Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, and sometimes it crawls behind the refrigerator and will show up in your bed at night. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
Look at everything we learned as kids from watching these two dogs fall in love.
When we’re older, of course, we realize that the caricature of Italian people and their presumed struggles to speak Americanized English is crude, unfair, and was unfortunately so ingrained in the mid-20th-century that the animators thought nothing of presenting the chefs as comic relief with ostensibly funny accents and stereotypical blustery tempers. So we have to unlearn that.
Beyond that, any kid watching Lady And The Tramp took away a few things, like discovering that Italian music and food—especially shared strands of spaghetti—are somehow romantic, as are makeshift tables with checked cloths and candles. It’s also cool when a guy takes a date to a restaurant where he “knows someone,” bypassing the world of typical people to sit near the kitchen where the couple gets special attention from the chef—even as kids we got that this makes the guy appear well connected and well liked, and his date could draw favorable inferences from his apparent worldliness without his having to boast. Then there’s a lesson on etiquette: When you’re down to one meatball, if you like someone, you roll it over to them with no hesitation, because you’d rather they were happy than eat it yourself, which is a big deal if you’re a kid or a dog (and which might be the most important lesson from this scene). And lastly, anything, even comical bloomers strung between fire escapes, can seem romantic when backlit by stars at the moment a person realizes they feel new, unusual, positive stirrings for someone sitting across a restaurant table from them.
Apart from whatever else the film has going for it, Lady And The Tramp taught us kids about falling in love—not necessarily about love itself, but about sitting at a table and getting “that feeling.” Then, later, at a fancy breakfast table, Belle in Beauty And The Beast taught a bunch of other kids what that feeling might be like.
For all the romantic dinner scenes in all the films made since the Lumière brothers were busy, though, not that many effectively evoke the falling feeling. Just to be clear, we’re talking about that sensation of (in Belle’s words) “something that wasn’t there before,” or the moon hitting your eye like a big pizza pie. For now we’re not dealing with feeling lusty, or nostalgic, or thrilled that an attractive person is interested, or any of the other positive feelings that can happen at mealtime. In fiction, the start of that change, the shift from mere affection to a sense there is a deeper connection developing between the protagonist and another person/dog/beast, suddenly gives us the feeling there’s something at stake, something worth holding onto.
And it doesn’t have to be sweet and charming, like a Disney film, to convince us that the characters are spontaneously realizing there’s no point denying their feelings. As a set of first cousins smooching over uncooked gnocchi with boiling water noisily bubbling on the audio track in The Godfather: Part III, Andy Garcia and Sofia Coppola are not the happiest coupling in cinema. Valentine’s Day never promised a rose garden. But the icky fact that the director’s daughter represents one of the worst casting choices ever, and the discomfort we feel watching incest in any circumstance, doesn’t prevent characters from succumbing to love’s embrace while prepping a little soft pasta. Watching the scene dubbed in Italian smoothes over some of the ick, and what romance the scene does communicate comes in the close-ups of their hands as boy teaches girl to fold and lightly fingerprint the dough.
Obviously there are other places that couples realize they’re falling in love: long walks at the water’s edge or strolling through certain cities; parting at the train station platform; meeting in a secret location. But there’s something about the everyday act of eating, or preparing food, that helps, because there’s no need to concoct an excuse to spend time together: Everyone has to eat. Also, the prepping or eating creates a diversion, providing an easy fallback topic. They can fill the silences with cooking or carving, or chit-chatting about the food. Having a bit of business to do gives them the space they need to get across their deepening affection before anybody decides it’s time to kiss.
Past dinner providing a convenient distraction, food requires touching. One must softly touch the gnocchi. One must learn how to slurp spaghetti. One must smell, touch and taste the food. This works well when demonstrating two people are falling in love. Consider the pickle exchanged between Matt Damon’s Will and Minnie Driver’s Skylar in Good Will Hunting. It’s as playful as the cute props they use to flirt with each other in the novelty shop, but it’s a lot more personal.
That sure feels like a convincing depiction of falling in love. Whether the film as a whole holds up, that falling-in-love sequence is persuasive (especially with the underscoring of Elliott Smith’s unusually hopeful yet sort of melancholy song “Say Yes”). The unguarded way Driver chews her burger while she’s talking gives us the feeling that she’s not holding anything back, and they both appear genuinely amused by each other—it feels as if an important moment is occurring between them while doing something as insignificant as eating. And the burgers, and the pickles on the burgers, are there to help.
Driver’s “get it over with” kiss has a very specific predecessor—Alvy Singer has the exact same suggestion on his first evening with Annie Hall, and for the same reason: A quick kiss should ease the tension of a first date. That kind of candor is part of falling in love, of course, where we open ourselves up to being rejected and keep the other person charmed and intrigued in the process. When it comes down to it, unsparingly candid Alvy is one of the most realistically romantic figures ever, and the undermining of an audience’s ability to identify with Alvy is one of the tragic losses in the disappointing public fight over whether a certain Manhattanite is or isn’t capable of actions so unromantic that—true or not—the mere evocation of them can spoil any moment. Years ago, many audiences fell in love with Annie Hall while Alvy was, as he delivered stand-up comedy like it were natural conversation during an attempt to prepare what was seemingly intended to be a romantic lobster dinner.
At the end of that clip, a moment from later in the movie has been tacked on: After Alvy and Annie split, he tries to recreate that romance with a date who doesn’t feel a connection to him, nor he to her. His comedy doesn’t work on her. It’s one of the saddest scenes in any romantic work, as Alvy realizes the impossibility of re-creating that sensation. A big portion of the film Annie Hall mimics infatuation and recreates the effect of present-tense falling in love better than any by-the-numbers rom-com. That lobster dinner is the peak of the sensation.
In Liz Lemon’s case, of course, the food isn’t just a prop or excuse to be together. It’s the object of her affection. When she realizes that a chance for love with a great guy is leaving on an airplane, she almost gives up her Teamster sandwich to pass through security. Almost—but then she realizes in an empowering moment that she doesn’t have to give up her sandwich. She can have it all! Watching her eat that sandwich in real time with no computer enhancement is an example of how 30 Rock can go from string-of-gags to affecting, emotional moments that are still among the best gags ever. In the end, of course, she can only have the sandwich.
A lovely fact about 30 Rock is it eventually let Liz find someone worth falling in love with. Packed into Groundhog Day is the same trick: a protagonist who seems very far from being able to fall in love, who’s fun to watch but apparently destined to never figure it out. And then, in a diner, he comes very close to doing just that.
What a great setting for a probable god to start to get romance right, even if he has a ways to go before he manages to turn it into a solid relationship: It might be the music, and it might be our suspension of disbelief, but as Bill Murray’s asshole weatherman moves around that diner proving his apparent omnipotence to Andie MacDowell’s producer, we feel him figuring out that total honesty is the only device he has that works. The moment that MacDowell begins to realize there’s something important happening, that Murray is figuratively stripping himself bare for her, when they sit down over what appear to be someone else’s meals, it starts to feel that maybe MacDowell could find herself feeling the falling sensation eventually. Certainly it didn’t seem likely in the many versions of Groundhog Day the two shared before this.
It’s a fragile feeling. It’s a feeling that strikes audiences differently on different days, in different movies, and TV shows, and books. A lot of supposedly romantic dinners are nothing more than convenient places to park and provide exposition, and if you’re in a bad mood when you see Annie Hall, the lobsters might strike you the way they do Alvy’s post-Annie date: What’s the big deal? Falling for someone is a rare feeling in real life, and—in terms of truly putting it across—in fiction. When a couple of people share a sandwich or some pasta, or a moment in the kitchen, and it feels real—like there’s something that wasn’t there before—well, there you go. A lovely bella notte.
Upcoming: At this point, the entire digestive system collapses, accompanied by uncontrollable flatulence.