West Virginia eats Jamie Oliver for breakfast

Chef reduced to tears by US reaction to his new show about healthy eating

He swaggered into town with a can-do attitude, a cheeky-chappie smile, and a burning desire to help the world's fattest schoolchildren. But less than an hour later, the impertinent English superchef was being reduced to tears as hostile locals told him to lay off their beloved nuggets, pizza, and chocolate milkshakes.

Jamie Oliver crossed the Atlantic on Sunday, hoping to administer the sort of wake-up call that five years ago saw him invited to Downing Street to explain what the nation's school canteens should do with their Turkey Twizzlers. But like many a British star before him, he found America to be a tough nut to crack.

The Naked Chef swapped his trademark scooter for a vintage SUV and rolled into the city of Huntington, West Virginia, to launch the ABC series Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, a hybrid US version of the various TV series in which he's attempted to educate Britain about the virtues of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Bringing that message to Huntington proved to be quite a challenge: the city was recently named by the Centres for Disease Control as the least healthy city in the least healthy state of America, the most overweight nation in the developed world.

Oliver's campaign got off to a tricky start. At the local talk radio station, the "shock jock" told him to take the busybody act elsewhere: "We don't want to sit around eating lettuce all day!" said the DJ. "Who made you king?"

Complaining that he "thought miserable bastards like that only existed in England", Oliver adjourned to the local school, where children were tucking into their daily breakfast: pizza and chocolate milk. "I have never seen pizza served for breakfast," he said, shocked. Oliver then watched aghast as the dinner ladies whipped up a lunch of chicken nuggets and reconstituted "pearls" of processed potato. "It's that kind of food that's killing America," he announced.

Oliver was introduced to the morbidly obese wife and children of a local truck driver, whose entire diet consisted of fried, re-fried, deep-fried and microwavable junk. "This is going to kill your kids," he declared. The mother duly broke down in tears.

If there's one thing middle America hates it's being lectured to by sniffy foreigners. And the tense atmosphere in Huntington reached boiling point when a newspaper quoted Oliver suggesting his host country's obesity epidemic might be due to ignorance.

True? Maybe. Oliver was promptly forced to issue a grovelling apology. "They don't understand me," he declared to the camera, breaking down in tears. "They don't know why I'm here!"

Sunday's show, a preview for a series that commences this Friday, received mediocre ratings: only 6.1 million viewers tuned in, fewer than such shows as Undercover Boss, Celebrity Apprentice and Family Guy. And the reviews were also mixed. The Washington Post said the show "has all the problems of most network reality pap".

The Los Angeles Times couldn't have been more effusive, though. "Despite an accent that is usually referred to in the UK as 'mockney' and the product-tousled hair men of his age inexplicably favour, Oliver is eminently and instantly likeable," said its review. "He may in fact wind up being reality TV's most engaging star."

The programme, which was filmed last year and has not yet been scheduled for broadcast in the UK, has drawn a mixed reaction in Huntington. "People think we're all morbidly obese, walking around eating pizza," a (rotund) local councillor, Brandi Jacobs-Jones, complained to CNN. "We have 5K [runs] every weekend... We have our teeth. We have master's degrees."

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