I Carried a Watermelon: Food in Dirty Dancing

Food Lists

You may think that the 1987 film Dirty Dancing is about coming of age, dance lifts, and Patrick Swayze’s arms in a tank top, and true, you’d be partly right. But it is also about the mid-century culture of the Catskills, and that resort standard included family vacations, dressing up (beige, iridescent lipstick and coral shoes included) for dinner, and fancy dining to go with the fancy duds.

However, in DD (if you’ve watched it more than 20 times, you get to abbreviate), there is the added bonus of food symbolism, illustrating character attributes, and of course, sexual innuendo, which really gets us back to the subject of all those tank tops. Really, Johnny?

“Just put your pickle on everybody’s plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me.”
With a leather jacket slung over his shoulder, Johnny Castle throws out this insult to Robbie Gould while Robbie is setting the dining room for dinner. It foreshadows the competitive nature of their relationship and the fact that Robbie is promiscuous, as well as insinuating that a part of Robbie is merely a pickle while Johnny is all “hard stuff.”

“Robbie, Baby wants to send our leftover pot roast to Southeast Asia, so anything you don’t finish, wrap up.”
At dinner, Baby and her parents volley mild verbal spars at each other about starving children overseas. The camera pans over half-glasses of wine and juicy pot roast on plates as this exchange takes place. These lines anchor the story in the Vietnam military build-up, but more importantly, illustrate how “out-of-touch” her parents think Baby’s aspirations are. Let’s subtly make fun of Baby caring about world politics through suggesting our pot roast (can’t get more American than that!) be sent there. Silly girl interested in starving people who probably wouldn’t like pot roast anyway …

“I carried a watermelon.”
With sweaty counselors gyrating on the dance floor all around her, Baby provides a reason why she has been allowed in a “no guests allowed party.” Even Baby knows this is a lame first impression for Johnny when she spouts it, but watermelon is a classic summer fruit: red, juicy, ripe, and so, so satisfying when it’s hot. And is it hot in here or is it just me?

Neil Kellerman: “You can have anything you want list.”
Sure, you might have been noticing how the story turned serious with a mascara smeared Penny crying in the corner. But slimy Neil was making his move with the most unsexy food list ever as he stood in front of the fridge: brownie, milk, rice pudding, beef, cabbage roll, and sweet gherkins. Sweet gherkins?! On the heels of the other pickle comment by Johnny, these miniature pickles couldn’t be any more symbolic of how, um…unsexy Neil is. Especially when paired with rice pudding.

Robbie the waiter: “I didn’t blow a summer hauling toasted bagels just to bail out some little chick who probably balled every guy in the place.”
Here we have the lovely combination of a Jewish food reference (and a reference to the culture of the Catskills resorts), sexual language, and the demeaning of women. And when Baby responds by pouring water down his front, she is asserting her family’s “purity,” no matter if she sleeps with Johnny or her sister visits the golf course. I knew that literature analysis class would come in handy someday! Thanks, college degree.

“Last month, I’m eating Jujubes to keep alive, this month women are stuffing diamonds in my pockets.”
Johnny makes this classic candy reference while he is putting on his pants. Fruit flavored candy, and diamonds, and zippers? It’s no wonder Baby lures him back into bed after their vulnerable talk.

Grapefruit vs. breakfast plate
This is subtle, but the morning after the good doc saves Penny’s life and Baby’s changes forever, the breakfast choices illustrate the family divide. Baby and her father are enjoying a hearty breakfast plate, while the clueless Lisa and her mother are daintily deconstructing grapefruit halves. Does this mean that saving lives and doing the horizontal mambo works up an appetite? Or that nobody “in the know” would ever eat grapefruit for breakfast? You decide.

Spaghetti arms!
“C’mere, lover boy.” This is that lip-synching, moving poster-still scene, but it starts with Baby playfully referencing an earlier dancing critique and referring to something “limp.” It also illustrates how although Johnny is obviously smitten with her now, she still hasn’t turned into a doormat, despite yet another tank top appearance. If you’re okay with that, raise your spaghetti arm.

Stephanie Burt has been writing about food, art and travel long enough to have an annoying one-up story for most cocktail parties. And she talks a lot, so don’t get her started.

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