There has always been something incredibly magical and calming to me about food in fiction. As a child, often the moments I would return to were the ones in which royalty hosted extravagant feasts, tables bursting with meats, cakes, and more dishes than I could name. Families who ate small, intimate meals. Adventurers who packed little crusty loaves of bread and chunks of cheese into their satchels. These moments contained something special that profoundly moved me in a way I couldn’t necessarily fathom, but that I always acutely experienced.
As I’ve grown, these moments have become even more intrinsically intertwined with comfort and self-care. There is an innate safety in being able to eat, to know where your next meal is coming from, and to have a full stomach. I’m sure that when I delve deep, part of my love for these moments comes from a memory of times when I didn’t have that security and was unsure if I would go to sleep hungry or not.
At times in my life, these sequences have become a substitute for real food. When I was young and lived in an empty flat that we occupied through the now non-existent UK squatting laws, I would often fill my belly with Studio Ghibli films. The colourful, delicately arranged bento boxes, chock full of rice, piled high with peas and topped with grilled fish that Satsuki makes with Mei in My Neighbour Totoro. The delectable ramen with ham that Susuke’s mother makes for him and Ponyo when they first return to their home. There was something about these moments–the tender intimacy of a child cooking for their sibling, a mother cooking for children–which resonated so deeply that just watching these films could almost seem as fulfilling as the actual act of eating.
Often the safest places are ones which remind you of a memory that resonates with security, something which takes you back to a moment when you felt that you were truly okay. For those of us whose memories are less safe to traverse, we often find this comfort in fiction. When I was a child, I suffered from severe insomnia and would often spend long nights wide awake pouring over books. One passage that always stuck with me was a short description of a warm meal on a long journey from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Our protagonist, Tristan, meets an old bearded man and they share soup, bread, and cheese. This passage would often be the last one I would read before I finally managed to sleep, as the sun crept slowly into my room. I think that the security and comfort I found in fictional food likely began in those moments.
Historically, food has been at the centre of celebration, ceremony, and survival, and there is something in the tradition of food in film that continues this in a universal way. For someone like me who grew up in a secular community and an atheist family, there was something lacking when it came to tradition around the idea of food. In my family there didn’t seem to be much history of tradition or ceremony in cooking as most of the time our meals were just about necessity. So these filmic representations of cultural customs around food quickly became my baseline.
Finding solace in memories that weren’t mine was something I’ve always found very easy to do, curled up under sheets visiting places that I’d never been to, making friends I would never meet, and filling my belly with food that I’d never tasted. There’s a generosity in creation, a kindness in invention; the act of sharing another world with someone who isn’t comfortable or safe in their own.
In Harry Potter, to create the feeling of Hogwarts–a strange and unknowable place–as a safe and welcoming environment, both the films and books utilise the ideas of vast feasts consisting of every kind of meal. Numerous dishes, fresh pies, three types of sausages, golden baked meats, bread fresh from the oven, and technicolor puddings you’ve never even seen. Plates which are never empty no matter how much you eat from them. In just a couple of minutes these scenes make you a promise: you will never be hungry again, no matter what happens here. There may be dragons, evil wizards, and seriously lax health and safety protocols, but you will never, ever go to sleep with an empty stomach whilst you are in these walls.
The world of Spirited Away is stuffed with people eating. When the inhabitants of this world eat, they escape or they transform. Food as transformation is a trope as old as The Bible and Greek myths. Jesus telling his disciples to eat bread made of his body and drink wine made of his blood. Persephone eating pomegranate seeds in Hades, forever being stuck halfway between the living and the dead. Chihiro’s parents discovering and eating the mountains of dishes in the abandoned village and becoming pigs. No-Face eating everything in their way, their body fluctuating and growing as they do. Food can change people, and in the world of Spirited Away, it does. But food can also cure us. Save us, comfort us. When Chihiro convinces a begrudging bathhouse worker, Lin, to sneak her inside so she can bargain with the Yubaba the witch, they bond over plump sweet red bean buns that Lin swiped from the festivities below.
This idea–that food can cure you, that you are safe, fulfilled in knowing where your next meal will come from–is one so simple, so relatable, and ingrained within us that these small and almost unremarkable moments in film can end up moving us in profound ways. We can find home in these hand-drawn meals that no one will ever truly taste and be warmed by the steam from dishes that someone who doesn’t exist has lovingly made. There’s a familiarity in these moments that can draw us in and make us whole, providing an entirely different kind of nourishment that’s just as needed but often overlooked.
Those late night visual feasts grew into a safety and peace of mind that has helped me get to a place where for the first time I can say that at least for a while, I won’t go to bed hungry again.