Cooking programs on television have evolved over the years, not always for the better.
Many years ago my mother would appear on KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri, on Esther Griswold’s show (called, no kidding, “Of Interest to Women”) on the day before Thanksgiving, to participate in a segment on the proper carving of a turkey. At other times the program included the preparation of various recipes, none of them remarkable. I imagine that the farm women of the region, those who had time to watch, would grumble at the television, saying that their own family recipes were better. This was as it should have been and I think perhaps as was intended. This was back when it was hotly debated whether there should be celery or caraway seeds or no seeds at all in coleslaw.
Decades passed. The then-quirky Food Channel boiled over onto many cable systems. My favorite of its early programs was one presented by a fellow from Dean & DeLuca, the gloriously excessive New York City grocery where you could spend $500 or more on the ingredients to make a cozy dinner for two. (The channel has devolved to become a litany of goofy game shows presided over by strange-looking people who refer to themselves as chefs. For actual cooking, you’re better off going to the spinoff Cooking Channel.)
By the turn of the millennium the most entertaining show about food was found late Friday night. It was the original Japanese “Iron Chef.” Accompanied by music taken from the movie “Backdraft” (about fire fighters), it featured three, sometimes four in-house “iron” chefs; each an expert in the Japanese version of a particular national cuisine. A challenger would select the one with whom he or she would do battle. The “chairman” would then unveil the week’s featured ingredient, which would need to be used in every dish prepared, from appetizer to dessert. The secret ingredient was often something alive — turtle, octopus, other kinds of seafood — which could add a horror-movie aspect to the proceedings. My favorite episode featured giant carp, but only because one of the chefs attempted to make cookies out of the fish’s enormous scales.
The Food Network’s domestic corruption of the show is not a patch to the original, which was a hit among weebs and geeks and would be breathlessly reported at sites like slashdot.org rather than in the pages of Gourmet Magazine. (Let that be a lesson: Slashdot is still around; Gourmet Magazine isn’t.)
My switch to streaming television, combined with societal immobilization during most of this weird year, has led to some exploration in the places hosting what generations of televisions ago would have been called “UHF shows.” Nestled in the far reaches of streamingdom I found something as entertaining as the original “Iron Chef,” though for entirely different reasons.
The show is called “Flour Power,” and it is something. It is set in an early postwar kitchen, all pastels and post-art-deco geometry and Formica. The appliances are modern, but though there were no food processors or microwave ovens in the 1950s had they existed they would have looked like the ones here.
At the center of it all is Jessica McGovern, and she, too, is something. Think of a member of the B-52s if the members of the B-52s had known how to dress in perfect period. From hairstyle to clothing to Valentine-red lipstick and nail polish (and rubber spat), she exudes another era. You could pause the show anywhere and it would look like an art-painting poster. This show’s aura is unlike that of any other program about food.
If I had to categorize it, I’d call it food porn, a genre we thought had hit its peak with the shows of Giada DeLaurentis. It has its libertine aspects. What’s more, you can tell from the details that Jessica McGovern is a skilled baker — you try leveling the layers of a cake!.
Do not expect to need a notebook and pen to record the amounts of various ingredients in the pastries, pies, cookies, and cakes (or, once, a pie concealed inside a cake) presented, because McGovern (who the network says has an advanced degree in journalism, but she seems to have recovered) doesn’t give them. She doesn’t mention the oven’s temperature or how long an item should bake. Though we watch her prepare her creations, the recipes themselves are on the website. “Flour Power” is more about why we would want to make these items. We even get to watch tantalizing time-lapse footage of the goods as they bake.
“I sure spend a lot of time up to my elbows in butter,” says Jessica McGovern. “It’s not a bad life.”
She makes a convincing case as she glops on way too much softened butter, enough to make even the most carefree of gourmands blush, splashes vanilla extract with the abandon of a drunk who has found a bottle of Aqua Velva, and adds sugar from a scoop of the size normally used to measure grain for the horses. I do not think that the show’s originating in Montreal is the only reason that it doesn’t bear a seal of approval from the American Heart Association.
“I think it’s time that sweet, sticky filling met rich and tender pastry,” she says. “Now as the pastry gets soft and flaky, the mixture will bubble and thicken. It’s almost too much for me.” I believe the suggestive-but-innocent tone is intentional. I hope so.
The over-the-top excesses and occasional difficulty of the recipes presented detracts not a whit from the show’s appeal. McGovern is obviously having a good time, and she wants to share her delight with us. She makes super-rich baked goods (of a sort not seen around here since Big Chimney Bakery closed), and if we cannot sample them ourselves we can watch her as she tastes them. Her reactions are often happiness bordering on the passionately convulsive.
It is a cooking program of the sort that would appeal to non-cooks. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as extreme in its way as the original “Iron Chef” was. If you liked that show, you’ll like “Flour Power” – just don’t expect Jessica McGovern to dismember a live turtle or wrestle a highly motivated octopus or a stingray (which battle on “Iron Chef” included fisticuffs). Then again, the iron chefs weren’t all flirty and didn’t wink and sneak coy glances at the camera. (Thank goodness. That would have been terrifying.)
“Flour Power” isn’t anything like the real “Iron Chef” but it’s just as quirky and enjoyable. Jessica McGovern ought to achieve, as they say, the people’s ovation and fame forever.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com