Sigma Tau Delta at JMU

What’s “Eating” Quentin Tarantino? His Focus on Food in Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained

“Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and you find your food waiting for you?” — Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace

Pulp Fiction (1994) and Django Unchained (2012) share a striking similarity—other than both being directed by Quentin Tarantino, and “over-using” the word nigger (Django uses it over 100 times, Pulp Fiction 28 times [qtd. in Juzwiak])—and the commonality in question deals with the director’s use of food in his films. From the now iconic Big Kahuna burger and Sprite scarfed down by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, to a gun-packed box of Kaboom Cereal blown apart by Vivica A. Fox in Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), to the connections that both of Christoph Waltz’s characters have concerning food—Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009), with milk and pa- stry, and Dr. King Schultz in Django, with beer and cake—Quentin Tarantino absolutely appears enamored with eating in, seemingly, every one of his movies. However, Pulp Fiction and Django perhaps “take the cake” —pardoning the pun, por favor—but do so in extremely different ways.

In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino exploits comestibles, both animalistically and barbarically, by meshing but also simultaneously juxtaposing delicious-looking edibles with violence, and death. Jules Winnfield (Jackson) guns down one of the guys he and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) were sent to kill, and almost immediately after eating the man’s breakfast in an incredibly intimidating fashion. Sticking like syrup on the subject of breakfast, gangster leader Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) stops cold in the crosswalk carrying coffee and doughnuts, causing him to do a double-take when he spots Butch (Bruce Willis); a moment later, Wallace pulls a gun but Butch floors it before he can get the shot off. The incident ends with both men in rough shape and badly beat up after Butch crashes his sweet and innocent (perhaps the only truly innocent character in the entire film), pot-belly-and-blueberry-pancake-lovin’-French-girlfriend Fabienne’s (Maria de Medeiros) Honda. Connecting the dots further and keeping with the Butch and breakfast motif, the scene of him returning home to recuperate the watch that the beautiful “retard” Fabienne forgot to grab, is another great example. Butch puts some pastries into the toaster, before he notices Vincent’s gun sitting on the counter and hearing the tell-tale flush that lets him catch the ganster “with his pants down” as Vince comes out of the John. The pastries pop out of the toaster, Vince pops out of the toilet, and Butch pops the gangster with his own gun.

Film scholar Rebecca L. Epstein concludes, that the “constant volley between displays of nourishing food and destructive violence” (qtd. in Ben-Youssef  815) sits at the center, and is the very essence, of Pulp Fiction. She postulates and has written extensively about food getting used as a generic trope in gangster films, linking it as a predictor of violence-to-come, and connecting her theory to contemporary filmmakers and their films (Ben-Youssef 815)—including Tarantino. Similarly, in his article, David Anthony Orgeron reports another connection repeated throughout Tarantino’s film where he “self-consciously combines the processes of consumption (eating) and [a] particular type of expulsion (storytelling)….” claiming that the flow of the film’s narrative is “facilitated by the relationship between language, food, and excrement, with the bathroom acting as a catalyst for conversation” (33). Orgeron also notes that Pulp Fiction relies much more on its excessive dialogue than it does the “visual excesses” of the film, coining its usage as: “an uncon-trollable, diarrheic ‘flow’ of words” (33).

As an interesting side note and using this “diarrheic ‘flow’ of words” as a segue, Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction share some striking similarities and connections to William Faulkner. Catherine Gunther Kodat acknowledges many of these connections in her article, “Pulp Fictions: Reading Faulkner for the 21st Century.” For starters, take the director’s name—“who, as it turns out, was indeed named for Faulkner’s ‘fatherless’ Quentin—‘the heroine,’ as his mother explain-ed, of The Sound and the Fury” (75). Now, Tarantino has never identified William Faulkner as a direct influence to him personally, despite having part in “naming” the director, however, Taran-tino does claim Jean-Luc Godard as being influential to him—he named his production company “A Band Apart (in homage to Godard’s 1964 film Band à part)” and dedicated the first film that he directed, Reservoir Dogs (1992), to the French New Wave director. And Godard—whose film À bout de souffle (1960) directly quotes The Wild Palms (84)—was influenced by Faulkner, who Godard not only read, but also: “maintained a deep interest in his work, throughout the early part of his career” (75). So, Tarantino too was influenced by Faulkner—in a roundabout way, at least. As with Godard and the inspirational use of his jump cuts (which Tarantino often employs in his own films), “Tarantino’s contribution to cinema lies in his decision to make” leaps (and bounds) from the “microcosmic temporal disruption central to montage...into a macrocosmic principle of narrative organization” (75). Similarly, both William Faulkner’s novels and Quentin Tarantino’s films are “structured through temporal disjunctions that invite us to consider time, and authority, themselves as subjects” (75). Both Pulp Fiction and The Sound and the Fury use a “grandfather’s watch,” connected through legacy and feces (79-80). In The Sound and the Fury it’s utilized with “Excrement Father said like sweating” (51), and in Pulp Fiction it pops (or poops…) up, with the speech of Captain Koons (Christopher Walken): him telling Young Butch (Chandler Lindauer)—“The way your Daddy looked at it, that watch was your birthright. And he'd be damned if any slopeheads were gonna put their greasy, yella hands on his boy's birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide somethin’. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass.”

Noticing the racist remarks in the previous quote, and remembering Tarantino’s all-too-free usage of the word nigger mentioned at the start of this essay, another connection (probably the most obvious one) easily comes into view—for which both have been heavily criticized for —and that is how controversial their works can be in regards to race. Faulkner’s works literally run rampant with racial epithets in his character’s Southern dialect, and is far too extensive for any coverage in this short paper to do it justice, not to mention the veering further off course it would cause, so the focus will remain on Tarantino’s films. At times, Tarantino utilizes a more “subtle drop of racism” (Klamann), like using names of black-and-white comic-duos to order a chocolate or vanilla milkshake at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and at others he creates a spectacle out of the racism, such as in Django—where black men “have been reduced to [mere] game pieces for the white plantation owner, akin to the recreational billiards table that juts into the corner of the shot. In the center of the frame sits a bottle of chilling champagne. Behind it, the men battle for their lives, thus creating a juxtaposition of the onscreen spectator’s [beverage] and the brutality in which he delights” (Ben-Youssef 825). And, notice in both of these instances, Tarantino has also juxtaposed food with racism, just as he so often does with food and violence.

However, in Django, Tarantino has found a way to combine all three elements—racism, food, and violence—into one tiny (though, hugely symbolic) piece of white cake. And, it is “its very whiteness [which] recalls the racialized dimension of the portrayed system of oppression” (Ben-Youssef 828) that was used to create the cake in the first place, how “culinary refinement is inseparable from the exploitation” (Ben-Youssef 827) needed for its production.

In Django, white cake captures slavery’s exploitative dimension where labor is forced to achieve ultimate refinement; however…[by using] such delicacies as strudel and cake, Tarantino establishes a culture of refinement only to then ex-pose the rudeness and brutality bursting forth from such cultural environments, implicating both victim and perpetrator in their violence. (Ben-Youssef 819)

At one point, Calvin C. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) holds the cake and bill of sale for Django’s wife, Broomhilda, (Kerry Washington)—written proof of, both, her “previous servitude” and her “present emancipation” (Ben-Youssef 828-829) in the same hand. This visual representation and juxtaposition really “[drives] home the exploitative underpinnings of the dessert … also suggest-ing its conceptually freeing possibility…” (Ben-Youssef 828). However, the white piece of cake symbolically is much more sinister for Candie and Shultz—simultaneously precipitating both of the men’s deaths, upon entering the parlor that final time, their “just desserts” impartially served up to each, in turn.

One scene in Django, though, shows Shultz serving up a refreshing mug of sudsy freshly-poured beer to his newly-purchased “slave,” Django. “Tarantino’s lens fixates on the preparation of the malty brew…[and] the drink is made to seem a transporting experience. …Django sipping the beer, leaving foam on his mustache. …nodding as he savors the drink…[marking] a first step into personhood.” Even though the scene and this interpretation of it is troubled by those hanging rags lined around the bar resembling “looming ghosts”—foreshadowing the KKK’s arrival—and the tenuousness of Django’s dire situation is accentuated by them, the liquid nourishment that he consumes here does offer him the possibility of a “momentary escape...from overarching systems of discrimination,” into a “libation-inspired sanctuary.” Food in this scene “represents a possible sanctuary—a respite from horror into pleasure” (Ben-Youssef 824).

Finally, the crème de la crème, and, at least in Pulp Fiction, the ultimate ticket to either a sugary-inspired sanctuary, or a sausage-induced personal-pit-of-hell: the carnivorous characters’ choice of comestibles. When Marcellus Wallace crosses the street carrying his breakfast (coffee and donuts), it is the first time that a major male character appears onscreen with anything other than flesh. “Up to this point, Wallace is represented ... through his henchmen, who carry out his wishes (and almost always) in the presence of meat. But—in his first full appearance—Wallace carries not sausage, nor bacon, but donuts. Does this suggest that Wallace is not as masculine or violent as his underlings?” Doubtfully. But, Wallace’s choice of food does “seem to draw a line, between meat-eaters Jules and Vince…the dealers of death and violence, and the donut-carrying Wallace, who in a matter of minutes will be held at gunpoint and violated” (Klamann). And it is his “momentary movement away from violence and masculinity,” which mirrors a very “similar movement” in the film’s finale for his hired henchman, Jules.

In the final scene in the diner, where the movie first began, Jules and Vincent are sharing a meal, but unlike earlier where he ate the Big Kahuna burger, Jules rejects Vincent’s offer when he asks to split his bacon with him. What does Jules order instead? Pancakes. Fabienne’s dish of choice. A coincidence? “In a similar scenario to Wallace’s in the Torture Scene, Jules’ change of heart seems to be foreshadowed by his decision to ignore meat” (Klamann). This Jules, the same man who helped gun down an entire group of young gentlemen, after “completely crushing them solely by eating their breakfast,” could just have easily sat Ringo (Tim Roth) down, eaten off the plate of bacon in front of him showing his masculine prowess and who is in control, then gunned him and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) down, too. But, instead, Jules hits the “moral peak of his character development” when he calls Vincent’s pork “filthy,” turning meat away (Klamann). Not only does Jules go with the order of the one and only truly-innocent bystander (Fabienne) in the world of Pulp Fiction, he feels an act of “divine intervention” (earlier on in the film) and now he refuses to eat any pork products (like a variety of different religions). Maybe Jules has felt the Hand of God...? Whether or not his religion, or even God, in general, has anything to do with the change cannot be certain. But, his food certainly does.

Jules decides at some point to move morally from “God” to “shepherd,” having seen and caused enough death already for a lifetime. “He will not eat meat anymore, and he similarly will not kill anymore” (Klamann). Considering, however, that Pulp Fiction has a surprisingly eighty-three out of ninety-three total scenes in the film that display, reference, or involve food products in some way shape or form (Underwood), it almost seems impossible to escape. “Tarantino ren-ders the perpetrator’s position, as well as our often-unacknowledged relationship with that posit-ion, palpable and disquietingly palatable. We know our cake is made through the suffering of ot-hers, and Tarantino exposes this reality with explosive clarity, so that we cannot but take a bite” (Ben-Youssef 832). In fact, to put it another way: Pulp Fiction could certainly be described as a “sort of waste product of popular culture” or perhaps “a digested and changed mass of signifiers released at the ‘producer’s’ discretion” (Orgeron 32). But there is one thing for certain: whatever critics and fans want to call his films, or however some might try to dissect, disregard, or devour them whole, Quentin Tarantino will always eat that shit right up.



Works Cited

Ben-Youssef, Fareed. “‘Attendez La Crème!’: Food and Cultural Trauma in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 50, no. 4, Aug. 2017, pp. 814-834. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jpcu.12578.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. Ed. Michael Gorra. New York: Third Norton Critical Edition, 2014. Print.

Juzwiak, Rich. “The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino Saying ‘Nigger.’” Gawker. 21 Dec. 2015. Web. 5 Dec. 2017.

Klamann, Seth. “Putting the Pulp in Pulp Fiction.” University of Missouri. Artifacts, Apr. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2017.

Kodat, Catherine G. “Pulp Fictions: Reading Faulkner for the 21st Century.” The Faulkner Journal, vol. 12, no. 2, 1997, pp. 69-86, Periodicals Archive Online,

Orgeron, Devin A. “Scatalogical Film Practice: Pulp Fiction and a Cinema in Movements.” Post Script - Essays in Film and the Humanities, vol. 19, no. 3, 2000, pp. 29-40, FIAF International Index to Film Periodicals Database; Performing Arts Periodicals Database,

Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perfs. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman. 1994. Blu-Ray. Miramax, 2014.

Underwood, Ron. “The Proof Is in the Pulp: Sex, Power and Food in Pulp Fiction.” Movie Pilot. Creators, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. 7 Dec. 2017.

This paper was presented by the author on April 14, 2018, at James Madison University as a part of Sigma Tau Delta's Undergraduate Conference. 

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