“I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles with ketchup”

September 17, 2012

Prison dinner–Paulie (Paul Sorvino) slicing garlic with a razor blade

Goodfellas is a brilliant movie not only because of Martin Scorsese’s vision, or its performances, but because of Nicholas Pileggi’s script. The dialogue is peerless–bracing and savagely funny. And of course, food is a big deal. Through all the double-crossing, scheming, and murder, people have to live their lives, and the care which they lavish on food is a contrast to the nastiness of the line of work they’re all in.

There’s a scene towards the end, when Henry (Henry Hill, who died this past year) is trying to mastermind a major drug deal while coordinating an elaborate family dinner:

I had to start braising the beef, pork butt and veal shanks for the tomato sauce. It was Michael’s favorite. I was making ziti with the meat gravy and I’m planning to roast some peppers over the flames and I was gonna put on some string beans with some olive oil and garlic, and I had some beautiful cutlets that were cut just right, that I was going to fry up before dinner just as an appetizer. So I was home for about an hour. Now my plan was to start the dinner early so Karen and I could unload the guns that Jimmy didn’t want, and then get the package for Lois to take to Atlanta for her trip later that night.

Pileggi’s script goes beyond The Godfather‘s scenes of camaraderie (Clemenza to Michael, “Michael, you never know when you’re going to need to cook for twenty guys”). The food, the money, the thrill that comes from taking someone down, the satisfaction in making easy money, is all a part of the pleasure of living in Henry Hill’s world. And when the excitement is gone, the food turns sour too. At the end, after he’s ratted his friends out, and placed in witness protection, he looks out at the audience in his shabby bathrobe and says,

Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. (He stares directly at the camera.) I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

Dinner with Tommy’s mother-played by Martin Scorsese’s own mother, Catherine


Elizabeth Gilbert’s Pizza

August 18, 2012

Am I cheating if i bring up Eat, Pray, Love? It’s only the most obvious of all the gastronomy-obsessed movies that have come out in the past few years, except for Julie and Julia. I know I should be talking about a more obscure, less middle-brow movie, but I can’t help it. The pizza is too gorgeously filmed, too haunting. It’s your fantasy pizza. The pizzeria as we all remember is from a little hole-in-the wall in Naples (though not anymore, I think), called Pizzeria da Michele.  A place with white linoleum tables and ceiling fans (reminds me of different little restaurants in India). the cinematographer, Robert Richardson, does wonders. The mozzerella, the red of the sauce, the leaves of basil, shimmer across the screen to intoxicate you.

The chef and food writer, Ritu Dalmia, who’s an Indian based out of Delhi, has a series of shows and a book called “Italian Khanna” (Italian food in Hindi) where she goes all over Italy to examine a cross-cultural link between Italian food and Indian food.

The Bollywood Cookbook

July 12, 2011

There are many cookbooks out there about Indian food and cultures, many fairly reductive, some very engaging (Madhur Jaffrey, Anjum Anand), and here’s one that explores the favorite foods of famous Indian film stars. Bulbul Mankani interviews everyone from Shahrukh Khan (who loves tandoori chicken and kebabs at Mumbai’s Taj hotel and Delhi’s Samarkand restaurant), to Abhishek Bachan (a vegetarian who loves aloo tikki) to Raveena Tandon (who apparently likes to make her own gulab jamun). The book is terrific for those who love Indian food and Indian movies. I love the bits about the great Indian actor Shabana Azmi, whose father was the great Urdu poet, Kaifi Azmi, and Rishi Kapoor’s memories of Mughlai feasts in the Kapoor household during the heydays of Hindi cinema in the 1950s.

Shabana Azmi

Shabana Azmi describes her mother, the actor Shaukat Azmi, preparing wonderful, elaborate Hyderabadi feasts for all the guests who would flood into their home. One of the signature dishes was Hyderabadi biryani–the most heady, sensual, spicy dish of saffron-laced basmati rice and mutton, that’s pretty incredible. One good place to find it is in Zyka, here in Atlanta in Decatur.

hyderabadi biryani--the pictures don't really do it justice

Rishi Kapoor goes on about a dish his grandfather the theater and film actor Prithviraj Kapoor and his father, the film actor and director, Raj Kapoor, used to love–a spicy, earthy, tomato-based soup called Paya, made of goat or mutton (the dish is a favorite in my family as well, along with the Hyderabadi biryani). It’s a favorite during winter, where this frosty chill takes over the air in India. Paya was originally meant to be made from trotters–or the feet of goats–food for lean times, but most of the time it’s made from goat. It’s a very popular dish among Muslims all over the Indian subcontinent.

Rishi Kapoor, late 1970s




The Bollywood Cookbook has several user-friendly recipes and is a good starting place for learning how to make the basics of Indian food–aloo ghobi, aloo tikki, tandoori chicken, pullao, the usual. And it’s a great book to familiarize yourself with Indian movies and its stars.

Ingmar Bergman and the Taste of Memories

March 18, 2011

Isn’t it so interesting that Bergman chose to title his film about memories, aging, lost opportunities, and the irrevocability of childhood after the taste of berries in the early summer? The title, Wild Strawberries, or Smultronstället, is evocative of the smell and feel of a precise time and place–May and June in the Swedish countryside–an endless summer where youth begins to fade into the wariness of adulthood. The main character, Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) takes a journey into the past, into the recesses of his memories, as he travels to Lund to receive an honorary degree. He realizes that his vision of the past comprises of a series of certain isolated painful and poignant episodes, but also of intensely tactile sensations–tastes, touch, desires, and unrequited passions–all the things that remind us of being alive.

I few days ago I saw a Jamie Oliver show of him traveling to Sweden, to the woods, to gather wild berries and mushrooms, and I immediately thought of the beauty of Bergman’s film.

The lushness and otherworldly feel of the woods takes you to certain place in the depths of your imagination. And the treasures hidden among the bushes and trees–berries, mushrooms–are apart of that almost fairy tale magic of youth and its equivocal moments of innocence.


Eating and Cooking in Your Apartment

November 20, 2010

Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, making something cheap and easy--spaghetti--with his tennis racket

When you’re living in a confined space, and the kitchen is really small, it takes a lot of ingenuity to think up good meals. Even cooking something simple can be a chore because there’s hardly room to move. So what do you when you want to vary your apartment cuisine from Ramen and instant Mac n’ Cheese? This is where I find those scenes from Julie and Julia pretty entertaining and à propos:  Amy Adams trying to make lobster thermidor and consommé in her pokey kitchen (where sous chefs have a hard time making them in large restaurant kitchens!), and trying to get something bigger out of her life by transcending the confines of her occassionally tedious existence with wonderful food.

Also, the scene in The Apartment with Jack Lemmon improvising with a tennis racket, because he doesn’t have a strainer, is great. It really sort of captures city living.

As Thanksgiving approaches, The New Yorker puts out their annual food-themed issue.  This year they have the writer Judith Thurman, who has written the definitive biography on the writer Colette, making a tantalizing pistachio-encrusted turbot: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/11/video-judith-thurmans-turbot-dish.html

Last year, it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s father making pulao, a fragrant Indian pice dish:


The Best Under-the-Radar Food Show on Television…

August 20, 2010

Michelin-starred Heston Blumenthal's, the Ferran Adria of Britain, show from BBC is being shown on NBC's cable channel, Planet Green. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, awesome.

A few days ago I was changing the channel and I came across In Search of Perfection on Planet Green.  British chef extraordinare, owner and genius behind The Fat Duck in Bray, England, Heston Blumenthal was trying to come up with the perfect Fish and Chips.  This is not just a typical cooking show, with the enthusiastic cook cheerily submerging the stiff battered pollack fillets into a vat of boiling oil, and rhapsodizing, “Mmm…doesn’t that smell good?”

Blumenthal is one-of-kind and his search is about not just about developing a delicious dish, but getting to the essence of that dish–what does that dish mean to us, when we eat it, why do we crave it?  So he delves wholeheartedly into

(1) the type of fish–visiting speciality fish mongers in Cornwall, exploring the firmness and delicacy of various types of fish, which ones will hold batter well against its flesh;

(2) the chemical consistency of the batter–visiting an MRI lab in Cambridge and looking at the electrochemical composition of various types of batter (so as not to get one that’s too soggy) and

(3) exploring different varietes of potatoes–their shape, starch levels, taste–to find which one makes the perfect, hearty, but light and crunchy chip.

(4) finally, he gets to the essence of the dish by the smell he associates with the traditional English recipe–pickled onion vinegar-which he atomizes and puts in a little spritz can to spray on his dish.

Search is an amazing food odyssey for anyone who is totally passionate about food and is curious to explore that in-depth aspects of their favorite dishes.  The show gets to our love of certain dishes, and why we love them, and Blumenthal’s zany, focused genius and his desire to take something loved and familiar to the next level.

Weekdays at 6pm on Planet Green.

(Fish and Chips episode):


The Perfect Burger episode, very very intense (I wanted to eat a burger immediately after this episode)

“Le Beaufort n’est pas correct…”

August 4, 2010

James Ivory’s 2003 adaptation of the Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce is one of the best comedy-of-manners of the culture clash between the American and the French–particularly the upper-class French, who are as unfathomable to Americans as aliens from another planet.

The life in the country, the estate, the horses, the wine, and how life revolves around a meal, and an entire afternoon is ruined because of spoiled cheese.  There’s that scene during a lunch at the Persand’s country house with Roxy (Naomi Watts) and Isabel’s (Kate Hudson) parents, played by Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing–two of our poshest, cerebral actors, where a converstation by Waterston is harshly interuppted by Leslie Caron spitting out a wedge of cheese: “Le Beaufort n’est pas correct…c’est pourri!” The entire family looks disappointed and disdainful–the spoiled cheese is a mini crisis, like finding out your neighbor has been run down by a car.  The Americans look around at each other, confused and frustrated.

This a wonderful movie, about two very different cultures, one guileless, effusive and emotional–the Americans, and the other, cool, reserved, but crafty and duplicitous–the French. And the food in the movie is lovely to look at. Delicate roast lamb from Mt Saint Michel, glistening ruby red Bordeaux and claret, the restaurant lunch that Roxy and Isabel share with their parents–courses of langoustine, steak au poivre, endive salad…you get positively dizzy from the heady experience.

Isabel (Kate Hudson) and Antoine de Persand (Samuel LaBarthe) over the most decadent lunch, baby lamb raised near Mont-Saint-Michel

Food among the Persands, like the Archers or the van der Luydens in The Age of Innocence, is a highly ritualized means of reinforcing their power and wealth through veiled conversations about political scandals and money, by showing off to their guests the kind of food they can afford, and uniting as a family…”Je pense de ma famille!” Suzanne (Leslie Caron) argues with her brother Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte) when he indulges in a reckless affair with the young Isabel.

I love Le Divorce, because its one of the last movies James Ivory has made before Ismail Merchant died.  Its one of the finest movies of its kind, beautifully cast, highly literate, and visually gorgeous.

The Ritual of Dining in The Age of Innocence

July 4, 2010

Is there a dinner scene more sumptuous than any in The Age of Innocence?  The attention to detail in Martin Scorcese’s faithful film adaptation sort of takes your breath away.  The flowers, the table settings, the delicately assembled meals, the elegant guests, constitutes your dream of what a Wharton novel should be.

Dinner is, of course, highly ritualized. Beneath the complex etiquette of their formal dinners Wharton saw people gnawed by rivalries and intrigue. Dining afforded Wharton opportunities for satirizing the social elite and the nouveaux riches–the former intent upon preserving their exclusivity, the latter upon penetrating aristocracy’s Fifth Avenue dining rooms, its restaurants, receptions, and balls.  Moreover, in the context of domesticity, the dining scenes also reaffirm the family as a “tribe” wherein mutual protection is reinforced by the act of eating together.

Just look at the scene of the van der Luydens’ dinner for Countess Olenska: a social coup de grace intended as an act of mercy–to reassure the respectability of the Welland family by accepting the wayward Ellen Olenska deep into the bosom of New York, Old Money society.  The plates that come forth in succession, the braised cucumbers, the glistening seafood and game, the ripe vivid fruits, the refulgent bright flowers tumbling over as centerpieces, are dazzling icons of wealth and abundance.

Here, food is the conduit to conversation and power, and a totem of affluence.  The Age of Innocence is one of those rare period films that really is a tableau vivant, full of fleeting, and beautiful images that catch the eye and linger your memory.

Iconoclasts: Alice Waters and Mikhail Baryshnikov

June 15, 2010

If you didn’t get a chance to see this, a little over a year ago on The Sundance Channel, and you care about artists committed to their vision, go check this out on iTunes.  It’s amazing.  To see Baryshnikov’s rapt admiration for how Waters mentors aspiring chefs at Chez Panisse and his own curiosity about organic, hand-cultivated food, is very cool.  Waters is a trailblazer.  She made us all rethink and reevaluate what we eat and where we get our food from.  And listening to her and hearing her ability to come up with new and exciting ideas, you can see why she’s included in this provacatively titled series.

“I don’t speak shellfish”

May 26, 2010

There’s that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer is huddling in terror at the prehistoric, scorpion-like lobster scuttling across the kitchen floor, while Diane Keaton’s Annie is laughing hysterically.  It’s funny and tender at the same time because it shows you the disparate personalities of these two people, and in spite of their inability to comprehend each other, they’re trying to make it work.

Nora Ephron did a variation of this scene in Julie and Julia where Julie and her husband are trying to work up the nerve to plunge a live lobster into the pot.  It’s routine and spiritless, because it lacks the spontaneous charm of the chemistry between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  The one thing I did like though was Julie’s description of how Julia Child instructed her viewers on how to kill the lobster: she’d cleave it right between the eyes with aplomb of an axe murderer.