Thanksgiving: a time for humility, gratitude, and decency. It’s a special day when families come together to remember why we only set one day of the year aside for coming together with family, where generational differences are made abundantly clear, and displays of unbridled consumption commemorate America’s genocidal origins. Sure, Thanksgiving might not be the Norman Rockwellian heart-warmer of the popular imagination, but the holiday does still facilitate one gesture of absolute good, where differences of identity and creed give way to unity and contentedness.
Food is the reason for the season, the great pacifier and Thanksgiving’s chief redeeming feature. Your Libertarian uncle can’t argue the relative merits of Ayn Rand with a mouthful of potatoes, and your cousin’s anti-vaccination girlfriend will be too tuckered out after a hearty turkey dinner to explain where autism comes from. In its unparalleled capability to join solitary souls under the soothing effects of a full stomach, a good meal is almost like magic.
Food never looks better than it does in movies, mostly because technicians doctor up all onscreen morsels for maximum telegenic appeal. (Dirty little secret: The mouthwatering glaze on TV turkeys comes from hairspray applied liberally to the bird.) But beyond that, food in movies has a unique allure because it exists only in our imaginations, made perfect by virtue of its own unattainability. Everyone knows the only cookie worth eating is on the shelf too high to reach. Below, we’ve assembled a smorgasbord of smorgasbords from the world of cinema for your belly-rumbling pleasure. Any of the following filmic feasts would make for a fine aperitif before Thanksgiving dinner this Thursday, preparing your stomach for the chow-down of the year.
The Pale Man’s banquet, Pan’s Labyrinth
The spread: The three quests that the title faun in Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 magical-realist fable sends young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) to complete are specifically designed to test her values. Retrieving a magical key from inside a toad’s belly requires bravery from the young girl, and the final task challenges her to pit her sense of right and wrong against blind obedience, but her second task sends her to the lair of the Pale Man for an exercise in self-restraint. The eyeless monstrosity sits at the head of a irresistibly rustic Spanish feast, complete with roast ham, jars full of candies, gleaming apples, and beckoning pies. The faun warns Ofelia that she’s not to allow herself a single bite of the food or else she’ll face certain doom. But children’s hands have wandered since the dawn of time, and Ofelia’s only human.
The pièce de résistance: The grapes catch Ofelia’s eye. These are the greatest grapes she, or likely anyone, has ever seen — perfectly spherical, turgid with sweet juice, both indulgent and refreshing. She can’t help but sneak one of them, and launches the most memorable set piece of the film by awakening the horrific Pale Man for a storybook nightmare.
Dinner is served, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The spread: Temple of Doom isn’t the best installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, but you’ve got to award it points for character. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg suffused Indy’s second go-round with campy humor, amplified violence, and over-the-top mysticism, not all of which entertained audiences. One of the film’s most eccentric sequences places Indy at a palace in northern India for a dinner the Maharajah in attendance claims is customary for the region. Indian viewers were none too pleased that he was introducing a tureen of eyeball soup, dishes full of crunchy beetles for snacking, and baby snakes perfect for slurping. India’s delicious cuisine has become world-famous — foodies joke that chicken tikka masala has supplanted vegetables boiled past oblivion as the national dish of Britain — but none of it looks like it belongs on Fear Factor.
The pièce de résistance: The rarest dish among this array of stomach-turning delicacies is a heaping helping of chilled monkey brains for dessert, served right in the petrified cranium of their former owner. The Maharajah gobbles it up like crème brulée, but it’s all enough to make nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) faint in her seat.
No-Face’s binge-eat, Spirited Away
The spread: At the spirit-world spa where wayward child Chihiro finds employment in Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, spectral guests must be kept satisfied with whatever amenities they might request. A masked spirit acknowledged only as No-Face appears meek enough until he offers an attendant a gold nugget. When the poor sap accepts, No-Face mutates into a hideous monster and begins frantically consuming everything in sight, demanding new waves of food and shoving unlucky workers down his gullet when his demands aren’t met. Miyazaki’s animation makes food look extra-alluring, and the feedbag carted out for No-Face has got to be his most ravishing spread. Trays laden with magnificent gelatin sculptures, full fish carcasses, and steamed buns disappear down his insatiable maw.
The pièce de résistance: Ramen with all the fixins is Miyazaki’s specialty, and so a few bowls get thrown in the mix during No-Face’s feeding frenzy. The animators know that no serving is complete without a few slices of pork belly, a square of nori, and a hard-boiled egg.
Hobbit mealtime, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The spread: Incurable rapscallion Peregrin Took (Billy Boyd) despairs when he learns that the Fellowship won’t be stopping for all seven customary meals of the Hobbit schedule, including second breakfast, elevenses, as well as both dinner and supper. An early scene that sees the residents of the Shire pulling out all the stops for Bilbo Baggins’ birthday clearly illustrates why food is never far from a Hobbit’s mind. When Hobbits celebrate, they go all out; ale flows freely, there’s plenty of revelry, and everyone’s free to engorge themselves on sweetmeats and veggies native to Middle Earth. In the original novels, J.R.R. Tolkien would kill entire pages laboriously detailing the intricate meals that Hobbits prepare for their lavish shindigs. In Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, those endless descriptions take on an appetizing new life.
The pièce de résistance: The elvish peoples of Middle Earth use their magicks to create Lembas, a special sort of bread with the power to remain fresh for months on end. The snack is a boon for the Fellowship during their grueling journey when they couldn’t find sustenance for themselves.
Bluto hits the cafeteria line, National Lampoon’s Animal House
The spread: To the golden-throated strains of Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World,” John Belushi tears a path of destruction through the cafeteria at Faber College. Bluto doesn’t utter a single line, but this inspired comic interlude captures the essence of his character more clearly than anything else in the film. He’s a torrent of indiscriminate consumption, more force of nature than man — just bear witness to how he crams an entire burger in his mouth, or inhales a cube of Jell-O like a vacuum. He grabs anything in sight, and not all of it even makes it onto his tray. The portions are patently absurd, too; he snatches an entire bushel of bananas, slips several sandwiches in his pockets for later, and stacks plate upon plate until a heart-clogging mountain of matter waiting to be converted to anarchic energy sags before him.
The pièce de résistance: In perhaps the single most-aped joke of the entire film, Bluto packs his cheeks with mashed potato and does an unsettlingly accurate impression of a zit for a table of snobs. The slight edge of hostility in his voice when he tops it all off with “Get it?” summarizes the brilliantly stoopid, irreverent edge of the National Lampoon braintrust with just two words.
Julia’s awakening, Julie and Julia
The spread: For both Meryl Streep’s rendition of celeb chef Julia Child and Julie Powell, the young malcontent played by Amy Adams, food is life. It’s nourishment not just for the body, but for the soul, a source of gratification and meaning in a life that seems at times to be too small for their liking. On November 3, 1948, Child sat down with her husband for a meal at the reputable La Couronne in Rouen, France. The dinner she had was a revelation, introducing her to the passion and joy of good food. As if in a superhero’s origin story, Child’s latent genius for cooking was activated as she dined on buttered sole and fresh salad, beginning her quest to eat her way through France and take on haute cuisine as a weltanschauung all her own.
The pièce de résistance: The film, directed by Nora Ephron from Powell’s memoir, claims that La Couronne resides in Paris when, in actuality, the city of Rouen lends the Normandy region its capital. This is no minor detail — the area is famous for its fresh oysters, on which Streep’s Julia Child dines with almost-orgasmic ecstasy. As she slurps the mollusks, a lightbulb blinks on behind her eyes. This, it’s all been leading to this.
Griswold family dinner, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
The spread: Every facet of the Griswold family’s Yuletide festivities is marred by disaster, whether in the form of an agitated rodent living in the Christmas tree or the thousand pratfalls of Chevy Chase’s accident-prone patriarch Clark Griswold. But as they all sit down for a dinner right out of the Saturday Evening Post, they dare to hope, if only for a moment, that this might be different. Everything is perfect: The table’s been set, the centerpieces tastefully assembled, the sparkling cider poured. Everything is in its right place, but Chase seals his family’s calamitous fate when he prematurely salutes the cook on a job well done, saying, “If this turkey tastes half as good as it looks, I think we’re all in for a very big treat.”
The pièce de résistance: The turkey, of course, doesn’t taste a 16th as good as it looks. In an inspired sight gag, the turkey splits open like an alien egg sac when prodded with a carving knife, revealing a blackened interior with a puff of smoke. Clark puts a positive spin on it — “It’s a little dry!” — but the main course looks like something lost in H.R. Giger’s notebooks.
Gourmand’s foreplay, Tom Jones
The spread: Incorrigible ladies’ man Tom Jones (Albert Finney) has decided to hunker down for the night at an inn, where he can find somewhere soft to sleep and a hot dinner in this 1963 adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel. The dinner turns out to be quite a bit hotter than even he had expected, due to Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), a fair lass (and possibly Tom’s long-lost adoptive mother) who makes several lascivious advances on him through suggestive foodplay. She shows the gentle curvature of her lips as she slurps her soup, beckoningly waves a phallic chicken drumstick around her face, and extends Tom a wishbone to split between them. By the time he offers her an oyster and she slurps it down in a single gulp, the deal has been long since sealed. With a simple shot-reverse shot setup, the film conveys the original novel’s ribald, randy energy with suggestive innuendo one small step beneath actual graphic imagery.
The pièce de résistance: Mrs. Waters ratchets the seduction up to maximum heat when she turns her sights on a juicy pear and takes a heaving bite, juices running down her chin. The licentious gesture verges on outright comedy as lust takes hold of her senses and she mashes the pear into a paste in her own hand.
Sunday tradition, Eat Drink Man Woman
The spread: Ang Lee’s breakout film is all about identities in flux, transitioning between tradition and modernity, Eastern and Western lifestyles, childhood and maturity. In the midst of the tumult that change can bring, master chef Mr. Chu tries to provide a little stability and consistency for his three daughters by bringing them together for lavish family dinners every Sunday. Once he’s gotten them good and fed, it’s time for merciless parental needling about the details of their personal lives (one of the daughters playfully calls these dinners “Sunday torture chamber”) and plans for the future. It’s all worth it, if for no other reason than the mouthwatering selection of local dishes Mr. Chu whips up, from newly-scaled fish to hot-pot chicken and pork with tantalizingly fresh produce.
The pièce de résistance: The star of Mr. Chu’s little show is his steamed dumplings, painstakingly hand-crimped to perfection. They’re a potent symbol for his life, governed by finely honed routines and distinctly Asian tradition.
Right there in the title, Babette’s Feast
The spread: When food reaches a certain point of deliciousness, the language used to talk about it takes on a weirdly self-punishing diction. Really good chocolate is “sinful,” thick custards are “indulgent,” and so on and so forth. In this Danish import, an ’80s arthouse staple directed by Gabriel Axel, the ascetic family at the center of the film takes this to a literal level, casting off the bodily pleasures of good eats for fear of offending God. Mysterious house servant Babette aims to change their mind through the transformative power of a “real French dinner,” complete with judiciously selected French wine, sumptuous cakes of all shapes and sizes, and turtle soup. Everyone loves a good meal, but food so good it compels you to renounce all of the principles you held before sitting down to eat is a far more precious experience.
The pièce de résistance: Babette’s magnum opus is the cailles en sarcophage, a puff pastry filled with a rich fig sauce and truffle-and-foie-gras-stuffed escargot. Sincerest apologies to any readers whose drool just shorted out their laptop keyboard.