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The Meaning of Food in Three Easy Lessons


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by Steven Shaw

<img align="right" src="http://egullet.org/imgs/daily_gullet/viewerslikeyou2.jpg">On the occasion of my parents' wedding anniversary, in the late 1970s, the nuclear family went out for dinner. Each of us was to pick a local fast-food establishment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for one course in our degustation. My mother chose the first stop, Bagel Nosh on Broadway and 71st Street, where I had Genoa salami (then considered exotic) and Jarlsberg cheese (then considered good) on a bagel nearly five inches in diameter (then considered radical). My father opted for the Chic-Teri on Amsterdam Avenue, an establishment serving chicken with preternaturally golden, crispy skin with a sheen that today could only be achieved by a professional food stylist armed with a spray can of polyurethane.

We were full after the first two stops, but we pressed on. My sister had control of the third course, and chose Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips on 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. I hadn't yet made my peace with fish at that time, but Arthur Treacher's, which I believe to be one of the finest fast-food chains in history, nonetheless made one of my favorite foods: the Crunch Pup. Having described the Crunch Pup to many nonbelievers over the years, let me be clear that the Crunch Pup was not a corn dog. It was a beef frankfurter enrobed in the same batter Arthur Treacher's used for its fish and fried in 100% trans-fatty hydrogenated tropical cholesterol shortening, which is out of favor now but will eventually be shown to make you smarter.

I had the final pick and chose McDonald's on Broadway and 71st, otherwise known as my favorite restaurant. When we entered the establishment, the lights were uncharacteristically dim. As our eyes adjusted, it became apparent that on every table in the restaurant there had been placed a tablecloth and a stout red candle. We had stumbled upon a promotion known as Candlelight Dinner at McDonald's. As I consumed an alarmingly large pile of McDonald's fries (then fried in beef tallow), I was declared to have "restaurant karma." In the late 1970s -- prior to the acceptance of karma as a meme -- when you said karma, you meant it.

That our food memories are about more than food -- that they are inextricably linked with family and other contextual apparatus -- goes without saying, or so I thought. It turns out, however, that what we need is the three-part PBS documentary, The Meaning of Food, which airs nationally on PBS on consecutive Thursdays (7, 14 and 21 April 2005 -- local air dates may vary; see note below), to explain the proposition.

After three hours of video, and even if you spend another three hours reading the companion book (also called The Meaning of Food), you still won't know what the meaning of food is, but you will have been relentlessly beaten over the head with the notion that food definitely does possess a lot of very important meaning, and that said meaning is not just about nutrition.

The Meaning of Food is more than worth the time it takes to watch, and is mostly great television, if a bit workmanlike in what has become the de rigueur PBS Documentaries for Dummies style. So entrenched and predictable are the many conventions of the PBS documentary -- the slow panning across historical photographs, the staged "impromptu" family moments, the out-of-touch voiceovers, the Woody Allen-esque soundtracks -- that the form now borders on parody. Though I'm guilty of participating in more than one documentary in this style, the next time I see a food documentary that depicts somebody eating something and saying "Mmm. It's really good! Ha ha ha!" I'm going to beat my television set to death with my Meaning of Food cookbook.

The three episodes of The Meaning of Food consist of a total of some 20 culinary segments, assembled with the racial and cultural even-handedness of a Star Trek bridge crew, and narrated ("hosted," we are told) by Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, New York chef-restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson. Unfortunately, Samuelsson, who speaks superfluously and awkwardly from a studio, does not appear to have been involved in the things he might have been good at, like the conceptualization of the series and the location shoots.

The Meaning of Food can be riveting when it celebrates food, and excruciating when it tries to lecture us on food's meaning. The producers rightly chose to put the most joyous and enjoyable segment up front in Episode One: "Food and Life" (thematically distinguished, sort of, from Episode Two: "Food and Culture," and Episode Three: "Food and Family"). At the show's opening, after the “Viewers. Like. You.” message and a forgettable introduction read by Samuelsson, we're treated to Italian gourmet market owner Mike Piancone, who is frantically preparing several times as much food as can possibly be consumed at his daughter's wedding. We see him with a bathtub full of imported buffalo mozzarella, we meet his cake decorator, Iren, who is decorating a white-frosted chocolate cake for every table (21 cakes in all) with violet and purple flowers, and we get to see a real Italian-American wedding from the vantage point of the PBS Betacam, which probably wasn't all that much more intrusive than a regular videographer would have been. (Message: food isn't just about food; food is love).

Few will be able to resist the charms of Shatreen Mashoor and her "Ramadan Diary." A Moslem-American triumph of the melting pot (Samuelsson says he prefers the metaphor "stew"), she's a cheerleader and thoroughly modern and assimilated. She speaks with the exact cadence of a distracted American teenager, which she is, but she's also fasting for Ramadan as a cultural thing. One of the most memorable moments in the series is a phone conversation between Shatreen and her grandfather (we only hear one side), with which every child or grandchild of immigrants who has ever tried to get a straight answer out of grandpa will immediately identify. (Message: since you don't eat when you fast, it must be about more than food).

There's a segment focusing on customs agents at JFK Airport, memorable mostly for the sheer quantity and diversity of agricultural contraband they seize in a day. (Message: people like to bring back the foods of their homelands because food is about more than just food). We meet Brian Price, an evangelical radio host and former Texas convict-chef who prepared last meals for death row inmates. (Message: since you don't really need a meal right before you're going to be executed, food must be about more than nutrition). Geechee heritage (the Geechee, or Gullah, are descendants of African slaves in South Carolina) and the culture of rice are explored by filmmaker Julie Dash, NPR commentator Vertamae Grosvenor, and poet Nikki Finney. (Message: food is about all kinds of things, and not just nutrition -- it's about poetry too). And for those who missed it the first ten times around, we get a sympathetic telling of the poor Makah Indians' attempts to hunt a whale in the face of animal-rights protests. (Message: well . . . you get the idea).

There are also some surprise vignettes, like Nigella Lawson reading an apropos passage from MFK Fisher (who arguably said all that needs to be said about the meaning of food), some tasteful images of breast feeding, some reactions of people to their first taste of durian and an awkwardly grudging and hurried acknowledgment of the hamburger as an iconic American food.

Though she is silent in the television presentation, we hear plenty from series creator Sue McLaughlin in the companion book (there's also, for those who are interested or who happen to be teachers in search of lesson plans, The Meaning of Food website. McLaughlin regrets that Americans are so focused on "the physical details of what we're eating" as opposed to "whom we're eating with and why." (Of course, "Viewers. Like. You.," having demonstrated their sophistication by watching PBS, are not guilty of this mainstream commercial American ignorance, so one might wonder: why make a show for people who aren't watching?) When talking about the meaning of food, we learn, it's not enough for food to be delicious. It must have credentials. Meaning, even. (Without a hint of irony, though, the book contains numerous recipes).

Thankfully, The Meaning of Food's television version doesn't press the point too far. Where it does, however, it displays the utter conviction that the meaning of food must be about anything but the food itself. It wouldn't be acceptable, in the PBS paradigm, to say, "I like vanilla ice cream because it's sweet, luscious and cool." That would be too American, too gluttonous, too focused on the physical details of what we're eating. We need an anthropologically correct justification: "When I eat vanilla ice cream it brings me closer to my hunter-gatherer ancestors."

This is where The Meaning of Food gets tangled in the web of its own preconceptions. In three hours of documenting the meaning of food in America, paid for by Knorr (aka Unilever), precious few people are portrayed eating what Americans actually eat every day. Many more Americans, after all, have culinary memories revolving around McDonald's than have ancestors who hunted whales, or fathers who own Italian delis or cook last meals for death row inmates. And it follows that we have more to learn about ourselves from the former than the latter. But in the PBS universe, nobody eats at McDonald's save for obese hicks, and so (since I only possess one of those two credentials) my Candlelight Dinner at McDonald's story is as likely to be aired on PBS as <i>Extreme Makeover: Home Edition</i>.

The primary casualty of this stew of agendas, though, is the food. So powerful is the imperative to avoid discussion of "the physical details of what we're eating" in favor of trumped up cases for meaning that the series overall becomes oddly muted. In the pursuit of the meaning of food, the food itself has somehow been left behind.

Steven Shaw (aka "<a href="http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showuser=1">Fat Guy</a>") is executive director of the eGullet Society. He has been known to do other things on occasion, and is even the author of a book, <i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060737808/egulletcom-20">Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out</a></i> (HarperCollins, August 2005).

Art: Dave Scantland

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Nigella reading MFK? Not a bad idea. They could sell CDs of that.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Having described the Crunch Pup to many nonbelievers over the years, let me be clear that the Crunch Pup was not a corn dog. It was a beef frankfurter enrobed in the same batter Arthur Treacher's used for its fish and fried in 100% trans-fatty hydrogenated tropical cholesterol shortening, which is out of favor now but will eventually be shown to make you smarter.

Wow. I never had the Crunch Pup, but this brought back memories of getting Sausage & Chips from the Fish & Chips truck (lorry?) that used to come around the village when I was little - in England. Picture the ice-cream man, but selling chip shop goods. I wish there was such a thing in Brooklyn. Anyway, the sausage part of the equation was a big English banger, coated in the fish batter and fried. I'd kind of forgotten about that, but now I really miss it.

Edited by iain (log)
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Allow me to say, first of all, that I love the new interactive Daily Gullet with the beautiful new banner! And who better to lead off than you, Steven?

This is what I call good criticism! I didn't see that PBS series and found it absorbing to read your article, regardless. Really good criticism has to stand on its own as a good read, even if you never have any intention of seeing the thing being analysed and criticized in the article.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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BRAVO Steven!

I too have not yet seen the PBS special, and while I'm glad for the awareness the project will create, I feel it raises concern. We all need to be aware of what we eat, how it was raised and all the issues that surround its arrival at our tables but often times the the food itself and our enjoyment get lost in the process. The organics, artisanal, and farmers market movements today's apparent jury on the enjoymnet of food, seem to often meter out goodness-organic, small farmers being very good; and badness--commercial food being some lesser guilty enterprise. I feel we need to appreciate and respect all food and our enjoyment of it. Yes food is about much more than food. Food can bring us together in an almost spiritual way often simply through the sharing of our naked enjoymemt. Let's celebrate that fact. It's OK to love food simply because it tastes good. Let not loose sight of the simple unadulterated pleasure food brings to our lives.

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Hear hear.

Just a quick note, because perhaps I wasn't explicit enough about this in the main text: The Meaning of Food airs nationally in the US (and anywhere else where you can pick up a US satellite feed that has a PBS affiliate) on PBS starting this Thursday and continuing on consecutive Thursdays: 7, 14 and 21 April 2005. I was sent an advance DVD of the series -- similar to an advance copy of a book that might be sent to a book reviewer -- so I was able to watch it and write about it in advance of the broadcast. I hope you'll all watch the first episode's premier on Thursday night and come back here to share your observations.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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FG, there's something dreadfully wrong with me being lumped in with the concept of Viewers. Like. You.

I'll be sure to watch it with a Bud Light in one hand, and a supermarket tomato in the other. Setting the DVR today :biggrin:

Thanks for kicking the party off in good form. You do good work.

I always attempt to have the ratio of my intelligence to weight ratio be greater than one. But, I am from the midwest. I am sure you can now understand my life's conundrum.

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Thank you for one of the most enjoyable program reviews I've ever read!

Please Sir, may we have some more?

Pat W.

P.S. The new Egullet portal rocks!

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance

Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

-- Ogden Nash

http://bluestembooks.com/

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We received some new information today about the broadcast dates and times for The Meaning of Food. Apparently the Thursday "feed" is not universally used by the PBS member stations, so you'll have to check your local station's schedule to find out when it will air in your market. Here in New York City, on Channel 13, the first two episodes air Sunday, 10 April 2005, at 3:00pm and Sunday, 17 April 2005 at 3:00pm. To find out your local air times, you can go to The Meaning of Food site and click near the bottom left where it says "Program Air Time: Broadcast time in your region." If you can't find it, send me a PM -- I now have the complete list of air dates and times but it's too large to post here.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Nigella reading MFK? Not a bad idea. They could sell CDs of that.

Do CDs have centerfolds?

-- Jeff

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." -- Groucho Marx

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What a great review!

From the sound of it, PBS has once again, as they did with jazz, sucked the life out of a juicy topic so its viewers can justify their tv-watching time. Come to think of it, I'd really like to see what the network would do with a three-parter about the meaning of television. "It teaches us about ourselves, our neighbors, the selves we want to be and the neighbors we want to have"--not, "Hey, after a hard day at work, watching Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey act stupid is really about all I'm up for."

Well, I guess I'll watch, although my time might be better spent reading MFK Fisher. Or eating.

:smile:

By the way, beautiful new front page!

--Susan

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What a great review!

From the sound of it, PBS has once again, as they did with jazz, sucked the life out of a juicy topic so its viewers can justify their tv-watching time. Come to think of it, I'd really like to see what the network would do with a three-parter about the meaning of television. "It teaches us about ourselves, our neighbors, the selves we want to be and the neighbors we want to have"--not, "Hey, after a hard day at work, watching Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey act stupid is really about all I'm up for."

Well, I guess I'll watch, although my time might be better spent reading MFK Fisher. Or eating.

:smile:

I think the PBC series on jazz was brilliant: better than a college course. I thought it nuanced, subtle, well-written, and beautiful composed. It was difficult to breathe life into still photography, and to give a sense of drama from so little that was animate, but Ken Burns managed beautifully. I came away with a new found appreciation for a genre that previously had been an "acquired taste," to put it mildly. I even purchased the DVD set: I buy very few DVDs at all.

If they bring half that quality to this programming, I will be delighted. And I'm fully open to the experience. I trust PBS with my brain. Thank God they don't show programs like "All the Doughnut Shops that John Ratzenberger Has Ever Visited" like they do on the "Aren't We Dumbed Down" Food Network.

I'll finish reading the review after I see the show for myself. I don't like to go in with someone else's opinions in my head if I am predisposed to enjoy something on my own.

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I'm just on pins and needles waiting for the upcoming 39 week PBS series...

Food: a Film by Ken Burns

:laugh:  :wink:

I'd watch that.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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i sense AP came to the same conclusion. i imagine i would too, except i have too many other things to watch ("Iron Chef" soybean battle, for instance) to waste my precious TV-viewing time.

too many of these segments sound rote, obvious and self-serving. (and i'm not even talking about the one where they all coo over Knorr instant vichyssoise.) needless to say, our local paper fawned all over it.

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I'm just on pins and needles waiting for the upcoming 39 week PBS series...

Food: a Film by Ken Burns

:laugh:  :wink:

I'd watch that.

Ugh. Imagine the long, slow pan across a green pepper, while a voice actor reads a recipe slowly and somberly, as heart-tugging fiddle music plays.

"went together easy, but I did not like the taste of the bacon and orange tang together"

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I agree with about half of what Jerry Schwartz of the AP says. He's right on the money when he cites, as the primary dramatic flaw in the series, that "everyone knows that food is wrapped up in love, culture and family." The obviousness of it all is indeed excruciating. This doesn't so much take away from the enjoyment of the individual segments, which are mostly fun on their own, as it makes the series feel sanctimonious and pedantic.

I would go farther, even. I think the series thesis is patronizing, as is evident from the text of the companion book. The book, which is quite poorly done -- it is a scatterbrained collection of speeches by series creator Sue McLaughlin and mediocre heard-it-all-before food writing by ex-Boston Sidewalk restaurant reviewers Patricia Harris and David Lyon -- explains the basic premise: "everything about eating -- including what we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, and who's at the table -- is a form of communication rich with meaning. Our attitudes, practices, and rituals around food are a window onto our most basic beliefs about our world and ourselves." And then -- she really says this -- it continues: "Heavy stuff. I was convinced the topic would make for a fascinating documentary, and set about busily reading and researching."

It appears she had a bit of a setback when she "discovered that my personal epiphany about the importance of food was old hat to anthropologists" -- surprise! -- but then, "interestingly enough, it appeared that this awareness of the intense connection between food and culture didn't resonate with many Americans."

Then, predictably, things turn anti-American: "Anthropologists got the concept immediately, as did people from other countries. People from Hawai'i . . . got it, but many mainlanders didn't."

I think she's about to learn that us "mainlanders" aren't as witless as she thinks, which is why a lot of people are going to find the plodding, repetitive, and painfully obvious thesis of the series to be unremarkable. In the end, it seems to me that McLaughlin is the one who's out of touch with what Americans do, think and know.

Jerry Schwartz, however, plays right into McLaughlin's stereotype. One of her points is that "we've become so focused on the physical details of what we're eating -- how it tastes, what it's made of, how many calories or carbohydrates it has -- that we've forgotten about the crucial act of dining: whom we're eating with and why." And indeed, Schwartz's big complaint is that the people depicted in the series are too fat.

I kid you not. He writes: "Obesity is the elephant in the kitchen -- obvious to all, but never confronted. A customer in a Chicago breakfast joint says he once weighed 172 pounds, but thanks to the food at the White Palace Grill he now tips the scales at 272. Then, he laughs. If we're talking about the meaning of food, how can we ignore the meaning of eating too much, and eating too much that is bad for us?"

Schwartz seems to be aware that, "This is, perhaps, criticizing the series for failing to be something it never set out to be." And he's right, which makes one wonder why he's lodging this particular complaint.

And I have no idea how Jerry Schwartz could say, with a straight face, that Marcus Samuelsson is "a very charming host." He may be a charming person. He may be a charming chef. But as a television host, he leaves much to be desired. The camera, not to mention the microphone, simply does not love Marcus Samuelsson. That much of his script is drivel doesn't help either.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think the PBC series on jazz was brilliant: better than a college course. I thought it nuanced, subtle, well-written, and beautiful composed.[...]

It had its good points, but as someone who's actually taught a college course on jazz, I pretty strongly disagree with you. I was about to give an analogy but thought better of it, as it would be best not to get off too far on this tangent here. I'm glad it worked for you, though.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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It does look good, but they're running it at 4PM on Sundays on my local! That's ridiculous!  :angry:

How about TIVOing it and watching when you have some time .. seems incredibly worthwhile ... :biggrin:

Our local PBS station is running it at 5 AM on Friday mornings. I'm curious if they expect those of us without TIVOs to watch it at all, or just give them $$$ (in exchange for a DVD) when they come begging.

MelissaH

MelissaH

Oswego, NY

Chemist, writer, hired gun

Say this five times fast: "A big blue bucket of blue blueberries."

foodblog1 | kitchen reno | foodblog2

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