Is it possible to just have some good ol' Foodie Fun in the White House kitchen and garden, once you've started warning America that we're in the middle of an obesity crisis of epidemic proportions? VIDEO BELOW
UPDATE Jan. 2, 2010: More details on the show are HERE.
UPDATE Jan 3, 2010: Comerford and Flay WIN THE BATTLE.
Food Network has just released the first promo video for the special Iron Chef America episode that will feature First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford. (Top: From left, Batali, Lagasse, Flay and Comerford listen to show host Alton Brown in the White House Kitchen Garden)
For the Jan. 3 two-hour show, Comerford is paired with celeb grillmeister Bobby Flay in competition against famed chefs Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse, in a cook-off in the show's Kitchen Stadium, where they'll try to create wild dishes that will please the celeb guest judges. Mrs. Obama appears in a special segment shot at the White House, in which the battling chefs harvest veggies from her Kitchen Garden; these eventually become the "secret ingredient" in the cook-off in the Kitchen Stadium. The secret ingredient, the video informs us, is of national importance! (Above: Lagasse in the garden)
What's the chance of undermining White House nutrition messaging, and the Obama anti-obesity campaign?
But it can't be overlooked that Batali and Lagasse--by anyone's estimation--are overweight, and the question is, how big of a problem could this be? With two famed professionals who are noticeably overweight harvesting produce from the Kitchen Garden and then cooking it, isn't at least part of the takeaway message on Iron Chef America the idea that cooking actually makes you fat? (Above: Mrs. Obama at the White House with the chef competitors, and show host Alton Brown)
For a First Lady running what has become a high-profile health and nutrition campaign, which has as a critical component reducing what the White House has called the nation's obesity "epidemic," it's an odd fit to be welcoming these chefs to the White House. The stats: Some sixty percent of American adults are deemed overweight/obese by the CDC, and up to 1/3 of children, with rates even higher for Hispanic and African American populations.
And reducing the rates of obesity and overweight in America is not just part of the First Lady's agenda, it's an agency-wide push from the Obama Administration, from Defense (with worries about future soldiers being too fat to serve); to USDA and Education, which are seeking new low-fat nutrition standards for the federal school lunch program; to Health and Human Services, in the name of Health Care Reform, and trimming the rates of diet-related disease, which are an incredible burden on both the economy and the health care system (not to mention the horrifying fate of early death, which the Admin is so fond of discussing).
Theoretically, Mrs. Obama and her Executive Chef are appearing on Iron Chef America is part of her efforts to raise awareness about healthy eating, with the hope that the big audience the show has will be new recipients of the good food news. And the White House has spent months promoting cooking skills with a series of events: Healthy recipes were demo'd in the Kids Kitchen at the 2009 Easter Egg Roll; student garden helpers cooked in the White House kitchen after the Spring Garden Harvest; and a bevy of celeb chefs demonstrated healthy recipes at September's Healthy Kids Fair.
But if famous proponents of the culinary arts--professionals who have the best, easiest access to healthy and nutritious food--and who know what they're doing with their ingredients and their knives--are carrying lots of extra poundage, what smidgen of hope is there for those following along at home, who frequently don't know their salsa from their salsify?
Happily, Comerford is paired with the slim and trim Flay on the show, yet that doesn't mitigate the fact that the two other celeb chefs are as round as Christmas hams. Food Network applauds itself on getting higher viewer ratings than cable news shows--and that's why they were invited to the White House.
But Food Network is frequently criticized for airing sheer food porn, running a spate of shows that seem to promote overeating. Iron Chef America is food porn as cage fight, especially because it could well be the anti-message to the White House's goals. And does all of this somehow undermine the fact that vegetables are, indeed, of national importance, particularly for battling the bulge, something Mrs. Obama has been reminding us about for months?
In an interview with NPR, bestselling food author Michael Pollan points out that the time the average American spends preparing dinner has dropped to less than half the amount of time it takes to watch an episode of Top Chef. (Above: Batali cooking during the White House episode; Food Network made the shot B&W for the sake of "drama")
Pollan adds that "you certainly don't learn anything about cooking" from watching food TV shows because "they go by way too fast, they don't offer the recipes."
"The food they're making is so spectacular that it's really unlikely, I think, that anybody is trying this at home," Pollan said.
On White House recipe posting and home cook recreations...
Food Network is promoting Mrs. Obama and Comerford's appearance on Iron Chef America as just this kind of spectacular event. "A monumental clash of the Titans!" Host Alton Brown chortles at the camera in the video promo. (Above: Comerford in the Kitchen Stadium)
Sure, the Kitchen Garden will be seen by millions of viewers, and the chefs will obviously be cooking veggie dishes, but there's a chance things could go awry.
Especially if Comerford and Flay lose (prediction: They win). And will the recipes from Iron Chef America be released, anyway? The White House allowed the cast of NBC's competition weight-loss show The Biggest Loser to pick veggies from the Kitchen Garden, and then go in the kitchen and make a healthy salad with Comerford and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, but then didn't bother to post the recipe at WhiteHouse.gov.
In fact, if you Google "The Biggest Loser White House Salad," the top hit out of more than 41,000 is this blog post at Obama Foodorama; it remains a much-searched for item. And even if the recipes from Iron Chef America are posted at the White House's own site, will the average American non-Titan home cook be able to recreate them? The point of the show is culinary extravagance, fast knife work and flaming derring-do, not necessarily making easy-to-recreate dishes for the home cook.
But if the recipes aren't posted--perhaps in a home-cooking version--what is the point of having Mrs. Obama and her Executive Chef on the show? Especially because she's the only first lady to ever appear on a "reality" TV show, and at this point in the All Obama All The Time mediascape, the appearance becomes just another ignorable media outing.
Or could it be that Mrs. Obama is just out for some Bad TV Foodie Fun, and for two hours on January 3, we get to forget the dire implications of America's collective eating problem? Mrs. Obama just announced to Barbara Walters that one of her "Guilty Pleasures" is (in her own words) "really bad TV."
"I sit with Bo, and he usually climbs up on my lap," Mrs. Obama told Walters. "He'll cozy up with me, and I'm just clicking through mindless shows. A lot of, you know, shows about food and design...If I get an hour of that during the course of a week, it feels like heaven."
As a side note, celeb chef Art Smith, who has guest-cheffed at the White House (and who likes to just hang out there), credits his recent fifty-pound weight loss to Mrs. Obama's influence. Maybe Lagasse and Batali are trimming down as this is being written. Or not.
Related: More on the Iron Chef America shoot is here, including photos and a media call with Chefs Comerford and Flay.
*Worth a read: Pollan's NYT magazine cover story, Out of The Kitchen, Onto The Couch, in which he parses exactly how American cooking has become something that people watch on TV rather than do.
*The Iron Chef America Super Chef Battle airs on Sunday, January 3, at 8:00 PM/7:00 central on Food Network.
*Updated with Mrs. Obama's Walters comments on Dec. 10