The Best Food Film Not About Food

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

Is it possible that the best food movie ever made is not a food movie?

Last fall I was teaching a course in urban anthropology and another course on food and culture. When I teach the latter, I usually provide the students with a short list of recommended movies to go with the course. These are mostly not ethnographic films or even documentaries (although I sometimes include a few). Instead, I recommend popular films that illustrate some of the points we are discussing in the class. I decided to do the same thing for the urban anthropology class and in an effort to simplify my life, I tried to make the two lists more or less the same. So most of the films I picked had both food and urban themes.

It was not especially hard to find movies that fit this description. Out of ten movies, there were only two that really had very little food content. One of those was Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire,” although there is a least one very sensual scene in which Peter Falk tries to explain the pleasures of the flesh—including food—to an angel while standing in front of a sausage stand in Berlin (I suppose the movie’s title could itself be a kind of food-related pun). The other was “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s film about Harvey Milk, whose last name is probably the closest thing to a food-related part of the movie. Food was central to seven of the other films. The movies were: “Ratatouille,” “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Julie and Julia,” “Tampopo,” “Toast,” “Babette’s Feast,” and “Chef.” It is safe to say that all of these would be on a foodie’s list of must-see-movies. They pair well with anthropology as well. Ratatouille has even been written about by anthropologists! (I forgot to include “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” this year, but that film deserves its own blog entry on history and anthropology anyhow.)

That leaves one movie. I picked Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” as a film about race, ethnic conflict, community, gentrification, and violence. I did not really think of it as a food movie and, frankly, it does not seem like anybody else does either. Yet a great deal of the movie takes place in and around a pizzeria in Brooklyn and the main character, Mookie (played by Lee) works there as a delivery guy. The movie’s central conflict is focused on the lack of representation of African American heroes on the restaurant’s walls. And the movie culminates with a riot in front of the pizzeria, in which one of the main characters is killed by the police and the restaurant is destroyed. Neighborhood pizzerias are of course iconic symbols of New York City. In Lee’s movie, the pizzeria is owned by an Italian (Sal, played by Danny Aiello) and his two sons (Vito and Pino, Richard Edson and John Turturro, respectively), who do not live in the neighborhood (Bedford-Stuyvesant). Along with Mookie, they are the entire restaurant crew. The Italian ethnicity of the pizza place is marked in both discourse and by the pictures of Italian and Italian-American celebrities on the walls. The African American character of the surrounding neighborhood is also marked in a variety of ways. Yet Lee shows that the conflict that ensues is not an inevitable result of that ethnic difference. It is clear that the restaurant is a neighborhood institution and that eating there is really central to local life. Everyone eats at Sal’s. The conflict springs from somewhere else in American culture, but like everything in life, it happens locally.

This is in the middle of a hot New York summer in the 1980s, at a moment when there had been a number of racially motivated assaults on black people in the city. The threat of police violence and of mob violence seemed to loom over the city. There were also tensions surrounding corner grocery shops, often owned at that time by Korean immigrants, a situation portrayed in the film. The movie also references gentrification, which was beginning to sweep through neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But what is striking to me is the thickness with which Lee draws his characters. Even as Lee notes the tensions of the moment (and invokes America’s history of racism and conflict), the people in the movie are shown to have complicated histories with each other and with the neighborhood…and with Sal’s pizza. In fact, the character who instigates the movie’s conflict, Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito), is a regular at the pizzeria himself. The movie’s tensions and the riot, death, and fire, are all the more moving precisely because it is a conflict among people who know each other intimately.

Many movies that we think of as food movies make food their central character. They might even border on what people call “food porn,” in which the food becomes an almost unrealistically beautiful object of desire (“Tampopo,” it is worth noting, can be seen as an early satire of this sort of thing). “Do the Right Thing” does not make pizza into this kind of object of desire. It is not food porn. You may not even desire a slice after you see it. But it identifies a central institution in New York—the neighborhood pizzeria—and builds a story around that institution that reveals a great deal about communities and conflicts in the city. I think that this may make “Do the Right Thing” one of the best food movies. And it is not even a food movie.

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