Food Packaging in Repo Man and Enoki Gnocchi
Put it on a plate, you'll enjoy it more
I just made an appointment to get tattoo number three.
This tattoo, which will be of a blue and white can with the word “FOOD” emblazoned across it, is inspired by a scene in one of my favorite movies. So to celebrate, I think it’s time to do some very self-indulgent foodie literary analysis. We’re talking about Repo Man.
You probably haven’t seen this movie, but even if you haven’t, watching it will feel familiar. Its gritty aesthetic, its pithy one-liners (“Ordinary fucking people, I hate ‘em.”), and its understated grind of suburban discontent. Pulp Fiction and Napoleon Dynamite wouldn’t exist without it, and that’s just the beginning of the “lattice of coincidence.”
Repo Man mainly consists of car chases and punk rock, radioactive dead aliens in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu that disintegrates you if you deign to open the trunk, and subtle indictments of Reagan-era policy. It follows Otto Maddox, a suburban LA street punk who just lost his dead-end job at the grocery store, found out his girlfriend is cheating on him, and that even if he wanted to go back to school, his parents have given the $1,000 they’d promised him to their favorite televangelist.
Otto wanders the slums of the city all night, a midnight pedestrian in a town famed for its bright sun and lack of sidewalks, trying to figure out what to do with his life. Then, at the urging of a stranger offering twenty bucks, he steals a car. And thus begins his life as a repossession agent at the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation.
I first encountered Repo Man when I was about 16. I was on a quest to watch as many strange cult films as I could get my hands on, and the combination of punk rock and sci-fi immediately sold me. My wifi network is named after a line in this movie.
You could say I have a thing for it.
By shooting almost exclusively in backstreets and dusty, uninspiring neighborhoods devoid of any vegetation, Repo Man crafts an odd, postapocalyptic, alternate universe LA. But the most effective tool used to make the world of this film feel alien (lol) is the nearly complete lack of branded products. Even with the backing of Universal Studios, filmmaker Alex Cox couldn’t find a single sponsor to put product placement in a film that spends a shocking amount of time in convenience and grocery stores.
So, they talked to Southern California grocery giant Ralph’s. Every single food product in the movie bears its blue and white generic label, an element of sameness that only emphasizes how removed these characters are from mainstream society. Early on, Otto, played by a young Emilio Estevez, stacks cans in the grocery store, making a pyramidal display as his coworker Kevin sings the 7 Up jingle. Otto tells him to stop, and when Kevin claims he was not, in fact, singing at all, Otto puts a price tag on his glasses. Kevin’s dad, the store owner, promptly fires him.
It’s worth noting that in the early ‘80s, generic grocery store products were a huge deal.
The entire store is a sea of sameness, a bland expanse of sliced yellow peaches and popcorn. This ubiquity only continues throughout the movie. As Otto descends further into the “always intense” life of a repo man, it continues to a comical degree. When fellow repossessor Bud, played by legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton says, “Let’s go get a drink,” they go to the liquor store for a pack of anonymous cans. They simply say “Drink.”
That in itself would be sufficiently hilarious and political, but Cox ups the ante when Otto visits his parents. Characters rarely eat in this movie, but it says a lot about the film that when Otto does eat, it’s not even clear what he’s eating.
The Maddoxes, a hippie caricature stoned out of their minds, vegetate in front of the television, glued to a man who preaches about how you should sell your car and donate that money to him, just to get a little closer to heaven. Otto asks about the money they’ve set aside for him, only to discover that they’ve donated all their extra money to the Reverend (who does want your money because God wants your money). All the while, Otto eats straight out of a blue and white can dubiously labeled “FOOD.” His mother suggests he put it on a plate because he’ll “enjoy it more.”
By nearly eliminating the existence of name-brand products from its characters’ lives, Repo Man not only creates an immersive alternate universe within Los Angeles but also points out the vapidness of consumer culture. There are barely even trees in the world of Repo Man, let alone fresh produce. These blue and white labels emphasize the characters’ lower-middle-class lifestyle but are even more an indictment of the Reagan-era food system and America’s immense distance from its own culinary realities.
Otto and the repo men seem to subsist on a steady diet of beer, speed, and occasional popcorn. The only time anyone cooks something is when Otto visits the Rodriguez brothers, a gang of rival car thieves. Their tiny Mexican grandmother makes homemade tortillas in the background as they discuss something totally unrelated. Once, Otto visits the United Fruitcake Outlet, but that’s just a front for a UFO investigation outfit.
Of course, his girlfriend works there.
Repo Man is a nonsensical mess of a film. It flopped so spectacularly that it was pulled from theaters on day one and only resurrected and released due to the strength of its soundtrack and a positive Roger Ebert review.
For me, what’s special about it is ultimately its willingness to spit in the face of convention, its determination to question everything (even if that thing is just a plate of shrimp), and the miracle that a movie this weird ever got made.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a recipe.
When it became clear I would have to self-publish my fairy tale cookbook, a book I had put my entire self into for ages, I got pretty discouraged. I had (have) grand plans for that book, and recipe testing thirty different dishes by myself without the monetary validation of a book advance felt… complicated. Recipe development seemed simultaneously too personal, too challenging, and too schlocky.
But last week, I stumbled upon a combination so effortless and ridiculously comforting that it deserved to get written up. That’s how I feel about the gnocchi situation I made up last week.
I’ve been making sheet pan gnocchi recipes for a while, riffing off of this one from The Kitchn, and have always appreciated the minimal cleanup and maximum payoff of it all. Plus, I was one of the many social media-addicted millennials who found Melissa Clark’s baked feta pasta impossible to escape for a hot second there. Anyway, this is a long-winded way to say that I combined the two methods in this recipe.
The amount of work required here is so minimal it’s kind of hilarious. If you’re the sort of person who (blasphemously, but I get it) keeps pre-chopped garlic around; you won’t even have to break out a knife for this one.
All I did was take a package of gnocchi, a large container of enoki mushrooms (you can substitute a mild variety like white mushrooms or even oysters if you’re feeling fancy), a wheel of a triple creme goat cheese with the top cut off (any Brie or similar gooey cheese will do the trick), a couple of cloves of garlic, and salt and pepper. I threw that all in the oven at 400°F for half an hour in an oven-safe cast iron pan with olive oil.
When you come back (this is an excellent time to send that email you’ve been dreading), you mix it all together and add some frozen peas. Let it sit for a minute or two with a lid on so the peas defrost and all that. Then you’re done.
This dish was so good that I ate it for both lunch and dinner. It did a lot to mitigate the 17-degree weather outside. You should probably make it, and remember to take a picture of it, which I, clearly, did not.
Annnd we’re wrapping this up with the best things I’ve eaten recently and a couple of other recommendations:
Go to Evi’s Bakerei in Prospect Heights for the maple crullers. Add a smoked salmon one if you’re feeling ambitious.
If you’re feeling excessively indoors right now, take Helen Rosner’s advice and get an AeroGarden. Once my sprouts are big enough, I’ll have reliable fresh herbs in my apartment 24/7, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Little bit of a throwback but this is newsletter number two so who cares. For the love of all that is holy, get yourself to Dhamaka. I still haven’t had a full meal there, but even grabbing a couple of cocktails completely gobsmacked me. They’ve got great nonalcoholic options (hard recommend on the passionfruit lassi), awesome bartenders, and the entire experience was A+ from start to finish.