There's almost nothing I like better than a good meal. Except, maybe, a good movie. (after I've eaten a good meal. Or before I'm about to. Or while snacking on something delicious.) So, when there's the possibility of combining the two, I will naturally jump at it. Sure, dinner and a movie is a classic combo, but dinner IN a movie? Now that's what I'm talking about. What am I talking about? Right. This week, I saw two fabulous food movies that I need you to go see. Though, to call them food movies is really a misnomer as the story being told is so much more about the people in the film, their own trials and tribulations and hilarious humiliations and struggles and heart, than it is about what they eat (or cook). But in both, the stories themselves are driven by food. It is at the dinner table, over the stove, at the kitchen counter, in the car on the way to the next meal, that life happens, and changes. And these are lives I was more than happy to spend an hour and a half with.
The first was an excursion on one of the hot, humid, sticky, drizzly evenings we've been having lately, with our favorite AMac to see the British film adapted from the BBC series called, The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Mom and I had gone to see Midnight in Paris (one thumb down) and caught a preview for The Trip, which instantly had us shrieking with laughter. Steve Coogan, an English actor who you will recognize from such films at Tristam Shandy and A Cock and Bull Story, and Rob Brydon, another English actor/comedian who is less well known on this side of the pond, but quite beloved over there, play sort of heightened versions of themselves. Coogan is that particular actorly mix of arrogance, insecurity, self-loathing, inflated ego and perpetual dissatisfaction that he doesn't have THAT GUY's career. Brydon is the slightly irritating but loveable mensch who, like a puppy dog, is unshakably enthusiastic even in the face of his friend's jabs and backhanded compliments. The result is the somewhat unsettling combination of reality tv, travelogue, satire, and meditation on fame and success.
And then there's the food. In the film, Coogan has been hired to write a piece for The Observer about some of the best restaurants in the North of England and finds himself without a partner when his American girlfriend (the only foodie of the bunch) returns to the States and the two go on "hiatus." As a last resort, he calls his friend Brydon with the tantalizing offer that after trying 4 or 5 other people, he's now invited to join him on the trip. The film follows them as they eat their way across the gorgeous countryside, and between scenes of their dueling Michael Caine and Woody Allen impressions there are incredible shots of kitchens at work, lamb searing in a pan, terrines and foam, and plate after plate of scallops (Brydon, a man after my own heart, seems to order them everywhere they stop.). Neither one a food critic, or particularly interested, Coogan describes a bowl of tomato soup as "tomato-y" and some sort of foamy aperitif as "it has the consistency of snot, but it tastes great." And both did what I find myself doing every time I'm in a fine dining establishment--that is, treating the waiter like my 8th grade teacher, inexplicably concerned that I might do something horribly inappropriate or rude, giving myself away as the neophyte imposter I really am. Watching Brydon suppress a boyish grin when the waiter places a dish in front of them, reverently announcing it as "tiny sacks" was priceless, and all too familiar.
While I sat salivating over each close-up of perfectly cooked venison and ladles of velvety sauce, and could have stood to linger a bit more with the kitchen footage, the film isn't really about that. And if it means giving up any time watching the two of them volley the comedy ball back and forth, I wouldn't change a thing. Go see it. Bring a tissue--you might drool a bit, but you'll definitely laugh til you cry.
The other foodie film I saw will require tissues as well, but for a different kind of tears.
Before we go any further, I'd be remiss to not introduce you to my new friend, Roku. Despite what you may hear from the Fiance, she is not a tiny chambermaid living in our closet. She is, rather, a birthday/engagement gift from our lovely friend Jeff, a small (that part is true) device which sits on top of our DVD player and makes it possible to stream netflix, hulu, and movies from amazon to our TV. In short, she is a life-changing piece of metal. Roku has allowed me to avoid leaving my house more often than absolutely necessary, and to indulge in all my latest guilty pleasures, including Say Yes to the Dress, No Reservations, Man vs Food, and Oliver's Twist. I'm sensing a theme. Anyway, last night after my class, alone in the apartment while the Fiance was off playing basketball and eating grilled by none other than Grill-A-Chef himself, I decided to take a chance on a film that had been languishing in my netflix queue for far too long.
Pressure Cooker is a documentary about the students in Mrs. Stephenson's Culinary Arts class at Frankford High, in inner-city Philadelphia. Mrs. Stephenson is a fire-cracker, that kind of teacher who chases kids down the hall calling them low-lifes until they cave and pull off their headphones. The kind of teacher who throws someone out of class if they so much as glance at the clock above the door. But she's also, as so many of them are, the kind of teacher who demands excellence from her students because she respects how capable and talented they are, and how many odds are already stacked against them. The kind who goes prom dress shopping with her students if they don't have a mom around to do it with them, who cheers in the stands at football games, and lashes out at any man, woman, or child, who shows her kids anything less than respect and kindness. Every year, her class trains for a city-wide culinary arts competition (judged by the likes of Iron Chef Morimoto) the results of which come in the form of full or part scholarships to college. By the end of the film, when the competition is in its finals, the tension is thicker than the pastry cream each student is required to make (sorry). These kids are quite literally, cooking for their lives. A perfectly peeled, diced and seeded tomato can mean getting out from under the thumb of an oppressive father, or pursuing a personal dream instead of being the head of a household at 17. Of course, these are the big stakes. Then there are the smaller ones, all the myriad benefits of learning a craft, an art (after all there's a reason it's called Culinary ARTS), and the reason it is mind-boggling to me that anyone can justify cutting funding for the arts in schools (if you want to support these kind of scholarship programs, go here). There's the discipline, the self-esteem, the self-expression, the pure joy, that comes with dedication to a craft. Watching the students discover this, and how hard they work towards this goal, is not only heart-warming, it's delicious.
I know you're opening a show tonight (Break a Leg!!!) and will be busy with that through Saturday, but when you find yourself with a rare free night, having forgotten what one does when one is not due at rehearsal or a performance, I encourage you to watch these films. Like a great meal, I'd venture to say they're both good for the soul.
And because no movie watching is complete without popcorn, here's my favorite way to dress up a batch at home (you can always pack it into zip-loc bags and stash it in your coat when you go out to the movie theater.)
The Mouse's favorite Movie-Night Popcorn
This is a riff on the mexican corn on the cob (or elote), which I often see at latin restaurants in the city, or better yet at street fairs, grilled until slightly charred, and then slathered with butter, either mayonnaise or sour cream, chile powder, and grated cheese. I like it with a squeeze of lime as well.
What You'll Need:
Chile powder or Cayenne Pepper
Grated parmesan or cotija cheese
Optional: mayonnaise and/or mexican crema
Make your batch of popcorn in whatever method you choose (I do stove-top). Make more than you think you'll want. Melt some butter. Drizzle it over the top of the popcorn and toss. (If you're feeling crazy, you could try whisking the melted butter with some mayonnaise before pouring it over the popcorn.) Season with salt (don't use kosher--it'll fall right off) and chile powder or cayenne (or both) to taste. Sprinkle with a good amount of the grated cheese. Squeeze some fresh lime juice over the top. Enjoy. (I've never tried this, but you could also drizzle with a little mexican crema before serving. Might be delish, or it could make the popcorn soggy. If you try it, let me know.)
Another favorite variation on this theme: Make popcorn. Toss with green tabasco sauce, squeeze of lime, Lawry's Season Salt, and grated parmesan.