Why I Changed My Mind: Jamie Oliver

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In the overwhelming tidal wave of television chefs who show up everywhere, there are very few who interest me. I like to look back to the old days of TV cookery to the seemingly awkward Julia Child or the stark raving drunk Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr, filled the screen. Cooking on TV has always been a thing, often relegated to the domain of public television alongside quite tame “educational programming” (which was, fair enough, not always tame – most foreign films shown on American TV in the old days appeared on PBS – and those films are very rarely what anyone would call “tame”. After all, it was on PBS that I first saw the original version – not the inane Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake – of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away).

But things change, and everything is fair game as entertainment – even cooking. Enter the era of the celebrity chef, which arguably has made people a lot more interested in cooking stuff for themselves but has unfortunately launched some, let’s say, unqualified characters into stardom. Undeserved? Who knows? If someone wants to watch Rachael Ray, for example, who is a businessperson and entertainer – not a chef – and supremely annoying to boot – that’s up to them. These celebrity “food handlers” (since they are not chefs in many cases) entertain, bring in viewers and that’s the bottom line now that there are entire TV channels devoted to all manner of food, cooking, taking shortcuts in cooking and so on.

Most of these people – I can take them or leave them. Jamie Oliver is one that I could – or thought I could – easily leave. His accent alone bugs me (just for Esteban: “the shit just got reaw” – not even sure how to linguistically render in writing the dropped-off “L” at the end of words so characteristic of Oliver’s speaking), but then the messiness of his approach to food – always getting his hands deeply dug into all kinds of greasy, slimy foods – even to the point that he advocates wearing gloves to do it sometimes – makes me a bit queasy. I can’t pinpoint what exactly it is that annoys me. Even going to the grocery store and seeing his line of pastas and spices and whatnot – that is just too much. The overcommercialization does very little for me. Why would I buy a Jamie Oliver skillet when I can get a much cheaper and superior cast iron skillet and be happier with it? Personally when I buy kitchen goods, I don’t want any pseudo-celeb’s face on it. I will stick with the basics (even if there are times when tools that go beyond the basics and are extremely useful, even if singular in their use – like garlic presses or a “cupcake holer”. I am usually a firm believer in the “for every task, there is a proper tool” school of thought).

For those frequent cupcake-filling emergencies

For those frequent cupcake-filling emergencies

But I will be damned if I don’t get pulled in every time I accidentally end up on a Jamie Oliver program on TV. I don’t even own a TV at home, so these accidents rarely occur. But because I spend most weekday evenings in hotels, I’ve got a wide range of channels – and twice in the last year, I’ve landed on Jamie Oliver shows and found myself glued to the TV. After he finished each recipe, I prompted myself, “Change the channel, damn you!”

But I was paralyzed. And why? Truth is – he was making stuff that sounded really amazing. Believe me, I don’t use the word “amazing” lightly because I believe it is one of the most overused and misused words in the English language. When someone tells me it would be “amazing” if I could make a tight deadline or deliver a box of cookies for their party, I think “amazing” is definitely overstating the case. But when you can create something that really wows the taste buds without overexerting yourself or spending all day doing it – that IS amazing. I am positively gobsmacked every time I can manage to cook actual food that really amazes someone.

The first Jamie Oliver program I saw (Jamie’s Great Britain, which was a fascinating look at food in Great Britain, in case anyone imagined that food there completely sucks!) featured roasted chicken and potatoes – I have now made both several times to great success, albeit with my own little alterations.

Yesterday, I turned on the telly and it was a program (Jamie at Home) dedicated to pumpkin and squash – be still my heart. He really highlighted the versatility of these kinds of vegetables – making an absolutely fantastic butternut squash soup, a duck and pumpkin salad and some butternut squash spice walnut cupcakes. Naturally I am going to try this stuff out next time I have a guest to feed. I don’t get around to cooking for myself but for others, I will go all out.

Considered, reconsidered – the important thing here is maybe that I can find Jamie Oliver annoying until the end of time, but what he does turns on my culinary curiosities and experimental bent – so he is definitely doing something right. The fact that the recipes are easy to follow and he makes them look easy if you follow a few steps does not hurt – and the results have always exceeded expectations.

Netflixization of Entertainment

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“Look in your heart” – “What heart?” –Miller’s Crossing

In keeping with the me-me-me nature of society, entertainment has grown to be more and more personalized and on-demand. Technology enables a lot of things – and watching what you want whenever you want is a big part of that. I’ve been loving Netflix for a long time – as far back as the beginning when a subscription entitled the subscriber to virtually unlimited DVD rentals through the post. I became a convert during a period of unemployment and great sadness, watching four or five movies per day. Netflix enabled that obsessive-compulsive behavior even before the ubiquity of high-speed streaming overtook my life.

Streaming has made things even more “at my fingertips”, more addictive, more dangerous and full of mind rot. I can feel my brain becoming less able at massaging language now – words and constructions that flowed more easily when I was a more dedicated and avid reader. Reading is really where it’s at, but like everything in the fast-food, self-serve, instant-gratification culture and environment I live in, I feel too much impatience when I read. It requires so much concentration – and I am an impatient multitasker.

Streaming Netflix, even more than its DVD subscription alter ego, or even the marathon viewing of box-set DVDs, has spawned a culture of binge viewing. It has also become the decider* for me, telling me what to watch next, mostly based on what is set to expire from Netflix (due to licensing issues). Plenty of things have been sitting in my queue for ages, and I would probably never get around to watching them except that Netflix posts a bright red, emergency-style date warning next to the item in the queue, warning of its impending disappearance. Most recently I ended up watching Miller’s Crossing, Children of a Lesser God (someone please tell me why anyone hires or likes William Hurt) and Pane e tulipani (Bread and Tulips – surprisingly, it made Venice look almost appealing, but Italy is still NOT fooling me).

*I laugh every time I hear or see the word “decider” because it reminds me of George W. Bush and the ridiculous way he phrased things: “I am the decider!”.

I noticed that classics like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas are also set to expire from Netflix on January 1. Oh, forgive me, Dolly, but your films mostly leave so very much to be desired. In the 80s I watched a lot of shitty movies because, being a little eclectic music-junkie child, I loved Dolly Parton (to the point that I dressed as Dolly for Halloween in third grade) and Olivia Newton-John. Apart from Parton’s turn in the entertaining 9 to 5, neither woman could be said to have great acting talents or particularly rich decisionmaking in their choices. Rhinestone? Xanadu? Two of a Kind? Please.

Also expiring is Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins – one of those films my brother recommended to me during our childhood. Who doesn’t love Fred Ward!? “Just remember – I won it. He’s mine.”