A h yes, the romantic dinner. Every year around this time, any glossy cooking magazine worth its fleur de sel offers a sumptuously photographed menu for two, usually culminating in a petite dessert involving chocolate and/or raspberries. How many readers who recreate these intimate feasts at home wind up capping off their evening with the physical act of love is anybody’s guess, but its implications hang, cupidlike, over the whole works.
Eating is a sensuous act, and one that can be sexy. The feeling of a very full belly generally isn’t. But sex and eating don’t have to occur simultaneously to have a close and entangled relationship. Both involve the whetting of, insertion into and expulsion of items from orifices. And they are each a messy business, ones into which we put lots of emotional and cultural stock.
Consider the movies we watch. Food on film can preclude sex or replace it. To supplement your Valentine’s menu for two, here is a handful of sexy food scenes that may leave viewers hungry or horny, or both.
An all-time favorite food movie, ‘Tampopo,’ the 1985 gem from director Juzo Itami, offers an abundance of memorable vignettes that celebrate the ways we interact with food. In one of the most famous, a nameless, suave gangster in a white suit cavorts with his lover in a hotel, giving the room service a run for its money. He breaks a raw egg, carefully separates the yolk from the white and initiates a mouth-to-mouth passing game with his lover; when the yolk’s delicate membrane breaks, she climaxes, and the yolk slowly dribbles down her face and onto the lace frill of her evening dress.
But Tampopo’s most picturesque scene is when the white-suited man watches a group of young girls diving for oysters on a rocky beach. He asks the prettiest of the girls if he can buy an oyster from her, and she opens it for him with her perfect, thin-fingered hands. He holds the quivering mollusk to his mouth but cuts his lip on the jagged shell, so the girl cuts the remaining flesh from the shell and he sucks it ravenously from her hand, leaving behind a fat drop of his blood. The girl giggles; then, her senses awakened, she licks the remaining salty blood from his lip as the other girls look on, bobbing in the waves like a school of mermaids. The moment teems with a bizarre mixture of chastity and eroticism.
It’s a fleeting image, but also the most indelible from ‘Tess,’ Roman Polanski’s 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Poor country girl Tess (Nastassja Kinski) can’t, despite her valiant efforts, seem to keep her virtue intact. After being dispatched to the estate of ersatz relative and incurable cad Alec D’Urberville (Leigh Lawson), she initiates her downfall with the consumption of a plump strawberry that Alec dangles before her from a long, supple stem—she’s literally eating right out of his hand. It’s not one of those fat, pulpy strawberries you find at the grocery store, either, but a compact and ruby-red thing that the prop director must have singled out of a thousand perfect little farmers market strawberries. Who can blame Tess? I’d have eaten it, too.
Far less dainty are the eating habits of Julie Christie in Robert Altman’s 1971 quasi-Western ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller.’ World-weary Cockney madam Mrs. Miller (Christie, looking bewitchingly haggard) arrives in a cold, muddy Pacific Northwest backwater logging town to run the “sporting house” of enterprising John McCabe (Warren Beatty). It’s been a six-hour journey and she’s starving, so McCabe takes her to the local saloon, where she orders four fried eggs, stew and strong tea. The two talk business until the food arrives, at which point Mrs. Miller mannishly and wordlessly devours her hearty plateful of frontier grub, grease dripping down the side of her dainty hand. The repulsion on McCabe’s face is mixed with a flowering of affection—he’s falling in love without even knowing it.
Perhaps the best-known food foreplay is found in the farcical 1963 romp ‘Tom Jones,’ in which young squire Tom (Albert Finney) and older aristocrat Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood) likewise dine in a dark tavern, where they take their sexual urges out on their courses.
The opening credits of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ are famous for the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” and the sidewalk strut of John Travolta at the peak of his youthful dreaminess. But what about the pizza? Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, is loutish and cocky because he doesn’t know any better, but he’s doing his best in a working-class world where he has few role models. En route to deliver a can of paint, Tony stops at his favorite pizza joint and orders his usual: two generous wedges of glorious Brooklyn pie, which he stacks atop one another and then folds up, tacolike, before inhaling them in about three bites. The scene reveals Tony’s immaturity and utter lack of social manners, but it also throbs with virility; this guy even looks hot gobbling pizza with one hand and holding a paint can in the other.
Milos Forman’s ‘Amadeus’ treated us to a few sexless food-sex nibbles. Near the beginning of the film, the dour composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) sneaks into a cloistered buffet in hopes of sneaking a tasty treat, but he is forced to hide when the horny Mozart (Tom Hulce) and his fiancée, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), burst into the room and loll on the floor, indulging in frenzied, pie-eyed tomfoolery. The lovers cavort under a table groaning with outlandish confections, and Salieri cowers in the corner, bereft of both sex and dessert.
Later, after her marriage to the spendthrift Mozart runs aground, Constanze dresses fetchingly and arrives at Salieri’s office with her husband’s scores in tow. Salieri offers her capezzoli di Venere— “nipples of Venus,” Roman chestnuts in brandied sugar—while he browses the scores. Plump and white as her own bosom, the sweets are irresistible to her, and while Salieri is seduced by the beauty of Mozart’s music, Constanze is seduced by sugar, and she furtively reaches for seconds from the ornamented platter on Salieri’s desk.
The frippery of sweets also plays an important supporting role in Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette.’ The young queen and her court happily deck themselves in pastel fashions and down pastel pastries, signifying frivolity in the face of encroaching reality—empty calories, if you will. But none look so fetching eating pastries in tall wigs as Kirsten Dunst, whose Marie fills the void of a sexless marriage in part with cream and sugar.
Whatever affinity—on film or in real life—sex and food may have for each other, the act of eating and the act of screwing remain distinct. Said one siren of the small screen: “There is something very sexy about food, but sex is sexier. If you need to let the food do it, then there could be a problem.” Those are the words of television’s culinary Venus, Nigella Lawson, who, based on the looks of it, knows more than a little about both.