food in the arts










In this film, obsessed as it is with human corporeality, eating, drinking, defecating, urinating, copulating, belching, vomiting, spitting and bleeding are so closely related that it is impossible to separate out what is aesthetically pleasing and what is merely disgusting. Violence and eroticism and vulgarity and finesse are so intertwined here that Greenaway makes it difficult to decide where eating ends and human waste disposal begins.

It is to Le Hollandais, a restaurant named after the large reproduction of a famous Frans Hals painting that adorns one wall of the dining room, that the thief and his wife come every night for dinner. The thief, an unrepentant model of cruelty, greed and unchecked self-interest, believes that dining out is a means of gaining social respectability. Always accompanied by the members of his gang, a collection of revolting, uncouth characters who, like their boss, have no appreciation whatever for fine food, the thief is evil personified, a man with no redeeming virtues whatever. His wife, the victim of his bullying, physical violence and blackmail is a more sympathetic character who values and understands the dishes that are set before her.

The cook, who is also the owner of the restaurant, is a perfectionist, believing that all foods should be tasted, even if only experimentally. Although he appreciates the wife and offers her some of his finer experiments, he detests the thief. Knowing that the thief is a dangerous man, the cook treats him with a curious mixture of politeness and disdain.

It comes as no surprise when the wife takes as her lover another regular visitor to the restaurant, a quiet, modest man who is immersed in his love of books, the antithesis of her husband. Nor does it surprise when the cook helps them find places in the restaurant where it is relatively safe for them to make love, virtually under the nose of the thief. And make love they do - in the toilet, in pantries, in walk-in refrigerators. That they are finally caught by the thief and that the lover is destined to be killed, cooked and served up as the chef d'oeuvre of a dinner is no more shocking or surprising than any of the other events in the film.

Because Greenaway's goal is to dismay, shock and disgust us, the kitchen, the restaurant and the meals served here are particularly unappetizing. What makes them fascinating, however, is Greenway's application of his unique brand of hyper-reality to historical and social settings.

The time-frame of the kitchens is a sliding one, incorporating the filth and squalor that typified the cooking halls of 14th century European baronies as well as the splendor and orderliness of the kitchens of the great chef Careme when he held forth in the Brighton Pavillion in the early 19th century. The decorative pieces of poached and fresh fruits are pure Careme, having taking hours of painstaking effort to create. The larders, however, are Medieval - swans, fat eels, calves' brains, freshwater fish, pearl barley truffles, piles of macaroni and rumps of beef arranged in ways that overwhelm rather than please the senses.

Even though the dishes prepared by the cook are impeccable in presentation and quality, Greenaway assures that not one dish will make itself appealing to those in the audience. Avocado in vinaigrette sauce with shrimps; truffled roast chickens; a salad of pike fillets with oysters; a rich potage a la Monglas - a creamy soup made with foie gras, truffles, and mushrooms and flavoured with Madeira can all be enormously rewarding culinary experiences, but when accompanied by the farts, belches and vomiting of the crooks that sit at the table, one is hard pressed to think of any food, no matter how masterfully prepared, as being appetizing.

Even if it were not for the noxious company, this is not a restaurant to which most true gourmets would be attracted. Great cooking should be decorative but it should not be ostentatious. Nor should sophisticated modern dining involve great amounts of waste, overindulgence in too many rich and uncomplimentary courses that follow one after the other, or service that is so stilted and formal that it borders on groveling. Such vulgar displays have been banished from the table, as much for the sake of hygiene and good taste as for reasons of expediency.

There are some who claim that the most offensive moment of the film is the moment when the lover's body, spit roasted and garnished with cauliflower and turnips is served up as the single course in a special dinner prepared for the thief. From the moral point of view, this objection stands up badly, for in this film where excess is the rule, the eating of human flesh is no more offensive than eating dog excrement, urinating into a sauce, torturing a young boy or mutilating the face of a beautiful woman, all of which have their place in Greenaway's world. Culinary purists will argue, however, that spit roasting is not the ideal way to prepare human flesh. Those who have sampled this dish (including Guy du Maupassant, Marco Polo and Captain James Cook, who was eventually eaten himself) are in general agreement that the best means of cookery is by slow stewing in a peppery red wine marinade that contains juniper berries, marjoram, rosemary and plenty of onions.

Daniel Rogov


literature and food

music and food

photography and food
Extract from the film
The Miracle of the Andes

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and  her Lover -

Not Mozart - M Is For Man, Music And... -

See also: Goya and cannibalism
and: Soylent Green


Le Cuisinier, le voleur, sa femme et son... -