Interview: Simon Majumdar of Nat Geo’s EAT: The Story of Food

Most viewers know outspoken Englishman Simon Majumdar from his frequent Food Network appearances as a judge on series like Beat Bobby Flay, Cutthroat Kitchen and The Next Iron Chef, and from his critically-acclaimed gastronomic adventure Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything.

simon-majumdarNow Majumdar is adding his signature wit and insight to National Geographic Channel’s epic exploration of food and food history, EAT: The Story of Food, which airs its second and third installments tonight at 9/8CT.

And the timing couldn’t be better for the brand-new American citizen, who set off across his newly adopted homeland to discover what it really means to be an American, one gustatory discovery at a time. Majumdar chronicled his journey in his newest travelogue, Fed, White and Blue: Finding America with My Fork.

“I was really thrilled, I have to say,” says Majumdar of joining nearly 70 other food experts of every stripe in the comprehensive and consummately entertaining miniseries. “Because — even before I was in what I call my second life career in food, because I was originally a book publisher — the history of food and the way it impacts on people and cultures, and the impact of people and cultures on it, has always been my great obsession. And what I call my culinary “who knew” stories, where you look at a dish in one country and you can relate it to another country thousands of miles away and you can almost plot the track through which it’s passed — which usually happens through things like trade and war and immigration.”

Majumdar also applauds the series’ creators’ insistence on imparting irresistible nuggets of food history, knowledge and (really, really smart) trivia in a palatable way that seeks to entertain every bit as much as it educates.

“I think it’s a really great way of not just the looking at food, which is obviously universal, but at man’s history and the development of culture,” he says. Because, as EAT will show, exploration really began because of food — because of people searching for pepper. And wars have been fought over things like salt and nutmeg. There’s just such great stories around food.”

We asked Majumdar to impart a few great stories of his own about EAT and its fascinating subject matter.

CGM: You’re in great company throughout the series, and if people had any lingering doubt that the food industry is populated with truly engaging personalities, this should take care of that nicely. Are you glad that EAT will also give viewers a chance to get to know some of the sort of unsung heroes of food culture like Auguste Escoffier and Howard Moskowitz and Nathan Myhrvold?

SM: They might know of them, but they’re almost mystical and you don’t know what they look like, but you’ve heard that they’ve had impact.

I always go back to the very first television station, which is the BBC, way back in the early 1900s and the first chairman of that said that television had three missions — which was to educate, inform and entertain. And I think that’s still very true of television these days, but some shows are far more entertainment than they are educational. I think that that’s one of the great things about this show is that it really gets a good balance, because it can be very moving, it’s certainly filled with fantastic information — I mean, I bumped into a couple of people as I was doing my interviews and what they were able to pass onto me in just five minutes was just amazing.

And I think it is entertaining because you have people like Eric Greenspan and you have Rachael and — hopefully — myself and people who have worked for the Food Network, which treats food seriously, but in an entertaining way. So as people watch it, they’re not feeling like they’re being lectured to, but it’s almost that they’re going to come away having learned stuff almost by accident. They’ll talk about it with their friends the next day and go, “Did you know that nutmeg created Manhattan?” or “Did you know that when Columbus landed here, he called chili peppers ‘peppers’ because they were hot and they reminded him of peppercorns?”

•RELATED: EAT: The Story of Food — National Geographic Channel presents a tasty treat that’s good for you, too.

CGM: We’ve all been indoctrinated into the idea that fresh is best and farm-to-table is what we must aspire to — but there is plenty of credible food science and EAT offers a distinctly open-minded look into that universe. Given your depth of knowledge and curiosity about food, are you pleased to see that element included?

SM: I am! And I think I take a very sort of pragmatic approach toward food, because I believe that we can’t exist in a vacuum in the United States. We produce huge amounts of food and waste a great deal of it, which I think is a great tragedy because we also have a great hunger problem. We have to also realize that we exist in a world of 7 billion people, and as humans — rather than as Americans or British or Canadians or whatever nationality we might be — as humans we have a duty to try to look at EVERY way of feeding people. Whether that’s through food production, food distribution, or new methods of creating food.

And that’s why, while some people might shake their heads in despair at the idea of Soylent and lab meat, or whatever they want to call it, I think it’s really important that we look at these things and we don’t see science as the enemy. 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.

So as long as people are trying to do better — and I’m always trying to eat better — but I have a luxury, because I’m in that business and I’m comfortably off and I can do those things. But I don’t think we should ever be using food as a way to kind of beat other people up because they don’t live up to standards that we have because of our luxury status.

CGM: You also said at a press event for the series that you think Americans have the luxury of being “slightly idiotic” about how we feel about food — gluten-free, cleanses and other oddball diets and so forth. Have we sucked some of the fun out of one of the greatest pleasures there is?

SM: I do think and I do stand by that. We’re lucky in this country. Not all of us — we should always be aware that there are a great number of people in this country that lack in food and security and live in food deserts and that’s obviously shameful and one of the great tragedies of the United States that that should ever happen. But a lot of people have the luxury of being able to go, “Well, I want to eat only this” or “I’m going to go on a detox” or I’m going to do this or I’m going to do that. And I think we have to always be aware that we have that luxury.

But it does sometimes give us an odd relationship with food. We can begin to fetishize about things. I think the relationship with bacon where everyone is going “Everything’s better with bacon” is a little bit silly. Bacon is a wonderful thing and is very tasty, but we’re suddenly allowed to fetishize about it or suddenly people will stand in line for three hours to buy something called a cronut. People in the rest of the world see food as their daily sustenance — and that’s the thing we should realize is that there are millions of people in the world who aren’t wondering what they’re going to eat next, they’re wondering if they’re going to eat next and when they’re going to eat next. They don’t have the luxury of standing in line for three hours for a cronut — because they’re spending twelve hours working in fields or doing hard labor or whatever it is to earn a crust to feed them and their families.

So it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take great enjoyment out of food. But I think we should always level of consciousness that we are very fortunate how we live in this country and most of the developed world, and we can take great pleasure in it that isn’t just fuel for us.

And I think that means that we should treat it in a very conscious way — that we shouldn’t waste, that we should make sure that. I talk about sustainability. In fact, I was just up at a conference in Seattle and I was talking to a group of chefs from a lot of the big chain restaurants and I was talking about sustainability. And they said what does it really mean? And I said sustainability doesn’t just mean the land and the animals. sustainability means your suppliers and your employees and we need to think about food in this over-arching way and it’s ability to support huge numbers of people.

CGM: EAT also takes a pretty clear-eyed look at the beef industry — what we’re getting right, what we’re getting wrong — in a way that doesn’t force you to look away from the television. Do you feel that is more effective way to get viewers to understand that changes do need to be made, but we can still enjoy a steak or a burger in good conscience if we’re so inclined?

SM: When we’re talking about beef right now, people are going “Well, we should go back to small scale farming of beef because of the impact on the environment” and that’s absolutely true. But at the same time we should also realize that the beef industry that we’ve created in the United States employs millions of people, and pays for millions of families and people’s educations and for schools. So we need to think of things in a much more broad way and not just grasp onto flagpoles that we can wave to get people angry or write articles or whatever it is. And I’m a writer, too.

I was recently in Nebraska for my new book which is about becoming an American citizen — which I just became about a month and a half ago. My book is called Fed, White and Blue and it’s about explaining what it’s like to become one of you guys through food, so I spent some time in Nebraska and I actually followed the beef trail, as it were, from seeing a calf plop out of its mother to cooking steaks at the Nebraska Barn and Grill.

Now I came to it with certain assumptions that this was a huge, industrialized process —which does kill around 75,000 cattle a day and allows beef to be sold at $4.99 or $6.99 a pound — and I thought it was going to be almost like Charlie Chaplin in City Lights and the great kind of Henry Ford-type production lines. And yes, it is a very function-lead process and it is a very organized process. But what I also discovered was that behind that, there are also people like a farmer I met called Homer Buell out in the wilds of Nebraska whose family has been farming cattle for almost 200 years and who love the cattle almost as much as they love their children and love the land because they are part of the land and talk about terroir.

And yes, they’re part of this big process — but there are lots of individuals who really care about what they are doing there. So you do have be very careful going “Well, it’s just this big, monstrous machine and they’re just trying to pump us full of bad meat because of this.” These are people who really care about what they are doing.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t all look to do it better. But I don’t think we should be using certain aspects of it as whipping posts. Because farmers, for example, are all working really hard to feed America. And there’s lots of reasons why we’ve created these big industrial processes — primarily because there are 300 million of us.

CGM: So be conscious of what you eat and how it arrives on your table, but skip the hysteria.

SM: I think there is a certain amount of hysteria about it. And I think part of the problem in the United States certainly is that people are very distant from the source of their food. I’ll give you an example. When I was doing the book, I put a picture of me hunting in Mississippi, and I got a little bit of a negative reaction because people went, “Hunting — that’s awful!”

And I actually wrote back, well,  if you understand a) hunting is very much a part of the American identity, because without hunting, the pilgrims would not have survived and b) hunting was also an expression of freedom for them, because in Britain, the Pilgrims wouldn’t have been able to hunt because the aristocrats owned all the land. So when they came to the new world, they realized they could hunt. And obviously before them, the Native Americans were hunting the land and using the land in a very sustainable way. So now there are the traditions of primarily men teaching their sons to hunt — and even during the recent recessions I’ve had friends who were laid off or had shifts cut down in their work and used hunting to supplement their tables. So hunting has always been very much part of the American tradition.

But I had one person who sent me an e-mail saying, “Well, I think hunting is disgusting. You should buy your meat from a supermarket like normal people!” I wrote back and I said — and I could have been more rude than I was — where do you think that meat comes from?! But I do understand that you want to distance yourself from the thought that something with eyes and a face  and to give up its life for you to eat meat — but that’s a reality. And it’s one that we sometimes try to shy away from in this country.

S0 I think it’s just 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.

EAT: The Story of Food continues tonight at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel.

Sugar Rushes
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.

Sea Changes
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.

Guilty Pleasures
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/Simon Majumdaar

About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.