Tag Archives: hunger

Guest Column, iDiva: Food In Film

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The sweet, underrated magic realist film Woman On Top is probably best known for the image of Penelope Cruz associated with it: a sultry gaze at the camera, a bright chilly poised tantalizingly close to her lips. Yes, we get it: food is sexy, sexy, sexy – this philosophy is thrown at us in everything from advertising that uses the suggestive forms of fruits to imply other ripeness to the lust and aggression that propel cooking-based reality shows. And it is, of course. Sexy, that is. Hunger, in both its desiring and satiating stages, is just as physical as sex. But food is also equally as psychological and – let’s just say it – equally as emotional.

In life as in cinema, there are piners and there are bingers. Food is emotional not just because, paired as it is with the supreme mnemonic of smell, it is full of memories and rituals (the ritual of a family meal, a first date, the food associated with occasions), but also because our relationship with it is affected by our relationships with other people. Some people, arguably, sublimate the sex drive into the appetite, giving rise to the erotically charged sequences of the also magical Like Water For Chocolate, in which a family’s youngest daughter, by decree of tradition, must remain unmarried and take care of her parents – which results in a recipe of forbidden lust, envy and voodoo victuals. Some use it to enhance their erotic lives, as in Tampopo’s use of an unbroken egg yolk in a tricky kiss or the ubiquitous Chocolat, in which a beautifully androgynous Johnny Depp is seduced by a maker of that most famous aphrodisiac of all. In Chungking Express, a brokenhearted Takeshi Kaneshiro compulsively devours canned pineapples, having decided that on the date on which his stockpile expires, he will either have been reunited with his love, or lost her forever.

The converse is also true – the master chef patriarch of Eat Drink Man Woman loses his sense of taste, until he is able to make peace with his widowering and his daughters’ lives. The same goes for Tortilla Soup, a Mexican-American remake of the Taiwanese original. Food is identifiably cultural, but responses to it are identifiably universal.

Of course, sometimes craving is uncomplicated. Who can forget modern cinema’s most iconic food-sex parallel: when a virginal high school senior is caught making sweet, sweet love to a pastry in American Pie? Or even Jamón Jamón, which first paired Cruz with Javier Bardem, in which a pork-loving delivery boy turns gigolo against a backdrop of cured meats, double entendres and even a soda-can wedding ring.

Drinking, strangely, seems to have has less cinema devoted to its pleasures, but the likes of Sideways, Bottle Shock, Autumn Tale and A Walk in the Clouds certainly do justice to the wonderful world of wineries. For those on diets of two highly-compatible vices, Coffee and Cigarettes brings the triumvirate to a neat convergence with the third C: conversation (the fourth, cancer, I’ll leave to preachier types).

Which brings us back to why Woman On Top is underrated. Quirkily spiritual and hopelessly romantic, Cruz’s domestic goddess cannot help but long for her philandering husband. Her otherworldly culinary skills are muffled in her loneliness. What’s more important – the meal or who it’s shared with?

It’s not always the saccharine answer that’s the best one. The way to a man’s heart, the saying goes, is through his stomach. But all goddesses are gluttons, and for many of us, our hearts are our stomachs. And in heartache and in heartburn, we’ll take good care of them.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. A previous guest column in this supplement can be read here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Hungry Bride

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Give me a gnawing like fire ants in the stomach, four in the morning and the night still thick as treacle. I’ll forfeit the noon gladly for this deferred sleep, the bright nip of this hunger guiding my way out of the unlit room. I will give in.

In my kitchen, poltergeists. Against the hour’s yawning silence, the cacophony of tap water tumbling onto pans, the ignited gas stove ticking, the crackle of eager oil. This hunger demands immediate satiation, first orders, and so an egg is whisked, smattered with turmeric and pepper, cascaded in a rush of sputtering onto the pan, turning Midas-gold before my eyes. Sop it up with a side of Sri Lankan “Chinese Chilli” seafood paste – ill-advised and just a teaspoon too much – and it is done. The head is clear. The greater craving can now annex the kitchen, the sleepless eater’s stomach lucid with longings.

Give me the glow of the refrigerator light. Lucky is the insomniac epicurean who has an accomplice, because there is something utterly romantic about this electric illumination, the rectangle of yellow that falls across the dark. The remembered thrill of condensed milk sandwiches eaten by this light as a child, sweet memory warmed along with the reheated idiappom and potato sothi, quiet adult conversation at an hour when everything is louder, more pungent, than life.

Give me the glow of my laptop then, typed conversations with cronies in different time zones, whom I inadvertently curse with obesity and alcoholism – what are you eating, my love, what are you drinking; have another one on my behalf, won’t you? Pangs of the heart and the belly, voracious. Every entreating appetite.

And what, and what, will I eat now, and drink now, after the omelet has settled? What do I do with the ferocious hankering for waffles with maple syrup, or smoked salmon, things I could wait till the day arrives and go out to find, if the wallet can spare it? Worse is the desire for that which cannot be found except by way of travel. Happiness, my friends, is a warm char siew pau. Sadness is living in a country where it does not exist.

How capricious is the mid-night craving. One moment a yen for spice, the next for sweet. The thought of milk toffee, sticky in the teeth and sublime on the tongue, the pining for the rubbery flesh of frogs’ legs with porridge. Survey the spread, between cabinets and fridge: instant noodles, more eggs, milk, cold rice. Coffee – a miracle. This is what happens when you have eaten by day everything you have bought by day. A rueful flashback to a wedge of mutton so tender your thumbnail slid clear into it at lunch, and how you ate each piece as if there would be no tomorrow – or no tonight. Remorse for the half-finished dishes of your past. Again, a desperate longing for places where gluttony is no sin, and the streets bustle all night with grime, steam, oil, even the smells of food lingering in a thin film on your own skin.

Riot in my belly, what will I do with you but wait? I’ll allay this hunger with obsession and promise, hope and fancy, fanning its flames to fever pitch. When dawn rises, I will devour the world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.