15 of the Most Iconic Food Scenes from Classic Movies
Some of our favorite ways that cinema has used food to make us hungry, nostalgic, or, tbh, straight-up grossed out.
Screengrab via YouTube.
Food has always held a privileged place in visual arts for its ability to pack in layers of meaning and feeling into recognizable bite-sized formats. For filmmakers, food is a powerful tool for encapsulating the decadent, nostalgic, and even grotesque on-screen. It’s no surprise that some of the most iconic moments in classic films—we’re using a loose pre-1990 definition of classic here—revolve around the acts of making and consuming food. Just in time for your end-of-summer binging, here are the 15 most best food moments in classic film. (Note: lots of spoilers ahead).
1. 50 hard-boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke (1967)
“I can eat 50 eggs,” wagers Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), a former soldier who’s been imprisoned for a nonviolent crime, bragging to his fellow prisoners. Loaded with religious symbolism, the film goes out of its way to establish Luke’s character as a Christ-like martyr. After successfully eating all 50 eggs to win the bet, and the affection of everyone watching, Luke lies spread out on the table—mirroring Jesus’ crucifixion and foreshadowing his untimely fate.
2. Mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
This sci-fi movie is some of Steven Spielberg’s finest work. Blue-collar electrician Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has a close encounter with a UFO, which leaves him with an intense fascination with spacecrafts and also a mysterious mountain-like shape. The obsession disrupts his family life, which is illustrated in an iconic, emotional dinner scene where he sculpts that mysterious shape, revealed to be Wyoming’s Devils Tower, into a pile of mashed potatoes while his children silently cry for their delusional father.
3. Lunchtime in The Breakfast Club (1985)
Remember judging, or being judged, for the lunches you brought to school? This high school cult classic features five stereotypical students—jock, prom queen, nerd, criminal, and basket case—locked in a library together for weekend detention. At lunchtime, each pulls out a home-packed lunch that reveals more about their personality. The bougie popular girl Claire (Molly Ringwald) seasons her fancy sushi with soy sauce, prompting troublemaker Bender (Judd Nelson) to ask disgustedly, “What’s that?,” having no lunch of his own. Here, the meals not only offer insight into each character’s background, but also open up an avenue for conversation between them.
4. The spaghetti date in Lady and the Tramp (1955)
A better love story than Twilight, Lady and the Tramp represents the best of old-school Disney musicals. Fun fact: Walt Disney had planned to scrap this iconic scene altogether, thinking it wouldn’t be romantic. Boy was he wrong. We’d all be lucky to have a date that ends as perfectly as the dogs’ accidental spaghetti-sauced kiss.
5. All of Babette’s Feast (1987)
Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (real name: Karen Blixen), this Oscar-winning Danish film offers some of the most memorable food cinematography—ever. The story revolves around two Protestant sisters in the remote Jutland peninsula, who are one day visited by a woman claiming to be a French refugee and asking to work for them as a housekeeper. Little do they know she’s the former chef of a famous Parisian restaurant—until she decides to prepare for them a baller Christmas feast that will literally change their lives. Compassion, irony, and forgiveness are all on the menu.
6. The egg yolk in Tampopo (1985)
A comedic homage to ramen, Tampopo helped introduce Japanese noodles to an American audience that was still largely unfamiliar with the stuff. The film also gave us the gift of Ken Watanabe, who plays one of two ramen-obsessed truck drivers helping the titular widow, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), learn how to make great noodles. But to find its most iconic food moment, look past the ramen: there’s a secondary storyline involving a sexually libertine gangster and his mistress. In the greatest supporting role for eggs since Cool Hand Luke, they pass a yolk back and forth using their mouths till it bursts, dripping down her chin in a scene that’s at once suggestive and explicit.
7. Dinner in Alien (1979)
We did say grotesque. We won’t give away too much with this one, but do the words “chest burster” mean anything to you? Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror flick presents one of the worst ways to die—while eating, no less.
8. Notes for gourmets in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover (1989)
Taking place in a French fine dining restaurant, Peter Greenaway’s infamous, beautifully-costumed romantic crime drama is a scandalous commentary on class and power, with tons of food-as-eroticism imagery packed between secret trysts and horrific murders. Here, the restaurant’s churlish owner, Albert (Michael Gambon), lectures the table about how to eat like a “gourmet,” much to the annoyance of his actually-smart wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who finds herself catching the eye of a potential new lover while snacking on a piece of asparagus.
9. The cafeteria food fight in Animal House (1978)
Starting with Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World” and ending in an all-out food fight, this scene from John Landis’ subversive college comedy was a big moment for the late John Belushi, who played the sergeant-at-arms of a low-class fraternity. In interviews with the director, it was revealed that the scene was entirely improvised and shot in one take.
10. “Bread and butter” montage in 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)
This erotic cult classic finds Wall Streeter John (Mickey Rourke) and art gallery assistant Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) in tons of scandalous episodes, from a threesome with a prostitute to pseudo-makeup sex in a porn shop. But it’s this ultimate food-as-fetish scene, soundtracked by The Newbeats’ “Bread and Butter,” that stands out from the bondage and public sex. Cough syrup and jalapeños have never been as arousing as they are here.
11. Chinese restaurant on Christmas in A Christmas Story (1983)
Yes, the faux-accented Christmas carol portion of this iconic scene is super racist, but it still stands out for its portrayal (and decapitation) of the now-famous Peking duck, which Jean Shepherd’s protagonist calls “Chinese turkey.” And for many families who don’t celebrate Christmas, or celebrate it at a Chinese restaurant, the scene remains instantly relatable.
12. Pastrami, rye, and a fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Long before Master of None spotlighted New York’s best restaurants, Harry (Billy Crystal) met up with Sally (Meg Ryan) at the city’s beloved Katz’s Delicatessen. Between mouthfuls of the famous pastrami and rye, the couple argue about whether or not women fake orgasms. Much to Harry’s dismay, Sally puts on an Oscar-worthy performance to prove him wrong, leading one nearby guest to discreetly tell her server, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
13. Armadillo wedding cake in Steel Magnolias (1989)
With an all-star, all-female cast—Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley Maclaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts—this dramedy tells the based-on-real-events story of resilience and community in a small Louisiana town. In a memorable scene, Julia Roberts’ husband-to-be, played by Dylan Mcdermott, requests an red velvet armadillo-shaped cake for the wedding day, highlighting the originally-Southern tradition of having a groom’s cake separate from the main wedding cake.
14. Korova Milk Bar in Clockwork Orange (1971)
A twisted milk bar selling drug-laced concoctions sets the stage for this dystopian mystery drama directed by Stanley Kubrick. The hangout spot for thug and rapist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) along with his gang of “droogs,” the bar’s furniture is built in the shape of naked women, with the “milk-plus” coming out of nipples. The milk seems to represent the characters’ youth—its innocence corrupted by dark violence.
15. Ice cream cone in Charade (1963)
Stanley Donen’s technicolor crime-romance is notable for the chemistry between Regina (Audrey Hepburn) and Peter (Cary Grant), exemplified in this scene where Peter buys Regina an ice cream cone, only to have her spill it on him immediately. Add ice cream cones in front of the Seine River to your list of picture-perfect Paris dates.