OPINION: The Importance of Food in Film
In film, there are many tools that a director has at their disposal to create a sense of place and character. Sure, costuming, production design, and accent are the most noticeable, but there’s one that’s less noticeable and arguably just as useful: Food.
You can get a really quick read on your characters and their environment just by looking at the kind of food they eat. For example, in one of the early scenes of Little Miss Sunshine, we see a family dinner, which consists of a chicken bucket dinner from a KFC-like restaurant. Just this detail gives us an insight into the family’s economic status - they’re one of those families who technically has enough money to keep everyone fed, but to do so they have to get as much food as possible for as little money as possible. This is reinforced later, when they stop to eat at a diner and the youngest family member, Olive, asks how much they can spend on their meals.
Food can also be important as an emotional tool. In 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, clementine cake makes several appearances, being one of the favorite foods of the titular character as made by his mother. The same cake is an element that connects Walter to Sean O’Connell - the entire impetus for Walter’s emotional journey. That cake also helps Walter bond with a group of sailors and gain the favor of a warlord, both vital pieces to Walter’s journey continuing. Without that cake, the story doesn’t happen.
There are, of course, dozens more examples of food in movies being used for grand purposes both spoken and unspoken. The whole point, though, is that food isn’t just sustenance - it’s a storytelling tool. You can build entire movies around food, in fact, as we’ve seen with films like Big Night and Ratatouille. Those films, without the food, would be far less interesting because food is woven into their DNA. But even for the aforementioned Little Miss Sunshine and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which don’t revolve around food, it nevertheless enhances them. Food is one of the few universal languages we have, and mastering it and using it can be just as effective as any piece of film-ic language a director has in their arsenal.