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The Best Food Movie (It’s Not What You Think)

When you get a bunch of food writers around a table for a meal, you can put good money on a few topics making the rounds again and again. The best thing you ever ate, the worst thing you ever ate, what you’d choose for your last meal on earth, the dish that made you realize you could really cook stuff and it would be good… everyone wants to put their two cents in. Eventually you’ll start talking about food movies, and the typical titles like Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Ratatouille, Eat Drink Man Woman, Like Water for Chocolate, or Mostly Martha will get a mention.

Gorgeous, moving, hilarious, hunger-inducing movies all. But if we’re being honest—and not just trying to outdo each other with our obscure culinary knowledge—when I think long and hard about what movie warms my food-lovin’ heart more than any other, I’m choosing When Harry Met Sally as my favorite food movie.

when harry met sally, diner

Yeah, everyone knows the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in Katz’s Deli (also featured in the Greatest Movie Sandwiches montage), but the entire film is peppered (heh) with small details that capture the obsessive, neurotic, opinionated habits and tics of those of us—dare I say New Yorkers especially?—for whom food is a constantly running compulsive undercurrent. Forget inspirational dinners and lavish meals; these are the daily culinary interactions that define us.




Anyone who’s ever worked in the restaurant industry will have a PTSD flashback with the frustration of being asked for a laundry list of substitutions and ingredients ‘on the side.’ With very little exaggeration, I can say that when I worked as a server at a highly prestigious sports bar in western PA, I had this exact conversation in the following clip with a customer, down to heating the pie, the various types of whipped cream, and flavors of ice cream available in the kitchen. No joke.



If you want to recreate the dinner where Harry and Sally try to pair each other with their best friends Jess and Marie, only to have the plan spectacularly backfire when Marie reveals she’s unintentionally already smitten with Jess’s food writing from New York magazine, you have to go to Café Luxembourg.

You’ll have to substitute sauteed spinach or rapini—or a mixed green salad with shallot vinaigrette on the side—for Sally’s order of grilled radicchio, but you can still declare with conviction that “pesto is the quiche of the Eighties” and “restaurants are to people in the Eighties what theater was to people in the Sixties.”




And for sheer silliness, the scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s soaring Temple of Dendur when Harry forces Sally to repeat food-centric phrases in a stupid faux-Euro accent is a classic, with quotes that bear repeating. Aren’t you always tempted, when your server comes around to ask if you have room for dessert, to tell him or her that “I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie,” or to brandish a pepper mill and announce that “there is too much pepper in my paprikash!”?



In between these glorious scenes are small asides and tossed-off comments that build a full portrait of food routines that illuminate our personalities: conversations about a bad dates at Ethiopian restaurants, the setting of a “girl’s lunch” at the Central Park Boathouse that doubles as a confessional about relationship status, the simple act of snacking on grapes in the car. Whether you’re the type of high maintenance person who thinks she’s low maintenance (and thus for whom ‘on the side’ is a very big thing), or whether you’re just happy to order the #3 off the menu and be done with it, I defy you to come up with a funnier and more endearing snapshot of how food is a constant reference, touchpoint, comfort, and cultural signifier in our everyday lives.

Don’t disagree with me. When you see a movie that good, you know the way you know about a good melon, and there’s only one thing to say in response: “You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right.”

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23 Comments

  1. love this!! you just made my lunch break (except now i wish i was at cafe luxembourg, NOT eating leftovers at my desk…) more about food films please!! best food documentary perhaps (excluding the recent political food-industry-is-evil stuff, though, because that’s fairly well covered already and, let’s face it, no fun for anyone’s lunch break…)? ;)

    1. Sarah, I might have to bring in contributors to cover the documentary beat – unless you consider Napoleon Dynamite to be a documentary on the food habits of weird Idaho teenagers. Any volunteers (wink, wink)?

  2. Yes, you’re right! One of my favorite movies…now I’ll think more about the food scenes!
    How about a post dealing with food passages in literature? Steinback’s description of bacon frying among the migrant workers in “The Grapes of Wrath” would rate a mention!!

    1. Joan, we’ve got a whole series on dishes inspired by literature called Eating My Words – I’ve just added a link to it in our “regular features” in the sidebar, so thanks for reminding me! There’s a GREAT one coming up next month, but I’m not going to spoil its subject just yet.

  3. Won’t argue with you Casey, since I’m a fan of that film too, and think of it every time I ask for something “on the side.” (Mainly dressing, since a lot of salads come overdressed for my tastes.)

    1. Sarah, there’s a few stories about the sports bar I could tell – one of which is a sandwich that the line guys would make me every day for lunch. Filing away for the future…

      Dan, I think Friends was actually a food-centric TV show, mostly because of Monica and Joey. Although Rachel’s attempt at the beef trifle also gets a significant place in the pantheon.

  4. My favorite food moment in a movie was when Clemenza was teaching Michael how to make “sauce” in The Godfather. Make sre you put the sausages in there, Clemenza!!!!

  5. This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Loved reading your post. And, the reason I especially loved the scene with Sally asking for all those menu substitutions is because I have to admit that I do the same thing.

  6. I have to admit this as much as I hate to. My nickname when I go out to dinner with my husband? Sally.
    Fun post, Casey!

  7. I love how you’re thinking in terms of the greatest food movie of all time! I’ve never thought of this at all and have to ponder it. How fun!

  8. The pecan pie thing has ALWAYS cracked me up. Alas, things must be different in a food=love family like mine out West. After all these years, I simply cannot shake the sense that being a picky eater is rude.

  9. Oh, now you’re talking my talk!

    Ok, I’ll give you that – When Harry Met Sally has some great food scenes and references. But I’m going to have to DISAGREE with you!

    Look, there’s a LOT of great food movies, so it’s tough to choose, and Ratatouille is right up there in the family movie department. For a grownup movie, I’d have to go with ‘It’s Complicated’ at this juncture. Meryl Streep plays a woman named Jane who owns a bakery and if you haven’t watched it yet, pay special attention to the scene where she takes Steve Martin there after smoking pot at a party and they whip up some chocolate croissants. Oh my.

    I just may have to do my own food movie post over at http://www.reellifewithjane.com/blog now. :-)

    1. Oh, the food scenes in It’s Complicated are incredible! Although I question the croissant scene for its realism… that might be a logistical nightmare for anyone but La Streep. :)

  10. Love this analysis and now I have to rent that movie again. It is a real classic. And I enjoyed that you-tube about sandwiches, but where was Jack Nicholson and the non-sandwich “Bring me a tuna fish sandwich on white bread toasted. Hold the mayo. Hold the tuna. Hold the lettuce.”

  11. I don’t think I would have thought of that myself, but thinking about it and the movie which I’ve seen dozens of times, I might have to agree with you!

    Yes, I will admit to at times being called a ‘Sally.’

    Pecan Pie ….

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