Friday, May 30, 2014

The Battle of Lexington and Concord Grape Jam: The Revoculinary War

Making up for many empty weeks! Here's a (ridiculous) paper that I wrote this year. Thank ye, high school, for squeezing the strangest sentences out of me.

The Anglo-American feud persists to this day. It lives on in traffic laws, economic schools of thought, and literary loyalties (to Rowling or Collins). “It’s the rebellion, darling,” hums my English neighbor, whenever she encounters a misspelling of “grey” or a mispronunciation of “garage.” The English display maturity in all matters of culture, and flaunt it in tabloids and television. Seeking the secret to their stiff-lipped soul, I sampled from the bouquet of British offerings the scrumptious BBC Food Channel. Extensive research affirmed that TV-chef allegiances ought to lie across the Atlantic, where culinary programming of an artistic quality seeps into lucky living rooms.

When one flicks on the telly, they expect an escape. Why, fellow Amuricans, remain steeped in our all-too-predictable, unspiced culture? Why settle for the predictable scenery of Malibu and suburban Connecticut when there waits swaths of Essex countryside piped with hares and hobbits, or Dickens-esque sunset profiles of the London skyline; for the limited inflection of American accent, when there waits the Scottish lilt and Cockney cackle? Those of us who are couch-chained revel in one-hour invitations into foreign kitchens. Thus, a transfer to Team UK, purely for scenic purposes, is in order. There’s no competition regarding overall quality of cinematography; while American producers dwell on details of hair and makeup, British shows devote those energies toward manicuring sets: no gleaming copper pot nor solitary chopstick is out of place. Those enveloped by the world of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Chronicles of Narnia, Spice Girls, Bridget Jones, and other Anglophilic indulgences would only benefit immensely from a tasteful trip across the pond; ‘tis a continuation of fictional forays. At last, they may solve for themselves the mysteries of pasty vs. pastry, and learn to assemble Harry’s favorite treacle tart.

In addition to extensive culinary training, the average British food star possesses an impressive record of academic achievement. The flamboyant Nigella Lawson has an undergraduate degree in Medieval and Modern languages from Oxford University, as shown in every show. While most TV chefs inject childhood anecdotes about watching their Nanas assemble pierogis, Nigella folds an Middle English history lesson into every episode, just as she folds egg whites for meringues. The viewer simultaneously improves in two aspects of culture, both crucial for survival and thrive-al. While tales of Giada’s Aruban vacay and Ree Drummond’s soccer potluck are at times enlightening, the true Epicurean derives pleasure from all sources, especially the font of knowledge. Drink up, I say -- a simple conversion of cook-loyalties admits thee to a higher class of culinary intelligentsia.

Aesthetically, BBC chefs take the cakes. Nigella Lawson, the “Domestic Goddess,” is famed for her glossy chestnut ringlets, pearlescent porcelain complexion, eyes the size of vacuoles, and a voluptuous figure to shame all voluptuous figures (which she dresses accordingly). At his prime in the mid-nineties, Jamie Oliver achieved heartthrob status; herds of teenage girls tuned in weekly to “The Naked Chef,” misled by the title. Jamie, at the tender age of nineteen, resembled a golden retriever, with his scruffy yellow bangs and large pink lips, clad in flannels and an apron. His motorbike, which he dismounts at the beginning of every episode, creats a fascinating contradiction between country lad and bad fellow. Gordon Ramsay is the Lion King of chefs: his tousled sun-kissed ‘do, burnished peel, and Scottish-ringlord stature elevate him to Adonis-hood. Flubber is more fairly distributed among the British chefs, while Ina Garten and Paula Deen, friendly pear-matrons of Food Network, are over-blessed with it. However, judges of the aesthetic contest must consider Malibu-based TV chef Giada de Laurentiis, daughter ofItalian film stars, whose looks put most A-listers to shame. Still, the British crew of culinary communicators has greater net attractiveness. These chefs’ marriages verify their pulchritude: Jamie Oliver married a supermodel called Jools (retainer of a svelte silhouette, even after fourteen years of taste-testing), and promptly produced four children (with organic names like Buddy Bear and Daisy Boo Pamela). Nigella Lawson pocketed London’s foremost art collector, Charles Saatchi. Attention to appearances extends to cookbookery: the collected works of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay surpass those of Rachael Ray and Wolfgang Puck in font selection and margin width.

As usual, our friends across the pond display deeper mastery of the English language. American audiences must settle for contractions and vagaries, while British chefs treat their viewers to slews of literary devices. TV, oft-scorned as an intelligence-sapping pastime, regains its credibility under their stewardship. In each of her episodes, Nigella Lawson employs many a magnificent metaphor (she refers to al dente linguini as “golden tresses,” evoking images of Rapunzel and Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair), encouraging her disciples to compose poetry as they wait for butter to brown. Gordon Ramsay subscribes to the proverb “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” His instruction is laced with pieces of technical advice that transcend recipes; that seek to make thinkers from automatons. Jamie Oliver’s famed monologues are equally substantial: each food lesson carries a lesson on living with it, as easily as butter carries alliums. While certain American chefs (Alton Brown, mainly) may be praised for their concision and wit, most of them flounder and ramble, baby the watcher, and run out of synonyms for “Delicious!”. Sandra Lee, hostess of Food Network’s Semi-Homemade, suffered a bout of aphasia when she described a crumbly cupcake as “juicy” -- one (amusing) verbal misdemeanor among many. In stark contrast, the British Cooking Crew, armed with assurance of the ages, stirs up food for thought in addition to digestion.

Like European concert pianists, British TV chefs have mastered a wider repertoire than their American counterparts. The culinary forays of Bobby Flay are confined to Texan barbeque, and Giada de Laurentiis seldom ventures beyond Italian-Californian fare in shades of bisque and green tea. When American chefs carry their enterprises abroad, they are met with disinterest: celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s American Restaurant and Bar received scathing reviews from Parisian critics, a suggestion that the American culinary canon is ill-suited to international audiences. True, British chefs rely on centuries of European culinary tradition to back their expeditions, but none take their gastronomic heritage for granted. Jamie Oliver, at his young age, has opened fifteen restaurants internationally that feature Pho, foie gras, and everything in between. Instead of dulling their taste buds on various permutations of hamburger, viewers of British food television sharpen their worldliness.

The two schools of cheffing differ most, however, in their aim. American cooking shows maximize convenience, speed, ease, and satisfaction-factor; land and resource-challenged British chefs are keen on nutrition-dense diets and the local-food movements. The Food Network recipe index is bogged down by excess salt, vegetable oil, cornstarch, and red meat, perennial staples of the American diet. Jamie Oliver et al firmly espouse nutrition-centric choices and have carried their campaigns to America, where the obesity, diabetes, and cancer epidemics tear through helpless civilians. With an emphasis on whole foods and streamlined preparation, Oliver strives to make healthful eating mainstream, and has given TED talks on and dedicated primetime hours to his quest. Jamie’s Food Revolution has already transformed British school lunches, and is currently probing into West Virginia and Los Angeles. The transition from the decades-enforced American diet to a cleaner one is messy indeed, but worth every droplet of blood, sweat, and sauce, according to friendly neighbor Jamie Oliver.

With stellar cinematography, backgrounds, looks, instruction, repertoire, and intentions, English cooking shows out-do their American counterparts, and continue to out-do themselves with every season. Offering substance where it is seldom found, satisfying hunger for knowledge as well as adenosine triphosphate, subliminally converting munchers of crispy chips to “crunchies” themselves -- too many clauses adorn foreign food programming. When next presented with the opportunity, swap ice-water for tea, and cozy up with a new foodie friend or two. BBC Food lies just a thumb-flex away.

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