Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
There’s something inherently unappealing about food on a television screen. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading Zillions magazine—that’s Consumer Reports for Kids for the uninitiated—and reading articles about the tricks they used to make food look good: Styrofoam burgers, pins, paint, hairspray, glue instead of milk to keep the cereal from getting soggy. After reading about all the effort used in making food look pretty, I wasn’t surprised to taste practically nothing when I went to one of the restaurants from TV. I didn’t have any expectations in the way of smell or taste: the movie can only convey the visual.
Attempts to communicate more than the visual through the experience of film have been generally disastrous. Perhaps the most infamous is the inclusion of “scratch and sniff” with John Waters’s 1981 Polyester–and those smells weren’t designed to make anyone feel like eating! It’s safer for film to make do with images, but then we are left to fill in the missing elements of scent and taste from our own experience.
But what experience, exactly, are we relying upon? The grand irony of films focused on food is that most of us don’t eat so well these days. [I just spent my day on the couch working through a party sized bag of Hershey’s Hugs, so my stomach is very aware of this right now.] Most of us don’t get to eat at restaurants that even have a chef unless the bored teenage fry guy at McDonald’s qualifies. The big box theme restaurants that pop up in every shopping center across the US offer the same prepackaged generic experiences over and over again: step into one Uno’s or TGI Friday’s and you know what you’re getting. There’s not a head chef back there that gets to decide how to unify the meal with spices and aesthetic service, or anyone worrying about the exact placement of a sprig of parsley to add a final touch to a perfectly prepared platter. Dishes are tossed out frantic and fast, one after another, each made not so much to order as to the description set down by the head honchos of the corporate chain.
This is a perfectly reasonable way to make food. It is not a way to make a meal. In Kate and Leopold, a little remarked upon “time travel” romantic comedy of a few years back, a duke from the 19th Century comes forward and experiences the 21st Century. Among the many disappointments he encounters is the disgrace of food. He explains that in his era, meals are a product of contemplation: “Without the culinary arts, the crudeness of life would be unbearable.” The modern era offers plenty of places to appreciate the full realization of said arts for those who can afford it, but the general standard of eating doesn’t give more than a glimpse beyond the low commercial experience of the day.
There are many revolutions that start on screen. Hollywood’s happy to take a stab at ignorance of AIDS, gay-bashing and racial discrimination, and baseless wars. But Hollywood occasionally fights quieter battles. Mona Lisa Smile reminds us of the range of aesthetic exploration. Clerks II takes on our obsession with status and power as defining happiness in life. And movies like Chocolat and Ratatouille–they simply point out that great food can itself be a revelation.
Ratatouille features a rat living in Paris. There’s no better place, or so the movie informs us, to develop a taste for the gourmet. Remy is a rat who aspires to be a great French chef–a laughable ambition for a rat, perhaps, but not so laughable when you consider that he stands out among his fellow rats for wanting to discover the aesthetic pleasures of food beyond the trash his family is so content with. What Remy becomes is an artist, a rat with an instinct for how tastes combine to create memories and even emotion. In one powerful moment Remy prepares a dish for a man who hasn’t found pleasure in anything for years and years, and at the first bite the man is transported to his childhood and memories of the dishes his mother would prepare.
I can’t imagine how the soup the man is savoring at that moment tastes, but I would like to. We live in an era of unparalleled obesity, yet Remy as an aspiring chef is far leaner than his brother, who eats anything and everything in sight. Many of our associations with food these days are negative: I’m too fat, this chocolate goes right to my thighs, so what if I can tell this isn’t butter—at least it’s not going straight to my cholesterol levels. In a movie aimed at children a message promoting a love of food without self-hatred *or* over-indulgence is perhaps even more important.
Ratatouille isn’t the only film aimed at the youth market to consider eating in the context of selectivity versus over consumption. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory brings to life Dahl’s Augustus Gloop, the glutton who eats everything in sight. Even in a chocolate factory where candy is everything, gluttony is frowned upon. A contradiction? Perhaps in a time of the super-size, but the contrast gets to the heart of what is appealing about candy: it’s a treat, a sense experience saved for occasional rather than constant occasions. Without that feeling of being special, candy is just another thing to eat.
Perhaps the easiest type of candy to really taste when its on-screen is chocolate: milky or dark, rich or Hershey‘s, truffle or bar. In Chocolat, the idea of denying oneself good food is challenged head on in a town where, god forbid, no one wants to give into the temptations of chocolate. Chocolate here stands for everything that is outside the confines of Church and society: consider the erotic testament of one woman confessing her sin of coveting the chocolate at the new chocolate shop in town “And it *melts*, God forgive me, it melts ever so slowly on your tongue, and tortures you with pleasure…”–here, chocolate is passion.
The theme of dessert as salvation also emerges in Waitress, but here it is the act of cooking, the act of taking control over a domain that however traditionally feminine still offers a place for control and self-realization, that is the turning point. Who could resist, after all, the heartfelt pain in a pie like this one? “I Hate My Husband Pie: You take bittersweet chocolate and don't sweeten it. You make it into a pudding, and drown it in caramel.” This is food with a story, not food out of a package pulled out of the refrigerator.
There’s a common theme of food as rebellion, food as self, food as art: food, in short, as everything that isn’t just sustenance. My father is a chef, when he‘s not a mathematician. He tried to teach me the value in a carefully prepared meal when I was young. He puts together meals without looking at his recipes, though he has shelves of them. He can book by instinct. He’ll say things like the humidity factors in to how the rolls are going to rise and glaze on a layer of butter and the rolls that emerge will be candy. They’re shaped in eyeglasses or curls and I can almost taste the bread made from scratch whenever I think of them.
The movie theater is no substitute for the smells and tastes of a carefully prepared meal, but it can be a reminder to go seek out those tastes. Can you go from watching a movie like Waitress and pop a frozen Marie Callender pie in the oven without feeling a sense of loss? Does a Hershey’s bar bought on impulse at CVS hold the same appeal as the homemade chocolates lining the shelves of Vianne’s chocolate shop? What are we missing when all our food comes pre-packaged?