2000s Archive

I Like to Watch People Eat

Originally Published February 2000
A life in movies and food.

In 1961, when I was 14, I played hooky, rode the morning commuter train from the Chicago suburbs to the Oriental movie theater downtown, and saw Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents three times in a row. I had a fresh bucket of buttered popcorn at each showing. I loved the scene in which Anthony Quinn, playing an uncorrupted Eskimo, offers Peter O’Toole, a reluctant lawman who must arrest him, the ultimate in native hospitality: his wife for the evening and a bowl of their igloo’s oldest meat, crawling with maggots. The largesse of the gift was a bit beyond adolescent comprehension, but that bowl of rotten meat sure got my attention. When I subsequently teased my younger sister with live worms, I justified the behavior as “anthropological.”

I learned most of what I knew about the world beyond my hometown from movies. I was especially intrigued by meal scenes that seemed so different from my family’s square meals and the efficient cafeteria at New Trier Township High School. When I went on a gangster-movie bender in my early teens, I gaped in awe at a scene in a night-owl diner early in Little Caesar during which Edward G. Robinson plots his rise from small-time crook to gangland kingpin. It was a setting as bleak as Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks, just a deserted counter in the naked city, a hash slinger with his sleeves rolled up filling thick cups with heavyweight java. You could almost smell the residue of frying lard in the air. To this nice Jewish boy, brought up in a nice middle-class home in the pleasant village of Winnetka, the ghastly greasy spoon was more alluring than Paris or Vienna.

There happened to be a Toddle House diner on Green Bay Road, which was a 30-minute bicycle ride from my house. It was a dive reminiscent of the one in Little Caesar, a place where truckers going from Chicago to Milwaukee stopped for a wedge of pie as their idling vehicles filled the air outside with an acrid engine stench. The scene reminded me of Marlon Brando and his gang of bikers hauling into town for beers in The Wild One. For New Trier boys who craved a taste of the wild side, a seat at the Toddle House counter was a perch in outlaw heaven, a film noir in which we were extras. In fact, when my friends and I started making 8-mm movies, we tried to use the Toddle House as a location for a shoot-out. The no-nonsense proprietor gave us the boot; and besides, at age 15, in chinos and Madras shirts, none of us made convincing gunsels.

Getting a driver’s license meant I could take dates to drive-in restaurants. My model was Tom Neal, the on-the-lam chump in Edgar G. Ulmer’s ultra-noir Detour, who finds himself sitting in a stolen car with black-widowy Ann Savage, wearily ordering a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee. I really wanted to order a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee, too, believing that my rendition of that film’s angst would somehow impress dates; but alas, by the mid-1960s most of the drive-ins I frequented on the North Shore of Chicago were already imitating McDonald’s burger-driven menu. Their clean and happy atmosphere totally gave the lie to my pose as a 16-year-old victim of existential malaise.

Of course, I often went to drive-in movies because they were good places to neck; but I also went to see the movies! Even more bizarre, I went to eat. I loved drive-in food, hideous as most of it was, and to this day, when I spot an extant drive-in somewhere along the road, I wonder what they serve at the refreshment stand. I don’t honestly remember having much time to kiss and coo, but I clearly recall staggering back to the car toting trays piled high with heat-lamp pizzas, sloppy-joe sandwiches, huge dill pickles, and off-brand candy bars. I knew it was awful, but somehow the pleasure of eating in the car while watching a movie transcended the food, the way state-fair corn dogs taste good because of the setting.

Although booze was not a big part of my family’s social life, I started drinking in my teens, and I learned how by watching movie characters. In those adolescent years, when gangsters were my culture heroes, I devoured the notorious scene in Public Enemy when James Cagney squishes a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face at the breakfast table. He does so because she questions his choice of a morning beverage—beer. Until that moment, I never thought of drinking beer with my Shredded Wheat. When it came time to choose a college and a career, I selected the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University so I could become a spy. My role model, of course, was suave-drinking James Bond (Dr. No, the first Bond film, came out in 1962). It’s a little embarrassing to admit that for years thereafter I requested that my Martinis be “shaken, not stirred.” (On the other hand, I am happy to say that I got sober before the release of Leaving Las Vegas.)

The food at the Johns Hopkins commissary was excellent—prepared by veteran southern cooks who were masters of the waffle iron and the chicken-frying skillet—but I soon realized that espionage was not my destiny. So I switched to the University of Michigan, where I could major in American Studies, a field that allowed me to justify watching movies almost around the clock. I was particularly interested in films that explored everyday life, including what people ate and how they behaved at supper. While many of my fellow film buffs focused their attention on the “art of cinema,” I was drawn to pictures that showed dad carving a roast at the dinner table, or teens sucking down malts at a drive-in, or cowboys yanking sourdough biscuits from a Dutch oven at a campfire. Other details of everyday culture—fashion, slang, and leisure time—were on my radar screen, too, but film food scenes were an endlessly seductive spectacle. Movie meals became my Rosetta stone, providing a key not only to the disposition of America, but to where I fit in the cultural scene.

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