Food plays a significant role in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Puzo’s novel. It would be easy enough to dismiss the emphasis on food as a superficial literary or filmic device; however, the persistent references to food seem to suggest a deeper symbolic meaning. Throughout every stage of the plot’s development, and in almost every scene, there is a reference to food; indeed, food is often the backdrop against which the rest of the action among the characters unfolds, and though described richly in Puzo’s book, food is especially prominent in Coppola’s film.
Food in The Godfather “acts as a symbol of personal honor, ethnic authenticity, and family relationships,” write Sutton and Wogan (155), but it also acts as a symbol of accomplishment and security, of the ways in which traditions are maintained and adapted in the transition from the Old World to the New World, and how, most importantly, the relationship with the reader and viewer is manipulated so that the Corleones, despite their bloodsport, are portrayed as warm and loving family men who cannot be all that bad.
The Corleones are an Italian family for which personal, familial, and cultural honor and loyalty are central values. These three aspects of identity—the self, the family, and the society—are viewed by the Corleones are largely inseparable constructs, at least until the last generation of the family is portrayed, in which Michael Corleone begins to establish a separate identity that breaks from both family and ethnic tradition. Curiously, it is in this scene when the table is almost bare and the women leave the table, suggesting the split that is about to occur in the family. First, though, it is important to understand how food plays a central role in constructing and reaffirming all three aspects of identity for the Corleones. The importance of food in Italian culture is so well-known that it has become a familiar stock image in almost any cultural production that purports to reflect Italian and Italian-American life. From the movie “Big Night” to the popular TV series, “The Sopranos,” food is used as a way to represent Italians. Food, suggest the films and programs, is not just sustenance; it is a means of bringing people together and, more importantly, of enjoying the act of sharing what those seated at the table have in common, namely their family ties and their ethnic roots.
The iconic “good” Italian never rejects this aspect of himself or herself; food is understood to be the single most important stamp of ethnic authenticity (Sutton & Wogan 155). It is for this reason, then, that the presence of food is so pronounced in The Godfather. There is not one film or show that comes to mind in which an Italian rejects the food of his or her homeland; instead, he or she clings tightly to everything related to the maintenance of food and food-related traditions. Family recipes are guarded as closely as state secrets; family members come together to cook elaborate meals for important events, such as First Communions and weddings, which themselves underscore and reinforce ethnic identity; and they gather around the table to indulge their shared tastes. Food preparation and meal scenes are critical recurring images in Mario Puzo’s book and in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of The Godfather.
In one such scene, “Larry’s son is receiving First Communion, Lucia Santa is making her special ravioli, and the entire family gathers along with…neighbors and old friends” (Messenger 145). Messenger continues, “The setting is the most familiar ethnic type scene of them all—a traditional meal, where food preparation and consumption are meticulously described” (Messenger 145). At no point duringThe Godfather is a foreign food seen on the table. While the Corleones aspire to the good life, their definition of that life does not involve acquiring different gustatory tastes, as is often the case when someone aspires to climb the social ladder. The Corleones are not interested in Russian caviar or Maine lobster; a well-prepared ravioli made by a family member’s hands—preferably those of a mother or a grandmother—keeps them attached to their ethnic roots, even, and especially, when they begin to leave their homeland.
Food is also meaningful as an affirmation that the family has achieved a certain degree of economic security and success. In Book III of Puzo’s novel, the narrator recalls how as a young husband and father back in Sicily, Vito Corleone “had four mouths to feed” (197). In the film version, Vito is obviously preoccupied with procuring enough food to keep his family fed, and he feels a burning shame, which is also portrayed in the book, when his friend Genco “vowed to Vito that he would not have to worry about food [because] he… would steal food from the grocery to supply his friend’s needs” (Puzo 197). What seems to bother Vito almost as much as not having food is the fact that “the dreaded Fanucci,” a “heavy, fierce-looking Italian,” uses food as a tool of psychological and economic manipulation to force the people in Vito’s neighborhood who are indebted to him to do his bidding (Puzo 196-197). During the war years, Fanucci had “acquired an interest” in the neighborhood grocery store, and when olive oil ran short, he was able to procure it, along with salamis and other imported Italian foods that helped people maintain their ethnic ties. Although Fanucci is a bully who cares little for other people, the fact that he owns and has access to food and food-related products signifies in young Vito’s eyes a man who has achieved a certain level of success, albeit through manipulation.
Although Vito does not admire Fanucci and certainly does not want to be like him, he does aspire to have Fanucci’s level of financial comfort. In fact, it is because Vito’s family lacks food, and because he wants to have the stability to provide this basic staple of life for them, that he gets involved in underground, illicit activities, thereby setting into motion the pattern of illegal dealings that will define his and future generations of the Corleone family. Vito had looked for honest work, to no avail. His young wife, “a skilled cook,” is shown in the movie as struggling to cobble a pitiful meal together of scraps in order to feed their young children (Puzo 196). As “[t]ime went on, things did not improve,” writes Puzo (199), and Vito is forced to consider other alternatives. “The Corleone family could not eat the beautiful rug…. [T]here was no work, his wife and children must starve…. Clemenza and Tessio… proposed… he become one of their gang which specialized in hijacking trucks of silk dresses….” (Puzo 199). Vito accepts their offer, though not gladly at first, casting the fate of the forthcoming generations of his family. Vito and his family and their descendants will never go hungry again; they will have success and security, and always food, but often at a steep price. Still, the moral compromises the Corleone men have to make seem better to them than the prospect of starving. It is as if the imprint of poverty and hunger have made a lasting psychological impression upon them, and they will always prefer largesse and excess on their tables as opposed to spareness.