Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Cook Something!

Image Credit: Screen Capture from JamieOliver.com

Most Americans who recognize Jamie Oliver (most of whom are probably foodies or Food Network fans) remember him as the hip, charming, engergetic host of "The Naked Chef" at the end of the last decade. The intervening ten years have not noticeably reduced his energy, charm or verve, but they did bring him a wife, four children and a cause. I mention his family because families--first in the UK and now in the US-- are at the heart of the telegenic Brit's adopted cause. Oliver's new show (officially premiering tonight under the name "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution") is part of a broader, trans-atlantic, multi-platform effort to change the way children and families eat. Oliver targets school lunch programs and home cooking as key sites of potentially revolutionary practices. His advice can (somewhat reductively) be boiled down to two words: cook something. More about food, families, schools, television, the internet and boyishly-handsome good looks after the jump.

Image Credit: Screen Capture from ABC.com

Full disclosure: I'm not sure that I, personally, will be able to sit through entire episodes of this show. I watched the "preview" episode last week, and the producers/editors at ABC appear to be crafting is as a mash-up of "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" and Gordon Ramsey's "Kitchen Nightmares." The overwrought music and abusive eiditing techniques strain my nerves, but I'm going to try watching anyways. Why? Because Oliver is much more than a pretty face. Oliver has been an active advocate of healthful school lunches ("proper school dinners," in UK parlance) in Britain for the last seven years, and his campaign (along with a BBC 4 program that ABC has largely copied for its "Food Revolution") played an importatnt part in meaningful shool lunch reform in the UK (here and here). While it is cerainly an uphill battle against the USDA and the agribusiness/food industry, Oliver hopes that he can add to the momentum currently building in the States (Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, for example) and help Americans live longer and healthier lives. For those of us who prefer reasoned (and impassioned) discourse over dramatic musical scores, Oliver's TED prize speech provides a short (20 minute) rundown of his project. (For an even shorter version, you can read this interview from, of all places, TV Guide.)

As Oliver points out, our schools are currently feeding and educating the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will be shorter than that of their parents. Let that sink in. The "food landscape" (as Oliver calls it in his TED speech) of America incubates childhood obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases that will shorten the lives of today's children by years if not decades. These early deaths are entirely preventable. While Oliver does not pretent (and we shouldn't believe) that there is any single panacea that will immediately turn this trend around, he does point to an imminently achievable goal that can have dramatic (perhaps even "revolutionary") consequences: cook real food. If industrial food (often mislabled "conventional") and its mammoth doses of salt, fat and sugar are sending an entire generation to an early grave, then "proper food" (as Oliver calls it) has to be part of the solution. His two-pronged pincer movement sets its sights on school lunches and the home kitchen. (I want hold off on an extended discussion of programs aimed at reforming school lunches until next week: Ann Cooper has been fighting the good fight for years on this front, and her efforts online and in the lunch room deserve their own post.)

The home kitchen is the front line in Oliver's (and America's) battle against diet-related morbidity and early death. As he points out in his TED speech, many of the children (and their mothers, and their mother's mothers) were never taught how to cook at home. This knowledge gap forces families to rely on pre-packaged, salt-fat-and-sugar-laden, industrial food products to feed their children. Oliver wants home cooks in America to have five or six recipes they know how to cook, are comfortable making and enjoy eating. In essence, this project is about empowerment. He wants to return the means of production to families (the carrot- and celery-clenching fist in the logo-- long a staple of workers-movement iconography-- is spot-on appropriate).

Oliver is by no means the only person to have this revelation. Another notable exaple is provided by cookbook author Mollie Katzen.  In an interview with Civil Eats, Katzen says, "The very basic act of cooking is becoming a radical necessity. That’s why I wrote Get Cooking, because people asked me to lay out the simple basics of how to cook. I wanted to give people the tools they need to make easy recipes, four to five things you can cook well. It sounds simple, but that’s the key to people digging their way out of bad food. They need to know how to shop and how to make food in their busy day and in a small kitchen. I wish cooking was required in school, but until then, we’ve got to teach simple lessons." Katzen also set up a companion site for Get Cooking through which she provides free cooking instruction and recipes. While it is, to some degree, also aimed at publicizing the book (otherwise a publisher wouldn't hear of it), the site provides people with the basic knowledge necessary to begin mastering four or five dishes and making themselves food independent.

Oliver's website, JamieOliver.com, performs a similar balancing act. While his site has all the bells and whistles we would expect from a celebrity chef's home page-- promotion of books and shows, advanced techniques and "posh" (as Oliver would say) recipes-- it also has a valuable store of simple, easily matered and delicious recipes aimed at getting home cooks cooking real ("proper") food. Niether Oliver nor Katzen are what we might call "health food" advocates (Oliver explicitly rejects the word); they aren't advocating gimmicks, fads or a 1990's version of Graham Kerr (no applesauce-for-oil substitutions here). They do make a compelling case for the importance of cooking, simply cooking. So, watch him or not, listen to Jamie and get in the kitchen.

[Correction 4/2/10: I previously misidentified the USDA as the FDA.]

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