Food is the music of love, as a noted playwright once tried to say. The worship of food is an orgy for the senses and our adulation of gastronomy has only intensified over the years. Food has obsessed artists since the invention of paint – think of all those Roman murals with their ‘food equals wealth’ analogies or those bowls of fruit that used to obsess Paul Cezanne so.
Yet consider the wild incongruity of Masterchef, say or any of the myriad cookery shows that have millions of us salivating in front of our TV screens – even though we cannot taste, smell or chew any of the goodies on offer and have to rely instead on Gregg Wallace’s questionable opinion.
Film-makers have long appreciated the magic spell that a well-photographed meal can weave upon an audience; the heightened sense and sensuality when in the presence of food, glorious food.
Where the reader of a novel must use their imagination to picture the faces and hear the voices, so must cinemagoers conjure up their own smells and tastes to indulge in the feast set purely visually before them on the big screen. By having to connect those dots, we become ever more complicit in the proceedings.
Jon Favreau recently cooked up a fine tribute to the simple joys of a well made snack in Chef (2014) but not every great cinematic meal has to feature in films about food.
Thomas Blythe has written fine not just about the sandwich that Steve McQueen so gratefully receives from the nurse in Bullitt (1968) but also the quiche that Roger Moore’s James Bond prepares so unexpectedly for Stacey Sutton in A View To A Kill (1985). I myself have a jones for the sugar cake with thick cream that the valet taunts Salieri with in the opening scene of the completely un-food related Amadeus (1984).
Apologies if your own particular favourite movie mouthful hasn’t made this list. To my best friend’s chagrin, the juicy “American cheeseburger” that Robert Downey Jr chomps upon in Iron Man (2008) didn’t make it, nor did his other baffling request: the side of salmon that Dan Aykroyd pulls out of his Santa suit in Trading Places (1983) and eats through his beard – delicious.
Nonetheless, if you will kindly take a seat and let the waiter place the napkin upon your lap, I’m sure there will be something in the following Taste of Cinema menu to please the palate of even the choosiest diner.
10. Tampopo (1985)
To appreciate this list, it is first incumbent upon you to think of food itself in a different way and this scene from Juzo Itami’s delightfully category-defying caper is a three minute tutorial in respecting what you eat. A plate of food is so much more than the sum of its ingredients. In its consumption is a ceremony of celebration.
The elderly, so-called “Ramen Master” (Yoshi Katô) gives young upstart (a comically youthful Ken Watanabe) a lesson in noodle appreciation. Watanabe immediately drops the ball by impatiently grabbing the bowl and getting stuck in.
Wrong. ‘First, observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt. Savour the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining, seaweed slowly sinking…concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden.’ The camera lingers on the dish, as the aromas seem to drift out of the screen and you become aware that you are now drooling like Pavlov’s dog.
The master continues. ‘First caress the surface with the chopstick tips (to express affection, of course) then poke the pork. What is important here is to apologise to the pork by saying, “See you soon.”’
It is important also, while slurping at the noodles, to look at the pork and eye it affectionately. By the time they finally get stuck in, the dry-mouthed anticipation is as peaked as John Mills’s in the pint of lager scene from Ice Cold in Alex. You will never look at a bowl of noodles is a disrespectful way ever again.
Wine recommendation: None required. Simply enjoy the broth under the noodles and thank the bowl for its kind efforts.
9. Tom Jones (1963)
Tony Richadson’s Oscar-laden – though somewhat forgotten of late – adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Georgian romp was a 1960s milestone, lacing classic quality period cinema with lashings of contemporary promiscuity and bawdy sauciness.
Bringing together the twin engines of man’s desire (food and sex) in a montage of quickly intensifying passions, one of the most famous scenes features Albert Finney’s titular character having a tacit game of eye-footsie with Joyce Redman in a roadside tavern.
In a brilliant, seamlessly edited two-camera scene, they hold each other’s gaze as they chew, slurp and tear their way through their meal – soup, lobster, a whole chicken, a leg of lamb, a plate of oysters and a bowl of pears – all the while making it abundantly clear that they’d rather be putting their mouths to an altogether alternative use upstairs in the boudoir.
Food and sex are potent cinematic bedfellows. Years later, Adrian Lyne would all but remake this scene in 9 ½ Weeks, albeit with less oak-panelling, and more hairspray and Jean Michel Jarre music.
Wine recommendation: a flagon of lukewarm ale and a slurred toast to His Majesty King George.
8. Hannibal (2001)
To the chagrin of chefs everywhere, the public appeal of offal has withered over the years. Happily, there is one fictional character that can still work miracles with the cheaper cuts, liver being a particular favourite and in this case, brains.
Unlike the head chef of Pankot Palace who famously served monkey brains to Indiana Jones and his guests chilled, Dr Hannibal Lecter prefers to serve his brains sizzling hot, sautéed lightly with chopped shallots and capers.
In a piece of “table theatre” unlikely to catch on, even at one of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants, Dr Lecter carves the first tranche directly from the opened cranium of the diner himself (Ray Liotta, playing the fatally ill-mannered FBI agent, Paul Krendler) and lightly fries it in front of him on small portable stove.
It could just be the editing, but the piece of brain that Lecter fries up seems to have been underdone to the point of being blue and the lack of seasoning is puzzling, but Krendler proves to be appreciative customer: ‘That smells great,’ he drools before being spoon-fed his own frontal lobe.
Wine recommendation. Dr. Lecter forgoes his usual Chianti for what appears to be a chilled Riesling or Gewurtztraminer. An excellent choice.
7. Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983)
Cerebral viewers, keen to wallow in the cinema of symbolic gluttony and excess might well have selected Marco Ferreri’s 1973 satire, La Grande Bouffe, in which four wealthy friends decide to deliberately eat themselves to death for no other reason than to provide Ferreri with a broad political allegory.
Cineasts might have been surprised to find quite so much Carry On-level bawdiness and even more nonplussed to see Fellini favourite Marcello Mastroianni get covered in a geyser of excrement from an exploding toilet. It’s likely, however that the Monty Python team were making notes somewhere.
Their contribution to this great cinematic banquet, the wafer-thin mint (pron. “waffer theen meent”) proves a morsel too much for morbidly obese restaurant regular Mr Creosote. His subsequent detonation results in his fellow restaurant diners being showered in such a tidal wave of vomit, guts and bile as to make Marcello Mastroianni’s fate seem like a Radox bath in comparison.
As with La Grande Bouffe, this might just represent the opposite of food cinema as the food on display is made retchingly unappealing despite its exquisiteness – Creosote’s entrée of foie gras, beluga caviar, quails eggs and frogs’ legs amandine for example is served mixed together in a bucket. Mercifully, sales of After Eight mints were not affected by their new association with the hillock-sized Mr Creosote and his exploding stomach.
Wine recommendation: Château Latour 1945 (6 bottles), Champage (6 litres), brown ale (6 crates).
6. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
We’re moving into dessert territory now and who better to act as guide to all things sugary and spicy than Mr William Wonka, hermit-like inventor of the most magical confections ever devised. Cinema has given us many fine desserts.
In 2006, Sofia Coppola provided the titular 17th century cake admirer Marie Antoinette with what might be the single greatest buffet of creamed desserts ever presented in a single sitting. Then again, if you favour quality over quantity, a lone, “not so terrible” strudel, as served in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) might just be the ticket – do wait for the cream though.
After 21 years of inflation, Tarantino’s other great contribution to the sweet end of the gastronomic chart, Pulp Fiction’s celebrated $5 milk shake, now seems like a very reasonably-priced way to end a meal, though I’m sure it remains a pretty fucking good milkshake.
How, though can anyone compete with Wonka’s astonishing factory in which practically everything is edible, right down to the river of chocolate running through it. If you’re too full for dessert, why not just try some Three-Course-Dinner chewing gum (once it’s been perfected). Talk about your childhood wishes!
Wine recommendation: Round everything off with a Fizzy Lifting Drink, though take care not to stand beneath any deadly rotating blades when you do.