Food is the most important thing to us as humans. Food is one of our most basic and fundamental needs. It drives our everyday life and is the center of many of our daily activities. Thus, it is no wonder that we have become so absolutely enthralled with the idea of food and what foods depiction in several forms of art can represent. From Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper to the more modern art form of film, such as Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), humans have increasingly looked at the way that food can symbolize the many aspects of our humanity and society. Other depictions of food in art are less explicit and employ food in ways that subtly help develop the art in order to infer the importance of food rather than directly showing it.
Upon the first viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), with its signature motto of the “three stories about one story”, your most likely not going to consider Tarantino’s second feature film as a one that uses food in a symbolic and allegoric way. However, if you were to count the number of scenes in which food is referenced or displayed, you would find that a surprising eighty-three out of the ninety-three total scenes in the film involve food in some aspect (Epstein 196). More importantly, Pulp Fiction does not just simply use food as a prop for the scenes but also, “lends depth to characters, advances the narrative, and, ultimately intensifies brutal displays of violence” (Epstein 196). In every storyline of the film, food becomes integral in the narrative. The story of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) progresses from talks of the names of fast-food in European countries, to the consumption of “Big Kahuna Burgers” during an interrogation and eventually discussions over coffee while attempting to deal with a dead body. The storyline even ends in a diner setting arguing over the morality of eating different forms of meat. In the section dubbed “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”, much of the action occurs in a retro restaurant that is seems similar to the burger hops of the sixties. Butch Coolidge’ s (Bruce Willis) storyline uses much more subtle references and uses of food, but involves many discussions with Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) about what type of breakfast they want and Butch’s procurement of food in the form of Poptarts. Thus, food is used as the backbone for the film and develops the characters in such a way that their interaction with food comes to embody many aspects of the character including the characters place in an established hierarchy of power within the film’s society.
The three stories that Pulp Fiction revolves around are mixed in a temporal jumble so that the pieces do not progress in a linear progression. The film opens in a diner with two burglars holding up a coffee shop and then enters the first of the three stories. The first story follows Jules and Vincent and their task to retrieve a briefcase storing an unidentified glowing object for their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). The task leads them through a wide array of circumstances, including a situation in which they are forced to clean up the remains of brain matter from an accidental gun fire, after which, at the end of the film, they go to the very same diner that is shown being robbed in the beginning of the film. The second story line is the shortest and follows Vincent as he is forced to take Mia Wallace, his boss’s wife, out to a dinner, in which afterwards she snorts heroin causing her to overdose and Vincent to be in charge of how to resuscitate her. Finally, the last story follows Butch, who is fleeing from Marsellus after winning a fight he was intended to throw. Through unfortunate circumstances he is forced into numerous life or death situations, including one where he is almost sodomized. All three of the stories are intertwined within each other and have many of the same characters which allows for the film to develop each character in different ways. Many of which are evident through Tarantino’s use of food.
In regards to character development and the juxtaposition of food and violence, we can consider Rebecca L. Epstein’s article “Appetite for Destruction: Gangster Food and Genre Convention in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction” which discusses the use of food in a film that can quite easily be categorized as a “non-food film”. One of the largest uses of food in the film is to encode for gender roles and sexuality. In the first scene we see that “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth), doesn’t eat anything at all in the span of the scene and “displays outward aggression” that is meant to code for the masculinity of his character (Epstein 197). “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer), on the other hand, is seemingly hysterical and neurotic in her interaction with her coffee as she “pours a ton of cream and sugar into her coffee” (Tarantino 3). Honey Bunny’s inability to restrain herself from the indulgence of adding a significant amount of cream and sugar into her coffee, according to Epstein, is coding for femininity and is allegorically connected to a female’s inability to control her sexual appetite and desire (200). This encoded “sexual appetite” is also seen in the other female characters as well. Epstein remarks that “Fabienne…lounges in bed in underwear while speaking of her desire for a huge breakfast of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, eggs over easy, five sausages, a tall glass of juice, and a black coffee” and with the addition of Fabienne’s pie for desert, we see that the bedroom setting and the scantily dressed Fabienne relate the physical sexual allusions to her verbal remarks concerning her desire for a huge breakfast. Furthermore, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) shows similar physical connections between food and sex. The setting between her and Vincent at the restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim’s physically establishes the importance of food in the scene even before have even ordered. Upon their requests to the “Buddy Holly” waiter, we see that Vince simply orders a steak “bloody as hell”, aligning with the encoding of food as a representation of masculinity, while Mia orders a meal that includes a burger, fries, and the infamous “five-dollar shake” (Tarantino 33). The rather large meal may not at first seem that sexualized, however, Mia’s interactions with the food when it arrives lends allusions to her highly sexual nature as she “sucks on the white, creamy phallus” that is the straw of the shake in an attempt to either flirt or tease with Vincent (Epstein 200).
With regards to the male characters, the more important part of the interactions between female characters and food is the danger that the female characters put the male characters in due to their desire for consumption. Epstein refers to each of these characters as “foodie femme fatales” due their inherent ability to put the male characters in danger of being killed (Epstein 200). For example, as Fabienne is ranting about her insatiable desire for her enormous breakfast, Butch finds that she forgot his watch that he specifically told her was the one thing she could not forget. This forces Butch to have to go all the way back to his apartment to grab the keepsake his father left him which leads to Butch finding Vincent waiting to kill him. Even after narrowly avoiding death to Vincent’s poor bathroom timing, Butch’s misfortune strikes again in the same trip as he happens to run into Marsellus who is crossing the street at the stoplight he is at, instigating a situation in which Butch ends up covered in blood and nearly raped. In addition, Mia endangers Vincent through her appetite for consumption via drugs that are often “depicted as comestibles” for consumption much like food (Epstein 200). Mia visually consumes drugs three times in the span of her time on screen during the film, the first comes as she snorts a line of cocaine shortly after Vincent arrives, the second is another encounter with cocaine in the bathroom of the Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and the most damning run-in, from Vincent’s point of view, is when Mia snorts heroin while he is in the bathroom of her house following dinner. Her “appetite” puts Vincent in a situation in which he would be likely killed or wounded significantly by the hands of Marsellus if he does not resuscitate her from her drug-induced unconsciousness.
This juxtaposition of food and violence is also one of the tools that Tarantino uses food for in Pulp Fiction. In several of Tarantino’s gory scenes in the film, food either precedes or leads to some form of violence and death upon the attempt of a character to procure or prepare food. If we return to Butch’s quest to retrieve his father’s watch, we will see that the juxtaposition between violence and food is most evident here than at possibly any other point in the film. The first relation between food and violence in Butch’s story is the preparing of Poptarts in Butch’s apartment. As Butch arrives at his apartment he finds his watch then goes to the kitchen to prepare Poptarts and realizes someone is also in the house (Vincent) when he sees the gun lying on the kitchen counter. Vincent then opens the bathroom door to find Butch in the kitchen holding the gun, at which point there is a jump cut to the Poptarts popping out of the toaster, which immediately precedes the cut back to Vincent and Butch as Butch shoots Vincent. The very next scene, as mentioned before, Butch is driving and is waiting at a stoplight when Marsellus happens to walk across the street and notices Butch. This wouldn’t normally pertain to the discussion of food and violence if Marsellus wasn’t carrying the box of donuts and coffee. Butch then runs over Marsellus, leading to the aforementioned sodomy scene. Thus, in both occurrences of onscreen violence with regards to Butch, food is notably present to mark the beginning or the coming of the violence.
This use of food and violence is purposely and masterfully created in order to trick the viewers watching the film. Tarantino is well known for using intense scenes of violence and blood (e.g. Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs ear removal scene) and viewers are likely aware of the gory risk they are taking when viewing a Tarantino film. Thus, Tarantino has employed the use of food in order for him to do what he calls “pulling the rug out from under” his viewers in order to keep them off balance and make sure they are on their toes, not knowing what is going to come next (Woods 103). The way in which food adds to this technique is by giving the audience a sense of comfort and familiarity when they see recognizable foods in normal settings. Epstein believes it is this very familiarity and trickery that has, in fact, added to the infamy of Tarantino’s violence because “critiques of Pulp Fiction have more often spoken of the film’s violence, the shocks to the system, than comforting, familiar food moments that ‘strap in’ the viewer before the ride’s next drop” (Epstein 203). Food in a familiar setting is normally something that a viewer will relate to and can signify a lull period in the action of a narrative, yet Tarantino does the opposite in order to add instances of shock-and-awe.
This primal relation between food and violence is also related to our instinctual programming built in through evolution that puts our need to procure, preserve and protect our food at the highest priority. As human we are naturally hardwired to understand the importance of food and to place its importance above almost everything else. Furthermore, in viewing the human-food relationships from a primal perspective, we notice that the violence created around food is normally at the center of a struggle for power between two individuals. In Pulp Fiction we see such a power struggle through the uses of food, which show that those who have the power or control over certain situations dictate when food is consumed and who gets to eat the food. This is most evident first in the early plot of Vincent and Jules as well as the dinner scene between Vincent and Mia that we will once again return to.
Jules and Vincent’s first act in the film is ridden with moments in which the dominant (Jules and Vincent) lord over those who can be oppressed, which this is explicitly shown through Jules’ interaction with the fast-food belonging to the young men in the apartment. Through the dialogue we understand that Jules and Vincent have been sent by Marsellus, a “business partner” of Brett’s (Frank Whaley) and it is implied that the nature of Jules and Vincent’s visit is not friendly. Jules then eventually takes a bite out Brett’s cheeseburgers and also takes a significant drink from his soda as he domineers over the boys. In Cynthia Baron’s work Appetite and Anxieties, she refers to the fact that “food can be a battleground because it is necessary for survival and because it plays such a crucial role in social interactions” which is at the very heart of this scene. The cheeseburgers and sodas are the battle ground in the center of the interaction between Jules and Brett and Jules takes “control of the battlefield” by taking away one of the basic fundamental needs for a human to survive: their food. Furthermore, Jules also doesn’t just politely take a sip or a small bite just to try the food. Instead, he lingers with them in his hand and holds on to it as if it were his, without Brett giving a word of protest. Jules is determining when Brett can have his burger and drink back, and how much is left, thus, displaying that he is the one with the power in this situation through his ability to take what isn’t his.
While Jules establishes his power in the scene through taking the food of Brett, Mia’s power and control over Vincent is already established through her relationship with Marsellus, given that Marsellus is also Vincent’s boss. Thus, instead of creating her own power situation, she is given power over Vincent when he is forced to take her on a date to entertain her. Mia’s power is then depicted through her use of food and the way in which she uses it to determine what Vince eats. In the most basic sense, those who are in control of the food have power over others by being able to determine the food the others have. For example, when looking at our food system, the businesses that produce our food have the control and power over what and when we eat because they can control what we can buy and what price they sell it for. Although Vincent orders his own meal, Mia has a similar power over Vincent given that he is not shown eating his meal, despite its arrival, until Mia comes back from the bathroom. This could be equated to Vincent displaying gentleman-like qualities but could also be attributed to the fact that Mia determines when the meal starts and when Vincent can start eating, which is shown in the film as the time when Mia returns. Also, in contrast to Jules using his power to take food from others, Mia uses her power to give food to Vincent. She allows Vincent to try her milkshake that he previously scoffed at the price of, and then dictates how he drinks it by telling him he can use her straw since she doesn’t have “kooties”. Given the context of Mia’s statement later where she tells Vincent, “I do believe Marsellus, my husband, your boss, told you to take me out and do whatever I wanted” we can see that she is fully aware of the power she holds over Vince. Therefore, Vincent is receiving food from Mia in a position in which he is lower are on the hierarchy then the position she holds due to her relationship with Marsellus. Food is the mode through which this power hierarchy is shown and it is evident through Jules taking his food and Vincent receiving his.
As Roger Ebert described, Pulp Fiction is a “comedy about blood, guts, violence, strange sex, drugs, fixed fights, dead body disposal, leather freaks and a wristwatch that makes a dark journey through the generations”. If there was one thing that Mr. Ebert left off the list, it would more than likely be “food”. Quentin Tarantino created Pulp Fiction in such a way that nearly every aspect of the narrative hinges upon the use of food and each character is influenced, characterized by and controlled through their interaction with food. Tarantino seems to be completely aware of the importance that food plays in our everyday life and his film is one of the few that uses food in a way that equals its importance in the everyday life. The most notable aspect, however, of how he uses food is through its subtlety. Much like how in everyday life we treat consuming and interacting with food as just another mindless activity that is important but not paid attention to, Tarantino uses food in subtle ways that mimic the realism of how we treat food in the real world. It is only at the times in which we pause to consider the gravity and importance of food that we can fully appreciate how vital it is for our life, and one may only see the importance and influence that food has on Pulp Fiction when they look closely and notice how it adds to each character and each situation in such a vital way that the film would be lost without it.
Baron, Cynthia, Diane Carson, and Mark Bernard. "Introduction: The Cultural and Material Politics of Food Representations in Film."Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2014. 1-24. Print
Ebert, Robert. “Pulp Fiction Movie Review”
Epstein, Rebecca "Appetite for Destruction: Gangster Food & Genre Convention in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction." Reel Foods.
Tarentino, Quentin. “Pulp Fiction”. Film Script, 1993.
Woods, Paul A. King Pulp: The Wild World of Quentin Tarantino. London: Plexus, 1998. Print.