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“Food is your emotional truth,” says chef and television personality Nigella Lawson. In a new, six-episode series, the National Geographic Channel will explore a dizzying number of facts and fascinating facets of food, including its emotional truths (“Is that steak crying out because I’m cooking it, or because it’s happy to be cooked?” another chef ponders). To help tell Eat: The Story of Food, Nat Geo has gathered just about every chef, author, cooking show host, historian, science writer and culinary historian available in its manically paced and scattered exploration of all things grub.
Padma Lakshmi, Graham Elliot, Jack Turner, Michael Pollan, Rachael Ray, and food photographer Noah Fecks are just a small sample of those featured on Eat, which dives into its culinary exploration with a premiere episode on food revolutionaries (the miniseries event will span three nights and cover a variety of topics). Julia Child, Christopher Columbus, Chef Boyardee, and Ronald McDonald are just a few of those chosen to be given the Che Guevara graphic design treatment, as the show’s pundits comment on a whirlwind history of food that is in no way linear, but is jam-packed with information.
Acting as a touchstone during the frantic presentation is chef Eric Greenspan, whose cooking of a particular dish related to the episode’s theme (“Revolutionaries,” “Carnivores,” “Sugar Rush,” etc.) is returned to over and over again during the course of the hour (he also makes proclamations like “Julia Child was the Dr. Dre of television cooks”). As his dish comes to fruition, so too does the episode’s final point. But mostly, Eat: The Story of Food serves up massive portions of information that range from the cooking habits of Mongolian horsemen to the creation of canned food to the rise of the chicken nugget and beyond.
Though each episode can stand alone with its content, following the journey of various food histories — from a solidly American perspective — gives a more multifaceted overview of both the mainstream (fast food hamburgers) and the niche (how molecular gastronomy works) when it comes to cooking. The series’ commentators don’t always agree on the finer points, but they all have a clear passion for food in its past, present and future forms.
Eat: The Story of Food is an I Love the ’80s version of food history, with its innumerable contributors, pop-culture references and attempts (some successful) at humor — there is, regardless, a lot of raucous laughter from the interviewees, who all are inexplicably asked to spell their names when introduced. Some of the talking heads are more helpful than others; author Rebecca Rupp gives fascinating facts about pepper (“You could pay your rent in peppercorns. If you were a serf, you could pay for your freedoms with peppercorns.”) whereas Rachael Ray exclaims, “What the hell is woolly mammoth?” Padma Lakshmi, perhaps controversially, sings the praises of Christopher Columbus as a beloved figure of the food revolution, but can possibly be forgiven, since there’s also slow-motion footage of her eating a hot dog.
With this documentary series, Nat Geo is doing something a little different than its typical Man vs. Wild programming, though Eat makes it clear that food is at the root of just about every facet of human endeavor. But while Eat: The Story of Food is educational, it can also be silly and glib. Ultimately, that hybrid design makes big questions — Why do we cook? How has cooking, and our conception of food, changed over time? What does its trajectory look like, both culturally and physiologically? — all easily digestible.
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