Food found a way into everything Nora Ephron did, including places where it really needn’t have featured at all. What does a big glossy romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally have to do with food? How could potatoes possibly be relevant to a story of star-crossed lovers (Sleepless in Seattle)? But Nora knew that when we talk about food, we’re rarely just talking about food.
Take Heartburn, Nora’s semi-autobiographical rendering of her difficult divorce. First it was a novel, and then a film, with Meryl Streep playing Rachel ‘basically-Nora’ Samstat, and Jack Nicholson her philandering husband. When we see Rachel make her soon-to-be husband a plate of carbonara in bed, we know that this isn’t just a plate of pasta. This is the first meal that she will cook for this man who she will eventually fall in love with, then marry, and then divorce. It says ‘I’m not embarrassed to care’, ‘I want you to see my undignified, human appetite’, even ‘love me, already’. And, of course, it’s no coincidence that the meal Rachel cooks in that languorous, post-coital haze is a silky-smooth tangle of garlicky, rich, salty spaghetti. This is food with something to say.
Food has been a stand-in for words for as long as we have been talking and eating. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there would be a muddling between the words that come out of our mouths and the food that goes in: this is where we communicate, with our mouths, lips, tongues, teeth. Bring your lips close together, almost pursed, and hold your tongue halfway back in your mouth, push the air through your teeth. Ffffff. Pull your mouth into a little zero and make an oooooooo sound that hangs just between your lips. With your mouth slightly ajar, flick your tongue lightly against the front of the roof of your mouth as you breathe out. Duh. F-oo-d.
Food is a kind of language. No, really. It stands for so much more than nutrition. I often think that if I were explaining –to an alien or a big sentient plant or some other creature that had no concept of what it was to eat – what food really means to us, I’d tell them about Gemma Collins in the Celebrity Big Brother house.
Picture the scene: Gemma, best known for being a kind-hearted, pub landlady-style loudmouth on the hit TV series The Only Way Is Essex, is in the garden comforting CBB housemate Tiffany, who is from the United States. Being American, and also a little prickly in her own way, Tiffany is struggling to fit in. She’s said or done something silly and everyone’s in a mood with her.
‘Babe, tea and coffee’s everythin’,’ Gemma says. ‘It is?’ ‘It means a lot to people.’
‘It does?’ ‘Yeah. It’s like a heartly gesture. “Can I make you a tea?” It’s like saying, “Can I give you a grand?”’
Anthropologists, scientists and social theorists have studied and hypothesised for decades about the ways that food has functioned as social currency – how it can stand in for words, act as a translator and an intermediary even between those of us who have no shared language or culture – before Gemma from TOWIE summed it all up effortlessly.
When we offer someone food, we’re saying we care, and certain foods carry that cultural weight more than others. A cup of tea can mean everything, especially after a long day’s work, after a tiff, or when the person you love has got up five minutes early to make it, and bring it to you in bed. You don’t have to look far to find food standing in for language. Our culture is ripe with these references. In Moonstruck, Cher unashamedly barges into Nicolas Cage’s kitchen and cooks him a steak, insisting on feeding him whether he likes it or not. Aladdin offers two homeless children his last crust of bread. Remember that carbonara in Heartburn, or Grandpa Joe spending his last pennies buying Charlie a Wonka bar in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the film The Lunchbox, a mix-up sees a housewife’s tenderly-made lunchboxes for her husband being sent to a perfect stranger.
Being cooked for softens the stranger’s prickly defences; knowing her food is being enjoyed fills the woman with pride; watching the whole thing unfold makes me weep every time. When it comes to food and film, it’s Barry Jenkins’s 2016 film Moonlight that paints food, and feeding, the most vibrantly.
Food stretches wide across the cinema screen in this coming-of-age tale of black queerness: from the young Chiron, then ‘Little’, eating his fill at the table of the couple who take him in; to the diner meal that Little shares with his semi-adoptive kind-of dad, Juan; to – in the final act of the film, and with the once scrawny Chiron now grown into beautiful, brusque ‘Black’ – the arroz con pollo that his ex-lover Kevin cooks for him. The food is rich and exquisite and larger than life, but it’s not really the contents of the plate that count. What matters, in each of these scenes, is that the meal sits there on the table between Chiron and the people who love him – a symbol of the most nurturing kind of love.
In a world that sketches the crudest caricatures of a harsh, uncaring black masculinity, the way that food stands in for an almost maternal kind of tenderness and compassion in Moonlight is no coincidence. This is the nourishing, emboldening reality of queer black love. Sitting down to eat that final meal, under the softly curious gaze of the man he once loved, Chiron takes out his gold grills, and takes up his fork, and eats.
Again and again, we see how food is elevated far beyond its nutritional value. We trade these symbols – chocolates for romantic love, oysters for virility, chicken soup for motherly love – just as readily as we exchange words, and so food takes on a metaphorical life of its own. Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti said, in African Religions and Philosophy: ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’ Forget the
insular, self-contained ‘I’ of Western philosophy: this is a very different worldview to the one Descartes proposed when he famously wrote ‘I think, therefore I am.’
Community is the essence of self, here, and otherness becomes a blurry, imprecise thing. If the barriers between us and those around us aren’t the fixed, impermeable things we thought they were, then food is at the heart of this shared selfhood. Food transgresses the ‘boundaries’ between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten. When we feed each other, we give a bit of ourselves to form the fabric of someone else. This is the glue that binds us.
I can still remember the first meal I cooked for my now fiancée. I made pancakes for her after the first night that we spent together. I had slipped the question coyly into our getting-to-know-you chats the evening before: ‘What’s your favourite film? Marry-bang-kill, One Direction? What’s your favourite breakfast?’ And so I slunk out of bed first thing in the morning and ran – actually ran – to the shop to get eggs, lemons and honey.
When I got back, I made a batch of really god-awful pancakes, all pallid and wet and useless, but I knew it didn’t really matter that I’d embarrassed myself. Because the only thing Leah saw in that moment was someone who’d leapt up to make her favourite breakfast, and brought it to her in bed.
I’m not sure exactly what I was trying to say with those pancakes, but I’m still saying it with every meal and lunchbox and glass of orange juice, some three years on.
Ruby Tandoh’s new book Eat Up! Is available now. Ruby will be signing copies at our Moonstruck event at Genesis Cinema on Feb 25. To buy online visit Serpent’s Tail Publishing: https://serpentstail.com/eat-up.html