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Five Hundred Years of Food in Theater and Movies

Most of us go to the theater and the movies to see drama, action, sturdy heroes and despicable villains. Francine Segan goes for the food.

Segan, a former school psychologist, is the author of six cookbooks, all connected to history, theater and opera and delivers talks on food and theater and movies around the country. I caught up with her recently at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, where she gives a half dozen talks each year on food in the movies and theater (she will be there again August 12 to talk about food and Shakespearean England).

Segan, a delightful speaker with an easy charm and a walking encyclopedia of dining, discovered food on stage and in film years ago when she was watching a Shakespeare play.

“I was fascinated by all the eating that went on in the plays,” the thin, black-haired speaker said at the gorgeous old Mahaiwe theater. “I thought about other plays and realized the same thing. Then I thought about movies. In movies, there is even more eating. Everybody thinks like I do. We all get intrigued by all the eating on film.”

This prompted her to write her first cookbook, Shakespeare’s Kitchen. Today, she writes a syndicated newspaper column on food and appears regularly on television.

Segan is an expert on how directors use food to tell a more effective story onscreen. Her movie examples are loaded with history and, in clips and still photos, go all the way back to the late 1100s and the scene in the film The Adventures of Robin Hood when Errol Flynn carries in a deer he killed and tosses it on the dinner table in front of Prince John. She then takes the audience on a colorful and funny historical tour through food in movies -- from James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face in The Public Enemy, Richard Dreyfuss making a mountain out of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire trying to cook dinner, or Joan Crawford serving her sister her cooked parakeet for dinner in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Segan does not shy away from the wild side of food in film either, talking about the “flavored” chocolate pie in The Help and the notorious bean supper in Mel Brooks's spoof Western Blazing Saddles. There are the bloody “dinners” in vampire films from 1920 to the present.

And, of course, there is Jack Nicholson’s legendary diner ordering scene in Five Easy Pieces in which, unable to get a side order of toast, he sarcastically asks for a chicken sandwich, but keep the bread and “hold the chicken.”

There are marvelous tidbits of unusual information in her talk. Did you know that the shoes that Charlie Chaplin’s poverty-stricken character ate for dinner in Gold Rush were made of licorice? That originally the lovable alien in E.T. was going to eat M & M candies throughout the film, but the candy company said no, and instead he devoured, and made famous, Reese’s Pieces? That the blue peas in the Howard Hughes biography The Aviator were deliberately designed that color because in the time of Howard Hughes Technicolor was often off and green appeared as blue? That the famous three-minute opening scene in the 1960s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which Audrey Hepburn stands outside the window of the famous jewelry store and eats Danish took twelve hours to film because Audrey was a fussy eater? That the first choice of a college for the making of Animal House was the University of Missouri, but officials there declined as soon as they read the script? That the raw eggs gulped down by Rocky Balboa prior to his first early morning training run in the 1970s Rocky are actually NOT good for you?

She is not your typical historian. “I don’t do all of my research on food in history by going to libraries or reading through peoples’ letters,” she said. “I do that, but I talk to lots of people, too. I interviewed Martin Scorsese’s screenwriter on one film about how he got his ideas for food. I sat down with actor Laurence Fishburne for two hours to see what he thought about how food is used in films to help tell a story. This works for me.”

Her talks are not just funny stories about food in movies and theater, either. She insists that writers and directors use food references and scene to build character and tell a story, particularly in history films. “Look at Titanic,” she said. “Nothing illustrates the theme of class in the film than the way different passengers, based on their wealth, eat their dinners. Nothing shows the tough character of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind than that scene in which she angrily shakes her fist at a red sky and vows that she will never be hungry again.

Her talks cover food on stage, food in film, food in opera and even the food in the television series Mad Men. She will be at Mahaiwe again August 12 to discuss sixteenth century food in Shakespeare’s plays, November 9 to talk about food used in operas from the eighteenth century to today and on December 14 for lecture on how food was used for holiday entertaining in the Gilded Age.

Segan is a lot of fun, her talks on food and history films and plays enjoyable. Everything she discusses is, happily, loaded with calories.

* * * * *

We stumbled across an interesting history play in Lenox, Massachusetts. It’s Morgan O-Yuki: The Geisha of the Gilded Age, staged at Ventfort Hall, 104 Walker Street. Back in 1900, George Morgan, nephew of financier J.P. Morgan, who lived at Ventfort, fell in love with Yuki Kato, a geisha girl in Japan. He wooed her for four years and they married in 1904, moving to Paris. The interesting part of the story is the discrimination the Morgans encountered not only in New York, but other American cities and Lenox and not just with the general population, but members of Morgan’s own family. The sophisticated Yuki moved back to Japan in 1938 after Morgan died and met with discrimination there too because she was not seen as a true Japanese woman anymore. It was also at a time when Japan’s resentment of America was heating up and that did not help the wife of the rich American.

It’s a nicely staged one hour, one-woman play starring Mayu Iwasaki and directed By Enrico Spada. It’s a good look at turn-of-the-century history, the Gilded Age and the Morgans.