When the country began to shut down as a result of COVID-19 and I started staying at home, I first turned to movies about food. I’ve worked as a food writer for many years and as a food critic for part of that time. Suddenly, I was cut off from something I find central to my ideas of community and, indeed, to my faith: gathering together with other people to enjoy a meal.
As I watched my beloved food films, it wasn’t just that I missed restaurants—although watching Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) eat buttery fish in a French cafe filled me with a longing so intense I thought I might cry—it was that I missed this easy, beautiful way of connecting with other people. A pizza lunch with a friend. A couple over for dinner. A dinner with my husband somewhere our baby was not, somewhere we didn’t have to cook or clean. As the days wore on, I began to feel as if all that were from another life, or a dream. In time, I stopped watching those movies because they made the sadness too much, the desire for community too strong.
Here we are, many months later, and I’ve realized something. My favorite food movies are about pivots. No one is dealing with a pandemic in these stories, but most of the characters I love are dealing with personal tragedy or simply things not going the way they hoped. The heroes and heroines are at loose ends—rather like many of my favorite biblical characters, and like most of us right now.
I’ve been meaning to watch Big Night (1996) for so long but got around to it only a few months ago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Two brothers from Italy own a restaurant together in mid-20th-century America—and things are not going well. Their authentic Italian food isn’t connecting with the palates of their customers. They have one shot to make a standout meal—a big night, to try to save everything.
In Julie & Julia (2009) we meet Julie Powell, who hates her job and feels as if her life is stuck. Before long, we’re introduced to Julia Child, living in France with her husband for his job but unsure of what to do herself. Both women begin to cook, throwing themselves into the work and finding passion there.
If I’ve learned anything from food movies, I’ve learned that food doesn’t have to be fancy—the simplest meal can be magical if prepared with care and love.
Remy has lost his family when he finds his way to Gusteau’s restaurant in the feature-length animation Ratatouille (2007). His friend Alfredo Linguini is unemployed and desperate to keep his job when he meets the little rat, and they join forces.
Carl loses his job as a chef at a Los Angeles restaurant after an altercation with a food critic in Chef (2014). Hassan and his family must flee their native India for France while grieving the tragic death of his wife in The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014). Both the European rom-com Mostly Martha (2001) and its U.S. remake, No Reservations (2007), follow a chef who has lost her sister and must take in her niece.
And what collection of films about food would be complete without Babette’s Feast (1987), whose title character flees violence in Paris and works without payment for 14 years in exchange for a place to live? She finds it in the home of some Lutherans who need a reminder that food and drink are about so much more than feeding our bodies—they also feed our relationships and our souls.
I’m tempted to focus on the ends of these stories, though not all of them are triumphant. I love to skip ahead to Julie and Julia’s new careers as authors, to the successful restaurants, to the love stories that bloom among bowls of pasta.
But the truth is that, right now, most of us, if not all, are somewhere in a difficult beginning or a messy middle. We are mourning the changes we feel in our lives, perhaps longing for the normalcy of restaurants, of dinner with friends. We miss church. We miss the eucharist shared together. We miss potlucks. But through it all, we have to eat, and we might as well do it well, so that it will nourish us. If I’ve learned anything from food movies, I’ve learned that food doesn’t have to be fancy—the simplest meal can be magical if prepared with care and love.
In Big Night and Babette’s Feast, the characters’ fortunes don’t change dramatically in the end; both movies leave us wondering what will happen next. This COVID-19 age isn’t the time for a dinner party, but it is the time for excellent care of ourselves and others—for feasts that give us strength as we walk forward, waiting to discover what happens next.