On (movies about) Food, Cooking, and Locavores

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“Smoked pork chop, brined in tequila and chipotle, served with poblano skillet corn, haricot vert, and oaxacan molé.”

So read the menu for the entreé I ordered last Friday night, while my friends enjoyed similarly delectable entrées. And yes, it was every bit as mouth-watering as it sounds, especially when paired with a glass of red wine. What was the occasion, you ask? We were on our way to see Julie and Julia following our dinner. And we realized it would be a bit obscene to eat at a fast food joint before seeing a movie that tells the story of someone trying to cook through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,”–all five hundred and twenty-four recipes–in just one year.

CSA OrderMy short review of the movie? I really enjoyed it. If you’re a “foodie,” if you like movies that give screen time to the art of cooking, then you’re in for a treat. The film goes back and forth between scenes of Julia Child in France, learning how to cook and later working on her cookbook, with scenes set in 2003 of Julie Powell, stuck in a dead-end job and depressed with life, deciding on a whim to start a blog chronicling her attempt to cook her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” As the official description of the film put it, “Though separated by time and space, both women are at loose ends… until they discover that with the right combination of passion, fearlessness and butter, anything is possible.”

Meryl Streep is great as Julia Child, and many of the best scenes are her interactions with her husband, played by Stanley Tucci. And it may just inspire you, as it did for both me and my friends, to order your own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

But the point of this blog post is not to talk about the movie–I mean to spend more time talking about food. Just before heading out for dinner and the movie, my friend Clint and I drove a couple blocks away to another house in our neighborhood to pick up our weekly order from a local CSA—Community Supported Agriculture–grown by an Old Order Mennonite farmer in Kentucky. Every Friday afternoon, we get approximately a quarter bushel of fresh produce and split it between Clint and his wife, Anna, and myself (this week’s bounty pictured above). I’ve had friends telling me about how great the CSAs they’re a part of are for the last couple years, but it was watching the documentary Food, Inc. six weeks ago, about the state of the American food industry and the methods used to produce much of the food you find in your local supermarket, that finally provided the impetus to research those close to me and sign up for one.

As Clint and I were leaving the theatre after watching Food, Inc., I mentioned that I owe much of my thinking about food to the writings of Wendell Berry, and as I’ve tried to explain to other friends in the following weeks why I think being mindful of what you eat is so important, I’ve found myself quoting longer and longer passages from him. Berry opens his essay, “The Pleasures of Eating,” from What Are People For?, by writing, “Many times, after I have finished a lecture on the decline of American farming and rural life, someone in the audience has asked, “What can city people do?'” His answer? “Eat responsibly.” A central idea in Food, Inc. is that you vote three times a day about what kind of food you want and how it should be produced, how the workers involved in the harvesting and distribution of that food should be treated, etc.

But does it really matter?  Why would we change our eating habits? So we have another way to feel superior to those not as “enlightened” as us? No; not for me, anyway.  I view eating locally–and by doing so supporting a local farmer instead of a faceless corporation, spending more time in the kitchen, and having more fresh food around that will go bad if I don’t have friends over to share it with–as all part of trying to live a more holistic lifestyle. In Berry’s aforementioned essay, he goes on to say this:

“But if there is a food politics, there are also a food aesthetics and a food ethics, neither of which is dissociated from politics. Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. “Life is not very interesting,” we seem to have decided. “Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast.” We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to “recreate” ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation– for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the “quality” of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world.

One will find this obliviousness represented in virgin purity in the advertisements of the food industry, in which food wears as much makeup as the actors. If one gained one’s whole knowledge of foods from these advertisements (as some presumably do), one would not know that the various edibles were ever living creatures, or that they all come from the soil, or that they were produced by work. The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food, confronts a platter covered with inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality. And the result is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating as, first, a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food.”

It would be a transgression of the highest order to conclude a blog post about movies and food without mentioning Babette’s Feast, but instead of taking up more space here, let me point you to a recent essay by my friend Jeffrey Overstreet, written for Christianity Today Movies: Feasting on Film. Jeffrey begins by mentioning great scenes about food in a couple of films, including the scenes about a cup of hot coffee in Wings of Desire (one of my favorite films) and some highlights of Chocolat, before focusing on three of his favorites, Ratatouille, Sideways, and Babette’s Feast. It is, as with everything Jeffrey writes, well worth your time. Here’s the link.

And to leave you with some practical advice: Eat responsibly.


6 Comments

  1. Hannah

    On the topic of movies about food, I’ve come to admire “Mostly Martha,” a German film about an obsessive compulsive chef. It does a wonderful job of appreciating food for itself, but also using food as a metaphor for the lives of the characters. I guess you could say food is a metaphor and more than a metaphor in the film. It never spells out what is metaphor and what is not, leaving the reader to think through it.

    There’s an American film based on it, “Without Reservations.” Watching the two is odd, because the American version takes scenes almost wholesale from the German version, and yet the movies are profoundly different. It’s like Alan Moore’s comment on Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight: “Everything is exactly the same, but everything is completely different.” For one thing, the American version cuts almost all of the metaphor, and when any survives it’s more obvious.

    Hannah

  2. Hannah

    Hmm. I think I meant “leaving the viewer to think through it,” not “the reader.” I’ve succumbed to one of the many occupational hazards of graduate school in English literature, I guess.

    Hannah

  3. Candy

    Looking forward to “Julie and Julia” – perhaps with a bag of aged, industrial popcorn anointed w/ an imitation butterlike liquid. Hm, on second thought, maybe I’ll whip up some Boeuf à la Bourguignonne and stash a portion in my purse.
    I enjoyed your views as they echo thoughts I’ve been having recently. Have you read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food? Definitely food for thought.
    Thanks, btw, to all the Christian rabbits who inhabit this room, sharing their bunny thoughts. It’s been a blessing.

  4. E

    I enjoyed this one too.

    Great date movie (especially for the old married folks in the crowd). The relationship stuff was wonderfully written and had a lot of heart.

  5. Tony Heringer

    Stephen,

    I thought I posted on this one, but I guess I never saved my response. Great thoughts! It reminded me of some Mars Hill Audio Journal Interviews — the writing of Wendell Berry is one of the topics visited now and again. I really need to read some of his stuff, it always intrigues me (so many books, so little time).

    This post inspired me to wisk my bride out on a date. I agree with E, a wonderful movie for couples; especially for those of us who’ve been cooking together for a while (approaching 20 wonder years with my bride).

    The town we live in, Suwanee, GA is planning a community garden which is also a park. It will give us chance to apply some of the thoughts espoused here.

    Check out the master plan: http://www.suwanee.com/pdfs/Prelim%20Comm%20Garden%20Master%20Plan%20071609.pdf We really have enjoyed living here and this park will be another jewel that will make this little town that much more special.

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