Dynamics in the Foodscape: Democracy versus Distinction

As Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann stated in Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, “Cultural consumption allows foodies to negotiate a fundamental ideological tension between democracy and distinction”. In the 1985 Japanese film, Tampopo, director Jûzô Itami experiments with this evolutionary perspective of food through the elevation of western populist foods and mannerisms while deflating traditional, elitist approaches to food. While the majority of the film focuses on the protagonist, Tampopo’s journey to reinventing herself as a proficient ramen chef, Itami plays with the different views of food by interspersing the film with shorter narratives. For example, in one subplot, a Japanese woman instructs a group of young women on the proper etiquette when consuming spaghetti, a popular western dish.

Etiquette instructor demonstrating the proper technique to eating spaghetti

While the instructor lectures on and demonstrates the customary technique of eating spaghetti by carefully twirling it on a fork and spoon and silently consuming it, a Caucasian man sitting nearby ravenously and audibly devours his dish. By juxtaposing the woman’s etiquette class with the Caucasian man’s mannerisms, Itami blatantly emphasizes the concept of democracy and distinction in food. Itami’s use of the Japanese instructor and her careful demonstration utilizing a western dish symbolizes the traditional elitist view of food by asserting the concept of food as an indication of status and self-established arrogance.

The cuisine used in the scene further emphasizes the view of food as a display of pretentiousness. By demonstrating proper etiquette through the use of the western dish of spaghetti as opposed to a common Japanese dish, Itami highlights the belief that western and European cuisine is reserved only for the elite.

Pupils ravenously devouring their noodles

As the scene unfolds and progresses, the dynamic of the scene shifts dramatically. Once the instructor correctly demonstrates the manner in which spaghetti is consumed, the pupils are instructed to follow suit. Instead of imitating the Japanese instructor, the large group of young women begins to mimic the Caucasian man, loudly and voraciously ravaging their noodles. It is at this point in the scene that food transitions into a democratic concept. Here, even the instructor begins to loudly slurp on her spaghetti. In the democratic perspective, food is meant to be inclusive and enjoyed by all. As evident in this scene, the women’s rejection of proper etiquette successfully and figuratively destroys the traditional hierarchical view of food and replaces it with a more modern, egalitarian take.

Spaghetti is initially used to represent western and elitist foods, but it simultaneously symbolizes the equalizing effects of a democratic foodscape. Recently, spaghetti has transitioned from being a historically gourmet European specialty to a commonplace, western populist food. In modern times, spaghetti is an easily and financially accessible cuisine that anyone can enjoy. By using this specific fish, Itami is able to successfully assert the dynamic shift of food between democracy and distinction.

Although Tampopo consists of several side-stories weaved into a main plot, this short three-minute subplot serves to express the many different dimensions of food. Through this scene, director Jûzô Itami is able to clearly and playfully provide insight on the dynamics of food throughout history, as it shifted from an elitist commodity to a democratically inclusive fare.

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