Life Is a Banquet: Sensational Cinematic Food and Wine

All of our questions are answered in the movies. Unforgettable visuals, soaring scores, characters worth knowing, language that becomes part of our lexicon. But film also has given us delicate pastel macaroons in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, a gourmet prison feast of razor thin garlic, iced lobsters and seared steak in 1990’s Goodfellas, the Naranjo family suppers of blistered peppers over charcoal, dredged octopus and ground chilis in 2001’s Tortilla Soup and a woman baking her way out of an unfulfilling marriage with delectable pies in 2007’s Waitress. 

Oliver! (1968)
Oliver! (1968)

Food in film can move along a plot, give us mouthwatering closeups, define class or ethnic differences. The longing to eat something wonderful can be sung (“Food Glorious Food” is begged for by orphans in Oliver!) or danced with dinner rolls in Chaplin’s Gold Rush. We can replicate Peter Clemenza’s perfect pasta sauce in the The Godfather or taste the opulence of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly’s Monaco with a chicken picnic from To Catch a Thief. Food is a co-star, but can be the entire film, as in the superb documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Growing up in West Los Angeles, we would go to restaurants to see the stars eat. It made them more like us. Errol Flynn would be falling off his personalized bar stool at The Cock and the Bull, Rosalind Russell appreciated Swedish fare at Scandia. We’d listen in on Mel Brooks over whitefish and matzo ball soup at Nate and Al’s, and Danny Kaye would sometimes take over the kitchen at Madame Wu’s. From real life to reel life, here are a few of my favorite films to Google or download right now.  

Tom Jones (1963)
Tom Jones (1963)

A sommelier has never been the same to me since I saw two detailed documentaries: 2012’s Somm and 2015’s Somm: Into the Bottle. The struggles and incredible challenges these people go through is displayed through competitions and obsession. Their nobility of purpose, love for the grape and steely dedication is astounding.     

The under-rated Whats Cooking? (2000) is a comedy/drama using Thanksgiving Day as a backdrop for ethnic cuisine and family relationships. Four families in Los Angeles separately gather for the celebration. Each family sorts out confusion and secrets over Latino, Vietnamese, Jewish and African-American deliciousness. Lainie Kazan, Joan Chen, Alfre Woodward star and make this a wonderful holiday movie.  

We all know certain foods are aphrodisiacs. In 1963’s Tom Jones, a brilliant adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, food is a metaphor for sexuality. There is a classic sequence when Albert Finney, as Tom, finds time between sword fights, wrench chasing and mistaken identities, to sit down for a meal with a woman he has saved from ruffians. There is a game of seduction while they lust for oysters, mutton legs, wine and each other.  Director Tony Richardson told me that the actors became quite ill after so many takes. You’d never know!  

Chef (2014)
Chef (2014)

Preparing dinner is a way to heal and forgive, especially for family, friends or the boss. 1997’s Soul Food takes places around the Sunday dinners. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994) shows us a father who communicates with his daughters through the dinner table. The amazing Babettes Feast (1987) shows a conservative Danish community that food makes life a rich, lively experience. 2000’s Vatel has poor Gerard Depardieu preparing dinners for King Louis the 14th. Talk about pressure cooking.

You might want to enjoy these movies with a martini from Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (gin, a sprig of rosemary and pitted olives) or James Bond (vodka, shaken not stirred) or a bit of the bubbly from “The Night They Invented Champagne” (Gigi, 1958). From Big Night to Chef, there are too many wonderful movies to mention here, but hope I’ve teased your taste-buds. Here’s lookin’ at you, kids!

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Jan Wahl

Jan Wahl is a lifelong movie buff as well as a producer, director, TV and radio broadcaster, and showbiz historian. She has won two Emmy Awards, is a longtime active member of The Directors Guild of America and reviews movies for KCBS All News Radio and KRON TV. Jan gives lectures on international cruises and throughout the Bay Area. She also teaches classes on Critical Thinking of the Mass Media as well as Hollywood History. A resident of Marin County, Jan lives with her husband and two dogs, Duke and Ella. For more information go to