Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Sad Case of Over-Nuggetry

In the past few weeks, ABC has begun airing a show called "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," and I've gotta say, it's a pretty solid hour. It really touches on something I've been increasingly finding at once both liberating and frustrating, and something that is going to play a huge role in American life in years to come. It all really comes down to the issue of an over reliance on heavily processed and pre-packaged food and an jarring rejection of anything resembling actual cooking.

Hearing that the show was to be set in West Virginia, I had to assume that the problem was that the locals were overdoing their possum stew and raccoon meat. Unfortunately, this all came down to just a matter of the locals devouring frozen pizzas and chicken fingers like they were breath mints and having coronaries at age 46.

The cast of characters reads about the way you'd guess, and while it borders on being a little predictable, they all seem to fit together pretty well. We focus have our struggling hero Oliver, a likable and earnest figure trying to make sense of all the deranged opposition. Among the most notable opponents are a surly radio host working to maximize his prick quotient at every opportunity and school administrators puzzled at what possibly could be wrong. It's amazing with the school crew, as they somehow manage to be both ambivalent as to what's happening and yet protective of the status quo. It's the equivalent of a 2006 New Orleans noting that there was a little bit of a water issue, but not a big deal. And who doesn't like swimming, right?

Most acutely serving as the primary villain, Oliver and the viewer are confronted by a lunch lady appearing to be the twangy offspring of a "Lord of the Rings" orc and Nurse Ratched. She's hellbent on tossing deep fried frozen crap into the oven and responds to most of Oliver's requests as though he's asking to wipe her hair net on his balls. Most troubling was her admission that she only had become a school cook for the money (wow, didn't see that one coming. Move over hedge fund managers, you've now got rivals in the yacht market). I'm still weighing whether this is more an indictment of the school or her, but either way she makes a hell of an antagonist. While ABC needs to make sure they don't get too heavy handed with her, but I actually fear they may have some corny turnaround and they all become friends over broccoli and apple slices.

But we're not there yet, and far from it. It's clear from both the show and life in general that most kids would eat their parents and the family dog if they came as a nugget with barbecue sauce. But that being said, blaming an 8 year old for food choices is the same as blaming a raccoon for raiding the trash or The Situation from tanning too much (damn I miss that show). It's ultimately the responsibility of the school and parents, and in the case of this West Virginia disaster, they seem to be in a contest to be the most inept.

The turning point we're working toward is the gradual transition to actually making kids and families understand the enormous importance of knowing what they're eating and the actual simplicity and savings of just taking responsibility for what happens at the table. It drives me CRAZY when people piss and moan about being too busy to actually make something decent and having to rely on this pre-made crap. Here are 2 facts: (1) it's cheaper than people think; and (2) most of these people have enough time to do something totally reasonable. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking quail eggs and filet mignon with creme brulee. I'm talking crock pots, pasta, and frozen vegetables. I know some people are really busy, I really do. I grew up in one of those households and I get it. That being said, no one can convince me that there's enough time to throw some frozen peas in a pot for 8 minutes. If people can find an hour to watch bad singers on American Idol, they can throw dollar a pound chicken into the oven.

That's the part of the show I like most, overall. The stuff Oliver's pushing is, at its heart, easy and filling stuff that isn't what people think of under the title "Food Revolution." It's just a matter of making spaghetti for 4 people in about 20 minutes as opposed to baking a frozen pizza in the same amount of time. Hell, make the damn pizza yourself and you're still ahead of the game (it's much easier than you'd think and tastes like the $20 bistro stuff). Admittedly, I drive the wife crazy with running the grocery bills on dinner and exclaiming "this all cost $5.50 for the whole meal and we'll eat it again tomorrow!" But at the end of the day the point's completely valid, and that's the underlying fact that needs to be driven home: you can eat better and cheaper if you open your eyes and just think about what you're doing.

The trouble here is getting that point across to the enormous segment of the population that is so reluctant to buy into this idea. In a lot of ways, the focus really has to be on the younger generations in school now, and on trying to promote the idea that most of your meals shouldn't come from a cartoon character. I love that he's trying to teach some basic skills, and that's where the gains are going to be made. It's a waste of time just banging the anti-KFC drum without offering up something as an alternative that people can throw together fast and cheap.

Of course it's a little tricky because the people selling all that shit as real food are making big money off of fat third graders. Do you think Sysco (they did all my school lunch food growing up) is excited to lose any of their $36 Billion in annual revenue? Oh Helllllllls no. Of course they're lobbying for all these crazy administrative rules that confuse what can be served. It's easy to rip on Mickey Dee's for what they're pulling, but there's no excuse for school administrators to completely whore out students for food suppliers when they can do it themselves with some decent planning and some sweat. Hey, I love me some lunch ladies and if they can hack it, then I say great. But do you think it's odd that the makeup of restaurant cooks is completely different than what you'll see in every school in America? If we need to reshape the whole system, so be it. There are omlettes to be made, and in the end there may be no way to avoid some broken eggs.

So to wrap it up, check out the Oliver show on Friday nights and start paying attention to ways we can promote a little more self-reliance on what we eat. I'm sure there's a term for this already, and I'm obviously not making up new concepts here (I'll leave the exact phrasing for the better foodies than myself). But we have to be cognizant in the end of what's happening in our schools and the ways that public policy decisions directly impact health patterns leading into years ahead.

And if that doesn't work, we'll just outlaw nuggets.

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