Food Revolution

I’ve just watched the first two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on Hulu.  I have to say I’m surprised by how moving it was: shocking, inspiring, emotional.  I’m a bit blown away.

Not to say that it is not a great idea – surely this country is sorely in need of a food revolution and what better place to start than with the next generation?  I guess I am generally a bit suspicious of celebrity chefs, especially ones with cute floppy hair and accents, touting ‘easy’ food and a line of home products, who seem made-to-order for television but not so much for cooking. I’d never before seen one of his TV shows, hadn’t bought one of his dozen cookbooks (didn’t even know he had his own magazine), and haven’t tried any of his recipes, but I have to say – I’m a convert.

That’s not to say that I think he’s a brilliant chef; I have no idea if the man can cook (but I suppose now I have reason to find out). Frankly, I don’t much care if he’s a great chef. Great cooking is an art, and a rare one: exceptional meals are, well, exceptional.  They don’t happen every day, and when you can pull them off consistently, then you are a great chef.  But everyday cooking should be, and can be, easy and simple every day.  Cooking, mind you; not re-heating, not microwaving, cooking. Taking raw ingredients, fresh, nutritious food, and transforming them into something tasty to eat.  Somehow in America we’ve convinced ourselves that this simple act, that has been going on for thousands of years, is too difficult, too expensive, too time-consuming.

The show has been generating a lot of chatter in foodie circles, on Twitter and in the blogosphere. And there has been some celebration, but also a bit of snark from the serious foodies.  Suffice it to say that talking to me about the importance of real food, cooked from real ingredients, is preaching to the choir, and I thought I was pretty well aware of the state of things in mainstream American ‘cuisine.’  But even I was shocked that 6 year-olds are served pizza for breakfast and chicken nuggets for lunch nearly every day (since when did we start feeding kids breakfast at school, anyway?). Even I, who know too well how few people cook at home anymore, was shocked when these same kids couldn’t identify a tomato or a potato, let alone cauliflower, broccoli and eggplant.  Even I, as one of the tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, was shocked to find a family with four kids that do not take their kids in for regular check-ups, and to see a 12 year-old boy facing imminent diabetes.

I thought at first that it was a mistake to have a Brit, especially a young and fairly cheeky Brit, attempt this, especially down South. I mean, yes, sure to make for controversial television, but what’s the point if you don’t ultimately succeed in changing any behaviors in Huntington, WV and in the rest of the country?  Better to go with an Emeril or Bobby Flay; sort of a good ‘ole boy who can help people see that you can cook real food and not be considered elitist, a food snob, a wuss, what have you.  But of course – it’s not their thing, is it?  It’s Jamie Oliver’s thing.  He did it in England and now he wants to do it here.  And it works – to see his utter bafflement when presented with a stack of USDA regulations for school meals that looks like half a dozen phonebooks; and the same bafflement when pizza and chicken nuggets meet those USDA requirements, but freshly-cooked roasted chicken drumsticks with rice and salad do not; and the complete shock and dismay when he suggests forks & knives for the kids to eat with, and discovers that this is a radical suggestion, that the kids never get anything but spoons, that they don’t know how to use forks & knives.  It’s a wake-up call to us, to notice the things we have come to take for granted as commonplace.

Of course, the show could be all about the ratings; maybe he’s a right bastard and doesn’t give a shit about these kids, this town, this country. Maybe he’s just a great actor, milking the tears and the emotional scenes for ratings.  But I don’t think so.  It just doesn’t seem worth it: the rude lunchladies, the asshole DJ, the slanderous newpaper article, the attitude of the townspeople in general. I think you have to have a real passion for what you are doing in order to put up with that environment.  He’s got plenty of money, plenty of other projects he could be working on; there is no reason for him to go through this if not because he is truly passionate about the cause.  At any rate, that’s what I believe, and I sincerely hope it’s true.  Because I say I want a revolution – it’s about time.

Check out the show and more info on the website. Sign the petition – change the world.

Images from Jamie Oliver’s website and Facebook page.

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12 comments

  1. kim

    I haven’t seen this show, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. I do think a major problem he’s faced is not truly understanding how deeply integrated to southern (and especially West Virginian) culture the idea of ‘outsiders’ is. I know he wants to help, but I can’t help but think he’s a bit idealistic to think he’s going to be able to go in and not make his battle harder just by being british, and so different, and then also trying to tell these people that they’re doing it wrong and they should listen to him because he knows better (even if he does!).

    However, I may try one or two of the shows and see what happens. I know he’s done quite a bit of reform in the british school system’s cafeterias, which is pretty impressive, and obviously this is his passion.

    And I do recommend you checking out his blog and recipes. I can highly recommend his Chicken in Milk recipe. 🙂

  2. local kitchen

    Kim – I was surprised to be so affected by the show. I wasn’t even going to watch it (since we gave up cable, we no longer even have TV) but someone mentioned it was on Hulu, so I thought I would check out the 1st episode. And it sucked me right in.

    Certainly he would be having an easier time of it in say, Scarsdale. But I think a big hook of the show, for ABC, is the whole “unhealthiest town in America” shtick, and of course, it makes for better ratings if there is controversy. I think you are right that he underestimated the size of the challenge; you can see that in the 2nd episode where he looks quite desperate to get his point across. Anyway – it’s worth a watch. I’ll now be glued to Hulu for when future episodes come out.

    And I’ll check out his website – although I can pretty much guarantee I won’t find a recipe that I can’t tweak somehow. 🙂

  3. Well, the one thing I’ll say about the school breakfast program is that at it’s best, it’s a way to help out people who have very strained finances–along the lines of food stamps, etc–freeing up money for other vital neats (heat or eat phenomenon, etc). However, I don’t have to watch the show (which I haven’t, but have seen parts of the UK version) to know that it’s probably nothing approximating a “healthy breakfast!”

    It’s amazing that we are so happy to feed our kids garbage.

  4. I am disgusted with the food that public schools feed our children. School cooks will tell you that they do nothing more than reheat food, rather than cook from scratch. What a shame!

  5. I wanted to point out that the show is in Huntington, WEST Virginia. That’s a sore spot for many of us West Virginians. But, don’t worry. It happens all the time.

    Another sore spot for many West Virginians is how we’re portrayed in the media, and as the show demonstrated, many of the people were a little skeptical of the tv show exploiting all our negative stereotypes. But, the sad thing is, the show pretty accurately portrayed the attitudes and habits of many West Virginians. It’s really sad to look around here and see so many obese and unhealthy people. And when you talk to people, you realize they have no clue the way they live will end their lives early some day. I think Jamie Oliver’s presence in WV made a difference, but there’s way more that needs to change, not just in WV, but throughout the country. It’s just really nice that more and more people are starting to take notice of issues, with the release of Food, Inc., and Michael Pollan’s many books. I think we’re turning a corner, but we still have a long way to go.

  6. local kitchen

    Jennelle – Thanks so much (I’ve corrected my gaffe). Weird thing is, I was *thinking* it was WV, and I could swear I double-checked the show website and it said VA (but of course, when I look now, it clearly says WV).

    I grew up north of Boston, and if one more person in NY asked me to say “Park the Car” or “Harvard Yard” I might have hit someone, so I fully understand the annoyance of the regional stereotype. But, as you say, sad thing is: my brother and sister both still say “pahhhk the cahhh” (among other colloquialisms). Sometimes stereotypes have a basis in truth; as always, the problem with them is painting everyone with the same brush based on where they live (or what they do, or what their heritage is, etc., etc.).

    I really hope that Jamie did some good down there. I’m sure that if even a few families got into the habit of cooking fresh, healthy food, then all the effort was worth it.

  7. I went to Hulu and watched the episodes…

    I used to be a fan of Jamie Oliver’s but lost track of him over the years. I liked his cooking–real food for real people.

    I think he’d do much better with the people in WV if he didn’t come off like an in your face know it all. He’d probably do better with them if he was less confrontational and more collegial. Then again, that doesn’t make for good television. I’m not sure how much the “writers” invented the confrontation.

    I did cringe for and with the kitchen staff when he called them lunch ladies and each time he called them girls. Harrummmph.

    And I was surprised that they made bread from scratch, considering all the things they get prepared and processed.

  8. local kitchen

    Funny I did not think he was particularly confrontational; I probably would have been much bitchier, especially when faced with the rude attitude of kitchen staff. But then again, playing nice with others has never been my forte. 🙂

    As for the lunch ladies and ‘girls’ – I agree, it is cringe-worthy, but honestly, I think that is just a cultural thing. The ‘lunch ladies’ in Britain are called ‘dinner ladies’; that’s their job, that’s what they are called. We called ’em lunch ladies in the 70’s and it wasn’t considered an insult. I think Euopeans in general have a hard time navigating the polictically-correct waters of America; it all seems a little baffling and ridiculous to them.

    Maybe it’s because I have many British friends, but the ‘darlins’ and the ‘girls’ doesn’t really bother me – it just seems quite British. But I agree, he would have made life easier for himself had he taken some time to figure out who these people are; America can hardly be understood by trips to NYC & LA. Then again, I don’t know that *I* understand “America” and I’ve lived here all my life.

  9. Well said. Great comments/discussion from everyone as well.

    My two cents: Yes, it’s still reality TV and, well, that means ratings are important. However, I think his intentions are good. A TV show probably isn’t enough to effect real change, but if it brings the idea of a food revolution to a wider audience then it’s not all bad. To be honest, even I was surprised at some of the things in the show. It’s scary that kids could identify a french fry but not the potato it comes from! Or ketchup but not a tomato. And it seemed odd that the kids didn’t know how to use a knife and fork. Okay so maybe they don’t use them in school, but what about at home?

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