‘I’ll have what she’s having’ but what was Meg Ryan eating? The best film food scenes

As part of Food Month at The Irish Times, we’ve put together a delectable menu of the finest culinary celluloid scenes

Breakfast is served

Hot Shots! (1991)

Someone somewhere once decided that bringing food into the bedroom was an incredibly sexy thing to do. But do you know what’s really sexy? Bashing out a slap-up fry on your partner’s steaming-hot stomach. Eggs, bacon, hash browns – the works. Why not even jam an olive in their belly button before popping it into their mouth? Although this is a spoof of the famous scene in 9½ Weeks with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke, it’s hard to say which is more ridiculous.

Anton’s Flashback

Ratatouille (2007)

When Marcel Proust’s narrator took a bite of a madeleine, the taste triggered an avalanche of memories that it took the writer more than 4,000 pages to unpack. Pull your socks up, mate: Pixar managed it in 90 seconds. This scene, showing a bitter old food critic melting at the exquisite flavours of humble ratatouille, works so well because we all know the power taste and smell have over our memories. We all have our own version of ratatouille – a dish that, when we taste it, transports us back to a simpler time in our lives.

How’s Your Burger?

Dumb and Dumber (1994)

From their run-in with Sea Bass in a homely diner to swallowing whole June bugs on the open road, Harry and Lloyd’s cross-country odyssey is filled with surprising gastronomic delights. Pick of the bunch goes to lunch in Dante’s Inferno – the hottest food east of the Mississippi. After accidentally bursting a mobster’s stomach ulcer by sneaking a few atomic peppers into his burger, they compound the problem by feeding him rat poison instead of his medication. What a way to go. It’s like Lloyd says: “Life’s a fragile thing, Har. One minute you’re chewin’ on a burger, the next minute you’re dead meat.”

Serving Il Timpano

Big Night (1996)

Before Stanley Tucci became famous for being an impossibly suave foodie charming the apron off everyone over 40, he was, believe it or not, an accomplished actor and director. Here he stars as an Italian immigrant in 1950s New Jersey who, alongside his brother (Tony Shalhoub), attempts to save his struggling restaurant with one (you guessed it) big night. It’s a funny and touching film about the importance of food both as an intimacy and as part of a shared cultural heritage. When serving their secret family recipe for Il Timpano – an artery-clogging mountain of pasta, meatballs, egg and salami – they receive the ultimate good review: “This is so f**king good I should kill you.”


Christmas dinner

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Listen, cooking a turkey is hard. You prep it the night before, you cook it precisely according to size and weight, diligently basting throughout, and what’s the result? Dry turkey, every time. You can drown it in as much gravy as you like, but that dryness always comes through. In fairness, though, you’d have to have a very bad day in the kitchen to top this monstrosity. As the volatile yet lovable patriarch Clark Griswold carves the turkey, surrounded by his extended family, the beautiful exterior hisses open to reveal the grey, stringy dried flesh inside. We’ve all been there.

Howl cooks breakfast

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Almost every Studio Ghibli film has at least one lovingly animated food scene. They are films that understand our emotional connection with food. From the steaming preparation of bento boxes in My Neighbour Totoro to a simple egg sandwich in The Castle in the Sky, time is always taken to show the way food can strengthen bonds between characters while allowing us to appreciate the moment we are in. The sizzling bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle get bonus points for Calcifer, the friendly fire demon who cooks the food and gobbles the discarded eggshells while he’s at it.

Making a deal

The Matrix (1999)

How important is good food in your life? Would you eat boring, tasteless slop every day if it meant you could live a little longer? Or, to take the question a little further: would you betray the entire human race for a slice of imaginary steak? When the steak looks this good, you’d honestly think twice. As Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) says, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realise? Ignorance is bliss.”

Jail time

Goodfellas (1990)

In a film with so many brilliant and memorable scenes, how is the simple image of a garlic clove being delicately sliced with a razor blade the one that sticks out in everyone’s mind? With Ray Liotta’s narration explaining, we see life wasn’t so bad for wise guys in prison. Paulie was on prep, slicing that garlic so thin it would dissolve in the pan with a little oil. Vinnie made the sauce (“I felt he used too many onions, but it was still a very good sauce”), and Johnny Dio did the meat. With ice boxes filled with lobster and steaks, and wine on tap, it would almost make you turn to a life of crime.

Steak and eggs at Aunt Meg’s

Twister (1996)

This is a classic Hollywood food trope: some hearty home cooking is used to show a prim and proper out-of-towner that these down-to-earth country folk are actually all right. Here we have huge slabs of charred steak served with eggs, heaps of mashed potato and gravy so famous it’s “practically a food group” (according to Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Diner scene

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

We all know what this scene is really about, but let’s focus on the food for a second. Filmed at Katz’s, a New York deli made famous by this very scene but loved by locals since 1888, it’s a place adored for its sandwiches. Specifically its pastrami sandwiches, which Harry goes for here. That’s no surprise – he’s a no-muss, no-fuss kind of guy, especially when it comes to food. Sally, on the other hand, goes for the turkey club. So if you’ve ever wondered “what she’s having”, now you know.

Preparing the feast

Babette’s Feast (1987)

This beautiful Danish film is about a lot of things: religion, community, the road not taken and, above all else, how good food can soften life’s rough edges. Two sisters living an austere, rural life on the coast of Jutland under the glare of their authoritarian pastor father are joined by a French refugee who serves as the family’s cook. The scenes of the titular meal, and its detailed preparation, are a feast for the senses. Images rich in colour, depth and shadow explore the tactile beauty of complex food: turtle soup, buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream, and quail in a puff-pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce.

Sparing no expense

Jurassic Park (1993)

The dinosaurs are cool and everything, but it’s scenes like this that elevate Jurassic Park above other blockbusters. What could have been expositional filler is transformed into a lively debate, veering from the “bloodsucking lawyer” proposing how to maximise profits to the inherent danger of genetic manipulation. The delicately plated Chilean sea bass reminds us of humanity’s supposed dominion over the natural world while serving as a tasty contrast to the chaos about to be unleashed. And, no, we haven’t watched Jurassic Park too many times. We’ve watched it a perfectly acceptable number of times (124).

A very uncomfortable strudel

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

From the big kahuna burger in Pulp Fiction to the tipping scene at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, food always plays a prominent role when it comes to exploring power dynamics in the films of Quentin Tarantino. For that fine balance between delicious-looking food and palpable tension, however, nothing tops the strudel scene in Inglourious Basterds. Coming face to face with the man who murdered her family, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) must maintain a facade of calm under torturous circumstances. The flaky, delicate strudel, with perfectly whipped cream, could be seen as the thin veneer of civility the Nazis have draped around themselves this far from the front lines. When the scene ends with a lit cigarette extinguished in the cream, it might as well be a bullet.