Salad Days: Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” and the Predicament of Dinnertime

Dave took the past week off work to spend with us. We all just reveled in it! We took in the Natural History Museum, went to a pool party, and on Wednesday he even took the big kids to Disneyland (!! — I stayed with Zanny, who had a nasty little head cold all week). He’s also been taking care of all kinds of stuff on the business end, like packing, and planning things for his team, finalizing his will (standard operating procedure), practicing using Face Time with the kids from one room of the house to another. (“I don’t know how to use Face Time,” I said. He said, “Don’t worry, I showed Nora.” He’s been saying that several times a day, which should probably worry me, but if anyone will hold this place together it’s Nora. She’s eight, and she’s our techie.)

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 We also hired a groundskeeper. Her habit of working without pants is unorthodox, but we appreciate her spunk.
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Just kidding. Her job is actually Director of Morale.

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I’ve been putting Dave through the paces with my Honey-Do list, too, asking him to hang a heavy, framed picture we’d had in the garage for a while, and to show me how he gets the baby’s car seat in so tight, and remind me where he keeps the charger for his iPod, which I get to inherit during his absence (yeah, I’ve had my eye on that thing for a while). He’s been reminding me about bank accounts, garbage day (changes on holidays — sheesh, I knew that), and on and on.

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I’ve tried cooking some of Dave’s favorite meals this week (when he’s away from home, he never cooks for himself, only eats in the galley. LAZY!). I’ve been having conflicting thoughts about cooking as we lead up to this deployment. I was raised by a mom who worked full-time and then came home and made delicious Italian meals from scratch. Our family’s big on “real food,” home-cooked food.

Half the time, I’m all for this. I get all excited — I’m gonna cook great, healthy dinners, and my kids will have plates full of brightly colored vegetables, and they’ll learn to enjoy real tastes and reject the chemical-tinged temptations of junk food!

And then the other half of the time it’s the exact opposite, and I find myself in a hot, messy kitchen begging the kids to stop running through it so they won’t get burned or impaled by something, and I realize that when I set this pasta-with-pine-nuts concoction in front of them one will invariably blurt, “How much do I have to eat?,” another will be suddenly seized by the need to urinate and will spend half of dinnertime clanking around in the bathroom, and a third will work diligently for fifteen minutes picking each and every expensive little pine nut from her fettuccine with a barely-concealed scowl of disgust, as if they are ticks on a dog.
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 Well, Dave thought this was good, anyway.

So the uppity little angel on my shoulder is trying to convince me that I must keep up the home-cooked meals in Dave’s absence, to show my kids that good food is love and good food matters ….. while that slippery devil on the other shoulder is whispering, If paper plates and microwaved nuggets are so bad, do you really want to be right?

It didn’t help that I saw Jon Favreau’s new movie, Chef, this past week.

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It spoke, shall we say, to the better angels of my nature (at least that one on my shoulder, pestering me about food). In Chef, Favreau plays the talented Chef Carl Casper, who’s fired from a choice restaurant gig because of his creative stagnation and a hilariously hostile exchange with a snobbish restaurant critic. When life gives him lemons, he makes lemonade (or at least a really mean mojito) by going rogue in an affable and affirming way — buying a food truck and taking his best friend Martin (Jon Leguizamo) and his adorable son, Percy, on a cross-country cooking tour.

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Percy, who, like my Nora, has tech savvy that far exceeds her parents’, brings their new operation success by tweeting, Facebooking, and many-other-social-media-things-I-can’t-remember-ing their exploits so that a line of devotees awaits them at every stop.

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Sofia Vergara is also in this movie. Pictures like this make me think we have a lot in common — you know, being everyday moms and all.

Chef is a fun, sweet date night movie, with great shots of New Orleans and Miami, lots of good music (Favreau and Leguizamo’s rendition of “Sexual Healing” is still making me chuckle — Dave turned to me and hissed, “Do you remember, like, driving around in the car with your mom and hearing that on the radio? Can you believe we all did that??!”). The whole film was kind of like a long, happy music video. I was never too concerned about any of the characters, but I was happy to see them happy, you know?

But what Chef did best, perhaps, was remind me of my favorite food-movie of all time: Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. Oh, that film, that film!

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Released in 1996, Big Night’s got all that mid-nineties earnestness we’re way too cool for now, but it’s such a good, bittersweet story. It contains some of my favorite music and most beloved little vignettes of all time. The two leads are played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, with Ian Holm, the gorgeous Isabella Rossellini, an appropriately pensive Minnie Driver and an adorable Allison Janney as the supporting cast. (It’s also got singer Marc Anthony in a very early role — he must be something like twenty — almost without spoken lines, but still memorable as the sweetly beleaguered line cook, Cristiano).

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The opening scene of that film, with Cristiano arriving to work (set to a gorgeous Claudio Villa song,  Stornelli Amorisi) is a pure pleasure, but the closing scene is nearly hallowed ground for me, and I can’t even think about it without getting goosebumps.

 

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In some ways Big Night is the opposite of Chef: where Chef is glitzy and full of social media, Big Night is set in the fifties, among a group of people for whom the telephone still seems like something to get excited about. Where Chef rides high on the thrill of upward mobility, Big Night wrangles with the sadness of immigrants who are watching their dream, and all that they have, slide through their fingers. But both movies share a similar value system, which is that there’s nothing more important than love and family, and that for some people, the truest way to show love is through making someone a damn fine sandwich.

So where does this leave me as I decide how to approach all my duties in the upcoming months? I can’t say for sure. Maybe I can alternate a good home-cooked meal on china one night with, say, three nights’ worth of pizza on paper plates (those really biodegradable ones they sell at Sprouts, that turn back into soil practically while you look at them!). Stanley Tucci would think pizza’s a respectable choice, right?

I can just show my love through food sometimes, and other times I can demonstrate love through playing a board game, or making sure everyone’s showered and clean, or, hell, sweeping the floor, ’cause let’s be honest, I don’t do that for my own entertainment. Thank goodness there are many ways to show you love someone, and that you don’t have to be on-the-ball with every single one all the time. Maybe that’s really the gem hidden within Big Night and Chef: that love is about all the little things. It’s about being there, it’s about showing up. It accumulates over years and years, and sometimes you might misfire, or peter out, or just biff, but as long as you keep coming back and trying again, day after day, you’re all gonna be all right.