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Appetizing cinema

(article, Nadia Arumugam)

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Some of the best horror films in recent times have featured a most unlikely monster: food. American food, to be precise. 

'"Super (2004) and '"Fast (2006) may have stopped some of us from evermore entering fast-food joints. More recently, Robert Kenner’s '"Food with its visceral imagery of ammonia-bleached hamburger filler and crippled, abused livestock, reveals little escape from the unscrupulous titans that control almost our entire food system. 

These are important films. But one question remains: Isn’t there anything great and good about what and how we eat that’s worth celebrating onscreen? Surely the answer is a resolute and resounding “yes.” 

To prove the point, here’s a selection of some excellent and recent short films that honor a few of America’s food heroes and our culinary heritage. 

(Editor's note: Each title is a link.)

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="New Jersey's Red October."]

(27 minutes)
Directed by Nancy O’Mallon

If you’ve ever wondered, during Thanksgiving dinner, where all those diminutive ruby orbs in your cranberry sauce came from, then this film is a must-see.

O’Mallon’s touching documentary charts the fascinating history of the cranberry growers of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, unveils the mysteries of how the crimson crop is cultivated, and conveys the threats that endanger the fragile harvest. Though the state is the third-largest producer of the berry, after Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the growers remain an intimate and close-knit community whose trade has been passed down for six generations since 1840. 

Through a series of poignant tales, witty anecdotes, and inspiring lessons as told by fathers, sons, and daughters, the film’s main focus is on the evolution of cranberry-harvesting technology. Black-and-white archival footage brings to life the arduous early method of using pronged scoops to separate the berries from the vines by hand, as well as the first mechanical innovations. 

But the most breathtaking cinematography is reserved for the modern method of water harvesting, first introduced in 1961. Stunning seas of floating cranberries atop acres of flooded land await harvest by rotary machines often built by the farmers themselves. 

The film is truly a portrait of contemporary farming at its ideal, and you’ll never look at a jar of cranberry relish without reverence again.

(17 minutes)
Directed by Joe York and Matthew Graves

With lesser-known cuts of meat gaining popularity among budget-conscious carnivores and intrepid diners feasting on nose-to-tail cuisine, it's only a matter of time before mutton hits restaurant menus and home grills. Director Joe York is so sure of this that he made a movie about a town tucked in the northwestern corner of Kentucky where the citizens love nothing more than to dig into a slab of barbecued mutton. 

The meat of sheep older than one year, mutton — with its strong flavor and chewy texture — is the much-maligned big sister of tender spring lamb. The townsfolk of Owensboro acquired their taste for mutton from their Welsh ancestors, who first raised sheep on the banks on the Ohio River when they settled there in the 1790s. When cattle became the livestock of choice in other parts of Kentucky, the tradition of raising sheep endured in this tiny pocket of America. 

Beginning with a witty conceit revolving around the horror movie "The Silence of the Lambs," this humorous portrait of a mutton–obsessed town also tells a more serious lesson of how intrinsically linked the traditions, culture, and lifestyle of a people are to what they eat. The town’s annual barbecue festival evolved from the church picnics that traditionally took place to barbecue whole carcasses of sheep, which had to be cooked immediately once slaughtered to prevent spoilage from the lack of refrigeration. 

Indeed, the teams who compete at the barbecue festival today are still affiliated with the local churches. Cooked now in the same way as by past generations, the mutton is barbecued over hot coals for up to 12 hours and basted frequently with an intensely flavored thin barbecue sauce known as a “dip.” 

A celebration of a truly underrated meat, the film stops short of being able to convey just how mutton actually tastes. A clever ploy, perhaps, that leaves viewers with only one option: to fire up their own barbecues, of course.  

(10 minutes)
Directed by T.G. Herrington

On rare occasions, a filmmaker finds a subject so engaging that simply pointing a rolling camera at him or her is guaranteed to reap wonderful results. Not to belittle T.G. Herrington’s directing skills, but it really is the endearing character of Arthur “Mr. Okra” Robinson — a New Orleans mobile fruit-and-veg vendor — which makes this documentary the most heartwarming, inspirational, and entertaining film you're likely to watch in a while. 

Singing his daily inventory into a loudspeaker, Mr. Okra leisurely works the city’s back streets in his eccentric Ford pickup. Piled high with fruit and vegetables as good as those at any farmers' market, the black-and-red vehicle is decorated with graffiti announcing Mr. Okra’s personal philosophy (“be nice or leave”) and the various produce he sells, from cantaloupes and grapes to corn and “avakados.” 

Disparaging of modern, unwholesome attitudes to the way we eat, Mr. Okra espouses an old-fashioned, commonsense approach. “You gotta put something good in it so you get nice stuff,” he says of food. 

Over the years, the iconic truck and its giant, teddy-bear-like owner have accumulated a loyal clientele. And just as he nurtures his customers, they look after him. In a particularly touching scene, Mr. Okra describes how in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his customers displayed boards to rescue services which read, “Please find Mr. Okra.”

With his larger-than-life eccentricity, straight-talking candor, boundless enthusiasm, and mischievous chuckle, Mr. Okra epitomizes the very soul of the city he feeds. 

(13 minutes)
Directed by Joe York

As any dedicated foodie well knows, some things are simply worth waiting for. And diners at Mississippi’s Taylor Grocery will testify that a bite of Lynn and Debbie Hewlett’s crispy fried catfish is worth a four-hour wait and more.

This beautifully shot film tells the story of an unassuming catfish joint that has stolen the heart of an intimate rural community. Open Thursday through Sunday, the rustic eatery serves 90 diners at a sitting, with up to 90 more customers waiting for a table at any given time. But the waiting is all part of the experience. Customers catch up on their neighbors’ news, enjoy drinks, and whet their appetites as they relax on the restaurant's large front porch. 

The owners' humility and their determination to preserve the integrity and home-style feel of their eatery wins over the viewer as much as the diners. While chief fry-cook Lynn never does divulge his batter recipe, he modestly concedes that it doesn’t differ much from how other locals cook up their catfish. “Maybe a little more of this, a little less of that,” is as much as he’ll offer toward a recipe. 

If it’s not the fish that sets Taylor Grocery apart, maybe it's the warmth of the Hewletts’ hospitality that has diners coming back every week. In fact, many are so reluctant to depart that they leave a little bit of themselves behind by scribbling their names on the walls and tables. And as for the story behind the title, "Eat or We’ll Both Starve," well, you’ll just have to watch the film.

(43 minutes)
Directed by Matthew Beals

There was a time when Easter simply wasn’t Easter without those sugary, pillow-soft, pink or yellow marshmallow chicks. Nowadays, no holiday is complete without a bite of a marshmallow Peep in some seasonally appropriate form and luminous hue. Think burnished orange Halloween pumpkins, scarlet strawberry crème Valentine hearts, and festive green Christmas trees. This lighthearted film lays out the history of the iconic sweet treat and gets to the essence of how this high-fructose candy confection — with over 200 unofficial websites dedicated to it — assumed its cult-like status. 

The tale of the Peep’s rise begins with Russian immigrant Sam Born, a self-proclaimed "candy expert" who opened a store producing freshly made-on-site candy in Brooklyn, New York, in 1923. In 1953, the Born company acquired Rodda Candy Company, whose products included the original Peep chick, made by laboriously squeezing marshmallow through a pastry bag by hand. The Born family streamlined the process, developing a machine to mass-produce the squishy sweets, and were soon on their way to producing the 1.2 billion Peeps currently hatched annually. 

Perhaps the one flaw of the film is that it doesn’t actually show how Peeps are made today. Still, riveting footage of Peep fanatics — who pay homage to the confection by mounting it on canvases, holding “Peep-Offs” (eating as many of the cloying candy critters as possible in 30 minutes), and and enacting "Lord of the Peeps" — is bound to keep viewers enthralled. There's also a small contingent whose Peep-related activities are aimed at the destruction of these seemingly harmless candy creatures by rifles, rockets, and other ingenuous articles of homemade artillery. 

p(bio). A native of Malaysia, Nadia Arumugam is a New York City-based food writer and cookbook author.

reference-image, l