A few weeks ago I was home sick doing the things one does while at home sick: eating toast, wishing for stronger meds and watching the local news at noon. I’m not home at noon very often during the week, and generally on days when I am it’s because I am too busy doing something more fun than watching the local news at noon (a category that includes, basically, everything short of shaving off your own eyebrows) or because I am too ill to grapple for the remote control.
I first encountered Mr. Food because I was much closer to the latter state than the former. Our local purveyor of mass communications majors with good hair and no visible deformities (WSFA) subscribes to the Mr. Food segment. This involves a short spot where Mr. Food (the nom de guerre of one Art Ginsburg, whose favorite book is James Michener’s Hawaii) “demonstrates” some cooking technique or recipe to show that delicious food can be quick and easy. Then he utters his trademark phrase: “OOH IT’S SO GOOD!!” When I say trademark, I do mean that he owns that phrase. In all caps. With two exclamation points.
In a world of high-tech Food Network-style infoodtainment, Mr. Food is a charming throwback to the (probably fictional) old style of networks offering their own food preparation segments. His productions are designed to seem like they might be local, even though they are nationally syndicated. And unfortunately this syndication means that his video segments are almost impossible to find online. There are a few you can skim to get the gist of his schtick, if you haven’t seen it before. These videos seem to be selected based on their relationship to a corporate sponsor. For example, here’s the link to his Idaho Potato Lollipops recipe. They’re not appetizers, they’re happetizers! GET IT? Or, if that’s not enough you might check out this spot promoting a cookbook he co-wrote for diabetics. As an antidote, it’s definitely worth watching this segment of Mr. Food and Conan O’Brien annoying the hell out of each other.
It’s easy to dismiss Mr. Food as a purveyor of schlock, or as a primitive ancestor of the Food Network. But after looking through some of his recipes and watching a few segments, I think there’s a little more to him than meets the eye. Take the absurd “Mango Tango” fish segment. Were this on the Food Network, we’d have to listen to a bunch of inane chatter while the host opened the can of pineapple juice, strained it, boiled it, got out the fish fillets, rinsed and patted those and finally began the poaching process. Here is Mr. Food simply lifting a lid and saying “We poached some cod.” Mr. Food is talking to people who already know what it means to poach, understand how to prepare cod, and are just looking for a different way to serve it. Admittedly, the way he ends up serving it is pretty gross – even people who eat fish all the time probably don’t want theirs doused in fruit cup – but still, his presentation here and elsewhere shows that he is talking to a more food literate crowd than, say, Rachael Ray. In this respect, he may be a bit of a dinosaur. While we watch more food television than ever before, there’s a bunch of new research that says we are losing the ability to cook. The turn to cooking as entertainment has rendered us passive spectators rather than active participants.
Which is not to say that Mr. Food’s recipes are good. They do seem to use a lot of fresh ingredients, but still end up seeming a bit heavy on the casserole front – the kind of dishes you might see covered on the kitchen counter at a funeral or being served by some kind of stereotypical “harried housewife” in a Lipton commercial. Add this to the old-timey Web design he’s using and, well, he’s just no match for some of the other great food sites on the Internets. Which, since you asked, include gems like 101 Cookbooks, Vegan Menu, The Blooming Platter, Smitten Kitchen, CHOW, Your Vegan Mom, Stone Soup, and even Mr. Food’s up and coming rival (and Los Angeles supercook) the 99 Cent Chef. Ooh it’s so…well, you get it.