From Leonardo da Vinci to Shigeru Miyamoto: The Many Messages of Food in Our Media.

Food speaks a universal language, but it seems to be one that is criminally underutilized.

When it is used, it’s often as set dressing, as a punctuation for larger cultural commentary. Think of Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1498

The focus of this image is clearly the individuals in dispute, and that’s certainly what most seem to key in on. But the food here is always what grabs me- look at those small portions, so evenly distributed around the table. Look at Jesus’ empty plate, and how it looks like none of the food has been touched. Without any knowledge of Christian mythology, you can infer that these people are living in a time of restricted resources. You would assume, in such a case, that they would take advantage of the food before them, yet their hunger seems secondary to the matter at hand. Despite sharing such a small portion of the frame, the food in this iconic image is just as important to telling its story as the figures who dominate it.

Still Life With Mangoes And Hibiscus, Paul Gauguin, 1887

Now consider the still-life, far on the other end of the spectrum. This is the most common visual representation of food- static, isolated, singularly in focus. The elements emphasized here are texture, color, gradient. By manipulating these things, an artist can evoke a range of emotions. In this piece by Paul Gauguin, there is an undeniable melancholy present in spite of a plate overflowing with produce. Is it the drooping flower, the muddled colors of the table? Yet there’s hope there also, I think.

Take any drawing or painting class and the first thing to master is fruit in a basket. The easy answer for why is that these are simple shapes that the least trained eye can still distinguish when poorly rendered- but the endurance of the subject hints at a primal universality beneath that colorful skin. What’s more, a good artist learns to tell a story even with these basic tools. It’s training, in the same way that a writing class may force a would-be novelist to craft a haiku or a sonnet.

My mother, 2003. This cake tasted a lot better than it looked, trust me.

We feel emotions about food whether we want to or not, and that makes it a powerful symbol.

I never knew just how important cooking was to my family until I spent time with one that never cooked at all. As a child I wasn’t in the kitchen much -I was too busy playing StarFox 64- but as an adult I find it hard to bite my tongue when someone is chopping onions wrong, or doesn’t know how to handle raw meat, or decides that the only seasoning chicken needs is salt.

Cooking wasn’t taught to me- I learned it through osmosis.

As a result, cooking feels less like a task than it does a ritual -something rehearsed, performed through muscle memory. If someone asks why, the answer is, “Because this is how it’s done.” It’s a ritual that is, for me, one of the only ways I have left of channeling the memory of my mother, now dead nearly seven years. So much of her has faded from my mind- but when I’m preparing a meal, I am performing her motions, summoning her instincts. Though I know writing and film so well, it’s only through cooking that I feel confident in paying tribute to her memory

from Tampopo, Juzo Itami, 1985

Some of my favorite films are those that explore the many relationships we have with food. Take Tampopo, the 1985 “ramen western” by Juzo Itami, in which an aspiring ramen maker with an awful taste must assemble a ragtag group of food enthusiasts to teach her what goes into making good ramen.

The answer, as is so often the case in this kind of fable, isn’t just in the ingredients- it’s in the soul of the art itself. Making ramen, we’re told, is a zen performance whose quality is assessed by the humility and devotion of the cook. In Tampopo’s opening scene, an older gentleman attempts to teach a young man the correct way to eat ramen, which consists mostly of paying respect to its various ingredients as well as to the universe itself, which saw fit to produce such a meal. The scene is played for laughs, but there is a truth in its absurdity- how often do we lose sight of the miracle that is food in our rush to consume it?

from Ratatouille, Brad Bird, 2007

In highlighting the process, films like Julie & Julia, Still Walking, Ratatouille, and yes, Tampopo, force us to absorb the motions and the textures of the ingredients, the flow of a recipe, the world it was born from, the people it was meant to appease. The image most often conjured is one of class, of a type of person that a food is associated with. Hell, Ratatouille’s emotional climax relies on a harsh food critic rediscovering his love of food by way of a “peasant’s dish.” A dialogue-free scene in which a poor family prepares food, intercut with a rich family preparing food, has the potential to tell us more in minutes than any novel could ever dare to attempt.

Chicken and Cherries: An Incomplete History of Food in Games.

from Castlevania, Hitoshi Akamatsu, 1988

In other mediums, food is a subject of study. In video games, it becomes an objective.

In the earliest games, the easiest shorthand for a good pickup was food- the cherries in Pac-Man, the chicken in Castlevania. This is so ingrained that even today, virtually all health pickups are either food or “med packs” of some variety, highlighting an unquestioned assumption that food can and often does bring us back from the verge of death. In Castlevania, one feels Simon Belmont’s relief and renewed hope upon finding a bit of food in the walls, perhaps the only difference between making it through Dracula’s castle and dying right then and there.

from “Cooking with Iron Golem,” Dig Build Live, 2013

However, Castlevania’s “wall chicken” has long troubled players with questions about who cooked it and put it behind that wall, and how Simon doesn’t get sick from eating it. While this particular grievance is rarely put forward as anything more than a light-hearted jab at the necessary contrivances of video games, it’s impossible to ignore how that simple question has influenced the industry.

Today, games like Minecraft and ARK: Survival Evolved give you only the ingredients. You can still eat a raw chicken breast in Minecraft, but its effects will be greatly diminished, and you run the risk of getting poisoned. Cooking it takes a bit of time, but the reward is a fuller stomach, which heals you faster. This system, now widely implemented in a number of survival-based games, is mostly a nod to the realism of that game’s scenario- but I think it says a great deal more about the medium of games than some realize.

from Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto, 1996 -sourced from this article by Mooglepie

Raw chicken, sugar cane, wheat- these things aren’t food, they are elements emergent from the world. It is only through the application of human ingenuity that these things become truly useful to us. Where paintings show us the story of a moment, and films highlight the process, games put us in a position to both value the scarcity of the materials as well as wonder at the strange improbability of a cake’s existence. When a game like Super Mario 64 promises you cake at the end, it’s equating the dozens of hours spent gathering its 120 stars with the effort it takes to bake a cake. Imagine if Princess Peach promised, instead, a few chicken breasts and a stalk of broccoli. Not as enticing, is it?

In contrast there is Portal, a game about solving puzzles and being harassed by a saucy AI overlord named GLaDOS. Throughout your journey into Aperture’s test chambers, you are made the same promise that Peach made to Mario. But, as we all know, this cake turned out to be a fabrication.

from Portal, Valve Corp, 2007

That joke- “the cake is a lie” -is a perfect one-line summary of Portal’s central conflict. The least trustworthy force in the game keeps promising us that cake, while the only other human we know of insists through writing that there is nothing waiting at the end of the line. Yet we wonder, still, who is telling the truth. At the end of the credits we see the promised dessert after all, deep beneath the halls of Aperture, and we are forced to watch as its single candle is snuffed out by a robotic claw. By attempting to kill GLaDOS and escaping Aperture, presumably to live out your days in the real world, you’ve given up access to the one truly human thing left in that otherwise wholly mechanical compound. The outside world turns out to be obliterated, and survival probably borders on the impossible. As GLaDOS puts out that single candle, her statement is clear: you may survive in this world, but you’ll never again know the decadence of a slice of cake.

Here we have wildly different games with the same driving promise, silently assuring you that learning how to play a game -keeping up with its difficulty curve, mastering its mechanics, solving the many problems it presents to you- is very much like the ritual of baking. After all, your success depends very much on the time and care you put into learning the rules. Getting through the final levels in both Mario 64 and Portal can be a zen-like experience, a mixture of muscle memory and improvisation, a culmination of all the right ingredients finely measured. But the difference is clear: Mario 64 assures you that with enough time and practice, your efforts will pay off; Portal instead pulls the rug out from under you and insists that what you want will always be out of reach -but that you will always keep trying anyway, a lesson that is maybe more cynical but certainly more realistic.

I mean, the cake may be a lie- but the promise is still real enough to keep you from giving up, isn’t it?

Pokemon Stadium, Takao Shimizu, 1999

A Short Missive On The Mystery of Sushi.

I was ten years old when Pokemon Stadium came out on the Nintendo 64. I was, like most kids my age, obsessed with catching them all. When I went through my remaining Pokemon card collection recently to keep the precious few I couldn’t part with (and give the remaining hundreds to my nephews and niece, just as obsessed as I was at their age), I remembered just how much I would study the pictures of Pokemon. Especially the 3D rendered ones.

I wanted so desperately for these creatures to exist in the real world, to see them in motion. No surprise, then, that I grabbed -or, rather, frequently and loudly insisted that my parents grab- every N64 Pokemon game that came out. In hindsight, these games were middle-of-the-road at best, but Stadium contains a collection of nine mini-games that I played so much, their every rhythm is burned into my mind. But one of those games in particular has always stood out to me- “Sushi-Go-Round.”

I remember this mini-game not because it was especially fun -in fact, it was one of my least favorites because I had no idea what I was looking at! My thoroughly Midwestern upbringing assured that I wouldn’t have a clue about sushi (or most international cuisine) for many years to come, despite its nonchalant presence in most of the imported Saturday morning cartoons I watched. For those familiar with this kind of food, the distribution of points likely makes as much sense as a McDonald’s burger being worth a quarter as much as a fancy steak- but for a cloistered American kid, that point chart was my only reference, and it made no sense to me. As result, “Sushi-Go-Round” was likely to make me quit the game if it came up in the rotation.

Ebi

Some years later, when I ventured out into the real world and a real sushi place, I ordered something completely random off the menu- and when they presented me with something remarkably similar to a piece of sushi from Stadium, I nearly lost my mind. I never realized how big a question it was -or that it even was a question- until I had the answer shoved in my face. And this turned out to be a gateway drug for me. At the time, I was picky enough of an eater to need strong-arming to visit the sushi place. But once I realized that I had a personal connection, branded into my subconscious, I felt a familiar compulsion to try it all. What started as me skipping a meal of frozen taquitos turned into the first chapter of my long love affair with international cuisine. It was then that I discovered that Arlington, Texas -where I lived in high school- is home to a tremendous Vietnamese population and, as such, quite a few Vietnamese restaurants. It’s strange to think that, had it not been for that one mini-game, I may have missed out on some of the best food I’ve ever had.

from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams, 2015

Food does something to us.

In the The Force Awakens, a decent chunk of time is spent setting up the squalor that Rey, our protagonist, calls home. We see what she does for a living, we see where she lives, how she behaves- and when she scratches a new line into a wall scored by hundreds of them, we get some sense of what her hopes for the future are. But it isn’t until the moment when she makes her dinner that we really feel her situation. Green powder and water are put together in a tin, mixed by Rey’s finger, until a vomit-emerald muffin inflates from the mixture. You can taste it, can’t you, just from thinking about it? Stale and soggy, aggressively bland. There’s no indication that any other food exists on the desert world of Jakku. For every day that those carved lines represent, Rey has eaten this, and only this. That’s when you cannot help but think, “Oh, this poor girl.”

from Daisies, Vera Chytilova, 1966

Whether we think of food as art, whether we ever consider the cultural boundaries it frequently outlines for us, whether we ponder what it means or how it’s made, the undeniable truth is that it’s among the most powerful images any artist can deploy in their work. It speaks to us in the language of survival, of taste, of class, of hope. If you want proof, look no further than Daisies, the 1966 Czech New Wave film by Vera Chytilova. Its climax -in which the protagonists systematically demolish a tremendous feast one dish at a time for nearly fifteen minutes- got its director banned from making films in Czechoslovakia until 1975.

Food is visceral. Food is sudden. It’s a part of us we can never escape, whether we love it or hate it. No wonder that, in unfamiliar stories, food is the first thing we look to to tell us everything we need to know.

Another of my mom’s cakes.