No less than literature, art or politics, the food we eat makes a cultural statement. As a necessity, it influences our daily lives, and our interactions and associations with food can vary based on social status, economic situation and geographical location.
With this in mind, it's not surprising that food can be used to convey multiple meanings on film. The choices we make related to cuisine can also be affected by mood, preference and ease of availability. This subtext is often easily ignored, which only further demonstrates its intricacies. Food is so essential to our existence that we can often overlook the layers of meaning it presents us with. From James Bond's beverages to Hannibal Lecter's choice of Chianti, if it's in the scene, it consciously contributes to these stories. Focusing primarily on the works of Quentin Tarantino, Roald Dahl adaptations and AMC's Mad Men, here's how cuisine can be a powerful, sensory storytelling technique in movies and on TV.
Tarantino's Exploration Of Power Using Food
A prime example of a screenwriter who uses the relevance of food in his movies is famed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. The eccentric auteur frequently uses meals as tools to describe the power struggle between characters. After all, a $5 milkshake isn’t something to be taken lightly, unless you're in a position to order whatever you want. As the wife of a mighty mobster, Pulp Fiction's Mia Wallace celebrates her position of authority with the order of pricey shake.
Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 also us food to depict a struggle of relationships. Whether it's the domesticity of ex-assassin Vernita Green, a.k.a Copperhead, fixing a bowl of cereal for her daughter, or Hattori Hanzō and his assistant bickering over why Hanzō always made the fish, the film makes extensive use of food and drink as references to a deeper understanding of the characters.
Having distanced herself from her previous ultraviolent life, Vernita is now a loving mother with an IKEA-inspired kitchen. As she fights Beatrix in her humble home, Vernita is also protecting her new life — even using this to her advantage, as she pretends to make her daughter's after-school snack (whilst really reaching for a hidden pistol).
On the other side of this struggle for power, we have O-Ren Ishii and her influence over the Japanese underworld. When Boss Tanaka smashes his plate of food to show disapproval for the new ruler of the Yakuza clans in Tokyo, his disrespect toward O-Ren is not taken lightly, and he severely punished. His meal is in honor of O-Ren's new role as head of the clans, and his disgust is shown by disrespecting the meal in front of him. Communal enjoyment of food and drink is important in Japanese culture, and not adhering it is a crime of great dishonor. This makes Boss Tanaka’s behavior highly subtextual in nature, and deserving of punishment in the eyes of everyone present, making O-Ren Ishii even more powerful.
While contempt toward food is corrected, deference toward it is rewarded. When Beatrix eats rice with her hand in front of her master Pai Mei because of the injury on her hand, his displeasure is obvious. He makes it clear that if she decides to eat like an animal, she should sleep like one, too. This dignity payed to food is maintained throughout the film, in spite of the fact that Beatrix is in a lot of pain from her deformed knuckles. Even so, she has to enjoy her simple food the way that Pai Mei deems fit — like a samurai. This power struggle is really about their relationship as master and student, rather than about the rice in the bowl. In respecting the food, she is respecting him as her teacher.
Most importantly, Kill Bill 1 and 2 explore the relationship between parent and child, with those in parental roles as the provider of a child's meal. It becomes clear to Beatrix that Bill is the caretaker of her own daughter when he is seen making sandwiches for her. As the little girl's mother, Beatrix understands that it should have been her role to be the provider, and this adds to the list of rights that Bill has wrongly stripped from her. Tarantino's ongoing use of cuisine as a subtext is dark and somber, but food is incredibly versatile in its cinematic uses. For example, consider the relationship food has with many family films, where food's wide variety of tastes and aesthetics are often celebrated.
Culinary Temptation In Roald Dahl Adaptations
When thinking of popular family films that focus on food, perhaps the most famous that come to mind are the adaptations of Roald Dahl’s books. Matilda and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory are both prime examples of how to idealize and glorify food visually. With children as the target audience, this glorification is generally used with dishes that are palatable to younger tastebuds. For example, the cabbage water in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is supposed to be a tasteless, bland item that is utterly undesirable. On the other hand, Willy Wonka’s chocolate bars are a delicious childhood fantasy.
The candies in the films are brought closer to the camera, shown in beautiful lighting and in a variety of colors and shapes. This representation of food is simplistic, sensory, and cannot go unnoticed. We know that the film toys with our own desires, and we don't mind one bit. Candy that can be sucked on forever, large golden chocolate eggs for Easter, a river of churning, warm chocolate, and even chewing gum that tastes like real multi-course meals; such temptations lead the audience to appreciate Charlie's infatuation with the factory.
However, temptation must not be succumbed to. Charlie's resistance is ultimately what separated him from the other children, as they fall prey to their temptation and are banished from Wonka's factory. This is similarly explored in the adaptation of Dahl's Matilda, where temptation comes in the form of a gigantic chocolate cake.
This message is clear: Everything beautiful comes with a price. In fact, the most righteous food is the least tempting. As we see, Charlie buying bread for his family with his first pay is simple fare, and a selfless gesture that children are encouraged to appreciate.
In Matilda, the chocolate cake may be alluring, but being greedy for it made Bruce Bogtrotter face a challenge and a punishment that would scare any child. It is to be noted, however, that all the children in the school rise up against this punishment of him having to eat the entire chocolate cake (which is undeniably cruel) and it is this cake that brings all the children together in bravery and camaraderie. Thus, several times in children’s films, food can have a more clear and apparent meaning — one of enjoyment, desire and finally a lesson that stems directly from this enticement of food.
So, as you can see, power struggles and a character's temptations are just two of the many meanings food can bring to the big screen. On TV, a show like Mad Men is reliant heavily on its process of character development.
Societal Interactions With Food In 'Mad Men'
With more screen time, realistic dramas will inevitably see food play a factor in the characters' lives. Mad Men is a great example of how characters can be explored through their consumption.
There are many, many instances to look at involving social interactions and food in Mad Men, but to look deeper into its meaning, let's focus on an early Sally Draper scene as a prime example. While Don Draper's daughter was seven years old, we saw her partake in a midnight snack with Don. Here, their father-daughter relationship is strengthened and asserted, something viewers of the show will know is something Don's family desperately required. As a father, Don was both absent and distant, so this scene offers a fresh take on what kind of a father he should be, thus reassuring his child. Their midnight snack stems from her worrying about the arrival of a new baby, and it's significant that this rare connection between Sally and Don comes in the form of comfort food.
The dish is his means to console his daughter. As I also referenced in an article about Miyazaki’s treatment of food in his Studio Ghibli films, comfort foods are generally those which are easily cooked and eaten.
In spite of this scene, Sally’s need for a strong paternal figure is also fulfilled by Gene, her maternal grandfather, which is charming to look at as they share ice-cream, a treat that Sally is not allowed to have before mealtime.
Interestingly, when Gene complains of the chocolate ice-cream smelling like oranges, it is a foreboding of the fate that awaits Gene; a stroke by the end of the episode. This could also be a nod to The Godfather, which uses oranges throughout the trilogy to allude to death.
Sally's mother Betty also has her shortcomings as a parent, made clear through the use of food.
Betty is a strict and controlling mother, and it is important to her that her children listen to everything she says, and that they behave perfectly. This demeanour of hers is brought out by the food kept in front of the family, in the form of sweet potato yams. These candied gourds are a treat, but for Sally, an obstinate teen, they are just another item forced on her by her mother, with whom she has a tumultuous relationship.
On the other hand, Sally's relationship with Megan is one based on a mutual respect. Megan has realized that Sally, as any teenager would, has an innate desire to behave like a grown up. This contrast between Betty and Megan’s treatment is visible through the way Sally is fed. During one scene with Megan, Sally orders a coffee for herself, wanting to be an adult, and proceeds to add half a cup of sugar to it because, of course, she doesn't like the taste. This coffee is a metaphor for her eagerness to be a part of the adult world with Megan, even though both are not yet palatable to her young tastes.
Peggy is another Mad Men character with an interesting connection with food. Initially, she loses out on the Heinz Baked Beans account because Megan understands the domesticity of the product much more than she does. With Heinz Baked Beans, Megan brings in the idea of spaghetti being eaten by her as a child because her mother made it for her, and the fact that she is now making it for her own family. They choose to sell the societal interaction of food through the campaign. Peggy, at this point, cannot understand this, but eventually will learn how the two are related. This is a character development ranging over two seasons, and continues to be relevant for the rest of the show's run.
Eventually, Peggy's pitch to Burger Chef is focussed on being hungry for more than just food, aching for a connection over dinner; specifically with family. This pitch is so powerful, because it puts forth the feeling of togetherness that only food can bring to the table.
Just as Peggy learned throughout her journey as a copy editor, food is hugely divisive. It can be sold through nostalgia, memories, visuals, power, human connections and social roles. The list of possibilities is endless, and film and TV continue to explore what food can convey about a character. Directors who learn how to use it can open up a plethora of new ways to involve food in their storytelling, making the story vivid and the characters come alive.
What's your favorite use of food in movies and TV? Share your thoughts in the comments section.