On the surface, Big Night is a movie about a struggling Italian restaurant. Tortilla Soup tells of a brilliant cook who loses his sense of taste but finds romance. In Woman on Top, a sexy Brazilian chef gets her groove back after running out on her philandering husband. Murder and mayhem are on the menu at the Italian restaurant in Dinner Rush.
That’s what the viewer sees. Well, that and a smorgasbord of luscious food.
But it’s what audiences don’t see — or don’t really think about — that intrigues Laura Lindenfeld, a University of Maine mass communication professor whose research centers on food media, film in particular.
At first glance, food movies seem to depict issues surrounding multiculturalism and American identity through a critical lens. Dig your fork a little deeper, though, and many food films actually subvert the very messages they appear to promote.
Lindenfeld says romanticized portrayals of diversity only reinforce “liberal, multiculturalist, Eurocentric discourse.” When issues of ethnicity, race, gender and social class are paired with food, they become one more thing for dominant culture to undermine.
“These films are very pleasurable, they’re sublime, they’re beautiful,” says Lindenfeld, whose research in media and cultural studies focuses on the relationship among food, media, identity and cultural citizenship. “They erase all the other things we don’t want to think about when it comes to food and how we treat each other.”
In the end, she says, “it’s about who gets power and who doesn’t. It’s part of the fabric of this mainstream U.S. media culture to cover up these gaps.”
Take, for instance, a movie such as Tortilla Soup. Non-Latino viewers may leave the theater feeling like they truly understand the Mexican-American experience. Maybe they learned a few Spanish phrases along the way. Certainly, the foods they saw — tortilla soup, cactus salad — made them hungry for “authentic” Mexican cuisine. And since food is universal, it brings us all together, right?
Not so fast.
“There’s a vicarious consumption not just of food but of otherness,” Lindenfeld says. “You can watch a film like Tortilla Soup and have a touristic experience in the home of a Mexican-American family without having to leave your living room. I think we find comfort in believing things are OK. I believe these films are a way of convincing ourselves that everything is fine. I find myself screaming, ‘No, it’s not that easy!’”