Pop Culture Rewind: Food on Film


Words || Nikita Jones

In a 2004 collection of essays entitled Reel Food – a title I so very wish I’d come up with myself – Anne Bower tells us that food on the big screen is “semiotic … that is, it is possible to ‘say’ things with it” – even without the help of alphabet spaghetti. It seems filmmakers get to use food as a shorthand for a whole range of things.

Now, that IS a tasty burger

On the list of seven deadly sins, gluttony is right at the top. It’s peculiar, really; envy and wrath come in at numbers five and six and like, I know people aren’t themselves when they’re hungry (Eat A Snickers™) but wrath and envy are like the murder-y ones so I mean, objectively those have to be worse, right?

Not so if you are a director who just watched a bunch of Tarantino movies instead of attending film school. Stealing someone’s food, messing with someone’s food, demanding to be fed, or straight up just eating your own fucking meal are apparently red hot indicators that a character is killing-puppies-level bad. The codifying example is of course the, “is that a Big Kahuna burger?” scene from Pulp Fiction, where Sam Jackson’s Jules politely asks for a bite of somebody else’s burger and the audience knows, even before he murders everyone in the room, that he’s a real bad dude. This scene is actually lifted straight from the 1966 film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, so I guess Sergio Leone gets to steal back the credit for this particular trope, but Tarantino definitely made it his own. Across the board, Tarantino has always betrayed a penchant for food-related, or food-adjacent drama (I mean, that and feet – but we’ll just let that lie for now). It’s not just Pulp Fiction – which by the way features 83 scenes with reference to food out of a total 93 scenes in the entire screenplay – it’s the strudel and the milk in Inglorious Bastards, and those nachos from the start of Death Proof, and the copious amounts of sweets eaten by (fucking hell) Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. If a character is in control of the food they’re in control of the scene.

Obviously, this is one of Tarantino’s things, but that hasn’t stopped every single filmmaker from picking up on food as a very simple shorthand for power.

All by Myself

Another thing food gets to be a shorthand for is depression – specifically, female depression. Bridget Jones crying into a tub of ice-cream and a glass of red has permanently attached itself to Whitney Houston’s voice in a way that I’m certain has Whitney rolling in her grave. There’s exceptions to the rule, sure, but it’s fairly consistent: when a movie man is sad he turns to alcohol, whereas a movie woman will turn to cake. There are a couple of reasons for this, one being that ‘real men don’t eat sugary things’. Sweetened coffee, drinks with little umbrellas in them, literally any kind of pink confectionary: Han Solo or Ron Swanson wouldn’t come within an inch of them. But it’s not just that girls like sweet things, it’s that girls enjoying sweet things is transgressive, pitiful, funny.

Why does a comedic jump-cut to a girl in her PJs eating ice-cream in front of the freezer immediately communicate that her life’s down the shitter? Why is it equivalent to a guy drowning his sorrows in hard liquor? It’s because indulgence, even in its mildest form, is not FOR women. By expressing and fulfilling a desire to eat and chowing down on some sugary nonsense, these women are ignoring decades worth of carefully structured social pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, and we don’t like it.

Also, I don’t know which advertising executive is responsible for first applying the adjective ‘naughty’ to food, but I’m exclusively blaming them for all of this.

Sexy Spaghetti

I’ve saved the most obvious one for last. Any filmmaker worth their salt knows that food = sex and sex = food. I really don’t know where the connection came from and, like, I don’t want to speak for everyone, but in my experience food and sex are comparable only when the sex is pretty bad and the food is fucking gourmet. This hasn’t stopped Hollywood though; from Jason Biggs fucking a pie to I don’t even know what 9 ½ Weeks was going for, sex is apparently better when you raid the pantry first. It’s not always this explicit, though, sometimes the food is symbolic – and not always in the obvious banana/carrot/icy-pole sense. Lady and the Tramp is a particularly innocent example, but for something a little more visceral, I’m calling on the spaghetti-loving lesbians of Blue is the Warmest Colour. Throughout the film there’s a distinct emphasis on Adele’s love of pasta which seems to parallel her love of sex. Her foodie gluttony translates to a gluttony for pleasure in a way that feels subtle and artistic, conveying characterising idiosyncrasies with a starchy meal. Anyway, I just really love Blue is the Warmest Colour.