Food and Sense

My brother R. recently asked me why I’m a fan of Jamie Oliver, and I told him that I supported his fight against unhealthy school lunches.  Maybe it just comes from being a parent, but once you see what schools feed kids, it’s hard not to be disgusted and want to do something about it, no matter how small.  It’s just common sense.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution recently ran for about six episodes on ABC on Friday nights.  It focused on Oliver’s sojourn in Huntington, WV – deemed in one study as the unhealthiest place to live in America – to change how people think about food.  He takes a three-pronged approach: he goes into schools to try to change the lunch menu, he works with individuals and families on eating more healthily, and he opens “Jamie’s Kitchen” in downtown Huntington to offer free cooking lessons.

As a viewer, it’s hard not to be supportive of Oliver’s “mission.”  He argues for people to eat less junk food, less processed food, and more fresh food – especially vegetables.  He argues that kids should learn at an early age the value of eating healthy food and not just food that is convenient and/or fast.  He teaches families how to cook – Oliver privileges food that is easy to prepare.  (We frequently see him teaching people how to make a stirfry.)  What’s not to like?  It’s all quite sensible, really.

There are some especially powerful scenes – in one, he demonstrates to the kids what goes into chicken nuggets: basically all of the parts of the chicken that AREN’T the meat.  It’s incredibly gross.  And then he asks the kids if they would really eat the nuggets, and – of course – they would!  Ugghh.  In another, he quizzes gradeschoolers on the names of various vegetables, and none of them can identify tomatoes.  Depressing.

The show combines the inspirational moments of “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Home Makeover” by showing how obese men, women, and children embrace Oliver’s message and try to make the necessary changes in their lives.  But the real genius of the show is that they combine this inspirational aspect with the journalistic approach of “Dateline.”  There’s a news documentary aesthetic to the show, in terms of its look, its structure, and its writing.  Oliver is a charismatic lead – he both plays host and star in what happens, taking us into homes, businesses, schools, and elsewhere, asking the questions we would ask and looking for commonsense answers.  He’s trying to change how people think about food and conceptualize it in their lives.  And he’s trying to change a broken system in the town, the state, and even the country.  It’s a great concept that isn’t exactly matched by many other shows on television.

My brother suggested that Oliver is a shameless self-promoter and he’s probably right.  But that’s not the worst thing in the world.  I don’t like Donald Trump, but there are lots of people who cause much more harm.  Still, some elements of the show throw things off for me.  For instance, many of the scenes are shot documentary-style, with only one camera, but often viewers are able to see reaction shots during dialogues that could not have been caught by that one camera.  In other words, they went back and reshot moments to better capture a reaction.  This seems unnecessary to me and raises questions about veracity.  I feel the same way every time they showed someone, from the outside, walking in to “Jamie’s Kitchen” and then switched the shot to the inside, where Oliver is greeting them.  Was there a camera there waiting for them to drive up?  And then did they run inside to film the introductions?  Of course not, and the way the show makes these editing decisions, it seems to me, hurts the credibility of the story they are trying to tell.

While Oliver looks better, more folksy, more winning, for me these moments chip away at his image and tend to make me believe that he really really wants you to like him, to support him, and to be on his side – even if he has to fudge things a bit.  Once you start to blur that line, though, it gets hard to make the case that something is right and something is wrong.  He can’t take a moral stance that draws the line on what is good to eat and what isn’t when he’s often erasing other lines about how to tell a truthful story.  J. and I have watched the show with our two kids.  They enjoy watching with us, and we enjoy it too, and we’ve tried to use it to foster an ongoing conversation about healthy eating, good food, and expanding our palates to include new tastes. But I’ve decided not to problematize their viewing of it for them with an aesthetic critique of methodology that edges into the realm of ideology and jeopardizes the power of Oliver’s message.  Sharing this type of thinking with my kids, at their ages of seven and nine, just isn’t common sense.


2 Responses

  1. One of the things that most bothers me about Jamie Oliver is his lack of originality.

    Alice Waters, as I recall, committed to a systematic effort to change the Berkeley school lunch program a decade ago. Hardly the epitome of self-effacement herself, she didn’t make it the basis of yet another television crusade to sell her books.

    By the by – I’m not too worried that the children of West Virginia couldn’t identify the tomato as a vegetable. Because, of course, it’s actually a fruit.

  2. I see nothing wrong with making a profit by doing the right thing, and don’t see how that negates the value of the work. Alice Waters has a fiefdom of her own, after all. Why is it wrong to have a television crusade, even if its sells some books, if it will lead to positive change? Businessmen seek to make money, so do politicians, and so do artists. There’s nothing inherently corrupt in seeking compensation for one’s work.

    And yes, yes, a tomato is a fruit. But that’s not the point. These kids were not able to identify the tomato itself when it was presented to them. Not presented as a vegetable, mind you, just as a tomato in and of itself: as in, “Who can tell me what this is?” The silence was more than a bit unnerving.

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