My Favourite Uses of Food in Fiction
By Nam Woon Kim (he/him) | Illustration by Yi Jong (she/they)
Food in fiction is undeniably appetising, but this is not that kind of list. Instead, here’s a round-up of three times where the food was yum and meaningful. Some say the curtains are just blue, but I’d argue that a hamburger isn’t just a hamburger. As a window into politics, character, and even the artist themselves, food is a versatile tool - more symbol than prop. Spoilers ahead for Tatsuki Fujimoto’s Chainsaw Man and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car.
Family Burger - Chainsaw Man
Kicking off this three-course meal is a spoof of McDonalds and American fast food in general. This family-friendly establishment is introduced late in the story where Chainsaw Man’s brand of horror-comedy meets the terror of working in fast-food. Everyone knows hospitality is a shit gig, and for a chapter Fujimoto drops us off in the worst shift ever. Chapter 85, ‘Bloody Good Gut Feeling’, reunites us with Kobeni, one of the few remaining named characters still alive. Having literally gone to hell and back, Kobeni swapped the life of hunting devils - each representing a specific fear like bats, or darkness - for life in the service industry. Any hope that she’s escaped to a better life is immediately dismissed, however, as the burden of emotional labour reveals itself through an abusive team.
Every order at Family Burger is delivered through an exaggerated, ensemble performance that Kobeni hasn’t quite nailed yet. She whispers to the void, wishing to be saved, and a hero appears in the form of the Chainsaw devil, hungry to eat. The stage is set as Kobeni tries to deliver the burger in one piece before her entire team is murdered by the customer from hell. For a series that featured an homage to Napoleon Crossing the Alps in the same scene as a Sharknado tribute, Chapter 85 sees Chainsaw Man reach new heights of absurdity in a silly, but strangely cathartic critique of modern work. This critique is a staple of the story where devil hunting itself is a spoof of how expendable working people are, especially in Japan. Dressed in your standard black suit and tie, devil hunters face off against everything from zombies to Evangelion angel-esque kaiju just to secure a bonus and put bread on the table. It’s the latter which drives the story from Chapter 1, where our destitute protagonist, Denji, dreams of a life of hamburgers and other such luxuries. By taking the story to a fast- food chain where food is ‘cheap’ and mass-produced, the story comes full circle. Food in fast-food chains, see: Dunkin Donuts, and capitalism as a whole is often wasted, and yet people like Denji continue to go hungry.
That Family Burger is a satire of American food is worth noting here. McDonalds as a symbol of American capitalism is well-documented and nothing new in fiction, but in the broader context of Chainsaw Man’s middle finger to exploitation, it becomes more potent. The reality is that America and its companions in the global north, including us, have the resources and potential to feed its people. If all of this seems like a reach, only a handful of chapters before we saw our first glimpse into politics outside of Japan. In what is now one of my favourite depictions of an American president, the faceless head of state makes a deal with the Gun Devil - in exchange for using its power, he offers a year of every American citizen’s life; that’s basically how the U.S. response to Covid has gone down with respect to the economy. One of genre fiction’s biggest strengths, especially horror, is in depicting the violence hidden from our daily lives. Chainsaw Man thrives in this space as a transgressive, but meaningful series that uses food to elevate its story.
Special Herbs - Metal Fingers (MF DOOM)
If you ask any fan of hip-hop where to start with the legendary MF DOOM, chances are you’re going to have at least three different places to start from and MM..FOOD will be one of them. This album seemed like the obvious choice here - songs like ‘Rapp Snitch Knishes’ speak for themselves, and there’s fewer drinks from the tap I like better than ‘Guinesses’. But, while listening to his music while putting the rest of this piece together, a more understated choice presented itself through the beat tapes he released as Metal Fingers.
As the name suggests, each song is named after a herb (or an eclectic ingredient), and each volume documents the beats he made for his own discography and others. The result is a dense collection of his work as a producer that can be enjoyed simply for their craftsmanship, or to figure out which song each herb was extracted from. My favourite cuts include Lemon Grass, a great pairing for chicken, and Zatar, which goes great with a flatbread and olive-oil so I’m told. Knowledge of his work is by no means necessary to appreciate these herbs, but it does make exploring this compilation more rewarding as you try to place each song.
It has been more than a year now since MF DOOM passed. On top of inspiring the best of the underground today, from Ka to Earl Sweatshirt, his legacy is a style of production you can find packaged in one place: Metal Fingers’ Special Herbs.
Invited for dinner - Drive My Car
Only visibly in-frame for half a minute or so, a Korean dinner shared between colleagues takes the last spot here from a movie that lives up to its reputation as the understated, indie darling of last year: Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. For context, this scene appears relatively early in the movie. As the opening credits hit about forty minutes after a prologue that ends in tragedy, Drive My Car settles into a story that seems only concerned with the protagonist’s work. Yûsuke’s latest project is putting together his vision of Dostoevsky’s Uncle Vanya , a meticulous, multilingual performance delivered in Japanese, Korean sign language, and Mandarin, among many more. This job places him in a quiet corner of Hiroshima where he reluctantly accepts to be chauffeured from the residency to his hotel - a disruption to his daily ritual where he’d recite lines while driving.
After a rehearsal one evening, one of the festival’s coordinators, Yoon- su, invites Yûsuke and his driver, Misaki, to dinner at his home. What appears to be a narrative detour becomes a turning point in the movie as we dig deeper into the themes of understanding each other. There are few activities I consider more intimate than dinner. Much like many other moments in the rest of the story, Hamaguchi captures this magic without us noticing. There is no hiding at dinner. Between you, the food, and the company shared, there is a bridge to honesty that even the most stoic of us cannot escape. Before Yûsuke and Misaki even walk in, they learn that tonight’s hosts also include Yoon-su’s wife, or as she was known as: Yoon-a, one of the actors in the play who successfully auditioned in Korean sign-language. This reveal is not treated with any drama, and the evening progresses as we wonder what else is there to know. This is the situation Yûsuke finds himself in, and quite refreshingly, no time is wasted on breaking the ice either. Lesser stories would fumble around, but Yûsuke is reserved, not awkward. Everyone settles in, and we watch as they get to know each other a little more. With food, barriers dissolve; this extends to the invitation itself when one welcomes another into their home.
Perhaps for the first time since the events of the prologue set several years prior, we see glimpses beyond Yûsuke’s stoic workmanship here. It is no coincidence that this transpired over dinner where the colourful cast extends to the food itself. The contents of dinner itself are, from my recollection, your standard Korean side-dishes ranging from stir- fried japchae to kimchi. But it’s not the food itself that’s important. Food is an excuse, a setting, and a language of its own.