Articles in Television

Clarissa Dickson Wright

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.

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

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Christopher Kimball. Credit: Courtesy of

If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.

Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.

While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.

To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.

Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.

Kimball’s food publishing adventures

I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.

Kimball founded Cook’s Country magazine in 2004, and he’s also the bow-tied host of the PBS cooking shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen.”

America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.

It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.

We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.

What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?

My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.

How did you learn to cook?

Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.

In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?

We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.

How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?

The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.

What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?

Almost no-knead bread from the "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook" is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Almost no-knead bread from the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook” is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.

Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?

If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).

Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?

Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.

How much of being a good cook is science versus art?

There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.

How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?

Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.

What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?

Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.

Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”

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Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier

It was a sweltering day outside the classroom at The Greenbrier when Julia Child came to visit. She would come each year to teach and enjoy a little vacation with us in West Virginia. And, in the air-conditioned classroom where we held Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne classes, she seemed larger than life.

Towering over the demonstration table, she had total command of the crowd with her unmistakable voice and her larger than life persona. I stood in the back of the classroom in support of my friend, admiring her expert movements and ability to multitask while narrating her every move.

This visit and many others came to mind as I worked on my new memoir, “One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France.” The times I’ve shared with my good friends gave me a treasury of stories and recipes. Julia was describing every detail of making a Hollandaise sauce, that silky combination of clarified butter emulsified in a mousse of egg yolks and water. Whisk, whisk, whisk, Julia first added the butter drop by drop and then in a slow steady stream. The sauce should thicken creamily but it remained obstinately thin. Fat spears of asparagus were simmering, the oven was calling with cases of puff pastry already browned. It would be fatal to stop whisking because the butter would separate.

“Anne, Anne, come and save it!” cried Julia, and I sprinted to the stage. Whisking like a maniac, I peered at the sauce. It was not lumpy and curdled, so not overcooked. I had seen Julia adding the ingredients and the proportions were good. Could it be too cold? Had the Greenbrier’s blasting air-conditioning got to it?

As Julia yanked baking sheets from the oven and drained the asparagus, I raised the flame — a dangerous tactic with delicate Hollandaise. But it worked, the sauce thickened just at the right moment and Julia gave me a congratulatory hug for the camera.

Top photo: Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier

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The enormous popularity of British television’s “Downton Abbey” is a great boon to PBS, which is airing it in the United States, and I suspect its huge success may have come as a surprise. Though PBS anticipated Emmy awards last year for costumes and for Maggie Smith’s performance in the juicy role of an aristocratic dowager, the show also walked away with awards for best writing, directing, cinematography and for the best miniseries or movie. Audiences love the story lines that zip between the behavior and happenings of upstairs gentry and the gossip and activities of below-stairs servants who make possible the gracious style of living enjoyed upstairs.

One should never underestimate the American fascination with the British class system. We love to learn the details about the contrasting problems facing each class, and how they deal with them. The upper class has time on its hands and must figure out which fashionable outfit to wear for dinner, while those below stairs in their aprons and caps must slave away to get elegant meals on the table. What both classes share, however, is a knack for getting into interesting sexual entanglements. So, in the end, “Downton Abbey” turns out to be a soap opera with great clothes. As always, food serves as a reliable way to distinguish the classes not only by what is eaten but where and with whom it is eaten, and in the case of “Downton Abbey,” who cooks the food, who serves it and who gets to sit comfortably while being served.

Food and British social history

This series has inspired a small industry of books, some offering behind-the-scenes photographs and chat about the actors and sets; others dipping into social history to give the reader a bit of context. Even cookbooks with Edwardian recipes written by contemporary writers are coming along. But, for me, the best book that relates to the show was written many years ago by Margaret Powell, an English girl from a poor family who worked her way up from kitchen maid to cook in several great houses. Her memoir is said to have inspired Julian Fellowes, writer of “Downton Abbey.”

Born in 1907, Powell went into service when she was 15, landing in several upper-class homes first in the kitchen doing the dirtiest jobs in the household and eventually as a respected cook. Her memoir, “Below Stairs” gives us an authentic picture of what life was like for servants before World War I and after, the years portrayed in “Downton Abbey.” Happily, Powell also wrote a cookbook that informs us of the dishes served to the well-born. We do not find here English foods with such amusing and, sometimes off-color names as Bubble and Squeak, Toad-in-the-hole or Spotted Dick. Instead, we get dishes clearly influenced by French cuisine, an array of proper recipes for stocks, and directions for such classic pastries as choux and pâtefeuilletée. This is not surprising since the fame of French cooking was spread by the presence of French-born chefs in many of the British great houses and gentlemen’s clubs. This prestigious fare then trickled down to the smaller private homes of gentry who cared about status and saw to it that guests were served impressive French dishes. But we know Powell’s cookery book was written by an Englishwomanwhen we come across recipes for such British classics as treacle tart, the pub favorite known as Scotch eggs and curried eggs, which is a dish that reflects the British rule in India.

American-style success in a British class system

Learning how to cook was not easy for Powell who, in her first job as kitchen maid, faced a mean-spirited cook unwilling to teach her young assistant. Instead, Powell found herself stuck with such nasty jobs as cleaning smelly game that had been hanging for weeks, and skinning dead rabbits in one fell swoop. In another job, when Powell told her employer that she wanted to attend cooking school, she was given the time off, but had to pay for lessons herself out of her meager salary. When she did, she found herself taken in by a fraudulent Englishman pretending to be a French chef. She quit when she realized that his frequent outbursts of “oui, oui” and “mais non” were the extent of his knowledge of the French language, reflecting as well his limited knowledge of French cooking.

But  Powell soldiered on, moving ahead as a cook, revealing her deepening knowledge by saying, “the less cooking you know how to do, the more competent you feel. … The more experienced I got the more I worried. I soon realized when a dish wasn’t perfection.” These are revelations of a real cook that could have been uttered by Thomas Keller today.

Powell left service when she married a milk-delivery man and set up her own household, earning extra money from time to time by catering events. She later took courses and began writing books, including novels as well as her popular memoir “Below Stairs.” Her later success was in contrast to the lives of most British household servants who remained poor and subservient all of their lives. Being stuck like this intrigues Americans who have always seen themselves as living within a fluid society in which success is attainable. At the same time, we are a bit scornful of the idle classes who spend spare time shooting small birds and animals for others to clean and cook.

Scotch Eggs, adapted from “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book”

Ingredients

6 eggs

1 pound plain, uncooked sausage meat

1 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon dried thyme

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup dried plain breadcrumbs

Olive oil or cooking oil

Directions

1. Heat oven to 425 F.

2. Place eggs in pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then cover pot and turn off the heat. When the eggs and water are cool the eggs should be hard-cooked. Peel eggs.

3. Mix salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg into sausage meat. Divide the meat into six parts. Roll each portion thin enough so that it can cover an egg completely.

4. Dredge each sausage-covered egg in bread crumbs until completely coated.

5. Roll eggs in oil and place on a baking sheet and bake, turning three or four times until the crust in brown, around 20 minutes.

Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” premieres on PBS on Jan. 6

Top photo: Book covers of “Below Stairs”  and “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book.” Credit: Barbara Haber

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David Chang and Kim Dickens in

If you are not watching the HBO series “Treme,” trust me, from a food fanatic’s point of view, you are seriously missing out. The series, created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer first roared into America’s living rooms on April 11, 2010, with all the stunning force of Hurricane Katrina.

Set in the devastated city of New Orleans, the story line picks up three months after that life-changing event. Although most of the recurring characters are fictional, so many real-life musicians and chefs make regular appearances that New Orleanians have come to regard “Treme” as “our reality TV show.”

From the very start, the writers and producers recognized the important role that food plays in New Orleans’ everyday life and how it figured into the rebuilding of the city. Actress Kim Dickens plays chef/restaurateur, Janette Desautel, a character loosely modeled on Chef Susan Spicer. To ensure authenticity, Spicer was brought on from the start for consultation with culinary matters such as drafting  Desautel’s menu and teaching  basic knife skills to the actors.

Familiar faces in fictional kitchens

The show is largely shot on location in New Orleans, so these professional touches were needed to make the actors look and behave at home in a professional kitchen setting. Chef Aaron Burgau’s Uptown restaurant, Patois, provided the location for Desautel’s, Janette’s restaurant in the first season.

By Season 2, David Simon had recruited Tony Bourdain to write the food-focused episodes. “I’d been a long time fan of David Simon’s, so when he called me about working on ‘Treme,’ I squealed like a little girl!” Bourdain said.

Bourdain recruited friends who happened to also be celebrity superstar chefs. Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne and David Chang to make a surprise appearance at Desautel’s before Janette closes her restaurant and trades the Big Easy for the Big Apple.

Celebrity chefs dine together in a scene from "Treme."

Celebrity chefs dine together in a scene from “Treme.” Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.

“Treme’s” executive producer, Nina Noble, and production designer, Chester Kaczenski, made a whirlwind trip through New York kitchens. They used Ripert’s Le Bernadin to shoot on location. When Janette goes to work for David Chang at the fictional Lucky Peach restaurant, Kaczenski so meticulously recreated Chang’s Momofuku kitchen on a set in a New Orleans’ West Bank warehouse that Chang said he had a “freaky, out of body experience” the first time he saw it.

Scenes set in famous New Orleans bars and restaurants are peppered throughout all three seasons of “Treme.” Chef Leah Chase re-creates her annual Holy Thursday Gumbo Z’herbes luncheon at Dooky Chase so that the fictional political characters could make an appearance as the real New Orleans politicos always do. We see Spicer at her French Quarter restaurant, Bayonne, celebrate a traditional Christmas feast at the 150-year-old Tujague’s and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the rollicking at the annual Galatoire’s lunch on the Friday before Mardi Gras.

A fantasy menu

Season 3, which debuted in September, sets the culinary bar high in the very first episode. Chang, Janette’s fictional boss, brings her along to an exclusive chefs’ dinner. New Orleans’ restaurant Mila provides the edgy, New-York-style location for a fictional, establishment, Brulard’s. Bourdain’s script has Ripert, Colicchio and Dufresne dining with Jonathan Waxman and Alfred Portale on a fantasy menu of pâtés and charcuterie, salmon en croute with dill cream, lievre a la royale and isle floatant, all washed down with a 1961 Chateau Latour Grand Vin.

Later, when Janette heads home to open a new upscale eatery, Desautel’s on the Avenue, Kaczenski created an entire, functional new restaurant, using much of the real equipment from “Lucky Peach.”  Chef Emeril Lagasse takes Janette under his wing when her own new looming celebrity overwhelms her then, there is a strictly New Orleans version of the celebrity chef dinner when chefs Spicer, John Besh, Donald Link, Scott Boswell, and JoAnne Clevenger of the Upperline dine together at Janette’s new restaurant.

If you can’t get enough of chef reality TV, catch up on “Treme’s” Season 1 and 2, available online and on DVD. I promise you Sunday nights filled with guilty food porn-style pleasure as you join me for another new serving of delicious “Treme.”

Photo: David Chang and Kim Dickens in “Treme.” Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

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Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of

On May 9, 2010, a young couple set out on a yearlong driving adventure in their home state of Minnesota. There would be no mindless eating on this road trip, however. For Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, real food was the journey as well as the destination. In place of junk food bags, their car collected local products, like wild rice, honey and edible weeds.

Itinerant filmmakers, their aim was to document foods grown, gathered, husbanded and hunted by real people. By the end of the year, they had created a collection of 52 short films called “The Perennial Plate: Adventures in Sustainable Eating” and a 60,000-views-per-month Internet hit series.

Their passion fueled, the tireless couple set off on a second year road trip, this time across the United States. Their resources: a Toyota Prius, an immersion blender and double the funds of their first trip, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. Through 43 states and across 23,000 miles, “The Perennial Plate” posted 50 new episodes. Their three-to-12-minute videos on subjects from eating insects to a Southern farm-to-table dinner went viral.

For their third season, “The Perennial Plate” goes global with the first episode set to air in late October. Their route is a 12-country journey in partnership with Intrepid Travel, beginning in China and Japan. Anyone with Internet access can go along for the continuing journey. It’s all free, but the going’s not always easy.

Not the Food Network

Episodes of “The Perennial Plate” feature Klein, a chef with four-star credentials, visiting a locale and interviewing regular folks. Subjects have included everyone from cheese makers and ranchers to urban homesteaders and mushroom foragers.

While Klein has a background in filmmaking, videographer Fine is new to the process. A vegetarian, Fine shot the lamb butchering in episode 6 when Klein couldn’t find any other help. “She did a better job than anyone else,” Klein said, and she has had the role ever since.

“There’s no script or agenda,” Fine said.

Their shoots can last from one to several days. Together, they edit the footage, finding the story and timing it to the music, which drives the pace. (Their ideal length is seven minutes.) Their video creations have the energy and momentum of a great, short road trip — with exceptional, if virtual, snacks.

The pair build each episode with a combination of gorgeous camera shots, memorable characters and a catchy soundtrack (all by independent artists) capped off by a pithy on-screen quote. It combines the personal travelogue with an engaging story of people, place and the food in their lives.

“We’re looking for vulnerable moments with people,” Klein said. “Sometimes we shoot animals being butchered and it’s hard.”

From road kill to Dumpster diving, the couple don’t avert the camera lens from any food topic they find compelling, but they don’t dwell on the bizarre.

Storytelling and activism in ‘Perennial Plate’

Another hallmark of “The Perennial Plate” is the “you are there” quality, whether it’s a joyous, sunlit farm dinner or a stern-faced fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico struggling in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Backed by memorable images, the subjects do all the talking. No voiceover tells viewers what to make of it all, but it’s hard not to be swayed by the filmmakers’ craft. Klein and Fine have a broader mission than to entertain. They want to influence the future of food from production to consumption. Broadcasting via the Web, with traffic from Facebook, Twitter and The Huffington Post as well as other media, has given “The Perennial Plate” a larger distribution than they could have imagined.

These filmmakers believe that personalized, captivating storytelling is more effective than showing movies with a big agenda about changing the world.

“The work seems effective when it’s not shoved down people’s throats. They get excited because it’s exciting or inspiring,” He said. “People come on the journey with us.”

This is a series, at heart, about a boyfriend and girlfriend on the ultimate road trip, connecting with people and confronting with compassion the difficult realities of their lives. Even Fine who spends nearly all her time behind the camera said, “We open ourselves up. I really care about them and I’m really sad when we leave.”

With continuing input and tips from their followers and viewers, these food adventurers will find more uplifting and true stories about eating and health within local communities and environments everywhere they go. Season 3 of “The Perennial Plate” will feature a biweekly video from around the globe through the spring of 2014.

Photo: Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of “The Perennial Plate.” Credit: Fran Collin of work-for-food.com

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Julia Child is so strongly associated with French cuisine that you might assume that her first defining moment as a foodie took place in France, but that wouldn’t be entirely correct.

The truth is, her earliest steps toward becoming a culinary connoisseur took place years earlier, when she was stationed in an intelligence network on the other side of the world. Writing about her years in Asia during World War II, Julia Child remembered, “That is where I became interested in food.”

Yes, America’s doyenne of French cuisine, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 15, discovered the joys of dining in wartime China, long before she set foot in France. Working for the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, the precursor to the CIA), a young Julia McWilliams was assigned to the base in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), around 1942 or 1943. This tropical Shangri-La was where she first encountered new foods like durian, a fruit that she described as smelling like “dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert.” It was also where she met the man who would one day be both her husband and her sophisticated guide to the world’s pleasures: Paul Child.

Paul and Julia were later transferred out of Ceylon and over to China, to Yunnan province’s capital city of Kunming during the last throes of the war in the Japanese theater. The air route over the eastern stretch of the Himalayas eventually took the lives of more than 1,600 people and destroyed 594 Allied airplanes. But that didn’t seem to faze Julia, who calmly read a book on the flight and, upon descending from the plane, said with delight, “It looks just like China.”

It was in Kunming that Julia’s palate was first awakened, for she was surrounded by “sophisticated people … who knew a lot about food,” she recalled. During the two years she spent there, Julia said she and Paul “continued our courtship over delicious Chinese food.”

Historian and author Theodore H. White (“The Making of a President”) turned Paul on to dining in the “best eating places,” and Julia followed suit, enjoying the unique textures and flavors. She later remembered “nuggets of chicken in soy sauce, deep-fried or in paper; always rice, pork, [hot]-and-sour soup. The duck was always good, and everyone had a good time.”

She not only ate with great pleasure from the cuisines of China, Julia began to learn a variety of cooking styles from different parts of China, as well as Vietnam. “I am very, very fond of northern, Peking-style Chinese cooking,” she said. “That’s my second favorite [cuisine]. It’s more related to French; it’s more structured.”

Julia and Paul Child’s last meal in Kunming

Although there’s no record of what dishes the couple might have dallied over as they got to know each other better, what is known is the menu of their last meal together in Kunming in the fall of 1945, just before Paul was reassigned to Beijing, and Julia was transferred to Chungking, 900 miles away.

Paul described to his twin brother, Charlie, that they had eaten at a favorite local restaurant, a Beijing-style place called Ho-Teh-Foo. As farewells loomed, he and Julia lingered over spring rolls fried in sesame oil, napa cabbage with Yunnan ham, Chinese black mushrooms braised with greens and Peking Duck Three Ways (the crispy skin and then the meat served as the first two courses along with thin crepes, shredded leeks and sweet wheat paste; the bones turned into a soup with cellophane noodles, spinach and egg).

Julia’s love for Chinese food remained unchanged the rest of her life, and she once noted that she would be “perfectly happy” if she had nothing but Chinese food. However, she never returned to China after the war and she did not pursue the study of it, probably for the simple reason that in the early 1950s there were few books and fewer teachers in the U.S. who could have taught her much about this cuisine after her return.

But still, it is fun to imagine what might have been if things had been different, if Julia had found someplace like a Chinese Cordon Bleu to show her the way and become America’s guide to Chinese cuisine, instead of French. Just think of it … Julia Child whacking ducks to pieces with a giant cleavers on black-and-white television, heaving great bamboo steamers around her tiny studio kitchen, wishing her audience a hearty Manyong! as she signed off, and causing America to fall in love with the foods that she had adored all of her adult life, as well as the place that had taught her to eat well: China.

Photo: An ancient temple in Kunming, China. Credit: iStockphoto

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Hosting a dinner party in Los Angeles often means having an actor present is hardly a rarity. They come in handy whenever home cooks attempt to re-create a TV show, especially over-the-top ones such as “Iron Chef” where dramatic interpretation is as vital as cooking skills.

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I went to battle — once with foie gras, another time with oxtail –  and a few members of a theater troupe enhanced the setting with garish outfits, a smoke machine and lips moving out of sync with the dialogue. We were purists, staging the Japanese version of the show.

The missing ingredient was the music. Unlike others, we didn’t think to call the composer.

“I started to get a lot of e-mails from people, the funniest ones coming from people who knew me and had discovered I was doing the show,” says Craig Marks, who has composed “Iron Chef America” music for nine seasons. “They’d ask me to (burn CDs) because they were doing ‘Iron Chef’ competitions at home or at work for morale boosters. I got calls from fraternities and sororities, schools, religious groups. It was all very unexpected. There were enough of these requests that we got started on the project.”

The “project” is the commercial release of music from “Iron Chef America” and “The Next Iron Chef” on CD and as a digital download. CMS Media released the music in December just as “Iron Chef” was registering its highest ratings in its history. “Iron Chef America: Super Chef Battle” was the Food Network’s third highest-rated telecast of all time with a cumulative audience of 7.6 million viewers.

The release includes the opening themes to television shows, the scene setters that precede the battles and the meditative cues that accompany the tasting segments. The album also includes his composition for “White House Garden — A National Challenge,” an episode that featured first lady Michelle Obama.

Music to reflect global cuisines

There are two aspects of the show — the gladiator-ness of being a challenger, which is mostly featured on the record — and the visually pleasing presentations when you’re watching and listening to the judges. “My goal is to always totally shift gears, to bring out the emotional essence when they’re at the table savoring the food. I go for less specific melodies,” Marks said.

When Marks got the call to join the American translation of the kitschy hit series from Japan, he was busy writing for animation and ESPN’s “Sportscenter.” Making the show American required a cinematic approach to the music — he says the initial inspiration was the scores to “Backdraft” and “Glory” — while incorporating styles from the represented cooking regions such as India, China and Italy.

“The recurring note,” Marks says, “is always bigger, bigger, bigger… It has to be Julia Child meets ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship.’ “

Working in his studio in Chatsworth, Calif., Marks programs and performs all the orchestra parts while also playing the guitars, dulcimer and balalaika. Cellist Tina Guo and Dave Norwoods, on tabla and doumbek, join him. Classically educated and a hard rock fan, he is also involved with a Chicago classical music group, the Fifth House Ensemble, that aims to bridge contemporary rock music, the avant garde and classical music. They have performed his compositions and his arrangements of music by rock bands such as Korn and put that music on programs with works by Brahms, Schoenberg and Korngold.

Not much of that work comes in handy when he puts on his “Iron Chef” gear. “In the most ideal setting I turn off all of my classical training until I get stuck in a corner. Then I turn it all back on again.”

 


Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.

Photo: Craig Marks
Credit: CMS Music
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