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Culture
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Food
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Film

We Can’t Eat with Friends, but We Can Devour Tasty Art

Sometimes food in films, or in our imagination, is even better than the real thing.

Dorothy Woodend 22 Oct 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Food on film is having a moment. In addition to Instagrammers immortalizing their every meal and countless cooking shows and bake-off contests, the number of documentaries about food could easily fill a dump truck or two. Narrative films about cooking and eating, however, are still relatively rare affairs, akin to truffles. You gotta dig for those suckers.

There are the classics — Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman, Like Water for Chocolate, Ratatouille. And the second stringers — Chef, Julie & Julia, No Reservations. To this list, I would add another: Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Feast is not perfect, but it does have excellent timing and, in cooking as in cinema, this is a critical element. The film is part of Devour! The Food Film Fest, which in addition to screenings has a cornucopia of events including cooking demos, workshops and masterclasses, accessible online across Canada.

Sometimes you just need some hearty fare, and Feast of the Seven Fishes hits the spot. A winsome young man in a dead-end town meets a girl, eats a lot of seafood and finds his destiny. C’est tout. The story takes place at Christmas in 1983, but really it could be any time and any small town.

In this backwater the best and the brightest have left for college, but a few kids remain, seemingly trapped in amber. Tony Oliverio (Skyler Gisondo) is one such stuckee, although possessed by a passionate desire to go to art school. He spends his days working at the family store and dreaming of a way out.

That way comes in the form of a young woman named Beth (Madison Iseman). Beth is a cake-eater, a term reserved for upper-middle class folk who’ve never had truly good eats in their life. (Cake isn’t a meal, after all.)

Over the course of the holidays, love and calamari combine. The film’s title refers to the Italian tradition of cooking and eating a seven-course feast on Christmas Eve. In addition to fish; oysters, shrimp and squid are also on the menu.

Fishes is a meandering affair, but like oysters in a stew the tanginess of real life seeps through, adding a certain piquancy. The actors, especially Joe Pantoliano as cranky Uncle Frankie, add an extra layer of flavour, but of course the true star of the show is the food. That’s particularly clear in the film’s penultimate scene where the Oliverio family cook, fight and eat their way through the annual holiday dinner.

Watching grown men bicker about deveining shrimp is a thing of joy and, in this aspect, Fishes joins the ranks of stories that bring home the true power of food and family.

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The film is a reminder that eating and cooking are largely social affairs. It’s hard to have one without the other. But big feasts aren’t happening at the moment. Smorgasbords and buffets are gone. Massive family chow downs are limited to a few carefully select bubble kin.

In lieu of actual real-life feasting, the fictional variety must suffice. But there’s some good news. Sometimes food of the imagination is almost better than the real thing.

Some of my earliest food encounters have embedded themselves tenaciously, be it the imagined deliciousness of Turkish delight from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the lashings of ginger beer and sandwiches from Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series. (In the midst of taking innumerable cycling holidays and solving crimes, the Five were never too busy to pass up teatime.)

But occasionally fiction and reality clash with disastrous results. I remember my first taste of Turkish delight being something of a horror show, like eating sweet, perfumed soap. So too, buttermilk, which I’d imagined from its title would taste like melted ice cream. How terribly wrong I was. But despite a few bitter disappointments, other imagined foodstuffs still endure.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series reached a foodie apotheosis with the recreation of her real-life husband Almanzo Wilder’s childhood. Her evocations of cold watermelon and pound cake are vivid and immediate in my mind even 40-plus years after reading the book.

My sister and I were rabid about both the Little House books and the television show, which we watched with maniacal dedication. The fact that my grandmother repeatedly referred to Almanzo as “Zaldamo” drove us into a state of frothing fury. I think she did it simply to drive us insane and of course, it worked like a hot damn. She was, in the common parlance, a pistol. I worshipped her and her food.

My grandmother was a legendary cook. After cooking every day, all day, from the time she was quite young, she entered into the realm of mastery, able to elevate even the most commonplace meals to something approaching nirvana. Everything she touched — apple danish, manicotti, even macaroni and cheese — was manna.

She had a particular way with wine. Anything that could be rendered into alcohol was — dandelions, cherries, elder blossoms. Her recipes, while simple enough to reconstruct, lack that certain magic that she was able to bring to each dish.

In her kitchen, kids were consigned to lowly tasks like plucking the pin feathers out of chickens or churning butter. Chicken gizzards still give me nightmares, and butter makes me angry. While we were sitting in the kitchen she would tell stories about her childhood. These were very tall tales, embellished with towering piles of derring-do, sizzling near escapes and soaked in spicy mischief. Stories and cooking became inextricably linked.

Having been raised on this flavour-rich combination, it’s little wonder that food on film is still a siren’s call to me. Whether it’s the delicacy and beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpieces, where, no matter the predicament, the characters take a moment to eat together, or more prosaic scenes, like the garlic slicing bit in Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

The only time I remember actually liking Meryl Streep was when she embodied the towering figure of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia. The film took pains to humanize Child, taking her down off her pedestal and basting her with juicy reality.

The best scene in the film, wherein Child bestows a certain recherché term about cooking, was actually taken from a letter that her husband Paul wrote to his twin brother. “Julia at the stove is just as fascinating as looking at a percussionist. The oven opens and closes so quickly, and you barely see how skillfully she dips the spoon into the pot to taste. Just the perfect drum solo. Then with her bare fingers she takes the cannelloni out of a pan of boiling water and screams: ‘These are as hot as a stiff cock.’”

For people who grew up picking, plucking, cleaning and cooking the food they ate, these narratives have a special resonance. The sound of plates being scraped into the chicken bucket is still the sound of childhood for me. (To clarify: the chicken bucket was actually an old ice cream pail filled with food scraps that were fed to the chickens.)

So if you’re feeling a little blue and in need of a reminder of good eats from days gone by, crank up the old interwebs and get to watching some tasty stuff. A film like Feast of the Seven Fishes, despite its lumps and bumps or maybe because of them, is a poignant reminder that cooking is ultimately an act of love.  [Tyee]

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