Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
The show is more than two years old, but I saw my first episode only last month. Referring to my innocence (I mean ignorance) of “The Sopranos,” a friend in Houston likened western Wisconsin to a witness-protection program, only with fewer amenities. So it happens that I can be a Wisconsin foodie before I see a two-year-old show with the name.
“Wisconsin Foodie” features chefs and growers side by side, an approach that is both refreshing and visually appealing.
In the first season, the telegenic and articulate Will Allen of Growing Power — an inner-city Milwaukee food-growing nonprofit, aquaculture outfit, and land trust — talks about reconnecting people with their food, a goal that seemed nearly unimaginable almost two decades ago on the north side of Milwaukee.
Accompanying Allen are chefs, also from Milwaukee, giving passionate, no-nonsense interviews about who they are and why they do what they do. Most of them seem to bask a bit uncomfortably in the glow of food TV — the Food Network, Jamie Oliver, and all the rest — although this program appears on Wisconsin Public Television.
The show’s producers, however, have a knack for conducting accessible, candid, low-key interviews, ones in which the subjects give viewers a sense of how their approaches to life and food converge.
In the highlight reel, Kyle Cherek, the program’s amiable host, emphasizes the fact that his show will not focus on “chef fireworks.” By background and experience, Cherek appears to have developed strong opinions about food and its makers, and perhaps a distaste for the food world’s version of the celebrity echo chamber.
The show’s format is typical of video magazines. Three short segments are introduced by Cherek. These farm, store, and table vignettes are linked visually and thematically. In the episodes I have screened online, there are images of back rooms and loading docks interspersed with gleaming kitchen ranges and flower-laden tables. That tells me that food origins truly matter to the people who make this show. They understand that failing to point the camera at the dirty-kneed field workers makes the entire food-supply chain more mysterious to the average consumer.
“Wisconsin Foodie” viewers see footage of chefs in kitchen restaurants, of people leaning on bars or seated at tables; we see diners chasing those last few crumbs around their plates. A chef from one of the featured restaurants sometimes prepares a signature dish in a studio kitchen. (One episode showed a chef at the Comet Cafe making beautiful refrigerator pickles and a sandwich intriguingly named the “Iowa Skinny.”)
Sometimes we get wine-tasting advice. We hear people talk about food politics and philosophy and history. We realize all the thinking that goes into growing and preparing food. All in all, it is a pleasing way to spend half an hour.
Shocking to find out a Wisconsin foodie likes “Wisconsin Foodie,” isn’t it?
One thing I am not crazy about, though: the name. A good title, says the English teacher in me, should forecast the main topics of an essay (or TV program). “Wisconsin Foodie” does that fine. But a title should also provide enticement. Last year on this site, Cole Danehower pointed out the problems with the word “foodie.” “Incomplete and belittling,” he said of it.
My friend Paul is not crazy about the word either. The first and last time I called him a “foodie” (as he was offering to lend me his copy of Cook’s Illustrated with the vodka pie-crust recipe), he pushed his bento box aside and looked hurt. I had ruined a moment of bonding between two cooks by making him self-conscious about his well-stocked freezer and encyclopedic knowledge of chile peppers. A “foodie” doesn’t fish for wall-eye or drink bacon Old-Fashioneds or indulge in the occasional Scooter Pie, as many of my fellow Wisconsinites do.
“Foodie” is a narrow term. But Wisconsinites are all-weather omnivores.
So what name would prove more enticing and less exclusive? What would capture that 360-degree view of the food universe the “Wisconsin Foodie” producers want more Wisconsinites to see?
The problem is that I can’t come up with anything better: “Wisconsin Tongues”? “Taste of Wisconsin”? “Farmers, Cooks, and Eaters” (sung to the tune of “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”)? “Wisconsin Skinny”? “The Friends of Ethical Eating”? “Kyle Cherek, Gustation, and You”?
I may have to live with the fact that a few people who might like “Wisconsin Foodie” won’t watch it because of the name. But since the witness-protection program I know as the state of Wisconsin does have an amenity known as the Internet, I can watch it anytime I like.
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