It’s that season again, when Yanks everywhere (myself included) prepare to eat an obnoxiously large amount of delicious food to celebrate Thanksgiving (and officially kick off the holiday season). Frustratingly apart from a few notable exceptions like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the season is pretty much devoid of classic Thanksgiving-themed movies. But fortunately, there are plenty of movies with awesome meals in them to get our stomachs rumbling, taste buds watering, and our minds mentally locked-in on the great feast about to come.
So without much further ado, let’s count-down the best meals in movies. Just a caveat before going in: This is a list about the meals in the movies, and not necessarily the movies themselves (although lets be honest, I’m not going to let a bad film get in here). And with that here we go:
Hook – The Lost Boy’s imaginary feast just misses the cut. Had I been making this list when I was a kid, the sumptuous feast of multi-colored and greasy foods would have undoubtedly shot to the top. But as a slightly more responsible adult, the caloric count of this meal makes me a little queasy.
Waitress, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Both of these excellent food-based movies get dinged because technically dessert does not count as a meal. But if you are primarily of the sweet-tooth persuasion, then these are the movies for you.
Beauty and the Beast – The elaborate dinner-and-show routine that is the “Be Our Guest” is truly one of the more impressive food-related moments in the movies. But once again, I have to leave this movie out on a technicality, because for all the glitz and glamour of the musical number a minuscule amount of food is actually consumed (by my count, only one taste of “The Grey Stuff” is actually recorded.) So no, this one doesn’t get in.
10. PONYO (2008) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Most of the time, the best meals are the simple ones. In this case it is just a simple bowl of steaming hot ramen, prepared by a mom for her son and his possibly magical friend as they wait out a heavy storm whirling outside. Whenever I watch this scene I’m instantly drawn back to the many meals I’ve had that were comforting, that warmed my insides, and more importantly drew me closer to the ones I ate them with. But of course, we shouldn’t expect anything less from a Studio Ghibli film. Ponyo in many ways is just a placeholder for the rest of Ghibli’s films which almost always manage in brief respites to find space for their characters to share a meal which is sometimes elaborate but most of the time simple. And every time the point those movies make is the same: food is more than just nourishment, but it can comfort, unite, and heal us.
See also: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle among others.
9. LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955) dir. Clyde Geronimi et. al.
It should be no surprise that this movie ends up on the list as it features perhaps the most famous cinematic meal of all time. The scene is so iconic that to “Lady and the Tramp” one’s food is a challenge accepted by many a couple (romantic or not). Tangentially I’m pretty sure studies can (and should) be made on the effect this one scene on the increase in pasta consumption in the general global population. Only the sneaking suspicion that there’s no way Tony’s would hand prime-grade beef to two dogs keeps this from moving up higher on the list. Also if you have no idea as to what scene I’m talking about, you have only yourself to blame and yes, you should feel slightly ashamed of yourself.
8. MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981) dir. Louis Malle
To be honest, I can’t remember what Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn ate during this movie that takes place over the course of one dinner, and it really doesn’t matter. That’s because any meal with this engrossing a conversation partner has to be included in the best movie meals ever. The two come from completely different worldviews with Gregory taking a more bohemian posture while Wallace has a more practical viewpoint and their conversation is one that bristles with intensity as the two clash and argue forcefully but respectfully for one another. Seeing as we enter the season where depending on where we stand we either have to deal with our crazy backwards-conservative/hippie-liberal family member who will undoubtedly raise a ruckus during the Thanksgiving meal, I figure it might be good to remember what civil discourse between differing viewpoints might look like. And preferably, with some good food and liquor to go with it too.
7. GOODFELLAS (1990) dir. Martin Scorsese
While food makes a surprising amount of appearances in this violent gangster movie (and one of the best), there is just one scene that immediately comes to mind when I think about great meals and that is the prison scene where Henry (Ray Liotta) and some of his associates put together a home cooked Italian meal complete with smuggled alcohol. The sight of Paulie using a razor blade to make paper thin slices of garlic, as the rest prepare a sauce (with too many onions), and steak is mouth-watering to say the least but also a poignant reminder that behind these violent criminals lies the same universal love of good food and company that befalls all of us. It also makes me want to grab some Italian food right now.
6. JULIE & JULIA (2009) dir. Nora Ephron
The dirty little secret about this movie is that Julie (Amy Adams), the millennial who blogs about going through Julia Child’s cookbook, Julie & Julia is a completely unnecessary drag on what could have been an excellent full-length biopic on Julia Child (expertly portrayed by Meryl Streep. That still doesn’t diminish the fact that this is a gastronomical feast of a movie with delicious food being displayed, butchered, cooked, and served up at a breakneck pace. And while many individual meals could qualify for this list, I’m going to chose the simple and elegant sole meuniere that Julia Child has at the beginning of the movie as the standout meal amongst many excellent meals.
5. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011) dir. David Gelb
The documentary following the work of sushi master Jiro Ono and his Michelin three-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro is a study in the pursuit of perfection above all else. The amount of care and precision that Jiro puts into creating a delicate and subtle food that is paradoxically meant to be consumed in one bite is nothing short of astonishing. And yet each piece created, as ephemeral as they may seem, is indeed a glimpse of trancendent perfection. They are as aesthetically pleasing and perfect to the eye as I imagine they must taste (as I, the barbarian, content myself with store-bought sushi). That Jiro who is inarguably greatest sushi master of the world finds himself in a hole-in-the-wall establishment living an almost monastic lifestyle when all of Western capitalism would scream “expand, expand, expand” is not only admirable, but perhaps also speaks to why we in the West find it so hard to find perfection in the first place.
4. RATATOUILLE (2007) dir. Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava
There is something marvellous about the Golden age of Pixar in that they were able to take completely unconventional premises and weave them into an engrossing tale that appealed to all ages. In this case, the tale of a rat’s climb to the pinnacle of the French culinary world is completely ludicrous on the surface but in the hands of Bird, Pinkava, and company becomes a heartwarming tale of learning how to accept who you are in order to become who you want to be. In the meantime we are treated to a CGI-filled tour of gastronomy as enticing and appetizing as any of its real-life counterparts. And freed from the constraints of reality, the animation allows us the freedom to visualize the internal mind of a chef and all those who love food deeply.
3. THE TRIP (2010) by Michael Winterbottom
In this near-perfect comedy Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play slightly caricatured versions of themselves as they embark on a tour of various high-end restaurants in North England at Coogan’s bequest. In complete contrast to My Dinner With Andre they sit and eat in some of the most elegant restaurants while talking about the most banal nonsense with most of their conversations revolving around making imitations of famous actors and lambasting one another for their complete lack of accuracy for said impressions. In a very British way the humour is subtle and understated at first but the jokes build on one another so that by the very last night it becomes a hilarious crescendo of goofs and one-upmanship. While the two dine on some immaculate and beautifully presented cuisine throughout, the meal that comes to mind is the very last one before they head home as they sit outside on the rare sunny day in England and enjoy a simple English breakfast. The two start out as what can be best described as non-hostile rivals and end as something somewhat close to friends as they savour the national dish together. It is as close to sentimental as two Brits might actually get.
2. BIG NIGHT (dir. 1996) dirs. Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci
Two immigrant brothers try to run an Italian restaurant in New Jersey with less-than-stellar results. Secondo (Stanley Tucci) the restaurant manager seems unable to promote his restaurant while Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is a brilliant cook but is completely unwilling to temper his Italian cooking to match American palates. In one final ditch attempt to save the restaurant, a rival offers to bring a famous singer to dine at their restaurant which might hopefully save their business by his patronage. And so they bet the bank on one “Big Night” and put together a superlative meal. And while the rest of the night doesn’t go as they plan, the actual dinner is a sumptuous feast anchored by the impossibly large and immaculately created timballo – a baked pasta dish that is a sight to behold and if you believe the guests, a divine eating experience. Fair warning: One should watch this movie only after eating a whole bunch of food lest one find oneself (hypothetically) scoffing down a whole bunch of chocolate-covered almonds to ease one’s (again, hypothetical) desire for the food onscreen to be in one’s mouth. Not speaking from experience of course.
1. BABETTE’S FEAST (1987) dir. Gabriel Axel
First off, let’s just acknowledge that this movie is simply remarkable and a couple of rungs above the rest of the films on this list. Babette, of Babette’s Feast, is a poor and destitute woman who shows up at the door of an aging Danish Puritan community wanting nothing more than a place to work as a cook and shelter. They accept her offer and so she works for 15 years, cooking austere and modest meals for this highly conservative community that’s highly suspicious of earthly pleasures. One day she discovers that she’s won the lottery and decides to throw a traditional French feast for her employers, price and austerity be damned. And against their worries about enjoying decadence, they are won over by what is undoubtedly the best meal ever portrayed on screen, and for a brief moment their gloomy little coven is turned into a corner of paradise. While Thanksgiving has yielded few appropriately themed movies, I can safely say that Babette’s Feast safely expresses our greatest hopes for the season and the meal that is central to it and then some.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!