Movie Theater Food

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Confessions from the Concession Stand

As far as pairings go, the proverbial “dinner and a movie” is a classic that rivals Sonoma’s precious couplings of “wine and cheese” as a sensual experience to be enjoyed while clothed. In our hurly burly world of air-tight schedules, it’s a wonder that “dinner at the movies” hasn’t become more trendy.

Of course, there are dangers when dining in the dark. On more than one occasion, I’ve exited the multiplex with lapels that looked as if they’ve been dipped in yellow poster paint, thanks to a poorly wielded pretzel, strafed with mustard. Another hazard is perhaps the food itself. Much of what’s available at the concession stand isn’t represented on ye olde food pyramid, unless you’re including the pyramid’s septic system. More to the point, candy, soft drinks and, naturally, popcorn, aren’t dense in nutrients so much as a preview of coming attractions such as Type 2 diabetes.

The irony is, this is where movie theaters make their money. In The Hollywood Economist, reporter Edward Jay Epstein recounts meeting a theater chain owner whose 450-screen chain paid out so much to distributors and operating costs that it would be in the red were it not for the snack foods. His profits came entirely from sales of snack foods, which have a profit margin north of 80 percent.

“Every element in the lobby is designed to focus the attention of the customer on its menu boards,” the man shared with Epstein.

Further up the food chain, studio accounting wizards can likewise wave their wands over a spreadsheet and turn to black to red. Despite box office receipts high enough to run a small nation, no one seems to make money at the movies. Unless they’re hawking junk food. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that theater “licorice” comes in both red and black – it’s a symbolic talisman to appease the accounting gods.

Hollywood is really in the popcorn business. Don’t tell the stars that, they’re carbo-phobic.

According to SFGate, “A 2 1/2-cup serving of air-popped popcorn contains 70 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates.” However, movie theater popcorn is not air-popped

a.baa-Pop-Corn-CostumeI know this from firsthand experience. When I was young and under-employed at the Palace Cinemas, a vintage single screen theater built in the 1920s, one of my duties was keeping the popcorn machine popping. This included using an ice cream scoop to dig out tennis ball size day-glo orange orbs from a five gallon bucket of butter-flavored petrochemical. I’d drop them into the blazing hot and dirty kernel catcher. The boss called this substance “duck fat” when patrons were around (as if that was an improvement).

Clearly, he was a canny promoter. During the regular protests against our screenings of The Last Temptation of Christ by a local church group, he would send me out with complimentary popcorn and Cokes to keep them there, noshing away at some sort of unholy communion. Courting controversy was cheaper than a newspaper ad (so we journos can blame Scorsese for putting the first nail our industry’s coffin).

Despite inventing duck fat popcorn (decadent popcorn preparation is now a trend – a theater in Marin county offers popcorn popped in truffle oil and sprinkled with brewer’s yeast), my old boss never thought to combine epicurea and cinema in any real way. San Francisco’s Foreign Cinema would pick up on the notion around the turn of the Millenium, though it’s arguably more of a restaurant that happens to play movies, which is really just an effete evolutionary spur from the same common ancestor that gave us the sports bar – basically any place with a TV hanging from the ceiling and crap to put in your mouth.

The Arclight Cinemas at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard sought to combine the “dinner and a movie” date into a one stop affair in a manner that ostensibly privileged film culture. It boasts a full-service cafe and bar, as well as a gift shop and book store. A more ambitious impresario might have also added rooms-by-the-hour on the menu but since an overwhelming amount of moviegoers are teens, renting a room-by-the-minute seems too impractical to manage.

Perhaps the best way to eat, drink and be mollified by the movies is to smuggle in your own grub. Attempts to subvert the system this way surely go back to the advent of cinema. I’ve perpetrated some movie food schemes myself as a cash-strapped teen, hoping no would notice the bulging can of Coke in the front pocket of my jeans. Typical of a teenage male, I thought it completely plausible that anyone who noticed would assume I was some mutant offspring of John Holmes. Later in, 1999, I witnessed chutzpah incarnate when a die-hard fan ordered a pizza and had it delivered to him in line for the Phantom Menace. I missed how he got the pizza box into the Star Wars prequel but assume it was tucked under his flowing Jedi robes.

There’s food at the movies and then there’s food in the movies. The latter comes in two flavors – movies that celebrate food and those that point how scary your food really is.

In the 90s, there was a cornucopia of food themed movies which caused critics to breathlessly report that the food itself is a “character.” I’ve always thought this cheap bit of rhetoric that teetered on the scatological since, as far as character arcs go, digestion makes food’s second act unpalatable.

Among these flicks were Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night, Chocolat and Eat Drink Man Woman, in which food and it’s preparation and consumption somehow empowers or restores characters and renews their appreciation of a sensual life. Even a film like Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, a hard-boiled gangster picture, takes a snack break for an unforgettable scene of mobsters prepping dinner in prison. The sight of Paul Sorvino meticulously slicing a clove of garlic with a razor blade remains, in my mind, an indelible depiction of “food porn.” In fact, that scene is to food porn what Deep Throat is to real porn – iconic, seminal and hard to swallow whole.

Movie Theater Food Will Kill You

Then, sometime in the early part of the new century, food movies became issue-driven. It’s as if the glut of the 90s bloated into guilt and paranoia that could only be purged with endless courses of food-anxiety flicks. Perhaps you’ve seen Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, Food Matters, King Corn, The Future of Food, or Super-Size Me and, like me, decided that it’s better to chance starving to death than eating anything commercially available for consumption. Until you got hungry. And if you got hungry in a movie theater, you’d understand that there was nothing safe to ingest except for the $6 bottle of water, which you can only hope isn’t contaminated.

You can tell you’re watching one of these films if author and activist Michael Pollan shows up to sagely decry the evils of processed foods. Of course, it’s not the foods but the military-like industrial complex that makes them, which is somehow seeing to “our interests” in both the Middle East and the Midwest simultaneously. Some marketers might have you believe that if we don’t guzzle all the high-fructose corn syrup they’ve overproduced, the terrorists win. What no one seems to discuss that this is precisely why they will win. Keeping a nation fat, dumb and happy is as good a plot as any. I know this because I watch a lot of movies.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy a film is not by pairing it with chow but with wine. This is why I applaud the efforts of Sonoma’s own Sebastiani Theatre, which offers wine during its special events like their Vintage Film Series (an eclectic tour of cinematic gems programmed by the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation). I’ll happily take a glass of wine over a quarter pound of frozen cookie dough bites or 1400 calories of nachos. Thanks to Hollywood, there’s enough cheese on screen already.

Originally published in Via Sonoma Magazine

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