Food On Film: The Famished And The Feasts Tired of giant sodas and theater nachos at your local cineplex? Film critic Bob Mondello offers a tasting menu of movies that will whet your appetite for something more than popcorn.
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Food On Film: The Famished And The Feasts

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Food On Film: The Famished And The Feasts

Food On Film: The Famished And The Feasts

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand filling in for Michele Norris, who's away this summer on book leave.

The film "Julie & Julia" opening next month uses the love of cooking to connect its two title characters. Amy Adams plays food blogger Julie and Meryl Streep is the French food chef, Julia Child.

(Soundbite of movie "Julie & Julia")

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actor): (As Julia Child) I'm going to try to flip this thing over now, which is a rather daring thing to do.

Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actor): (As Julie Powell) She changed everything. Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows.

Mr. CHRIS MESSINA (Actor): (As Eric Powell) Don't knock marshmallows.

Ms. STREEP: (As Julia Child) Give it a try. When you flip anything, you've just got to have the courage of your convictions.

BRAND: Well, "Julie & Julia" gave us the courage - okay, the excuse, really - to talk about film food.

Here's Bob Mondello with a whole tasting menu of movies that have whetted audience appetites for something more than popcorn.

(Soundbite of movie "Oliver Twist")

Mr. BARNEY CLARK: (As Oliver Twist) Please, sir, I want some more.

BOB MONDELLO: Oliver Twist was hungry, and he wasn't the only one. Audiences have been lining up to gaze at food, glorious food on the silver screen since the very earliest days of silent pictures, ever since way back in 1901, when an actor opened his mouth really wide in a film called "The Big Swallow" and ate the camera.

A famished Charlie Chaplin cooked his own shoe in "The Gold Rush," twirling the laces on his fork like spaghetti. And in the animated classic "Lady and the Tramp," a single strand of spaghetti led the title characters to their first kiss.

(Soundbite of movie "Lady and the Tramp")

(Soundbite of song "Bella Notte")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) It's a beautiful night, and we call it bella notte.

MONDELLO: Food and romance, or maybe that's the romance of food: Cher, falling in "Moonstruck" for a one-armed baker, 18th-century squire Tom Jones seduced by a pretty wench who's gnawing on a drumstick. Movies are all about sights and sounds, but directors know that to conjure up a really believable world, they need to stir in some aromas and tastes.

(Soundbite of movie "Fried Green Tomatoes")

Ms. JESSICA TANDY (Actor): (As Ninny Threadgoode) I miss the smell of coffee and bacon frying. Oh, what I wouldn't give for a plate of fried green tomatoes like we used to have at the cafe. I never told you about the cafe, did I?

MONDELLO: Food can be enormously useful in the creating of a cinematic world because nothing says down-to-earth and normal like a home-cooked meal. In "Fried Green Tomatoes," that meal was Southern. In "Soul Food," it was soul food. In "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," it was monkey brains.

Upscale restaurant cuisine is another matter, though. Take the two Italian brothers who run a failing, but spectacularly good restaurant in the movie "Big Night," serving authentic Italian to 1950s New Jersey patrons who expect Americanized Italian.

(Soundbite of movie, "Big Night")

Ms. CAROLINE AARON (Actor): (As Woman in Restaurant) I just don't see anything that looks like a shrimp or a scallop, but I get a side order of spaghetti with this, right?

Mr. STANLEY TUCCI (Actor): (As Secondo) Well, no.

Mr. LARRY BLOCK (Actor): (As Man in Restaurant) I thought all main courses come with spaghetti.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Secondo) Well, some, yes. But you see, risotto is rice, so it is a starch and it doesn't go, really, with pasta.

Ms. AARON: (As Woman in Restaurant) But I don't...

Mr. BLOCK: (As Man in Restaurant) Honey, honey, order a side of spaghetti, that's all. And I'll eat your meatballs.

Ms. AARON: (As Woman in Restaurant) Yeah, he'll have the meatballs.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Secondo) Well, the spaghetti comes without meatballs.

Ms. AARON: (As Woman in Restaurant) There are no meatballs with the spaghetti?

Mr. TUCCI: (As Secondo) No. Sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone.

MONDELLO: Back in the kitchen, the chef's not happy.

(Soundbite of movie, "Big Night")

Mr. TONY SHALHOUB (Actor): (As Primo) Why?

Mr. TUCCI: (As Secondo) She likes starch. I don't know. Come on.

Mr. SHALHOUB: (As Primo) How can she want - maybe I should make mashed potatoes for on the other side.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Secondo) Primo, look, don't, okay, because they are the first customer to come in two hours.

Mr. SHALHOUB: (As Primo) No. She's a criminal. I want to talk to her.

MONDELLO: Won't do him a bit of good. Taste is personal, whether you're talking taste in sweets in the film "Chocolat," or taste in wine in the film "Sideways," or taste in garbage in the Pixar comedy "Ratatouille," where a budding chef named Remy, who happens to be a rat, gets very excited when his brother finds a stray bit of cheese.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ratatouille")

Mr. PATTON OSWALT (Actor): (As Remy) And not just any cheese. Tomme de chevre de paix. That would go beautifully with my mushroom and, and, and, oh, this rosemary, this rosemary with maybe, maybe...

MONDELLO: Food is Remy's life, which you might say is the recipe for the most satisfying kind of food movie, one where cuisine isn't just eaten, but helps define character: "Eat Drink Man Woman," where an otherwise undemonstrative Chinese chef creates magnificent meals for three painfully slender daughters who only pick at their food; Japan's "Tampopo," where the quest for the perfect bowl of ramen noodles is a saga to rival "The Magnificent Seven"; and "Like Water for Chocolate," where a love-struck senorita uses actual witchery in the kitchen to express her passion.

(Soundbite of movie, "Like Water for Chocolate")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

MONDELLO: Completely sensual indeed. When she throws rose petals and a secret ingredient into her pot, rooms burst into flames and rivals ride off naked to join the Mexican revolution. Food has seldom been given such power on screen.

And if there have been other magical cinematic meals, none has ever been more magical than the 19th century banquet lovingly prepared and exquisitely served in the Danish film "Babette's Feast."

It's a French cook's extravagant thank you to a tiny church congregation that has sheltered her as a refugee in frigid Denmark for years. The problem is, the elderly congregation believes in self-denial, believes that pleasure must be reserved for the hereafter. So while they agree to eat the meal, so as not to hurt Babette's feelings, they vow to each other that they will not enjoy the meal or even talk about it, much to the astonishment of a visitor who can't believe what he's tasting.

(Soundbite of movie, "Babette's Feast")

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) Exquisite. Quite definitely, this is a genuine turtle soup.

MONDELLO: Everyone just looks at him. From the embarrassment in their expressions, it's clear that the others, despite their best efforts, are enjoying the meal, but no one in the congregation will admit it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Babette's Feast")

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) It is truly the best turtle soup I've had in years.

MONDELLO: I was actually served "Babette's Feast" 20 years ago, when the film premiered. The studio arranged with French restaurants in a few cities to prepare the meal for critics. Nothing mock about the turtle soup, quail in puff pastry with fois gras and truffle sauce, astonishing French cheeses. Film criticism is its own reward, of course, but the rewards that day were a little more savory than usual.

Still, the feast did not top the movie. In the French restaurant where I ate it, the food was delicious, but was still just a meal. In "Babette's Feast" it's more, all tied up in the spiritual: Food as a gift, specifically Eucharistic in nature for a religious community that has denied itself pleasure for decades.

And it is transformative: Old loves are rekindled, long-simmering feuds are forgotten, redemption has a seat at the table. It's fabulous. And whatever the virtues of self-denial on screen, probably not something you want to see on an empty stomach.

I'm Bob Mondello.

BRAND: We've got scenes from several of those cinematic banquets, plus a lot more coverage of summer movies, books, theater, pop culture. It's all there at the Arts and Life section of the new npr.org.

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