If people are what they eat, then nations are what is eaten in them. For countries, food is a statement of culture and identity. It's why the French invented terroir food and drink as an expression of the land and why American lawmakers, ticked off at the French during the Iraq invasion, invented "freedom fries."
Judged by its food, then, what is the U.S.? To look at our food TV a mixed-message buffet of indulgence and shame it's a binge-and-purger. One batch of shows is saturated with fat: Paula Deen cooking "fried butter balls," Adam Richman downing sandwiches the size of dachshunds on Man v. Food, Guy Fieri deep-frying s'mores. (Grilled s'mores? That's rabbit food!) Another is obsessed with weight loss: The Biggest Loser, Dance Your Ass Off, Kirstie Alley's Big Life. Eat this! You're fat! Eat this! You're fat!
Yeah, it's dysfunctional. But dammit, it's our dysfunction. So when ABC brought in British chef Jamie Oliver to teach "the unhealthiest city in America" how to eat right, it was more than a reality-show premise. It was a guaranteed culture clash and a political metaphor on a platter.
In Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, Oliver who did a similar show in the U.K. goes to Huntington, W.Va. (pop. 49,000), where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half the adults are obese. He finds a town hooked on processed food, a school cafeteria serving pizza for breakfast and kids who can't identify a tomato on sight. His goals: get the kids to eat right young, and set up a community kitchen to teach healthy cooking from scratch.
It's not easy. When Oliver makes students a meal of roast chicken, salad and rice, the kids overwhelmingly choose the school pizza. And his reception from some adults is tougher: Who's this limey know-it-all telling us how to cook our food, run our schools and raise our kids? When he's quoted in the paper as saying locals have an "anemic" understanding of nutrition, it's his "they cling to guns or religion" moment. A local radio host asks, "Who made you the king?"
If this sounds like a political fight, well, it is. Michelle Obama may be tilling nonpartisan ground with her vegetable garden and child-obesity program, but food has long been political. From soda taxes to corn subsidies, food is about health care costs, environmentalism, education, agriculture and class. Above all, it's a cultural marker, a means of saying, We are us, not them. In 2008 candidates played the shot-and-a-beer, mooseburgers-vs.-arugula culture-war cards hardest in places like Huntington.
And in Tea Party America, food is a symbol of the obligations of the community vs. the rights of the individual. On his March 10 Fox News show, Glenn Beck ranted about New York City's barring the ChipShop, an English-pub-grub restaurant in Brooklyn, from serving twice-fried cherry pie. (One of the restaurant's two locations, by the way, is half a block from my house. The deep-fried Mars bars, still legal, are amazing.) Under Obama's health care bill, Beck asked, "will there be food police ready to cuff me and take me in if I have an extra doughnut?" They'll get my onion rings when they pry them from my cold, dead (possibly from a massive coronary) hands!
Yet Food Revolution has a more nuanced view of these personal-political issues than shows like Beck's have. Oliver, for instance, is as annoyed by government regulations and intransigent bureaucracy as he is by Huntington's laissez-faire eating habits. (Rules require, for instance, that he serve bread with his rice a second fattening helping of carbs.) He allies with a local minister who's doing outreach to cut his congregation's high rate of obesity-related deaths.
And Oliver's regular-guy attitude he's a multimillionaire celeb but grew up the son of a pub owner gives the lie to the idea that food crusades are about do-good élitists forcing their values on working people. Looking at the food in the Huntington cafeteria pink milk, chicken nuggets, some yellowy mass you steam to make "scrambled eggs" he says, "It pisses me off. And if you're a parent, it should piss you off." A politician could learn from the way he talks to people in Huntington, neither pandering nor patronizing but treating them like peers who can take it straight: "This [food] is going to kill your children early."
Oliver's experiment is playing out over six weeks on Friday nights on ABC. Whether he reaches many home viewers, who can still flip the channel and see ads for Outback Steakhouse's 1,500-plus-calorie Bloomin' Onion, is an open question. But his show's implicit message that people can deal with a touchy issue maturely, that Appalachian parents and a British chef can find common ground is, at least, food for thought.