23 November, 2008

The Agony and Ecstasy of Appetite

There is more than a hint of masochism in my predilection for watching Food Network programming. Not that I am a regular viewer, but in moments of intellectual laziness, when I'm searching aimlessly for something to watch on TV, food rarely fails to capture my attention. Against my better judgment, I am a slave to my salivating sensibilities. Happening upon the culinary alchemy Iron Chef America or the goofy genius of Good Eats, I can't not stop to stare. The slight initial shame at watching a program as inartfully named as Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is thrown to the wind when Guy Fieri, the amply fed host, visits a little greasy spoon in Middle-of-Nowhere, USA, which serves some little artery-clogging marvel like deep-fried Ahi burgers or rum-raisin pizza. Even the frequently unappetizing production line fare of Unwrapped, with the waxy Marc Summers, lures me in with the tantalizing knowledge of how Funyons are made, or the arcane processes involved in the packaging of Harry & David pears. It is hard to pass such stuff by.

On the Travel Channel, I confess to being perversely fascinated by Bizarre Foods — enough to have sat through more than one episode of Andrew Zimmern's lip smacking as he devours durian and ingests invertebrates. My real interest on that station, however, is Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the only travel show I can comfortably watch. In fact, it is one of the mere four series on television to which I tune in unfailingly. Bourdain's snarky culinary adventures, though sometimes a little too heavily scripted, are enjoyable for someone who, like me, is kind of a foodie and a firm believer in the "get lost" doctrine of travel. And while the man displays an enthusiasm for offal I do not share, most of the traditional indigenous cuisine he samples in his wanderings looks absolutely delicious to my hungry eyes.

But me, in my predicament — why on earth do I watch? The appearance on TV of even the simplest dish — an omelet, say, or some variety of grilled chicken — that would drive the average hungry viewer into their kitchen to whip up the same remains for me a hypothetical Wow, I'll bet that's tasty. I have no refrigerator full of ingredients to raid, just a barely used six-pack cooler; no pantry laden with dry and canned goods to work with, merely a two-by-two shelf bearing quick oats, some ramen soup, creamy off-brand peanut butter — enough that I can make two or three different rudimentary meals, but that is all.

Prison food — mushy, leached of color, taste, and appealing aroma — is everything any teen ever derided school lunches for, but worse by several orders of magnitude. To look at the Missouri Department of Corrections' nutritionally "balanced" master menu is to be deceived. Witness this misleading excerpt from a recent week's menu:

½ cup Pineapple
1 cup Hot Wheat Cereal
1 Pastry Item
2 oz. Turkey Sausage
2 pc. Toast
2 tbsp. Jelly or Diet
1 tbsp. Margarine or 3 Pats
5 pkg. Sugar or 3 Sugar Substitute
16 oz. Milk

¾ cup Beef Pot Pie over
2 Biscuits
½ cup Peas
½ cup Lettuce Salad with
2 tbsp. Dressing
1 pkg. Cookies

½ cup Scrambled Egg
¾ cup Creamed Meat Gravy
½ cup Home Fries
2 Tomato Slices or
½ cup Chilled Canned Tomatoes
1 pc. Fresh Fruit
2 pc. Toast
2 tbsp. Jelly or 2 Diet
1 tbsp. Margarine or 3 Pats

On paper it's a hell of a spread for the 1,500 convicts here, at Crossroads, to be treated. In reality, the breakfast "pastry" is a doughy pound cake; the "pot pie" is mixed vegetables with cubes of mechanically separated, reconstituted chicken in a starchy broth, atop two pieces of leftover hard tack; and there is no meat in the "creamed meat gravy," just Imagic Imitation Sausage Flavor Crumbles. What is perhaps the most frightening is that these meals happen to be three of the very best offered. No grilled chicken or fluffy omelets here, that's for sure.

Still I watch in agonized rapture as Mario Batali works magic with eggplant, as Alton Brown lectures on avocado's chemical composition, as Guy Fieri buries his face in yet another sumptuous specialty burger. I watch and I daydream, and my stomach, displeased and avaricious, snarls testily, plotting its revenge.