Two of my favorite things are movies and food, and I become very happy when those two things are combined. Usually that combination takes the place of eating while I’m watching a movie, but every now and then I see a fantastic movie about food, and I am extra happy. Especially if I can eat and watch a movie about food all at the same time. That happened when I watched Tampopo for the first time recently [I ate lunch and drank a glass of wine while watching, which was a great way to spend an afternoon].

Tampopo is a movie about sensory pleasures. Food is a sensory pleasure, and in Tampopo as in life, it is also a conduit for other pleasures. We can enjoy food on for its own virtues, for the taste and texture of the food, but the enjoyment of it does not stop there. Food is tied to memories, food is important because of who we enjoy it with, because of who cooks or who we cook for. We celebrate with food, we comfort ourselves and each other with food. Eating is an incredibly social act; we use it to connect, to impress, to show love. 

What I like about Tampopo is that it demonstrates all that without taking itself too seriously. When Goro helps Tampopo improve her ramen recipe and therefore her livelihood and life, he does it because, of course, he loves ramen. But he also does it as an act of kindness and, eventually, love. As her ramen improves, their bond grows stronger. And the others who help her help not just for the sake of good ramen; they do it because they care about her.

The vignettes throughout the film consistently display this not-so-symbolic connection between food and human relationships, but they’re not all sentimental stories of love. My favorite one is of a young man with a group of older men at a restaurant. The young man is clearly something of a clumsy doofus, and the older men are very sharp and controlled. The five older men all order the same, fairly boring meal: sole meuniere, consommé, no salad, and Heineken. The young man orders last, and after a lengthy conversation with the waiter during with the man next to him is twitching uncomfortably, he orders quenelle, Boudin style [quenelle prepared in the shape of a sausage] with caviar sauce, escargot wrapped in pastry with mushrooms simmered in Madeira then stewed in fond-de-veau, an apple and walnut salad, and 1981 Corton Charlemagne to drink. The men around the table are uncomfortable and speechless, but the young man doesn't give a single fuck.. The food is more important to him than impressing the stuffed shirts with conformity. So in that way, Tampopo shows that food is just as much about individuality as it is about relationships. 

Let’s talk about the sex in this movie real quick. As I was watching, I couldn’t figure out if the sex scenes between the gangster and his girlfriend were meant to be genuinely sensual or just goofy. I’m settling on goofy because, come on, that egg yolk scene? I don’t find kissing gross, and I don’t find raw egg yolks inherently gross [they can be delicious in the right cocktail], but that scene was sort of repulsive. But the film makes a good point about food being both sensuous and sensual. It goes too far [intentionally, I believe] but food is often used as a symbolic stand-in for sexuality, or a precursor to sex. And in the scene just after the egg yolk scene, the gangster sees a woman catching oysters on the beach. He buys one, cuts his lip on the shell, and eats the oyster. The woman then licks the blood off his lips and kisses him. [She is a woman, by the way. At first I was horrified because I thought she was about 14, but I looked it up and she was 20 when the film was released.] This one is pretty obvious: oysters are thought to be an aphrodisiac; it’s often pointed out that oysters can look like a woman’s genitals. But there is also the close up of the baby breastfeeding as the end credits roll, showing that the connection between bodies and food is not always a romantic one--it’s also the connection between mother and child.

There are plenty of films and stories about food, but not many highlight the associations that Tampopo does. It shows us how food is inherently a part of our lives, not just in keeping us alive, but in nurturing--often literally--our relationships with those around us. Also, it made me really crave a big, hot bowl of ramen.