Did you cringe watching Rocky down raw egg yolks, or Buddy the Elf dousing his spaghetti with maple syrup? If you’re honest, were you left with some form of emotional trauma after watching Miss Trunchbull force poor Bruce to eat that entire chocolate cake? Far from something to flesh out a scene or give characters something to do with idle hands, food is a subtle yet invaluable tool for filmmakers. Food is the medium through which feelings are given a flavour and through which the world of the audience merges with the world on-screen, anchoring even the most fantastic plot in reality.
The power of food to evoke feeling is well known. We all have a dish that takes us back; back to our childhood, a specific time or a specific place. For me, fish pie with ketchup reminds me of my Grandma, and slightly charred chipolatas, mashed potato and Bisto powder gravy instantly makes me think of Dad. Some of our most powerful memories revolve around food, and it’s the same on-screen. When Anton Ego took a bite of Remy’s ratatouille he was transported back to his childhood, his icy heart is melted and the audience can forgive him for being such a snob, and in Gilmore Girls, pop-tarts take Lorelai back in time to her rebellious teenage years. Characters’ personal connections to food injects emotion and humanity into them, allowing the audience to relate and immerse themselves further into their world.
Aside from the actual substance itself, food has an inherently social aspect to it. The dinner table can be set with tension, intimacy, even loneliness (the trope of a single woman coming home to an empty house, tucking in to a microwave meal is all too familiar). That famous scene in Lady and the Tramp (1955) both pulls on the heart-strings and is testament to the unifying potential of a shared meal. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) is genius in the way it exploits food’s emotive potential. After drug-dealer Juan rescues ‘Little’ from bullies at a crackhouse, food is central to the development of their relationship. Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa, nourish Little with huge plates of food, eventually establishing enough trust for him to reveal his name is Chiron. Later in the film Chiron, now a young man, reunites with Kevin, his childhood romance. Again the dinner table becomes a bridge between the characters. Kevin prepares dinner for Chiron, and the cinematography of the cooking scene – shot in slow motion and set to a score – emphasises the love being poured in to the meal. When Chiron is hesitant to share any personal details of his life since they last met, Kevin says, “You know the deal: your ass eat, your ass speak”. Food, as well as an essential of life, becomes a vehicle of meaning, of underlying but intense emotion.
There are innumerable other ways food is used in film. In one of my favourites, The Hundred Foot Journey (2014), food’s centrality to culture is highlighted with the gulf between the two cuisines mirroring the the gulf between the two cultures. In Psycho, Norman watched on as Marion eats alone upon her arrival at Bates Motel, giving the scene an uncomfortable and ambiguous tone, hinting at what’s to come. And, who could forget Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant juxtaposition of aesthetic, nourishing food with intense, destructive violence. Often presented (intentionally) as insignificant, food gives film an emotional, and meaningful, core.