Food writer Jocelyn Doyle is hungry for more detail about what her TV and film idols are eating
I’m never not thinking about food, and learning what people are eating is of top-level interest. My girlfriends and I have a Whatsapp group consistently dominated by what we’re cooking. My food-obsessed family can be relied upon to ask, without fail, “So, what’s for dinner tonight?” during every hangout, and my first question to anyone upon their return from a holiday is always, “What’s the best thing you ate while you were away?”.
When it comes to television, however, I rarely get the level of detail I desire, especially when I’m trying to learn more about my favourite female characters. I’ll admit that most of my favourite programmes are on the dated side — I am a chronic rewatcher, a product of both my anxiety and my inability to accept that time has, in fact, moved past the 2000s. In most of these shows, food isn’t necessarily absent, but is very frequently used to codify characteristics seen as typically female in one way or another. Rarely do these step outside the realm of tired tropes.
First up, the traditional homemaker. Food preparation is a daily grind, made from scratch — the way ‘real women’ should. Extra care is taken to provide large, lavish spreads for holidays or special occasions. This is the role adopted by Charlotte in Sex and the City as she makes challah from scratch for her new husband Harry. It’s Marge Simpson, dishing up the family dinner day after day to little or no appreciation from her family. It’s Cindy Walsh rendered a stark outsider in her new 90210 neighbourhood, surrounded by wealthy women who pay others to cook for them. For this character, food is a fundamental part of her identity as a wife and mother.
Next, we have the modern gal, the feminist, the ‘career woman’. She is most usually single. She cannot cook, and this is often worn as a badge of honour. Think Carrie Bradshaw using her oven as extra storage space. Think Miranda telling a bemused Magda — who is urging her to become a better homemaker, to attract a man — that she doesn’t need to make pie; she can buy pie, if she likes. In Gilmore Girls, this is one element of Lorelai’s comprehensive rejection of her mother’s lifestyle; while Emily Gilmore is too rich to do her own cooking, she takes pride in managing her household and choosing dishes to suit the classic WASP palate. Lorelai claws at the opposite end of the spectrum, raising her own daughter on a steady diet of Chinese food and pizza, and choosing to divide her valuable time between her career and her relationship with Rory, rather than spending any of it in the kitchen. Food is a form of rebellion.
Finally, the dieter or restrictor. We see this when Charlotte becomes obsessed with the relationship between carbohydrates and her thighs; in Samantha refusing to eat anything that isn’t organic; when Miranda drags herself to Weight Watchers, filled with self-loathing. It’s Kelly Taylor collapsing in the Peach Pit bathroom after a combination of over-exercise, starvation and diet pills. I’d argue that Monica Gellar (Friends, for anyone who’s just arrived on this planet), a chef by trade, also falls into this category; the show gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that she used to be fat, and I’d imagine that choosing a career in which you’re surrounded by rich, decadent restaurant meals while resolutely maintaining a rake-thin figure means self-denial on a daily basis. Food is an opportunity for exercising restraint, temptation to be avoided.
My question is, what about those of us who don’t fit into any of these rigid boxes, the socially acceptable expressions of womanhood? What if we bring home the bacon and make something delicious with it, too? To whom can we turn if we’re not on a constant diet and aren’t afraid to eat a whole Krispy Kreme to ourselves? Where are the women who cook and eat for pleasure? There are a million and fifty shades of grey in what it means to be a woman in today’s world, and the ways we interact with food are many and complex. I crave strong female characters AND the juicy details of their daily bread — details that tell me more about how these women are shaped by the worlds around them.
There are some exceptions. In the late 2000s, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon carved a new niche in enthusiastic eating; while her junk food diet is not dissimilar to that of Lorelai and Rory just a few years earlier, Liz isn’t doing any of it to make a statement or piss off her mother. She just really, really loves hot dogs. And pizza. And night cheese. It’s a joy to watch. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sees Sweet Dee eating what she believes to be ‘human meat’ for no good reason at all, other than the satisfaction of stealing it from Frank. She’s selfish, malicious and completely unbothered by social norms, a product of the miniature culture around her in that immoral hole of a bar. Leslie Knope in Parks & Recreation adores breakfast foods, loves sugar and is suspicious of salads — preferences that reflect Pawnee, Indiana, the cartoonish health vacuum where she grew up.
And yet, it’s not enough.
The best TV show of all time is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and I’m prepared to fight anyone who disagrees). I want to know what foods are fuelling Buffy’s superhuman strength and agility. I’m eager to see what’s on the dinner table when Willow is at home in the evenings, what she pushes around her plate as her awkward relationship with her parents becomes even more strained. Do the Rosenbergs celebrate Shabbat? When she becomes the Big Bad in season five, does Dark Willow choose different foods than regular, kind Willow? And what about ex-demons — does Anya’s induction into human existence and American culture include learning how to make a burger or scramble some eggs? At least Dawn tells us that keys to other dimensions love anchovies on their pizzas… whatever that means.
My appetite for these nuggets is as insatiable as Leslie Knope’s is for waffles smothered in whipped cream. Ultimately, I believe that you don’t really know a person until you know how they eat, and why. The obsessive way in which I re-watch old programmes means that when I’m into a character, I am REALLY into her; I’m dying to follow her off the screen, into her kitchen, and see what she’s having for lunch. I know, I know: unless my girlfriends suddenly become TV producers, I’m destined to be disappointed.