Around Thanksgiving, more than family, more than football, more than Pilgrims and early America, I think of food. Perhaps its a by-product of my ever-softening middle or growing up in the American South, but Thanksgiving is about getting a bunch of people together and turning into wolves at the dinner table, spraying meat and pie and happiness around the room like a shaken champagne bottle of good times. In preparation for this wild ritual of stuffing my face, I’m counting down the five greatest dinner scenes in cinema history. Let’s chow down.
Babette’s Feast – Babette’s Feast
We’re starting off sentimental and Danish with this 1987 film by Gabriel Axel. A magnificent and sumptuous slice of life (pun intended), Babette is the hired chef for two sisters who escaped from revolutionary Paris and left her entire life behind, except for a single friend who buys her an annual lottery ticket. Of course, Babette wins the lottery, but rather than liberate herself from servitude, she spends the money on treating her employers to a mythologically opulent and delicious meal in the classical French tradition. The cinematography of Babette’s Feast treats Babette’s journey of purchasing and preparing ingredients with more love than most actual love stories and when it comes time for everyone to eat, it’s a symphony. Caviar and cake and little pies and pancakes served on shining silver trays, the culmination of Babette’s fourteen years of gratitude for her employers’ hospitality now resting, steaming on plates for them and their guests. It’s a marvel of cinema, cuisine, and human connection and, in no small way, is what dinner is all about. Cook someone you love something delicious and watch this movie.
Pretend Food – Hook
In one of the most magical scenes in movie history, Steven Spielberg’s 1991 action-adventure film Hook features a much-older Peter Pan (played by Robin Williams) eating with the lost boys. Rather than eat normal food, the boys use their imagination to conjure up bowls and bowls of delicious, whimsical-looking “pretend food” that become as real as your lunch. Peter goes hungry at first, his adult life stunting his imaginary appetite, but when he does unlock his inner child and his dinner appears, it’s one of the most triumphant moments in a film jam-packed with the stuff that reaches its apex when one of the lost boys joyfully looks at Robin Williams’s Peter and says in an almost dreamlike voice, “You’re doing it, Peter. You’re playing with us.” He is indeed, and it looks so delicious and fun that we, too, join in on the fun.
Knockwursts – Nothing But Trouble
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dan Akroyd’s horrifically upsetting dark, surreal 1991 comedy blank-check movie Nothing But Trouble. Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, and others are waylaid in a hellish small town presided over by a malicious, strange-looking judge. The movie then becomes a parade of uncomfortable jokes, repulsive characters, and revolting practical effects hurled at the screen and at the film’s stars. The film becomes truly unhinged when the Judge sits everyone down to dinner to eat knockwursts. According to Wikipedia, a knockwurst is a kind of German sausage, but in Nothing But Trouble, they’re a kind of sensual torture. Soaked in condiments and sloshing with each bite, the knockwursts are truly vile, especially when served with a side of canned Hawaiian punch. The ends of the knockwursts dangle like balloon knots, wiggling as the Judge’s daughter passes them around the table and accouterments speed by on a model train running the circumference of the table. On the other side of every Babette’s Feast and Hook lurks a truly disgusting dinner and they don’t get more disgusting than Nothing But Trouble.
Dinner – My Dinner With Andre
They don’t get any more classic than this. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s exploration of the magic of conversation, 1981’s My Dinner With Andre, is one of two films on this list that has their meal in an actual restaurant. Directed by Louis Malle, My Dinner With Andre explores the competing ideologies behind their art. Andre, in relating his life story to Wally (the for-the-movie persona of Wallace Shawn), seems focused on bringing the spiritual and cosmic to the world via his art, while Wally, in challenging Andre’s worldview, becomes a champion for art’s ability to elevate the everyday and quotidian into deeper significance. Unlike most of the films on the list, the food plays second fiddle to the conversation between the two men, but the dinner itself is crucial. As the men discuss the Important Things in Life, it helps to humanize and ground their beliefs when they eat together. Moreover, My Dinner With Andre also sets a gold standard for meal-time conversation that people still strive for to this day.
Chef’s Special – Moonlight
While each of these dinners reaches into some sacred place of memory or feeling, none have made me cry except for this one. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about it without spoilers and so here we are, spoilers for Moonlight inbound.
Growing up in Miami, Chiron finds love and betrayal as a young boy at the hands of his close friend, Kevin. We then follow Chiron through the years as the sensitive boy we know and care for retreats into the crushing harshness of a hard new life as a drug dealer in Atlanta. Kevin, in this bleak present, calls Chiron out of the blue and invites him to a meal if he’s ever in Miami. When the day arrives and Chiron meets Kevin at the diner where he works, Kevin prepares him what he calls “The Chef’s Special.” Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton treat this moment with all the tenderness, love, and attention that Kevin refused to give Chiron all those years ago. Even in a greasy spoon diner atop a flat-top grill, there’s effort and focus that Kevin pours into garnishes and arrangement, preparation and plating. When it’s time for Chiron to eat, he tastes all the sweetness he forgot could exist in the world he built for himself after his betrayal. It’s the most emotionally fulfilling and compelling use of food in a movie. Ever.