PBS Made Us Love Food By
The first time that we ever heard French spoken, the words were “bon appétit!” The speaker of these magical words was a wonderful, funny, cartoonish matron in a cramped kitchen twirling chickens and hacking vegetables with the intensity and random ferocity of a whirling dervish. Stocks simmered, onions deglazed, sauces reduced, and sherry flowed like the soothing ocean tides of Elysium. But she was just a housewife from Pasadena named Julia Child.
Watching Child made us love food, and the preparation of it. It was kind of an accident that we even saw her. It was a day home from school, and illness found us curled on the couch, safely wrapped in the soothing cadence of the minister, educator, and magic trolley operator Fred Rogers. We learned about making penny whistles, learned to tie our shoes, and were transported to a whimsical world inhabited by bad puppets. At the end of his show, we found out how to get to Sesame Street. Ernie showed us how to clean our room, Oscar showed us that everyone gets grouchy, and Big Bird showed us that everyone can contribute something. And then Child popped up on the screen. At the end of her show we saw a swirl of light, heard a twinkling of piano, and saw the words “Brought to you by WGBH in Boston and a Grant from National Educational Television.”
After Child we began watching Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, from WTTW in Chicago. He wasn’t as colorful as Julia Child, but he taught us how to roast a chicken with coffee grounds. And then we met Justin Wilson, The Cajun Chef, who taught us about crawdads and brought “gar-awn-tee” to our limited vocabulary. He was authentic, coming from WYES in New Orleans. WYES also brought Paul Prudhomme into our kitchen. A bona-fide chef with a silkier patois than Wilson, Prudhomme taught us the difference between gumbo and etouffee, and like Child, reaffirmed our belief that butter just tastes darned good.
All of these shows and stations were under the banner of National Educational Television, which later became the Public Broadcasting Service. PBS. And watching it was like being in school, although on the couch in pajamas with one’s mouth open.
We found drumming inspiration in Art Blakey, discovered in the Ken Burns series Jazz. Antiques Roadshow found the hidden value in the most mundane pieces.
“When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along.”
That’s Carl Sandburg, seen on American Masters. All on PBS.
And we still make serendipitous discoveries on PBS. Wilco and Allen Toussaint on Austin City Limits. The history of our breadbasket through Homes on the Prairie. Monty Python, the Kennedy Center, This Old House, BBC News, and Jacques Pepin (occasional foil to Julia Child), all on PBS. It’s called “Public” broadcasting, and it’s as valuable as a public library or museum. It is a service. It was founded for education. And sometimes it’s a lot of fun. Have a look and listen: