In a long, silent scene at the end of Big Night, a man expresses his deep and conflicted love for his brother by cooking an omelette and placing it in front of him. In American Pie, a horny teenager masturbates into an apple pie his mother has left on the kitchen table. Food in movies has its own way of communicating.
There are movies in which food functions as an element of the scenery or to signify time, place and social order, movies that use food as metaphor and movies in which food is the star. We can learn a lot, according to chef James Moore, by paying attention.
Moore, who works at the Cooking School of the Rockies in Boulder, has put together a demonstration class called Food in the Movies. In the cooking school's pleasant kitchen, Moore will make such dishes as blini demidoff (buckwheat pancakes with caviar and crème frache), from Babette's Feast; nabeyaki udon (a hotpot of noodles in clear broth with shrimp, smoked pork and shiitake mushrooms), from Tampopo; and, from Like Water for Chocolate, roasted quail in rose-petal sauce.
"Food is emotion in movies," he says. "It becomes a vehicle for emotions that the characters can't express directly. In Like Water for Chocolate, he explains, a young woman and her lover are forbidden to marry, and the man finally marries the woman's older sister. But the younger sister happens to be the household cook. "She can't talk about how she feels, so she cooks the food for him, sometimes cries into it," Moore says. "She prepares the quail and rose petals and, with the family sitting around the table, he's talking about how wonderful it is. He's caressing her with his words; he's expressing his love."
Moore's knowledge of film is passionate and wide-ranging. "You're dazzled by the Chinese kitchen techniques in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman," he says. "The hands -- mixing, cutting, plating -- those are the hands of the most famous chef in Hong Kong." He goes on to talk about the poisoned cannoli of The Godfather, the last dinner in Titanic, the use of food as sexual promise and foreplay in Tom Jones, the scene in Splash when the mermaid orders a lobster and chews it whole.
"You can say all kinds of things with food," he concludes.
Moore runs the school's professional training program and says the movie industry offers many opportunities for young chefs. They can cater to movie crews or stars. And films like The Remains of the Day, The Age of Innocence and The Deadrequire teams of chefs and historians to ensure that the food onscreen is authentic. In The Age of Innocence, for example, the actors eat sorbets shaped like fruits. When the director says "Cut," a team of photographers rushes to photograph the plates. Dozens of replicas of each dish have been prepared, so that when the shooting resumes the plates look exactly as the actors left them.
James grew up in Philadelphia and learned about food from his two grandmothers. One was Slovak and a phenomenal cook. She sent him to the garden to pick greens and took him to a huge market where Russians, Yugoslavs and Poles sold their wares. Before selecting a chicken, "she would open the cages and feel their breasts," Moore says. "Then I would have to go in back to where they killed and cleaned them. Otherwise, she was convinced the guy would switch chickens to give her a skinnier one. I still remember the smells, the feathers and blood, the guy slitting the chickens' throats."
His paternal grandmother, however, would invite the family over for Thanksgiving and provide a turkey "she'd probably hired someone to cook." Each of the pots on her stove held a can of food. "I'd ask why she didn't put the food in the pots, and she'd say, 'Who's going to wash them?'"
Although Moore was deeply interested in cooking, he never contemplated a career in food. "In my family, you became a teacher, a doctor, a dentist. God forbid you should be a mechanic or a chef."
Moore trained as a teacher, obtaining a master's degree in curriculum development. He also acquired a degree in environmental design from the University of California at Berkeley, where he learned about photography and sculpture and "majored in the history of the chair."
He came to Colorado several years ago to study Buddhism, eventually gravitating toward the cooking school. His specialty, he says, is "introducing people to their senses." His teaching focuses less on menus than on techniques and "the heart of the dish."
The fact that America's newfound interest in cuisine has led to some excesses is only natural, Moore says. In Italy, "they've had hundreds of years to realize that pasta and olive oil with an herb or with Parmigiano are a spectacular combination.
"My prediction is that America's contribution will be crossroads cooking. Not fusion -- that's a hideous word that belongs in a lab, not at a dining table. American chefs and diners always come back to comfort food. Frou-frou is big for a year or so, but then they come back to the basic, tried-and-true, unbeatable combinations. Like mashed potatoes, grilled steak and sautéed green beans. Then you ask, what can you add to that which will elevate the sensory experience into a food memory so you never forget that meal for the rest of your life, so that every time you order a steak you have something against which to compare it? American chefs are just learning to do that."