By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010; C02
Afflicted with the kind of warm-hearted caring that requires the constant presence of a TV crew, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver went to Huntington, W.Va., last fall to help people eat better. The city had recently been singled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the nation's unhealthiest (read: porkiest), and Oliver, whose previous work includes the "Naked Chef" series and a show where he reinvented British school cafeteria food, arrived babbling about a "revolution."
Well, you can imagine how eagerly the people of West Virginia respond to a foreigner with meticulously rumpled hair and a funny accent telling them to hand over the fries.
Anyone who has ever tried to pry chicken nuggets from their child's grip has been met with the same stubborn resistance seen in "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" (premiering Sunday night). Also there's the added soupcon of outright scorn. Not a word is spoken at "Food Revolution's" outset about our culture's politicization of food -- the whole arugula divide, the high cost of eating right, the class issues over portion size, the constant character judgments strewn between a fine meal and the drive-thru.
Red state, blue state; I don't know about you, but I'm tired of trying to get the nation to eat right. It's tempting to just let folks keel over in a puddle of kountry gravy if they like, dead from clogged arteries or scurvy (or both).
"Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" has all the problems of most network reality pap, in that the show feels pounded into submission by too many manipulative ABC producers. Its "moving" attempts at charity ooze the opportunism seen in "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." And it has a certain hectoring quality, a la "SuperNanny," that obscures its educational aim. In its zeal to show America to itself, it helps America make fun of itself.
Oliver appears to quite honestly blunder into that last mistake. By choosing Appalachia, which already has certain esteem issues over stereotyping, the star chef and fresh-food advocate has bitten off more than he chew, PR-wise. It goes wrong from the start at the Rocky n' Rod morning show at a country radio station (aka "93.7 the Dawg"), where DJ Rod lays into Oliver: "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. Who made you king?" (Oliver leaves the station grumbling that Rod is a "grumpy old git.")
Of course there's an irresistibly watchable quality to this, and it gets better when Oliver arrives to start his revolution at an elementary school and meets the lunch ladies -- Paulie, Millie, Linda, Louella and one feisty head cook named Alice Gue -- just as they're serving up "breakfast pizza" (eggs, sausage, gooey cheese) to 450 kids. Oliver is disgusted, of course, and only more so a few hours later at the lunchtime chicken nugget feeding frenzy.
"It's that kind of food that's killing America," he announces.
"You don't have processed food in England?" Alice snaps back.
"God, yes, and it's killing England, too," he replies.
Unfortunately for Alice, the school board has agreed to give Oliver's methods a one-week tryout. Unfortunately for Oliver, he discovers that school lunch funding is meticulously micromanaged by this unheard-of entity called the USDA, which has determined that french fries count as a vegetable. (Bollocks!) Nevertheless, Oliver whips up a lunch the next day of roast chicken and wild rice. Alice and her team offer an alternative of pepperoni pizza, which counts for two grains and a vegetable. Guess which one the schoolkids go for?
Then the local newspaper reprints some choice statements Oliver made in the foreign press about his trip to the United States, including: "They are all anemic with information. Like, when you meet these people, they are not stupid. They are not ignorant. It's just they have never had food from scratch in their life."
True! But offensive! While the anemically informed townsfolk ready the anemic hanging rope, Oliver sits on the recess playground and tearfully tells the camera that he sincerely loves these people and wants to help. To its credit, "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" is committed to Huntington for the duration of the season, instead of packing up and moving on to de-donutize the next hickville. I take Oliver at his word and guiltily look forward to seeing whether any of these people will manage to eat something that isn't golden brown.
I would also like to try some of this breakfast pizza.
Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution
(one hour) debuts at 10 p.m. Sunday on ABC.