Why is the sight of a baby eating so captivating? For as long as the technology has existed, we’ve wanted to capture those first delightfully awkward attempts at self-feeding. Take this home movie of August Lumiere, a pioneer of early film. It was first shown at an 1895 screening in Paris, accompanied by other short films about everyday life. What’s striking about this 44 seconds of footage is just how unremarkable they are. Lumiere and his wife sit outside, feeding lunch to their baby son. On the surface, that’s all there is to it. But on second look, “Baby’s Lunch” offers much food for thought.
For twenty-first century viewers, “Baby’s Lunch” attests to the bourgeois origins of film. Everything about the scene announces the prosperity of this family, from fleshy overdressed bodies to china and silver on their lunch table. The baby himself is so swathed in white ruffles that, when lifted by a light breeze, they almost cover his face.
More interestingly, the film invites us to zero in on the emotional and cultural meanings encoded in the spectacle of the baby eating. This focus is encouraged by the camera, which centers directly on the baby, framed by an attentive parent on either side. His clumsy attempts to take food from a spoon and then feed himself a biscuit remind us that, while the need to eat is universal, how we consume, the elaborate choreography of body, utensils, and food, is socially and historically varied. Not only do we need to learn how to use the implements of eating, but the mouth must also be acclimated to food itself. Beliefs about which foods are safest and most palatable for babies differ greatly from one culture to another. But regardless of what is served, those early meals stick with us, forming our earliest sensual memories. This baby’s lunch, like all of our first meals, is an introduction to the smells, tastes, and textures that will, forever after, tap in to his most primal needs and desires.