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Food on Film: The Best Bites

Published in Gourmet Live 10.17.12
Movie critics, including the AP's Christy Lemire, The New Yorker's David Denby, Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz, and Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times, name their favorite scenes that spotlight food

By Megan O. Steintrager
Food on Film: The Best Bites

Scenes to savor, clockwise from top left: Babette serving the life-changing meal in Babettes Feast; things heating up between the young chef and Emma Recchi in I Am Love; Nora, left, and Nick Charles with Dorothy Wynant in The Thin Man; and Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Food and drink have starred in many a great movie: Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Tampopo, and the more recent Jiro Dreams of Sushi come immediately to mind, along with Sideways and Julie & Julia. Yet when we polled film critics about their all-time favorite big-screen food scenes, we were surprised that many chose moments from films that aren't about eating or cooking at all. Nevertheless, their selections contain unforgettable food moments, whether comic, intensely emotional, sensual, or totally terrifying. Read on for a taste of the scenes savored and favored by Christy Lemire, Associated Press movie critic and cohost of the online film review show What the Flick?!; The New Yorker's David Denby; Ben Mankiewicz, another cohost of What the Flick?! and also a Turner Classic Movies host; and Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey.

I Am Love: Prawns and Passion The 2009 Italian movie I Am Love (Io Sono L'Amore) is the only film mentioned by two of the critics: Sharkey and Lemire. "Food and disaster share the plate in this film, along with an exceptional performance by Tilda Swinton as the wife of an Italian magnate," explains Sharkey. "There are two scenes that frame the movie for me: the opulent Christmas feast, where the food—including the fish stew, its recipe a family secret—may be hot but the mood is cold. The other comes just as [Swinton's character, Emma Recchi] is on the edge of an affair with a young chef. The food becomes the most artful of seductions: The presentation is minimalist and exquisite, slashes and drops of flavors swirl around, and center stage, there is a ménage à trois of prawn, scallop, and shrimp that is impossible to resist."

The latter scene also grabbed Lemire: Emma is eating "the most exquisite prawns she's ever tasted," she notes. "The experience for her is transcendent—borderline orgasmic, even—because they've been prepared by a young chef—a friend of her son's!—with whom she's developed an intense fascination. In a gorgeous, dreamlike film, this one moment is especially rapturous."

My Cousin Vinny: The Gritty Truth

"My top pick is a courtroom scene that comes after a meal" in 1992's My Cousin Vinny, Mankiewicz proclaims. "You all know it: It's Joe Pesci cross-examining the wonderful character actor Maury Chaykin: 'How could it take you 5 minutes to cook grits when it takes the entire grit-eating world 20 minutes to cook a grit?' Flustered, Chaykin says, 'I'm a fast cook, I guess.' The best …"

9½ Weeks: Fridge Femme Fatale

According to Lemire, the first thing that comes to mind is 9½ Weeks, from 1986. "As lurid and trashy as it seems in retrospect, the scene where Mickey Rourke playfully feeds Kim Basinger on the kitchen floor as part of their twisted love affair—he essentially dumps the contents of a refrigerator on her body—still stands out as a pop-culture 'moment' all these years later. And it is lighted and edited beautifully—say what you will about Adrian Lyne's movies, he was a visual stylist."

Tom Jones: Gluttony, Lust, and Other Deadly Sins

One of David Denby's favorite food scenes involves some provocative gorging on chicken, lobster, oysters, and fruit in the 1963 film Tom Jones, a quadruple Oscar winner. "There's the famous scene in which the strapping young Albert Finney and an aging but luscious bawd, Joyce Redman, eat oysters and other delectables. Excellent foreplay."

The Thin Man: Bottoms Up, and Up, and Up…

"Who doesn't love every scene in the Thin Man movies where William Powell has a drink?" In other words, continues Mankiewicz, "every scene" of this detective series from the 1930s and '40s. The boozy antics of Powell's character, Nick Charles, and his wife, Nora, are so popular and plentiful that they've been gathered by a fan into an online clip of "Nick and Nora Alcohol Moments," four droll minutes of pouring, mixing, swilling, and witty quips. When asked if Nick is working on a case, Nora retorts, "Yes, a case of Scotch— pitch in and help him."

The Help: Deep-Fried Friendship

Sharkey says her favorite culinary moment in the food-filled The Help is "not the infamous 'chocolate' creme revenge pie that Octavia Spencer's Minny cooks up, but Southern fried chicken—crisp and greasy goodness." Sharkey loves the scene after Minny (a role that garnered Spencer a 2012 Oscar) has taught Celia (played by Jessica Chastain) how to make fried chicken, and they're eating it together. "The moment is both simple and profound—a black maid and the white woman she works for breaking bread and racial barriers around a kitchen table in the '60s. Beautiful."

Babette's Feast: Soup and Sensual Awakenings

Denby contrasts this additional favorite with the bawdy bits chosen from Tom Jones. "At a more spiritual level, there's the final scene of Babette's Feast," the Oscar-winning 1987 Danish film, Denby notes. "Some very austere Danes are ravished by a superb meal, including mock-turtle soup, concocted for them by a French chef in exile, [played by] Stéphane Audran. The meal unsettles them; it opens sensuous possibilities in their life that they didn't know existed."

Citizen Kane: Breakfast Breakup

"The best dining table scene of all time is in Citizen Kane," the Oscar-winning classic made in 1941, asserts Mankiewicz. "Orson Welles and Ruth Warrick [who plays Kane's wife, Emily] are getting further and further from each other at breakfast as the years pass, and the intimacy vanishes from their relationship. By the end, they're not speaking at all as he reads his newspaper and she's reading the competition." And though, as Mankiewicz points out, food is not actually consumed, we see the couple grow increasingly separate over coffee and other typical tableside rituals.

Waitress: Emotional Lows, Highs, and Pies

"This light confection of a 2007 comedy stars Keri Russell as a waitress with a habit of pouring her emotions into her creations: the 'I hate my husband pie,' the 'I can't have this affair because it's wrong and I don't want Earl to kill me pie—hold the banana,'" says Sharkey. "In scene after scene, the movie captures the way in which the food we make is so often a reflection of what we're feeling at the moment. More reliable than a mood ring, and tastier, too."

Willy Wonka " the Chocolate Factory: Every Strange Second

"Pretty much all of the original [1971] Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory works for me," says Lemire. "It's just glorious and colorful and strange—and Gene Wilder is supremely creepy—but food isn't just a source of nourishment or pleasure here. It is literally a ticket to a better life."

Jaws: You're Going to Need a Bigger Plate

"I immediately thought of Jaws," confesses Mankiewicz, specifically "the shark eating the boy on the raft." In this scene from Steven Spielberg's 1975 multiple Oscar winner, a great white makes a meal of little Alex Kintner, who fatefully had begged his mom to let him go back into the water for just a few more minutes.

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