Sunday, August 17, 2014

Give Food a Chance

I saw a movie last night that affected me deeply in two ways. It gave me hope and made me hungry.

The One Hundred Foot Journey is an imperfect film in that although it is terrifically acted and beautiful to look at, it does suffer from idealistic overkill and at least one major plot defect that probably went unnoticed by most viewers.

First the plot defect. How does a family from India who has just lost everything in a tragic fire and who are now reduced to wandering the European continent with all of their meager belongings packed into a beat up bucket of bolts, whose brakes fail just outside a small town somewhere in France leaving them all wondering how they will be able to afford to pay for repairs, suddenly find the money to buy a large restaurant? A quibble, I know.

Now for the idealistic overkill. The town that the Kadams stumble into is in the French countryside. The restaurant that the family purchases is just outside of town, right across the street from the best restaurant within 50 miles, a beautiful, majestic building that has earned one Michelin star. The two establishments are one hundred feet apart in distance and a thousand miles apart culturally. It is hard for me to believe that a place like this exists anywhere in the world. The weather is perfect. Everyone dines al fresco 24 hours a day. Even when it rains, it’s romantic. In the entire movie, I never saw a car drive down the road that separates the restaurants. In town, an impossibly quaint sidewalk café features children playing hopscotch in the middle of the patrons while birds flutter above them. If there actually exists such a peaceful, unhurried place in France, then “Honey, where’s my passport?”

The story is simple enough. The Kadams owned a restaurant back in Mumbai, a true family business, all hands on deck sort of place. Hasan, the oldest has been taught the art of cooking by his mother, who tragically dies in the fire. All this family knows is cooking and serving food, so naturally they try to make a new start. First they try England, but in the best line of the film explain that they had to leave England because, "the vegetables had no soul." So, they finally decide to compete against the French. The culture clash is immediate and complete. Madame Mallory, the widowed proprietor objects to the loud music, the kitschy décor, the smell of curry and just about everything else she can think to bring to the local constable. What she really objects to is the competition and the amazing skill of Hasan who although lacking formal training, has “the gift.” Of course, romance is soon in the air along with the aroma of spices old and new. Hasan starts falling for Marguerite, the doe-eyed chef in training across the street, and Papa and Madame Mallory, against all odds, unbelievably fall for each other.

The appeal of this film is in the conflict of cultures. The French, representing the “classical” definition of high culture and the Kadams representing the immigrant “other.” Once the Indian cuisine starts to attract customers, and especially once the French chefs realize that Hasan has more talent than they do, the Kadams face some backlash in the form of Molotov cocktails and a racial slur painted across the wall in front of the place. When Madame Mallory fires the chef she suspects of instigating the vandalism and shows up at the wall, scrub-brush in hand to remove the slur, relations begin to thaw. Then she does something that successful countries do with immigrants…she co-opts them. She hires Hasan and paves the way for him to attend a French cooking school in Paris. He becomes famous because of his talent, but ultimately tires of Paris, returns to Marguerite and lives happily ever after.

One scene in particular stood out for me. At one point Madame Mallory tastes one of Hasan’s variations on one of the five classic sauces of French cuisine. She asks what the strange taste is and why he would want to change a sauce that has been around for 200 years. Hasan answers, “Maybe 200 years is long enough.”

When I look around the world I see nothing but violence and strife, most of it either religious or ethnic. Whether it’s in the Middle East, Africa, on our southern border or in Ferguson, Missouri, we have a hard time co-existing with “the other.” Maybe we can learn something from this heart-warming film. Maybe we can all sit down and eat good food together. There is precedent for peace through eating. While Americans are understandably concerned about the gusher of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, we have absolutely no problem with their food. Mexican restaurants are every where in Short Pump and they are all amazing. Americans might have some resentment at the number of Asain-Americans who win Valedictorian awards, but we love their food. Recent graduates in computer science might resent the stiff competition they get from new arrivals from India, but if they would sit down for a meal at Anokha they might fall in love with the Tandoori platter.

Call me crazy, but I believe in an America who welcomes all who come here (legally), and takes the best of what they bring to the great big American table. If we can sit down and eat with someone, it’s much more difficult to give in to fear and hatred. The more savory dishes, the better. I enjoy nothing more than a plate of mashed potatoes with gravy, string beans, and fried chicken, with a glass of sweet tea to wash it down. But I love living in a country where I can be welcomed into a Chinese restaurant for a helping of orange beef and honey shrimp.
Give food a chance, give peace a chance.