The Naked Chef Exposed! (Part 2)

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

So, the Jamie Oliver message seems to be causing great consternation amongst food scholars and activists. Both the ASFS and Comfood crowds have been batting the show about most unmercifully. Their comments fall into several broad categories; I haven’t statistically analyzed the content, so be kind and understand this is a method-free overview. However, given the sheer volume of Listserve posts, I COULD HAVE used any standard text analysis software, which in and of itself is something to ponder. As I do here.

The primary thread on ASFS started off with this subject line title: “’Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap” which certainly set the tone for the many posts that followed. The broad themes are as follows:

“We don’t need no stinkin’ advice”: By far the greatest volume of complaint is within this category, and perfectly summed by this quote, which occurred midway through the fray: “But judging from others’ takes on it, this program seems to be one in a long line depicting self-righteous British experts coming into Americans’ lives and homes and telling us what we’re doing wrong.” This was reiterated by a Guardian columnist, and refuted by a number of folks on the lists who insisted they had no trouble being told how to live by Brits, Italians, Outer Mongolians or any other group of foodie dogooders.

It’s not Feminist or Politically Correct: A theme built upon the chosen film site (a Southern, working-class town), linked to the funny hick accents of the townspeople, and bolstered by Jamie’s habits of calling people – especially the Lunch Ladies – by neo-disrespectful terms such as “hon” and “girls”. This was defended by several posters with the argument that Jamie is a product of his nation and class, which considers those phrases acceptable. If still annoying.

Various ad hominem attacks, from generalized Jamie-fatigue to critiques of celebrity chef hubris: this category mostly focused on queries about what and why a ‘celebrity chef’ (clearly written with dripping ichor) thinks he has the right to critique food use of children and families. See #1 above, add a soupcon of envy, and you’ve nailed the tone.

Queries about if he is successful: this set contains quite a lot of extraneous pro-and con information relating to research about school food, working-class diets, and the tyranny of health education. Various side posts about schools, class, food change and global media culture definitively ran the thread(s) right off the rails.

The need for more information about what people really do and really eat before we espouse change While most posts of this type blithely ignored the data pertaining to the subject already in existence (in the vein of ‘what do we really know about food use anyway?”), some (on ASFS in particular) pointed out where data are missing and called for more targeted studies.

Critiques of his message, largely relating to his insistence that ‘fresh and easy’ is easy to accomplish if you know how, including why is it or isn’t easy (with renewed divagation into contemplation of working-class lives and time budgets). The best part of this thread was the comparison of cooking from scratch to good sex and fast/frozen food to masturbation (it gets the job done, but….).

Discussions about how valueless reality TV is, and why this isn’t a good medium for creating real food use change, or that it is a good venue because: “unfortunately western culture is inspired by sound bites, celebrities and brands…if the message comes from ‘Victoria Beckham’ it has far more impact than Joe Schmoo who is an MP and has worked tirelessly on the same issues! I suppose the same can be said for the masses…who prefer entertaining reality TV over listening to a doctor or nurse ‘drone’ on about nutrition….”. Which neatly reified the condescending tone of the whole taradiddle.

And of course, the many additional posts to confirm that one already did do, or didn’t do, what Jamie espoused. Many of these were solidly self-congratulatory and (back to back) usually contradictory. The highlight was a link to a youtube video that lauded the work of the poster and dramatically asked why Jamie’s Food Revolution “didn’t teach people to cook”… thereby ignoring his “Pass it On” campaign, community education kitchens (Food Centres), and solid record of really quite good (and endearingly simplistic) cookbooks assuring readers that ‘cooking is easy, and you can do it!’

The most trenchant complaint was that by stating that the “Food Revolution Starts Here!” Jamie ignores all the important work done by other schools, groups and individuals around the country. Since this is a very legitimate gripe, I was surprised to see that it didn’t have legs in the thread wars. However, the obvious reason for this omission –  reality TV thrives on manufactured drama and dichotomies – was mentioned, although on the Comfood list there was some consternation that the producers hadn’t reached out to members of the school-food-change community before the show was filmed. However, as a result of this complaint the producers did invite various activists to participate in the last episode. We shall see what happens.

Many writers popped up to support him, and to remind others that he did indeed cause positive change in British schools. This encouraged a new set of posts, which questioned any changes, and cited studies demonstrating the opposite. Which led to posts citing studies that demonstrated that other methods like Jamie’s methods work, and can be linked to any number of positive outcomes. Further posts ensued, mentioning studies demonstrating a correlation between children preferring and eating fresh food and doing better in school. Today, one writer explained that Jamie’s Britishness was the reason for the hostility, and that “It’s a shame though because borders and nationality don’t really have a lot to do with all this, and what’s being missed here – and it worked in Britain – is a prime opportunity to overhaul some food habits that are simply killing people. What’s revolutionary about Oliver is that he’s a celebrity chef who’s genuinely interested in helping people and his track record is good.  Ah well, you can lead a horse to water…”

My take on this extended commentary and controversy will come in Part Three…. And in the meantime, don’t miss Episode Two: http://www.hulu.com/watch/138201/jamie-olivers-food-revolution-episode-102#s-p1-so-i0

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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Filed under economics, media, nutrition, obesity

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