The Man Who Ate Everything, BBC4
Fat Man in a White Hat, BBC4
The small screen is a veritable smorgasbord of cookery-themed programmes, but some are more satisfying than others
Sunday 21 March 2010
It's not a little ironic that BBC4's Exquisite Cuisine season should have kicked off in the same week that the Office for National Statistics revealed that, much as we enjoy watching Jamie and Heston strut their culinary stuff, or deriding a poorly turned quenelle by a perspiring Masterchef contestant, back on the sofa most of us are chowing down on ready-made garlic bread.
Still, I don't suppose that Alan Davidson, the subject of documentary The Man Who Ate Everything, would have taken too dim a view of contemporary British eating habits. In The Oxford Companion to Food – Davidson's lifetime achievement, a labyrinthine encyclopedia of all things comestible that would have made Diderot proud – garlic bread doesn't actually get an entry. But, since it takes in Spam and lollipops as well as aardvark and Mekong catfish, it's unlikely to be out of gastronomic snobbery.
Art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon (two parts Stephen Fry, one part Kevin McCloud) made a genial, if partisan, guide to Davidson's life and work. The man himself, a British diplomat whose zeal for food became a second career, died in 2003, but the film gave an impressively full sense of an open, curious nature and wry sense of humour, with its collage of interviews with family, friends and fans, some choice excerpts from the Companion (not everything tastes like chicken – aardvark is reminiscent of pork, we learn), and interview clips including a TV appearance on America's Martha Stewart Show.
I'm not usually a fan of foodie telly; visual and verbal description can only come close to rendering how a thing tastes. But Davidson treated food as a kind of language. As much as he appreciated the essence of food, it was his grasp on its potential as a window on history, geography, etymology, biology and human nature that earned him the Erasmus prize and the ardent admiration of readers. Thankfully, the form and content of the programme took their cue from its subject, so shots of Graham-Dixon scoffing were kept to a minimum.
I wasn't too convinced by the presenter's foray to Laos, where he attempted to illuminate what he considered a pivotal moment in Davidson's understanding of the relationships between food, place and culture. Certainly his diplomatic posting there left Davidson with a penchant for mandarin-collared shirts, but his understanding of the cultural significance of food might just as easily have been shaped in London. And if a touch of exoticism was only the catalyst for Davidson's oeuvre, Graham-Dixon ought not to have fallen into the same trap. Ultimately, it seemed like an excuse for the tired "journey" trope that too much TV takes as a sine qua non.
The tender elegy that one of Davidson's daughters recited at his funeral suggested that his children were happy beneficiaries of his obsession, but I wonder if there are support groups for less fortunate families of foodie wannabes who take themselves off to France to learn how to cook "proper French food". In Fat Man in a White Hat, The New Yorker journalist Bill Buford hauled himself and his brood across the Atlantic for just that purpose.
Buford is an award-winning writer, but he talks as if he's delivering the voice-over on a trailer for a Sylvester Stallone movie, and each of his over-emphasised words felt like a steak mallet falling on my head from a great height. It didn't help that most of what he was saying was of the predictable "French people are real passionate about food!" variety.
Revealing that he was thinking of staying on in France in order to master haute cuisine, he confessed, "I want to prove something and I'm not sure I can." In the few days we saw him try his luck as part of the crack team in Mathieu Viannay's kitchen, he couldn't get up in time for the 8am start, so I'm not too confident either, Bill.
Alan Davidson said that he was more interested in adding to our knowledge of the lesser-known indigenous cuisines of Africa or South America than in the already scrupulously documented gastronomy of France. Potential Bill Bufords, take note.
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