Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, and sometimes it’s damn good coffee—and hot! Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
Why do we love people who love basic, simple food?
Characters who appreciate the not-s0-fancy food most of us eat are instantly endearing. From Homer Simpson’s beer and bacon to Kyra Sedgwick snacking her way through every season of The Closer, or Brad Pitt casually chewing the prop scenery in Moneyball and the Oceans films (presumably to counteract the fact that he’s a movie star, and make him “one of us”) or Will Ferrell’s Elf in Elf assuming everybody appreciates the four food groups as much as he does—candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup—a love of basic, simple, everyday food instantly creates a bond. The more Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy talks about his extravagant dessert, the more we’re put off by his privileged life. But we adore Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, whether she’s microwaving a donut or cramming an entire teamster’s sandwich in her mouth at the airport.
This attraction to characters who enjoy simple, basic fare goes back as far as Shakespeare and whatever else you had to read for lit class: We’re drawn to those who consume with gusto—“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” Falstaff says to Prince Hal. It’s so sad when Henry IV is compelled to reject Falstaff. As viewers, we love that fat old man.
It isn’t just that we love characters who eat a lot, though; it’s a character’s love of low-brow or basic foods and the ability to discriminate between the right and wrong way to treat such food that really wins us over. These people are not slobs—they’re unpretentious enthusiasts who know exactly how they like what they like, whether it’s Liz Lemon’s donut or Ron Swanson’s steak.
Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson spends a lot of time explaining what is and isn’t acceptable to a man’s man like him, and he has a clearly defined (at least to himself) set of personal standards. Yet, his favorite restaurant in Pawnee is a bowling alley, and he proudly claims to have invented the turf ’n’ turf. He and Jack Donaghy could probably bond over a 16-ounce T-bone, a 24-ounce porterhouse, some whiskey, and a cigar, but Ron would probably feel that Jack has let money spoil him.
One reason this discriminating love of basic food is such an effective way to make a character lovable is we feel we’re getting a look at their unprotected, genuine nature when we see them eat like Ron Swanson. Over-attention to highbrow tastes usually reads as affectation, and when a character assumes an affectation, they make themselves untrustworthy or at least unattractive quickly—if they’re the protagonist, like Paul Giamatti’s Miles in Sideways, their affectations usually require that the plot will eventually humble them, and force them to learn to allow others to drink merlot.
Over-attention to lowbrow fare reads as the thoughtful straight-shooting of a real person. A challenge actors face is that the act of eating itself can seem to be an affectation, especially considering they have to perform in such a way that doesn’t call a lot of attention to what’s actually happening. Eating can be gross—consumption of the day’s nutrients is intensely biological: tearing at flesh, ripping off pieces of leaves and roots, and crunching and grinding them between molars, as glands somewhere in the neck or face squirt a clear liquid that dissolves the stuff into a little ovoid bolus to slip down into an acid bath. We sit with each other and perform this bit of biology every day, and mostly just avert our eyes, trying not to think about what’s going on over there across the table.
It’s not pretty when we’re forced to confront what hungry people are really like, even if we’re basically on their side.
One approach is to clean it all up. In the surreal world of commercial food photography, where wet vegetables tumble and bounce across stainless steel in a sort of limbo, or chocolate is poured into other chocolate and stirred in sumptuous slow motion, directors get around the biology of eating by staging one particular sequence so cliché, so common, it’s got its own industry term: the “bite and smile.” That’s when someone in the commercial—usually toward the end—takes a tidy but healthy bite of food and experiences exaggerated pleasure, usually expressed by closing or squinting the eyes, nodding slightly, and (as the term indicates) smiling. Usually the spokesmodels asked to perform this action come off as self-conscious and hammy, and the commercial attains an air of hype or insincerity. We know what’s going on and can’t believe it’s reality.
Turns out it’s really hard for a person to communicate genuine enjoyment of food. To be tidy, with attractive and well-presented food, is to be affected; to be enthusiastic is not only hard to portray convincingly but can also look pretty damn sloppy.
This can be a problem—from Big Night to Babette’s Feast, there’s filmic feet (maybe miles) of actors eating food onscreen and awkwardly nodding, nodding, nodding their approval. We accept that they enjoy the food, but it seems very artificial. It’s not enough to make the yummy sound.
The way to avoid the nodding, nodding, nodding or the “bite and smile,” or to render it unnoticeable, of course, is story. If the context of the consuming of the food is meaningful, and the food is central, the biology and the affectation become unimportant. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which is far more entertaining than a metaphorical chess match with Death sounds like it’s going to be, our protagonist enjoys a brief, lovely evening, and when he sips fresh milk from a wide bowl, which could be awkward and distracting, the last thing on anyone’s mind are the mechanics of consumption—this knight is taking a break from a chess game with Death, after all. It’s a respite. And we feel it with him.
Presenting the food as a relief from stress is another way we feel a bond with the character—Liz Lemon is honest with herself about loving food, but it’s also a way for her to deal with the stupid stress of TGS With Tracy Jordan and her love life. Ron Swanson can’t believe he has to deal with salad-eaters who believe in government intrusion; Max Von Sydow’s medieval knight is disillusioned with the Crusades and trying to forestall Death. We get why these characters enjoy their food—to some degree, they’re using the food to distract themselves from dark thoughts.
Which brings us to Agent Dale Cooper—possibly the fictional character most associated with enjoying simple, basic food.
When Kyle Maclachlan’s Cooper sips that cup, a viewer can almost taste whatever they think good coffee is. Every coffee advertiser in the world would love to summon that sensation, but when we see people in commercials sipping coffee, it means nothing to us. It doesn’t register. And yes, an 30-second commercial doesn’t have the leisure to develop characters and plot. But even if this is the first clip of Twin Peaks a person ever saw, that person is still likely to taste that coffee—a straight-laced law man is telling another law man to give himself a gift. The inference is that the gift is a way of dealing with stressful jobs.
And Twin Peaks was full of stress. Agent Dale achieves balance many ways, but one major way—and the one that endears him to us—is his enthusiasm for coffee and pie. And always, the coffee and pie are counterpoint to “a darkness, a presence.”
David Lynch’s whole career is centered on the struggle of decency against darkness. Instead of convincing acting or realistic depictions of actual life or anything else, that struggle is what keeps his best work interesting—the evil that undermines the good and the basic.
In the ’70s, the executive producer of The Elephant Man—the tragic, touching, somewhat grotesque story of the deformed but ennobled John Merrick—was seeking financial backing for the movie, and invited comedy master Mel Brooks to watch a midnight screening of a cult movie that offers the world a vision of an awkward meal where the father of a man’s girlfriend asks him to carve a small chicken that turns out to be apparently sort-of-alive, which sends the mother into a bizarre fit.
Eraserhead is a nightmare, and the only difference between it and your own nightmares is there’s no point in interpreting it with hopes of gaining insight into your subconscious. That’s David Lynch’s subconscious on the screen.
There is a lot of conjecture about Lynch’s vision and ultimate motivations—is he trying to say something complicated and challenging about the human community’s compulsion to appear “normal” while wrestling with evil impulses, or is he trying to say something tediously obvious like “people have secrets” and “things are not always what they seem,” or is he playing around with us? When you’re talking about the guy who gave the world “The Angriest Dog In the World,” the frightening, unhinged lunatic that more or less defined Dennis Hopper’s latter career, and, for years, inexplicably anodyne daily weather forecasts from his desk in Los Angeles, the answer is well obscured. Oh, he also sells coffee, and right now seems to be mostly making music and designing activewear.
So perhaps as he packages his whims and nightmares, we should take another look at that David Lynch Signature Cup coffee he was selling—its slogan is “It’s all in the beans… and I’m just full of beans.”
Like Agent Cooper, Lynch uses a lot of folksy expressions, which makes it sound like he might be putting us on. But there is a genuine love of simple, basic food that leads us to trust him on some level, and want to believe he’s not just farting around with our emotions. Even as he presents the nightmarish, backward-speaking, cryptic dwarf in a red room, Lynch seems as if he’s being honest with us beneath all the tomfoolery.
If that’s true, it’s his apparent love of a good, basic coffee that makes it seem that way.