I don’t mean the meals we cook or order-in to slob out with on the sofa, feeling faintly depressed by another episode of Take Me Out. Nor am I thinking about our current insatiable appetite for cookery shows, the constant new incarnations of which seem to be at an unsustainable peak, much like the fishing of tuna, or home decoration programmes in the early 2000s. I'm thinking about a third kind of TV Food - that which is eaten by characters in fictional programmes. Two hugely popular US shows did this with aplomb, where food and dining scenes were intrinsic to both narrative and character building - The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Sadly, the final dishes of both have long since been served but I’ve yet to find another series to whet my appetite quite like they did. Despite the many disparate themes, the main characters love of food in each show is a common and glorious factor.
A fairly recent (and admittedly rather late) Amazon discovery of mine was The Sopranos Family Cookbook (Allen Rucker, 2002). It’s so obvious and so right I can’t believe I hadn’t searched for it before. It not only provides a nice slice of nostalgia for the show, but there should definitely be a place in every cook’s repertoire for some of those undoubtedly meat, pasta, garlic and cheese heavy recipes. But then I was a late comer to the show as well, it only catching my imagination in 2010 when I found myself alone in a new flat with no TV signal but Series 1 DVD of The Sopranos (the final episode having reached it’s ambiguous conclusion on E4 in 2007). It wasn’t the food that inspired me initially, more the brilliantly written characters, many of whom you love despite their dubious morals, and how the drama, violence and suspense is lifted brilliantly with great comedic moments (Janice going soccer-mom nuts springs to mind; Janice in most episodes in fact).
I soon realised though what a huge part food plays in the show. Carmela, matriarch, mostly perfect wife, runs a pristine home, her fridge always stocked full of home-cooked Italian-American fare. It’s not a progressive view of family life; Carmela’s a kept woman and the kitchen is her territory, Tony looking a bit lost there unless she’s around to offer him some of the cold pasta left over in the fridge. Still, it doesn’t mean your mouth doesn’t water at the Sunday feasts she prepares, despite them so often being the setting for the eruption of some bubbling family tension. Even away from the home, food is hugely important to Tony and his mob colleagues. Whether it’s the foil-wrapped Italian sandwiches they eat together in the back room of the Bing, or Osso Buco or Eggplant Parmigiana prepared by Artie Bucco at the comparatively tasteful Vesuvio, the characters love food and eat convincingly in the scenes, making them more real and believable in the process. Indeed the final, emotive scene of the series takes place in a diner, although we don’t get to see what Tony would order for his (probably last) supper before it cuts to black.
In Sex and the City, another HBO series of a similar era set on America’s East coast, food plays an integral part in the show, much like the city it’s set in. It’s only logical really, New York has become such a foodie town it would be inaccurate to portray four 30-something career women who don’t eat out a lot. But still, it was refreshing to see glamorous female characters regularly eating. Not just picking on something as a prop to the scene, but enjoying great food that you wanted to eat too; Carrie & Miranda, eating cupcakes and discussing crushes on a bench outside the Magnolia bakery, licking pink frosting from their lips; perfect poached eggs served for brunch, right before Charlotte’s Harvard educated date reveals his anger management issues; Carrie and Big, devouring medium-rare steaks and red wine during one of their unconvincing ‘we’re just friends’ phases. And of course a scene in most episodes set over brunch at their usual place, where eggs, crispy streaky bacon, french fries, sandwiches and banana splits are munched on heartily by the four friends, whatever funny, sad or rude life moment they are discussing.
Eating, and more importantly eating with friends and family, is something most of us can relate to. The dining table, at home or in a restaurant, brings us together and is where we do so much of our proper talking; where plans are made, secrets divulged, problems solved and jokes told. I love seeing my favourite TV characters mirroring this and that’s why the Soprano family and Carrie and friends are my favourite of all. I’ve been looking for a new series to binge on, that I can watch again and again, but I suspect I won’t get hooked unless the characters love their food as much as I do. In the meantime, l’ll have my Soprano’s cookbook to keep me busy. Some baked Zitti anyone?