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Generally Recognized As True: Jamie Oliver's American Road Trip: some thoughts on the concept and the first episode

Friday, September 04, 2009

Jamie Oliver's American Road Trip: some thoughts on the concept and the first episode

I recently got the chance to see the first part of Jamie Oliver's new series -- Jamie's American Road Trip -- where he is taking a trip around America to explore the food culture that exists there. In each episode, he will visit an area of the US that has a distinctive food culture.

I like Jamie Oliver's work a lot, and that's unusual for me because I normally don't get involved in mass-market and big personalities. But I think he does good work, he has contributed the most to my interest in cooking, and his shows and books are just easy to watch and digest. So, I have bought most of his books and seen most of his shows. If there is one celebrity I follow, he is it.

My first reaction to the concept of this series was to wonder what kind of food culture America has that would be worth making a TV series about. But then I started to think about it a bit more and it made me realize that I was perhaps conflating the US and Canada -- countries that are culturally very similar in many respects. Canada is the one without a food culture. My immediate thought was of the cooking in the deep South -- soul food like fried chicken, cornbread, hash browns, and that kind of thing. I struggled to go beyond that, but it gave me enough mental chewing gum to think that maybe there would be something to this series after all.

But, I sense that he did struggle to find a quintessentially American food culture... because the first episode takes place in East Los Angeles in the middle of gang land, where he learns how to cook authentic Mexican cuisine from the authentic Mexicans (?) that mostly populate that part of the city. As expected, he makes it interesting -- visiting a cactus farm for some fresh cactus to use in a recipe he has in mind, and unknowingly being slipped some hallucinatory wild fungus under the counter by a shopkeeper who he doesn't seem to be that friendly with on the way out. We could probably do without the social commentary on what it must mean for kids to grow up in the middle of gang land, though. And the show is much more of the style of his Italian roadtrip than his other shows -- it is about food culture and food experience far more than it is about "how to" and recipes. This is not a flaw.

A blog post by Richard Ehrlich over at The Guardian is somewhat critical of the show by viewing it through the lens of Oliver's reputation, despite the author seeming to enjoy it. The reader comments that follow are mostly scathing and rude and seem to miss the point. The most frequent criticism seems to be that Mr. Oliver is in no position -- and is in fact rude -- to come into someone else's kitchen with very little knowledge of their culture and pretend to be able to cook something for them that they'll love*. And it's true that he doesn't even seem to know the basics, having no pre-conception of what Mexican "mole" (mo-lay) is and actually seeming surprised that it exists. Having picked up any book on Mexican cooking, such a thing would have been prominent.

But, that misses the point. I have no idea whether the innocence was genuine or not -- whether he is simply pretending to be unaware -- but it is effective at drawing people who have no knowledge of Mexican food culture into the occasion. If you are seeing it for the first time, it's as if you are discovering it with him. The time and space gives you time to absorb while you are watching. The blank slate approach makes for good TV. He did not take the same approach with his Italian roadtrip, but much of his cooking is based on an Italian influence and I suspect he toned down his assumptions in that one, too. Further, he has made the comment before that being inquisitive and relatively innocent brings out the best in other people and encourages them to explain their method. If you don't presume to know something, you might learn something. Even if you know 90% of what someone has to say, if you make them feel as if you already know what they're talking about then they may never reveal the other 10%, assuming that you know it already. I can cook a few things, but know very little about Mexican cooking, and I was informed about its essence by this show. As Mr. Oliver's goal frequently seems to be to motivate people to get into the kitchen and broaden their horizons, this is perfectly consistent with his usual goals.

So, what about the show? Why should we watch an episode on Mexican cooking done by someone who seems to lack even basic knowledge about the food yet pretends that he might wow his audiences with something they never knew they were missing?

I had the same questions myself going in. But then I found myself becoming interested and realized that he does this precisely because the alternative would be worse: watching a show in which Jamie Oliver went to Mexico for a few days, learned a few things, and then pretended that he could teach us all there is to know about authentic Mexican cooking by bashing out the classics from a Mexican cookbook would be pointless. So he doesn't do this. He goes inside the culture, learns a bit about its defining characteristics, and then uses his own instincts about what works to try and create something that is his own, but which is grounded in the culture of that which he is televising.

I'm looking forward to the next episode, based around the cowboy motif and set in Wyoming. And, beside having an effective style that is enjoyable to watch (though this is obviously subjective), I look forward to seeing how he will use these experiences to enhance his own personal cooking sensibility in future.

* The attitude demonstrated by the commenters is so quintessentially "modern England", too: a blanket objection to any kind of apparent Imperialism that suggests to some culture that it may be improved by the insights of some other culture. This is one reason that children in the UK are now so much more likely to stay in the trappings in which they grew up: because how Imperial it is of us to say that there is the possibility of a "better" life if we harness their outstanding natural abilities and support it with a more productive culture. I am not saying that this is what is going on with Jamie's show, but it is an undercurrent that influences the comments, I think.

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