Sumptuous food is one of cinema’s more attainable pleasures, as in the new comedy Chef, out now in the US. But the way people dine on film is highly unrealistic, argues Lisa Schwarzbaum.

For a list-loving moviegoer, the category of Best Food Scene is easy to fill. At the top of my own inventory I would include the silent cooking of an omelette at daybreak that concludes Big Night (1996); the expression of astonishment on the face of the supercilious restaurant critic as he takes his first bite of the title dish in Ratatouille (2007); and the ecstatic ingestion of an entire meal by a gathering of nuns in Babette’s Feast (1987). The very best food scenes on screen convey pleasure intense enough to be felt even though we can’t sample the ratatouille ourselves. My interest in filmed foodie moments is simple and salt-free, however, compared with the complex attention I pay to the way people chew up there on the screen. I’m hypnotised by how they move their little teeth and convey forks to lips. I’m distracted by what chewing conveys about character, about class and about sex. Because no matter how closely I study the mechanics, I still don’t understand how they do it.

I know, in theory, how the work is done: one bites, one masticates, one swallows. One wipes crumbs from the mouth, one takes a sip of liquid. I have read the etiquette manuals; I do not talk with my mouth full. But on screen, people somehow eat… better. More dramatically. Without getting shreds of lettuce stuck in their teeth. Such superhuman precision confounds me. So while other movie lovers may savour the recipes and vicariously sip the wine, I tend to concentrate on the choppers. The fantasy is that if I can master the process as gracefully as the role models on the screen, my life, too, will be glamorous and sexy,– abundant with meals that combine glittering chat with really good chicken drumsticks and wine. Not that it ever will be, of course; movies have the power to make everything bigger, even the magic of an omelette.

Conspicuous consumption

A few bite-size categories of chewing warrant study. There is, for one, the Big Sexy Slobber. The eating scene in Tom Jones (1963) is undoubtedly the ultimate expression of grease-slicked foreplay: Albert Finney and Joyce Redman tear into mounds of meat and slurp their oysters, licking fingers to express lust through gastronomic gusto in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 18th Century novel. Never mind that offscreen, the actors actually vomited from overeating during the three hours it took to shoot the scene: this is food as sex symbol, consumed in a manner not to be tried without a wipe-clean tablecloth.

Pasta, as enjoyed by Adèle Exarchopoulos, serves a similar role in the recent Cannes prize winner Blue is the Warmest Colour. Certain slobbering male critics have spent a considerable amount of review space admiring the graphic, non-symbolic sex scenes between Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux – a couple of luscious young women hot for one another’s flesh. But it is the way Adèle enjoys her spaghetti in big, sauce-coated forkfuls at home with her family that most vividly demonstrates her hunger for pleasure.

Symbolic gastronomy

Chewing as a Class Statement, another category of movie table manners worth graduate-level study, sometimes doubles as Chewing as a Sign of Ethnicity. In The Sopranos, Tony Soprano ate (and ate and ate) with ferocity, his body language distinctive down to the hunching of the shoulders and the position of the utensil in his meaty hand. But whether his approach to food, as expertly refined by James Gandolfini, was a signifier of mob etiquette, New Jersey style or a form of Italian-American vernacular, is something for gourmands more sophisticated than I am to analyse fully. Are we simply being told that heavy guys – guys who are, in fact, mob ‘heavies’ – like Americanised Italian food in a lot of red sauce, conveyed to the lips with earnest gusto? Or does it reveal key information about his character? That Tony’s dining style is a result of his lower-middle class upbringing, in which raucous family dinners were gatherings of squabbling people too closely bound to bother wearing fancy manners at the table? T hat same shared table gusto goes for the eating in Moonstruck (1987), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), and any mealtime with the Corleones in The Godfather (1972). These families make noise.

From another continent comes a different kind of noise: Asian food culture sometimes incorporates the slurping of soups and bowls of noodles. The technique is efficient; it is also expressive, conveying everything from satisfaction to concentrated hunger. When employed in Ang Lee’s 1994 Taiwanese gem Eat Drink Man Woman, the sounds also reflect conviviality and happiness. In Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), every mouthful is spiced with eroticism, and the act of eating becomes a way to break through the constraints of cultural modesty. In Wong’s film the sight of chewing and sipping becomes even more sexually charged, in its subtlety, than it is in Tom Jones. It’s a heightened reality onscreen: alas, when I slurp, the results instead echo the remembered soundtrack of my immigrant Hungarian grandfather, participating at our family dinner table with faulty dentures.

At least at home I am not judged as harshly as my non-Asian screen sisters when they choose to chomp. In movies, the sights and sounds of women chewing noisily – or eating ice cream out of a cardboard carton, Bridget Jones-style – signify an ‘unladylike’ behavior meant to suggest comic loneliness, sadness, or irritability. This kind of slight transcends all ethnic or class distinctions. On screen, messy eating by women telegraphs pathos we’re meant to laugh at, pure and simple. Especially when done in pyjamas, standing in front of an open refrigerator and using a big spoon.

Never mind. I save for last the kind of on-screen eating that might make a weaker admirer cancel her dinner plans, defeated: Perfect British Morsel Ingestion. Is there a Rada course in the wielding of cutlery, akin to fight training? UK thespians regularly demonstrate delicate, admirable and maddeningly precise mastication. The refinement isn’t limited to unattainable Downton Abbey manners, either, or any dishes consumed in one of those high-quality period dramas in which rations are thoughtfully consumed in WWII bomb shelters or jolly Midlands pubs. No, even the most run-of-the-mill chowing in Richard Curtis movies, or any food scene ever to feature Emma Thompson, is a thing of beauty: a fork spears a legume, a sip of liquid is imbibed and the chatter flows freely. No wonder I watched Le Week-End twice: the first time, I was blinded by the daintiness of all the precision forking and sipping done by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent. 

Do real people eat like this? Do real people talk like this? If so, will you please invite me to the dinner party? I promise not to spill a thing.

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