Seasons by the Sea: Film and Food, Magic and Pasta

Sometimes food is just a prop in a movie; sometimes it becomes the star
Some of the pies Laura Donnelly concocted for the film “Waitress,” for which she taught Keri Russell how to roll out pie dough like a pro. Laura Donnelly

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Hamptons International Film Festival, which runs from next Thursday through Oct. 9. Congratulations, HIFF!

This got me thinking about food in films and films about food. There are so, so many, I thought it prudent to divide them into categories: the films that are specifically about food — “Babette’s Feast,” “Mostly Martha,” “Chef,” “Burnt,” “Chocolat,” “Waitress,” “Ratatouille,” “Tampopo,” “Big Night,” and the marvelous “The Hundred Foot Journey” — and the movies that are not about food whatsoever, but in which a scene with or about food becomes one of the most memorable in the entire movie — “Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” “It’s Complicated,” “Tom Jones,” “Mystic Pizza,” and “Amelie.”

Sometimes food is just a prop in a movie; sometimes it becomes the star. We are all drawn to food scenes because they are familiar to us, as family dinners, as foreplay, as fights.

Food can be a useful tool for actors. In the movie “Big,” Tom Hanks is magically transformed back into a young boy. When he finds himself at a grand party, he picks up an ear of baby corn and consumes it as if it is a full-sized ear, nibbling the kernels daintily from one end to the other. In “What About Bob?” Bill Murray’s character follows his therapist (Richard Dreyfuss) to his vacation home and plops himself down to enjoy their porch supper. His enthusiastic moaning and compliments to the therapist’s wife makes Dreyfuss’s blood boil. 

“Mmmmmm, Faye, this is scrumptious! Is it hand-shucked?”

In “Goodfellas,” the character Henry Hill narrates Paulie’s way of slicing garlic with a razor blade. The scene demonstrates that even though the mobsters are in prison, they are not doing without; they can still prepare a fine Italian feast behind bars.

Everyone remembers the iconic scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton attempt to cook lobsters. (That scene, by the way, was filmed at the Amagansett house of The Star’s editor, David E. Rattray!) In “It’s Complicated,” the scene where Meryl Streep makes chocolate croissants for Steve Martin’s character makes you want to run out and buy 20 fresh croissants. The food for “It’s Complicated,” “Julie and Julia,” and “Eat Pray Love” was all made by the talented Susan Spungen, an occasional East End resident. “Julie and Julia” is a fine example of a movie that’s better than the book, in my opinion. That buttery hollandaise with artichokes!

Food in movies is often intertwined with sex. For instance, that dumb scene in “9 1/2 Weeks” where Mickey Rourke feeds a variety of refrigerator items to a blindfolded Kim Basinger — ice cubes, maraschino cherries, a jalapeño. What a sadistic dude. In “Tom Jones,” one of the most famous scenes is Albert Finney sharing a gargantuan feast with a lady friend. They consume the food lustily and messily, beginning with soup, then lobster, chicken, and oysters, followed by ripe pears. “Tampopo” is a film all about noodles (ramen) but the more memorable food/sex scene involves a raw egg yolk being passed back and forth orally between lovers until . . . well, check it out for yourself if you like.

In movies that are specifically about food, there is usually a climactic food scene. Remy the rodent in “Ratatouille” cooks for Anton Ego “the poison penned restaurant critic.” Why are we restaurant critics always portrayed as monsters? Same portrayal in “Mystic Pizza.” 

In “Big Night,” the preparation of timpano is epic. Timpano is a complicated concoction of homemade pasta, layered with more pasta, meatballs, sauce, hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, and salami. Oof!

In 2005 I had the unique experience of making all the pies for the movie “Waitress,” now a Broadway musical. I was flown back and forth to Los Angeles to make the pies four or five times. The movie was shot at a diner an hour outside of L.A., which meant 30 to 40 pies had to be transported each time. I was confident in my pie making skills but not in my ability to navigate the L.A. freeways, so I’d make someone else in the crew drive them out to the set. It was fun to teach Keri Russell how to roll dough and hang around craft services with the other actors and crew.

When it comes to authenticity in the movies, one of my pet peeves (in “Burnt” and a few others) is the immaculate restaurant kitchen, chefs with spotless coats, and chopping scenes with the fingertips exposed. No restaurant kitchen is clean during the rush, chefs’ coats get spattered with all manner of food and grease, and every good cook knows to curl his or her fingertips under while chopping to prevent the loss of digits. The movie “Chef” is one of the few that got all of it right.

Mike Nichols once said that all movies, plays, and life in general, are about three things: fights, seductions, and negotiation. The same could be said about food in movies. Fights: “Animal House.” Seduction: “It’s Complicated” and many more. Negotiation: “Five Easy Pieces” and “Goodfellas.” Those gangsters had to do something to get all that fresh parsley, tomatoes, and garlic past the guards. 

The wonderful writer and director Nora Ephron often put recipes in her books (“Heartburn”), and food played an important role in many of her movies. She once said, “I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.”

To paraphrase the director Federico Fellini: “Life (and film) is a combination of magic and pasta.” ­

The timpano gets its big reveal in the film “Big Night,” with Stanley Tucci, left, and Tony Shalhoub.