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How 'Goodfellas' uses food to chronicle Henry Hill's life

Henry Hill, Tommy Devito and Jimmy Conway have dinner with Devito's mother in Goodfellas
Henry Hill, Tommy Devito and Jimmy Conway have dinner with Devito's mother in Goodfellas. (Image credit: Warner Brothers)

It’s been thirty years since the release of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic, Goodfellas. There are countless things to celebrate about this adaptation of the life of Henry Hill from the time capsule wardrobe, the home décor, the excellent performances of heavyweight actors and the Italian- American food. It’s impossible to reference the film without somehow mentioning the sauce. This isn’t just because food was an important part of Henry Hill’s life story, but because food is often used as a means to showcase what type of man Hill was; a gangster. “As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster,” he utters at the top of the film. As Henry lands in a life distinct from the blue collar lifestyle expected of him, food is used to ground Henry’s mood in contrast to what a the rest of us might feel through his fantastical circumstances.

Scorsese’s 1990 film chronicles the life of the real Henry Hill as told to Nicholas Pileggi in his book, Wiseguy. Food was an important part of Hill’s life, and he later paired up with Pileggi again for The Wiseguy Cookbook, marketed and sold his official “Sunday Gravy” and opened multiple restaurants. The film adaptation paints Henry as the Italian-American with a keen interest in food, a common theme in Scorsese’s films, then takes it a step farther. The film used food to portray the progressing turmoil of the life of Henry Hill.

Goodfellas opens (after a spooky shot of Henry staring down the barrel of his trunk at a body) with a young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) chronicling his youth in New York City. Henry is a nobody, son of a blue-collar Irishman who lives with his six siblings in a small apartment. He dreams of being a gangster, and eventually takes a gig at the mob run cab stand across the street. Henry is enamored by the money, by the power, and it manifests to him as access to food. For Henry, the life meant that everyone took some beatings but, “I didn't have to wait on line at the bakery on Sunday morning anymore for fresh bread.”

Paulie eating sausage and peppers in Goodfellas

(Image credit: Warner Brothers)

After an adult Henry his indoctrinated into Paulie’s gang, the film takes us back to the opening scene where Henry is assisting his pals, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) in hiding the body of William "Billy Batts" Bentvena (Frank Vincent). Batts is a Made Man and the three know that being discovered with this body would result in their certain death. Everything is at stake, and, though, frightened, Henry is in his element. The three experience some car trouble and pop into DeVito’s family home where his mother insists, “I’ll make you something to eat.” The guys sit around a fully set dinner table in the middle of the night while Jimmy, the Irishman, pours some ketchup and Henry slowly picks at his pasta. “You don’t talk much, you don’t eat much,” the confused matriarch chuckles.

In the mid 70’s, Hill gets himself a ten-year sentence and spends some time in jail. Getting chucked in the joint for organized crime doesn’t sound much like a vacation for most of us and might be cause for stress and alarm. For Henry, it’s a relaxing break from his panicked reality where he can spend time away from his family and spend it with his friends. Jail is never described by Henry as a cage, no references to the yard or the showers, for Henry, he remembers the dinners. “In prison, dinner was always a big thing. We had a pasta course, then we had a meat or a fish. Paulie did the prep work, he was doing a year for contempt and he had this wonderful system for doing the garlic. He had a razor and he used to cut it so thin that it would liquify in the pan with just a little oil.” Henry is calm in prison as he unpacks his wine and bread to share with his friends. It’s luxury.

Slicing garlic with a razor in Goodfellas

(Image credit: Warner Brothers)

After his vacation in the joint, Henry comes back to his crumbling life. Not wanting to settle for less, he packs up his family to move them to a larger house and supports them with a side business selling drugs. He hides this business from a disapproving Paulie. After successfully executing the notorious Lufthansa heist, Henry’s allies become increasingly suspicious resulting in bodies piling up as a result of Jimmy’s paranoia and greed. Henry, cloaked in fear and panic relies completely on his elicit drug trade and, burnt by insomnia and cocaine, starts to unravel. In the most infamous scene in the film, a coked out Henry Hill narrates the coordination of his drug sale, never once skipping over how he is planning to prepare the night’s dinner.

“See, I was cooking dinner that night. I had to start braising the beef, pork butt, and veal shanks in the tomato sauce. It was Michael’s favorite, I was making ziti with the meat gravy and I was planning to roast some peppers over the flames and I was gonna put on some string beans with some olive oil and garlic and I had some beautiful cutlets that were cut just right that I was gonna fry up for before dinner as an appetizer.” Gone is the calm jailed Henry and here is the descent of the man who could handle anything, even digging up a body he’d earlier buried in the woods. He sits down to his meticulously prepared family dinner with a sneer, clutches his wine glass and barely takes a bite. Before long, he’s busted by the cops, and it’s all over.

After making bail, Henry visits Paulie, tail between his legs. He’s broken his trust and knows Paulie is about to excommunicate him. While trying to make his case, Henry gazes at the sausage and peppers Paulie is frying up on the stove, the same meal Paulie was cooking earlier when Henry had just dreamed of joining the gang. Once again, the sausage and peppers were just beyond his reach.

Realizing there’s nothing left for him in the gang, and out of options, Henry turns on Paulie and company and joins the witness protection program. An opportunity for a new start, a safe life, still with his wife and children, Henry is full of lament. “I can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup.”

For Henry Hill, food represented the access he had in his life. Getting groceries first was a luxury. Elaborate dinners in jail meant he was a king. Egg noodles and ketchup meant it was over. But Goodfellas didn’t just use food to show the access and fleeting status in Henry’s life, it used it to peek into the psyche of Henry Hill, grounding his reality in a world that seems fantastical to the audience.