Opening this Friday, the animated feature Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 presents a vast array of anthropomorphic and sentient creatures made up of food, from pizzas with crust limbs, musical burgers and cute little strawberries to predatory "Tacodiles." At the other end of the wholesomeness scale, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are gearing up to produce their long-cherished project Sausage Party, an R-rated, animated adventure about a sausage that's fallen from his shopping cart and is trying to get back to his aisle.
But of course, there's nothing new in this.
Humans have been endowing our food with personality since at least the Gingerbread Man - revived as Gingy in the Shrek movies - through innumerable advertising favorites ranging from Big Fig - the dancing Fig Newton - to Mayor McCheese, Will Vinton's California Raisins, the gullible M&Ms, the evangelical stars of the Veggie Tales and the Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Here are twenty more of the many, many other examples of conscious cuisine...
1. The Flying Spaghetti Monster
The FSM was created by - or, perhaps, revealed himself to humanity through - one Bobby Henderson, in a 2005 open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education arguing against teaching "Intelligent Design" in public school science classes, on the grounds that there's as much scientific evidence that this high-carbohydrate deity created the universe as any other Supreme Being. Soon after, however, the Sacred Starchy One spawned books, a website, and other manifestations, and, in a sort of apotheosis et absurdum, was adopted by ironic hipsters as their true faith.
It's all good-natured fun for now. Hopefully a few centuries hence there won't be a bloody jihad between the Orthodox FSMers and the sect of the Al Dente Angel Hair Incarnation.
2. Mr. Potato Head
Back a few decades ago when he was still funny, Jay Leno once did a routine about how Americans could use Mr. Potato Head as a key to understanding why people in other countries hate us: You show a starving third-world kid a potato, then explain to him that it's not for him to eat, it's for him to put a little hat on.
Turns out that even mid-20th Century Americans, raised on the parental commonplace "don't play with your food," were uncomfortable with the waste implied by the original Mr. Potato Head, invented by one George Lerner in the late '40s and mass-produced by Hasbro in the early '50s. The original set included only the plastic eyes, nose and other features, intended to be stuck into a real spud. A few years later Hasbro decided that it was less wasteful and safer to make a fake, hollow potato body for him out of petroleum products. Yay! In this form he became a classic resident of the American toy box; along with the Slinky Dog and Barbie, one of the handful of real-life toy brands to be included in the Toy Story universe.
3. Mattel Food Fighters
This 1988 action figure line of comestible warriors from Mattel included both the "Kitchen Commandos" like Burgedier General, Major Munch (a donut) and Private Pizza, who traveled in the Combat Carton (an egg carton assault vehicle), versus the "Refrigerator Rejects" like Mean Wiener, Short Stack and Taco Terror. They didn't quite dethrone Mr. Potato Head in the field of food toys. But they got to star in a rather cool stop-motion commercial, which has an even more epicurean flavor when heard, as it is on YouTube, in French.
4. The Killer Tomatoes
"I know I'm going to miss her/A tomato ate my sister/Sacramento fell today/They're marching on San Jose" These couplets from the notorious theme song give a pretty solid indication of the level of wit in John DiBello's 1978 indie sci-fi spoof Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Nonetheless, the franchise has proven more durable than the average tomato, spawning a cartoon, video games and a comic book. There have also been a number of imitators, including a 1999 Greek effort, Attack of the Giant Moussaka, with really convincing special effects.
The time has come, however, for some enterprising boy band to cover "Puberty Love," the song that is the Achilles heel of the tomatoes. It could have been a hit for One Direction, but the moment has passed.
5. Pizza the Hutt
Only a few notches higher than Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in terms of sophistication - a few important notches, admittedly - is the humor in Spaceballs, the 1987 Mel Brooks send-up of Star Wars. The movie's equivalent of Jabba the Hutt, this talking slice of pizza (voiced by Dom DeLuise) with a Godfather-style gangster persona is also, despite the silliness of the context, quite an effectively nauseating special effect, bubbling and dripping with tomato sauce (one hopes) and melted cheese (one hopes).
It may not be advisable to rent this movie on Pizza Night. Indeed, Pizza Night may be postponed for a few weeks after this one.
6. The Tennis-Playing Alien Blancmange
It's probably the only story of an alien invasion in which the invaders were sentient milk-and-cornstarch puddings, and almost certainly the only one in which the aim of the invaders was to win a tennis tournament. This sublime 1969 edition of Monty Python's Flying Circus, titled simply "Science Fiction Sketch," was a rare example, on that show, of a nearly complete-episode narrative.
The blancmanges, natives of the planet Skyron in the galaxy Andromeda, transform most of the population of England into Scotsmen (one newspaper headline reads "Man Turns Into Scotsman") on the theory that this will somehow neutralize them as tennis competition. This is important because...well, first let's employ the Monty Python version of a "spoiler alert": "Those of you who wish to play it the hard way, stand upside down with your head in a bucket of piranha fish..." "THEY MEAN TO WIN WIMBLEDON."
One of Toho's freakiest and most startling efforts, this 1963 film, based on a creepy 1907 story by William Hope Hodgson, is about the title species of fungus, discovered by shipwrecked and hungry castaways marooned on an island. It's addictively yummy, but if you partake of it, you soon learn the true meaning of "You are what you eat."
Long familiar to insomniac American late-show viewers under the title Attack of the Mushroom People (or, sometimes, as the rather un-terrifying Matango, Fungus of Terror), the film has a more eerie, troubling atmosphere than most of the Toho entries. It even touches on the existential question of how much difference there is between a contemporary urbanite and a human mushroom.
8. Lost in Space Carrot Man
Dr. Smith gets vegetablized, Matango-style, in "The Great Vegetable Rebellion," the 82nd and penultimate episode of Lost in Space, notoriously silly even by that show's standards but amusingly colorful. It involves a whole planet of sentient veggies, a veritable Saladworld. By the murderous act of picking a flower, Smith (Jonathan Harris) gains the enmity of Tybo, a cranky ambulatory carrot, and gets turned into a giant stalk of celery for his offense.
Tybo, by the way, was played by Stanley Adams, better known to Star Trek fans as Tribble merchant Cyrano Jones. "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" may be watched in its entirety for free - well, for a precious hour of your life, but otherwise for free - on both Hulu and IMDB.
9. The Stuff
"Are you eating it, or is it eating you?" The Stuff boasts an intriguing premise - a mysterious blancmange-like substance is marketed to the public as food, even though it sows every sign of being alive itself, and parasitic. The movie has some clever dialogue and a fine cast, including Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Paul Sorvino and Garrett Morris as "Chocolate Chip Charlie," a Famous Amos send-up.
But like many films of the talented, chronically uneven Larry Cohen, it doesn't quite pay off. It has some creepy-funny moments along the way, however, especially those provided by Scott Bloom as the kid watching his family turned into Stuff-junkies.
10. The "Let's All Go to the Lobby" troupe
Appropriately in the middle of our list, where the intermission would go if this was a double feature, let's pay homage to the happy snacks - a pack of gum, a box of popcorn, a box of candy and a cup of pop - all smiling and singing the catchy jingle in this concession promo from 1953. Produced by Chicago's Filmack Studios, the short was the work of Dave Fleischer of Betty Boop and Popeye fame.
It was only the most famous of many such midcentury promos, and much more wholesome than the filthy-looking one that can be seen on the drive-in screen behind John Travolta in Grease (1978) as he sings "Sandy": a wiener hopping into an eagerly open bun. The singer's state of mind is nicely reflected.