Food in film is an evocative tool. Like sound and colour, it’s up there as being one of the most versatile, surprising, devastating and delightful tools in a filmmaker’s kit - much like actual food.
In the same way, a perfectly made apple crumble can break your heart, a shot of one all-important meal or food can become the emotional turnkey in a film. Food unites us, separates us, eases and spurs on arguments, and taps into something deep in us: food is home.
Now, what a filmmaker can and will do to that home is anyone’s guess, and many find the temptation to exploit our connection to food too enticing to resist. Here are some of the best foodie moments in film.
1. Withnail and I: Making dinner with Monty
When we meet Withnail and I, two down-on-their-luck actors in a London dive, they’re fighting over bowls of coffee and downing lighter fluid, chasing another buzz. By the time they decamp for their doomed holiday in the country, they’re malnourished, destitute and unbearably sad, much like the chicken they find and pluck for dinner one evening. When Uncle Monty arrives, however, making dinner becomes a suggestive and disturbing tango, hinging on the romantic potential of finding rosemary in a shopping bag.
2. The Godfather: Take the cannoli
As an operatic love letter to Italian Americans and they’re firmly held traditions, it’s unsurprising that there are so many food scenes in this classic. The one that sheds the most light on the film and its characters, however, is the scene when Peter Clemenza sets out to kill a member of their gang. With cannoli for his wife on the front seat, Clemenza sets up the shoot-out, instructing his co-assassin to "take the cannoli" before they leave. Family, food and duty all rolled into one bite, much like a cannoli!
3. Stand by me: The pie eating contest
Few things connect us more deeply to our childhood than food, so it’s fitting that one of the most memorable scenes in this coming-of-age classic revolves around the humble pie. A parable on gluttony as well as a wonderful gross-out moment, the colour of the pie filling, projectile vomitted around the fair tent, stains the memory almost as much as blueberry pie.
4. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: Rat dinner
This gothic gem has much to be revisited, and ought to be up there with some of the great horrors of the past few decades, but it’s this scene that cements it as one of the most effective and chilling psychological thrillers in cinema. Joan Crawford’s Blanche, an ageing and wheelchair-bound film star, is cared for by her abusive sister, Jane, in their dilapidated home. As tensions and suspicions mount as to how far Jane will go to torment her sister, Blanche is driven to hysterics worthy of Hitchcock at the sight of her dinner: a fur and all rat on a bed of tomato.
5. When Harry Met Sally: I’ll have what she’s having
Who among us has not banged the table in ecstasy over a particularly great sandwich? While the premise of this scene is clear and infamous, the real joy of it is in the setting (a lowly diner) and the theatrically rapt audience dotted around Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. Sure, the scene isn't about food, but their meal is the perfect platform for one of the most iconic scenes in cinema. Also, food allows for the delivery of one of the best one-liners ever: "I'll have what she's having."
6. Oldboy: Octopus
A strange, violent and gripping tale of revenge and anguish, Korean masterpiece Oldboy doesn't pull back the reigns when it comes to food. Freed at last from prison, Oh Dae-su walks into a sushi restaurant and orders live octopus (a delicacy in Korea and typically cut up into small pieces). Rather than wait for that preparation, Oh Dae-su takes the squirming creature in his hand and tears it apart with his teeth. It is a truly disturbing scene to watch, as the camera pans from Oh Dae-su's bitterly resolute face to his hand gripping the octopus, its tentacles gripping back in fight. Incredibly, this leads to a moment of connection for Oh Dae-su. But then again, such is the power of food.
7. Victor Victoria: Cream-induced fainting
Early in the movie, Julie Andrews' starving songstress, Victoria, gives us a pure personification of hunger when she collapses outside a café window, done in by the sight of a pillowy pastry. Every strain and silent cry of longing is echoed by the audience, watching together as a comically rotund man ploughs his face into a mountain of cream in a softly lit dining room. We cut back and forth between gluttony and starvation until, poof, Victoria isn't there anymore. She's on the ground, in the rain, longing for pastry. Same.
8. Ratatouille: Anton Ego’s epiphany
This Pixar masterpiece is an obvious ode to food and, specifically, eating and no scene captures the joy of that as the one when Anton Ego, nefarious and borderline cruel food critic, experiences a gastronomic epiphany. Served a plate of ratatouille, a traditional peasant's dish, the film gives us the most sympathetic backstory possibly ever given to a Pixar villain. Ego isn't the snobbish embodiment of the elite but a poor boy who was picked on once upon a time, and soothed by his mother's food. It's an elegant and heartrending moment.
9. Phantom Thread: Ordering breakfast
Much was made of this scene upon the film's release, with more than one critic urging viewers to see it just to hear Daniel Day-Lewis enunciate "Welsh rarebit". It is splendid, but what this scene does so brilliantly is, it plays with the anticipation we all feel when ordering a particularly sumptuous and much-longed-for meal. We barely see the food even after it arrives, but we see it through Day Lewis's careful, reedy delivery. And of course the control with which he says "Welsh rarebit" is a suggestion of his control issues, but here it's dressed up as something enchanting and irresistible.
10. Zoolander: Orange Mocha Frappuccino
Never has a solitary caffeinated beverage worked as so central a plot device. Never has a creamy drink brought about so much woe and drama. Never has there been such a pairing as Wham! and petrol fire. Except maybe the holy trinity of orange, coffee and chocolate. This is a tiny scene, filled to the brim with exuberance and the kind of happiness that's only found in nipping out with your closest friends for a sneaky indulgence. Ben Stiller is wonderful at these scenes, and despite its comic value there's a sweetness to it that's hard to deny.
11. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: Everything in this movie
What child could forget the wonder they felt as Willy Wonka opened the door to his chocolate paradise? It was like someone took every beautiful dream you've ever had, added it to every beautiful dream you didn't have the imagination to even conjure, and then dipped it in chocolate. The untapped splendor here is obvious, but as an adult one thing that stands out is the portrayal of food as a source of obsession. Think of the father who is asked to hand over his stash of Wonka bars for the safe return of his son, and says he has to think it over. Think of Augustus Gloop, the poor unfortunate who just loved chocolate. There's something eerily human in how much they chased their foodie pleasures at all costs.
12. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: First banquet at Hogwarts
Similar to Willy Wonka, the first time you see the epic banquet tables in Hogwarts magically fill with food is one that is indelibly tied to dreams coming true. This is only made all the more exciting when we consider the abuse and neglect Harry has suffered up to this point: his shocked delight radiates off him and everyone else as brightly as the flowing candles above them. If you needed a clear metaphor for how magical food can be, look no further.
13. Julie and Julia: Sole meunière
Julia Child spoke often of the first time she tasted sole meunière in Paris, the feather-light and luxuriously decadent dish of pan-fried buttery fish triggering a life change that would go on to change cooking as we know it. It's given appropriate attention in her biopic, with the inimitable and gleeful Meryl Streep gasping and murmuring to her fish, sending as much love its way as she does to her husband. It's a pleasure in itself to see someone take such unbridled delight in food: it's a reminder to experience the world around us a little deeper.
14. Chocolat: The temptation of Judy Dench
If you're actually, physically hungry, there's a good chance just watching this sumptuous film will ease at some of those pangs. A playful portrait of food and the people who make it, it's almost pagan in its reverence for the good some chocolate can do for the body. It's equally discerning about how restraint from the things you like can warp your actions, too, and its tale of power and influence in a small French town leads to a pantomime of carnivalesque proportions. The real sweet point, however, is when Judy Dench's bitter old lady softens into a pussycat at the taste of chili-spiced hot chocolate.
15. Inglorious Basterds: Attendez la creme
Never has good food been used to such evil ends, says I. Nazi soldier Hans Landa, the Jew hunter in Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic, is undoubtedly one of the director's most nefarious villains, but it's his treatment of a strudel that really sticks in the throat. It's a lesson in acute power plays, and how food is often instrumental to them. Coaxing Shoshanna, an escaped Jewish woman now living in Paris and hiding her identity, into a sense of security, he prods her for information, all the while controlling her actions and behaviour through food. It's truly terrifying in its mundanity. Maybe the most upsetting point comes when he orders her a glass of milk, I mean... the dastardly evilness.