As film viewers, we keep going back to the movies because we can relate at a basic level to the needs of the characters on the screen – the need for survival, acceptance, revenge, relaxation, sexual gratification, etc. But one such need that is often sorely neglected in the movies is the need for sustenance – the need to eat, and the enjoyment that comes from eating. Presumably James Bond enjoys a good meal (he obviously enjoys a good drink), but in his world, food is an afterthought – a room service order of caviar and champagne (charged to Goldfinger’s account, of course) – which he never actually eats because he’s too busy making sexytime and thwarting his nemesis’ attempts to cheat at cards.
Food is most often extraneous to a film’s storyline, except in those rare instances where the story is actually about food (for example, movies like Ratatouille or Big Night). But occasionally, food – or the act of eating – is used by filmmakers to bring out traits of the characters or themes of the film as a whole. For example, in Die Hard, John Mclaine unsuccessfully attempts to “fire down” a “1,000 year old twinkie” he finds on an empty floor of the L.A. office building in which he is trapped with murderous international thieves. He’s been running around in his bare feet dodging bullets and crashing through windows for most of the movie, but it is only then we realize the poor guy probably hasn’t eaten since he first got on the plane in New York. At that point we actually realize how exhausted, beaten up (and hungry!) he must be.
In Inglorious Basterds, Jewish heroine Shosanna Dreyfus finds herself alone at a Parisian restaurant with “the Jew Hunter,” Nazi Col. Hans Landa, who murdered the rest of her family when she was a child. She looks to get away as soon as possible, before he discovers who she is – but Landa insists she join him in a plate of apple strudel while he interrogates her, and seems to enjoy watching her squirm as she grudgingly nibbles at it.
Next up, “the lobster scene” from Annie Hall. Here, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton do battle with a pair of feisty lobsters who do not want to go gently into that good night. The scene illustrates the fun and frivolity of the early stages of Alvie and Annie’s relationship – SPOILER: there are difficult times to come. The actual eating of the lobsters is not depicted, although it probably would have been pretty amusing to watch. There is a second “lobster scene” later in the film (also included in the clip) where Alvie attempts to cook lobsters with a new, post-Annie girlfriend. Clearly, things are not the same.
The Great Outdoors
The Great Outdoors is a 1988 “escape to nature”/”annoying in-law” comedy starring the late John Candy and Dan Aykroyd (as the annoying in-law). Throughout the film, Dan Aykroyd’s character antagonizes, belittles, befuddles and causes grievous bodily harm to John Candy, but the most memorable scene is at a restaurant where he dares Candy to consume “the ol’ 96er,” a behemoth 96 oz. “Paul Bunyan” steak which will result in a free meal for both families if entirely consumed (a feat which has not occurred in the waitress’s lifetime). This scene has a little-heralded but much deserved place in the holy trinity of competitive eating scenes in the movies, which include the pie-eating contest in Stand By Me, and of course Paul Newman’s excruciating consumption of 50 hard boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke. Candy’s delirious “meat sweat” is entirely convincing (but feel free to ignore the weak romantic subplot designed to appeal to teenage viewers).
*note: This is not to be confused with the “escape to nature” comedy Funny Farm, where Chevy Chase breaks the local record by eating thirty “lamb fries,” only to find out they are in fact sheep testicles.
Goodfellas is chock-full of eligible “food” scenes, so I went with the most famous of all, the “dinner in prison” scene. As Henry Hill explains:
When you think of prison you get pictures in your mind of all those old movies with rows and rows of guys behind bars. It wasn’t like that for wiseguys . . . . everyone else in the joint was doing real time, all together, living like pigs. But we lived alone. We owned the joint.
Here, Paulie famously shaves the garlic for the sauce so thin that it “liquifies in the pan.” I would not recommend this for anyone who is not incarcerated, as it is extremely time consuming and doesn’t seem to make much difference anyway.
Five Easy Pieces
Another classic “food” scene, the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces is not so much about eating food as much as ordering food, but really it is about the Jack Nicholson character’s late 60’s-era relationship to the regulated society in which he lives, and his frustration in having never really been able to “get his toast” for most of his life. Much analysis of this scene has been written better elsewhere, so I will leave it at that.
*Note: after the scene, the clip contains some bizarre remix of the scene – for those who have not seen the movie, this is not what actually happens! People on Youtube love to remix things, even 1970s-era dramatic films.
In Oldboy, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped, imprisoned for fifteen years in what looks like a shabby hotel room, and subsists entirely on a diet of fried dumplings and television. During this time he learns that his wife has been murdered, his daughter sent to live with foster parents, and he is the prime suspect. He is suddenly and inexplicably released, and soon thereafter ends up in a sushi bar, where he demands “to eat something alive.” In one of the most memorable scenes from the film, he angrily consumes a wriggling octopus whole and passes out face first on his plate.
I am aware that I have merely scratched the surface of memorable movie “food” scenes. Perhaps I will discuss more in future posts.
Big Food has decided there’s money to be made in selling bowls of ramen to the masses. It’s surprising it has taken this long, since ramen is basically just a bowl of water and noodles (with maybe a few veggies and things, additional charge), and presumably has a very high profit margin. Ramen has long been the go-to staple for people trying to subsist on an extremely limited budget – a dollar or two can provide many days of salty ramen slurping. Now, of course, we’re talking about fancy ramen (rather, “traditional” ramen) in this case – not your college dorm ramen, but rather the kind of ramen that world-famous chefs looking for that corporate paycheck have painstakingly designed and tweaked. The kind of ramen that won’t be sold for 29 cents a pack, but rather $8-10 dollars a bowl, presumably.
And where there’s big money at stake, litigation is soon to follow. In this case, Kyle Connoughton, former head chef of London’s “The Fat Duck” (“Best Restaurant in the World 2006 – 2007), is suing Chipotle, and its CEO Steven Ells, claiming Ells fraudulently induced (i.e. tricked) him into taking a job with Chipotle, and became unjustly enriched by the work Connoughton performed on “ramen concepts” pursuant to this employment.
To understand the basis for this claim, one must look to Mr. Ells’ (alleged) prior ramen dealings. Connoughton’s complaint alleges that Chipotle worked with chef David Chang (yes, the Momofuku guy) on a “ramen concept” around 2008, subject to a non-disclosure agreement signed by Ells. The complaint alleges that this work was never authorized by Chang for use in any restaurant. It further alleges that Ells and Chang could not agree on what Chang should be paid for his work and involvement with the concept, and that Ells thereupon insisted that Chang tear up the non-disclosure agreement, which he refused to do. Chipotle executives allegedly believe that Chang will sue Chipotle once it begins opening its “ramen concept” stores. When Connoughton confronted Ells about his dealings with Chang, Ells told him to forget about it and proceed with the “concept,” but soon thereafter fired him on the grounds that he “no longer had confidence in the ramen concept.”
So you may be wondering – where is the legal claim in all this? Connoughton essentially is asserting that Ells’ failure to disclose Chang’s involvement was fraudulent and that he never would have taken the job if he had known the history, because it would have forced him to violate the non-disclosure agreement and would have given him the reputation of having stolen the ramen idea from Chang. He is seeking to recover the equity in the company that he lost when he was fired, the loss of other opportunities he could have taken if he had turned down the Chipotle job, as well as the value of the work that he performed for Chipotle while employed there.
I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about the viability of Connoughton’s lawsuit. My own observation is that these circumstances likely present a cautionary tale for those chefs who seek to climb into bed with heavyweight corporate partners. I am sympathetic to why they choose to do so – if they have a viable brand, they should make the most out of it while they still can, there is no shame in securing the financial well-being of themselves and their family. That being said, they are advised to watch their ass.
Finally, if you have been wondering what a “ramen concept” is, this should give you an idea. “Shophouse” is a Chipotle-owned joint in DC which, according to Connoughton, is based on the work initially done by Chang. Chang has played his cards close to his vest regarding this whole affair (as his lawyers have properly advised him) – however, the legal wars over these “ramen concepts” may soon heat up further, so stay tuned.
Apparently Chang et al. are not the first to come up with a “ramen concept.” See below for an alternative concept published on the interwebs. I’m not sure quite what the concept entails but perhaps you the reader will have some insights. Patent pending.
There was a lot of (well-deserved) hype surrounding the opening of Giuseppina’s, the off-shoot of Lucali’s in Carroll Gardens. But there is another contender for delicious pizza in the South Slope/Greenwood Heights vicinity that’s been under the radar.
If you haven’t tried yet, check out Pauline and Sharon’s. While a different style pizza is offered making a direct comparison unfair, Pauline and Sharon’s does deliver which should count for some bonus points somewhere in the evaluation process (you can pick up your pies at Giuseppina’s if you don’t feel like dining in but no delivery).
The puttanesca pie is amazing. If that’s not enough salty goodness for you, add a Caesar salad which comes with house-made dressing chock full of anchovies. Word on the street is that the tacos are outstanding. Will have to give it a try soon.
New York Magazine, ever on the prowl for a new urban trend or lifestyle to expose to its audience of affluent ex-Manhattanites, offers up a lifestyle piece this week on a “youth culture phenomenon” being perpetuated by what are best referred to as “Yuffies” (Young Urban Food-obsessives) (The term is mine, not the magazine’s, so please direct your disgust at me). Specifically, they profile a Ms. Diane Chang. As New York Magazine describes Ms. Chang and this “phenomenon”:
Diane Chang is a prime specimen of the new breed of restaurant-goer. The species is obsessive and omnivorous. Although they lean toward cheap ethnic food and revile pretension, they do not ultimately discriminate by price point or cuisine . . . . They abhor restaurant clichés (Carnegie Deli, Peter Luger) and studiously avoid chains (Olive Garden, McDonald’s) but are not above the occasional ironic trip to either. They consume food media—blogs, books, Top Chef and other “quality” TV shows but definitely not Food Network—like so many veal sweetbreads . . . . They talk about food and restaurants incessantly, and their social lives are organized around them. Some are serious home cooks who seek to duplicate the feats of their chef-heroes in their own kitchens; others barely use a stove. Above all, they are avowed culinary agnostics whose central motivation is simply to hunt down and enjoy the next most delicious meal, all the better if no one else has yet heard of it.
Ms. Chang seemingly defines herself by what she is not – she is not a hipster, not a foodie, not a yelper. “I just like what I like,” she says. Fair enough. The article seems mainly focused on how her tastes seem calculated to support a certain agenda – i.e, obscure, unfamiliar, unappreciated food is good, while mainstream, well-known food, even if widely appreciated, is lacking. A lunch at Momofuku Ko and dinner at Blue Hill are dismissed negatively, while Ms. Chang’s iPhone screensaver proudly displays a pig’s foot dish “from a tiny food stall in Taipei.”
Of course, Eater pounced, extracting ten damning lines from NY Mag’s “insufferable foodie story” and declaring that the article is “ostensibly about how people have turned dining out into an obnoxious status-symbol seeking hobby” and “eye-rollingly maddening.” The comments (both on Eater and the NY Mag article) were not kind either.
Now, it would be easy to pile on,and certainly Ms. Chang made some statements in the article that are hard for me to defend:
She says she disliked M.Wells, last year’s consensus “It” restaurant, partly because of “the fact that everybody loves it, and I just don’t want to believe the hype.”
If you say something like that you are selling yourself out right there, and you lose credibility. But Ms. Chang also speaks some truth. In regard to her quest for obscure dining experiences, she says: “It’s a badge of honor . . . Bragging rights.” As much as I might hate to admit it, its true – having gone to more than my share of obscure restaurants hidden away in Queens and elsewhere, IT’S FUN to be able to brag about it afterwards, boast that you went on this adventure that no one else did. Of course, you have to be honest about it – if the place sucks, you can’t brag to everyone about how good it is.
The truth is, Ms. Chang and I are not so different. I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about if we ever met. Honestly, it sounds like she needs to get around Queens a bit more – Spicy & Tasty is sort of a noob’s Flushing Chinese (not a criticism of the restaurant,which I enjoy greatly), much like Sripraphai is a noob’s Queens Thai (again, no critique – they have taken lots of my money over the years). Likewise, I don’t know my ass from my elbow when it comes to eating in Brooklyn. But I can’t escape the feeling that Ms. Chang did not get a fair shake from this interview, or from Eater. As to their “Top Ten Lines” from the article, I have already discussed the ones that I don’t particularly agree with (e.g., M. Wells, Momofuku Ko). Others I am not so sure about.:
The author describes the “silence” among Ms. Chang’s lunch guests when he revealed his favorite restaurant was Eleven Madison Park, and writes cleverly that “on the food-as-indie-rock matrix, I have just accidentally confessed to loving the Dave Matthews Band.” But his whole issue seems to be entirely internal, there is no indication that his guests care one way or the other.
Second, Eater (via the author) seems to be trying to pin the (purported) opinion of a friend of Ms. Chang’s on her, excerpting the statement that:
Lately, Casey has been championing the theory that mediocre food is better than good, the equivalent of a jaded indie kid extolling the virtues of Barry Manilow.”
“Casey” is James Casey, a friend of hers and some sort of food writer.
Eater again goes after her for “not riding the subway,” quoting the article’s report of her taking a $38 cab ride to go to a Korean BBQ place in Flushing. Now, I’m not sure why anyone who knows better would take a cab to Flushing when it is about 15 minutes away on the 7 Express Train. However, read in context, it is clear that she had a budget to spend on food from NY Mag and the cab fare came out of her budget. Plus, as I mentioned before, it sounds like she is not very familiar with Queens. (Also, it sounds like she took the subway home anyway, I’m not sure $38 would get you there and back.)
Finally, she calls Park Slope “the worst food destination ever.” Now, I have no experience in this area but when I sent the article to J. Burger the first thing she said was “she’s right about Park Slope.” So there you have it.
Anyway, all this to say, the media may have been a bit hard on Ms. Chang. She obviously is very passionate about food and highly opinionated. The author of the article made his decisions about how he would describe their time together, and fashioned his story accordingly. When I first read this article I prepared to pile on but, as I said earlier, Ms. Chang and I are not so different. We obviously care enough about food enough to spend our time eating out, or planning to eat out, or cooking at home, or planning to cook at home, or writing elaborate blog posts when we could just be relaxing and watching Netflix. I can’t support everything she says in the article but neither do I think it quite makes her out to be the “status-symbol seeking” snob that some have labeled her. And I am probably guilty of exercising some of my “bragging rights” in a way that has annoyed people.
Her Tumblr page is quite unassuming, just a simple collection of photos of stuff she’s eaten with some commentary and a link to a “paired” song. Unlike this blog, there are no tirades about restaurants, or culinary trends, or news of the day.
UPDATE: Eater has posted Ms. Chang’s response to her coverage in New York Magazine (and subsequently on Eater). Without further comment on my part, it can be found here for readers interested in pursuing the subject further.
Many moons ago J. Burger posted on “The Last Meal,” where she discussed the meal choices of inmates on death row immediately prior to their execution. A recent feature at Eater asks a similar question, but rather “what would your last meal in New York be?” (assuming that you were moving elsewhere, not that you would soon be executed). I perused the responses with a jaded eye, quick to pounce – for we bloggers must always be vigilant for opportunities for snark.
Some responses were predictable:
Per Se, VIP menu
Le Bernadin or Momofuku.
Some responses were trying way too hard:
This totally depends on where I’m moving to. If I’m moving to Sidney, then I’d forgo hitting up Momofuku one last time. If I was going to Shanghai, Bora Bora, Las Vegas, Scottsdale or The Bahamas, I’d skip Jean Georges. If moving to northern California, I’d be able to resist hitting Per Se before I left. Miami or LA? No need to hit Scarpetta or any other Scott Conant restaurant. And assuming we are just concentrating on NYC (because otherwise my last meal would be at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, of course), it’d have to be something like Torrisi or Hearth or Prune or some other homey/chill place that really has a NYC vibe to it and of course great food and drinks.
Some were inadvertently(?) funny:
Why was my “Balthazar” response immediately rejected?
and then there were some others that intrigued me:
Katz’s – Pastrami on rye, stuffed derma, and knoblewurst. Nothing like Katz’s anywhere in the world. Last meal in NYC couldn’t be anywhere else, for me.
Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Katz’s or “New York-style delis” generally, but this one seems genuine and perceptive – honestly, you probably won’t find a pastrami on rye like this one outside of New York, so why not go for it? Plus it is a New York institution.
And there was this:
A smörgåsbord along the 7 train line.
Now, first of all, points for using the umlauts. For those of you who are not familiar with Queens, what this refers to is the act of “grazing” all the way down Roosevelt Avenue (over which the elevated 7 Train runs), starting in Corona or Elmhurst and working your way toward Manhattan, through Jackson Heights and Woodside and into Sunnyside and (for the truly dedicated) eventually into Long Island City, on the East River. This route contains street carts, kiosks, store fronts and full-service restaurants serving food from all nations of the world. You could walk this route ten times, eating in every neighborhood, and never go to the same place twice, nor experience even half of all the available options. By virtue of having lived in these neighborhoods for 7 years, I have eaten in many of these places, although I have never done “the crawl.” Overall, an interesting and non-traditional choice, if not somewhat strenuous.
So, I pondered what my “last meal in New York” would be. What I soon realized is that my last meal needed to have particular significance to me, it couldn’t merely reflect what I think would be the “best” meal in the city (i.e., Per Se – VIP menu). Although I have poked some fun at the response that tries too hard, there is a grain of truth in there – somewhere like Per Se really isn’t giving you anything you can’t get outside of New York (like, at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, for example). I appreciated Katz’s and the 7 Train food crawl, but neither were for me (the food crawl mostly because I doubt I am going to want to walk for miles down Roosevelt Avenue as part of my last New York meal. I will probably have spent the last week packing).
For me, it would have to be places I have been again and again, in various stages of my life, and enjoyed each time. My “go-to” places, if you will. I would not regret it at all if my last New York meal were at Corner Bistro, even if I had to wait in line. That line is where a beer tastes best. And, once rewarded with my table, I would devour a Bistro Burger, cooked rare,with fries and more beer. Brings back fond memories of late nights in Manhattan.
Another choice would be the curry noodle soup with vegetable dumplings from Mee Noodle Shop in Hell’s Kitchen (and various locations). Nothing more than a clean and efficient Chinese take-out shop, but when I used to work from home I ordered from them every day at lunchtime. They never messed up my order and they always got it to me in about 7 minutes. For my last dinner I would eat in, order some steamed pork buns to start and wash it all down with a few Tsing Taos.
My final choice would be Tournesol, a cute and traditional French bistro just across the river in Long Island City. My wife and I have been going here for romantic dinners since we moved to Queens seven years ago, and it is always charming and dependable for classic bistro dishes – a rich rib-sticking cassoulet in the winter, delicious bouillabaisse, steak frites, foie gras terrine and the like.
So, after some soul searching, these are my choices for my last New York meal, and I would be happy and satisfied by any of them. Maybe that day will never come, but then it never hurts to reflect on these things and, even if I never eat a meal in this city with knowledge that it will be my last, I have some understanding of what food experiences have been most important to me while living here.
Park Slope is a great place to live — proximity to Prospect Park, beautiful brownstones, good schools, relaxed watering holes, etc. However, it is definitely lacking in good, reasonable restaurants. Sure, you could blow a wad at Al Di La or Blue Ribbon for a great meal, but is that what I plan to do every Wednesday night after work? (Don’t worry. There are those who do.)
While many Park Slopers fancy themselves “foodies” or otherwise knowledgeable about organic-free range-local-artisinal this and that, the reality, based on the eateries in the nabe, is that there are a good number of people paying lots of money night after night for mediocre take out and delivery food. This is especially true for ethnic food. There is no good Indian restaurant. All of the sushi and banh mi joints are run by ethnic Chinese folks, which alone doesn’t discredit the establishments, but do they compare to the real thing? No.
But at last! Some quality Chinese food exists in the ‘hood. Tofu on 7th has been on 7th Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets for a good number of years now. The name speaks to its history of catering to the large number of vegetarians in the area, but don’t let it be a misnomer for its current iteration.
Recently, a new chef has been hired and real Szechuan food can be had from its kitchen. The decor is a bit blah, and I’ve never observed many people eating in. Go for delivery and order off the Szechuan menu (there is an American menu available for all your greasy, overly sweet favorites but just skip it). My favorites so far have been the Ma Po Tofu (with pork), “Kung Pao Style” chicken, tea smoked duck and “Hot Pepper Style” beef. I hope more people discover this joint as I would love for it to stay as is for years to come.