American food? It's the best ... or the worst ... just ask the experts

PBS viewers can soon catch a couple of nights of strong, food-oriented profiles. There are terrific new hours on James Beard (May 19) and Jacques Pepin (May 26), paired with reruns on, respectively, Julia Child and Alice Waters. That combination, however, leads to a fun and fascinating subject -- the state of American cooking, good or bad. Here's a story I sent to papers; next, I'll have an expanded list of TV-food shows.

By Mike Hughes

Sure, we hear a lot
about French food – or Italian or Greek or more. They're said to be
quite tasty.

But what about
American food ? It's the worst ... or the best ... or both. Just ask
the master chefs featured in some fascinating PBS profiles this

Americans “are
thinking that food should be cheap and fast and easy,” Alice Waters
said. “And that it's OK to eat in the car. We are not concerned
about who is in the kitchen or where the food came from.”

Then again, we have
immense variety and potential. Just ask Jacques Pepin about his
native land.

“In France, people
eat French 99-and-a-half percent of the time,” he said. The same
sort of monotone exists in Italy or Spain or beyond, he said ... but
not here. “There are 24,000 restaurants in New York City. This is
absolutely amazing .... You can go to a Swahili restaurant or Turkish
or French.”

Some Americans
develop broad palates. Now they're inundated with food-oriented
shows, books and talk. “In our time of political correctness,
that's probably the only thing we can talk about,” Pepin said.

PBS has been big on
this for more than a half-century, said program director Beth Hoppe,
“from Julia Child to Martha Stewart” to “The Great British
Baking Show,” returning next month.

And now it has big
competition – especially from Fox, Bravo and two full-time cable

Some shows have an
American/British spin – chaos, competition and a ticking clock.
“This is not what cooking is all about,” Pepin said. “Cooking
is about being together, about love, about sharing.”

Waters agreed.
“Cooking really is something that can be very meditative.”

Now PBS is profiling
some of the masters on May 19 and 26. That includes Pepin, 81 (in a
new hour), Waters, 73 (in a rerun) and two early stars – the late
Julia Child and James Beard.

These were giants,
physically – Child was 6-foot-2, Beard was 6-3 and sometimes topped
300 pounds – and in impact. “Even though his presence was
intimidating, he had a way of really putting you at ease,” said
Beth Federici, who made the Beard film. “He appreciated food so

He could spend hours
preparing it or eating it or simply talking about it, she said. “He
really was talking about farm-to-table as early as 1938 ,,,. He grew
up in Oregon (and) just wanted the rest of the country to know that
you don't have to get your mushrooms from France.”

That was at a time
when most Americans hadn't embraced the “foodie” notion. “I
think that we are just learning how to cook in this country,”
Waters said.

She didn't grow up
around any food traditions; then, at 19, she went to France. “It
was a slow food culture,” Waters said. “People went to the market
twice a day to get food, and they always ate with their families.
They came home (from work), the kids came home from school.”

Pepin missed that
era because he was growing up during World War II, with his father
fighting in the Resistance. His mother sent him away to a farm, where
he drank milk fresh from the cow. “That is (my) first remembrance
of true food.”

Later, as an
American dad, he would re-create the French style of dining. “We
did spend an hour, an hour and a half at night, having dinner .... If
you don't do that, you never speak to the kid.”

Also in the French
style is his daily routine. “I don't really (plan) the cooking
before I go to the market,” Pepin said. “I never know what I'm
going to find.”

Waters agrees. “I
think the biggest mistake is to begin with a recipe .... I go to the
market first, to the farmers market, and then I begin to gather these
ingredients. And then I look in the book, to see how somebody else
has cooked those ingredients.”

This is the European
approach to food – except that she does it in California and he
does it in Connecticut. He's a French chef in his 58th
year in the U.S. -- where, he points out, he's “married to a woman
born in New York from a Cuban father and a Puerto Rican mother.”

And that, perhaps,
defines the diversity of American food.