Spaghetti for the First Time: Food as Cultural Introduction in Film
In John Crowley’s Brooklyn, the young Irish protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), is invited over to the home of her new Italian-American boyfriend, Tony (Emery Cohen), to enjoy a spaghetti dinner. She doesn’t take the invitation lightly. Not only will this be the first time she meets Tony’s family members, including his younger brother with a penchant for saying whatever rude thoughts enter his mind, but it’ll be the first time she eats Italian food in her life. She wants to make a good first impression on Tony’s family, but also to 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 about how most “meet the parents” occasions do, with Eilis charming them with her Irish brogue and her polite manners, but the awkwardness of cultural divide and parental discomfort overhanging the entire meal.
Although this scene is hardly the most important in Brooklyn, it does clarify a convention that is often employed in film, but rarely discussed in criticism. The convention is that many filmmakers will use food to introduce the protagonist and the viewer to a new culture; the dining table becomes a metaphor for cultural introductions. And the protagonist’s reaction to that first encounter with a specific culture’s food will frame the rest of their experience with that culture.
Obviously, this sort of cultural introduction happens in real life as well as in film. Food is a tactile means of experiencing a different culture—a communal experience rooted in diverse ethnic histories. By eating the food of a culture, an individual is experiencing its geography, its customs, and its history. Filmmakers take advantage of the instinctual connection we place between food and culture to clue viewers into the specificity of a certain 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 theme and experience without commentary. But just how prevalent this convention is makes it noteworthy. It’s not something that has happened in only a handful of films or something that only exists in contemporary cinema. In fact, what makes this convention so hard to discuss is also what makes it so interesting: that it’s pervasive but invisible. It’s hard to draw out definitive examples when the convention seems to be so embedded into the invisible framework of film. But there are still some notable examples that shed light on how filmmakers utilize this simple convention.
As this convention operates through the meeting of two different cultures, it’s mostly applied 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 to a new culture, it does often coalesce all the differences between the new culture and their own. In the ludicrous but amiable 1980s comedy blockbuster, Crocodile Dundee, Paul Hogan’s eponymous Australian bushman comes to New York City at the invitation of journalist Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski). She invites Dundee out for dinner at a fancy gourmet restaurant alongside her boyfriend and editor, Richard Mason (Mark Blum). The ensuing meal is disastrous for all parties involved. Not only is Dundee inappropriately dressed for the occasion (he still 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 the drink, and Richard’s constant referencing of that unfamiliarity, highlights his complete ignorance of polite society. The entire film may play as a fish-out-of-water narrative, emphasizing the humorous incompatibility between Dundee and New York society, but this scene most potently captures the way food can visually summarize cultural disconnect for an audience. Each culture has its unspoken etiquette about how food is eaten and the discourse surrounding its presentation. No matter how farcical, scenes like this one in Crocodile Dundee exploit food etiquette as a way of encapsulating theme and character.
Not every culture-clash scene is played for humour, however. In Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) spends an afternoon in a Egyptian tea house whiling away the days before her husband arrives from Palestine. She is oblivious to the fact that she is the only woman in the teahouse until her husband’s handsome friend, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), arrives and asks her to go for a walk, gently explaining to her that women are not allowed inside these sorts of shops. Juliette is embarrassed, but also confused as to why no one in the teahouse asked her to leave. Tareq explains that the men inside were all too polite to do so. This short scene involving food and drink demonstrates Juliette’s ignorance about Egyptian culture, but also the sharp differences in gender interaction 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, because it is cheaper than its British equivalents and offers them a chance for a new adventure as their lives draw to a close. Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is particularly shocked by the transition from England to India. She’s xenophobic and the spicy, unfamiliar food brings home to her the fact that her advanced age and economic situation refuse her even minor comforts like English tea and biscuits. Director John Madden captures everything Muriel finds shocking about Indian culture in her reaction to its food.
By the 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 the 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 first reactions to Indian cuisine and her present reaction demonstrate the change in Muriel’s demeanour and outlook on life. Ridley Scott’s Black Rain offers a similar example, where Michael Douglas’s hotshot and racist cop, Nick Conklin, shares a meal with a Japanese detective, (Ken Takakura) later in the film’s runtime. After having demeaned and devalued the Japanese throughout the film, Conklin’s enjoyment of the Japanese food he’s eating represents his growing respect for his local counterpart, and Japanese culture as a whole.
While the convention of using a meal scene to underscore a character’s attitudes towards a new culture is often used to frame a white protagonist’s experience of a non-white culture, directors also use it to explore class differences within a single culture. 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 soldiers have been eating rations and living in the jungle, while the Supreme Commander holes up in a large mansion where his dining table is always filled 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—and which the child soldiers so lustfully consume—underscores the gross inequalities the boys suffer on a daily basis. The mere sight of the food on the table puts the lie to the Supreme Commander’s supposed championing of equality and the common citizen.
Similarly, in Jean Renoir’s classic war film, The Grand Illusion, two French aviators, the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the working class Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are shot down during the First World War and captured by the Germans. The German commander, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), learns they are officers and invites them to lunch. He soon discovers that de Boeldieu and him have mutual friends, and they bond over their shared aristocracy. Their manners at the meal, the way they frame every conversational topic with pleasantries and treat each other formally, highlights the similarity between all the European upper classes. This simple lunch scene demonstrates that although the characters are on opposing sides of a wartime conflict, de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein share more in common with each other than de Boeldieu does with Maréchal. Renoir has used the convention of meals as a cultural introduction to show that culture doesn’t always divide ethnically or nationally, but often economically.
The convention of using food to introduce culture is also not restricted to historical films about war and immigration, nor to films exploring the meeting of real cultures. Films depicting fictional cultures often use 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 arriving in a remote Indian village after surviving a plane crash, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pressures Willie to eat the paltry meal the villagers offer her, food she scoffs at. “That’s more food than these people eat in a week,” he tells her. She demures, trying to offer the food to the villagers, but Indy insists she eat it. “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 in the film, 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 daal and rice offered her 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 snakes that a ludicrously fat man then swallows whole. The scene is absurd, offensive even in its amplification of cultural stereotypes, but it conveys the suspicion that a place that would serve such disgusting food is likely home to even greater horrors—a suspicion that 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 food. In the Star Trek series, the Klingons famously feasts on live worms called gackt. Every appearance of this food 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 which 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 an often limited cultural perspective, using the convention of food as a cultural introduction to demonstrate the foreign unsavouriness 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 to 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 very front of the train, Wilford is enjoying a steak. Bong never comments upon Wilford’s steak, but it remains in the frame and serves as a crystal-clear encapsulation of the cultural injustices constantly occurring on the train.
All of these films take advantage of the intrinsic link between food and culture and the way that food is a 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 to a new culture, or a revolution in a sci-fi vision of the future, the film’s narrative employs food to encapsulate and define culture. These films show how food can link and divide people, and how food conveys class difference in addition to ethnic difference. Eating food is a universal experience, and the way it instinctually defines culture is something that any viewer from any culture can understand.
This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.