Quentin Tarantino’s fascination with food is rivalled only by his fascination with feet. And ultraviolence, pop-culture references, classic cinema throwbacks, twisty dialogue, title cards and obscure but inspired music choices.
But food definitely plays a starring role in his movies and they’re more than just palette cleansers. From the hard-to-swallow apple studel with cream in Inglorious Basterds to Bill’s lesson on death while making a sandwich in Kill Bill Vol. 2, as Elvis Mitchell notes, food “is a real metaphor for the way that power is conveyed” in Tarantino’s films.
As the director’s career has evolved, scenes of eating, drinking and talking have served up many memorable moments, but back in 1994, with his landmark Pulp Fiction, he was gathering the ingredients to make eating a centrepiece of his cinema. There are so many food references in Pulp Fiction alone they deserve their own supercut (strangely one doesn’t exist on the internet yet) – just think of five-dollar shakes, Big Kahuna burgers, anytime pie and “Douglas Sirk” steaks.
But one of the most famous food references happens in a conversation between hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson). On their way to commit some of that ultraviolence, they discuss Vince’s recent trip to Europe. After regaling Jules with stories of smoking hash in Amsterdam, Vince reveals the biggest cultural difference he noted across the Atlantic: in France, because they’ve got the metric system, they call a quarter-pounder a “Royale with Cheese”.
“A Royale with Cheese?” Jules smirks.
The triviality of their exchange underscores that, despite being hitmen, the violence they’re about to unleash is just part of their ordinary workday. They’re not nervous or panicked, they’re co-workers killing time before killing. This conversation foreshadows the climax of the next scene. Jackson’s casual delivery of the “royale with cheese” line is juxtaposed with the way that he sardonically and menacingly comments that burgers are the cornerstone of a nutritious breakfast, before asking Brett if he knows what they call a quarter-pounder in France, escalating the already excruciating tension when he bites into Brett’s burger, before you know, screaming scripture and killing people.
As Tarantino notes, “Jules coming in there... [he’s] completely dominating by taking a bite out of the guy’s hamburger. What’s the one thing you never do? You don’t offer a stranger your hamburger to take a big bite right out of the middle of it!”
So many lines from Pulp Fiction have been enshrined in pop culture, but the simplicity of “royale with cheese” has made it one of the most quotable – it has to be one of Tarantino’s most economic lines. Even though Travolta first utters it, Jackson’s delivery has the special sauce. It’s been remixed into SpongeBob Squarepants, parodied on The Simpsons and performed by countless YouTubers.