While there’s debate over the amount of calories consumed by the average American on Thanksgiving Day—4,500 according to the Calorie Control Council, an industry group composed of diet food companies, 2,500-3,000 in the opinion of sources such as the New York Times and Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the nonprofit American Council on Exercise—one thing we all can agree upon is that, on the fourth Thursday in November, the little voice inside our heads whose job it is to plead moderation seems to be napping. Or maybe “comatose” is a better word. Because how else to account for the continuation of our alarming consumption throughout the month of December? How else to explain those extra couple brownies you should’ve passed on at the office’s holiday party? Or that fourth helping of cheesy potatoes at grandma’s for Christmas dinner? Or that one last glass of wine (oh, the headache!) as the clock nears midnight on New Year’s Eve?
But let’s not wallow in guilt; after all, that new diet scheduled to commence on January 2nd surely will make it all better! Rather, let’s embrace the excesses of the holiday season with sampling of movies that prove it’s only human to let oneself go from time to time.
Based on a story by Karen Blixen, of “Out of Africa” fame, this 1987 Danish film tells the story of two pious sisters living in 19th-century coastal Denmark who take in Babette, a French refugee with a mysterious past, to be their housekeeper. After years spent cooking bland, simple meals in keeping with the sister’s religious beliefs, Babette offers to create a proper French meal using (unbeknownst to the sisters) 10,000 francs she won in the lottery. Although the sisters agree, they soon become worried that Babette’s exotic feast might put them at odds with God. So it’s agreed (unbeknownst to Babette) that everyone attending the dinner will forgo any pleasure in the eating of it. Of course, as the meal proceeds from one course to the next, this proves impossible, Babette’s exquisite cooking elevating each of the guests spiritually and physically. In a nutshell, a terrific film about the transformative power of food and those artists who manipulate it into something sublime.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, this 2007 Pixar film, written and directed by the great Brad Bird, follows the adventures of Remy, a gourmand rat (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt) as he struggles to achieve his dream of becoming a great chef. Inspired by his idol, the recently deceased chef Auguste Gusteau (who maintained that “anyone can cook”), Remy teams up with a bumbling kitchen garbage boy, Alfredo Linguini, to elevate the cuisine at the once famous, but quickly deteriorating bastion of high-end French cuisine, Gusteau’s. Full of terrific physical comedy, beautiful animation and a great score, Ratatouille has much to say about the nature of criticism and artistry and what one is capable of achieving no matter where he or she or it comes from.
Set in 1950s New Jersey, “Big Night” tells the story of Italian immigrant brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) as they struggle to keep their restaurant afloat in the face of a clientele who don’t quite appreciate the magnificence of the food being served and stiff competition from lesser Italian joints like Pascal’s, who specialize in crowd favorites like spaghetti and meatballs. Facing foreclosure, the brothers decide to go all in by creating a magnificent dinner for the singer Louis Prima, the assumption being that news of Prima’s visit will increase traffic. What follows is a master class on the preparation of the mother of all Italian feasts, the centerpiece, a dish called “timpani,” which has to be seen to be believed. Written and co-directed by Tucci, “Big Night” has much to say about the nature of business, the ramifications of not selling out and the importance of family. It may well be the greatest movie about food ever created, one that, cherry on top, has a wordless closing scene that’s simply a classic.
Alexander Payne directed this 2004 film featuring Paul Giamatti as Miles, a depressed, wine-loving schoolteacher who takes his best friend Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) on a bachelor weekend to California’s Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Hilarity ensues. As does serious angst as Miles is pulled into a lie perpetrated by Jack that could jeopardize Miles’ budding relationship with a beautiful server, Maya (Virginia Madsen). Great writing, lots to say about wine, especially Pinot Noir and Merlot, and a breakout performance from that guy from “Wings.” (Who would’ve thought Thomas Haden Church could act?) What’s there not to like?
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Steven Spielberg’s 1984 prequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” features the feast to end all feasts. Not for the feint of heart; watch at your own risk