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The Taste of Others

Though cultural identity and otherness are overarching themes in Lindenfeld’s research, they’re not the only facets of food and film that intrigue her. Marketing and the inner workings of Hollywood play a huge part in how movies are made. Lindenfeld argues that a lot of great, complex, thoughtful scripts never see the light of day because they’re not marketable. And some films that start with great promise become victims of their own success.

That was the case with Big Night. The 1996 film, a relatively small-budget production directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, tells the tale of Primo and Secondo, brothers who run Paradise restaurant. Primo, the chef, uses time-honored family recipes that take ages to prepare. Secondo, a businessman tired of seeing would-be customers flock to a subpar eatery nearby, urges his brother to compromise his standards and make Americanized Italian dishes. When their competitor offers to send his good friend, the musician Louis Prima, to dine at Paradise next time he’s in town, the brothers see a way to save their restaurant. They plan an elaborate meal in Prima’s honor and invite droves of people. Though Prima never shows, the crowd has the meal of a lifetime.

According to Lindenfeld, Big Night was the first American food film to gain any real prominence. It also provided a springboard for discussion about heavy topics — the immigrant experience in America, infidelity, family values, staying true to your roots — without resorting to oversimplified stereotypes. But in the end, that was overshadowed by the “Hollywood machine.”

“What troubled me is that Big Night seems to make the argument that art should exist for art’s sake, but then the film started to get interest outside small art-house theaters,” Lindenfeld says. “All of a sudden, there’s a novelization of the movie and cookbooks. You see all these marketing tie-ins that you’d see for a major Hollywood film. I think the film collapses on itself because it succumbs to corporate marketing culture.”

Big Night marked a turning point. And as the public’s appetite for food films and food media grows, Lindenfeld sees more opportunities to research — and, she hopes, shape — the impact they have on our decisions, our eating habits and our worldview.

“I see my role moving more into advocacy, to help people make more responsible choices about how they produce and consume food,” Lindenfeld says. “I would like people to think about what’s on the plate, where it came from, whose labor produced it, what subsidies came from the U.S. government, what countries were put into precarious development as a result of the foods we eat.”

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