Articles in Television

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

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.

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.

 

Quasi-Human Gelatin

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 7 hours, 10 minutes

Yield: One face mold’s worth, 9 ½ cups

Ingredients

    For the Gelatin
  • 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
  • For the Fake Hair Color
  • 6 or 7 drops blue food coloring
  • 3 or 4 drops red food coloring

Directions

  1. Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water.
  2. When dissolved, stir in the cold water and the evaporated milk.
  3. Add three drops of food coloring – if the color is still too peachy try another drop.
  4. Refrigerate until quite firm, seven hours or more.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

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Kissing couple with food

Can the kitchen hold the recipe for romance — or is the gender divide too great?

On a reality TV show known for romantic fantasy, a recent cooking-themed date fizzled more than it sizzled when “The Bachelorette,” Andi Dorfman, sought to heat things up with Brian (one of about a dozen eligible bachelors at her disposal) on a foodie date in the most romantic of locations — Marseille, France. But like a stubborn soufflé, the evening fell flat.

Before Andi and Brian enter a kitchen in which one can imagine Julia Child herself finding passion, contentment and satisfaction within the pleasures of French cuisine, they snuggle together in a private cinema. Andi and Brian view “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a cinematic adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ best-selling novel, in which a cross-cultural culinary rivalry yields compassion, transformation and love. The film inspires Andi to bring its plot to life. She and Brian visit local markets and shops, gathering ingredients for a French feast, an experience that Andi describes as one out of a movie or fairytale. Beyond a gastronomic adventure, however, Andi hopes to cook up some romance, to find her own recipe for love.

But instead of the sumptuous cooking and feeding scenes that viewers associate with food films, the passion quickly cools between Andi and Brian. As a man who does not cook, Brian admits that he is “outside of his comfort zone” and grows so uncomfortable in the kitchen that he emotionally shuts down, communicating with only curt responses and making no displays of affection. As they chop carrots, marinate frog legs, toss a salad and slice a baguette, they are spatially separated, standing back-to-back or on opposite ends of the kitchen space. Mimicking a scene from “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a disappointed Andi waves a limp asparagus spear in the air, the vegetable’s figurative impotence displaying the date’s failed chemistry.

Cooking, gender and the celebrity chef

Andi and Brian’s disastrous food-focused date echoes a collision of expectations that surround cooking. Although the gender divide is softening in many households, conventional roles dictate that women are expected to cook in the home. Men more often are not. Rather, it is typically men who cook in professional kitchen as chefs. This episode of “The Bachelorette” taps into the increasingly commercialized sex appeal of celebrity chefs, who, even as female chefs make great strides in restaurant kitchens, continue to be mostly male. For example, a study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that women are hired for only 19% of chef positions, a gender gap worthy of our ire.

And, in the American media, popular chefs exude a particular brand of rugged masculinity. Consider this description of Todd English in the New York Post: “By turns macho and sexy, charming and just a bit cheesy, he’s the guy you get your mojo back with on some far-flung Mediterranean island.” The iconic male chef is always in control — of himself, his knife, his ingredients, his suppliers and his staff. He is commanding. He is as “hot” as the roasting, boiling and sautéing that take place around him in the kitchen that he manages with an unwavering authority.

An unfulfilled food fantasy

Held to these standards of professionalism and macho masculinity, Brian fails to fulfill his role as the sexy chef in Andi’s food-film-inspired fantasy. He is not knowledgeable on cheese. He cannot describe how he prepares broccoli. He fails to seize the moment in every way. Beyond not playing his part, by not complimenting Andi’s command in the kitchen, he also fails to validate her femininity.

Cultures map gendered expectations onto food and cooking. Who cooks, why, how, what and when speak volumes about how a culture defines masculinity and femininity, professional prowess and familial devotion. There are also literal connections between food, sex and desire — from aphrodisiacs to food foreplay à la “9 1/2 Weeks”  or Tampopo.”

In the end, though, eaters need not hold themselves to professional standards or aspire to culinary fantasy. It is always an option to “just leave cooking to the movies,” as Andi and Brian did, rekindling their budding relationship at a restaurant over beef bourguignon, a dish whose depth and richness they can only hope their love might come to emulate.

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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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