Kojo Nnamdi, reluctant foodie

By Tim Carman
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 6:13 PM

It was a "food" program like no other. Kojo Nnamdi and his production team had set up shop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last November, nearly 11 months after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and left even more scrambling for sustenance and shelter in tent cities. Nnamdi wasn't there to conduct, as Anthony Bourdain had in a recent episode of "No Reservations," some liberal-guilt exercise to feed the hungry and then chronicle the "Lord of the Flies"-like results. WAMU's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" was there to talk with two people "committed to reviving Haitian agriculture as a way to getting the economy back on track."

Guest Regine Barjon, chief officer of BioTek Solutions and marketing director of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce, told Nnamdi how the Haitian government's decision to lower tariffs on rice in the 1990s had crippled and penalized local farmers. Nnamdi listened patiently and then sniffed out what sounded like a Haitian policy designed to benefit American agriculture:

"Allow me interrupt for a second, Regine, because President Bill Clinton is on the record as saying that he now believes it was a mistake to increase the penetration of American rice into Haiti, which a lot of people believe made it impossible for Haitian farmers to compete at the global level. Where do you see the local effects of that policy, and how has it affected the farmers you work with?"

It was a quintessential Kojo Nnamdi moment: polite, informed and just pointed enough to pique your curiosity. That is, in a nutshell, what Nnamdi and his crack production crew bring to the table each week when discussing food. Their approach is not to treat food as poetry or pornography - that is, something so rarefied or sensual that it's divorced from gritty reality - but to connect food to politics, culture, economics and so many other forces that drive our daily lives.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but Nnamdi is the perfect person to make those connections - and not just because he's on public radio. He's the perfect person because he's not a chef or a cookbook author. He doesn't have a reputation to protect in the arena of food, and he doesn't have a product to promote. Nnamdi, in short, is not a foodie, which means he's not afraid to ask an obvious (read: simple) question or feel the need to gush like a love-struck teenager over a dish that, in all honesty, might be merely average. In a time of culinary hyperbole, Nnamdi's dispassion is his selling point.

At 66 years of age, Nnamdi has enjoyed a long career in local media, much of it with Howard University's radio and television stations before moving to WAMU (88.5 FM) in 1998 to replace Derek McGinty as host of its afternoon talk show. Despite his wealth of experiences, Nnamdi has been covering food regularly only since summer 2009, when he and his WAMU producers felt comfortable enough to devote a portion of each Wednesday's show to the subject. (It starts at noon.)

Nnamdi's main love, of course, is politics, and yet he's not a typical firebrand, even if the Guyana native originally immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s in part to join the civil rights movement. WRC-TV's Tom Sherwood, the resident analyst for Nnamdi's weekly Politics Hour, describes his host as an old-fashioned "gentleman" whose soft-spoken approach can lull an unsuspecting guest into a false complacency. Before you know it, Sherwood says, Nnamdi will want to know if the guest really did "take all that money, and it sounds like he's asking you out for a date."

Clearly, Nnamdi's experience in Washington's politics and public affairs has influenced his approach to food coverage, but it also appears to have made him acutely sensitive to distortion and spin, those hallmarks of public speaking in political circles. (Or maybe that sensitivity comes from an early mentor, Walter Rodney, a Caribbean activist from Guyana who taught Nnamdi to "be self-critical, to think independently, to really follow logic," as the talk-show host noted during a First Personal Singular interview for The Washington Post Magazine in January 2001.)

Whatever the case, you won't hear many James Beard Foundation Award winners talk like this:

"Virtually all the cooking shows you see on television or the stuff you read in magazines and newspapers, the people who are presenting it have some degree of expertise," he tells me over lunch at Indique Heights, one of his favorite restaurants.

"For me, since I have none, I think what evolved is that I was the average listener, especially the average male listener, who likes to eat but doesn't know a great deal about what's going on. And that has, in a way, defined the show: the fact that I'm curious, that I like to eat and that I enjoy asking at times what may appear to be dumb questions about what goes into what. Everybody else knows what goes into what on most dishes. I'm clueless. I don't know what goes into anything."

Regardless of the host's cluelessness, "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" has indeed copped a James Beard award: It won last year in the audio webcast or radio show category. That no doubt helps explain why Nnamdi, in retrospect, describes the show's decision to cover food as a "no-brainer." But why did Nnamdi decide to adopt food as a topic? It seems that the show's interest in food wasn't exactly organic and wasn't exactly mandated but was a sort of hazy combination of both.

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