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April 30, 2010

Hunger Strike—04/30/10

Were we to gaze upon the pantheon of revolutionary heroes, I can’t help but wonder whose noble busts we would see so boldly carved into marble for all the world to admire. Perhaps we should observe Bolivar, or Lenin, or Malcolm X, or even that beret-wearing guy who everyone likes to wear on their T-shirts. And as we stand there, awestruck as our hearts swell with revolutionary fervor, will we ask ourselves…where is Jamie Oliver?

To answer that, there are probably a few things you should know: (a) who is Jamie Oliver? and (b) what the hell is his Food Revolution?

First off, Jamie Oliver is a chef, and a pretty damn good one at that. Before he became the face of every other British food company and the star of enough cooking shows to start his own equivalent to the Oprah TV network, Oliver was actually a well-respected chef at fine restaurants across England. I’ve watched his syndicated show, The Naked Chef (thankfully, he keeps all of his clothes on), and I have to admit that his reliance on fresh and organic ingredients was actually very innovative at the time and is even more relevant today.

But Jamie Oliver clearly found his role as a chef far too limiting. Instead of expanding his culinary empire to include signature knives, pans, and Crocs as any normal chef would, he had to go out and become a social activist. And as much as I ridicule his decision to become socially conscious, I do think his message has some merit: Improve your life by improving your diet, with a focus on starting at an early age by improving school lunches. Hey, that’s actually a good idea! Good for you, Jamie Oliver!

His plan worked pretty well in the UK, where he managed to have significant legislation put into place with the goal of making school dining healthier. Presumably, millions of schoolchildren will be saved by his actions, the effect of which has the potential of improving the lives of successive generations of Brits. But alas, Oliver’s triumph is also his undoing. For what does a successful chef/social activist do after making progress in the UK? He decides to come to the U.S. and make a TV show called Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

The premise is simple: Jamie Oliver comes to Huntington, West Virginia—supposedly the unhealthiest city in the US—with the intent of showing them the error of their ways and ultimately saving their lives. The promotional poster depicts Oliver staring off into the distance as he triumphantly raises some carrots in the air, and the Rising Sun background pounding the revolutionary message into your head like a railroad spike. Although reason and logic would have served as perfectly adequate means to Oliver’s end, they are replaced by cheap scare tactics for all to behold. Over-sized coffins for the morbidly obese! Gasp! Chicken bone and intestine slush, a.k.a. the contents of a chicken nugget! Double Gasp! Buckets and tubs of pure saturated fat! Tripl–please, let me catch my breath…Yes, death and disease are scary, but a “scared straight” approach is better left for boot camps, not dining rooms.

Perhaps the scariest element of the show, poorly disguised as comic relief, is Jamie Oliver himself. The guy is just so annoying. I know this isn’t a good reason to hate on his vision of food reform, but his accent sounds like Eliza Doolittle fighting a parrot. All of his childish antics—dressing as a pea pod, staging a High School Musical-esque flash mob on the virtues of cooking, and recounting a story of burning his genitals while cooking naked for a loved one—especially in contrast with the endless array of straight-faced humorless Americans, make him seem like the lone fool who has no idea the joke is on him. The man even disses Lunchables. C’mon man, low blow.

But my main problem with the show is that improving Americans’ health isn’t anywhere near as simple as coming to the U.S., dramatizing the improvement of a community through better food, airing a show about it, and then entrusting the Americans to “make the right call.” Even within the confines of six episodes, we see kids returning to their old ways of eating chips and snacks out of brown paper bags as soon as Jamie leaves. I know it’s a show, and it is supposed to be entertaining (hell, it’s produced by Ryan Seacrest), but the little progress that Jamie makes seems so forced and scripted that any and all of its believability is completely lost. It seems that most of the people just want Jamie to take his faux-Asian noodle dishes and get on the first flight back to London. Thank God that volcanic ash finally cleared.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the issue of nutrition or, rather, the lack thereof in the U.S. is pressing. If there is any time to make a move, it is certainly now. Michelle Obama is growing gardens at the White House, Michael Pollan is pumping out bestsellers on the virtues of simple and fresh food, and the organic movement has never been stronger. But American people need more than just a gentle push to improve their lifestyles. We are a stubborn folk. We need constant prodding and pulling until we can learn to put down our Double Downs and pick up better eating habits. I’m no expert on the matter, and I know these ideas are nothing new, but I affirm the belief that it takes significant policy changes and involved educational programs to move us away from manufactured food. And Jamie Oliver knows this, because he has done it. What we need is an intelligent approach, not a guy dressed as a vegetable.

So returning to our original concern, where do we place Jamie Oliver in the hall of revolutionaries? I say we put him outside to ward off intruders. He’s certainly got the bark to attract enough noise and attention, even if he lacks the bite to inflict any lasting effects.

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