Until March of this year, Pee-wee Herman hadn’t starred in a movie since 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee. The character is known more for his red bowtie and man-child line of insults ("I know what you are but what am I?") than his culinary knowledge, but in Netflix’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (released March 16), Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) takes an uncharacteristic culinary tour of the U.S.
The movie opens with the digitally-enhanced Pee-wee following a Rube Goldberg-esque route to work, driving his miniature car through a neighbor’s living room and helping himself to their breakfast bar: scones, French toast, "American toast," green grapes, sausages, bacon, cinnamon toast. He only takes a bite of toast and is then out the door. He then helps little old lady Nana reach her yarn store, and she gives him his favorite candy, a root beer barrel. He takes out a minuscule, striped straw and drinks the root beer out of it, establishing a motif. (In real life, root barrels aren’t filled with liquid, so there isn’t anything to sip. Dad’s Root Beer still makes a brand and so does Brach’s A&W, but they aren’t so ubiquitous anymore. The movie juxtaposes modern times with the 1950s, hence the candy.) In the other two Pee-wee movies, food doesn’t play into the plot much, so it’s surprising Reubens and co-writer Paul Rust sprinkle the film with so many food references.
As a cook at Dan’s Diner, Pee-wee fries up hash browns and French toast for the town’s
regulars. He is met with compliments like "Your French toast is perfection" and "I’m taking this
biscuit with me. I love it." So, the guy can obviously cook. Pee-wee seems content to not travel outside the Norman Rockwell Fairville and to just play the flutophone in his suddenly defunct band. That is, until a stranger shows up at the diner. Beefcake actor Joe Manganiello, playing a version of himself, rides his motorcycle into town and walks into the diner. He orders a chocolate milkshake, which Pee-wee meticulously whips up. Joe loves it so much he almost has an orgasm while drinking the shake. "This milkshake is outrageous…probably top five all time," Joe exclaims. They agree root beer barrels are the best candy in the world—Charleston Chew is a distant second—and they drink the candy. Later in the film, Joe reveals he owns a giant root beer barrel dispensing machine. When Pee-wee confesses to Joe he has never left Fairville—with the exception of a failed trip to Salt Lake City—Joe cajoles Pee-wee to live a little and invites him to New York City to attend his birthday party, but he must travel by car. (The movie ignores the events of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.) "The open road is a smorgasbord of lifetime experience," Joe says. After giving it some thought, Pee-wee takes off on his daring holiday.
It’s unclear where Fairville is situated, but it seems to be nestled far west of NYC. On his way eastbound, Pee-wee encounters Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! type bank robbers, and stops at a snake farm (he hates snakes). He finally lands at Farmer Brown’s farm, encountering Brown’s nine single daughters, who each prepare a comfort food Heartland dish for Pee-wee. They present him with tomato soup, meatloaf, green bean casserole, ambrosia salad, waxed beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, melon balls and pigs in a blanket. What the film does best is plant Pee-wee in situations where food is in the forefront of the scene but feels like a backdrop. Despite all of that food, throughout the movie Pee-wee is rarely seen onscreen consuming anything but root beer barrels. He escapes marrying one of the farm daughters and ends up at a hotel where he meets the sophisticated Katherine Hepburn-like Penny King (Simone from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure). She decides to fly him to NYC in her flying car, and gives him a sandwich to eat, accompanied with parsley and an orange wedge garnishment. "You’re eating the garnish," she says. "I never thought of that. You’re a trendsetter." Near the end of his trip, he
ends up among the Pennsylvania Dutch. At a food hall, they serve him scrapple (a fried pork dish made with meat scraps and cornmeal), corn soup and bologna with chow-chow. Scrapple is more of an obscure east coast/mid-Atlantic delicacy, but chow-chow (a relish) found its heyday in recent years.
Pee-wee finally makes it to NYC, the culinary epicenter of North America. Instead of going to somewhere iconic like Le Bernardin, Pee-wee tries "delicious" pizza for the first time. For Pee-wee, his food ambitions, like his life ambitions, are fairly rote. Pee-wee arrives outside of Joe’s Central Park apartment but somehow falls down a well, almost missing the party of the century. While waiting for his friend to arrive, Joe sulks alone in his room with a bag of Ruffles as his guests snack on fancy big city treats like Oreo salad (an Oreo cookie crumbled on lettuce), pickle wheels and a cookie tower, contrasting the food Pee-wee’s diner regulars are accustomed to. Also, why eat Ruffles when you can eat pickle wheels? Seeing that a "boy" a.k.a. Pee-wee, is trapped in a well, Joe drops his bag of chips to rescue him. Safely at Joe’s apartment, Pee-wee and Joe once again share their mutual appreciation for root beer barrels, forever solidifying their friendship (and bromance).
Before Pee-wee departed for his trip, he was close-minded about what lay outside of his town and was fearful to try new things. Back at the diner, he integrates some of the food he discovered on his road trip into the menu. The diner owners now refer to him as "chef." Garnishments now come with every dish, must to the dismay of the townfolk. He explains to them a garnishment is "a decoration or embellishment of a prepared food-plate or drink to augment the visual impact on the plate." He probably won’t add scrapple or waxed beans to the menu, and he will probably continue to subsist on root beer barrels, but on the road, Pee-wee discovered worldliness, even if it entailed subjecting himself to a mound of unhealthy mashed potatoes and odd flying car garnishments.
Garin Pirnia, who has a weird, made-up name, is a Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky-based freelance arts and culture writer. When she travels, she’s known to eat and drink more than her heart’s content in order to try as many different places as possible. She’s also a beer cheese aficionado. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.