheese, and pickle between a sliced length of Cuban bread. As with all toasted sandwiches the quality is in the grilling. It’s all about buttering the bread (not the pan) and letting that cheese slowly melt into the expertly seasoned meat.

But this film is about far more than sandwiches. Casper’s food truck acts as a vehicle of self-discovery through which he forms a real relationship with his increasingly distant adolescent son and eventually reunites with his ex-wife.

5. Spirited Away (2001)

The films of Studio Ghibli are renowned for their glorious depictions of East Asian food. In Spirited Away, we follow Chihiro Ogino, a ten-year-old girl who, while moving to a new neighbourhood, enters the spirit world of Kami. After her parents are turned into pigs by the witch Yubaba, Chihiro takes a job working in a fantastical bathhouse, where she hatches a plan to free herself and her parents and return to the human world. Much of the charm of Spirited Away lies, less in its action, and more in its meticulously crafted illustrations.

Perhaps the most mouth-watering illustration of all come when Chihiro’s family stumble upon mountains of food in an eerie, abandoned amusement park. Here, they eat everything from Taiwanese sausages, Hakka-style rice cakes filled with yams, salted vegetables, red and green salted beans; bitter gourd; king mushrooms; and translucent meat dumplings. The scene is so legendary that there is a restaurant in Taiwan in which you can eat all the food depicted.

4. Julie and Julia (2009)

Based on a book by one of the greatest writers about love and food, Nora Ephron (Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally), this biographical comedy-drama follows the overlapping lives of Julia Child – the American TV chef who bought french cooking to the US – and Julie Powell, a young writer who decides to work her way through each and every recipe in Child’s book The Art Of French Cooking.

The beauty of Julie and Julia is that almost seems to be structured according to one of Child’s complex recipes, layering different moments from the two characters intertwining lives to create something tender, wholesome and heartwarming. This film is full of beautifully shot cooking (and eating) scenes in which the opulent excess of French cuisine is given the limelight. Just sit back and enjoy the explosion of sensory delights. As Powell puts it: “You can never have too much butter.”

3. Chocolat (2000)

By this point, you’ve probably realised that the best food films use cooking as a way of exploring our deepest desires. Chocolat is no exception. Starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, the film takes us to a small, religious town in post-war France, where the residents are about to begin Lent – during which they will give up all temptations. The setting doesn’t scream action, does it? Well, consider what happens when Vianne Rocher, an expert chocolatier sets up shop on one of the town’s narrow cobbled streets.

Throughout the story, Rocher witnesses a series of unravellings that reveal this sleepy town to contain much more drama and complexity than she could ever have imagined. Chocolate becomes a symbol of unrestrained desire, joy, freedom, and sex. One of the clearest evocations of food’s power to access our innermost emotions comes when Rocher asks two of the town’s most reserved housewives to taste her chocolate and look into the mystical spinning wheel she has carried from her ancestral homeland. “What do you see?” Rocher’s daughter asks one of the women’s sons: “I see teeth, blood and a skull,” to which she replies: “Very dark, bitter chocolate, that’s your favourite.”

2. Ratatouille (2006)

Despite being a lighthearted animation, Ratatouille is – amongst chefs – regarded as one most accurate portrayals of restaurant cooking in all of cinema. Taking its name from the traditional “peasant dish” that Remy cooks for the appropriately named food critic, Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), this glorious ode to France and French cuisine is as much about acceptance as it is about food. We follow Remy on his journey from sewer-dweller to the puppeteer of the head chef of a once-revered Parisian restaurant.

Perhaps the greatest scene of all – and one that is consistently reference by people attempting to explain the profound psychological impact of food – is one in which Anton Ego eats his first mouthful of the ratatouille that Remy has made. Although simple and understated, the dish evokes some of the cynical Ego’s fondest childhood memories, taking him back to his mother’s kitchen, where the smell of simmering, courgettes, aubergines and peppers made even the worst of days seem bearable.

1. Big Night (1996)

Stanley Tucci’s 1996 film about a struggling Italian restaurant in 1950s New York is perhaps cinema’s most endearing portrait of the unifying power of good food.

The story follows brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci) as they pull out all the stops in a final attempt to save their beloved eatery, ‘Paradiso’. With the promise that jazz singer Louis Prima will make an appearance, they cook an elaborate feast that includes a wealth of expertly crafted dishes from the traditional Italian kitchen.

Big Night is not only a great lesson in how many of these dishes are actually made (you could almost use the film as a cookbook) but it is also a fascinating insight into the lives of Italian migrants in the early ’50s, and how they’re cuisine came to win the heart of the nation. Tucci makes sure to write in numerous passages laden with dramatic irony, the best of which is the moment Primo describes a delicious – and entirely unknown – dish from Bologna which is formed of layers of sheet pasta, deeply flavoursome ragu and a thick, cheesy sauce. Can you guess what it is?