This week’s question comes from reader Sean Connell:
What scene from a film or television show never fails to make you hungry? For me, it’s undoubtedly the “dinner in prison” scene from Goodfellas. Immediately, I desire a good pasta, preferably without “too many onions” but with pork in the meatballs, as “that’s the flavor.”
As far as I’m concerned, the most gratuitous scenes from Blue Is The Warmest Color are the lingering, intimate shots of spaghetti consumption. Never before has a movie taken such an honest, in-your-face approach to eating pasta. It’s simultaneously off-putting and hunger-inducing. One of the Cannes-approved drama’s biggest strengths is the naturalism with which it depicts its many, many moments gathered around the dinner table; when you’re surrounded by people you love and are comfortable around, you’re not so concerned with how you’re eating. Noodles get slurped, pasta drips onto your jeans, and nothing really matters except who you’re with. When Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux dig into a mound of spaghetti, I’m not only craving some carbs, I’m also hungry for the chance to share a meal with people I care about.
I’m often hungry, so it doesn’t take much more than a shot of anything even slightly appetizing on screen to nudge me toward takeout, but I think a film that expresses a hunger I’ve encountered far too often is The Breakfast Club. Not only does the lunchtime detention scene provide character studies with each person’s food choices, it always takes me back to the hunger pangs of high school, and the frustration of not being in control, unable to eat when you’re hungry, instead forced to anxiously await what amounts to a dinner bell. And although I once recreated Allison’s Pixy Stix and Cap’n Crunch sandwich for a school assignment, it’s Andrew’s lunch—a full-size bag of Lays potato chips, three sandwiches, a bag of cookies, a carton of milk, a banana, and an apple—sans the can of Coke that I covet. I’m often accused of having eyes that are bigger than my stomach, but each time I see this scene I feel a surge of confidence that I could devour that lunch, no problem.
Nothing whets the whistle like (literal) forbidden fruit. So even though I know The Pale Man’s table from Pan’s Labyrinth shouldn’t get my stomach rumbling—what with its lurching, hideous guardian waiting to shamble into motion the second I sink my teeth into that weird jelly thing or a slice of that thin, delicious-looking cake with the bright red cherries on top—I can’t help but want a taste. So it’s hard to fault poor Ofelia for giving into her instincts and plucking a ripe grape from the bounty, especially since bucking fairy tale tradition and sticking to her mission would mean we’d never get to see Doug Jones’ transfixing physical performance as the beast. For a constantly hungry connoisseur of weird movie monsters and bizarre visuals, temptation can come in many forms.
I’m not even a huge sweets person, but Chocolat brings out the sugar fan in me. Juliette Binoche opens up a lovely shop in a small French town and is even dressed in shades of chocolate as she whips up truffles and cocoa and tries to guess everyone’s favorites. It’s a wonderful little movie about the folly of denying yourself when really, everyone deserves their indulgences (Alfred Molina, who tries to abstain from sweets for Lent, ends up attacking every chocolate in the shop). There’s a scene where Binoche makes a hot drink for Judi Dench that reminds her of her childhood, that always makes me want to order a mocha in the morning instead of my usual high-octane caffeine. It also makes me want to be more experimental about putting cinnamon in chili and adding cocoa to everything.
I’ve been vegetarian for 15 years, yet a certain burger gets me every time: the Big Kahuna burger from Pulp Fiction. I don’t know if it’s just that the burger is so good-looking (that bun practically glistens with deliciousness), or if it’s the tiny amount of ketchup that pokes out, or what. All I know is, for a type of food I lost any craving for years ago, that scene never fails to make me hunger for a nice thick burger. Maybe it’s just the way Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules expresses his enjoyment? Every time he sinks his teeth into that meat and bun, and utters his satisfied, “Mmmmmmmmm! That is a tasty burger!,” I can only think, “Damn, I bet it is.”
I am both highly impressionable and lack willpower. Anything I see characters on screen eating or imbibing immediately seems like a great idea to me. For that reason alone, I’m grateful Mad Men is over, given the liver-softening quantities of brown liquor I consumed during the show’s run. I am also very susceptible to cravings brought about by tasteful emotions-as-food dramas such as Eat Drink Man Woman, but nothing affects me as strongly as Steven Chow’s God Of Cookery. A kung-fu hero’s journey told through the conceit of a disgraced celebrity chef seeking redemption, God Of Cookery is both absurd and delicious-looking. The first dish Chow’s protagonist makes as he attempts to reclaim his title is an unassuming street food called “Pissing Shrimp Beef Balls.” One taste sends a customer into a transcendent hallucination of running along a beach dressed in robes of flowing linen. The climactic dish is a simple pork fried rice Chow dubs “Sorrowful Rice.” Like Ratatouille, the dish is not merely delicious, it also has a home-cooked provincial honesty that forces the person eating the it to confront their repressed emotions. I love Chinese BBQ pork and catharsis equally, so I crave Sorrowful Rice every time I watch.
In college, I worked at a video store, a job I loved but that could be insanely tedious. My only respite on slow nights was my Staff Picks section that I would change constantly and add little notes to each movie for potential renters. When I included Like Water For Chocolate in my section, I wrote, “Must watch with snacks.” In the film, based on Laura Esquivel’s novel, food is such an integral part of the story. Tita, a woman who is banned from marriage due to an archaic family law, infuses her food with all of her emotion. In one scene, she takes the love she feels for her sister’s husband (don’t worry, he only married her to stay close to Tita) and bakes it into quail with rose petal sauce. The meal is so infused with lust it causes her other sister to promptly sleep with a passing revolutionary. Director Alfonso Arau similarly puts his heart and soul into the food scenes. They are visceral; I remember watching this movie in a class for the first time and leaving during a break to buy something to munch on. Each food scene is so sumptuous. You want to devour everything Tita creates.
Big Night is all about food. More specifically, it’s about food as one of the true joys of life, and no sequence of this enduringly delightful indie makes the case for the importance food should have in our lives than the making of the timpano. It’s a ludicrously rich pasta dish filled with what Tony Shalhoub’s uncompromising food artist proclaims, “all of the most important things in the world…” Finally inspired at the last minute to break out the most impressive dish he knows in order to join pragmatic brother Stanley Tucci’s desperate plan to save their failing restaurant, Shalhoub’s Primo is all concentrated joy as he lovingly and confidently makes two of the huge, drum-shaped concoctions. When he finally lifts the dishes and reveals what’s inside (even tapping it to listen to the sound it makes), the perfect domes of hand-rolled pasta, meatballs, whole eggs, sauce, pastry crust, and who knows what else, look—even for a guy who hasn’t eaten meat in decades—irresistibly delicious.
It makes sense that movies with a spread of lavishly prepared food would leave the viewer’s mouth watering. But the movies that make me hungriest are the ones where the characters are hungry. There’s nothing like watching someone else’s desperate, ravenous hunger to make me appreciate every last kernel of popcorn I’m eating. So the movie that really made me appreciate the fact that movie theaters have a snack bar was Gus Van Sant’s sparse lost-in-the-desert story Gerry. As Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wander aimlessly, their desperation mounting, the film’s pacing is slow to the point of monotony. And while long, unbroken shots of feet crunching on desert sand could be incredibly boring in the hands of a less talented filmmaker, Van Sant makes that repetition hypnotic. You really start to imagine yourself in the characters’ place, forcing yourself to march onward, not knowing whether you’re heading toward salvation or damning yourself further. After 100 minutes of that, that box of Junior Mints you forgot you still had in your coat pocket tastes like manna from heaven.
More so than any food-porn movies, the depictions of food that has given me the most visceral reactions have been, weirdly, cartoon depictions of pizza. I have no idea why, but the simplified versions of pizza slices that I’d see on DuckTales or Tiny Toon Adventures as a kid would make me hunger for the real thing, and thinking of it still kind of does, even though real pizza never looks much like its clean, detail-light, often sauceless-looking animated counterpart. Then again, my wife and I have been home with an infant for the past few weeks and catching more TV commercials than usual, and she’s pointed out how frequent and how unappetizing ads for bad chain pizza are, so maybe the cartoon form is just a friendlier, easier depiction of such a great but potentially messy food.
As ever, I’ll go with my first instinct: The candy room sequence in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Even looking back at the scene as an adult, I can see exactly why my mouth was watering. The idea of entering someplace where everything is edible is one of those concepts that can cause a child’s (pure) imagination to run wild, and director Mel Stuart does a great job of building the anticipation by having Mr. Wonka begin his song while pointedly refusing to let his guests venture forth into the candy room. By the time he did, I felt the same excitement as Charlie and his fellow Golden Ticket winners, imagining how much fun it would be to run through and try the various sweet delicacies. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have gone all Augustus Gloop, but I won’t say that it couldn’t happen.