Department of Theatre and Film
Food, Film, and Friendship
“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal” — Julia Child
When my career took me to a small town in Central Wisconsin back in the nineties, I was faced with the task of making a place for myself, of making my work relevant to the people who live here. My area of specialty is multicultural literature, so I have always been inspired and excited by cultures around the world as well as here in the States. In Central Wisconsin, where the diversity runs the gamut from German to Polish, I have had two challenges: one, to sustain my own enthusiasm for and growth within cultural studies; and two, to share that with my largely homogeneous students and community.
My approach to teaching multicultural studies has always been to throw the best party I can, because students respond better to positive engagement than to negative chastisement. These parties must, of course, include food. In fact, food, in my experience, makes emotionally challenging subject matter easier to swallow. We can follow a piece of fry bread from its historical source as commodity surplus food (and consequent replacement of healthy, traditional foods) to its popularity at powwows and feasts, and on into its negative effects on contemporary Native American health. Indulging in a piece of hot, fried, sugary dough brings the lesson home. It also creates a shared space in which to safely explore its significance. Margaret Visser, author of The Rituals of Dinner and other award-winning volumes of cultural history, writes that “We still remember that breaking bread and sharing it with friends ‘means’ friendship itself and also trust, pleasure, and gratitude in the sharing. Bread, as a particular symbol, and food in general, becomes, in its sharing, the actual bond which unites us” (3). When we are united in this implicit bond through the sharing of cuisine and conversation from around the world, we are able to extend our friendship beyond ourselves, beyond our small circle.
Moving beyond my small circle, I have, in addition to offering my regular coursework and organizing our community’s annual Cultural Fair, developed a new class on my campus. My Dinner and a Movie class has specifically targeted adult students as part of a non-credit community outreach program. I have been able to combine my catering experience from my years as a college student, my love of ethnic food and cooking of all kinds, and my film studies background. Further, I have focused my attention primarily on foreign films in an effort to broaden community members’ understanding of global issues, aesthetics, and foodways. The combination of new flavors, new cultures, and convivial discussion has been an enormous hit. My classes fill within the first day they are advertised and usually have double digit waiting lists. While food is an obvious draw for any class, I believe, now that I’ve been doing this for over a decade, that I have hit upon a successful process for engaging students through food and film in order to take them to a new level of understanding and appreciation. The course produces solid, and I might add reproducible, results.
The first decision I typically make when organizing my Dinner and a Movie class is the film. In the first few years, I consciously chose food films, like Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1988), Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Ang Lee, 1994), Tampopo (Jûzô Itami, 1985), Big Night (Campbell Scott and Stanely Tucci, 1996), and Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1992). These worked fine, but of course there are only so many foodie films in the world. Eventually I branched out to include others, but I had already found a formula of sorts in those first films that seemed to work best: the film must have some degree of complexity for discussion purposes; it must be well made; and it must be life-affirming. Most of my students are women, and they tend to dislike graphic violence and tragedy, not to mention that graphic violence does not whet one’s appetite for food. While I love Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006), I will never use it for the class, because the violence is too disturbing. A wonderful film like Antonia’s Line (Marleen Gorris, 1995) ends with a death, but Antonia dies as an old woman, surrounded by the people she loves, the family of misfits she has created and nourished. Most high quality foreign films, furthermore, tend to be dramas which may incorporate family conflict or an isolated tragedy but have an overall positive intent. Because American independent films rarely come to my community theatre, I do show some of them as well, most recently Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) and Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011).
If the films I find have an obvious food tie-in, all the better. This might be a straightforward ethnic dining experience, like Belgian farmhouse food for Antonia’s Line or Ozarks comfort food for Winter’s Bone. For Midnight in Paris I made use of a cookbook I found years ago, The Impressionists’ Table: Recipes and Gastronomy from 19th-Century France and even made a recipe created by Toulouse Lautrec. The menu stage of my class is possibly the most enjoyable, because I get to research the cooking trends of the region and try out recipes on my official guinea pigs. The latter are long-suffering souls who have eaten everything from a dreadful (and very expensive) chocolate soup recipe to a Ukrainian cake recipe they dubbed the Battlecake Potemkin, which weighed in around 25 lbs. and could probably feed a Russian battalion. Last winter my family had to cope with four different shepherd’s pies in a week, while I sought out the best combination for my Sherlock (Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, 2010) dinner. Researching menus, cooking styles, dishes, and ingredients for films can be time-consuming. It also frequently puts me on the internet, looking for food vendors, or on the road in search of ethnic grocery stores.
When I first started offering this class, I focused less on the food and more on the films and discussions. What I have learned is that people truly desire the rituals of more formal dining and the time they have to converse with one another and ask about the food they are trying. Most of my students arrive for the class at least half an hour early, so that they can get a beverage and appetizer, greet other students, talk to me about the cuisine, and settle into the space. Because of this I have worked harder to create a welcoming atmosphere, often decorated in the themes of the culture we are examining. For instance, for my upcoming film, Kahaani (Sujoy Ghosh, 2012), students will be greeted by saris on the walls and tables, floating candles, beaded napkin rings, marigolds, pitchers of mango lassi, and bowls of hot cholar dal. Indian music will be playing softly. Background handouts and discussion questions for the film viewing will be on their dining tables. I try to make the class a multi-sensory event, to provide as holistic an experience as I can, because we do not only learn through our eyes, but also through taste, smell, touch and sound. If I am to open the world up to my students, I have to try to bring some of it to them.
Sometimes I create dining experiences of this sort that are not ethnically themed. When I offered a class on Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010) last fall, I was hit with a challenge. The film is French Canadian but written by a Lebanon-born Canadian playwright and largely set in an unnamed country in the Middle East. Because I had recently done two other films from the Middle East, I did not want to do another dinner from that region. I decided instead to focus on the film’s title theme of fire. Our dinner was purified by fire, just like the characters in the film. I decorated the room in a flame theme and served Scorched Shrimp and Bruschetta on Baguette, Blackened Chicken with Fire-Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, Roasted Corn Pudding, Scorched Almond, Raspberry, and Spinach Salad, Roasted Vegetables, and Chocolate and Scorched Almond Torte. Much of our discussion focused on the role of fire as both destructive and cleansing. The scent and taste of the scorched dinner provided an immediate experience of that. Given that the film is emotionally devastating—one student was in fact pretty traumatized by it—the bold food was in some ways critical. It had to live up to the intensity of the film. It also provided a means to enter the thorny topic of religious zealotry which the film depicts as a source of much evil.
On a lighter note, when I presented Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) this past summer, I focused on the quirky nature of the film and sought out Alabama recipes with odd or colorful names, like Dirty Corn Dip, Pulled Pig, Junk Salad, Mean Butter Beans, and Lazyboy Peach Pie. These were all real recipes, many of them from The AEC Collection: Favorite Recipes of Alabama Electric Cooperative Employees. I wanted to create a menu and dinner that expressed the rural Southern Gothic tradition of responding creatively to ordinary life. Our discussion focused largely on storytelling—about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we embroider for others’ consumption, and even the stories we tell about our food through naming and presentation. For another example, when I have offered the film Chocolat (Lasse Hallstrom, 2000), I have provided a menu that includes chocolate in every course and a tray of homemade truffles on each table, just in case they need more chocolate. It definitely enhances discussion of the film’s theme of indulgence. Similarly, I offered Minnesota cuisine with the film New in Town (Jonas Elmer, 2009).We had meatloaf, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, three kinds of jello salad, and the film’s feature food, tapioca pudding. The film is about ordinary, blue collar workers in New Ulm, Minnesota, so I drew on my Minnesota past for a typical meal. It lent itself to a discussion of the role and type of food in low income families and our cultural attitudes towards that.
Once students are all present and settled in their places, I greet them and offer a toast in the language of the country or region we are studying that evening. I use my training as a foreign language instructor to teach them a new phrase or two. Then I provide background information on the film they are about to view and on the dinner they will be consuming. Last December I offered a class with the film As it is in Heaven (Kay Pollak, 2004), a Swedish film nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar in 2004. I wanted them to know about the film’s immense popularity in Europe and how it really joined an anti-violence trend within global film. We talked about Swedish culture and the important role of vocal choirs in Scandinavia. I then provided them with background on the Swedish Julbord I was providing—meatballs with lingonberries, Christmas cabbage, Swedish rye bread, Swedish ham, pickled herring, beet and horseradish salad, almond tarts, Swedish apple cake and more—as well as information about typical Swedish ingredients and cooking methods. My students and I have learned over the years that you get to know a lot about a people by the types of food they eat. Indeed there are often foods that I cannot provide—like reindeer meat in this case—that reveal much about the geography and culture. While Swedish food may be fairly familiar to Minnesotans, it is not common fare elsewhere, unless there is an IKEA nearby. When I can, I try to challenge the food comfort zone of my students with at least one dish or ingredient, say Kim Chee or liverwurst. Just a taste is often enough.
Another opening question I typically ask is whether any of my students have travelled to the place where the film was made or if they have connections to it. This often provides surprising results. When I showed The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, 2006) a few years ago, a German film exploring the time just before and after the fall of the Berlin wall, one of the students in attendance shared that he had actually grown up in East Germany and had shocking memories of it that helped us understand the film in ways we never would have otherwise. When I hesitantly asked him if my German dinner came close, he said it tasted exactly like his mother’s cooking. I had a similar and even teary reaction from a woman who said my Czech dinner tasted like her Czech grandmother’s cooking. Obviously food can carry powerful familial and emotional connections. Some of my students are world travelers and love to share their experiences—food-related and otherwise—in these places. Food, however, seems to provide a universal entrance point into others’ cultures and lives, whether we can travel there or not.
Once I have introduced the film and food, students go through a buffet line, find their seat, and settle in to watch the film. I have candles on the tables so they can see well enough to eat when I turn out the lights. I keep the serving tables candlelit so they can get second helpings and drink refills. I do have an intermission for coffee or tea and dessert, and then we watch to the end of the film. Afterwards, I find it helps to invite them to look at my discussion questions and talk at their small tables for a few minutes until everyone has moved out of the film’s world and back into this one. Once the groups are lively, I pull them together and ask for questions or observations generated at the tables. Often the discussion goes off in directions that I could never have predicted or scripted. I often need to do very little to facilitate. I only redirect questions or push them further in their analysis.
Occasionally I have specific background information about the film that I would like them to know in order to develop another level of analysis. In my upcoming class on Kahaani, I will be withholding some background information until after the film because it could spoil the very surprising ending. Kahaani is set in Kolkata during the festival of Durga Puja. This is a five to nine-day festival in honor of the mother of all, the goddess Durga. It is marked by prayer, by fasting during the day and feasting at night, giving gifts to your relatives, and wearing new clothes. Durga is considered impossible to wholly comprehend, but she is notable for being a powerful destroyer of demons. If the world is out of balance, she will restore it by vanquishing evil. She is often depicted riding a tiger. Special foods are associated with Durga Puja, especially sweets, of which I will serve kheer payasam, gulab jamun, and soan papdi accompanied by chai. The role of Durga puts a very different spin on the character of Vidya Bagchi, the main protagonist in the film, played by Vidya Balan. The title name, “kahaani,” translates simply as “story,” putting more emphasis on the mythical backdrop of the film. Vidya’s travels through the festival-clogged streets also bring our attention back to the rituals of Durga Puja. Given that the main character is seven months pregnant, she is obviously an embodiment of Durga. The viewer thinks Vidya is searching for her missing husband, but the ending reveals otherwise. I suspect, like myself, students will want to watch the movie again with this new information in mind.
Another film that relies heavily on background information is Chicken Rice Wars (Chee Kong Cheah, 2000). As a Fulbright scholar in Singapore, I was fortunate to meet the Singaporeans who made this film and got to know one of the actors fairly well. More importantly, for understanding the film, I lived there during the Hungry Ghost Festival, the time of the year in which Chicken Rice Wars is set. Were I simply to provide a Singapore chicken rice dinner and show the film, I suspect my students would have limited appreciation. Giving them background on the traditions of the Hungry Ghost Festival makes it a rich and funny film. The basic premise is a Romeo and Juliet plot, with our lovers coming from the families of rival Chicken Rice Hawker Stalls. Chicken Rice, my Singaporean students informed me, is big business. A family could make a very fine living out of one small hawker stall. Having the best chicken rice dish can be a vicious competition. Also, chicken rice is actually served cold in Singapore, a fact not appreciated unless living in the tropical heat there.
During Hungry Ghost month it is traditional for businesses to sponsor various events in honor of the ghosts who wander freely during the dark hours of the month. They create large outdoor altars that are daily stocked with fried chicken, oranges, and muffins, candles lit and incense burning. These tend to be feasts for the island’s large population of feral cats, but no doubt a ghost or two is satisfied by the thought. Businesses stage open-air concerts around the island with prime seating in the front rows reserved for ghosts. In the film, one family takes a classic, traditional route of hiring a Chinese opera troupe to perform, while the other goes the contemporary route and hosts a rock band. The vastly different statements again put our protagonists’ families at odds. Finally, each family sponsors a feast for their community, trying to outdo each other. The notion of competitive business is not foreign to Americans, but competitive feasting?
At other times, my background information focuses more specifically on the importance of the cuisine I chose. When I offered Julie and Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009), I provided a primer on French cooking and the alarming information that the dinner averaged one stick of butter per person. When I offered the film Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou Zhang, 1991), a film about a young woman forced to become the third bride to a wealthy Chinese nobleman, I provided a Chinese wedding meal and explained the symbolism of the foods. When I have provided films based on Shakespeare’s plays, like Much Ado about Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, 1993) or Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998), I have created Renaissance dinners from Francine Segan’s cookbook, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, and taught them a bit about 17th century foods and their guest appearances in Shakespearean plays.
The most recent development in my Dinner and a Movie path is my website. Because so many people were requesting recipes and filmographies, I decided to simply create a website where I could provide the information to my students and anyone else interested. The food is definitely the biggest draw for the site, but I also wanted to help people with menus, since that’s both one of my biggest challenges and joys. Whenever I encounter a cookbook or website with thoughtful menus, I am delighted, even if I change them up. They express a vision for the meal, even a narrative, and complementary flavors that provide balance and interest. They fit with my notion of dining as event, not just eating.
Ultimately of course, the class (and the website) is about broadening students’ perspectives, increasing tolerance and compassion, and teaching visual literacy and critical thinking. I think it’s also about pleasure. The classes provide opportunities to find pleasure in a community of learners, trying on new tastes, sounds, and ideas. I like to think that the positive element in their lives has community ripple effects. For instance, one woman who was very outspoken in a discussion on the topic of domestic violence I later recruited to sit on a domestic violence fundraiser committee that I chair. She’s now in her second year with us. Two other students have joined the board of our local Cultural Fair to continue the work of celebrating diversity in our community. I know several of the teachers who attend have brought the films to their students. Mothers bring daughters, women bring spouses, and friends bring friends. I know it is not just the food that creates these positive results, but food is critical. I tried offering community film courses in the past with no food, and only a handful of people came. Food brings us together, with pleasure, and helps us extend that love to others.
Jay Halfond, Dean of Metropolitan College and Extended Education at Boston University, writes in his article “From Kitchen to Classroom” that the explosion of food studies in universities is a reflection of how people are actively looking for ways to make their education more holistic. Food studies bring disciplines together, and they also unify peoples’ lives. Halfond argues, “. . . we have developed a broader public discourse on the nature of food and what this says about ourselves-from the perspective of health, culture, history and even the arts. Gastronomy is both hedonic and cerebral-both pleasurable and revealing about our well-being and social systems” (1). While my Dinner and a Movie classes are certainly humble examples of food studies, my passion for them and the loyalty of my students both lead back to this fulfilling mixture of hedonic and cerebral pleasure, of well-being and belonging.
The AEC Collection: Favorite Recipes of Alabama Electric Cooperative Employees. 1993. Print.
Halfond, Jay. “From Kitchen to Classroom: The Serious Study of Food.” The New England
Journal of Higher Education. 19385978, 10/5/2011. Print.
Leaf, Alexandra. The Impressionist’s Table: Recipes and Gastronomy of 19th-Century France.
New York: Rizzoli Publishing, 1994. Print.
Visser, Margaret. The Rituals of Dinner. New York: Grove Weidenfeld. 1991. Print.