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Eat and Be Eaten

The joy of cooking on screen

The café was hers, and so of course it was named after her. I came upon Sissy’s late one afternoon in January of 2017, when I was young and careless and in Kamakura, Japan. I had spent the day wandering the hills (my photos are of graves, statues, the daibutsu) and had climbed up to a shrine high above the Kencho-ji, where I remember glimpsing Fuji in the distance. A trail led off into the hills, and I followed it.

Sissy was somewhere back there, on the second story of a wooden house a few steps up from the street. She was an older woman, in her late seventies, not that you could tell, and she served English Breakfast tea and Pennsylvania Dutch-style cheesecake in a homey room that could once have been her kitchen. She had a cabinet full of Alison Krauss and Tim McGraw CDs, and because I was the only one there, she put one on, and we talked about her life, her love of country-and-western music. I remember that the cake tasted of lime, the tea full-bodied and steaming, but little else. I know that I soon left, visited another temple, had another cup of tea, went on to another city with its own teas and temples and cakes. Yet because I ate there, I remember Sissy’s Café.

Proust could be set off by any number of things—a piece of music, uneven paving stones, lesbianism—but not for nothing was his great masterpiece inspired by nibbling on a tea cake. Taste complements both the singular and the routine: I remember the buttery freshness of the plate-grilled pumpkin I ate one sweltering July in Berat, Albania, as well as the soppy warmth of my mother’s enchiladas. A good meal can nourish, reward, satisfy, punish; it fixes consumption in place and time. It is a form of communication between cook and connoisseur, an exchange in which culinary knowledge and skill combine with taste and appetite to create a unique work of art. In order for the meal to be successful, it must satisfy both roles; for what good is an uneaten meal? And these roles are apt to change.

They have synthesized knowledge, experience, and pleasure into what we might call taste.

Such is the shifting, sensuous structure of Trần Anh Hùng’s film The Taste of Things, adapted from a novel by Marcel Rouff. At some point in the late nineteenth century, Eugénie and Dodin (played by one-time partners Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel) live, work, and love on a rural French estate. Theirs is a very particular relationship: known as “The Napoleon of French Cuisine,” Dodin is something between a chef and a gourmand, and for the past twenty years Eugénie has served as his cook, tending the vast vegetable gardens and cooking up the perfectly conceived meals which Dodin shares with his retinue of big-bellied bourgeois guests, a group of educated men fluent in the finer points of medicine, finance, and cuisine. They share stories of great chefs, of how even the Pope has bent over backwards in service of good wine; they wander the countryside to devour fresh ortolans. They have synthesized knowledge, experience, and pleasure into what we might call taste.

Theirs seems a life devoted entirely to culinary pleasures. The estate is an arcadia of fresh water and sunlight beaming through the treetops, a farm that produces only for its own sake. They have fine vintages, fresh fish, even ice cream, a luxurious lifestyle enabled by Dodin’s reputation. He connects cooking and dining directly with the natural world, celebrating each season for the dishes it will bring. Every day for two decades, he has planned menus, and Eugénie enacted them, a form of symbiotic communication on the basis of their shared epicurean sensibility.

It is artistry, but also work, and in an early set piece we watch as she constructs an entire meal, flowing from one task to another—mincing onions, preparing a broth, roasting a veal shank, preparing puff pastry, dousing a flatfish in milk—with the comfortably flustered ease of a master. For a time Dodin rolls up his sleeves to chop, roast, douse, and mash alongside Eugénie before suiting up to dine with his friends. Hùng designs this sequence as a series of circular movements, of work that begins in the kitchen, rises up to be consumed in the dining, and returns, reduced, ready to be eaten by Eugénie, her servant Violette, and Violette’s visiting cousin Pauline. When the gourmands come down to congratulate her, they ask when she will join them in the dining room. But how could I? she replies. If I were not in the kitchen, there would be no meal.

Eugénie defines herself, first and foremost, as a cook. Raised by a famous pastry chef but taught by her mother, her knowledge, skill, and sensibility have made her unique—in the cooking world, and in Dodin’s household. For however long they have been collaborators, co-artists, and lovers, Eugénie refuses to become the gourmand’s wife. She retains her role as servant as it allows her to assert herself, to protect her own quarters, to lock and unlock her bedroom as she pleases. She guards her powers, and the independence they grant her. One might say she’s developed a taste for it.

Every time I ride the subway I see these revolting tutorials that visualize how to cook a wide variety of “fun” foods: homemade candy, pudding pops, spaghetti pies, an omelet you make in a plastic bag. The videos are shot from above, mirroring the sped-up visual grammar of social media food content, but with a strangely grotesque twist. The kitchen surfaces are antiseptic, the ingredients so brightly colored they look inedible. In one recent video, ground-up meat is squeezed straight at the camera between someone’s forefinger and thumb, like so much waste ejected from a latex-clad anus.

These videos are as unnerving as those early AI “art” renderings where everyone has seven fingers on each hand. Yet as local New York news outlet Hellgate reported, this grotesquerie isn’t accidental: it captures our perverse interest, and holds our attention until we can be served an advertisement for the sixteenth addition to the Yellowstone cinematic universe, or a post-colonial reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew set to the Steve Aoki songbook.

You don’t have to ride the MTA to be exposed to such brutal food imagery. Everywhere on social media, we are served sumptuous dishes meant to disguise the bitter aftertaste of advertising. The joys of cooking and consuming are necessarily localized to your kitchen, your table, your order and your night out. You must taste the pleasure for yourself. But this content anonymizes and banalizes the process, moving into the province of celebrity, marketing, and interchangeable “content.”

It certainly can’t measure up to film’s sensuous culinary history. Think of Maggie Cheung filling her thermos with noodles throughout In the Mood for Love, or in Phantom Thread, when Vicky Krieps massacres a stack of buttered toast. Some films, like Juzo Itami’s delightful “ramen western” Tampopo, focus on the inimitable pleasures of dining, seeking a bright, inventive form to express the many roles food plays in our lives. Others mine the relationship between cook and consumer for pathos, even profundity. In Gabriel Axel’s 1987 adaptation of the Isak Dineson story Babette’s Feast, a pair of elderly sisters, heirs to the remote religious community founded by their late father, take on a French cook as a servant. There is a clear contrast between the ascetic pietism of Martine and Philippa, living on bread soup in remote Jutland, and the sensual Catholicism of Babette, once a great Parisian chef, but forced to flee after the collapse of the Commune.

Their communal life, like the film, is quiet, patient, and inwardly focused. Only Babette’s cooking stresses the boundaries. After fourteen years their servant, Babette wins the French lottery, a prize of ten thousand francs, and in order to thank the sisters for taking her in, she promises to cook the entire conventicle a proper French feast. As she lugs in turtles, quails, an ice block, and fine wines, the pietists grow frightened, tormented by satanic/occult visions of Catholic indulgence. When the dinner comes, they seat themselves at the table, prepared to consume the meal—but not to enjoy it.

As the dishes move from kitchen to dining room, however, the diners find themselves drawn closer to Babette’s perspective. In introducing a taste of the outside world, her cooking opens up their devotion, allows it to breathe, and accentuates the pleasures of community and companionship that brought their sect together in the first place. They leave in high spirits, ready to redouble their commitment to living harmoniously with one another. Babette dedicates herself to her craft, spending every one of her ten thousand francs on this one meal, an act of service which is also an assertion of her essential artistry. She effects a communion. In the end, piety and sensuality are two roads to the beautiful, synonymous with the divine.

Love, too, is divine, and requires equal devotion. While cooking, Eugénie has a dizzy spell and later passes out in Dodin’s arms. Her collapse shakes him, unsettling their relationship. While Eugénie recuperates, Dodin cooks her dinner. Where the preparation of the first meal depicted in the film is fluid and energetic, a packed kitchen balancing between multiple dishes, the second is nearly wordless, with Dodin in charge of the kitchen, putting all of himself into the construction and presentation of each dish. For once, he is serving her, and it pleases him greatly. Every dish he prepares, she will eat, and as he explains in a speech, she elevates even the act of chewing, swallowing, and digesting to an art form.

Their dialogue gives physical form to their love, a back-and-forth which is also its own communion. Yet even that distance collapses in the final course. For dessert, Dodin whips up a plate of cream and berries, with preserved pears and a tiny labyrinth of thin pastry sheets, in which he has hidden an engagement ring. Dished up on a plate, she can’t help but to accept. Hùng’s camera pushes in on the uneaten pear, and then cuts to Binoche’s bare body, curled up in bed, waiting for Dodin to arrive. Having consumed her share, she allows herself to be consumed.

Everything in The Taste of Things comes back to food, lending it a richly cloistered thematic cohesion. Its characters speak about revolutions and popes, deliver lessons on the history of cooking and their own pasts, and quote St. Augustine on the subjects of love and desire. Yet the outer world and its troubles don’t peek into their Arcadian idyll. Dodin toasts their engagement using a series of culinary metaphors, connecting the year’s many flavors to the seasons of their love. At several times throughout the film, the budding cook Pauline is told to commit a certain flavor to memory, even those flavors she does not care for, because over time, her palate will grow to meet them. Memory, then, is the essence of taste. And in Taste, a dish can memorialize a person, an art form, an entire era of culinary practice.

The Taste of Things insists on the relationship between cook and diner, and the bond that both form through the exchange of food, no matter how humble.

As a third-act tragedy reveals, this fantasy is also an elegy. The characters reference huge new hotels, presided over by master chefs, and are invited to a gut-bustingly incoherent meal by an indulgent prince, gesturing toward the degradation and commercialization of their passion. The art of the gourmand is centered on the menu, which strives for balance between the flavors, delivers dishes in the proper order, and respects the point-counterpoint of sweet and savory. It’s an elite view, but it rests on a foundation of deep knowledge and dignified labor, and respects both the chef’s palate and the cook’s intuitions. A mass society prizes volume, speed, and interchangeability: cheap meals delivered with the efficiency of an assembly line. In Siegfried Kracauer’s phrase, it obeys “the ideal of the machine.” Dodin’s estate will soon become an anachronism, if it has not already.

Yet for much of Hùng’s film, kitchen, farm, and estate are in harmony. Each cooking scene is bathed in a soundscape of lowing, clucking, and cooing, implying the journey from animal to flesh without a trip to the slaughterhouse. Dodin’s retinue explain the process of bleeding beef in front of a paddock of cows ready for the pot. Pans, pots, and dishes are filled with guts, livers, prawns, fish heads, bacon, veal, whole chickens stuffed with truffles. So long as everyone, from animals to servants to gourmands, fulfills their role, the whole thing holds together.

Looking on this sunlit farm, it’s tempting to imagine the veal calf happy on its way to our plates. Roasted up and drizzled with gravy, it becomes something beautiful, a work of art. The pleasure it gives us is equal to the pleasure of its brief, idyllic life. On Dodin’s estate, the natural and gustatory worlds harmonize. Such fantasies are impossible in the age of the factory farm, when our milk is full of hormones and our pigs are packed into gestation crates and animal life is reduced to raw material. Even our haughtiest restaurants rest on mountains of rotted meat, discarded and destroyed to sustain the market. And whatever the passions of genuine gourmets, high cuisine is also the domain of the vulgar, violent, and wealthy—the gangs of commercial criminals who can afford their escalating price tags.

No wonder Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover situates the social rot of Thatcherite prosperity inside of the high class French restaurant Le Hollandais. Albert, a gangster played by Michael Gambon, wastes great quantities of money on fresh fish and prime cuts of beef, and then leaves them to rot in the parking lot. He browbeats social inferiors who fail to appreciate cuisine that he can barely taste. And he only begins frequenting Hollandais because he owns it, as if capable of purchasing his way to prestige, culture, respect. His fortune rests on a mountain of corpses, so why not his cuisine? In Greenaway’s film, the cook is impotent, the consumer all-powerful, the meal a work of art that turns inevitably to shit. No wonder they all spend so much time in the bathroom.

Albert is a thug, but his racism has its own elite pedigree. When he declares Indian food unclean, he regurgitates the opinions of countless prior gourmands who refuse to see the value in unfamiliar, “lowbrow” cuisines, who conflate cost with value, so long as their dinner contains the proper cultural signifiers. Contemporary food media has—publicly—turned against this kind of cultural chauvinism, prizing creativity, curiosity, and thrift. Yet it often remains deeply invested in the meal as little more than a commodity. Major cities are awash in expensive dining “experiences,” which allow diners to recreate experiences they’ve already consumed on TikTok. Fad diets and cooking trends reduce our everyday culinary lives into a series of tropes and memes, so that we can only eat dinner once it becomes #GirlDinner, we can only bulk with other men who are #bulking. This food is omnipresent, accessible, and flavorless.

For all of its Gallic snootiness about fine dining and mass culture, Taste insists on the relationship between cook and diner, and the bond that both form through the exchange of food, no matter how humble. In the final act, a mourning Dodin teaches Pauline how to make a pot-au-feu, a peasant dish of boiled beef with vegetables. The point is not to pretend or affect, to advertise or market or distract. The point is to cook, and cook well, to let flavor be its own reward. The film ends with a tribute to Ugetsu, a rotating camera pan that returns the dead to life. For a spell, Hùng resurrects a world that he cannot really bring back.

For we are unavoidably in this world, subject to disease, war, and the flow of commerce. Even the slice of cheesecake I ate on that winter afternoon was itself a product of the twentieth century. Sissy had visited the American West twice—California and Arizona and Las Vegas—and had decorated her shop with watercolors of dusty main streets and Plains Indians. She learned the recipe at a cooking school in the 1980s, and for twenty-five years she served it in this temple town which had once been the capital of a feudal empire. And then one day a young American came through her doors, had a slice, spoke a little, and moved on.

At one point in the first year of the pandemic, I looked Kamakura up on Google Maps, and searched for Sissy’s Café. It had permanently closed.