THE READER
March 2004

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Cinematic Cuisine
Brendon Smith
Communications Manager


When Liz Wermcrantz, editor of the Reader, mentioned that she’d like someone to write an article about food in the movies and, being a fan of both, I jumped at the opportunity. In all of these movies, food is portrayed as much more than simply fuel for our bodies - it is treated with reverence. Food’s preparation and serving is a way of caring for others; appreciation of its appearance, smell, texture and taste is an exercising of the senses and a delight in the physicality of life.

Here are five of my favorites - make sure you have restaurant reservations or a take-out menu handy when you watch these!

The Gleaners and I
2000, French with English subtitles, not rated
This is a great documentary about France’s “gleaners” - people who pick through fields after harvest. Gleaning is a centuries-old tradition in Europe and it is actually protected by France’s constitution. With efficient farm machinery, huge fields and a narrow range of what supermarket shoppers will accept, though, the practice is far different now. The director, Agnès Varda, shows us piles of rotting vegetables that are deemed too large, too small, too misshapen or the wrong color to expect consumers to buy them.

But the director expands the meaning of “gleaners” to include those who scavenge from dumpsters and even those who take junk to either repair it or use it in works of art. One man brags “I live 100% on things I retrieve from trash. I have eaten 100% trash for 10 years, I’ve never been ill.” Ms. Varda is also a gleaner of sorts - she found bits of life stories and fashioned them into a documentary.

Eat Drink Man Woman

1994, Chinese with English subtitles, not rated (some sexual content)
Three daughters and their father, a respected chef, deal with changes in their lives. He makes amazing dinners each Sunday, but none of them feel much like eating because they’re too wrapped up in their problems. The father’s taste - for food literally and for life figuratively - have faded. The theme of cooking also shows up in the story of the middle sister, who wanted to be a chef but was prevented due to chauvinism, and in the story of the youngest, who works at Wendy’s. The chef’s spirit improves, however, as he begins making simple school lunches for the young daughter of a friend.


Babette’s Feast
1988, Danish with English subtitles, rated G
After eating the same meal of boiled fish and ale bread for years, a grateful woman gives a small Calvinist village in Denmark receives a surprising, and potentially troubling, gift - a feast. The death of the village’s spiritual leader has allowed minor disagreements to grow into bitterness and faith to harden into empty ritual. The townspeople are concerned that the amount and richness of the food may tempt them into gluttony, but they discover the divinity in a well-made meal.


Tampopo

1987, Japanese with English subtitles, not rated (some sexual content)
In this Japanese comedy, a woman attempts to create the perfect noodle and the perfect noodle restaurant. Her mentor demonstrates the correct way to eat soup (with more steps than you could guess), takes her to other restaurants on reconnoitering missions, designs an exhausting exercises regimen, and creates a panel of noodle judges to test her results.

Spliced into the movie are some random mini-movies, all about food. In one, an etiquette teacher instructs her students on the proper (i.e., quiet) way to eat spaghetti, while an Italian man loudly slurps up his noodles in the other room. In another, a young man and woman simply pass a raw egg back and forth, from mouth to mouth.


Big Night

1996, rated R
Big Night does with Italian food what Babette’s Feast did with French, though for very different reasons. Two brothers own an Italian restaurant and, because the older one refuses to Americanize his dishes, they are losing customers to the place down the street. (There’s a nice echo here of the independent artist vs. the corporation.) A huge meal for a celebrity is their last chance to get publicity and more patrons. A ridiculous amount of food is paraded before the camera. The crowning course is the timpano - “A timpano is a drum with the best things in the world inside!” - filled with salami, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, ziti and meatballs, served by the slice. The last scene, a five-minute shot of an omelet being made by one brother for another, distills the theme of food as a builder of community.

After watching this movie, my wife and I rushed off to Antonio’s (which is no longer around), hoping to eat something close to the amazing dishes we’d seen onscreen. We got into a brief discussion with the couple at a neighboring table, and it turned out that they had just seen Big Night as well.

Super Size Me
I’m looking forward to watching “Super Size Me,” a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Director Morgan Spurlock filmed himself as he ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. He even drank McDonald’s water. His health, perhaps unsurprisingly, deteriorates and he visits two doctors to monitor the changes his body goes through. Although Mr. Spurlock was unable to meet with any McDonald’s representatives, the New York Post did get this comment in response to the film: “Consumers can achieve balance in their daily dining decisions by choosing from our array of quality offerings and range of portion sizes to meet their taste and nutrition goals.” Mr. Spurlock obviously disagrees.