Some more thoughts on Jamie’s Food Revolution

(This post is modified from an earlier one posted here).

I have been reading (and writing) about Mr. Oliver’s latest LA venture for some time now, but I didn’t get to *enjoy* the full spectacle of it for myself until recently. Unsurprisingly, it depressed me.

I am not depressed about the obesity “epidemic” in Los Angeles, America, or the rest of the world for that matter. Which is not to say I don’t find it sad that so many people get it wrong when it comes to feeding themselves and their families. Nor that I don’t find it sad that some children are made to eat something resembling airplane food on a mostly-daily basis. But getting depressed about these things would be a waste of my time and energy, a) because the reasons for this state of affairs are much more complex than even I dare to imagine that I fully comprehend, and b) because there is little I can do to change it.

Continue reading “Some more thoughts on Jamie’s Food Revolution”

Making a milkshake out of yoghurt

I have been reading (and writing) about Mr. Oliver’s latest LA venture for some time now, but I didn’t get to *enjoy* the full spectacle of the first episode until last night. Late at night was a stupid time to watch, because it sent me to bed depressed.

Smite me with your bleeding heart if you must, but I am not depressed about the obesity “epidemic” in Los Angeles, America, or the rest of the world for that matter. Which is not to say I don’t find it sad that so many people get it wrong when it comes to feeding themselves and their families. Nor that I don’t find it sad that some children are made to eat something resembling airplane food on a mostly-daily basis. But getting depressed about these things would be a waste of my time and energy, a) because the reasons for this state of affairs are much more complex than even I dare to imagine that I fully comprehend, and b) because there is little I can do to change it.

Not so Mr. O. He’s depressed alright. And he also has the conceit to imagine that a) he understands everything about the system that he is taking on, and b) that it his responsibility – nay, his right – to take this system on. He keeps talking about how it is his “job” to do this and that: his “job” to try to force the LAUSD to let him into their schools (where he’s been banned from filming); his “job” to try to persuade Dino – the nice man who let Jamie into his burger joint Patra’s – to make his burgers with grass-fed Black Angus beef, and his milkshakes with yoghurt instead of ice cream. Dino really is a nice man. He lets Jamie mess about in his kitchen, and lets him fix a yoghurt smoothie, and then rightly responds: “I tried it, and it tasted good, but he missed the point. This is a great drink, but it’s not a milkshake.”

Here’s what Dino looks like when he’s explaining that Jamie is crazy for thinking that he can take burgers and fries off the menu at a burger joint:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s what Dino looks like when Jamie tells him that using grass-fed Black Angus beef for his burgers will make his burgers cost $4,89, instead of $2,69 (warning: picture of a scared man):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I nominate Dino as the Food Revolution hero, because Dino gets it right. He gets that Jamie is missing the point if he thinks that putting a smoothie on the menu of a burger joint is going to do a damn thing to curb obesity. I’ve never been to LA, but I’m also pretty sure that people who want smoothies can find them elsewhere. Dino gets that he is running a business, and servicing customers who come to his restaurant because there’s something on his menu that they want to eat. He gets that there is a difference between freedom of choice and responsibility.

What Jamie Oliver does not get is that saying, on leaving Patras, “I don’t know if I can work with Dino” is in fact a very stupid thing to say, because he does not have to “work with” Dino, and neither does Dino have to work with him. Just as the LA Unified Schools District has no mandate whatsoever to work with Jamie Oliver. (Which they did in fact offer to do, just not on camera. But that, as someone else put it summarily, ‘is not a TV show‘.)

But my case is not really with Jamie Oliver, just as my case, in another context, is not with quacks like Gillian McKeith. No, my case is with the many people who do listen to them, and who do not get that these people, who may even have their hearts and concerns in all the right places, are simply not the authorities that they make themselves out to be. What’s the harm, especially if *something* improves? The harm is that worshipping pseudo-authorities is a slippery gateway to compromising all our rational decision-making faculties, believing whatever scare stories and half-baked statistics they throw about, and soon everybody will be taking advice on how to live their lives from someone called Oprah. Oh wait…

(And oh, if do ever find yourself at Patra’s, don’t forget to try the new Jamie Oliver Revolution burger, made with grass-fed Black Angus beef. If you’ve got $4,95 to drop, that is:)

The fight to fight obesity

A few days ago the LA Weekly reported that Jamie Oliver’s latest US crusade was off to a bad start, because the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) had banned the chef access to all their schools. He responded with this remarkable statement:

“Normally getting into schools isn’t a problem. We’ve never had a total shutdown. In my country, it would be illegal.”

I’m intrigued as to which part of this situation could be considered illegal in the UK. Not allowing a celebrity chef to film a documentary in schools? Not allowing a celebrity chef to interfere with issues of public health (if indeed school lunches are that)? Or perhaps not paying attention to Jamie Oliver?

But the main problem here is not really any of the above, but rather that first word: “Normally.” There is really nothing “normal” in the world of Jamie Oliver, or in the world of celebrity chefs saving the fat world from its fat self, because everything is made up as they go along. And luckily for Mr. O, they’ve been going along quite swimmingly, not least thanks to his “activist” endorsement by TED last year.

Until now, that is. Which also makes it hard to not actually feel sorry for the man when you see a headline like this:

“I’m finding it really hard to tell the truth in this country,” he apparently said – adding that he’s never been “so deflated” in his whole career. Now, say what you like about him – and I have plenty to say myself – but the only reason that he’s been able to get to the self-delusional position of believing that he is some sort of truthsayer is because no one has ever gotten in his way before (OK, a bit here and there, but they “normally” come round to his side and everyone comes out larfin’).

It’s all a very curious drama to watch – including the sideshow which features Michelle Obama hooking up with Walmart (not for the first time, mind you) to promote “healthy” eating: some say it rocks, while others think it’s doomed.

And while the celebrities sulk and the corporations flex their (friend’s) well-toned arms, most people will probably carry on chomping their Pop Tarts and not giving a crap how many calories they eat.

Strawberries soaked in vodka fail to impress

So after my recent bold declaration that this Doctor’s brownie adventures are officially over, I was naturally confronted with all sorts of Facebook banter offering yet more tips and tricks for that thing I had just renounced. The most evil of these was a recipe which calls for cocoa powder dissolved in hot water (rather than melting chocolate), along with the suggestion that the water be replaced by booze (Nina, you know who you are).

Talk of booze in food often takes the turn of trying to discover how best to keep it in there. If you dissolve cocoa in a cup of bourbon, won’t it all just evaporate during baking (for instance)? In other words, how does one maintain the integrity of a truly boozy brownie?

Well since brownies were out, and I had recently spotted a recipe for white-chocolate-raspberry blondies, things quickly spiralled downhill. In the fridge: raspberries, no; dried strawberries, yes. In the freezer: vodka, yes. The strawberries looked very pretty in their vodka bath, and the vodka looked very pretty when I removed the strawberries a few hours later (it was, in fact, bright red, which leads me to seriously doubt the naturalness of the dried strawberries. But hey, colourful vodka cocktail coming up soon).

Worse: the blondies were dry, and not boozy at all. Had they been presented at tea time as what old Danish aunties call “sandkage” (this one you can work out for yourself), they would have been a hit. But as blondies, they were dismal failures.

I’ve made blondies before, and they were yummy and chewy and more-ish, so I blame the recipe. But I should have known better – it came from a British magazine, and what do the Brits know about blondies? Like, who would actually follow a Jamie Oliver recipe for brownies? (Don’t bother, I already did.)

Speaking of which, I believe Mr. O is now doing his very own 30-minute meals. This is amazing. Because that is exactly what Rachael Ray has built an entire empire on. He was even on her show earlier this year. So it’s not like they don’t know each other. Couldn’t he have called it “29-minute Meals”? Or, “Dinner In A Jiffy”? Or, “Pukka Nosh in Half a Tick”? Really. Anything but “I’m Just Going To Take Someone Else’s Idea And Hope That No One Notices”.

Then again, maybe it’s all the same anyway. As Michael Ruhlman put it not long ago,

‘Part of the problem is the magazine editors and television producers drumming us over the head with fast and easy meal solutions at home. It’s the wrong message to send. These editors and producers and publishers are backing the processed food industry, propelling their message. What I say to you magazine editors and producers, to you Rachael Ray and you Jamie Oliver and your 20 minutes meals: God bless you, but you are advertising and marketing on behalf of the processed food industry.’

Well, I don’t know about the God bless you part. And hey, I’m all for knocking things up in a hurry, and if the Ray and the Oliver can make that happen, then good for them. But when it panders to a public that (apparently) hasn’t got the attention span to realise that what Sir O. says is nothing new, then I’m off that bus.

Those people they create would probably even say my blondies were delicious.

PS. To clarify, when I first heard about the 30-minute meal venture, I tweeted the man himself to ask if RR hadn’t been doing the same thing for years. His response:

I guess we don’t all interpret “potential problem?” equally.

That’s Reality…wang.

Talking about the surprising popular success in 1988 of a near-700 page book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000, Francis Wheen cites the New Republic‘s comment that ‘When a serious work of history with more than a 1000 footnotes starts selling in Stephen King-like quantities, you can be sure it has touched something in the public mood’ (you’ll find this in Wheen’s very amusing – and sometimes scary – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World, p.66).

Let’s edit that a bit and apply it to Jamie Oliver’s American “Food Revolution” for a near-perfect description of what’s going on – ‘When a smutty work of Reality TV about a very serious issue gets the world talking ad nauseum, you can be sure it has touched something in the public mood’.

Continue reading “That’s Reality…wang.”

Gotcha!

I was so annoyed when I blogged about Killer At Large last night that I forgot to mention one of my main irritations during the film. That was probably as it should be, because I needed to do a little research to confirm my suspicions, and now I have. Continue reading “Gotcha!”

Postcript, Jamie’s bacon etc.

Apropos my musings about the changing face of politics, I excerpt this recent review of Jamie’s Fifteen, by Jasper Gerard, writing for the Telegraph:

‘I turned 40 last year and history has suddenly come alive to me. Before then, I was of course aware of major events that have lit up my lifetime, many deemed “historic” the moment they occurred. A man landed on the moon the year after I landed on earth, and I’ve lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall and a prime minister who felt the hand of history on his shoulder every time he brushed his teeth. Since then I’ve seen the election of America’s first black president and even the successful comeback of Take That.

But it is only now I’m 40 that the society in which I live seems sufficiently different to the era of my birth for it to belong to a period of history: 1968 found me bouncing along still rural lanes in a cot chucked in the back of a Morris Traveller, a time almost as distant now as our “finest hour” must have felt then to those exploring the summer of love.

When I was born, the personification of Britain was a pipe-smoking Oxford don, Harold Wilson; 40 years on, I hazard, it is Jamie Oliver. He is successful, classless, cheeky, clever, quirky, attractive and socially concerned; he is also poorly educated, the epitome of celebrity over substance, profane, publicity-seeking, cocky and just a tad fat. I like him, but one can see why some don’t; whether you are at ease with Jamie – it is always “Jamie”, never “Oliver” – probably reflects whether you are at ease with modern Britain.’

So, without further ado, the new face of (easy) Britain:

jamie-saves-our-bacon-001

(another PS: I forgot to mention that, for those of you who still haven’t seen the bacon show, you can also look forward to watching Mr. O masturbating a big pig, and then inseminating a sow. I guarantee it’s “food TV” like you’ve never seen before).

Saving bacon

So I finally got a chance to watch Jamie Saves Our Bacon, part of Channel 4’s Great British Food Fight, which has now confirmed the previously unofficial canon of food vocalists, or chefs who shout at us about what and how we should be eating: Heston, Hugh, Jamie, and Gordon (to be fair, Heston doesn’t shout much, or swear, so he’s probably the odd one out. But that’s always been his thing).

I’ve watched a lot of Jamie Oliver over the years, for many of the same reasons that millions of others do: his food generally looks good, and he puts on a good show. But unlike many others, I am strangely indebted to him for giving me enough to think about to churn out an entire doctoral thesis on the celebrity chef phenomenon. I could even say that were it not for Jamie Oliver, you wouldn’t be talking to Dr. Rousseau today. (Scary, but true).

After all that watching, thinking, talking, and writing, I thought I’d seen it all. But after watching the bacon show, I was left pretty much speechless. What he’s done, and what he’s able to do, is truly astonishing, in all the best and worst ways.

The show is hosted in a studio fitted out with the usual podium for the star to stand on, surrounded by guests and fans. But this studio also hosts a number of pigs (no surprise there): there’s a stall with a sow who’s recently given birth; another with a sow who proceeds to give birth to thirteen piglets during the course of the show (the first piggy assisted by a vet who we watch sticking his entire arm up the mommy pig’s gwat), and perhaps most disturbing of all, a door leading to the “Pig Brother house”, in which four human beings are (voluntarily) locked in small cages that supposedly simulate the conditions of industrially farmed pigs under the worst welfare conditions (little space to move, bad food, and toilets. By the time we are introduced to the human piggies, Jamie’s friend Hugh has explained to us that contrary to popular perception, pigs are not only super-intelligent, but also very clean, and hate to shit where they sleep. So this set-up is decidedly unconducive to natural piggy behaviour).

The point of the show is to convince consumers to buy British pork, rather than the cheaper stuff imported from the EU, where pig welfare conditions leave much to be desired. The main problem, according to the wel(l)-farers, is the use of sow stalls – essentially the real version of what the human piggies were locked into: no space to turn, scratch, play, or do anything but gestate piglets while becoming fat, weak, and developing some combination of porcine depression and aggression. These contraptions were banned in the UK in 2003, but continue to be used in the vague space of the EU, which in this case was represented by Denmark, where 20% of pork production uses sow stalls (interestingly, this seems to be the percentage of Danish pork that is exported to the UK – presumably the Danes save the better stuff for themselves?).

It is about animal welfare – we were treated to some fairly disturbing footage (no surprise here), including a visibly horrified Joanna Lumley (whose face lends itself remarkably well to looking sad, despite her main expertise in playing the drunk) – but the bleeding heart stuff is really for British pork farmers whose livelihoods are under threat from the nasty EU, not to mention from British consumers who would rather buy cheap than happy pigs.

So that’s all fine and well. It’s a real problem, and therefore a good cause (and this is where Jamie’s bacon show trumps Hugh’s chicken spectacle, which never really made it about consumers and industry as much as trying to make everyone love their chickens before they roast them). And judging from the world’s reaction since Thursday when it was originally screened , the show was a major success. Sales of cheaper cuts of British pork had gone up by 20% by Monday, claims the Telegraph.  The very morning after the show, supermarkets were told to start revising their labeling policies (this was one of the major loopholes Jamie identified: consumers aren’t sure what’s British and what’s not). So what’s my problem?

Probably what it’s always been, and what I spent a bulk of that thesis trying to make sense of. Not that it’s Jamie Oliver (I have due respect for his various talents, including cooking good food and getting in people’s faces), but that it’s a chef. Five years ago when I watched him behaving like a rock star – just ‘avin a larf, bit of pukka this and that – I asked the question: doesn’t anyone think it’s weird that this is a chef? Now, as a climax to everything that began with school dinners, and his own chicken story, when a once-off 90 minute show can potentially save an entire industry, change the way people shop, cook, and eat, influence government legislation (and very likely wake up the Danes to something too), I’ll ask again: huh?

Of course it’s about much more than ‘a chef’, or even the power of celebrity, though it is about those things too. It’s also about media, and about trust: media as a platform to reach the kinds of numbers of people that need to act to make a difference, and the very strange power that media has to induce a sense of trust because it looks transparent, even as everyone knows it is a construct. I mean, there Jamie was wearing a SUIT in a studio with a bunch of pigs. But also with a bunch of very important people – government representatives, supermarket representatives, farmers, EU legislators – which he in turn got to pledge, on screen, in front of the 2 million people who were watching, to support British pork, so by the end of the 90 minutes he could sum up and say all these people have “promised” to do something. It was a piece of fucking first class bullying.

(Here we stop for an interlude of several hours, including lunch with a glass of wine, some decent limoncello, a nice massage, a good cup of home-brewed coffee).

So to wrap up, what I find remarkable about Jamie saving various bacons is not really the specifics of who’s doing it, or the fact that the most lucrative piece of bacon on the set is Jamie himself – these all confirm what I have suspected all along, and which brings us back to the issue of trust. The spectacle that he put on is just more evidence of a very real paradigm shift that is occurring at this very moment (but that many of us will miss because we are too mesmerised by the show). It’s about how things are mobilized in this society, and who we trust to be at the wheel.

We may be in the new age of Obama’s America, where millions of people have renewed faith in a politician’s powers of salvation (and real believers may even anticipate something of a revolution), but the powers of mobility have – or certainly are – shifting hands. There was a day when philosophers could write books with real power. Governments could, through generating fear or making promises, incite real change. And I sure as hell hope they still can. But I’m no longer convinced they’ll bother without being shamed into action by a figure who is now as likely to appear on the front cover of Newsweek as of People magazine. (Here’s an important non-trick question: which of those do you think has more readers?).

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is how something as momentus as this will slip silently into history as if it was meant to happen all along. I won’t be holding my breath for this year’s lists of the 100 most influential figures. I just hope that Obama at least makes it into the top 10.  (And I’m not talking about his action figure).