Food Media Food (Eh?)

I’ve just returned from a few wonderful days in wonderful Copenhagen, thanks to a generous invitation to deliver a keynote address at a conference on Food, Media and Identity. As usual after these sorts of events – by which I mean conferences with lots of cool, thought-provoking talks and probably way too much a bit too much collegial wine following each day’s session – there are plenty of thoughts that need some time to settle and disentangle before they (hopefully) morph into some useful new ideas and directions.

But one issue stood out for me both up to and during the two days that we were at it. This was that what I would normally refer to as food media (ahem) were often described as media food. At first I resisted pointing this out, thinking it would just be pedantic (maybe a lost in translation thing?), but then it occurred to me that there may be an interesting distinction, and one that’s worth making. So, very briefly: when I refer to food media, I’m talking about the various media (television, magazines, www, etc) on or through which food is represented.

What might media food be? Something like fodder for media?

Take this guy for example:

Continue reading “Food Media Food (Eh?)”

Attention Wikipedia

It was an experience of exquisite narcissism to be able to take myself out to lunch the other day with a book. Written by me.

Yes, so it finally arrived, which means that it will be coming to a bookshop near you very soon (it is, ahem, of course available through the usual online channels. You know where to look).

Funny, I was once “ridiculed” in an online spat by someone I have never met who claimed that my PhD on “food media” must be bogus because there is no such thing (because, like, it doesn’t exist on Wikipedia). Well, to borrow a line from Courtney Cox in Scream (I forget which one): “uhm, you know the saying, ‘I wrote the book on that?'”

I will add no spoilers. But just for the record, it was not me who called Jamie Oliver ‘a self-righteous, elitist git.

Deen there, done that

I’ve been experiencing various levels of annoyance at various times over the last few days. Much of this is heat(-wave) related, but mostly it’s from witnessing the brouhaha over the Paula Deen “scandal’ in the food media world. Practically every media outfit has their own take on it, but the facts are these:

– Deen (the “butter queen“, or as Frank Bruni put it, the ‘deep-fried doyenne of a fatty, buttery subgenre of putatively Southern cooking’) recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes;

– She has known this for three years already;

– She is receiving money from Novo Nordisk to plug Victoza, a new diabetes drug (with as yet questionable benefits: those evil Danes!). Victoza is pretty expensive compared to other drugs on the market – think $500 a month vs. $20 a month.

The scandal includes any or all of the following:

a) she has deceived her audiences

b) she is a shill

c) she is a shilling a product that ordinary (read: poor) people cannot afford 

d) she is still fat (well, no one says it like that, but that’s what they mean when they comment on her not having made ‘significant lifestyle changes’)

e) she wasted three years not teaching her viewers how to cook healthy food.

Now, I’m not going to enter into the shilling debate. This piece in the LA Times did a fairly good job of convincing me the major problem with this, which is the illusion of a quick-fix solution that Deen’s deal with the evil Danes promotes:

‘The life of a diabetic is somewhat less than swell — but Novo Nordisk is selling swell, alongside drug companies that promise to medicate away depression, gas, incontinence, clogged arteries and fibromyalgia. … Support and encouragement is one thing, but what we’re being sold is magical thinking. In the battle between healthcare reality and fantasy, Paula Deen is small potatoes (steamed, skins on, no butter), but what she represents matters: another attempt to market immortality to a culture that’s particularly in love with misbehaving, followed by an easy fix.’

What does irk me, though, are the various permutations of a) and e), above. Suddenly now (or then, as it happens) that she has diabetes, Deen is only allowed to cook “healthy” food on television? Suddenly she now has a responsibility to make her audiences healthy too, and thereby fix the diabetes/obesity crisis? Maybe it would be a good idea for her to stop tasting and eating the food that she is apparently so good at making (even though she has pointed out that – surprise surprise – what we see her make on TV is not actually how she eats every day, and that her shows are for entertainment), but that shouldn’t stop her fans from making her fatty, buttery recipes if they damn well please. Should watching Anthony Bourdain sucking foie off a plate come with a diabetes advisory?

Bruni’s piece does an excellent job of describing the classist hypocrisies at play in much of this finger-wagging. But I am less disturbed by that than the evidence, once again, of how ready people are to blame their problems on someone else, and to expect someone else to fix them. It’s also an appetite for scandal which turns out to be a really convenient excuse to not think clearly about the actual issues, which as chef José Andrés also points out in this CBS interview, are quite simply not Paula Deen’s to fix.

Rant over. Now go buy the book.

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”

Things you don’t want to know – but probably should

I recently watched a new Danish film called The Woman That Dreamed About A Man (or Kvinden der drømte om en mand, if you’re a native). It’s certainly not director Per Fly’s best work, but decent enough psycho-thriller entertainment when that’s what you need. Anyway, there’s one of those typically raunchy scenes when two strangers who have been eyeing each other across various rooms finally find themselves alone on a dark road, next to a conveniently located alley that they slip into without saying a word. The air is thick with erotic tension as they silently play the yes-no game, and then finally give in to an anonymous screw against the wall.

If that last sentence came across as rather lacking in finesse, good, because that’s exactly how sex between strangers in an alley should be. But what irritated me was that when their 30 seconds of heavy breathing (anti-)climaxed into a rather awkward button-closing, zip-locking silence, they suddenly lost all credibility as characters. No remorse, no guilt, and more importantly, no mundane panics about contraception, STDs, or the possibility of having just f**ked a psychopath. Just some inevitable exchange about when they can see each other again.

Fine, you may say, films are supposed to be in la-la land. But in 2010, that just doesn’t fly, no matter how much of a psycho you turn out to be (the woman did become one of note). Good films don’t let the banal stuff go. They linger on it, like that brilliant film Japanese Story, where Toni Collette has an affair with a married Japanese man who accidentally dies when they go skinny dipping. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, and with no one around, she has to get his body into her car, and it turns out to be quite a mission to manoeuvre a dead body. The scene goes on for ages, and is admittedly a little boring, but it’s also thoroughly captivating because it is so “real”.

Too much food media suffers from the same rubbish unreality as those two strangers in the alley. Everything is “dead easy”, or even if it’s complicated but “worth the effort”, it looks fabulous and tastes “divine”. But no one ever talks about how they feel after eating all this beautiful food – and here I’m not just talking about cooking shows, but also high end restaurant reviews. Which is why I was delighted to read the bit in Anthony Bourdain’s new book, Medium Raw, where he talks about how exhausting it can be to eat poncy tasting menu after poncy tasting menu at some of the “best” restaurants in the world. He wasn’t just jaded because luxury gets boring (surprise!), but because a lot of those menus are seriously taxing on one’s digestive system. So post-prandial romance is often off the cards – to paraphrase him very liberally – because the two of you flop into a taxi trying to suppress burps and farts the whole way home, and all you really look forward to is 24 hours later when you’ve managed to get all the crap (literally) out of your system.  (A general note on the book: a fun read IF you haven’t followed Bourdain’s speaking gigs over the last year or so, in which case you will realise that he has become his own speaking puppet. He speaks in quotes rather than thoughts. I call it the Michael Pollan syndrome).

Which leads me to the actual topic of this post: stuffed steak.

Tired of plain old steak, I wanted to make beef olives. But when it came to the whole pounding, rolling and tying bit, I was overcome by laziness, so decided to just stuff the steaks instead.

Pretty simple really. Make some kind of delicious stuffing (for instance, white anchovies, capers, olives, lemon zest, breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary, pecorino, chilli flakes: all the major foodgroups). Then use a good sharp knife to transform your steak into a meaty pita pocket into which you stuff as much of the stuffing as you can possibly cram in. Now wrap tightly tightly in cling and leave in the fridge for an hour or so (to “set) while you enjoy a spicy Bloody Mary (it being the cocktail hour of course). When you’ve slurped the last of your Mary, get a pan nice and hot, dredge the steaks in a little flour, and get frying:

Look, so they aren’t exactly pretty. In fact we joked that I had produced a Rousseau version of KFC’s Double Down “sandwich” (where chicken stands in for bread, and cheese and bacon stand in for chicken). But apart from the meat being a touch dry, it was pretty delicious. It’s like steak and puttanesca, all in one. What’s not to love?

Should you try this at home? By all means, but I have two recommendations. Don’t forget to deglaze the pan with some sherry (or something), and perhaps a touch of cream, to create a bit of a gravy which you can serve as “jus”. Secondly – and this is important – do make absolutely sure that all your ingredients are good and fresh, and particularly that you don’t use anchovies which may have passed their best-before date.

Otherwise expect to spend most of the night on the loo. Bon appetit!

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.

In my not so humble opinion

Cape Town does like to think of itself as part of the big cosmopolitan world, so it’s no surprise that in recent years, there have cropped up a bunch of self-styled “foodie” blogs in the Mother City. Yes, this *could* be considered one too, but the bunch I’m thinking of are the ones who set themselves up as bona fide restaurant reviewers, with no apparent expertise apart from a) liking to eat, b) having enough disposable income to do so on a(n alarmingly) regular basis, and sometimes c) having eaten at restaurants in the actual Cosmopolitan world, which apparently gives them the authority of comparison.

Now, I like to read about other people’s experiences with food – who doesn’t? Continue reading “In my not so humble opinion”