Royale with Cheese: Food during Critical Moments in Pulp Fiction
by Oliver Eisenbeis
Every one of Tarantino’s films contains at least one memorable food or beverage: for Jackie Brown, it’s the screwdriver; for Inglorious Basterds, it’s the strudel and milk; and for Pulp Fiction, it’s the breakfast, coffee, milkshakes, and the infamous hamburgers. Food is unique in Tarantino’s films because it’s always dripping in significance. What characters eat and how they eat it tells us about appetite, morals, and principles—it’s one of the most significant pieces of a character’s personality. As seen in virtually all of Tarantino’s films, food is always a way for characters to assert dominance. Pulp Fiction is a unique film in that food is a topic that the characters continuously discuss, consume, and analyze. It’s used to bring people together during moments of relaxation, yet always exists at critical plot points that usually precede death.
This film is split up into three seemingly separate stories that begin to overlap as we learn more and more. We’re introduced to two hit men (Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield and John Travolta as Vincent Vega) during the prologue; Jules is driving a car while Vincent discusses the “little differences” between McDonalds in America and France. Their friendly, light-hearted conversation, shown in a classic shot-reverse-shot sequence, focuses on the “Quarter Pounder with Cheese,” which Vincent points out is called a “Royale with Cheese” in Paris (due to the metric system). Upon entering an apartment to retrieve a briefcase for their employer, the two hit men discover three young men eating hamburgers for breakfast—specifically “Big Kahuna” cheeseburgers. “You mind if I try one of yours?” asks Jules. The young man nods nervously. Every way you look at it, the seizure of this young man’s burger is a power move born out of confidence. Samuel L. Jackson’s character walks into the room and immediately claims it. “Coming in there as [a] black male,” Quentin Tarantino said in an interview, “[Jules] just completely [dominates] this room of younger white males by taking a bit out of the guy’s hamburger” (YouTube). He metaphorically plants a flag in the center of this room and claims it. Strengthening the existing power dynamic, Jules finishes the burger, slurps downs the young man’s drink, and then shoots him 9 times in the chest. This scene is a great example of Tarantino’s characteristic use of food to assert dominance, but also highlights another recurring theme of food being consumed at a critical moment, often before death. Furthermore, the remark about the royale with cheese is repeated again in this scene, highlighting the repetitive nature of the hamburger.
Hamburgers return again in story 1, titled Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife. After being asked to entertain his boss’ wife for the evening, Vincent buys heroin in preparation before taking Mia to dinner at a 1950s themed restaurant. Again, we’re given a dialogue heavy, friendly conversation presented via a very static shot-reverse-shot sequence. It’s as if Tarantino sets up the cameras and just lets them run, allowing the actors to improvise the dialogue as naturally as possible. This sequence, similar to the royale with cheese conversation that occurred earlier in the car, exists to brings the characters together. Vincent and Mia establish an intense relationship and bond over their individual food choices. Even though this scene doesn’t appear to be centered around power at the surface, Mia’s confidence in her food order astounds Vincent (who subsequently shifts his position and leans in to the rest of the conversation) and aids to form their relationship. Nonetheless, this moment of food once again precedes a critical moment. Following their meal, Vincent goes to the bathroom to talk himself out of making a pass at Mia. Meanwhile, she discovers the baggie of heroin in his coat pocket and, assuming it’s cocaine, snorts some. She immediately overdoses and Vincent panics, leading to a secret that the two share for the rest of the film.
To add one more example of the idea that food is continuous topic of discussion in Pulp Fiction, look at the beginning and the end of the film. In both scenes, conversation takes place over breakfast in a diner (actually the same diner in both scenes) and food is used as a device to uncover character’s morals and identity traits. There are many other scenes throughout the film’s chapters that do this as well. This discussion, consumption, and analysis of foods is a common practice in Tarantino’s films, but this film continuous use of said practices is what makes it unique. Food itself becomes a central character in the film and previews/reveals critical moments, often resulting in death.
Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson. Miramax, A Band Apart, Jersey Films, 1994. DVD.
Yellow King Film Boy. “Quentin Tarantino Talks About Food And Their Power In Movies.” Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, Oct 17, 2017. Mar 8, 2018.