Character Studies 19: Food Fight!

Food is an all-purpose prop, evoking character, keeping an actor’s hands busy, adding realism to a scene. It’s explicatory, relatable to an audience, and it’s a handy vehicle for comedy too. In “Starsky and Hutch” food is a critical element, and it’s most often how Starsky’s proletariatism and Hutch’s cultural pretensions are illustrated and lampooned. The doughnut-eating cop is a cliché and the long-running joke is Hutch’s stubborn attempt to make his body a temple while Starsky’s junk food capacity is boundless.

The irony of the series is, food with the bad guys is generally good or good for you, and food with the good guys is generally bad, or bad for you. From beluga caviar to oatmeal, fancy French restaurants to expensive liqueurs, the bad guys have it good. Starsky is generally suspicious of this while Hutch takes a more complicated approach, enjoying what he’s offered while implying it’s not that special, and that he, a simple cop, finds this sort of indulgence tedious. With the “good guys”, i.e. witnesses, helpful colleagues or other cops, eating tends to take place in down-market burger places, bars and with street vendors.

But when Starsky and Hutch are together, it’s not eating itself but the refusal or inability to eat that is the dominant image. Basically put, Starsky wants to eat and can’t, Hutch can eat and won’t. Even in the Pilot, Hutch promises Starsky dinner but then drives off in the opposite direction. Starsky is denied food in forty ways in “Iron Mike”, he starves because of a sore tooth in some episodes and in others is repulsed because of a sensitive stomach or illness, or is forced to abandon his lunch because of an urgent call. Hutch interferes with his food or drink in an astonishing number of episodes, often grabbing what is in Starsky’s hand and eating it himself. For Starsky, the love of fast food – often “ethnic” in nature, filling, calorie-rich, and humble – implies a love of comfort and an ease in the diverse but squalid Bay City. So when Hutch makes his withering comment that an autopsy of Starsky will exhume a “petrified beef burrito” (“with onions”, Starsky adds helpfully) this is not so much a joke as it is an admission of cultural envy. A generally optimistic, slightly blinkered personality, Starsky’s battles with the fates – uncooperative candy machines, ill-timed calls to duty, and unfortunate choice of gangster-run Italian restaurants – is twice as affecting because of his endearing credulity: he sincerely believes things should go his way. Of the two, Starsky, voracious, easily pleased, and accepting, is far more likely to be actually starving.

Starsky is denied food, Hutch is disappointed or repulsed by it. By far the more likely to actually be eating, he is horrified by greasy spoons, by Starsky’s choice of restaurant, by what others are consuming around him, and by the bad nutrition habits of society at large. Because he is both pedantic and contrary by nature, he uses food as a catalyst for his many acts of mischief. He taunts Starsky with “bear meat, acorn and dried root surprise” in “Satan’s Witches” and concocts an elaborate plan to trick him into drinking one of his health shakes (“Pariah”), as well as continually sabotaging his partner’s food in creative ways or stealing it for himself. Significantly, he is the one to find a rat in his (largely empty) refrigerator (“Vendetta”). Hutch is also hip to trends (his clothing and jewelry, jogging and meditation, biorhythm calculators and credit cards) and so when the health food phenomenon hit the mainstream during this time you better believe he was an instant and sanctimonious convert. He also uses food as sexual manipulation (“Bounty Hunter”) but also as friendly consolation (“Lady Blue”). Food represents Hutch’s sense of being lost or lonely in this world. It’s never quite right: he’s usually fighting, denying, or wielding it as a weapon. He drinks milk, unusual for a grown man, the wholesome blandness possibly symbolic of his utopian ways of thinking. Even though Hutch makes a big deal of fasting for extended periods of time in “Silence” and “Vendetta” (denying himself as, I suspect, a form of self-punishment) he is far more likely to be consuming something. And hating it.

There are significant – and poignant – moments when Hutch divests himself of the armour keeping him from being truly vulnerable, and one of these is in the tag of “Lady Blue”, in which he attempts to bolster Starsky following the death of Helen Davisson. He surprises him with his favorite dinner (which is, fittingly enough, an old-fashioned pot roast for meat-and-potatoes Starsky). He gives up those fussy rules, the disdain, the inflated (and largely artificial) ego, and allows himself to be simply a friend and partner. Through this gesture he’s saying, “all that irritating stuff I do? Well, it isn’t real.” And how does he express this warm intimacy? Not with words, but with the gift of food.

But gestures like that are exceedingly rare, and necessarily so. And why are Starsky and Hutch deprived of food in so many ways? Well, satisfaction is not the aim of this series, frustration is. Starsky and Hutch, as moral arbiters among thieves, are fueled by psychic, intellectual and metaphysical hunger. They must suffer many failures before triumph, or the triumph itself is hollow. Food – absent, corrupt or tantalizing but unobtainable – implies gratification. Once gratified, one is sated. Once sated, one is content. And contentment breeds complacency. Since crime will never cease, Starsky and Hutch will never be complacent, never stop fighting, and they will never find fulfillment. (Likewise, for certain fans, the “will they or won’t they?” question will always remain unanswered.) It’s fascinating this series ends with what seems to be a triumphant act of eating – fine food and wine, both Starsky and Hutch ready and willing and for once equal in their desire and ability to consume – only to be thwarted by a last-second comedic disaster, the fates telling them that maybe, just maybe, their mission is not over yet.

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7 Responses to “Character Studies 19: Food Fight!”

  1. Daniela Says:

    I am amazed at the incredible in-depth analysis you got out the food in the series! I never went past the little jokes or the small details of the incidents…
    You are very observant and very thoughtful.
    Indeed, eating is one of the few body functions that are prominent in the series.
    Sleeping is random, mostly with women, often a prelude for some kind of attack. Bathroom is usually used for a joke.
    But eating is pretty constant.
    Keep them coming! This was a great post!
    Thanks

    • merltheearl Says:

      Thank you so much, I appreciate your kindness. It was fun to write, and honestly I could have gone on longer. I didn’t even include the whole eating-in-the-car issue, a whole other long running joke in the series.

      • King David Says:

        Thanks to you Merl I see all things S&H in such a different light. Please do extend your food analysis -you know we’d love to read it!
        If I was being cynical I’d say that Starsky doesn’t get to eat much (that we see) for reasons owing more to Glaser than Starsky, but if I just look at S&H as the real world, Hutch really is malicious sometimes. Still, if Starsky really wanted to complain, he could override Hutch any time. He must be very fond of Hutch to allow him to dictate what and when Starsky can eat. I always find that little question “When am I leaving?” as Hutch lights the candles so touching. But, if Hutch has known Starsky for years, how come he has to phone Starsky’s mum to get his favourite meal recipe? Shouldn’t he know already?

        Does Hutch see how Starsky is really giving of himself, or does Hutch genuinely think he himself has the high ground?
        In “Little Girl Lost” Hutch could’ve at least boiled them some eggs…

  2. Daniela Says:

    well, I am looking forward to reading the essay on the car eating issue!
    Thanks!
    Daniela

  3. Grevy's Zebra Says:

    This is SO PERFECT. I love this essay — not reaching at all. You are so right and insightful about the food = satiety and tantalization symbolism, and you know what? I think this is one of those symbols that were deliberately done by the writers. I doubt they thought about it as fully or as consciously as you have, but I can totally believe that they knew that eating food and being frustrated with it carries a vibe of incompleteness and narrative push, while eating food and being satisfied gives off a vibe of completeness resolution that would dent the anticipation and suspense of the plot.

    Your insight about the last scene of “Sweet Revenge” is genius. Yes. Exactly. They are so not finished with their crimefighting and not ready to close this chapter of their lives. Whether or not they are able to go back to their old jobs (or new ones) and move forward from where they left off, they will still be fighting these battles long into the future. After all, that was pretty much the whole point of the Targets three-parter — the idea that their partnership and their mission is part of their very identity, and transcends official titles and institutional designations.

    • Grevy's Zebra Says:

      BTW, I should have added: I love your non-review posts, like the Character Studies and Life Lessons. Even more so than your incredibly thoughtful episode reviews, they’re possibly some of the most unique and insightful contributions to the (enormous) amount of fan-analysis of S&H that has been written by numerous fans since the show first aired. Your early Character Studies post on The Environment totally changed the way I looked at the show. They’re truly unlike anything I’ve read before, and I sure as hell hope you keep writing them, perhaps expanding on patterns or elements you’ve taken note of in your reviews.

      • merltheearl Says:

        I enjoy writing them even if half the time it feels like a lot of blathering on. But thank you so very much and I’m glad to know they add something to the way you look at the show. I’m starting to write a new one so stay tuned.

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