It’s a necessity, a pleasure, and as key to art as it is to life. From sumptuous still lifes to signature dishes in cult TV, food sustains many of our great cultural works. It can persuade, romance or celebrate; it can nourish and comfort. And it can also be about sex and sinfulness, its sensual qualities used joyously or dangerously - think of revenge tragedies, from Seneca to Shakespeare to Peter Greenaway, that see enemies roasted or baked in pies ….
Meanwhile, there’s nothing like a joyously imagined scoffing scene to whet your appetite; who didn’t reach for the Dairy Milk while reading Chocolat? The most sensory medium, in this respect, is theatre: the grub is right there to see, smell, hear … and in a new show at the Royal Court, to taste too.
Gastronauts is set in the theatre’s restaurant; audiences will eat while the play unfolds. Playwright April De Angelis explains the two elements are completely entwined: “You’re eating the same food that’s part of the play. Food is always used at rituals: birthday parties, funerals – at life’s markers. And theatre uses those moments as well, so it’s been really interesting, to have those cross-fertilisations.”
But, of course, all the arts have their own fabulous foodie moments. And so, licking our lips as we go, we’ve drawn up our ultimate cultural menu – featuring those fictional dishes that we wish we could conjure into reality.
Minestrone Soup: 10CC’S ‘Life is a Minestrone’
“Life is a minestrone served up with parmesan cheese; death is a cold lasagne suspended in deep freeze …” sang the art rockers on their groovy 1975 Top 10 hit. Thereby suggesting that the key to existence lies within a traditional Italian soup made with pasta and vegetables. An off-kilter philosophy, perhaps, but a pretty inviting one too.
Chowder: Moby Dick
Herman Melville’s epic features a whole chapter named after this classic fish soup, brewed up at at the Try Pots tavern in Nantucket for narrator Ishmael and his fellow seaman Queequeg and delectably described. Indeed, the duo are so enamoured by the “mystery” of the “savoury steam” that they scarf down both clam and cod varieties.
Triple-liver pâté dome: ‘La Grande Bouffe’
Pâté can be a trad menu option, though that’s certainly not the case with the fantastic – if, well, ultimately fatal – centrepiece of this French-Italian film about four men trying to eat themselves to death. The chicken is cooked with sherry, the duck with port and the goose with champagne; the trio of pâtés are crafted into a domed and spired edifice à la St Peter’s, ornamented with boiled egg and brioche pastry. “Pure poetry!” insists Ugo, the chef.
Rare steaks and potatoes: ‘Top Girls’
The whole notion of “man food” is enough to kill our appetite. Eighties businesswoman Marlene in Caryl Churchill’s classic feminist play would never hold truck with such gubbins: holding a dinner party of unusual women from history to celebrate her promotion over a male colleague, she dines on bloody beef and plenty of spuds, a choice that reflects her voracious personality.
Fried chicken: ‘Breaking Bad’
It’s not good for you in more ways than one, but the chicken served by Walter White’s drug-lord boss, Gus Fring, via his Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant chain is more than just an oily front. “Slow-cooked to perfection ... one taste, and you’ll know,” declares the fictional advert over food-porn images of “the freshest herbs and spices”, chopped orange peppers, juicy roasting birds and crispy batter. And, well, we’re addicted.
Venison, turkey and dressed lobster: ‘La Bohème’
It’s opera’s great feast. The Latin Quarter, Paris, Christmas Eve … and the usually impoverished bohemian artists of Puccini’s classic are celebrating a stroke of good fortune at the local hotspot Cafe Momus – and how. To add to the allure, the above treats are accompanied by plenty of booze – table wine and Rhine wine, no less.
Confit Byaldi: ‘Ratatouille’
How do you make computer-generated food look delicious? This 2007 Pixar movie has the answer: for its climax, in which Remy the rat must rustle up a dish to win over the terrifying food critic Anton Ego, it drafted in legendary chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame as a consultant. The result was a perfectly animated version of one of his signature dishes, which involves layering a piperade (tomato and pepper sauce) with finely sliced aubergine, courgette, tomato and squash. It’s steamed, roasted, then presented in a delicate stack and topped with vinaigrette. Your average vegetarian option, this ain’t.
Christmas pudding: ‘A Christmas Carol’
Charles Dickens’s seasonal favourite isn’t short on mouth-watering grub, but the choice dish is the simply splendid pud at the Cratchits’ feast. In the words of the author “a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top”. God bless us, every one ….
Cherry Pie: ‘Twin Peaks’
Amid all the weirdness of David Lynch’s macabre smalltown soap, what keeps FBI Agent Cooper, and by extension, us, grounded is the thought of a slice of the Double R Diner’s speciality, Norma’s cherry pie. It’s so good he orders three portions at once, while at one point his boss, played by Lynch himself, bellows: “I PLAN ON WRITING AN EPIC POEM ABOUT THIS GORGEOUS PIE.”
‘Pommes et Oranges’: Paul Cézanne
The healthy option. Fruit has obviously long been a staple of the still life, but few painters have imbued it with such solid yet lusciously glowing properties as the French artist. This work is part of a series of six paintings all featuring the same dishes, jug and vivid fruits – good enough to bite.
Macaroons: ‘Marie Antoinette’
The most famous sweet treat in all of culture must be the reverie-prompting madeleines in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. But frankly, when it comes to French fancies, we’d rather follow Sofia Coppola and let them – okay us – eat macaroons! Her biopic of the doomed queen featured lavish plates of the things; provided by experts Ladurée, they sweetly summed up their anti-heroine’s pastel-hued indulgence.
Chocolates selection: the Beatles’ ‘Savoy Truffle’
This track may have been written by George Harrison as a warning to chocoholic pal Eric Clapton but its list of flavours, taken from the lid of a box of Mackintosh’s Good News chocolates, is nevertheless highly tempting. Anyone for a “cream tangerine”, a “Montelimar”, a “ginger sling” or a “coffee dessert”?
Wafer-thin mint: ‘The Meaning of Life’
Not even Heston could come up with a culinary invention quite as explosive as this deceptively tiny palate-cleanser from the Monty Python movie; it leaves obese restaurant customer Mr Creosote splattered all over the walls. Our gut tells us this isn’t a wise after-dinner choice, but actually we just want to know how it works.
‘Gastronauts’ is at the Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000, royalcourttheatre.com) from Thursday to 21 Dec