Cuddly TV chef Jamie Oliver is off on his culinary adventures abroad again. After exploring Australia and travelling round Italy experiencing the local cuisine, Channel 4 has filmed him driving across the United States in a camper van, getting down with the locals and sampling their food.
Connecting with the common folk is what Jamie does best. He prides himself on being a philanthropist and humanitarian who uses his wealth and fame to help others. There have been television series focusing on his various other enterprises: training 15 young unemployed, marginalised people to cook gave rise to his restaurants named Fifteen. His concern for animal welfare produced a programme about reforming the way chickens and pigs are treated in modern agriculture.
He wants everyone, particularly children, to eat healthily. His series Jamie’s School Dinners followed him round a London school attempting to change the culture and stop them serving chips, hamburgers and pizza everyday. He went on a mission to teach the dinner ladies how to cook proper, fresh nutritious food. Salty, sweet fatty food is highly addictive, so of course tempers flared when he tried to remove the children’s drug of choice.
Jamie’s latest mission has seen him taking a journey across the US, meeting cooks, sampling local fare and helping to cook it. His trip took him to LA, Wyoming, New York, Louisiana and Georgia. But Jamie, being Jamie, generally avoided the higher echelons of society and went in search of the poor and humble.
In LA he sought out ex-gang members who are trying to reconnect with society through communal eating. In New York he discovered the ‘anti-restaurant movement’ where people meet and eat in each other’s houses. He worked nights with a man who provides free meals for the homeless on New York streets. In Wyoming he cooked beans with the cowboys (his Brokeback Mountain joke did not go down well!)
In Louisiana, he examined French and West African influences in Cajun cuisine and went alligator hunting. I was particularly interested in his trip to Georgia having lived in Atlanta for five years. He helped barbecue whole hog roast over a traditional open pit while getting into a discussion with the restaurant owner about healthcare. She couldn’t afford health insurance and her daughter had cerebral palsy, so she was about to lose her business. Jamie said, ‘We are so lucky in England that we have free health care’ – as if he had never thought about that before.
He also conversed with some unemployed people in a trailer park and was left utterly speechless (unusual for Jamie) by their open, casual racism against Obama. His trip to Savannah for tea and cake with high society ladies was amusing. They were all dressed to the nines while Jamie was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He asked if they supported McCain or Obama and they said McCain – ‘But we don’t talk about politics’. He asked if the recession was hurting them – they said they didn’t talk about the recession. He asked what religion they were – and they (you’ve guessed it) said they didn’t talk about religion. ‘What shall we talk about?’ said Jamie.
In general, though, everywhere he went Jamie was met by the famous generosity, humour, resilience and amiability of the American people. They in turn seemed to open up to his charm. In some quarters, Jamie is criticised for his naivety, his Essex accent, his lack of guile but he has that child-like way of getting to the nub of the matter and I think with this series, he has found the heart of America.