I’ll have what she’s having: a look at food in rom coms
Allow me to the set the scene. Katz’s Deli is filled with diners enjoying their corned beef and pickles, sipping on Coca-Cola and discussing 80’s politics in heavy New York accents. The busy diner quiets down to an astonished hush as Meg Ryan’s Sally loudly re-enacts her bedroom noises for all to witness. Mouths drop, men smile, and that famous line is said with perfect comedic timing and delivery: “I’ll have what she’s having.” Thank you, Nora Ephron, thank you.
From “When Harry Met Sally” to “Bridget Jones” to “Pretty Woman” to “Clueless,” food plays a defining role in establishing the relationships between characters and creating a timeline from first-date jitters to the breakup blues, from hot and heavy to sad and weepy, food can create romance and heartbreak in a film.
I am not talking about those food-centered rom-coms (As in “Julie and Julia,” “Waitress” and “No Reservations”), I am talking about your run of the mill romantic comedy. The ones probably featuring Katherine Heigl or Julia Roberts, depending on the decade, and most likely Hugh Grant or a younger replacement. The same basic structure exists throughout these kind of films surrounding food: First it’s the cute coffee date, followed by their first dinner together at a fancy restaurant (French or Italian), then comes the happy, dating montage which includes eating pizza while walking down the sidewalk at night, playfully feeding each other cotton candy on the pier, seductively baking brownies, tossing popcorn at the movies, etc.
This montage is usually succeeded by the breakup scene, which can differ slightly based on the tone of the movie –– usually it has to do with another woman, a lie gone too far, or the female lead must choose between her success or her love life. The breakup scene invariably results in the post-breakup scene in which the female character can be found helplessly binge-eating junk food on the couch watching a sappy movie surrounded by candy wrappers, tissues and empty wine bottles. After the post-breakup scene, the characters typically get back together and live happily ever after ... wedding cake anyone?
Think of “Lady and the Tramp,” where that spaghetti scene has inspired many brave couples to try pasta kisses all over the world. How about Elle Woods stuffing her face with chocolate in “Legally Blonde” after Warner breaks up with her, a pathetically honest reaction to a bad split? Look at the evident romance and sexual tension in “Pretty Woman” as Richard Gere offers Julia Roberts a strawberry with her champagne. Did you ever notice in “Clueless” how Alicia Silverstone's Cher and Paul Rudd’s Josh flirted over carrot sticks and pretzels on the couch? Is it a coincidence that their transition from sorta-siblings to full on lovers is told through their snacking habits? I think not. All of these scenes provide the viewer with an incredible amount of insight into the state of the relationship. Whether a prelude to a steamy sex scene or a mascara covered pillow and takeout for one, food in rom-coms plays a more crucial role than you may think.
Post-breakup scenes in romantic comedies are notorious for their use of chocolate and ice cream to define the sad woman’s state of mind. Put aside the portrayal of women as weak and helpless after a man breaks up with them, that’s an entirely different article. Still, the female lead tends to turn to food in times of romantic uncertainty or hardship.
The queen of rom-coms herself, her majesty Bridget Jones said it best: "I’m enjoying a relationship with two men simultaneously. The first is called Ben, the other, Jerry." Ice cream, chocolate, Doritos, Chinese food, and now I’m getting hungry. Junk food is always there for our lonely heroines even when men are not. After all, “If someone breaks your heart , punch them in the face , seriously punch them in the face and go get some ice cream.” Thank you, Frank Ocean, thank you.
Food is as crucial an element in romantic comedies as any Beach Boys song or promoting unrealistic expectations of love. Through food, we can better grasp the foundation on which the characters build their relationship. Friends do not share milkshakes, friends do not feed each other chocolate covered strawberries. There is something informative, and sometimes sensual, about the way we view food, especially within the framework of relationships. By looking at romantic comedies through a food lens, we can better understand the way relationships develop on screen.