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The Flavors of Anxiety: Thanksgiving Food Movies

11/20/2012 03:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013
  • Fabio Parasecoli Associate professor and director of Food Studies initiatives, New School - NYC

Don't get me wrong -- I love cooking for friends and family. Thanksgiving happens to be my favorite food-related gathering -- followed closely by the Super Bowl party, where I can get creative and come up with new, usually healthier interpretations of traditional game treats. I guess I enjoy those occasions because, as a foreigner, I did not grow up with them. However, I was exposed to the less appealing aspects of family reunions, when you find yourself stuck in the same space with people you may not particularly be fond of, for what seems as an excruciatingly long stretch of time that moves at the speed of a glacier (pre-global warmth, that is) and provides the same amount of fuzzy warmth. We are supposed to buy into the Normal Rockwell wholesome fantasy of smiling families, with the patriarch at the head of table beaming over his faithful minions and cutting that crucial first slice of turkey. But we all also know that those images mostly amount to wishful thinking.

For years, filmmakers all over the world have been digging into the misery behind all kinds of celebrations. As the jolly season approaches and we're getting ready to stuff our faces more than usual, it can be fun to look for memorable holiday meals on the silver screen and, beyond that, to marvel at the power of food to express anxieties, love and all kind of emotions.

Here are some of my favorite Thanksgiving food-related movies:

1. Peter Hedges's Pieces of April (2003) digs into the anxiety many first-time holiday hosts feel by presenting a worst-case scenario. April, played by Katie Holmes, lives in a not-so-glamorous tenement apartment in the East Village with her boyfriend. For the first time, she finds herself facing the scary prospective of having her very proper, but also very dysfunctional, suburban family over for Thanksgiving. The turkey and her uncooperative oven quickly become her scourge; unable to make her own oven work, she turns to the people living in the same building, only to be rebuked by a local, hyper-efficient gay man. Eventually, she finds aid from a middle-aged couple whose bantering allows April to master at least some basic cooking techniques.

2. There are as many versions of the Thanksgiving meal as the countless cultures that thrive side by side in America. In many cases, it is during the holidays that long-upheld traditions clash with the realities lived by the younger generations trying to make it in a confusing and complex society. Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking is so far the best illustration of these tensions, showing us the preparations and the gatherings in four different families: Jewish, African-American, Latino and Asian.

3. Everybody knows that the Thanksgiving turkey can easily turn into a weapon of humiliations and punishment, as Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays (1995) flaunts for everybody to see. It is yet another turkey-centered family drama, but Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr's performances make it enjoyable and graciously grating.

4. If you feel so removed from festive meals brimming with love that you'd rather ease on down the road with a scarecrow, if toiling in the kitchen and washing dishes feels like working in the sweatshop of Evillene the wicked witch, Sidney Lumet's The Wiz (1978) is the movie for you. The Quincy Jones' hallucinating, mildly psychedelic take on the Wizard of Oz is a gentle antidote for the holiday blues. In the end, though, you might find yourself pining for home and for a brand new day...

5. Although not a holiday movie per se, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) deserves a special mention thanks to a brief but memorable scene where Christina Ricci, asked to say grace for Thanksgiving, starts a rant about empty material goods, the wastefulness of the celebration and even the massacres of the natives at the hand of the white colonists. Connecticut suburban life at its best.

And there's more coming for Christmas...