If you’re getting ready to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with friends or family, you may want to work up an appetite beforehand. In that spirit, we’ve come up with a list of movie scenes (in no particular order) that always seem to make our mouths water and our stomachs grumble. Some of them are from films explicitly about food and cooking, others are isolated scenes that stand out for the way they showcase a special dish or feast. All of them have something to say about the connection between food, family, comfort, and love. Get your taste buds ready for an international tour of dishes and delights from some of our favorite movies.
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Food plays an important part in Italian culture, so it’s no surprise that it plays an important part in movies centered around Italian characters. It’s right there in one of The Godfather’s most iconic quotes: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” And in the prison cooking routine in Goodfellas (which almost made this list). But when it comes to centering the Italian-American love affair with food, few movies do it better than Big Night. This taut drama about two brothers (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who own a restaurant together takes place mostly over the course of a single night, as their relationship is pushed to the brink. What eventually binds them together, of course, is food. Watching them make and serve their specialty, il timpano, is enough to have you reaching for the takeout menu for your own favorite local Italian place.
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Sticking with Italy, it’s the first stop on Elizabeth Gilbert’s tour of self-discovery in the film adaptation of her memoir Eat Pray Love. As Julia Roberts, playing Liz, tucks into a cheesy slice of pizza margherita in Napoli she declares: “I’m in love. I’m having a relationship with my pizza.” Maybe she’s missing a step in the title, but as far as we’re concerned they could have ended the movie right there and we’d be good. The scene gets better, though. When her companion resists the pizza because she’s worried about her figure, Julia lectures her about the pointlessness of missing out on the culinary delights of the world for men who don’t even care once they get you naked. “I’m just through with the guilt,” she says. Yes, you read that right. Julia Roberts just gave you permission to eat an entire pizza all by yourself.
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If you saw this film as a kid, the memory of this scene is probably still rattling around in your brain somewhere. Julia Roberts (as Tinkerbell this time) reminds us once again to eat to our heart’s content in this magical scene from Hook. Steven Spielberg’s fantasy adventure stars Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan who travels back to Neverland when Capt. Hook (Dustin Hoffman, camping it up) kidnaps his kids. The problem is he’s forgotten everything about being Peter Pan. This scene comes after he’s reunited with the Lost Boys, who try to teach him how to be a kid again. They serve him a meal of empty dishes and pantomime scarfing it all down (the young actors clearly had fun with this game), until Peter wins an insult duel and flicks an empty spoon at Rufio (Ru-fi-oh!) from across the table. Suddenly, thanks to the power of imagination, all the food becomes deliciously real. And suddenly we desperately want to join in the festivities.
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Director Guillermo del Toro sets quite a scene in his acclaimed 2006 dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, about a young girl named Ofelia who longs to escape her troubled home life in the years following the Spanish Civil War. When a magical faun sends her into the lair of a creature called the Pale Man to retrieve a dagger she encounters him seated motionless in front of a table laid with a tempting feast. It’s no coincidence; the food is a trap to lure in unsuspecting children so he can devour them. One bite of anything, like the juicy grape that Ofelia can’t resist, wakes up the creature in anticipation of his own feast. To be fair to Ofelia, it all looks so good we don’t think we’d pass that test either.
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This scene from Parasite is somehow hilarious and super intense at the same time, but the feeling that tends to stick with us afterwards is a craving for ram-don (or jjapaguri, as it’s more commonly known), the dish specially requested by the Park’s young son. When the wealthy Park family calls with the news that they’re cutting their holiday short, the Kims have to scramble to vacate their luxurious home after making themselves comfortable in the family’s absence. What exactly is ram-don? Not even Mrs. Kim knows, and she has to figure out how to make it, fast. We find out, along with her, that it’s a combination of cheap instant noodles and expensive cubed sirloin steak. A lot has already been written about the symbolism of the dish, and how it illustrates the film’s theme of class stratification, so we’ll just leave you with the mental image of yummy-looking steak and noodles.
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Speaking of noodles, you can’t make a list about food and movies without including Tampopo. This Japanese-language “ramen Western” (as opposed to a spaghetti Western, get it?) explores our relationships with food from many points of view. Framed by a plot about a widow revitalizing her ramen shop with the help of a pair of knowledgeable truckers (played by Tsutomu Yamazaki and Ken Watanabe) it weaves in short, mostly unrelated vignettes centered around the theme of food. With so many great scenes to choose from, it’s hard to single out one that made us especially hungry, but it ultimately came down to this lesson about ramen, which might just change the way you see (and eat!) the popular Japanese noodle soup forever.
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The only person who might love an aspirational kitchen more than Nancy Meyers is Hayao Miyazaki. His Studio Ghibli animated features have the most beautiful, lived-in cooking spaces you’ve ever seen. One of the best can be found inside Howl’s Moving Castle, complete with an open hearth that’s home to a cranky fire demon named Calcifer. Sophie (who’s an old woman at this point in the story), with the help of young wizard’s apprentice Markl, and eventually Howl himself, cooks up a sizzling breakfast of bacon and eggs on a cast iron skillet. The way the thick bacon and frying eggs are drawn, the way they sizzle in the pan, even the eggshells Calcifer gobbles down, it’s all a splendid treat for the senses.
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Though it’s not a food movie by any stretch, Twister has a terrific food scene inserted right in the middle of the action. It’s kind of like being in the eye of the storm, or maybe a smaller storm inside a big one. When Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) and her crew of storm chasers (including Bill Paxton, Alan Ruck, and Philip Seymour Hoffman) take a break to visit her Aunt Meg’s (Lois Smith) nearby farmhouse, Meg cooks them up a hearty farm-to-table meal of steak, eggs, potatoes, and her famous gravy. The way they loudly gather around the table, laughing and telling stories, just reinforces the idea of the team as a family—and there’s nothing like food to bring a family together.
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Maybe Julie & Julia came to mind because of the recent passing of the real Julie Powell at age 49, who inspired the story with her blog chronicling her attempts at Julia Child’s famous recipes. Or maybe we would have put it on here anyway, because when it comes to movies about the joy of cooking and eating, this one has to be near the top. Although there are literally enough tantalizing dishes in this movie to fill a cookbook, it came down to the simplicity of the bruschetta Julie (Amy Adams) cooks and shares with her husband (Chris Messina) as the idea for her blog comes together. The scene is essential to the plot, obviously, but that golden toasted bread piled with fresh tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil is the really important and memorable thing here.
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Another instance of finding joy in simplicity is this cooking lesson from Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers. The mothers in the title are Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), who meet in the maternity ward after giving birth to their daughters at the same time. Though separated by age and class, they stay connected throughout the film. Janis even teaches Ana how to properly cook a common Spanish dish called tortilla (a mixture of potatoes and eggs that’s kind of like a thick omelet and has nothing to do with the Mexican corn or flour tortillas Americans are more familiar with). Tortilla is a staple of Spanish cuisine, and Ana not knowing how to make it is a sign of how disconnected she is to her own culture. Watching Penolepe Cruz precisely cut the potatoes and fry them in a pan with eggs and olive oil to a glistening golden brown might make you want to try it yourself.
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For those who enjoy watching the cooking process from beginning to end, the opening sequence from Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman follows a retired master chef preparing a traditional Taiwanese meal for his three daughters, from the selection of a live fish and chicken to the final plating. Each movement is precise and performed with care as he chops, boils, steams, fills, and fries. The scene took a week to film and involved an entire team of chefs and assistants standing in for the actor to make it look like the work of one man. It was worth it, not just as an ode to the concept of food as an expression of love (which it is), but as a master class in the art of traditional meal preparation.
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Preparing food as an expression of love also comes up in the 2016 Oscar winner Moonlight. It follows a boy named Chiron (played at different stages of his life by Alex Hibbert, Trevante Rhodes, and Ashton Sanders) as he struggles with his sexual identity, emotional abuse, and bullying while growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood. Near the end of the film, Chiron returns to his hometown as an adult and reconnects with his childhood friend Kevin, who works in a diner. Kevin cooks him pollo a la plancha, a Cuban dish of grilled chicken, rice, and beans. The considerate, healing gesture itself is almost more important than the food, but the meal looks pretty good too.
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After years of working on blockbuster franchises in Hollywood, Jon Favreau returned to his indie roots by writing, directing and starring in this sweet foodie drama. As the title Chef implies, he plays a chef who gets fed up with making generic meals for the masses and nitpicking critics and leaves the restaurant world behind to cook on his own terms (the parallel isn’t hard to see). In this scene, Favreau’s character Carl and his friend Martin (John Leguizamo), show Carl’s son Percy (Emjay Anthony) how to make Cuban sandwiches inside their food truck. It’s a nice bonding experience for father and son that will leave you craving a perfectly pressed Cubano.
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Food and family, fathers and sons—these concepts are inseparable in the documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. It’s a dreamy portrait of master sushi chef Jiro Ono (who was 85 at the time it was filmed and is 97 now). As the film explains, his tiny restaurant inside a Tokyo train station earned critical acclaim and three Michelin stars (a rating it lost when it had to stop taking reservations from the public after the film catapulted it to worldwide fame). Also central to the film is Ono’s towering legacy and how his two sons, also sushi chefs, have contended with living in their father’s long shadow. Watching Ono prepare and serve his signature bites with delicate precision might convince even those who aren’t sushi lovers to give it a try.
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Each day in Mumbai an estimated 200,000 lunch boxes are delivered from homes and restaurants to workplaces without fail by messengers called dabbawalas. This 130-year-old system is widely known as a marvel of efficiency. In The Lunchbox, however, a rare error in delivery causes two men to receive each other’s lunches by mistake, eventually leading to a touching connection between two strangers—Saajan, a lonely man on the verge of retirement, and Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a married woman hoping to revitalize her dull marriage by sending love notes along with her food. Ila’s lunches all look delicious, but the meal in this early scene featuring rice and paneer is a standout.
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Italian director Luca Guadagnino, who happens to have a new movie coming out called Bones And All (it’s kind of a food film, from a twisted point of view), showcased the impact of an exquisite meal in a scene from his 2009 film I Am Love. Tilda Swinton plays a Russian immigrant who married into a wealthy Italian family and has an affair with her son’s business partner, a talented chef. Before it starts, though, she visits his restaurant and is served a dish of “prawns with ratatouille and sweet-and-sour sauce, mixed fish, and crunchy vegetables.” As she savors each bite, the lighting changes to highlight her and the plate, symbolically dimming the rest of the world. It’s such an erotic scene Swinton herself called it “prawnography.” And who are we to argue?
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The ratatouille dish in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love is a direct reference to Pixar’s animated film of the same name, which the director has cited as one of his inspirations. This story about a rat named Remy who dreams of being a chef has inspired many viewers over the years with its encouraging message that greatness can come from anywhere. In the film’s climactic scene, Remy makes an elevated version of the “peasant dish” for infamously harsh food critic Anton Ego. One bite and Ego is instantly transported back to his childhood and fond memories of his own mother’s cooking. You may not have the same associations with ratatouille, but this scene sure makes you want to try it.
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Whatever your feelings are now about the Harry Potter franchise and its creator, there’s no erasing the initial impression this scene from the original film made the first time we saw it. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has just arrived at Hogwarts and is still adjusting to a world full of magic when he sits down with his new housemates in Gryffindor to enjoy a welcome feast in the Great Hall. As soon as Dumbledore (Richard Harris) utters the words “let the feast begin” a bounty of delights magically appear on all the tables. It’s more food than most of them (and most of us) have ever seen in one place at one time. Just don’t think about where it all came from.
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Bradley Cooper plays a talented chef working his way back after a downfall in this food-centered 2015 drama. Burnt features a lot of interesting cooking scenes and innovative dishes, but as our list is winding down, we’ve picked out one in which he’s tasked with baking a cake for his toughest critic yet—the daughter of the hotel manager (Daniel Brühl) who oversees the restaurant where he works. It’s a beautiful cake, and although she says she’s “had better” we just want to sit down with them and taste it ourselves.
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We’ll finish out this list like every good meal, with a special dessert. This one comes courtesy of The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) in The Matrix Reloaded. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) visits him at a restaurant inside the Matrix, the elder program gives him a demonstration of his power and the concept of causality by serving a woman a slice of chocolate cake he programmed himself. He describes the coding as “poetry” and narrates the sensations the woman is feeling in a way that sounds overtly sexual (strange coming from a program, but hey, it’s the Matrix). The animation is even more explicit in that regard. He’s trying to show Neo that control is an illusion, but it’s hard to focus on anything other than how good that cake looks. Bon appétit!
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