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You've gotta serve somebody: Jesus put service in the spotlight 2,000 years ago, and Hollywood's stars still practice the virtue, toiling away in kitchens on the big screen.


THE DA VINCI CODE KICKED UP AN INTERNATIONAL ruckus by claiming Leonardo had placed a woman next to Jesus in his painting of the Last Supper--a woman the church had supposedly trained us to ignore. But more troubling for me is the way DaVinci (and most other artists) ignored all the handmaids and servants who prepared and served this famous meal, leaving out the very people Jesus imitated when he got up to wash his disciples' feet.

Perhaps that is why I like Diego Velasquez's Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. In these two paintings the 17th-century Spaniard placed the overlooked and forgotten women who wait upon Jesus and his friends in the foreground, dwarfing the male figures that usually dominate these scenes. Velasquez's startling perspective makes it hard to miss the humanity and importance of these servants--or our tendency to overlook them.

Like Velasquez, Hollywood has also been paying more attention to the unrecognized folks who prepare and serve our meals, offering up three celluloid parables about the people (and critters) working behind the swinging doors of our kitchens, and reminding us that these unnoticed servants are persons and artists in their own right.

There's a taste of the '70s sitcom Alice in Adrienne Shelly's sparky little tale about an unhappily married (and pregnant) young Waitress (Fox Searchlight, 2007) serving pies--and a life sentence--at the country diner. Jenna (Keri Russell) creates pies that are mouthwatering eye candy, but none of the other waitresses taking orders at Old Joe's (Andy Griffith's) diner would trade places with her, wed to the county's leading narcissistic bully, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who sucks up more love and light than a black hole.

Gifted as she is at coming up with recipes for outstanding pastries, Jenna has yet to discover the right mix of ingredients for a happy life. Ironically enough, her culinary creations delight the eye and the tongue because they have so much of her in them, while her life seems flat and tasteless because it has way too much of Earl (who doesn't deserve a Twinkie) in it. For a while it looks like Jenna might try to find happiness by putting another man at the center of her life, but in the end she gets the recipe right. Life (and love) demands that we love others as we love ourselves.

KATE (CATHERINE ZETA-JONES) HAS THE OPPOSITE problem in No Reservations (Warner Bros., 2007), a romantic comedy about the empress chef of an upscale Manhattan restaurant who discovers that her maestro-like management of a symphony of cooks and kitchen workers may produce an exquisite array of masterpiece meals but offers her little help in negotiating the troubled waters of romance or parenting. When Kate's assembly line routines are upended by the arrival of a new (and decidedly attractive) chef in the kitchen and a young niece in her apartment, she finds that the formulaic recipes that have served her so well are creating disasters.

Unlike Jenna, Kate's recipe for life has left too little room for the spices others bring to our lives, and the czarina chef, used to issuing commands to everyone, must learn to take a few orders if she is to let Nick (Aaron Eckhart) and Zoe (Abigail Breslin) into her life. For her to succeed as a chef and a person, Kate will need to remember that great meals are not just about the food we eat, but about the company we keep.

BRAD BIRD'S DAZZLING RATATOUILLE (PIXAR, 2007) serves up a feast of delights for the eye as it follows the adventures of a French country rat seeking to fulfill his calling as a Parisian chef. Remy (Patton Oswalt) has a connoisseur's nose and a genius for creating dishes that jump off the plate with flavor. But a rat in the kitchen is the surest way for a restaurant to lose its stars, so the rodent chef must hide his talent and nose under the cap of a young waiter forced to pose as a great cook. (Imagine Cyrano de Bergerac with a wooden spoon instead of a sword.)

Bird's animated parable works so well because he keeps shifting points of view. We see Remy both as a gutsy and endearing genius in the kitchen and as one of a sea of rats slithering across our kitchen floor--yuck! With these alternating perspectives the audience is forced to confront its own bias about rats (literal and proverbial) and to recognize Remy's gifts while still letting him be a rodent. Unlike Pinocchio, Remy the rat doesn't get to be a human being, but Ratatouille urges us to be neighbor to him nonetheless.

IN A WORLD WHERE EVERYONE ELSE (INCLUDING his disciples) clambered for the best seats at the table, Jesus never forgot the folks who waited hand and foot on the guests of life's banquets and imagined a day when servants everywhere would be able to take off their aprons, sit down, and be waited upon by the world's masters and householders. He called this topsy-turvy world the reign of God.

And to make way for that reign, Jesus trained his disciples to be waiters. In the six accounts of the multiplication of loaves, Jesus told the Twelve that it was their job to find something with which to feed the hungry and tired crowds that had followed him out into the wilderness, and he instructed the disciples to seat, serve, and pick up after the thousands who came to dinner. This waiter-in-training program wrapped up at the Last Supper, when he taught them to wash each other's feet; and after the Resurrection (Acts 6), we learn that the apostles had two jobs--to preach the gospel and to wait upon the widows.

Jesus taught his disciples to recognize the dignity and contribution of those hidden folks who prepare and serve our food, and to go and do likewise for one another.

By PATRICK McCoRMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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