Please welcome back guest author, Deborah Hawkins! She has another insightful and fun post for us. This time she combines her love of film and food!
Okay, so the pandemic and social distancing recommendations have had most of us cocooning in our homes for months. This has made watching movies a popular form of entertainment. For many, walking to our kitchen and opening the refrigerator door has also become our most common form of exercise.
I thought Why not combine my two main pastimes, eating and consuming films? I decided to review three of my favorite flicks about food: Waitress (directed by Adrienne Shelly, 2007 ) Big Night (directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, 1996 ); and Eat Drink Man Woman (directed by Ang Lee, 1994).
Waitress, is “Southern” and “small town,” but the story is completely universal. It seems to be an especially poignant film to re-visit now, during the pandemic. At forty, the talented actress, writer and director, Adrienne Shelly, died much too young, The film’s story was made into a successful musical (lyrics and score by Sarah Bareilles), which closed on Broadway after five years and over 1500 performances, only months before COVID shut down the theaters.
The film is very cinematic. Not visually captivating in the tradition of the Star Wars franchise, which gives audience members the feeling of prevailing at a killer arcade game, but as shots of pie ingredients are combined and arranged with such attention and tenderness, you can’t help but recall the best slice you’ve ever eaten.
Jenna (Keri Russell) is a waitress at joe’s Pie Diner, a classic counter and booth screen shack along Highway 27. They specialize in serving twenty-seven different pies plus the pie of the day, an impromptu invention of Jenna’s as she fantasizes about her life and dreams of starting over.
She names such confections, “Bad Baby Pie” and “I Hate My Husband Pie” as reflections of what seems to be a hopeless situation; being pregnant and stuck in a very bad marriage.
We get a glimpse of her life early on when her husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), picks her up after her shift. He demands her tip money and goes on to force her into praising him. He’s unbelievably controlling and immature throughout the film.
Her job at Joe’s diner is her salvation, a place where she can be her real self; where she can exercise her creativity (pie-baking) and compassion (she can handle even the most difficult of customers).
The world of Joe’s Pie Diner is populated by waitresses Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (screenwriter, Adrienne Shelly herself), who, while having personal challenges themselves admit they would not trade their troubles for Jenna’s life.
Old Joe (Andy Griffith), who owns half the town including the diner, is a regular. He loves Jenna’s pies, but, beyond that, he appreciates her valiant efforts to make the best of her situation.
When she goes to her family doctor to start pre-natal care, she discovers that her doctor has been replaced by Dr. Jim Pomatter, a doctor from out of town (Nathan Fillion, boyishly charming before his TV role as Castle).
They strike up a genuine relationship, which blossoms as her pregnant belly swells. Both recognize the relationship is not realistic, but are not quick to give up what they found in each other.
She can’t seem to run away from Earl, and he’s married to a partner who doesn’t deserve to be abandoned. Throughout the movie, there’s a tension regarding whether they will run off together.
Although providing mouth-watering close-ups of berries, cream, and flakey crusts, Waitress is not just about food. It’s about how LOVE CHANGES EVERYTHING. And of the various types of love, self-love, is, perhaps, the most important.
At the end of the movie, we can see what self-love can do. Being seen for who she is by Old Joe and by Dr. Jim triggers bold action. Owning her special mastery as a pie-baker extraordinaire starts things in the right direction.
Waitress does not answer the question, “Can a strawberry chocolate pie solve all the problems of the world,?” but it is a great way to escape for couple hours.
The second classic film I’d like to talk about, relative to the theme of food, is Big Night. Made in 1996, co-directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, it seems as relevant today as it was twenty-five years ago.
Unlike Waitress (previously reviewed under this theme) which treats luscious pies as metaphors for love and personal declarations of self, in Big Night, food has a much more masculine tone. Food is a symbol of pride. Food is the fulcrum which affects the balance of male preoccupations; family, artistry, and business.
At a time when so many wonderful restaurants are closing down (even though they serve good food) and after an explosion of recent films on the psychological scars on chefs seeking notoriety, we can see how the relationship between food and finances is important.
Success in the restaurant business is difficult, yet, people try. Even in better economic times, new restaurants open and close in short order. Can the artistry of making food “to die for” overcome the need for a restaurant, or any business, to make money?
As the film opens, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo, Stanley Tucci (from a family of restauranteurs in Italy and appropriately named based on birth order and course order in an elaborate dinner) have opened their dream restaurant in the States, on the Jersey Shore.
Despite Primo’s skill at the stove and Secondo’s good-looking and affable presence as host, their restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy.
Secondo sees most of the problem as lying with his older brother, Primo, who wants to make incredible Italian delectables while their patrons are hungry for checkered tablecloth fare.
After yet another bad night of business, after Primo threatens to lecture one of their few customers who wants spaghetti and meatballs as a side to risotto, another starch, Secondo travels down the street to Pascal’s, another Italian eatery that always seems to do a booming business.
“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” from the Godfather has become a favorite quote among entrepreneurs and consultants. I think Pascal’s advice to Secondo rivals those words. “You give the people what they want. Later, you can give them what you want.”
To stir up business for the brothers, Pascal (Ian Holm) promises to invite his friend, famous bandleader, Louis Prima, to come for a special meal at the brothers’ bistro. This kind of magical thinking plays upon the American dream, or at least, the American dream of new immigrants.
They want to believe that with a little bit of luck, and the right kind of press, they can overcome the odds and succeed.
The brothers drain what little they have in their bank account and invite half the town (and the local press) to a feast they prepare for the famous bandleader hoping that it will win them the attention they need to jump start their business.
We get to see mostacolli being rolled by hand and sauces being carefully and lovingly stirred. After sampling Primo’s Florentine sauce, the owner of the town’s flower shop rolls her eyes heavenward. To which Primo emphatically responds, “Oh my God is right. To eat good food is to be close to God.”
The town is not all men focused on business. Minnie Driver, as Secondo‘s girlfriend, Isabella Rosellini as Pascal’s regular date and Secondo’s occasional lover, and Allison Janney as the flower shop owner Primo has a hankering for shine in some wonderful scenes.
But ultimately, it’s a story of brotherly love. Both brothers are burdened by feeling they are responsible for their sibling, yet both have totally opposite views of what is needed.
Secondo feels it necessary to make his older brother understand the hard facts of business and success. Primo feels that he has to teach his brother how to honor and respect food and artistry, the legacy of their family. Not only are they trying to save their restaurant. They’re trying to save each other.
If you haven’t seen Big Night, I highly recommend it. It draws out some laughs and invites us to look at ourselves and our own values. In the uber competitive but unshakably loyal relationship between the brothers, we can see that blood is thicker than vino.
Eat Drink Man Woman
It’s hard to examine a film, or any work of art, without exploring the culture that produced it. Culture, of course, has big picture and close-up aspects. When looking at movies about food, the country of origin or where a tradition began is important. You also have to look at the culture, the traditions of the family or town where a story takes place.
Such is the case with Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. One of his early firms, it takes place in Taiwan where he spent his childhood. You can see the tug-of-war going on between maintaining traditions (in this case, Chinese) and embarking on a new life reflecting western values; the good (independence and emotional honesty), the bad (loneliness), and the ugly (fast food franchises).
The story takes place over several months in the home of a master chef, a widower, and his three grown daughters who still live under his roof. The family domicile has not been a warm place of sharing for many years, yet strict traditions are observed.
Each Sunday, Chef Chu creates an elaborate meal that his daughters passionately hate attending. They all (a high school teacher and devout Christian, a financial manager for an airline, and the youngest, a team member at a fast food restaurant) want to honor their father, but it’s quickly obvious that their hearts are not into the family’s Sunday routine.
Despite the incredible, otherworldly meals dad whips up, everyone wants to move out. At first glance, it seems that the daughters are simply ungrateful, but the issue is deeper.
Yes, the girls are self-consumed, as young people usually are, but there’s a disconnect related to how love is communicated in their household. While dad tries to show his love by giving his energy and artistry to apportioning spices and topping dishes with chrysanthemum-shaped garnishes, he never learned how to talk to his girls.
It is implied that communicating with the children was something that their mother might have done, but it also seems to be part of the cultural traditions they inherited.
They are steeped in the perspective that men develop professional skills and do their jobs inside and outside their home tirelessly and with humility, but they are not to be looked to for words of encouragement or affection, or expected to be sounding boards.
At Sunday family dinners, there is a notable absence of conversation, only announcements.
The movie weaves together a myriad of subplots, tracing how each member of the household pursues love and attempts to take ownership of his or her life. There are twists and surprises. The biggest surprise is that the widower finds love in a very unexpected person.
Throughout the movie, we’re informed that Chef Chu is dealing with an odd problem, one that is unthinkable for a master chef, loss of taste. It can easily be brushed off as a sign of aging. However, this condition is a metaphor for his lack of joy about life.
In the final scene, the master shares a meal prepared by the last daughter that still lives at home. At first, it seems like a hollow ritual, dishes are put together according to old family recipes. Maintaining the tradition is more important that the feeling that is relayed between father and daughter.
Then, after almost starting an argument about how the daughter executed the recipe, Chu realizes that his sense of taste has returned. His prospects with his new love seem to be the cause, but we also get the sense that a different way of communicating and empathizing with his daughter is at play as well.
Food is not love. People might relish the sensuality of eating, or the sentimentality of cooking a dish the way their father or mother did. As something they care about, people often want to share their passion for food or cooking with people they cherish. But neither haute cuisine nor comfort dishes are foolproof fixes for what people actually hunger for.
In navigating from a tradition and ritual-based lifestyle to a more modern one, it may seem right to cook favorite recipes from past generations, but it’s love and respect that makes a family meal a feast.
This movie is subtitled but easy to follow. I highly recommend it.
(I thought I was original in reflecting on movies about food, but I discovered Roger Ebert compiled a list of his favorite movies about food years ago. https://firstwefeast.com/eat/2013/04/roger-eberts-favorite-food-movies/
If you have favorite films about food, I’d love to hear about them. I’d like to review some of your favorites. )
About the Author
Returning to her hometown in 2008, after nearly one year spent, unsuccessfully, trying to create a new career in a new town, Deborah Hawkins found herself fighting depression and struggling to maintain solvency. In her early fifties, looking for financial help from her family was especially hard. A car accident, caused by an uninsured driver, kept her off her feet for months. She felt cursed.
She began blogging on gratitude in 2010 as a way to focus on positives and elevate her mood. Inspired by Eckhart Tolle’s words, “Acknowledging the good that is already in your life is the foundation for all abundance,” she developed a mindfulness orientation for her own gratitude practice. This practice led her to post weekly over the last decade; around 500 posts.
Beyond traditional gratitude journals and lists, Deborah’s approach focuses on understanding things that sparked gratitude in past experiences and using this understanding to identify similar qualities in new situations. She attributes her gratitude practice with bringing a sense of empowerment and contentment to her life.
She plans to make her process available as a tele-seminar in the near future. Deborah has a BA from Knox College and lives in Chicago.