Articles in Media
I haven’t watched the Food Network since kitchen turned coliseum. The old shows served up a relaxing, aspirational escape, but once they got all “Cutthroat,” I cut the cord. Instead of relaxing and aspiring, I was stressing and perspiring. Sheesh. If I wanted that kind of anxiety, I’d cook dinner myself.
With guys full of tats and swagger and show themes such as “Superstar Sabotage,” the Food Network has perfected its junk-food formula to a tee. Must-see-testosterone-TV.
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According to The Atlantic, the five most-watched prime-time shows on Food Network this year are competitions: “Food Network Star,” “Worst Cooks in America,” “Chopped Tournament,” “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Guy’s Grocery Games.” According to Nielsen, the 20 most-viewed prime-time shows on the Food Network pulled in a median of roughly 1.1 million viewers per episode in 2014, compared to 255,000 viewers per episode in 2000.
Sure, the Food Network has its salt-sugar-fat formula down, but what if it could provide content that both entertained and nourished — edgy and educational — while keeping the ratings intact? Who says suspense, conflict, humiliation and ring-molded entrées with Jackson Pollock-inspired plating can’t have a higher calling? So before the Food Network goes from offal to worse, I propose it start feeding viewers something more nutritious.
Here are three ideas for more filling, yet thrilling Food Network shows:
No. 1: Food Activist Star
Former congressman Dennis Kucinich mentors six “food fighters.” They each have a cause they fight for, whether it’s stopping a retail grocery chain from carrying meat with antibiotics; getting a processed-food company to stop using GMO ingredients; getting a fast-food company to stop sourcing pork from pigs raised in gestation crates; or getting a school district to stop selling soda in vending machines.
Each week the food fighters have an assignment, from crafting a strategy and creating a campaign to getting media attention and planning a rally. At the end of each show, one food fighter is eliminated. The three judges are Woody Harrelson, Michael Pollan and activist blogger Vani Hari, aka Food Babe. There will be additional commentary by experts in the field.
The final two fighters meet with corporate execs from two companies that represent the opposition. The winner is judged on both the effectiveness of the meeting and the campaign as a whole. The prize is the winner’s choice of seed money to start a nonprofit or a year’s salary to work for an existing nonprofit.
The feisty Kucinich gives planetary do-gooders a tough-love education in food politics. Think Donald Trump with a bigger brain and smaller comb. And live-wire Harrelson as a judge? Enough said.
Viewers will be inspired to work toward a food system that is healthier for people and the planet, while learning how politics influences our food supply.
No. 2: Dumpster Divers
Jeremy Seifert, filmmaker and star of the film “Dive!,” hosts two teams of “divers” who hunt for food in dumpsters behind grocery stores. We witness vast amounts of wasted food as they forage through garbage and collect their unspoiled spoils.
Each week, two teams (two divers per team) collect edible food from grocery store dumpsters in shopping carts (a la “Guy’s Grocery Games”). The second half of the show takes place in a studio kitchen equipped with showers, where the teams emerge squeaky clean and reveal their bounty. They are allowed certain swaps so that it’s even among both teams, and we watch them prepare a meal in a set time. Upon dramatic, heart-thumping music, the “taster” emerges to test each dish to ensure the food is not spoiled before three celebrity chef judges try the dishes. Each week one team is eliminated. There will also be commentary by food waste experts and a lawyer.
The winners from previous shows return and are assigned to two final teams. They must dive at two locations — a grocery store and a bakery — and the meal must include dessert.
Stealthily dressed characters in protective gear and flashlights enter gross-out zones so vivid, we can smell it. And celebrity chefs eating trash? Bon appétit!
The audience will learn eye-opening statistics about food waste in this country that will awaken and empower them to reduce waste.
No. 3 Kale Wars
Four chefs park their kale carts next to anonymous fast-food chains in urban food deserts. Each chef hands out samples of a kale dish he/she has made to introduce the fast-food eaters to a healthy alternative with the goal of starting a movement that demands more grocery stores and fresh produce be brought to the area.
Each week takes place in a different food-desert city, from New Orleans to Memphis to Detroit to Chicago. The chefs must get passersby to taste their dishes and to join the “kale revolution.” The recruits sign a petition and agree to write letters, make phone calls to local government officials, go to city council meetings, etc. With chefs strategically staked out in different regions throughout the series, the revolution will spread as cities compete against each other. Each week, the four kale revolution chefs are judged by two chefs and one politician on their kale dishes, as well as the number and quality of recruits they sign up. The winner of each show donates money to a local food bank.
The winning chefs from previous shows and cities all compete for the grand-prize money that the winner will donate to a nonprofit related to food deserts.
Kale pushers getting in-your-face with burger-hungry folks? Hot dog!
The audience will learn about the millions of people in America who live without access to healthy food options, resulting in high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
And there you have it.
Food Network execs: Have your people call my people. I’m giving you first dibs before I shop these gems around.
Main photo: Take your hands off the remote — food television of the future could look like this. Credit: Adair Seldon
I remember the moment very clearly. I was moderating a panel discussion after a special screening of “Food Inc.” in September 2010. More than 300 people had come for this free weekday screening. The staff at Boston’s Museum of Science, the hosts of the event, had told us to expect maybe 30 or 40 to attend.
During the presentation, a woman stood up and proudly announced she was working on a farm-to-school program with primary school students in Dedham, Mass. A few minutes later, another good soul described her curriculum teaching kids in Cambridge about edible gardens. A third woman offered up her school gardening program in Milton. I paused, and then asked, “Do any of you know each other?” Nope. Nope. Nope.
How was this possible? A distance of less than 20 miles separated the three thriving initiatives, but there was no cross-fertilization, no sharing of successes and strategies. Each one was a good-food activist toiling away in her own private silo.
That’s when I conceived the idea – and more important, the need — for Let’s Talk About Food. So many people, organizations, websites, meet ups and special programs are aimed at mobilizing a shift in our food system, and each one is dutifully tending or protecting its tiny bit of turf.
Let’s Talk About Food based on simple premise
My big idea was pretty simple: Let’s get everyone talking together. Let’s get the myriad initiatives aimed at ensuring better food out of their tidy little silos and into one big tent.
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If we start to work together, stimulating and sharing, connecting with like-minded souls, we can leverage our impact and move a lot faster to our goal — a healthier food system. Whether our individual passion is school food, cooking, animal welfare, sustainability or GMO labeling. Whether we agree with each other or not. Whether we care about the oceans or obesity, food security or food waste, or wonder what the heck happened with the farm bill. We need to be talking to each other, and to the public — the people who buy groceries, hate the food their kids eat at school, and hope they are feeding their family food they can trust.
We need to bring the experts, the advocates and the public into the same conversation. If we don’t, we are just talking to ourselves and a tiny group of like-minded people. To grow a food revolution, we need to go beyond the usual suspects.
I know there’s a problem. We all have egos. All the organizations and individuals who work in the food space feel a little protective and perhaps a little competitive about their turf, but we have to get beyond that. There isn’t one single recipe to change food in America. We need to come at it from every angle, inviting in every sector of society.
So, I started Let’s Talk About Food in 2010. It’s a tiny organization with one employee — me. I’m working for free and wondering what happened to all the smart lessons I learned in business school. I am a lapsed restaurant owner and was a reasonably successful journalist in Boston. I’m nobody special, not particularly well-connected and certainly not rich enough to take on the volunteer post I’d given myself.
You can find out more about the Let’s Talk About Food mission and its events and initiatives at www.letstalkaboutfood.com or on Facebook or Twitter (@LTAFood, #talkfood).
The annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival kicks off with a Vote With Your Fork Rally on Sept. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Trinity Church in Boston. The free festival will be held Sept. 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Copley Square. Visit the Let's Talk About Food Festival page for more information.
Since starting Let’s Talk About Food, I have curated, with a handful of volunteers, more than 60 public food events in and around Boston, all aimed at bringing experts and the public together. Each event was more successful than the last. We started with that first screening of “Food Inc.” at the Museum of Science and marched forward, leveraging the expertise in our own community, forming collaborations with museums, hospitals, science fairs, law schools, public health schools, an aquarium, churches, libraries, and state and city governments. Event by event, step by step, we formed partnerships with local media, such as our presenting sponsorship with the Boston Globe and with our public radio station, with magazines and local nonprofits, so the community knows what we are doing.
We’ve tackled diverse and specific topics, including “What’s Up with Food Allergies?” “How Do We Sustain the Fish and the Fishermen?” GMO labeling, the farm bill, the economics of aquaculture, the ethics of food and food labeling, and we’ve asked important questions: Can New England feed itself? How close can we get to sustainability? We even sparked a group of people who are now collaborating on an action plan for a regional commissary for healthy school food in Massachusetts.
Festival attracts thousands
Our annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival attracts more than 15,000 people who come together in Boston’s Copley Square for one spectacular day to engage and learn more about food — and have fun in the process. We have a huge demonstration cooking stage where chefs and “expert conversants” are paired, we have an open-air seminar that we call The Endless Table and co-create with the Museum of Science. We have hands-on cooking for kids, an edible garden, an ask-a-nutritionist booth and our Kitchen Conversations project — a mobile recording studio that invites people to come into our cozy kitchen and share a food story or memory. We have chefs, cookbook authors, fishermen, farmers and foodies of every stripe.
We don’t have a single agenda, and we don’t provide any specific answers to the questions we pose. Our goal (and note, in four years we have moved from being a “me” to becoming a “we”) is to get people talking. Our philosophy: Engage the mind, and you spark the change. Because talking about food leads to action about food.
Let’s Talk About Food is based in Boston because that’s where I live, but the idea of a community-wide conversation about food should not be confined to my hometown. Any city in America could have an organization like Let’s Talk About Food. I’d be glad to help you get it started where you live. Like a simple recipe, it’s an idea that is easy to share.
Silos keep grain safe, but they don’t store all the ingredients to make a full meal.
Main photo: Boston-area kids try their hand at making healthy lunches while chef Jody Adams works in the background at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Let’s Talk About Food
The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.
Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.
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A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.
Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.
There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.
A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.
“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.
Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue
The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.
In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.
Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”
Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.
PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.
The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.
Check your local PBS listings for show times.
Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV
During the first O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, I was working at the Los Angeles Times, about three blocks away from the L.A. County Courthouse. Once in a while I would wander up there to gawk at the sidewalk circus that was in progress.
One fellow in the colorful crowd was selling an amazing souvenir of those days: a plastic mold you could use to reproduce the face of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito in gelatin. As I like to say, there’s always a food angle.
Several members of the trial’s cast of characters used it as a springboard to fame: the late attorney Johnny Cochran, police officer Mark Fuhrman, party pal Kato Kaelin (not that much fame, in retrospect) et al., including Robert Kardashian, of course, who bequeathed us a pack of telegenic daughters the world might otherwise never have heard of. Judge Ito took a more dignified route and continued an honorable career on the bench.
The gelatin mold looks kind of like the judge, but not exactly. It’s based on a life mask of the owner of SKS Sibley Co., which mostly makes molds for Halloween purposes such as brains, hands and eyeballs. At any rate, it looked enough like the Honorable Ito that people recognized the resemblance at the time. The mold came with a pair of glasses made from construction paper, which were not really very close to what the judge wore.
Of course I bought a mold. Shortly afterward, the judge expressed a desire that the maker cease and desist, or something to that effect, so it has become something of a rarity.
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That day I took it back to the Times Test Kitchen and we made it following the accompanying instructions. They created gelatin with a color a little like a flesh tone, more orange than one might like for the purpose, except perhaps on the Jersey Shore. The hair? More of a problem. The idea was to use food coloring (gelatin is food, people), but black food coloring is hard to find. Blue with a few drops of red gave a very deep purple hue that read close enough to black for the gag to work.
It takes a long time for the gelatin to set, but the next day we had it ready, and we proudly carried it all around the Times building to show it off. Everybody found it highly entertaining … everybody, that is, except the City Desk people who were covering the trial. They didn’t get it at all.
Today with O.J. nostalgia in full bloom, I dug that mold out, a little surprised to find that I’d hung onto it through the years and that I still had the recipe for the quasi-flesh tone gelatin. I had to make new fake glasses, of course – construction paper is less durable than plastic. So here it is, one for the “Remember Those Fabulous Nineties?” book.
By the way, here’s the gelatin recipe that came with the mold. You can use it whenever you need a flesh-colored dessert. In the absence of a suitable mold, you might chill it in custard cups and then paint eyeballs or something when you unmold them.
- 3 (6-ounce) packets of peach-flavored gelatin
- 4 cups boiling water
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 (12-ounce) can nonfat evaporated milk
- 3-4 drops of green food coloring
- 6 or 7 drops blue food coloring
- 3 or 4 drops red food coloring
- Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water.
- When dissolved, stir in the cold water and the evaporated milk.
- Add three drops of food coloring – if the color is still too peachy try another drop.
- Refrigerate until quite firm, seven hours or more.
- After the gelatin is firm, squeeze the blue and red food coloring in a small bowl and stir. If it doesn’t look black enough for you, doctor it with more drops.
- Apply the blackish coloring carefully to the appropriate areas of the gelatin with a small brush.
Main photo: Twenty years after the O.J. Simpson trial, Charles Perry digs out his Jell-O mold of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito to revive an unlikely recipe. Credit: Charles Perry
It was the knife work. The way he smeared a dab of sauce across the plate with the back of a spoon. Jon Favreau’s moves were too smooth. The actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-blockbuster-director, is also a professionally trained chef? No way. I began looking for the “tells” of a body double.
“Chef,” Favreau’s new film, shot in one month, is a trip back to his indie-film roots when 18 years ago the work-a-day actor wrote himself out of that rut with the cult hit “Swingers.” Directing “Iron Man” catapulted him onto Hollywood’s A-list, wattage that is evident in the “Chef” cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Dustin Hoffman.
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But what makes this fairly predictable father/son feel-good road trip so engaging is the authenticity of the kitchen scenes and those chefy moves. Unlike most food flicks, “Chef” is not food porn. Favreau’s chef Carl Casper handles food with skill and respect — and you leave the theater desperate for a melty Cuban sandwich, sweet plantains and a cold beer.
“Ever since I read [Anthony Bourdain’s memoir] ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ I have been intrigued by the chef world,” Favreau told the sold-out audience opening night at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas. He dashed off the screenplay in a couple of weeks, congratulating himself for such an original story — a celebrated chef, trained in the French culinary tradition, who decides to chuck it all to cook the food he loves out of a food truck … and ends up with a rock star career.
Favreau soon learned his “original” idea mirrored the life of Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. One afternoon, Favreau stopped by the raw space in Koreatown where Choi was pacing out a new restaurant, Pot, his ode to Korean cuisine. Favreau’s plan was to make Choi a consultant on the film and avoid a lawsuit for stealing his story.
“He just showed up by himself,” said Choi, who joined Favreau for the opening night Q&A. After they talked, “he got in my car — which surprised me because it’s a beat old car — he just followed me around all night.”
Six hours on the town with Choi
Kogi BBQ trucks made Choi a Los Angeles hero and paved the way for his other places in the area: the college casual Chego; 3 Worlds Cafe in South L.A.; the neighborhood bistro A-Frame; Caribbean-flavored Sunny Spot; and his late night lounge, Alibi Room. That night, Favreau made the circuit with him. “I just showed him little bits and pieces to see if he thought what we were doing was interesting,” Choi said. “I was just trying to show him what I was about. Chefs are really transparent. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
Favreau agreed, saying, “Roy showed me everything. We were out for six hours that night. I tasted a lot of food. And it was amazing food. That’s the thing, you want to eat it all.”
Favreau sent Choi the script. “You know, I’m a fairly successful director and Roy started going after it,” Favreau said. “He red-lined the whole thing.” Chefs don’t wear their whites to the farmers market, Choi chided him. “And here you have the chef smelling the ingredients. You’re not Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ” Choi said.
Choi insisted on more than script changes. He would sign on to help only after Favreau went to cooking school. “My first day studying at the culinary academy was learning how to tie your apron. It is almost a martial art. Where you tie it, how tight,” Favreau recalled. “Roy told me you can tell whether you are a chef by how you hold a towel. And the whites. Keeping the whites clean.”
On the set, Choi showed up every day that involved cooking. The food couldn’t just look good; it had to taste good too. Choi created every dish that appears in the film and insisted that his food not be treated as a prop. The cast and crew would eat it. “Nothing was wasted,” Favreau said. “He kept everything up to restaurant standards. That pig we cut up? We parceled it out and gave it to the crew. Respect for the food permeated the culture on the set.”
As an actor, Favreau schooled himself in Choi. “I watched Roy and emulated everything he did. Every tattoo on chef Carl was approved by Roy,” he noted. The makeup artists added “burns” on his forearms, the mark of a working chef. “I worked from the inside out,” Favreau said.
Favreau’s last chef test
His final exam: joining Choi’s prep crew when he did a three chef tasting menu with Wolfgang Puck and David Chang. “No one knew I was there,” Favreau said. “At the end of the night they noticed me and they were busting my balls. David Chang noticed my whites were dirty.”
Slowly, Favreau found his way from acting like a chef to feeling the part.
“Once I realized his heart and his mind and his soul were open to [being a chef], that’s half the battle,” Choi said. “His movements changed once he got down with how a chef’s mind is working with so many different things going on. We have eyes in the back of our heads. By doing that, his body language changed.”
There was no body double.
Main photo: A scene from “Chef” with Emjay Anthony, left, and Jon Favreau. Credit: Open Road Films
“Fed Up” is a jab to the belly of many of the myths we hold about the causes and culprits responsible for the obesity epidemic in America. The well-crafted, accessible documentary’s focus is on kids, the food industry, Congress and most directly on the sneaky amount of sugar present in almost everything we pluck off a supermarket shelf, including all those helpful foods labeled “natural” and “low fat.”
In an era when one-third of our kids are diagnosed as clinically obese and have prospects for shorter lives than their parents, “Fed Up” should be shown to schools, youth groups, PTAs, projected on the walls at shopping malls — you name it. Anywhere that kids and parents hang out.
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Produced by Laurie David, cookbook author, activist and the producer who shared the Academy Award with Al Gore for “An Inconvenient Truth,” narrated and co-produced by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, the film is an indictment of the powerful hold that the packaged and processed food industry has over the American waistline. The film also pokes at the industry’s too cozy relationship with our government and suggests that the power of the food lobby has been quietly putting a muzzle on one of the great icons and advocates of health in America, Michelle Obama.
“Fed Up” is a labor of love and measured outrage. But it is the kind of outrage that translates into a call to action. “Fed Up” will cause you to think hard and critically, not in some abstract way, perhaps as soon as the next time you lift a fork to your lips. The tone of the film is a little in your face — an excellent thing, especially if you want to bring your school-age and older children to see the film. They will get it.
The narrative thread of the documentary follows a few young teenagers who are desperate to lose weight. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain these boys and girls suffer as obese kids. The director gave the kids their own mini-cams so that they could film soliloquies as the thoughts occurred and in moments of teenage privacy. One young girl, bewildered by the fact that she couldn’t lose weight, no matter how much exercise she added to her weekly routine, made me cry with compassion. In a theater full of strangers. One of the main arguments of the movie is that exercise isn’t the answer to obesity. The film argues that there aren’t enough hours in the day in which even the vigorous calorie-burning activity can balance out the calorific and toxic food environment that we live in. (Remember it is a documentary and has a specific point of view.) Watching the kids and their families struggle with weight issues, the shame of being young and fat, the fear of the health consequences, the possibility of early death from metabolic syndrome — haunts me still.
A fresh look at food issue
Honestly, as someone who swims daily in the conversation about our food system, I found the film fresh and energizing. I learned new things, and the takeaways were presented in ways that resonated for me.
The film has the requisite number of familiar talking heads that no serious foodie film would be without (among them Michael Pollan and Mark Hyman), but it also introduces less familiar talking heads who I am thrilled are connecting to a broader audience about food. Top among these is Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician and medical academic from San Francisco whose clear-eyed research on sugar has had me agog for years; and President Bill Clinton, the recent vegan who sorta/kinda admits that his administration “missed” the dawning of the obesity crisis with its misbegotten public health emphasis on low fat and under regulation of the food industry. (P.S.: There’s a neat statistical correlation between the uptick in obesity in the U.S. and the years that “low fat” became the diet watchwords.) Almost at once, all the major food companies decided to make up for the sawdust taste of low and reduced fat products by loading them up with sugar.
Surprisingly, the movie isn’t a downer. At the end of the film in a packed theater, everyone stood up and cheered. The documentary offers a Fed Up challenge: Go sugar free for 10 days. That’s more complicated than just giving up sodas and desserts, by the way. You have to suss out the sugar in your salad dressings, your spaghetti sauce, your healthy super-power packed granola bars! But it’s a challenge well worth accepting. If only to prove to yourself that like Laurie David and Katie Couric and all the team that created the film, you are Fed Up too.
Main photo: Focusing on the causes of child obesity is one of the targets of the documentary film “Fed Up.” Credit: Courtesy of “Fed Up” film website
We English love our eccentrics. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the renowned cook, TV personality, author and countryside campaigner, who died on March 15 at age 66, is a case in point.
One of the stars of the BBC’s “Two Fat Ladies” cooking show, Clarissa (always known by her Christian name) was a remarkable, if somewhat flawed, person. Despite the advantages of intellect, privilege and money, she had to overcome a very difficult family background, as described in her 2007 autobiography, “Spilling the Beans.” Her father, a distinguished surgeon, eventually became a violent alcoholic who terrorised and sometimes attacked Clarissa and her mother. Formidably intelligent, she began her career as a lawyer and was the youngest woman ever to be called to the bar, at age 21. But after the death of her beloved mother, she plunged into alcohol addiction and was disbarred for misconduct.
Wright attributed her substantial bulk to damage to her adrenal glands from the quinine in the four pints of tonic water she drank each day during this period (not to mention the two bottles of gin and half a bottle of vodka that went with them). She subsequently swore off the drink, but the resulting damage to her health may have contributed to her relatively early death.
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She found salvation in TV presenting, cooking and powerful, articulate support for country life. The launch pad of her recovery was “Two Fat Ladies.” Her partner in this activity was Jennifer Paterson, a well-known figure and sometime cook at the Spectator magazine. They traveled the length of the United Kingdom in a motorcycle and sidecar combination, visiting places that were associated with traditional British food and good cooking, often of a hearty nature.
They would stop, apparently casually, at interesting locations where the TV crew had just happened to be waiting, to cook and present dishes to the camera. The Fat Ladies were far from politically correct, only moderately concerned with hygiene (although nobody ever got ill from their cooking) and were very good, rather than truly outstanding, cooks. The series was only brought to an end by Paterson’s death in 1999.
That series and her subsequent TV show, “Clarissa and the Countryman,” which she presented with Sir John Scott, was at least as much about country values as about food. She was always a passionate believer in, and defender of, good, basic ingredients; sustaining and well-flavoured cooking; the countryside and its traditional values and sports.
Interestingly, she articulated her support for country sports at exactly the time the U.K. was changing into a genuinely multiethnic, multicultural society where so many traditions were being questioned. It appeared she found comfort in supporting a way of life that was coming under fierce attack from some.
She positively relished a fight, both intellectually and physically — she was reputed to have left two muggers who attacked her in an intensive care ward. She was quite unmoved by the hate mail she received from animal rights activists on account of her support for hunting. She even threatened to display the letters publicly — which, as it turned out, discouraged many of the writers.
A magnet for controversy
She certainly provoked strong emotions. In 2012, Clarissa suggested eating badgers, which were being culled because they were believed to carry bovine tuberculosis. Brian May, guitarist with the band Queen and a major opponent of the cull, retorted: “I think we should seriously consider eating senseless people like this Clarissa whoever-she-is. She’s obviously outlived her usefulness. I wonder if she would be best boiled or braised.”
Despite this and her considerable personal eccentricities, most people who met Clarissa liked her. Notwithstanding her strong views, she was extremely open to new people, the most generous of hosts and friends, and paid no attention to whether they were rich or poor. In fact, she herself went from inheriting several million pounds to declaring bankruptcy because of her lack of financial prudence.
Perhaps she was so popular just because she made no effort to fit in with convention. The publisher Tom Jaine, who regularly shared a stall with her at Oxford food festivals, remarked in his obituary of her that each year she wore not only the same skirt but that it even bore the same stains.
She is going to be greatly missed by very many people, including at least some of those who loved to disagree with her.
Top photo: Clarissa Dickson Wright. Credit: Cristian Barnett
The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.
Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.
However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.
In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.
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Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.
A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”
Food and sex inspire writers
Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.
The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.
But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:
“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes
Pour forth tears,
I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī
Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”
The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.
Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.
There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.
* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.