Breaking Bad is acclaimed for delivering heart-stopping drama, spectacular violence and television’s most infamous anti-hero. Alex Casey, however, wishes to applaud a less critically-indulged area of the Breaking Bad universe: the wondrous food of Middle America.
I have a deep interest in food. I want to know what everyone is eating all the time. I want to know what you’re having for dinner. I want to know what’s for lunch tomorrow. So it is my all-time biggest gripes when film and television ignore the finer details of food consumption in everyday life. People go on dates but only pick at breadsticks (so dry!), walk out of cafés without paying (illegal!) or simply never eat at all (aliens!), and it pisses me the hell off.
I want more realism, more people dropping something delicious on the ground and picking it up to eat it anyway. I want lengthy dinners where you see the preparation, the meal itself and the clean up. Which is why, I think, Breaking Bad is a pristine example of on-point food representation. Not only is it accurate, but the food often plays a key part in the plot, even assisting characterisation at times. Trust me, you can learn a hell of a lot about someone from a plate of food. Confused? Hungry? Let me explain.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so it’s no mistake that it opens season one of Breaking Bad. It’s Walt’s birthday, and Skyler has cooked eggs with her signature ‘50’ written in bacon. It’s an iconic dish, straight off the bat. The cutest, saddest little ritual that becomes even more heartbreaking in retrospect. For now, it’s a picture of middle class domestic bliss. They may not have presents, champagne or an unannounced pool party (that comes later) – but they do have his age in bacon. She even thoughtfully made it vegan because she is worried about his health (spoiler alert: too late for that sister).
This bacon barometer becomes a bit of a yardstick for the show, a salty signifier of their lives slowly eroding around them. By his 51st birthday, Skyler is laundering Walt’s meth money for him, she has had an affair with Ted and about 2 million people have died as a result of Walt’s transgressions. Walt Jr doesn’t know any of this yet, he just thinks his Dad is good at counting cards. When he goads Skyler to arrange Walt’s birthday breakfast, it is an image of menial tragedy. She tearfully stands up and rips the bacon into a messy ‘51’, ever the dutiful wife caught between some bacon and a hard place.
By his 52nd birthday, a now-anonymous Walt is alone in a diner in New Hampshire, miles away from his family. He arranges his own bacon to say ‘52’, a last gasp attempt at normalcy before the inevitable demise of all things. It’s a damn desperate sight, probably the saddest use of bacon in all of television history. Apart from maybe Kevin Bacon’s recent return to the small screen.
The dinner table in Breaking Bad is another site for huge amounts of conflict and negotiation, which is as true to real life as you can get (especially if you have ever seen my family play Cranium after a boozy birthday dinner). Two dinners in particular stick out to me, the first of which is when Gus invites Jesse over to his house for a lovely and terrifying homecooked meal. This is Jesse’s last chance to lace Gus’ food with ricin, and he is atrocious at playing it cool.
Pinkman edges around the kitchen nervously, flattened in fear. On the contrary, Gus is as calm and collected as ever. He is slicing up ginger with the precision of Marco Pierre White, and preparing some sort of exotic broth that I can’t imagine Funyon-fiend Jesse would enjoy. It’s a tense scenario, and one that highlights Gus’ reigning power as not only drug lord, but head chef. They eat the fancy meal and have calm, controlled conversation driven by Gus. It’s the most unnatural thing, and a great way of taking both characters out of their usual surroundings (we never see Gus at home and we never see Jesse chowing down on a bit of broth).
The second memorable dinner party is when Jesse shows up at Walt and Skyler’s house in season five, and Walt invites him to stay for dinner. At this point, the whole gig is up – Skyler knows everything and Walt has just told Marie about Skyler’s affair with Ted. Ever the enforcer of faux domestic harmony, Walt insists the three of them sit together and enjoy a meal. It doesn’t go very well, and features the best ice water drinking of the series:
Pizza is an emblem of fast food America, and appears sparingly but powerfully in Breaking Bad. The first pizza cameo is during Walt’s conciliatory efforts in season three. After being kicked out of the family home, he offers a pizza-themed olive branch to Skyler. “I even bought dipping sticks,” he says weakly, like that will redeem his constant absences and shady behaviour. Skyler forces him out of her home, and Walt does what any rational human would do and frisbees the pizza straight on the roof. It’s a comical sight, but one shadowed with the pending collapse of their relationship. Advice: if your husband throws a pizza on the roof, he’s probably a drug dealer.
Another excellent pizza-based moment takes place at Jesse’s house, when he is in the midst of a full blown week long house party in season four. He sends Badger to go and get a huge pizza from Venezia’s (the same pizza joint from the roof toss). But here’s the kicker: the pizza arrives uncut.
Jesse: Yo, what’s up with the pie, man, it ain’t cut.
Badger: Yeah, right, that’s the gimmick.
Jesse: What gimmick?
Badger: This place, they don’t cut the pizza, and they pass the savings on to you.
Jesse: Savings? How much can it be to cut a damn pizza?
Skinny Pete: Maybe it’s, like, democratic, bro, you know? Cut your own Christmas tree, cut your own pizza.
Badger: Yeah, it’s democratic.
Jesse: What am I supposed to do with this?
Skinny Pete: Don’t sweat it. You got some, like, scissors? I will cut this bitch up good.
The uncut pizza serves as a light moment of relief during Jesse’s stressful frivolity (he just throws money at anyone to buy anything), and is a great opportunity to see Badger and Skinny Pete natter on about whatever the hell they like. The pizza has even sparked it’s own reddit thread. Superfans out there have called out the ‘uncut’ pizza as a way of the writers addressing why the aforementioned roof pizza didn’t fall apart into individual slices mid-air. Some very heavy food for thought right there.
We can’t mention fast food without Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried chicken front for the most successful drug empire in the south-west. The restaurants become a place for terse hushed discussions, the paper cups become pieces of evidence and the chicken itself has just looked consistently bloody delicious. The execution of Los Pollos Hermanos in Breaking Bad is exceptionally realistic, down to the apocryphal advertising and the red vinyl booths. There’s got to be something in the parallels between fried chicken distribution and meth distribution. I suppose, in a way, fried chicken is the meth of the non drug user. As they say in the ads – “one taste, and you’ll know.”
Even the Breaking Bad villains get signature dishes. Gus has his fried chicken, sure – but what he’s really pushing backstage are these meticulously assembled vegetable platters. Like Gus himself the platters are calculated, controlled and eerily personality-less. Look at those freaky blanched baby carrots! Never, throughout the whole five seasons, does anyone ever eat anything from Gus’ creepshow veggie platter. It’s a tokenistic effort, an empty attempt at civility in the face of extreme violence and million dollar drug deals. Get a cracker or something up in there mate, nobody wants just pure veg. Even drug dealers would enjoy a lovely hummus or something.
Lydia, the skittish Madrigal employee that becomes her own type of tycoon, has a signature drink of camomile tea with soy milk and about five sachets of Stevia. This beverage choice reflects her personality exactly: sensitive, high maintenance and just not very nice. Sometimes she gets a slice of lemon, adding a sour kick to her drink just like she sours Walt and Jesse’s methylamine plans. The fanciness of herbal teas and soy milk is not something previously seen in the Breaking Bad world, and is a jarring bourgeoisie addition not unlike Lydia herself. Lydia’s drink of choice brings about her ultimate demise, with Walt adding ricin to her beloved Stevia sachets. I guess the moral of the story is: don’t drink weird herbal teas all your life.
Breaking Bad has finished – the fryers have been switched off and the veggie platters remain untouched. But there’s hope on the horizon. With Better Call Saul starting next week, I am pumped for more foodie shenanigans from the same writers who conceived of ‘roof pizza’. Anyway, all this food writing has made me hungry. I suppose you could say… it’s time to cook.
‘Bad Week’ is a weeklong celebration of Breaking Bad ahead of the launch of its prequel Better Call Saul on Lightbox next week.