I had the pleasure of watching The Hundred-Foot Journey with my parents on Friday. The film produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake, stars Helen Mirren, Om Puri and Manish Dayal and is directed by Lasse Hallstrom.
Set in France, The Hundred-Foot Journey tells the story of the Kadam family who move to a small town in France from India after a particularly traumatic event, to start a new life and open their restaurant Maison Mumbai. In the process, they are confronted by Madame Mallory (played by Helen Mirren), owner of a Michelin-star rated French restaurant Le Saule Pleureur across the street, who is intent on shutting down their restaurant, complaining at the outset that "curry is curry." Over the course of the movie, the audience is taken on a breathtaking journey of what it means to follow your dreams, unexpected love, mutual understanding, and the universal power of food to connect us all to what really matters. (Check out the official trailer for the film here.)
While I found the entire movie to be an inspiring feast for the senses, I was struck by one message in particular, shared by young chefs Hassan and Marguerite in the pivotal five sauces picnic scene: "Food is memories." After that scene and watching the film, I can honestly say that I will never look at food the same way again.
You see, food is a huge part of my family. My mom, in addition to doing all of the cooking in our family, used to own an East Indian catering business for many years and taught cooking classes.
Growing up, accustomed to daily, sumptuous meals, I forgot to look at food with the reverence it deserved, and I didn't truly see that the meals in our household were an expression of my mom's love for us, for our extended family and friends, and for her customers and the students in her cooking classes. I took food for granted. What should have filled me with deep, daily gratitude instead became a given part of my daily existence.
Furthermore, as a young child, I was always self-conscious about going to school smelling like curry. Nothing would fill my heart with more trepidation than being called out by my classmates for the aroma that would waft from my clothes and hair. Instead of embracing the smell of food as a proud part of my being and history, I was quick to mask the smells with cologne (Febreze was my friend.)
What I didn't appreciate at the time was that the foods my mom prepared were more than just sustenance for the day or options for a particular meal. They told a story. They told the story of a woman who moved from India to Canada in 1972. They told the story of a woman who left her parents and family for the first time, taking a flight for the first time to come and live in a new country with her husband. They told the story of a woman who built a life with her husband in Canada and who continues to this day to serve as the heart of a community. They told her story.
The Hundred-Foot Journey made me realize that food is one of the greatest representations of culture and, as a chef my mom was a steadfast guardian of culture in our lives. As an immigrant family much like the Kadam family, food represented a way for us to preserve our Indian heritage and culture in Canada. Thanks to my mom, through the food she prepared, we maintained linkages to our tradition. Because many recipes were passed on to my mom from her mother, grandmother, and relatives, food connected us to the family who lived on the other side of the world and to the spirits of those who were no longer with us.
After watching the film, I began to reflect on my own childhood, recalling my favorite foods and the memories they evoked. I remember the chocolate chip cookies my mom made for me after school. We would eat them together, and I would tell her about my day. I remember the South Indian rasam (spicy tomato and lentil soup) that was a fixture at dinner and to this day brings me comfort when I have a cold or flu. I remember the samosas that she makes using pastry, which added a new twist to an Indian classic, and served as the basis for her catering business. I remember the nachos and eggplant parmesan she made for us when dad was out of town on business.
In addition to preparing incredible food for us, my mom taught me how to cook. Before I moved away from home for law school in 2002, I became a vegetarian. I did not know how to cook and when I came back home during summer break after my first year, I had lost 25 pounds. My mother gasped out loud upon seeing me at the airport and laid down the law, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to go back to law school unless I learned how to cook. Like Hassan's mother in the film, she gave me a spice box, gave me many new recipes (though measurements were always a "dash of this" or a "pinch of that"), and opened my eyes to the many ways cooking could bring joy to my life.
Before The Hundred-Foot Journey, I thought of food as functional. After the film, my mind and heart were flooded with memories, because, like Hassan said, food IS memories. Food is art. Food is the fabric by which we not only meet our physical needs but fulfill our emotional ones. Food allows us to connect to our ancestry in a very immediate way and to pay homage to our family. Food is precious, not only because it is not guaranteed for so many people in the world, but because it carries with it the secrets, wishes, desires, victories and struggles of all who have come before, who have committed the recipe to paper, and who have subsequently brought the recipe to life in the past and present.
At its core, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a culinary, cultural love letter, and I realized through this film that food is the love letter that my mom writes to her ancestors and family. She writes this love letter to her mother and grandmother for all they taught her. She writes this love letter to our family every time we gather around the table, through each dish, filling our stomachs, hearts, home and lives with indescribable love.
Much like Madame Mallory discovers throughout the course of the film, I realized that curry is not just curry. It is tradition. It is legacy. It is love.
And I will gladly and gratefully have a second helping.