What’s that funny-talking TV chef doing in my West Virginia hometown?
It’s about 8:45 a.m. and I’m sitting in an audio booth, waiting to talk to Brit celebrity chef Jaime Oliver on the other end of a high-quality line. I’m his third, set-‘em-up-and-knock-‘em-down “interview” of the morning. The night before he was on Letterman. He’s 15 minutes late, and I have an uneasy feeling. Not about him being late. And not about being a cog in the hype machine for a TV show. No, I’m uneasy — downright queasy — because Oliver’s new show, Food Revolution, takes aim at “America’s unhealthiest town.” And it’s my hometown: Huntington, West Virginia.
I work in public radio. I don’t own a TV. So of course I’m more than a little bothered by the thought of my little hometown made a spectacle on reality TV. When I imagine the tawdry titillation of the weepy confessional scenes I shudder.
Will it be a Food Revolution, or just plain revolting?
In case you missed the ubiquitous promos, Oliver’s bringing his brand of foodie edutainment to America. We watch in wonder as he visits a Huntington school where kids can’t name tomatoes. We titter as he opens the fridge of a fat Huntington woman and her obese kids, piling their greasy food on their sad little kitchen table. And I think, what does TV America make of it? Do they see the slow motion tragedy of poor school nutrition and an obesity epidemic? Do they see themselves in this? Or do they see the other, the hillbilly? They talk funny. They’re dumb. They dig coal, handle snakes, and marry their cousins. What do you expect them to eat?
Appalachians have an “otherness” that makes us one of the last groups that even the politically correct can still comfortably, cruelly laugh at. I’m sure this added entertainment value is not lost on the likes of Ryan Seacrest, Oliver’s executive producer. Mr. Oliver tells me he was not familiar with the stereotypes and the jokes. He loves HunTington, he tells me. (He emphasizes the first “t.” We do not.)
Yes, I know Huntington has a food problem. I know that. I see it in my family members who suffer diabetes but still eat crap. Of course West Virginians eat crap. Crap is cheap, and nearly a quarter of Huntington residents live below the poverty line. I know.
But I also know that right around this time of year a lot of West Virginians take to the woods looking for bright green shoots and shiny white bulbs of the ramps pushing up through sloping, hillside soil among the trillium and squirrel corn.
I know that a little later they’ll seek out the dying elms and wood edges that give rise to morels, the tastiest of mushrooms. Come summer they’ll tend their mortgage lifters, big as your head. I know they filled their freezers with venison last fall. I know my grandfather will still make his cornbread and pintos every time I visit, and black walnut cake from the tree out back if I’m lucky. And I know it will all taste of the place it came from, like a piece of our past made real, made part of our bodies. It will taste like home.
If Mr. Oliver could get that on the air, then there’s a food revolution I’d like to see.
But maybe I just have a bit of a chip on my Appalachian shoulder. I watch the 30 minute preview of his show with my wife and we share a look of surprised relief. It might not be as bad as we’d feared. In fact, it might be that Mr. Oliver’s medium is just right for this message. Let’s face it, how many people in my hometown are reading Michael Pollan, or seeing docs like Food Inc.? (Well, OK, a few. Heck, Morgan Spurlock, of Supersize Me is a fellow West Virginia native.)
But highbrow foodie books and films don’t often reach the broader (hah) audience that needs the message. Food Revolution just might. It could be that Mr. Oliver’s found a higher purpose for this low and often loathsome form of entertainment.
You can watch the two-hour premiere tonight on ABC. Here’s a promo:
Jeff Young hosts PRI’s Living on Earth. He is from Huntington, West by God Virginia.