Tampopo, Ramen, Beer, & the Amateur

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This is just something I had to get down and takes a bit of jumping, so please bear with me.

So I’ve been sick the past…christ, three weeks or so with a respiratory infection that just won’t go away. It felt like it was clearing up last week, but then it promptly came back. Anyways, in the times where I was feeling so worn out that I couldn’t work, I’ve been in bed watching movies. Mostly on the newly launched Criterion Channel which to be honest has very quickly replaced Netflix for me in terms of movies. The selection is incredible, offering most of what the Criterion Collection has on offer.

And last night I finally had a chance to watch Juzo Itami’s 1985 film Tampopo.

I don’t think I’ve seen a film like Tampopo, a movie that is such a beautiful, touching, heartwarming, and often bizarre love letter to food. I put it up there with other food films like Big Night and Ratatouille. The main story features single mother, Tampopo, as she struggles to keep her deceased husband’s ramen shop running. That is until two ramen-loving truck drivers agree to help her become the best ramen chef ever, enlisting help along the way. In-between story beats there are also short vignettes centring around food that can go from hilarious and warm, to sad and sexy, though all are thought-provoking in their own way.

There are several themes to this movie, but the one I’d like to focus on here, and the one that I instantly make the connection with beer, is the theme of the amateur that is seen throughout the film. I should note that my thoughts on this really clicked after watching Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos’ fantastic video essay on the subject, which was a feature for the movie.

The root of Tampopo is the amateur appreciation for food. It centers on people who don’t work as critics or much within the industry, but are brought together and even made whole by a deep love for good food.

There are so many scenes that show this off perfectly (like the one above), but I have three particular scenes I like. The first involves a vignette of businessmen in a French restaurant. The two older gentlemen are high executives, the two middle-aged men are middle management, and the younger, one being treated like a servant is a hirashain, a low-level employee with no rank. The older men are confused by the menu and all order the exact same dish that they think sounds fancy, sole meunière, a consommé, and an import beer like Heineken, but is really quite a basic dish. The young low-level, however, goes a different route. Here’s the scene below.

The second scene involves a group of homeless people who have a true appreciation for food and drink, despite dumpster diving for it all or finding half a bottle of something by the garbage. Of their many talents, they can taste a piece of cooked beef and are able to tell if the restaurant that made it has switched distributors.

The third scene is really just a mere exchange between characters. After going into a rival ramen shop, Tampopo and Goro can’t finish the dish. When asked by one of the owners to explain why, they say it was inedible.  

“As if you amateurs could appreciate our ramen!” the owner shouts. To which Tampopo retorts:

“Pops, people who eat ramen are all amateurs. Why make ramen they can’t appreciate?”

And it’s that last one that completely resonated with me on the relationship between beer-maker and beer-drinker, opening up a further understanding of appreciating beer.

As if to hammer in that point, Zhou’s video essay offers this quote from Michael Chabon on the word ‘amateur”, from his essay ‘The Amateur Family’:

“…a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game…And if we must accept the inevitable connotation of hopeless ineptitude that amateur carries, then at least let us stipulate that we shall be hopeless and inept like Max Fischer, the hero of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore: in the most passionate, heedless, and whole-hearted way.”

After reading that I suddenly had a more specific wording for an experience I didn’t know I needed for the public’s relationship to beer. Not just the public, even, as I feel this quote applies to people who work in the industry just as much as people who don’t.

With the word amateur celebrated instead of filled with negative stigma (the latter, I feel, unfairly gets more focus), suddenly all the events people go to, the sense of wonder and excitement I feel when I go to a bar I’ve never been to before, when I don’t recognize a THING on the beer menu, and that wild, devil-may-care attitude when I order something to just try it…all of that suddenly made more sense to me. There was no single word that could accurately define it. “Passionate” felt too one-sided. “Curious” didn’t quite cover the drive. And a label of “connoisseur” or even “expert” seemed to remove a lot of the assumption that there is always more to learn and discover about beer. Chabon’s definition, paired with the underlying theme of the amateur’s love of food in Tampopo, has made me rethink a lot of these experiences and find a common thread between beer-lovers that feels much more accurate to me. Even the people that laugh as they look at a menu and utter the self-deprecating line of “I’m not an expert, I just like craft beer” shares something in common with someone who has spent years learning the way of better beer. They both have that spark inside.

It also makes me think more on the relationship between the drinkers and the people who brew the beer, a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.

Anyways, just thought I would write down of this moment that something finally clicked in my mind. It’s not a massive lesson by any means, but, like learning more about beer or even ramen, a little understanding just leads to a deeper appreciation and love.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lorne says:

    Nice post, and excellent excavation of an old obscure movie with some pertinent lessons. Sorry you had to get sick to find it.

  2. Gary Gillman says:

    I agree with the above comment, and would only add that in my own lifetime I have seen the original meaning of the term amateur wither. It meant and still can someone who pursued an interest without being professional in the sense of being paid, or regularly paid. It had nothing to do with lesser ability or any presumption on the part of the actor.

    Until recently one still spoke of amateur cricket players, for example, often gentlemen who had a high degree of proficiency but did not tour on the pro circuit.

    In an odd way this old meaning is returning, as the availability of information is blurring the distinction between pro and amateur in this sense.

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