Regardless of lifestyle or culture, food remains one of the binding elements of our survival; an always present and integral part of our survival. Oftentimes, the scenes of our life play out on the cavernous walls of our memory accompanied by orchestras of olfactory and gastronomic artistry.
Painting of course can successfully capture the sumptuous red of the perfect apple, or the joy of family or friends sharing a meal. Sculpture can capture the shape; and exquisite sculpture might even convey texture. It is film, however, that can catapult food to the forefront of importance by emphasizing its presence or absence in the lives of those characters with whom the audience is connecting, sympathizing, or empathizing.
In such films, ‘food films’, Food does not just serve as an addendum to the story, or as connective tissue to propel the plot forward. In fact, in many such films Food is a protagonist without whom there would be no story at all. The silent role adds colour to bland settings; it captivates our emotions and focus, while serving also as the backdrop scenery to itself; Food gives depth, avenue for expression, and significance of circumstance when present in a film.
Likewise, the absence of Food in film can be equally as profound in conveying messages of destitution, struggle, or burden. Food is a tool and mechanism that, when incorporated appropriately by filmmakers, approaches a dimension of our lives that we can relate to in a concise and very intimate way.
In the coming weeks, I hope to introduce well known and little-known films that bring Food to the table in a way not all of us may recognize. One film that epitomizes both sides of this coin is Babette’s Feast (1987), a Danish film directed by Gabriel Axel and is an adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s story. Rent this. Net-Flix it. Do whatever it takes to see this film if you haven’t already. Not only is it artistically beautiful, but it is also an exquisite piece that everyone who loves either film or food (and definitely both) should watch.
There is a mystery to Babette that I am not qualified to unveil, nor want to in hopes to preserve its flavour for you. Know, however, that the absence of food [beyond basic and bland] represents the Puritan sensibility of restraint that saturates the early setting of the film; yet ultimately, food in its most glorious and beautiful form serves as the variable that allows for spiritual reconciliation. Food is both a leading and supporting role; it is the character that we watch develop in importance as she integrates into the society of the film. Food makes an impact, it causes change, and it captivates our emotion and piques our palate with ideas and tastes we want to experience, and with inspiring visions of what can be done with and by food.
In the weeks to come, films like Babette’s Feast will be the more detailed lenses of this blog—with analysis, philosophy, and cultural perspectives added to the recipe of this discussion. From this blog, hopefully you will eventually take a way a good film recommendation, a good new recipe from Sophia, and perhaps even a new understanding of how a culture or person views food in their life as reflected in film. Though the Food Film genre is more limited in number, there are plenty of Food Films I have already seen and many more I have on my NetFlix queue that I hope to share with you and that you will enjoy and appreciate in the weeks to come.
In the meantime, try to take notice of where and how food plays even a minor role in all of your favourite films or not-so-favourite; international or domestic art films; a good film, or a terrible film; or major blockbuster productions. Ask yourself: where, if anywhere, is Food? What socio-economic, cultural, philosophical, or religious connotation does food take on? Who relates to food, and who shuns it? This thought process will get us in the mood for this coming discussion!
On a brief aside, examples of periphal 'supporting role' food-film references that you might notice in 'everday films': In what manner is working at a pulled-pork pit in rural Texas (Whip It) viewed? How does eating alone—the act of food consumption—add impact or emotion to a scene (Being Julia, or Sherlock Holmes)? Why and how is the special access to ingredients and the slicing of garlic, in the prison, such a show of power (Goodfellas)?
Keep an eye out for this column, and I will be back next week for our first showcase of where and how food in film can be brought into your home and to your table as a discussion piece when you break bread with those around you.
I have been making a ton of meze dishes recently. Mezes are small
plates that are usually served as the first course at the main meal in many Eastern Mediterranean countries. You start with some hummus, babaghanoush (or mutabal), lebne, seasonal vegetables, etc. before having a simply grilled meat or fish. I love this
style of eating, because you get to eat a variety of dishes that are
usually centered around incredibly fresh ingredients. And if you are someone who loves
to cook, you can always get creative and have fun with the traditional
recipes. Meze are my staple for get-togethers. The other night a
group of friends got together for a Mediterranean-themed pot-luck
dinner, and I pulled out some Kitchen Caravan recipes. I made our Traditional Lebanese Hummus; Avocado, Cannellini & Preserved Lemon
Dip; a light eggplant dip with mint; and our Waldorf Salad in
Circassian Clothing. The hummus always takes a while to prepare, but as with
everything in a slow kitchen, the extra time and effort is well worth
it. I always keep leftovers to eat in sandwiches or with potatoes
(weird idea, but check this out). I love the Circassian Chicken dish,
which is a Turkish recipe that we adjusted to include black walnuts,
and in the Fall, Conchord grapes and crisp apples (hence the Waldorf).
The black walnuts are incredibly rich, but pair well with the mellow
chicken. The grapes and apples add a crunch that cuts the heaviness of
the nut sauce. I normally do not cook recipes from food magazines
(I have the tendency to deviate), but the article in this last Food and
Wine was too intriguing for me not to try. They highlighted a young
Turkish chef who likes to play on traditional ingredients, and I was
hosting Book Club at my house, so I thought I might give them a try. I
was going to make the green lentil hummus, but once the lentils were
fully cooked, I realized that they were actually split peas. That is
what I get for storing my lentils and peas in the same container.
Anyway, the split pea hummus (which I added a bunch of mint to) was a
huge hit. I also made his dirty potatoes, which are new potatoes that
are roasted and then tossed with an olive paste. My favorite new
pantry staple is zeytin ezmesi, or Turkish olive paste, which you can
use in a million different ways and it is super cheap. The recipe called for chopped Kalamata olives, but I say that everyone should keep a jar of zeytin ezmesi handy. Last but not
least, I made the goat cheese wrapped in grape leaves. For some reason
I have always been intimidated by grape leaves, but when I read this
recipe, they seemed so non-confrontational. I did mine with Coach Farm
aged goat cheese, and tossed it with marjoram, oregano, and dried
lavender (the recipe calls for thyme, rosemary, and lavender). You
basically wrap the cheese slices in blanched grape leaves and then
grill them lightly until the cheese melts. They were to die for, and I
will be telling everyone to make them. That and split pea hummus.
There are certain foods that we associate with love and romance: chocolate, oysters, champagne, strawberries, etc. But the true ingredient that should make Valentine’s Day so special is time. Most of us run around like chickens without heads on, trying to build our careers and/or make ends meet. We barely have time for ourselves, let alone time to spend with the people we care about. One of the nicest ways to do this is by cooking and eating (didn’t you know I was going to say that!). Seriously. No restaurant is ever as good as a night spent with a family member or friend in the kitchen, creating something delicious together. I am particular to eating at home, because I love to cook, but if you usually spend your V-Days out of the house, I recommend you stay in this Sunday. We have lots of recipes that we have developed over the years with love in mind; most of them have chile, pistachio, and rose in them, and they are all worth trying.
Start out any celebration dinner with a nice cocktail. Passion Potion is an exotic blend that you can make at home and is sure to be something you have never tasted before. For entrees, Risotto and Pasta are comfort foods at their best. Our Casanova’s Risotto with saffron and pistachio oil is nourishing and delicious. A pasta we love to share is the Forbidden Love Pasta, known as Amor Prohibido in Spanish. One of Kitchen Caravan’s first recipes, it is pasta with an Acorn squash sauce touched with a hint of smoky chipotle. It is topped with pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and pomegranate. The dish is quite simple to make, yet the layers of flavor give it a lot of depth.
Our desserts are the best part of the meal. This year’s Valentine’s dessert, Napoleons "in Love" is one of my all-time favorites. It is a classic French Napoleon, but with Mastiha pastry cream (Mastiha is an aromatic resin that is used as a spice in Eastern Mediterranean cooking) and rose petal glaze. The various flavors and textures come together in perfect harmony. For something super chocolatey, I would recommend the Chocolate and Anise “Champurrado" Tart. It is a deep, rich chocolate tart scented with anise in a Mexican cornmeal crust. Chocolate and Anise are a match made in heaven, and if you have never tried them together before, you must make this tart.
If you do not want to cook, celebrate anyway, even without a Valentine. Celebrate the friendships and familiar love you have in your life and count your lucky stars.
My friend John and I have been discussing mozzarella a lot lately. We love good mozzarella, and John will often go out of his way to Caputo's for some of their freshly made cheese. The other night we were at dinner and watched an Insalata Caprese pass by. The style of the dish looked great, but we were baffled as to why restaurants insist on serving tomatoes in the Winter. When tomatoes are not in season, there is really no point to ordering them; they are not fresh and have no flavor. We are both very strong proponents of the local movement, and tomatoes in the New York Winter are an affront to seasonal eating. So we started brainstorming what foods could match a good mozzarella in the colder months. There really are no vegetables that have the same sweet/acidic flavor and juicy texture of a tomato. I suggested a good balsamic vinegar that has been reduced and rid of some of its pungency, which brings out a similar acidic sweetness. John agreed- a reduced balsamic really is the only appropriate Winter match for a good mozz.
I started thinking of other similar condiments/sauces that were similar to balsamic, and I got to pomegranate molasses, one of my favorite things. However, what is nice about the Caprese are the layers of tomato and cheese, so I felt like I still needed something else besides the balsamic. What I came up with was sliced oranges (peeled of all pith and cut horizontally) that I cooked in a pan with balsamic vinegar. I sliced the oranges beforehand and let them marinate with the vinegar and a pinch of salt. I then put them in a pan and reduced everything together. The oranges took on a caramelized flavor and texture, without becoming too sweet, and the balsamic reduced with the orange juice. I then layered the slices of fresh mozzarella with the orange, and garnished it with fresh pomegranate seeds (also sweet and acidic), and drizzled it with Tondo reduced balsamic vinegar, pomegranate molasses, and extra virgin olive oil. You can just use a bottle of regular balsamic vinegar and reduce some with the oranges and then some by itself for the drizzle. I have been eying that Tondo balsamic "cream" for a while and couldn't help myself. If you are into foodie indulgences, you should check it out for easy drizzling and garnishing.
I would be curious to know what other vegetables and condiments you would want to pair with mozzarella this time of year. Let us know!