Bite me

5 April 2010

This post is about food and sex, but it’s really going to be about the similarities/ differences between “Tampopo” and “True Blood” — it just takes me a while to get there.

Can we be any more screwed up about food?  Lady Gaga recently pronounced that “pop stars don’t eat” (it may be true, though it’s a dangerous comment to make to today’s anorexic teenagers), but Americans certainly do eat, as witnessed by all our TV shows about The Biggest Losers.  The Onion has a t-shirt that says, “I Wish Someone Would Do Something About How Fat I Am.”

Despite our screwed-upness, we still make strong associations between food and sex.  Witness how much the Food Network has sexed up its hosts.  It offers a wide range of versions of male hosts to appeal to its viewers — tending toward macho bravado in some cases (witness the debonair yet dude-like Tyler Florence), or grubby nature child/working-class Brit (Jamie Oliver, much more to my liking).  I learned today that each of these men has an enormous, rabidly attentive audience of fans.  To seal the deal, the channel now features a show with an eminently happy married couple, Pat and Gina Neely, who canoodle and engage in sexual innuendo while cooking together.  But the, em, cherry on top of the pile is Giada de Laurentiis (granddaughter of the director), who cooks Italian food — but who’s paying attention to the food when her beautiful breasts have been laid out for our viewing during most of the show.  They’re far more appetizing.

If the marriage of food and sex on the small screen is strong, overall we’re just not in the place we were in the 80s & 90s, when a whole spate of films appeared celebrating their close connection.  “Eat Drink Man Woman” (and its American remakes, “Tortilla Soup” and “Soul Food”), “Like Water for Chocolate,” and “Chocolat” all welcomed us to foodie heaven with the promise that with it came a new kind of sexual liberation.  There were other foodie films too (“Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night”) and other films that used food during sex (“9 1/2 Weeks”), but they tended to emphasize one more than the other.

The king of the food/sex films, however, was “Tampopo” (1985), which styled itself the first Japanese noodle western — but while it riffed on the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns of the 60s, it was a different beast altogether (first of all, it was actually about noodles).  It was mostly the story of a world-weary trucker and his young sidekick, Goro and Gun, who get enlisted by the timid woman owner of a sorry-ass noodle shop to teach her how to make a better bowl of ramen.  Tampopo (“Dandelion”) is distraught:  her soup is awful, the noodles flavorless, her customers are dwindling.  Goro strokes his chin philosophically (brilliant reference to Toshiro Mifune) and takes on the job, taking her to visit the masters of the art throughout Japan:  king of the noodle makers here, master of broth there, all of whom gradually transform her into a ramen queen (and along the way a sweet romance between Goro and Tampopo begins to flower).

Interspersed with the Goro/Tampopo tale are a series of unrelated meditations on food and sex — the crazily silly sex scenes between the gangster and his moll, an etiquette class of girls who insist on slurping as noisily as possible, and best of all, the ritual instruction in how to eat a bowl of ramen.  As a result, you left the theater hungry, horny, and yet somehow utterly satisfied:

In reviewing this film, I can’t help but think about its similarities to “True Blood” (as promised!).  That latter show, too, is a wide-ranging amalgam of genres (Southern gothic, anti-discrimination, vampire film, camp), playing perversely with each of them.  The sex in “True Blood” gets as close to porn as possible, then veers off into romance or utter absurdity, usually when Sookie Stackhouse’s brother Jason appears.  Critics make much of the show’s sex, but I think it’s profoundly about food and sex, bringing out the themes of appetite and hunger and the orality of sex (when vampires get turned on/hungry, their fangs appear like reverse erections).  It’s an odd throwback to the food/sex obsession of an earlier generation of filmmakers, and I think reflects a lot of our current-day schizophrenic attitudes toward both.  Somehow, you don’t finish an episode of “True Blood” thinking about your next meal.