Food in film and TV: The importance of eating

Finley Kidd 19 October 2017

Food is a prominent feature of our lives. Whether you’re somebody who takes great care and pleasure in food, or somebody who sees little more in it that sustenance, food is a frequent consideration. It is also something which can take on a myriad of connotations, those to do with family, class, love, passion. As a result, food is an excellent tool for film and TV makes to use to forge a connection or understanding between the world they’ve created, and the world of the audience. I’ve selected 5 examples which I think use food in effective, interesting ways to do this. 

Master of None

Food is often a central driving force on this show, for both plot and character. The show uses food in whole range of ways, but it does it best when food is given a deeper emotional significance. At the end of season one, Dev is gifted a pasta maker by girlfriend Rachel. We’re told pasta making, for Dev, is one of those entirely achievable pipe dreams you just never get around to actualising – until he does. The sequence of Dev making pasta for the first time is shot with love and tenderness, in a stark contrast to the loneliness and dispute that was looming over his fraught relationship. This moment captures the birth of a passion that will motivate the entire second season, our first hint at how food will embed itself into Dev’s work, dreams and relationships. For me, the other stand out food moment is an episode in season 2, which traces Dev’s friendship with Denise through a series of Thanksgiving meals they share from the 1990s to present. The episode explores how Denise’s sexuality impacts the relationship she has with her family, and it plays with what the process of cooking and eating together can be – one of love, one of communication, but also one which is withholding and tense. 

Blue is the Warmest Colour

When I think of food in film, this what my mind immediately springs to every time. Adele is shown eating extensively, indulging in it with a disregard for table manners. She takes a raw and youthful pleasure in food, and the way the film displays her relationship with it gives us an important insight into how her character is impulsive and desiring. The most interesting use of food and eating is how it ties to the respective, differing social classes of Adele and Emma. When Adele eats with Emma’s family, both the food and manner of dining represent an affluence and restraint that she finds unfamiliar and isolating. Food plays an early role representing the irreconcilable differences between Adele and Emma that will rise to the surface.

Jane the Virgin

At the very beginning of the series, we’re told that Jane loves three things – her family, God, and grilled cheese. The grilled cheese takes on a near-mythical role in the show, becoming a strong and consistent emblem for love. The recipe (1/3 white cheddar, 1/3 yellow cheddar, 1/3 grated American cheese) was passed down to Jane from her Abuela; it is something which is steeped in their family history, and is shown to be one of their greatest sources of comfort and bonding. The importance of the grilled cheese to the Villanueva family is mirrored in how important the grilled cheese is as a device for the writers, and a sign to the audience. It is a sure-fire way to easily and effectively ground the drama of a telenovela in something homely and everyday, a carefully selected reminder that however high the stakes or ridiculous the twist, Jane the Virgin is a show principally interested in the dynamics of a family. 

Pulp Fiction

Two of the most iconic moments of Pulp Fiction (a film, admittedly, in which every other moment is iconic) revolve around food. Tarantino introduces Vincent and Jules to us with the eminently quotable conversation about the French equivalent of a McDonald’s quarter pounder – the Royale with Cheese. The scene primes us for what the film will be, namely a lot of lengthy, meandering conversations about what should be banal and uninspiring, but when in the hands of Tarantino become captivating. In this scene, and in the diner scene where Vincent and Mia order a $5 milkshake, food is Tarantino’s tool for making you care about and identify with characters who are, at least on the surface, criminals leading a life of violence and excess. The film fundamentally grasps how relatable food is to an audience, and how it can anchor a story in reality.

Arrested Development

One of the things I love the most about Arrested Development (and there are a lot) is how it uses food to illustrate how out of touch the Bluth’s wealth makes them. Food and money often work in combination on this show (‘There’s always money in the banana stand’), and when Lucille estimates the cost of a banana at $10, it is an effective reminder that what we are watching is a show about a family on a whole other plane of existence. Food, to the Bluth’s, doesn’t have the typical significance it does for other sitcom families. Food and cooking are not associated with a serene domesticity; the Cornballer machine the family invented causes serious burns on every use, and Lindsay’s attempt to take on a domestic role results in the meal ‘hot ham water’. Food is a useful comedic tool to drive home that the life of the Bluth’s is one of relentless chaos.