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Dinner and a Movie: ‘Heartburn’

In Nora Ephron film, food charts Rachel’s narrative, ending with a pie to the face

spinner image someone wearing an apron holding a chocolate cream pie over a table with a bowl of spaghetti carbonara, parmesan cheese wedge, measuring spoons, an old blender with orange juice, champagne bottle, white rose bouquet, wedding figures, photo album, baby rattles and tiny old TV
Photos by Noah Fecks

Welcome to our Dinner and a Movie series, where we feature nostalgic essays on some of our favorite films from the '80s and '90s, and share recipes inspired from movie moments.

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Heartburn isn’t your typical love story. Although the 1986 film begins, in the love-licked first scenes, at a wedding, you might be convinced that this movie adaptation is a simple love story. It starts with Carly Simon’s tinny “Coming Around Again” on background, a close-up of dewy ’80s faces in pews, puffed chiffon dresses undulating through the church, a sea of pastel flowers in towering vases.

The wedding is where we meet New York magazine food writer Rachel Samstat (a stand-in for the book and film’s author, Nora Ephron, played by the exacting Meryl Streep) and Washington columnist Mark Forman (a cad played to a tee by Jack Nicholson). Ah, it is a romance, even in the very first image, that frames the destined couple in the doorway to the church. Lovers they are meant to be, and there will be, in due time, carbonara in bed, transformative rice pudding and romance in a falling-down house with mediocre pizza and complaints about a no-goodnik contractor. Love, marriage and a baby carriage are in the literally pregnant air.

spinner image Meryl Streep as Rachel Samstat curled up on a bed beside a seated Maureen Stapleton playing Vera in movie still from Heartburn
Rachel (played by Meryl Streep) gets cold feet and bemoans to multiple friends and family, including Vera (played by Maureen Stapleton) about getting married again. And then gets married again.
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

And then, an affair.

This movie is compelling — some might even say delicious — and not just because of the food that plays the narrative’s necessary third character, charting Rachel’s emotional landscape as we follow her love story (excitement! possibility! baby! inevitable heartburn!). It’s delicious because, once Mark Forman does what we expect him to do, fulfilling the role of on-screen bad boy by cheating on his beloved with Thelma Rice — and mimicking the real-life affair between Carl Bernstein and Margaret Jay — Rachel Samstat turns out just fine.

'Heartburn' Recipes

To honor Nora Ephron’s celebrated film, try these delicious dishes.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Chocolate Cream Pie

spinner image forkful of spaghetti carbonara beside a slice of chocolate cream pie with fork on a plate

During the movie’s heavier moments, we hope that Mark will just get it together. We hope that Thelma will just fall into a sinkhole and disappear. We hope that our heroine will just find love. Or maybe we hope that she will just find out the truth, no matter how miserable it is.

And then she does. Our slightly disheveled Rachel finds proof of the ongoing affair, upending a drawer of Mark’s secrets, confronting him with them. He hasn’t changed his ways. Will she stay? The film’s teaser leads you to believe that the love story here is between Rachel and Mark. It isn’t. The love we’re looking for isn’t in the non-contrite face of our ne’er do well Mark. He’ll never find redemption. The love story is Rachel’s, and she has to learn to create it for herself.

The thing about Heartburn the film is that it’s not unlike heartburn the feeling. It’s a bit uncomfortable, though not insurmountable. Even the worst heartburn — the kind that keeps you sitting upright until the sun paints the early-morning sky pink — is survivable. It won’t kill you. It can’t destroy a person, no matter its ferocity.

spinner image poster art from Heartburn movie showing Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson looking at one another
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Where to Watch Heartburn?

There are many websites and apps you can use to find out where to watch films, including:

In some ways, that’s an apt metaphor for Mark’s power over Rachel. He’s a constant nagging, an irritation. And, yes, he capably strips joy from Rachel’s life when he should be delivering it. But when he exits, stage left, the memory of his impact is undefined, like a fading bruise. It’s the heroine who sticks with us, not the heartburn.

In fact, she rises like a phoenix from the ashes, from melancholy and madness to majesty, in one fell swoop. It happens swiftly, importantly. All of Heartburn — its success, its true delight — hinges on one scene, a scene where our protagonist has been pushed too far. Past love. Past loathing. Past reasonable. At a dinner party with friends, she presents an offering: a pie. Rachel Samstat, food writer and cook extraordinaire, is known for her culinary accomplishments. A meal without her contributions would just be an ordinary dinner. She brings a pie — it’s a cream-topped key lime — but no one eats it. The movie’s penultimate scene, and certainly its most arresting, sees Rachel press the perfect pie square into Mark’s smug, cheating face.

“Can I have the, uh, car keys, please?”

And that is this love story, perhaps the greatest one ever told, a story of regeneration, of rebuilding, of finding oneself, of moving on. Indeed, the whirlwind storybook courtship that led to a collapsed marriage is done, but Rachel? She’s going to be OK.


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