We have a deep connection with food. It keeps us alive and, when in abundance, allows us to focus on other aspects of our life. Have fun with others or do something creative, like painting or writing stories. Though the experience of food may culturally differ based on the country you grew up in; humanity shares a history of commensality (the act of eating together).
One of the most well-known examples of eating together is the last supper. When you look at Da Vinci’s painting, it shows one of the arguably most recognisable people in the most humane setting. When observed without (religious) context, we see these people share a table filled with food. We assume they’re telling stories and by doing so, they are working on their interpersonal relationship. Because food provides connection.
Eating in media
We see it as well in contemporary media. There are a lot of holiday films with “the dinner scene” to either strengthen the bond of the people around the table or to put their differences under a magnifying glass for discourse to further the story.
Because of their limited runtime, most films don’t have a proper way to tell its story with the help of food. But there are series that do this most excellently. As an example, I would like to take the Korean Drama My Mister. While I am not familiar with Korean culture, this series boasts a level of humanity that is recognisable because of the use of food. In My Mister, the act of commensality is integral to the development of the relationships over its 16 episodes.
Since I won’t go into detail about the premise of My Mister I hope my examples are clear enough for those that haven’t seen the series. If you want more information, you can read my earlier piece on the show. Just be warned that there will be spoilers!
|As a personal note: I highly recommend the series. It may not be an easy watch, but the well-developed characters and plot are very rewarding for those that stick with it. |
Each episode averages around 70-90 minutes and the story masterfully disguises itself as a slow-burner. When in actuality each episode covers a lot of ground with its cast.
My Mister and the food connection
My Mister requires and demands your attention. There is a lot of focus to little details like hands, breathing and staring that are recognisable across cultures. Things that we often only notice ourselves doing.
Should you miss these details or lack a cultural understanding about a certain custom or behavior, My Mister usually provides understanding. Be it by explaining or showing the same in a different context. And doing this is certainly required, because this show is rich in symbolism and unspoken desires1.
It uses all aspects of the character’s life to strengthen the plot. As metioned earlier: eating and drinking are a big part of it. So let’s see how eating and drinking are connecting characters in My Mister.
Serving with Ms Byun
Dong-Hoon’s mother is always doing one of two things. She is either preparing food or serving people food. A strong character whose job it is to care for her three adult sons. Because these boys need it. While her role may be traditional, I think Ms Byun is the strongest of the family. A pillar if you will. She’s always working to provide food for those who need it. Be it her sons or her adopted daughter and the bar. In a way she is keeping the men in the neighborhood alive because they drink at the bar. We see these two aspects play out in episode 14 where she offers Jun-Hui food before she lectures her as a mother.
Since the clip doesn’t have have subtitles I‘ve added them below
|MsB: “What are you doing? Why are you not getting ready for business?”|
JH: “It looks like you were here earlier. Why did you come back?”
MsB: “To cook for you. Come out and eat.”
JH: “How come getting changed is so annoying? My body can be so bothersome.”
MsB: “You’re too young to be saying that in front of me. Come out.”
JH: “Mother, Aren’t you tired?”
MsB: “Of course, I’m tired.”
JH: “Don’t you get irritated? When I’m tired, I get so irritated that I want to smash everything. I really want to cry. “
MsB: “Among your customers, just pick a man and like him. Think about feeding him; and seeing him won’t make you irritated even when you’re tired.
You’re so stubborn.
The breakup was 20 years ago. You could’ve married several times. Why are you still holding on to someone you can’t be with?
If this was the Joseon Dynasty, they would have built a gate of chastity for you.”
JH: “That kind of gate is useless.”
MsB: “Come out and eat!”
Ms Byun is the embodiment of commensality in this show. If she would have a one-liner, it would be: “Come out and eat!”
Ji-an and the power of sustaining herself
Ji-an has a weird relationship with food. In the early episodes she looks pale and undernourished. This is the result of only eating the scraps she steals from her second job. She is always on the brink of exhaustion due to all the work she does. Being malnourished doesn’t help her situation either.
This is why she asks for dinner as payment for her services before requesting money. She has the realization she needs to eat to keep working. She can only care for her grandmother when she keeps herself alive.
Because no one ever really took care of her for a longer period of time, her mental and physical well-being are intimately tied together. She looks and behaves better when properly fed and when her grandmother is being cared for. When she’s on the run, her mental and physical state decline rapidly. We see the exhaustion in her eyes and the familiar pale complexion of her face.
Only at the conclusion of My Mister when Ji-An has learned to take care of herself we see her shine.
Dong-Hoon’s relationship status indicator
For Dong-Hoon it’s really simple. When he is interested in being with a person he eats with them. That is a relationship starter for him. After that moment he is more comfortable being with them and caring for them.
For example: episode 7 is where Dong-Hoon accepts to buy dinner and drinks for Ji-An. At this point in the show, she is still a stranger to him and he openly refused dinner earlier.
But during this specific dinner we see both characters open up to each other. Later in the same episode they have drinks a second time and they talk, laugh and share a heartfelt smile. As a result of this personal connection, Dong-Hoon gets invested in Ji-An which leads to the fight in episode 9 between him and Gwang-il.
Another example: while he constantly eats and drinks with his brothers and never declines food from his mother, he rarely eats with his wife. They both have demanding jobs, but it’s clear they are estranged from another. That doesn’t stop Dong-Hoon from trying to connect with her2, even if it is hard for him to do so.
Dong-Hoon also occasionally celebrates with his colleagues, but only in one of the latter episodes eats with the Chairman3.
Eating and drinking is an indicator of how he values his relationships. It is unclear if he’s just being careful about connecting with others (over food), or that he’s scared about the connection itself. And it’s this connecting element between Dong-Hoon and the surrounding characters that takes him further on his path of healing.
I was not really aware of the potential that commensality has. When used correctly, it can be a great asset in life and writing. Though it is not always easy to add to a story. For example: it’s not very practical in my current story. People are on spaceships and eating scenes are easily cut out in this setting. The knowledge of commensality made me aware of how important these scenes actually are. I will take extra care in the few food related scenes that I currently have. It is also something that I will take to heart in my future writing. Food is energy. It is fuel for life. Not just in the literal meaning.
So it is not just a writing lesson. It is also a life lesson. Spend your time at the table wisely. Give your attention to the ones you are eating with. They deserve your attention as much as you deserve theirs.
- If you want to deep dive, I recommend the fan-site Give me Slippers. The writer(s) there delve deep into the behaviors and symbolism of My Mister.
- He does this by calling her and asking if he should bring something from the store
- Note that I’m excluding his camping experience, since we do not fully see what happens there.
- Bardone, E. How Sharing a Meal Is About Sharing a Culture. University of Tartu Blog, December 23, 2015.
- Jönsson, H; Michaud, M; Neuman, N. What Is Commensality? A Critical Discussion of an Expanding Research Field. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2021, 18.
- Zelazko, Alicja. “Last Supper“. Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Apr. 2018.