The Naked Chef Exposed!

Jamie Oliver in the news… and stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part One)

Last week provided a watershed moment in my inbox volume as message after message about Jamie Oliver’s new campaign for US school lunches clogged the box day after day (and still more today!). Both the ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society) and Comfood (Community Food Security Coalition) lists were abuzz about that cheeky lad Jamie Oliver and his TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/jamie_oliver.html) and new TV show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (Episode One can be found here: http://www.hulu.com/watch/136381/jamie-olivers-food-revolution-episode-101). Building on the success of his British school reform he is starting off in Huntington, WV, the unhealthiest town in America (according to recent national mortality statistics), to bring rational eating patterns and healthier school lunches to the land of the deep-fried hushpuppy. The show is standard low-budget reality TV fare, with a sharply dichotomized problem (unwillingness to change habits vs. the realization that those food habits are causing obesity and morbidity), the usual crowd of emotional and supposedly self-reflective protagonists, and a fair bit of emotionalism from both Jamie and townspeople – all set in a post-industrial Southern blue-collar town. In addition to the supreme villain of entrenched food exceptionalism (who does this British kid think he is anyway, to come tell us in the US how to eat?) there are grumpy and offended lunch ladies, winsome children throwing away school lunch apples (but eating the chicken nuggets!), a family that eats nothing but fatty processed food, and grandstanding gestures such as lard in wheelbarrows and the ceremonial funeral of a deep-fat fryer. It’s the “A Team”, applied to food, and with only one team member – Jamie.

Quotes from the show will hopefully illustrate the tone:

Jamie:

“I’m talking about causing a big fuss and changing things. Change”

“The food revolution starts here”

“I want to be the polite English guy, but the first thing I see is pizza for breakfast”

“It tastes like starchy fluff with nuts in it – absolutely awful”

“The freezer was an Aladdin’s cave of processed crap; I didn’t know what most of it was, and when I don’t know what something is…”

“The bread the one thing that was made from scratch today and none of them are eating it”

 Or, this exchange between a Lunch Lady and Jamie:

“We have something wonderful called potato pearls” (LL)

“Is it really potatoes?” (JO)

“I hope so” (LL)

And this set of statements, between the mother of the family profiled and Jamie:

“I want my children to succeed in life and this isn’t going to get them there”

“Seeing that food scares me that I am opening my kids to a world of failure”

And the response, from Jamie: “She’s not a bad mum, she just needs help”

And Jamie is there, to provide the help; he immediately informs Mum and the kids that he is going to teach them to cook healthy affordable meals from scratch, and emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for meals and cooking by telling the eldest son “You’re a man now, you can get there in that kitchen and you can knock out a dinner”. That might be a transgressive gender role instruction for a blue-collar town, but it certainly illustrates the importance of learning how to cook.

And he’s got additional help, in the form of Parson Steve Willis, who is tired of seeing his parishioners die young from nutrition-related disease. He’s got the school district on his side, allowing him to commandeer school kitchens to serve food from scratch, and he’s got his boundless high spirits and sense of doing good to nurture him in the dark hours, when his adversaries attack. Allied against him are the Lunch Ladies, a comically hick local radio jock, and a school filled with willful imps who prefer processed food to fresh, whole ingredients prepared from scratch. After contemplating his ‘haters’ Jamie cries in a playground, overwhelmed by the reality that they don’t see how much he cares.

So yes, it’s standard reality show pablum, except…except…except…. that Jamie is right.

The school food is processed, low-nutrient junk, the profiled home’s cooked meals contain nothing but copious amounts of fat, low-end meat protein, sugar, and starch, the town is filled with obese people, and the health statistics demonstrate a dire present and even more doomed future. So why is everyone up in arms about this show? 

Coming soon, in Part Two of The Naked Chef Exposed I will examine the food world’s Listserve responses….

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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Filed under economics, media, nutrition, obesity

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