Mambo Italiano Photo by: Claire Bilderback

Mambo Italiano

What happens when food has the starring role in film? You might leave the theater with timpano on the brain.

By Leslie Bilderback 05/01/2011

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A few weeks ago, while flipping channels in search of something to watch with my daughter (desperate to avoid yet another episode of Glee — I can only take so much), I came across one of my favorite movies: Big Night. I used to show it to my culinary students on the last day of class, while I took them aside one at a time to discuss their grades. (A good movie softens the blow.) 
To my delight, my daughter really liked it. If you haven’t seen it, Big Night (1996) is the story of two Italian brothers trying to save their New Jersey restaurant with one big dinner and Louis Prima as the guest of honor. (Once I explained that Louis Prima was the voice of King Louis in The Jungle Book, she liked it even more.) My kids and I don’t always agree on movies. As a kid, I adored the The Love Bug and Dr. Doolittle, but once the new versions arrived, my beloved (superior) classics never stood a chance. How they could prefer Lindsay Lohan to Buddy Hackett is beyond my comprehension. 
 
Ever since Big Night, we have had timpano on the brain. This is the large baked pasta dish, shaped like a kettle drum, layered with all sorts of incredible things and wrapped in sheets of pasta. It is the pièce de résistance of the film, but in the 15 years since its release, I have yet to see one on an actual table. (For a while I thought it was an urban myth, like the chupacabra or alligators in the sewer.) I’ve heard that restaurants were serving it when the film came out, which wouldn’t surprise me. Whenever food plays a supporting role on the big screen, it inevitably makes its way into the marketplace.
 
In fact, it’s not uncommon for a movie to spark nationwide food trends. Remember Fried Green Tomatoes? After that movie came out in 1991, fried green tomatoes were on every menu, from trendy hipster joints to greasy spoons. Author Fannie Flagg claimed she remembered the Depression-era dish from her Southern childhood at the Irondale Café (which inspired her fictional Whistle Stop Café). But fried green tomatoes were actually a rare sight in the South until the 1990s. Not only that, it looks like they sprang from a Northern Jewish tradition. (I beg your pardon, suh!) The earliest written recipe was found in a Midwestern Jewish cookbook from the 19th century. The recipe appears in newspapers in the early 20th century, but only in the North. It seems that fried green tomatoes were common from Massachusetts to Nebraska, a region with a short growing season and a need to use the fruits before the frost set in. The first mention of fried green tomatoes in the South appeared in an Alabama paper in 1944. It was a syndicated article about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new mandate to prescribe nutritious breakfasts of “shortcake, baked beans and fried green tomatoes.” The Irondale (a.k.a. Whistle Stop) was in Alabama, so I suppose that could explain Flagg’s recollection.
 
Today the café fries up 60 to 70 pounds of green tomatoes a day for tourists looking to recapture the magic of spousal abuse and the repressed homosexuality of the 1930s.
 
Red velvet cake, too, found new life after its movie debut. The 1989 chick flick Steel Magnolias features a red velvet groom’s cake shaped like an armadillo. (It’s also known as the “roadkill cake” because once it has been cut, the red interior takes on new significance. ) I hesitate to bake this ubiquitous cake for fear of being labeled “trendy,” but just to be clear, I got my recipe in 1976 (I was just a tot!) from a Southern gal, handwritten on an index card, with ingredients that included “oleo.” An authentic red velvet cake is made the old-fashioned way, with vinegar and baking soda, which create the carbon dioxide reaction that leavens the cake. (Think pâpier-maché volcano). This acid-alkaline reaction also deepens the color of the cocoa to a devilish red-brown (that’s how chocolate devil’s food cake got its name). Although both the Canadian department store Eaton’s and the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York claim the cake’s origin, it is likely that one cook simply wanted her devil’s food cake more devilish and added food color. As recently as the 1960s, newspapers were still calling it “red devil’s cake.”
 
Babette’s Feast, a 1987 Danish film about an exiled French chef, got as much play in upscale restaurants as it did in art house theaters. Many chefs, including the one I worked for, offered either the entire feast, or just the Cailles en Sacrcophages. (Quail stuffed with foie gras, baked in puff pastry and served with black-truffle sauce. Not too shabby). 
 
When it comes to food movies, like a rocket scientist at a Star Trek convention, I am a hideous nit-picker. They spend so much time and money on every other part of a movie, you’d think someone could properly research the food. (Hello, Hollywood? Call my agent.) I nearly walked out of It’s Complicated when Meryl Streep started making chocolate croissants. (Pain au chocolat are rolled up from rectangular pieces of dough, not triangles…duh!) Period films often have historically inaccurate food (usually fruit from the wrong hemisphere) or use cooking equipment that has yet to be invented. Ratatouille is quite accurate, but as someone who has had sticky-paper rodent trap duty every morning, even Disney can’t make me enjoy the thought of rats in a kitchen.
 
In my favorite food movie of all time, food and cooking are the killers! Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? is a goofy romantic comedy from 1978 that has, in my opinion, the most accurate culinary scenes on film (which is the reason I love it…that or Jean-Pierre Cassel’s rear, as he makes breakfast clothed in only an apron). 
 
Movies about family often involve large meals but are usually so fraught with angst that the food is hard to appreciate (e.g., 2003’s Pieces of April, Soul Food from 1997 and The Wedding Banquet, 1993). Movies about love that feature food can be gross, like 
9 1/2 Weeks (1986) which turned me off to strawberries permanently, or beautiful, like the mystical Like Water for Chocolate (1992), which brought the aphrodisiac to a new level. And don’t forget the bawdy Tom Jones, which made it acceptable to eat meat with your hands at the dinner table in 1963.
 
Some movies have little to do with food but use it in a memorable way, like the razor-shaved garlic in Goodfellas (1990) or the $5 shake in Pulp Fiction (1994). Others ooze with food, like 1970’s Scrooge (Albert Finney channels Tom Jones during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present), all the Harry Potter films (if I ate that much food I’d suck at quidditch) and 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. (I would kill for seven minutes in heaven with the cream-filled toadstool that Mike TV’s mom gorges herself on. She totally didn’t deserve it.)
 
The sheer awesomeness of the timpano from Big Night is enough to overlook its questionable history. In Italy it is typically called timballo or bomba, and it varies from region to region. In Abruzzo crepes are used as the structural element, instead of pasta. In Emilia-Romagna the dish usually features risotto, and in Sicily individual rice versions called arancini are the region’s favorite lunch. It can be lined with mashed potato, gnocchi or ravioli, bound with eggs or cheese and filled with meat, vegetables or both, depending on the region and season. The size of the movie version is a bit unrealistic too. Most restaurants serve an individual timballo, or a slice off a much smaller drum. 
 
But enough nit-picking. Crank up the Rosemary Clooney, and let’s eat! Mambo Italiano! 

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

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