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.
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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