"'Baby's Lunch' Provides Food for Thought"

Curator's Note

Why is the sight of a baby eating so captivating?  For as long as the technology has existed, we’ve wanted to capture those first delightfully awkward attempts at self-feeding.  Take this home movie of August Lumiere, a pioneer of early film.  It was first shown at an 1895 screening in Paris, accompanied by other short films about everyday life.  What’s striking about this 44 seconds of footage is just how unremarkable they are.  Lumiere and his wife sit outside, feeding lunch to their baby son.  On the surface, that’s all there is to it.  But on second look, “Baby’s Lunch” offers much food for thought.

For twenty-first century viewers, “Baby’s Lunch” attests to the bourgeois origins of film.  Everything about the scene announces the prosperity of this family, from fleshy overdressed bodies to china and silver on their lunch table.  The baby himself is so swathed in white ruffles that, when lifted by a light breeze, they almost cover his face.

More interestingly, the film invites us to zero in on the emotional and cultural meanings encoded in the spectacle of the baby eating.  This focus is encouraged by the camera, which centers directly on the baby, framed by an attentive parent on either side.  His clumsy attempts to take food from a spoon and then feed himself a biscuit remind us that, while the need to eat is universal, how we consume, the elaborate choreography of body, utensils, and food, is socially and historically varied.  Not only do we need to learn how to use the implements of eating, but the mouth must also be acclimated to food itself.  Beliefs about which foods are safest and most palatable for babies differ greatly from one culture to another.  But regardless of what is served, those early meals stick with us, forming our earliest sensual memories.  This baby’s lunch, like all of our first meals, is an introduction to the smells, tastes, and textures that will, forever after, tap in to his most primal needs and desires.

Comments

Carolyn Korsmeyer's picture

Baby's gesture

What a charming glimpse of a little meal, antique yet familiar. Is it my imagination, or do the gestures of the baby indicate that he is not only learning how to eat but also how to share? It is hard to tell if the hand gestures are just random, or if he is offering the biscuit to his father. But even if they are random, the preliminary gesture that looks like offering might be shaped and prompted into actual sharing.

Thus reminding us that eating is not only an occasion for refueling but also for hospitality, another practice that requires a good deal of social encouragement.

(The companion piece that pops up afterwards, "Babies Quarrel," also provides some interesting moments for speculating about what goes on in infant’s heads.)

 

 

Ian Peters's picture

Choreography of Consumption

No week on food and media would be complete without Baby’s Lunch - what can be considered possibly the most famous example of the intersection between the two.  I am intrigued by this notion of choreography when eating a meal, and find interesting parallels with Michelle Wildgen’s post from yesterday.  Her clip featured a noodle master teaching a ramen novice the complex ritual he had developed after years of experience with this particular dish.  This Lumiere sequence, as both you and Caroline state, is a fascinating historical snapshot that captures a moment that we all have experienced.  When these activities are recorded (or parodied, as in Tampopo) and become part of the media landscape, I am curious as to how those frozen moments continue to contribute to (or even change) the choreography of consumption - particularly given your discussion of how these practices vary from culture to culture.  Thank you so much for such an intriguing post.

Eric LeMay's picture

Why Baby ≠ Gross

Awwww … This film makes me want to coochie coo.  Thanks for it, Rachel, and for your insight about its bourgeois trappings.  I wonder if they set the stage, quite literally, for my emoting about the baby rather than feeling grossed out that it can’t keep food in its mouth: That all of the prominent finery and scads of ruffles are a measure of just how much orchestration it takes to get “aw” instead of “ick.”  (Eric experiences a sudden post-holding-baby-brother flashback of wiping down his shirt of what his mother euphemistically, but accurately refers to as “spit up.”)  Baby’s acculturation into the rituals of eating—especially sharing—won’t involve only smiles, which might be why Lumière and other artists work so hard (and spend so hard) to make it look so rosy.

Michelle Wildgen's picture

Hungry Planet

This had the same effect on me as the book Hungry Planet, published a few years ago, which showed meals and food around the world—I could spend hours just observing families dining, just for the pleasure of its mix of universality and particularity. (Well, except when I worked in restaurants. Then, the occasional well-behaved child was hard-pressed to make up for the marauding hoards of unsupervised toddlers. In that circumstance, all my love of humanity’s dining habits goes out the window.) Rachel noted the way the people here are layered in ruffles and finery, and there is something moving to me in that as well. It’s indicative of time and class, I know, but somehow too these people making familiar motions from inside the puffs and layers of unfamiliar trappings seems all the more evocative.

Darra Goldstein's picture

Bringing Up Baby

How charming! I agree with all your comments on what this film says about etiquette and eating and commensality. My favorite moment occurs about halfway through, when Baby suddenly confronts the camera and seems to offer the viewer his biscuit before retreating back into the domestic scene. For me, the film raises questions about late 19th-century parenting. It’s surprising that parents of this social class would be so involved in the feeding – where is the nurse? Or is this an early example of film drama rather than documentary? I’m also curious about the music. Did Lumière choose it, or was it an afterthought? Would we react as positively to the film if the score were in minor tones, less upbeat?

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