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Book Reviews

Gaye Poole, Reel Meals, Set Meals: Food in Film and Theatre, with foreword by Alan Saunders, published in 1999 by Currency Press, Australia. ISBN 0 86819 578 2.

About the author:

Gaye Poole is an Australian researcher, teacher and writer currently working at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. She has been a successful theatre and television actor performing in Hamlet, Equus, Butterflies are Free and many other productions. She visited Poland in 2000 and was a keynote speaker at the conference Viands, Wines, and Spirits. Nourishment and (In)Digestion in the Culture of Literacy, organised by the Institute of British and American Culture and Literature, University of Silesia. In the academic year 2001/2 she taught at the University of £ódŸ.


For an exclusive interview with Gaye Poole click here.


This book review has been written by Dr Anna Tomczak, who teaches British Studies at the University of Bialystok and is a regular contributor to our web pages.


Probably nobody would still claim that ‘food is just about eating’. In the era of various eating disorders, with anorexia and bulimia discussed in many a popular magazine, and a growing obsession with dieting and counting calories, in the consumer age when the contents of food packets are taken seriously and read studiously, the subject of food has gained special significance. It may seem that there is nothing novel in this situation. Food has been of great interest to anthropologists, sociologists and semiologists for many years. Over the decades special focus has been placed on such aspects as: taste as a reflection of social and cultural patterns and the cultural shaping of food preferences (Claude Levi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Mary Douglas and Margaret Mead); the social significance of commensality or food as a reflection of social relations; relations for example of hierarchy and power (Bronis³aw Malinowski and Audrey Richards); ceremonial uses of food in religion; the development of table manners (Norbert Elias and Levi-Strauss); changes in the symbolic meaning of food (David Riesman, Roland Barthes), to name but a few.


Food is seen by scholars as a means of expressing group identity and as a reflection of relationships with other groups. Patterns of food consumption are indicative of ethnicity, class, gender and age. Food may also be viewed with reference to such issues as health, economy, hygiene, nutritional trends, technological progress, family structure and the aesthetics of physique (greatly influenced by fashion). However, food has also become a centrepiece of many mundane conversations had by ordinary, humble folk. Is genetically modified food safe? Will the quality of Polish food deteriorate once we become a member state of the European Union? Which is better for your cholesterol level – butter or margarine? Are tomatoes sold in supermarkets still tomatoes or only chemistry?


People’s first associations are to regard food as nourishment, not necessarily physical. The English language is rich in metaphors suggestive of the figurative meaning of food. We may talk of ‘food for thought’ or being ‘hungry for someone’s love’. People can ‘devour books’ or be ‘starved of sleep’. Such idioms as ‘eating humble pie’, ‘eating out of someone’s hand’ or a ‘dog-eat-dog situation’ do not concern the physical nourishment of the body;  although originating in the phraseology of consumption, they concern far deeper aspects of human behaviour than merely satisfying hunger. Food is an aspect of culture and as such it reflects cultural identities: identities of gender, nation, ethnic group or religious community.


The meanings attached to eating habits, table manners and food choices vary. They are conditioned by time-specific and culture-specific attitudes, which are also a matter of taste, upbringing and fashion. If one takes into account human attitudes to fasting, it is clear that fasting acquires a different significance in Muslim communities than in the Christian religion. The value of fasting in the sense of depriving oneself of food, or a denial of certain foods, is not uniform. A teenage girl who reduces her intake of food or removes from her diet such snacks which she enjoys but considers calorie-rich, formally exercises an attitude of fasting. Her motives, however, are very different from those of Islamic societies during Ramadan. So if her objective in dieting is to lose weight and look beautiful (which springs from vanity), if her fasting stems from a self-centred desire to outshine her peers, does it lessen the value of her fasting? Does it make her a less admirable or praiseworthy person than a medieval hermit living on locusts and honey? Both practise self-denial, both deprive their bodies of food; for different reasons, though. The answers to the above questions would depend on who is answering and when. Human attitudes to food and eating in western culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century do not bear much resemblance to attitudes a few centuries earlier. What holds equally true, however, for society in medieval Europe, contemporary America or ancient China is that food’s function is not only satisfying hunger. There are deep meanings attached to food, meanings dependent on time and place, meanings which are constructed and decoded through cultural patterns.


Decoding such meanings is the subject of Gaye Poole’s book Reel Meals, Set Meals: Food in Film and Theatre. As the note on the book cover informs the reader: “Food has always been essential to the theatre and the cinema. A catalyst which brings people together it can be used for dramatic confrontation, as a comic device or even a metaphor for the meaning of life. (...) [F]ood is a perfect vehicle for expressing the subject in drama and comedy and for revealing intricate aspects about class, emotional states or gender.”

The book is divided into eighteen chapters focusing on different uses of food in the film and theatre. The subjects range from etiquette, civility and table manners to food taboos, cannibalism and sex, with many an aspect in between (e.g. eating in restaurants, food as a class marker, or women and food obsessions). Each subject is discussed in detail and supported with quotations from various interviews with actors and directors, film reviews and illustrations in the form of film stills. There are over forty plays examined, from Aristophanes and Seneca, through Marlowe and Shakespeare, to Patrick White and David Hare; and more than a hundred films. The earliest films discussed are two 1914 films directed by Charlie Chaplin: Caught in a Cabaret and Dough and Dynamite, the most recent – films made in the nineties such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence or Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies.


The book has been written by an Australian scholar and researcher and as well as discussing world famous movies it also contains a lot of valuable information about Australian film and theatre, less known to Polish readers. This is the book’s strength. The reader will not only be able to recall famous food scenes from such classics as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, all of which were immensely popular in Poland, but will get a chance to learn about some specific Australian customs, for example, ‘the great outback Aussie barbecue’, or the belief that rabbit meat is synonymous with a poor man’s meal. The reader will also get to know the stories of many successful Australian movies. When necessary the scene is set with a brief summary of the plot, so that examining a particular function of food in the film is never obscure to the person who has not seen the movie.


Gaye Poole, who teaches at the University of New South Wales, has had a career as an actor, which explains why the book contains so much insider’s knowledge – the knowledge, for example, of logistical difficulties for the actors and the director that bringing food onto the stage may create. When to chew, how to time the lines, how to observe turn-taking in live theatre, is the food on stage real, what happens if the audience is supposed to share the food with the actors – such questions are answered in the chapter “Feeding the actors, feeding the audience”. The author’s background also explains the meticulous attention paid to credits. Each photograph in the book is accompanied by a detailed caption stating not only the title of the film and the director’s name but the names of all the actors seen in the still, the names of the characters that they are playing and the name of the photographer. This, among other important aspects, makes the book a reliable academic source. It has been well researched and the quoted sources range from extremely influential titles, such as Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, Claude Levi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind and The Raw and the Cooked or Norbert Elias’s The Civilising Process and eminent scholars (Erving Goffman, Elizabeth Grosz and Julia Kristeva) to directors’ own memories (e.g. Woody Allen).


The reader who happens to be a cinema-goer will find pleasure in recalling particular memorable scenes from different movies – Roxanne’s twenty-first birthday barbecue party in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, Nicola covered in Nutella chocolate paste in Life is Sweet (also directed by Mike Leigh), the coffee shop scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or the communal meal after the raising of the barn in Peter Weir’s Witness. The book helps to see some of these best remembered scenes in a new light. It also makes the reader more sensitive to the hidden meanings that one’s choice of food may reveal.


So when you start wondering what to order at a restaurant, remember what Brillat-Savarin wrote in his 1825 treatise: “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” (Poole 1999: 1).


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