The scene of mobster Carmine Galante's last meal on the open-air garden patio of Joe and Mary's Restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, July 1979.

In [ethnic family films], the prevailing industrialized, alienated, and anxious relationship to food undergoes a fantasy conversion to an artisanal mode in which food becomes a powerful form of emotional capital, particularly (although not always) for women.  Moreover, the films’ nostalgia is closely tied to a rhetoric of anti-mass production.  Daniel Harris has shown how an aesthetic preoccupation with “deliciousness” colors much of our contemporary discourse on food, in anxious counterpoint to our awareness of the industrialized realm of food production.  The ethnic food films invert the current cultural terms of food consumption for many reasons, not the least of which may be the desire to fantasize control over what we eat by returning anachronistically to an era before mass production in which we imagine that the food we eat is the transparent reflection of the emotional commitment of a caregiver.

In Moonstruck, the deepest fear at the heart of the film is that the ethnic family will die out.  Three generations of an Italian American family live together under one roof in a house that is like a mausoleum.  Widow Loretta Castorini is in danger of marrying the wrong man, the middle-aged Johnny Camereri, a figure who, it is suggested, is himself too much an anachronism to successfully update the family.  Moonstruck continuously accumulate references to death, then overturns them through references to food as a life force.

The proliferation of ethnic-themed chain restaurants has been one of the most distinct trends in American dining in the last decade.  For instance, the success of the General Mills-owned Olive Garden chain in franchising ethnic “comfort foods” through such promotional gambits as “the bottomless pasta bowl” has been dramatic.  Notable for its “Hospitaliano” ad campaign, which relies on the tag line “When you’re here, you’re family,” the Olive Garden restaurant chain attempts to compensate for its strip mall ubiquity by claiming for itself an intimacy associated with the neighborhood restaurant.  As a premiere example of a new category of Italian restaurant that pitches itself as a re-creation of the ethnic neighborhood restaurant, the Olive garden chain advertises itself through the use of narrators who link the restaurant to heritage credentials.  Accordingly, the chain’s television ads tend to begin with signature phrases such as “You never met my big Italian family” or “This is my Grandpa Giovanni.  Nobody tells stories like he does.”

-Diane Negra, “Ethnic Food Fetishism, Whiteness, and Nostalgia in Recent Film and Television.” In The Velvet Light Trap, #50, Fall 2002.

My mom and her sisters love Moonstruck.  We’ve never been to the Olive Garden.  Click the image below for Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” vs. Olive Garden’s recipe for Chicken Milanese.