Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Guest Blog: 'That's The Ticket' by Lori Berhon

First of all, I can't believe it's been a month since my last blog post. How did that happen? It's been a very busy time for me. At the beginning of September I celebrated a milestone birthday. Mid-September was the big bash with family and friends from near and far (Paris even!) to celebrate said birthday. I am in the midst of a major overhaul and redesign of my blog. And I started back to my full-time job as a movie marketing consultant. Ack! Just. Not. Enough. Time. Hopefully, that much time between posts will not happen again. I aim to be sure it does not. In any case apologies for being away. I think I am back.

I have always been interested in both food and film; I have been lucky enough to work in both with some degree of success in each. I started my professional life learning to cook in France; upon my return to the U.S. I worked in the food and restaurant industry for many years. One of the jobs was working for the Italian film producer Dino de Laurentiis (Giada's grandfather) when he opened his Italian-esque food emporium, DDL Foodshow, in New York City. The job started off with many of the Foodshow personnel working out of Dino's film production offices in the Gulf & Western Building on Columbus Circle. It was there that I met my friend Lori Berhon. She was a receptionist at Dino De Laurentiis Productions before coming to work with us at the Foodshow. That was in 1982; we're still friends. Lori loves to cook, try new restaurants, and eat well which we did, and do, often in New York, and whenever she makes it out to California.

As mentioned above I recently had a milestone birthday. Lori came out to Los Angeles from New York to help me celebrate. While she was here she mentioned a food and film piece she recently wrote for her company newsletter. I asked her to send it to me and she did. I so enjoyed reading it, and it is full of such good information on foodie films that I asked her to guest blog it on 100 Miles.

So take it away, Lori...

That's The Ticket!

With summer blockbuster season coming to an end (and where were all the blockbusters this year anyway?), I was planning to take another recession-beating look at rentable substitutes for hot flicks. I began considering Julie/Julia, and I quickly found myself entirely diverted by the subject of food films. There are a lot of them.

A La Cuisine!

Nora Ephron's new film shows how the lives of Julia Child and Julie Powell are changed by French cooking, but this is hardly the first time that particular catalyst has been portrayed on film. Babette's Feast, the 1987 film version of an Isak Dinesen story, shows how French food revitalizes the souls of an elderly Lutheran congregation in Denmark and the refugee they have sheltered. If you heard what Julie Powell was able to accomplish in a kitchen closet in Queens and you think that's impressive, wait 'til you see what Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran) achieves in an isolated 19th century village.

Lasse Halstrom's whimsical Chocolat (2000), based on the novel by Joanne Harris, implies that sometimes even the French need a little gustatory shakeup. Boasting a rich and delicious cast, this counts as Johhny Depp's first 'chocolate' film.

The eponymous Vatel (Gérard Depardieu) of 2000, an historic French chef, is ordered to achieve the impossible in a 17th century castle. While unusually downbeat for a foodie film, this well-researched, opulent biopic provides a setting of spectacle and intrigue for a truly mind-boggling feast.

International Buffet

France certainly doesn't hold a monopoly on cinematic cuisine. The mouth-watering food in The Big Night (1996) is Italian. Like "Julie/Julia," this film features dramatic kitchen action, period glamour and the always wonderful Stanley Tucci (who also co-directed). The piece de resistance, the Timpano, had audiences drooling and the Tucci family recipe for this baked dome of dough, filled with more layers of deliciousness than a 6 foot Italian sub, was published everywhere. If you find yourself with nothing to do one weekend, here's a link: The Timpano Recipe (from 'Big Night')

In the 1993 version of Laura Esquivel's cult novel Like Water For Chocolate (directed by Alfonso Arau), a Mexican woman's hidden passion magically infuses the food she prepares, conveying a galaxy of emotions to those who eat it. For a kind of kitchen magic you're likely to have experienced in your own life, in Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), a beautiful and quietly funny film by the masterful Ang Lee, food is the medium through which a Taiwanese chef and his daughters communicate love. A few of the many other films that linger memorably over family meals: Pieces of April (2003, before Katie Holmes was half of TomKat) takes on Thanksgiving; George Tilman Jr.'s 1997 Soul Food looks at Sunday dinner; and of course there's My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).

The chef-protagonist of Sandra Nettlebeck's 2001 German comedy/romance Mostly Martha (aka "Bella Martha") has distanced herself from family and freinds, and form all emotions but anger, until the guardianship of a suddenly orphaned niece forces her to think outside the icebox. Forced to share her restaurant kitchen and to experience life (and food) beyond her control, Martha opens herself up to the possibilities of being human. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because this is the original upon which Hollywood based the 2007 Catherine Zeta-Jones RomCom vehicle, No Reservations.

A different kind of female chef is the downtrodden widow who, while trying to establish the ultimate noodle shop, provides the through-line for the comedy bento box of food motifs that is Juzo Itami's 1985 Tampopo. For the pregnant Southern Waitress of Adrienne Shelly's 2007 indie gem, food - or at least pie - is a metaphor for practically everything.

And for a window into what the landscape was like in the world before The Food Network, check out Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? Based on the novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons, this 1978 comic mystery is a dated, slightly hokey, guilty pleasure. Each of the string of victims is found in his kitchen, and the grisly manner of death is related in some way to the chef's signature dish.

NONE of the films mentioned above should be watched on an empty stomach!

Discomfort Food

On the other hand, there is some foodie fare that might benefit from running on empty: cannibal movies.

Are you imagining Anthony Hopkins relishing "fava beans and a nice Chianti" (slurp slurp)? Or maybe remembering your favorite zombie flick? Sure those have their cannibal elements, but what I'm thinking of is the kind of story that turns tables on the foodie genre.

Eating Raoul, Paul Bartel's spoof of contemporary (1982) L.A. swingers features himself and Mary Woronov as a nice conservative couple who only want to be together and would kill to be able to open a restaurant. Literally. In the end, cannibalism is the only way to dispose of a most inconvenient corpse.

A different type of necessity drives the butcher of a Delicatessen (1991, France) on the ground floor of an apartment building. In this future dystopia, meat is incredibly scarce and people mysteriously disappear. Do the math. Then add the star-crossed love of the butcher's and the Chaplinesque outsider hired as a handyman (and future roast) to the complications of this darkly comic tale of survival.

Love and cannibalism figure again in Tim Burton's 2007 film of Stephen Sondheim's opéra bouffe Sweeney Todd. In 19th century London, Man is ground up by Machine (both industrial and political). Haunted and thirsting for vengeance, Mr. Todd slashes out. The adoring, but always practical, baker Mrs. Lovett observes that it "seems an awful waste" to just chuck the body out when she's got a dusty shop full of meatless meat pies. If injustice begets rage and hunger, which in turn beget a psychopathic spree of mass murder and recycling, "It's man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it here?"

Peter Greenaway turns a lush eye on just about every human appetite in his gorgeous and very nasty 1990 fantasia The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. The fabulous cast is lead by Michael Gambon (yes, there was life before "Dumbledore") as The Thief and Helen Mirren as His Wife, and includes appearances by both Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Greed rules.

T.V. Dinner

I don't care about Michael Pollan's recent N.Y. Times condemnation of televised cooking as the spectator-sport-of-choice for a super sized population - I love foodie television. Pollan's demographic wisdom states that "how to" watchers are stay-at-home moms: while the rest of us kick back at night with our frozen pizza to watch other people eat what we wish was in front of us. Personally, I find it beyond boring to watch Guy Fieri chomp blissfully down on another huge portion of grease and/or carbs, and more boring still to hear his litany of empty catch phrases ("now that's what I'm talking about!" doesn't tell me a thing about the food other than, gee, he really likes it).

What I tune in to see is chefs, pâtissiers, etc. doing what they do best. The more they know what they're doing, the more I want to watch, and the more I'm running to hit the kitchen. No, I'm not likely to pit myself against another cook to see how many different things I can make out of an artichoke or to make a fabulous meal out of a basket of incompatible mystery ingredients. But I do love to cook and starting back with (yes), Julia Child, television chefs exposed me to new ingredients and unfamiliar cuisines. I learned new techniques (no one ever taught me to cut a "chiffonade" of basil - I saw it on T.V.), and continue to learn better ways to do the things I've been doing for years. I may be too tired to cook every night, but when I see Bobbie Flay do a mac-&-cheese "throw down," I may spend the next couple of months of weekends trying out a bunch of mac-&-cheese recipes to see which one I liked best.

To me, foodie T.V. is not only entertainment but education. I'm not the only one who thinks that - after all, PBS was arguably the first food network and they continue to produce some great shows. Today, several networks offer shows that literally cater to every taste. And don't forget that episodes of Julia's original television show, The French Chef, are now available on DVD. Learn a few tricks and, more importantly, learn to embrace the excitement of trying new things in the kitchen.

Bon Appétit!

Lori Berhon is a New York writer who once or twice a month plays hookey from working on her new novel to blog. Her occasional musings can be found @ Light Up The Cave. Her most recently completed novel, The Breast of Everything (which has nothing to do with food) is represented by Roger S. Williams of Publish or Perish Agency.

My Status: September was beyond busy. I hope October is less so. Fall is slowly coming to Southern California; cooler temperatures. Time to think about heartier food. More eating, writing, blogging coming soon.

Upcoming Posts: 'gleaning,' or the act of gathering public produce, or leftover farmer's market produce, and giving it to the poor, needy and hungry. A history of the movement, and those that are involved with it. Reviews: The Berghoff Cafe Cookbook and Cooking Light, a review of the redesign of the Time Inc. magazine.

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  1. A fun post! Happy belated birthday!

  2. Hi Charles- Welcome back and a belated happy birthday! Love the list of films and guest post! I think I've seen about half of them and look forward to watching the rest. Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe is sadly not available on DVD, but I have fond memories of laughing my head off at that one as a kid.

  3. Great guest blogger. I like her brief overviews of each movie.

  4. Charles glad to see you back sounds like your birthday was a blast!

    This was a fantastic and fun read. I loved it.

    and Thanks to Lori for reminding me of films that I have not seen in years, even Delicatessen. Heres to the film series when I was at University.

    Now I've got to get the films that I have missed.

  5. Thanks everyone. Glad you all enjoyed it. I thought it was a fun way for me to get a post up after so long. And it reminds me of all those great food films I've always loved. Time to Netflix and watch them again. Bummer about Great Chefs, however. Big thanks to Lori! :-)

  6. looks like an amazing birthday, and you so deserve it Charles!