Last August, Susan Spungen had to figure out what Julia Roberts should cook for Thanksgiving dinner. More precisely, the New York City-based culinary consultant was assigned the task of concocting a visibly delectable feast for Roberts’s character to serve in the movie adaptation of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir about her self-discovery tour through Italy, India and Bali. The movie, which opens tomorrow, ends with Gilbert, played by Roberts, finding love in Bali with “Felipe,” played by dishy Javier Bardem. Yet the character shows far more passion for—and commitment to—a luscious plate of spaghetti pomodoro she hoovers down in Rome. Credit goes to Spungen, the former food director of Martha Stewart Living, who styled the “Eat” phase of Gilbert’s journey. It didn’t take long to figure out Thanksgiving dinner, Spungen tells Maclean’s: “I just asked myself what I’d make for myself as an American living in Italy.”
The menu is destined to invite duplication this holiday season: stuffed clams with parsley and bread crumbs; escarole with golden raisins and pine nuts; mashed potatoes; Romanesco broccoli; fresh porcini mushrooms; braised cippolinis; green beans with hazelnuts; roasted pumpkin with mint and balsamic vinegar; and whole roasted carrots. And the dramatic centrepiece: roasted “tacchino,” or turkey, served with gravy and apricot and fennel stuffing.
Spungen is a veteran at pulling off culinary “Aha!” moments on screen. It was her sole meunière sizzling in browned butter in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia that provided Julia Child (played by Meryl Streep) with her first French food epiphany. Director Nancy Meyers retained Spungen for her 2009 movie It’s Complicated, about the romantic trials of a successful chef and café owner, Jane Adler, also played by Streep. Meyers knows food and had definite ideas about how it should look, Spungen says. Adler’s character was a composite of famed Californian chefs Alice Waters, Maury Rubin and Nancy Silverton—someone who’d have homemade lavender ice cream in the Sub-Zero, whipped up croque monsieur in a jiff and laid a table straight out of the pages of Martha Stewart Living.
The current focus on food in film doesn’t surprise Spungen: “There’s a major cultural fascination with food as entertainment,” she says. “It’s become a competitive hobby.” And Top Chef-addicted audiences are tough critics, hence the need for “culinary consultants” rather than old-guard “food stylists.” Pixar brought in famed chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller to ensure Ratatouille, its animated film set in a Paris kitchen, was accurate—down to the pot burns on characters’ arms. Ephron, an accomplished cook herself, insisted on the same authenticity for Julie & Julia. She tasted every recipe (except the aspic, which she dislikes) and demanded that actors exude culinary finesse, says Spungen: “If [an actor] was holding the knife wrong, Nora would say, ‘Show her how to do it.’ ”
Styling food in movies is very different and more difficult than in magazines, says Spungen: “In magazines, you can see a hair on a raspberry, but in film, you never see something that close.” In movies, food has to “tell a story” quickly with colour and texture; lingering close-ups are reserved for scene-stealers such as the glistening tomato bruschetta in Julia & Julia. More often, though, the “ooh” factor is fleeting, as in the scenes in It’s Complicated of Streep opening an oven door to reveal a perfect roast chicken or icing a double-fudge chocolate cake.
Repeated takes require the scene look exactly as it did at the beginning, which can be frustrating. Fifty chickens were roasted for one It’s Complicated scene. Pressure was on during Julie & Julia: they only had 10 expensive sole filets to get it right.
The process is so gruelling that after It’s Complicated, Spungen vowed she’d never do another movie. Then came the call from Eat Pray Love director Ryan Murphy, who lured her with the prospect of a three-week shoot in Rome. Gilbert isn’t a food person, Spungen says, but her enjoyment of food in Italy is vital to advancing the story. Slowly, the solipsistic New Yorker loosens up, embracing Italian rhythms. She even resigns herself to an emerging “muffin top”: “I’m going for it,” the character tells a new friend as she tucks into a pizza margherita at Naples’ Pizzeria da Michele, a tourist mecca since Gilbert mentioned it in her book.
Murphy was specific about the mood he wanted to achieve but Spungen chose the food, a mouth-watering parade of pastas, artichokes, eggplant, bread sticks, fried zucchini blossoms and Roman-style tripe. “He wanted really tight close-ups,” Spungen says of Murphy. “He wanted the audience to be hungry.” The overriding intent was conveyed in the phrase he wrote on the script, she says: “food porn.”
Exactly what “food porn” is has evolved markedly since the once-notorious (now high-camp) seduction scene in Tom Jones that saw Albert Finney and Joyce Redman lasciviously slurp their way through oysters, lobster and chicken before hightailing it to the bedroom. Now audiences see food as the main event, as in such cult food movies as Babette’s Feast, Tampopo and Big Night.
But a new crop of films uses food in a supporting role more subtly—to convey ambience, character insight, and even to inject dramatic tension. When Roberts’s divorce-ravaged character makes a sensual lunch for herself that includes a soft-boiled egg and asparagus, it’s a clue she’s on the mend. And that Thanksgiving scene shows how she managed to create a surrogate family.
Food’s even become a useful narrative-driving tool, as in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, about an affair between the married Emma (Tilda Swinton) and Antonio, a friend of her son. That Emma is a romantic goner is evident when it’s revealed Antonio is a chef, the current dream-guy job in movies. The first scene—an elegant birthday dinner for the family patriarch—establishes the characters’ wealth, refinement and complex intra-relationships. Antonio’s arrival with a volcano-shaped birthday cake provides not-too-subtle foreshadowing of eruptions to come. Quickly it’s apparent I Am Love has the most fish-driven plot line since Finding Nemo. Antonio woos Emma by preparing her a stunning plate of prawns; her response while eating them is so rapturous it summons comparison to Meg Ryan’s famous deli scene in When Harry Met Sally. During the press junket for the movie, Swinton jokingly referred to the episode as “prawnography.” Fish is also the main ingredient in a soup served at another dinner; its arrival precipitates a shattering turn of events. Throughout, food is used as a class signifier: when Emma’s daughter noshes on biscuits out of a box, of course they’re from Ladurée, the luxe Parisian patisserie. The audience’s food literacy is a given. Guadagnino had actors train with Michelin-star-level chefs; he wanted to avoid having to cut away to a professional’s hands.
Food also conveys class and character in The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s new movie about a long-time lesbian couple, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, meeting their teenagers’ sperm-donor father, played by Mark Ruffalo. The couple’s affluent Californian “bobo” sensibility is telegraphed via their organic, field-to-table food politics, their dinnertime bonding with their kids over healthy meals, and their name-dropping of local wines like Fiddlehead. Heirloom vegetables make frequent cameos. The audience is assured the mellow sperm donor is a good guy because he owns a cool locavore restaurant and belongs to an organic garden co-op. That, fittingly, is where his first bonding moment with his biological daughter occurs: he picks a green pepper, cracks it open and shares it with her.
Tellingly, the choice of vegetable was subject to more analysis on movie blogs than the film itself. Many griped that a real gardener would never have picked an unripened green pepper; he would have chosen a red one. “Green peppers are not raw munching-on veggies,” fumed a member of the National Post’s movie review panel whose life evidently has been spared crudités-with-dip platters. “The movie lost all credibility with me the second that happened,” she said. No one suggested that the green pepper was symbolic, intended to signify the new father-daughter relationship. More likely it was budget-driven. Better to bond over a low-cost, low-status vegetable than a meal. Just ask Spungen, who went through 25 turkeys while filming Eat Pray Love’s Thanksgiving scene, a small poultry sacrifice for a big audience “ooh.”