National Geographic Channel’s three-night event is a tasty treat that’s good for you, too!
It’s the most food-centric time of the year, and to celebrate (and give viewers a long overdue break from the myriad cooking shows and competitions that make up food TV) National Geographic is serving up a tasty dish of its own. Yes, National Geographic Channel. And no, it doesn’t entail eating weird things in order to survive the wild. Well, mostly.
On Friday, the network debuts its frequently funny, endlessly fascinating six-part miniseries EAT: The Story of Food, from the same folks who brought you Werner Herzog’s On Death Row and The 90s: The Last Great Decade. And whether you’re a food fanatic, an armchair historian or an avid amateur social scientist, there’s something on the menu to satisfy — and shore up your holiday party conversation starters to boot.
“I’m not a food TV person — I never watched the Food Network, I don’t watch cooking shows,” says EAT‘s co-executive producer Erik Nelson. “I made the film for people who aren’t necessarily foodies, because we’re trying to reach an audience that may not have thought of food in this way. We obviously all live, eat and breathe food, but we often don’t think about it. I wanted people who don’t normally think about it to think about it.”
Divided into six hourlong segments — “Food Revolutionaries,” “Carnivores,” “Sugar Rushes,” “Sea Changes,” “Guilty Pleasures” and “Staffs of Life” (see below for details) — and jam-packed with the ruminations of famous foodie faces, legendary chefs and other gustatory visionaries, EAT accomplishes the nearly impossible, combining irresistible storytelling with thought-provoking tidbits of food history and knowledge that will stick to your memory like perfectly cooked spaghetti to the ceiling.
Here are a few tasty examples:
- Maximum-security prisons often serve the best meals, so prisoners aren’t tempted to riot for better fare. Side note: The earliest stabs at frozen foods that were sold in the grocery were considered inhumane in the prisons.
- Clarence Birdseye perfected flash-freezing using skills he learned as a fur trapper in the Canadian Arctic.
- The human tongue can discern many more “tastes” than sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Some scientists believe as many as 30 or 40. And taking into account everything the world consumes, there are more than a million flavors.
- The Dutch were willing to kill — viciously and copiously — for nutmeg. And trade away Manhattan for it, too.
- Putting meat to flame evolved our brains and our bodies.
- The first TV dinners were actually Navy rations — roast lamb and peas. Chef Boyardee canned meals began in the military, too.
- Valentine’s Day very possibly sprung from the ancient festival Lupercalia, observed Feb. 13-15 to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Central to the menu? Sausage.
Yes, you may giggle. The filmmakers won’t mind. I promise.
“What we tried to do in this was this concept of being in the green room of Jon Stewart’s show,” says Nelson of the show’s easygoing nature. “When he’s pre-interviewing Hillary Clinton, you know they’re letting their hair down and it’s more spontaneous and human, and we wanted to approach all of our ‘experts’ with a very direct, ‘these are real people, just like you’ style — which is why we broke the fourth wall and conducted this like a freewheeling monologue between a bunch of really smart people. We’re not going to say, ‘This is the story of food back through the dawn of time’ — we’re going to say, ‘Hey, this is cool! What do you have to say about it?’”
Which is why Nelson and his team tapped nearly 70 food experts — mining nimble minds from the culinary community, food science and media, and National Geographic’s deep well of folks in the know — and carved away 3,400 pages of single-spaced transcripts to shape The Story of Food, augmenting the tale with drool-inducing food shots, archival footage from old ads and commercials, and other visual surprises.
“Sometimes documentaries are made by people who purport to be the experts who will Tell You What To Think,” says Nelson. “That’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re just trying to engage the viewer and very smart people in a conversation. View it as the greatest dinner party ever.”
A dinner party featuring the likes of Jose Andres, Eric Greenspan, Michael Pollan, Padma Lakshmi, Rachael Ray, Ruth Reichl, Nigella Lawson, Barton Seaver, Simon Majumdar and many more — all displaying a uniquely easygoing charm and passion for the subject at hand that you might not have witnessed in their other projects.
EAT also introduces viewers to a legion of winning personalities whose work behind the scenes has shaped how we eat, create and shop for food, including Nathan Myhrvold, who made multiple millions at Microsoft before turning his attention to modernist cuisine and the definitive six-volume book series of the same name. And Howard Moskowitz — the man behind the myriad choices in your local grocer’s spaghetti sauce aisle and beyond.
“Nathan’s a hambone, but Howard is a guy who is very buttoned down and very corporate and I just loved him from the moment we saw him because he’s so sardonic and funny and self-deprecating,” Nelson says. “But he’s also a giant in the food world. This guy is a huge, huge player in our supermarkets and you’ve never heard of him. So we were delighted that someone who is this important also happens to be someone cool and funny and charming. And we loved Anna Boiardi [great niece of food revolutionary Chef Etore Boiardi, a.k.a. Chef Boyardee]. There are so many people I would like to have to a dinner party; you could pick any 10 of those people and all of them you would want to be hanging out with. And if we can get that across to the audience — just come on down and hang out with some really cool, smart people telling you stuff you never knew about one of the most important things in your life — we’ll have done our job.”
“I have to say that I’m very humbled when I see the list of people with whom I’m included, because they are people who have created some of the best restaurants, written some of the most incredible books, or in the case of Nathan Myhrvold, just changing the way that we eat with molecular gastronomy,” says Majumdar, who celebrated his first months of U.S. citizenship traveling the country, becoming hands-on acquainted with America’s food culture, including Mhyrvold’s Intellectual Ventures food labs. “I think that people are going to look back in decades to come and see this as a very pivotal show where there’s kind of a time capsule of some of the greatest minds — and I hesitate to include myself in that, because I don’t consider myself one of them— but these greatest minds of the food and scientist and history world got together to talk about the impact that food has had on our lives and continues to have on our lives.”
And they did it in a way that is careful to impart information without passing judgment, allowing viewers with vegan sensibilities to gather insight from the meat and seafood episodes, and farm-to-table purists to understand the necessity of lab-created food in a world of starving people.
“I think it’s really important that we can look at these things and we don’t see science as the enemy,” says Majumdar. “So I take a very pragmatic view about the operation of science in food. I think it has a very crucial role to play, but I do think it’s one that needs to be monitored because it is something that can make people fearful. And at the same time, while it’s wonderful to be able to say farm to table is a wonderful thing and we should all buy all of our ingredients at a farmers market, I also think you have to be pragmatic there and say a great percentage of the people in this country don’t live close enough to a farmers market or don’t have the income to shop at a farmers market. So we mustn’t hold people up for criticism just because they can’t do it because of where they live or their [economic] situation. What I say is, everyone should try to do the best they can with the money they have and the time they have, and then I don’t think they should be open for criticism.”
“We trust that viewers, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, can entertain an opposing idea in their mind at the same time,” adds Nelson. “Which is we love burgers and Chicago hot dogs, but there must be a better way to humanely raise beef. It isn’t incompatible to entertain both of those ideas.”
So as Americans prepare to dig into their Thanksgiving feasts — or even just head home after work to crack open a beer — Nelson and Majumdar hope they also sit down in front of the tube and enjoy some ‘Who knew?!’ entertainment about our best-loved food and drink.
“I call this time of year the ‘bye-bye belt’ time of year —we all overdo it and there’s nothing wrong occasionally with a bit of indulgence, because we all work hard and we’ve earned it,” laughs Majumdar. “So I’m not telling anyone that they shouldn’t enjoy their holiday season. They absolutely should. But if they watch the show and become even just a little more aware of where that turkey comes from or even if they just think about the nutmeg that they put over the sweet potatoes and suddenly realize the history it took to get that product to their table, I think that’s really magical. That’s when people learn about things that they take so much for granted.”
“I think this show is just about being conscious of food — what it takes to prepare food, what it takes to grow food, what it takes to bring food here from abroad,” Majumdar continues. “What is important about the people who are picking that in the fields who work so hard and often aren’t paid as much as they should be. Be aware that food has huge impact. It supports communities. If a rice seller in America changes who he buys his rice from in India, a whole town could close down. Food has this impact. One of the things that I think this show will do is really get people to think about the people behind food in the past, the present and in the future. And if it just makes one or two people say I’m just going to be a little more careful about what I buy, how I cook, how I eat and how little I waste, then I think it will have been a successful show!”
EAT: The Story of Food premieres Friday, Nov. 21 at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel. The three-night, six-hour event will air internationally on National Geographic Channels in 440 million homes in 171 countries and 45 languages, as well as on the Spanish-language network Nat Geo Mundo.
Premieres Friday, Nov. 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT
Throughout history, food revolutionaries have transformed the way we look at food, cook food and sell food. The unlikely television star Julia Child kicked off the vast food entertainment industry when she appeared on TV to promote her new cookbook and encouraged viewers to demand more from their dinner plates. Over 400 years earlier, Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean looking for pepper, a commodity so valuable that when Columbus found the chili pepper in “the New World” he tried unsuccessfully to pass it off as a kind of pepper back home. French chef Auguste Escoffier made fine French food accessible to people by codifying French recipes in a definitive cookbook, and 100 years later, science nerd Nathan Myhrvold raised the ante with his $600, 1000-page Modernist Cuisine cookbook. The rise of processed foods in the 20th century was led by Chef Hector Boiardi, who made it possible for people from all over America to enjoy the food he made in his restaurant by mass-producing his sauce, and by Clarence Birdseye, whose discovery of ways to make frozen food taste good led to, among other things, the rise of the TV dinner. And finally, Howard Moskowitz’s theories on human taste gave consumers more choices in the grocery store.
Premieres Friday, Nov. 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT
The story of meat is the story of mankind. One primatologist claims that cooked meat may have started it all: once pre-humans heated their food, their bodies obtained more energy, causing them to reproduce better and survive longer. Man’s insatiable appetite may have eaten its way through prehistoric beasts, effectively modifying the food chain and consequentially, the landscape. The next step was to take food on the road, and, after realizing salt could be a preservative, the Romans did just that to help them expand their empire. From there the story goes global: In China, disease nearly wipes out their beloved pork stock; Americans discover how to mass produce chickens; SPAM keeps soldiers fed in World War II; and the hamburger becomes the most ubiquitous of all meat dishes, with McDonald’s claiming to sell 75 hamburgers every second. Today, the supply can barely keep up with the demand, and scientists are trying to find solutions for our hunger: in-vitro meat, insects and veggie burgers.
Premieres Saturday, Nov. 22 at 9 p.m. ET/PT
For millions of years, our diet was filled with the richest fruit from the tops of the tree canopy in the rain forest. When climates changed and our traditional sources of energy dwindled, many species died along with that disappearing bounty, but those with the ability to process sugar survived. About 10,000 years ago, somewhere in Asia, sugar cane was first farmed, and later, in India, these sweet stalks were turned into khanda, or candy. The white powder was then carried from India along the Silk Road to China, the Middle East and Europe. People began to consume sugar voraciously through Europe’s three newly discovered culinary drugs: chocolate from the New World, coffee from the Middle East and tea from the Far East. Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean, where the plant thrived, and would ultimately reveal the dark side of sugar: the slave trade. Industrialization created new ways to produce even more refined sugar, and the golden age of the candy bar followed. Sugar consumption reflects both our fears about who we are, and our fantasies about who we might become. The story of sugar is the story of us.
Premieres Saturday, Nov. 22 at 10 p.m. ET/PT
From the deadliest catch to the wickedest tuna, fruit from the sea continues to redefine who and what we are today. High protein, omega rich seafood saved our species from its first threat of extinction, drove the Viking hordes, funded the American Revolution, gave hope to the Allies during two World Wars, and increasingly fuels our brains and muscle today. Market fish like cod and tuna defined entire eras of history but unsustainable practices are forcing us to re-define our commercial goals in the ocean. Current demand necessitates a sea change in our attitudes toward seafood. Increasingly, we look “off the eaten path,” investigating ways to catch, eat and prepare “what the sea gives us” instead of creating unsustainable demands for a single species. Newly developed techniques of 3-D ocean farming of oysters, mussels and sea kelp not only sustain us but heal the oceans as well.
Premieres Sunday, Nov. 23 at 9 p.m. ET/PT
It’s the stuff we love to hate: processed food. It has changed what we eat so much that today our ancestors would hardly recognize it as food. The modern quest for this fast and convenient food may have begun with Herman Lay and his innovative individual packages of potato chips. During World War II, industrialization gave us SPAM, processing techniques developed for soldier rations gave us frozen foods, and an increasingly female workforce gave rise to the need for quick and easy meals. The interstate highway system literally paved the way for fast food restaurants, and people were hooked. With companies around the world churning out new products to get a slice of someone’s “stomach share,” questions and concerns abound about the health and safety of these foods, loaded with sugar, fat and salt. This question about embracing or fighting this fast food revolution may be even more important for our future.
Staffs of Life
Premieres Sunday, Nov. 23 at 10 p.m. ET/PT
The discovery of how to grow and cook grain led to the establishment of agriculture, which ultimately allowed man to end his hunter/gatherer practices and settle into the stay-at-home family groups that formed the earliest civilization. Grains, more than any other foods are emblematic of the struggle between the haves and have-nots, as evidenced by the French Revolution, and ancient versus modern, exemplified through the development of packaged sliced bread. In the last 80 years, attempts to “refine” this once-perfect food have resulted in the unintended consequence of making some breads empty of nutrition, and many claiming gluten as the newest enemy among food warriors. Today, grains in their purest form have risen again with a renewed embrace of the natural and artisanal found in a great loaf of bread, an amber mug of craft beer, or a hand-tossed crust in a gourmet pizza pie.
PHOTOS/VIDEO: National Geographic Channel