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The delectable possibility and bland reality of Sweetbitter

As a novel, Sweetbitter used food as a salty, rich, and alluring metaphor for desire. But that got lost in translation.

Ella Purnell plays Tess in Starz’s Sweetbitter
“Look at them, but use your tongue.”
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Early in the first episode of Sweetbitter, which premiered on May 6 on Starz, restaurant manager Howard (Paul Sparks) is interviewing wide-eyed Tess (Ella Purnell) for a backwaiter job. It’s not a totally conventional interview — he asks her, for instance, what she’s reading — but it seems appropriate that he asks Tess to name the “five noble grapes of Bordeaux,” something she can’t do. Yet.

That scene appears in both the show and the 2016 novel on which it’s based, both of which are the work of writer Stephanie Danler. It’s meant to show that Tess is firmly out of her element, too young and too green to really understand the worlds she’s about to plunge into headfirst — both her new hometown of New York City and the fast, sexy, confusing, delectable high-end restaurant business.

Tess can no more call up the “five noble grapes of Bordeaux” from her memory bank than recite the collected works of Keats at the drop of a hat. But in the restaurant, knowing those grapes — and many other matters of culinary esoterica — has to be second nature, a language spoken by people who’ve acquired it and treasure it among themselves, and let it govern the way they live with and love and hurt each other.

Sweetbitter aims to be a show about people who learn that language and the world they’ve created. But it’s strangely inert, and that’s because it’s missing one key ingredient — the thing that made the novel on which it’s based so intoxicating.

Ella Purnell and Caitlin FitzGerald in Starz’s Sweetbitter
Ella Purnell and Caitlin FitzGerald in Starz’s Sweetbitter.

Great food writing in novels works on multiple levels

In fiction, food writing functions a lot like sex writing, and not just because both can be titillating. The best descriptions of food and sex alike connect the reader’s senses to the story, evoking (or even stirring up) hunger and desire, two of the most universal drives. A deliciously crafted passage can reach out and grab you like little else.

And the greatest food writing, like the greatest sex writing, works on more than one level: it’s about food, sure, but it’s also a way to reveal something about a character’s state of mind, their relationship to others, or their place in the world.

Probably the most famous and frequently referenced example of this in literary history is Proust’s preoccupation with madeleines, the taste of which sends the narrator of Swann’s Way down a lengthy path of reverie. The taste buds are connected to the subconscious in ways that can’t quite be explained, but anyone who’s read the passage instinctively gets what’s going on.

Laura Ingalls Wilder often used descriptions of meals in the midst of her generally deadpan, prosaic descriptions of a frontier childhood to spark memories and evoke the often stoic characters’ moods. Who can forget the wonder embedded in gifts of ribbon candy, or the crackling fat of the roasted pig that signaled abundance and the passing of years, or the growling hunger of a long winter?

There are dozens and dozens of examples throughout literature. There’s the quotidian fish stew that Harry Perowne cooks up in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, establishing how completely ordinary this day is before it turns out to be anything but. Or there’s the massive feast that Babette cooks for her dour neighbors that changes them entirely in Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast. Or the wickedly tempting Turkish delight in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The one that comes to mind for me often is Joan Didion’s description of eating a peach on a twilight Manhattan sidewalk in her essay “Goodbye to All That”:

... Quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later — because I did not belong there, did not come from there — but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.

Reading Sweetbitter two summers ago, I thought about Didion’s description. The great appeal of Danler’s novel was how well it captures this exact feeling but with an even more glorious use of food. Tess is a starry-eyed new resident of New York, in the same way and of the same age that Didion was, and she “believed in possibilities” too. When you’re that age, and in a new and alluring place, eating a peach on the sidewalk feels magical, with the juice dripping down your fingers.

Ella Purnell in Starz’s Sweetbitter
Ella Purnell in Starz’s Sweetbitter.

Sweetbitter is loaded with culinary descriptions that are up there with the best food writing. They often work on multiple levels, not just describing the delectable world of the restaurant but building out the sensual, morally fraught world that Tess has plunged into. Here’s how Danler writes about salt, in the midst of a chapter in which developing a palate serves as a broader metaphor for Tess’s first experiences with New York, the restaurant, and her new co-workers:

SALT: your mouth waters itself. Flakes from Brittany, liquescent on contact. Blocks of pink salt from the Himalayas, matte gray clumps from Japan. An endless stream of kosher salt, falling from Chef’s hand. Salting the most nuanced of enterprises, the food always requesting more, but the tipping point fatal.

Chef says that “a certain connoisseurship of taste, a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet” — a handy thesis for the book, which gets its title from the adjective the poet Sappho used to describe love.

Sweetbitter describes food in erotic terms, and often moral ones, mixing temptation and pleasure, the thrill of desire and the ache of hunger, especially as Tess gives in to new experiences and becomes enthralled with a mysterious bartender named Jake and his closest friend, the restaurant’s wine expert Simone.

Ella Purnell and Caitlin FitzGerald in Starz’s Sweetbitter
Ella Purnell and Caitlin FitzGerald in Starz’s Sweetbitter.

Her descriptions drop you right into Tess’s state of mind. “Some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning,” Tess says when she has a truly good tomato for the first time. After a mouthful of great wine, she feels the joints in her spine softening, “like butter going to room temperature.”

And when Jake, to her terror and thrill, first brings her into the seafood cooler and springs open an oyster with his knife, she whispers that “they look so filthy.” You know what she means, even if she doesn’t, yet.

As a novel, Sweetbitter gets what great food writing can do for a story

In Sweetbitter, the way a person interacts with food tells you a lot about who they are. The servers are, on the whole, ordinary people who are immeasurably stressed out by their jobs and always needing to blow off steam, signaled by their post-shift predilections for cocktails after the restaurant closes, followed by bad beer, stomach-turning whiskey, and cocaine snorted in a dive bar bathroom in the wee hours of the morning.

Tattooed bad-boy bartender Jake soon becomes the subject of Tess’s most fiercely sexual obsessions, and we know he’s dangerous by not only his skill with the oyster knife (oysters are historically considered an aphrodisiac) but his unpredictability in joining the other servers for their late-night partying. He knows his way around a bottle, though, and smokes like a chimney, the bitter aftertaste both describing and forming his appeal.

Simone, whom Tess seems to fear, admire, and obsess about in equal measure, is a true connoisseur, a figure of mystery and a little bit of danger. Her knowledge of wine is encyclopedic and gained in ways that keep surprising Tess; her character is as layered and complex as a very old, very expensive bottle of the finest chablis.

And Simone is given to talking about food and wine in axiomatic statements that always mean more than they signal on the surface. “Appetite is not a symptom,” she tells Tess when Tess complains of being hungry. “It cannot be cured. It’s a state of being, and like most, has its attendant moral consequences.”

Ella Purnell and Jimmie Saito in Sweetbitter
Ella Purnell and Jimmie Saito in Sweetbitter.

What exactly that means is never explained. But Sweetbitter establishes the restaurant as a kind of microcosm of morality and delicious corruption, a place where hungers are quenched in the front of the house where the customers sit, and in the kitchens and coolers and basements, where desire for everything that tastes good — food and otherwise — is quenched as well. Food and sex and virtue and vice are all wrapped up together in the novel, just as they are everywhere in 21st-century America.

“This place is a love shack, darlin’,” one server tells Tess. “Try to keep your panties on.”

Sweetbitter is a well-crafted novel, but it feels like a “guilty pleasure” because that’s what it’s about: the mix of guilt and pleasure, hunger and satisfaction, and trying to figure out where you’ll give in. And though you might finish Sweetbitter feeling as if it’s a vaguely erotic novel, the number of actual sex scenes is minimal. It’s the food descriptions that do it.

Given the cultural obsession with looking at great food on TV screens, it seems natural that Sweetbitter would translate well to the TV screen. But alas, the Starz show feels like a shadow of its literary self.

As a TV show, Sweetbitter doesn’t know how to translate its best quality to the screen

If great food writing succeeds by tapping into the reader’s senses, then on a TV screen it can do that even more easily; after all, while we still have to imagine all the best parts (the smells, the textures, and of course the tastes), we at least don’t have to imagine what that meal looks like.

Remy the Rat makes crepes in Pixar’s Ratatouille
Remy the Rat makes pretty great crepes.

So food in movies and on TV shows can work in the same way as it does in books, and sometimes even more effectively. Pixar’s Ratatouille tried to visualize this, particularly in a sequence reminiscent of both Proust and Didion in which Remy the Rat encourages his rat relations to close their eyes and experience the sensations of the food rather than just stuffing their stomachs. (If you’ve seen the 1973 animated Charlotte’s Web, though, you might have reason to believe, contrary to Ratatouille, that rats get taste.)

Shows explicitly about food are of course bread and butter for the Food Network and common on other channels. And docuseries like Netflix’s Chef’s Kitchen and PBS’s The Great British Baking Show serve as, well, comfort food for many people who never intend to climb to those culinary heights but enjoy watching it, like sports.

Food shows up in fictional onscreen stories as well. Perhaps no show has used food better than Hannibal, which ran on NBC from 2013 to 2015. The show’s center point is the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen as a lip-wiping aesthete and an incarnation of Satan himself.

A meal from the TV show Hannibal
A meal from Hannibal — beware.

The food on Hannibal is stunningly beautiful, styled by Janice Poon, an art director who grew up around restaurants. The joke, of course, is that while you’re salivating over every meal, you’re aware that it’s made with human flesh and blood. Mixing the sublime and the revolting, the show implies, is the apex of deviltry. It’s the linchpin of the show and its moral center (repeated in the twin figures of Lecter and FBI agent Will Graham): beauty and utter degradation together, fighting to see which will win out.

On Hannibal, the food works so well because it’s doing narrative work in the story, repeating and expounding its major themes in ways that pull on the senses. That would have been the right tactic for Sweetbitter too.

But curiously, the show never really gets what made the novel so great. Danler also created the TV show, which roughly covers the opening chapters of the book and repeats some of its most memorable images and people (particularly Simone, whom Caitlin FitzGerald turns into a fascinating character study, equal parts vulnerable and catlike).

And there’s food, of course. Once Tess gets hired at the restaurant, the kitchen opens to her, with sliced figs and peppered steak and bubbling fats and sharpening knives. There is salad and bread and butter. There’s wine being poured into glasses and discussed by the waitstaff. In the second episode, Tess is handed a twice-fried potato chip dunked in mashed potato in the kitchen and, when she exclaims aloud, is welcomed to “the good life.”

But the food has little to no moral weight in Sweetbitter on TV. Food supplies the trappings of Tess’s new life in New York among these characters, but it doesn’t propel them along in any interesting way. They go to the dive bars, drink the wine, eat dim sum, and serve food, but the show doesn’t know how to give the food — which is nicely styled, but on screen far too briefly — the same character-building power as the novel did.

Ella Purnell and Tom Sturridge in Starz’s Sweetbitter
Ella Purnell and Tom Sturridge in Starz’s Sweetbitter.

And that hampers the storytelling overall. Characters’ interactions with the food are what gave them texture in the novel. Without that, we’re left with mostly half-sketched types instead of fleshed-out agents. Even the oyster scene with Jake, which shows up early in the show, lacks the danger and temptation of the novel’s salty, slippery descriptors.

What Sweetbitter needed to do to really translate its sultry magic onto the screen was to concentrate on the food (and not, as it seems to want, New York City) as a character unto itself, something gorgeous and magnetic that has a kind of power all its own. That’s not to say it should be surreal, but the kitchen’s reality might benefit from being heightened (as in Hannibal), so that the hunger and desire of the characters pulls at the viewer too.

Without that, Sweetbitter is just a show about some people who work in a restaurant, and Tess is just a blank slate of a girl watching them do things. The richness, the saltiness, and the delicious, juicy risk and vulnerability that made the novel sing aren’t there.

If the show gets another season, it might be worth heeding Simone’s advice to Tess about serving a plate of oysters: “Next time, look at them,” she says. “But use your tongue.”

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