By Laura Henneman
Films about food and culinary culture are never simply about practical, physical nourishment. At their core they’re about food’s power to bring people together around a table; they’re about ancestry and cuisine as a cultural ambassador; and they’re about artistry and sustainability on a fragile planet.
These three programs, one narrative and two documentaries, address questions of heritage and cultural expectations. They focus their varied lenses on how we come together through food, as families, as friends, as people of shared values. They remind us how the act of preparing food, for ourselves and others, allows us to step into our own as individuals and share our true selves. And importantly, these films aren’t interested in the highfalutin, capital “C” cuisine associated with Michelin stars and months-long waiting lists—in this series, each piece elevates the food of everyday people from all over the world.
Thinking of films about food and food culture might bring to mind the high stakes of Big Night (1996) or the hijinks of Ratatouille (2007); the artful mastery of Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and the urgency of Food, Inc. (2008). These new additions to the recipe book are different in one significant respect: Each highlights the prominence of women as cultural and business leaders in the culinary sphere. But make no mistake, we’re not talking about an old-fashioned, Betty Crocker approach—these women of world cuisine are creative, feisty, and have impeccable taste.
For our first course, whet your appetite for authenticity and activism with Bloodroot, a documentary about the proprietors of that long-standing vegetarian establishment in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In the 1970s, founders Selma Miriam and Noel Furie envisioned a gathering space that would be part bookstore and part restaurant, all based around radical feminism and healthy, nourishing food for everyday folks. For each of these women, Bloodroot was a new chapter in their lives, and a way of claiming their identities. The film parallels how their lives unfolded as young women, how both married and had children before the women’s movement helped them to break free from the limits placed on them by a patriarchal East Coast society. After both women came out, and came together at a NOW rally in 1972, Bloodroot became their passion project, their way of contributing to the cultural shift. The filmmaker grounds contemporary interviews with historical footage and retro ads displaying both the food of the times and how the advertising industry represented women, and playfully interweaves snippets of The Stepford Wives (1975), set in a chillingly similar Connecticut town. The documentary shows the alignment between vegetarianism and feminism, and in Bloodroot’s case, 40 years of making food for the people, for a community, and for a movement.
On to the main course, where we travel south of the border with Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy. Kennedy, an Englishwoman and adopted daughter of Mexico, has been called variously the Julia Child of Mexico, the Indiana Jones of food, and perhaps her preferred descriptor: the Mick Jagger of Mexican cooking. Like the women of Bloodroot, Kennedy blazed her own trail through the latter half of the 20th century, and put a worldwide culinary spotlight on the various regional cuisines of Mexico.
The biographical documentary follows the James Beard winner in her 90s, still going strong and living independently in her largely self-sufficient ecological adobe house in the verdant mountains of Michoacán. Fierce and feisty all her life, Kennedy met her future husband Paul on a post-war jaunt in the Caribbean. Paul was a foreign journalist covering a revolution in Haiti, and the pair moved to Mexico City together where Kennedy rapidly fell in love again, this time with a country, a culture, and a cuisine. When Paul was traveling for work, she too would hop on a bus and explore her adopted country, gaining at least one recipe for each bus ride, and soaking up knowledge of regional specialties. And when her husband’s journalist friends came to visit she threw eccentric dinner parties, showing off the techniques she’d learned. One of those guests was New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, who first encouraged her to write a cookbook, which lead to a tour of the US teaching cooking classes, and later to her own television show. Her reputation as a leading expert on Mexican cuisine grew from there, and continues to this day. Widely recognized as an anthropologist as much as a cook, Kennedy is clearly also a conservationist and environmentalist from the very specific angle of food sustainability.
Director Elizabeth Carroll and her team filmed with Kennedy over more than four years and interviewed chefs and restaurateurs on both sides of the border including Alice Waters, Gabriela Cámara, and Rick Bayless. The finished piece was assembled from over 100 hours of present-day footage and like Bloodroot, mixes in archival clips, both of regional cooking all over Mexico and of Kennedy herself on her cooking shows and in interviews. Still as high energy today as she appears in those clips, Kennedy rarely stops moving and you get the feeling she has little patience for contemplating her legacy, but in rare moments of stillness (and more frequently in her dry sense of humor) she does make mention of her age, and expresses concern about humanity’s understanding and appreciation for quality ingredients and the importance of everyday food.
For the third course in our cinematic and culinary world tour, indulge in comfort food from an entirely different cultural palate with the heartfelt drama Ramen Shop. While the subjects of the first two films in this group touch on questions of legacy and who will carry on traditions, Ramen Shop is wholeheartedly about maintaining the traditions of your family foods, and how each generation introduces new ingredients. Following his palate and his heritage Masato, a young ramen chef from Japan travels to Singapore in search of a greater understanding of his Singaporean mother who died when Masato was a boy, and of his recently deceased father. With the help of Miki, a food blogger who values sharing her cooking skills with her own young son, Masato traces his parents’ footsteps and finds his own style of cooking. Memory and nostalgia mix with delicious details about the history of ramen and its Singaporean cousin Bah kut teh (pork rib soup), showing how these traditionally blue-collar dishes came to be celebrated worldwide. Gentle and sweet, comforting as the dishes it features, Ramen Shop explores the connections between the cultures and cuisines, and how food and family can overcome divides. In a lovely example of life imitating art, chef Keisuke Takeda, founder of Singapore’s biggest ramen chain, created his own version of the soup made in the film to coincide with the film’s Berlin Film Festival premiere.
We recommend booking your post-screening dinner reservations now, because no matter which of these films you see, you will certainly leave the theater hungry.
Laura Henneman works in the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program as the Manager of Creative Producing and Artist Support, and is a Senior Programmer for the Academy Award-qualifying Palm Springs International ShortFest.