In John Crowley’s Brooklyn, young Irish protagonist Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is invited to the home of her new Italian-American boyfriend, Tony (Emery Cohen), for a spaghetti dinner. She doesn’t take the invitation lightly — not only will this be the first time she meets Tony’s family, including his younger brother, who has a penchant for saying whatever rude thing enters his mind, it’ll be her first time eating Italian food. She wants to make a good first impression, but also experience Italian culture properly. The girls living at Eilis’s boarding house emphasize the significance of the event and go about teaching her the “proper” way to eat spaghetti — with a fork and spoon — so she won’t make a mess of herself. Eventually Eilis attends the dinner and it goes how most “meet the parents” do, with Eilis charming them with her Irish brogue and polite manners, but the awkwardness of the cultural divide and parental discomfort casting a cloud over the event.
Although this scene is hardly the most important, it clarifies a convention often employed in cinema, but rarely critically discussed: filmmakers employing food to introduce the protagonist and viewer to a new culture — the dining table becomes an allegory; food as cultural introduction. As well, the protagonist’s reaction to that first encounter with a specific culture’s cuisine will frame the rest of their experiences with said culture.
Obviously, this sort of encounter happens in real life as well. Food is a tactile means of experiencing different cultures—a communal experience rooted in diverse ethnic histories. By eating a new food, an individual is experiencing its geography, customs and history. Filmmakers take advantage of the instinctual connection we place between the two to clue viewers into the specificity of a specific culture.
There’s nothing radical about using food to introduce a new culture and frame a character’s experience. It makes perfect sense from a storytelling perspective, drawing from reality and subtly conveying themes and experiences without commentary. But just how ubiquitous this convention is makes it noteworthy; it’s not something that’s employed in only a handful of films or exists only in contemporary cinema either. In fact, what makes this convention so hard to discuss is also what makes it so interesting: it’s pervasive but invisible. It’s hard to draw out definitive examples when the convention is so embedded in the framework of film. Still, there are some notable examples that shed light on how filmmakers utilize it.
As this convention operates at the intersection of two different cultures, it’s generally utilised in culture-clash films, whether tourist comedies like Crocodile Dundee or immigration dramas like the aforementioned Brooklyn. While a meal is never the protagonist’s literal first introduction, it often represents the differences between the new culture and theirs. In ludicrous but amiable ’80s comedy blockbuster Crocodile Dundee, Paul Hogan’s eponymous Australian bushman comes to NYC at the behest of journalist Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski). She invites Dundee out for dinner at a fancy gourmet restaurant, alongside boyfriend/editor Richard Mason (Mark Blum). The ensuing meal is disastrous for all. Not only is Dundee inappropriately dressed for the occasion (he sports his crocodile skin vest and cowboy hat inside the restaurant, where everyone is wearing formal, designer brands), but his unfamiliarity with the food and drink, and Richard’s constant referencing of said inexperience, highlights his complete ignorance of polite society. The entire film may play as a fish-out-of-water comedy, emphasizing the humorous incompatibility of Dundee and NYC society, but this scene potently captures the way food can visually summarize cultural disconnect for an audience. Each culture has its unspoken etiquette about how food is consumed and the discourse surrounding its presentation. No matter how farcical, scenes like this exploit culinary etiquette as a way of encapsulating theme and character.
While the convention of using a meal scene to underscore a character’s attitude is often used to frame a white protagonist’s experience of a different culture, directors also employ it to explore class differences within a society.
Not every culture-clash is played for laughs, however. In Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) spends an afternoon in an Egyptian teahouse, whiling away the days before her husband arrives from Palestine. She’s oblivious to the fact that she’s the only woman present until her husband’s handsome friend, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), arrives and asks her to accompany him outside for a walk, gently explaining that women are not allowed inside these sorts of shops. Juliette is embarrassed, but also confused as to why no one asked her to leave. Tareq explains that the men inside were too polite to do so. This short scene, involving food and drink, not only demonstrates Juliette’s ignorance of Egyptian society, but also the sharp differences in gender interactions between Egyptian and Canadian culture. Again, the director uses food and etiquette to frame cultural differences and reveal character.
This convention is also often used to explore changing attitudes of condescending, white characters towards foreign cultures. For instance, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a group of aging Brits move to a care home in Jaipur, India, as it’s cheaper and offers them a chance for a new adventure as their lives draw to a close. Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), in particular, is shocked by the transition. She’s xenophobic and the spicy, unfamiliar food drives home the fact that her advanced age and economic situation deny her even minor comforts, such as English tea and biscuits. Director John Madden captures everything Muriel finds shocking about Indian culture in her reaction to its food. By film’s end, Muriel has softened considerably to her new home — although she still cannot handle the spiciness of the food, she appreciates how the flavour captures the land and personal efforts of her caretakers. Once again, food is how the director captures a character’s changing attitude towards a new culture. The pronounced difference between Muriel’s initial and later reactions to Indian cuisine demonstrates the change in Muriel’s demeanour and outlook on life. Ridley Scott’s Black Rain features a similar example, where Michael Douglas’s hotshot/racist cop, Nick Conklin, shares a meal with a Japanese detective (Ken Takakura) later in the film. After having demeaned and devalued the Japanese throughout, Conklin’s enjoyment of the food he’s eating represents his growing respect for his counterpart, and Japanese culture as a whole.
While the convention of using a meal scene to underscore a character’s attitude is often used to frame a white protagonist’s experience of a different culture, directors also employ it to explore class differences within a society. For example, in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, the Commandant (Idris Elba) brings his band of child soldiers to a large city, where he meets with his Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike). The Commandant and his troops have been eating rations and living in the jungle, while the Supreme Commander is holed up in a large mansion, one where his dining table is always overflowing with bread and candy. While the Commandant speaks to the Supreme Commander, the soldiers feast on the sweets crowding the table. The surplus of food the Supreme Commander enjoys on a daily basis, which the child soldiers so lustfully consume, underscores the gross inequalities the boys suffer on a daily basis. The mere sight of the spread exposes the lie of the Supreme Commander’s supposed championing of equality for common citizens.
It doesn’t matter whether the film is depicting a historical conflict between rival nations, a young woman’s immigration or a revolution in a dystopic future, the narrative employs foodstuff to encapsulate and define societies.
Similarly, in Jean Renoir’s classic war film, La Grande Illusion, two French aviators — the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the working class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) — are shot down during WWI and captured by Germans. The German commander, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), learns they are officers and invites them to lunch. He soon discovers that he and de Boeldieu have mutual friends, bonding over their shared aristocracy. Their manners at the meal, the way they underscore every conversational topic with pleasantries and treat each other formally highlight the similarities between the European upper classes. This simple lunch scene demonstrates that although the characters are on opposing sides, de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein have more in common than de Boeldieu and Maréchal. Renoir uses the meal as an introduction to show that culture doesn’t always divide ethnically or nationally, but often economically.
The convention of using food to introduce new cultures isn’t restricted to historical films about war and immigration, nor to works exploring the intersection of actual ones. Films depicting fictional cultures often employ the same tactics as those exploring reality. In Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, food is famously used to demonstrate Willie Scott’s (Kate Capshaw) xenophobia and also underscore the sinister depths of Pankot Palace. Early in the film, after surviving a plane crash and arriving in a remote Indian village, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pressures Willie to eat the paltry meal the villagers offer — food she scoffs at. “That’s more food than these people eat in a week,” he tells her. She demurs, trying to offer the food back to the villagers, but Indy insists: “You’re insulting them and you’re embarrassing me.” The scene demonstrates the charity of the villagers, Indy’s broad cultural knowledge and, most importantly, Willie’s ignorance. Later, during the infamous banquet scene, Spielberg amplifies Willie’s horror at Indian cuisine by offering her a meal full of comical grotesquery. While Willie was sickened by the simple Dal and rice offered earlier, she literally faints at the sight of chilled monkey brains and “snake surprise,” which consists of a large boa constrictor being cut open to reveal baby serpents that a ludicrously obese man swallows whole. The scene is absurd — offensive even, in its amplification of cultural stereotypes — but conveys the suspicion that a place that would serve such fare is likely home to even greater horrors, which is quickly confirmed.
As demonstrated in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, adventure and sci-fi films love to highlight cultural differences through the protagonist’s experience with foreign cuisine. In the various Star Trek series, the Klingons famously feast on live worms, known as Gagh. Every appearance of this dish is played for comic effect, and to show how unrefined Klingon culture is. However, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, this cultural disgust is cleverly inverted, when Captain Kirk (William Shatner) hosts a Klingon delegation and serves them a fine human meal—one the Klingons are sickened by. Director Nicholas Meyer dollies along the table, showing the Klingons sneering at the food and fumbling with the napkins and cutlery. The scene expands upon an often-limited perspective, using the convention of food as an introduction to demonstrate the foreign unsavoriness of Federation (human) culture to alien species.
However, not all scenes in fantasy cinema are as explicit as the ones in Indiana Jones and Star Trek. In Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic thriller, Snowpiercer, the lower classes at the back of the train revolt and work their way towards the front, where the rich passengers live. While the lower classes feast on protein bars made from cockroaches, they soon realize that the front-end passengers enjoy luxuries like sushi. When the leader of the lower classes, Curtis (Chris Evans), finally meets the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris), at the front of the train, Wilford is enjoying a steak. Bong never comments upon Wilford’s meal, but it remains in the frame, serving as a crystal-clear encapsulation of the cultural injustices constantly occurring on the iron horse.
All of these works take advantage of the intrinsic link between food and culture, and the way food is the physical embodiment of the very idea of culture. It doesn’t matter whether the film is depicting a historical conflict between rival nations, a young woman’s immigration or a revolution in a dystopic future, the narrative employs foodstuff to encapsulate and define societies. These films show how food can link and divide people, and convey class differences, in addition to ethnic divides. Consuming food is a universal experience, and the way it instinctually defines cultures is something any viewer can comprehend.