Thursday, September 1, 2011

Posh Nosh for the Nonce

For anyone who's ever sat through a televised cooking show, the experience of seeing the British comic short-slot production Posh Nosh must surely be a treat.

We live well within hailing distance of Berkeley's gourmet ghetto, spreading outward in gently dimpling waves from its geographical center, Chez Panisse Restaurant on Shattuck Avenue. Wife and I can claim honors as being among the earlier customers, back in 1973 (the second year of its life). (Chez Panisse is presently celebrating its 40th year in business--which took place on August 7th at a special presentation meal [1-3pm]). The restaurant proper is now mostly the province of curious or well-healed tourists, while the Chez Panisse Café (upstairs) is where most locals choose to eat.

In any case, Posh Nosh [2003], though being essentially a series of satirical skits, nevertheless has an underlying sub-plot of character development.

British humour has always been unlike American humor. Difficult to describe it with accuracy, except to note that it reflects the different attitudes about social morés. One commenter noted how Minty's accent, being lower middle-class, was intended as swipe at the embarrassment of those aspiring to upper-class life-styles--an aspect likely to elude American audiences.

Arabella Weir as Minty Marchmont

You might expect that the show would exploit the visual mishaps and blunders, but really this isn't the point. It's primarily a verbal satire, augmented by fairly straightforward motions in the couple's spotless country kitchen. You could say that its primary target is the comfy upper class gentry, safely ensconced in its digs, puttering about with confident foppishness, secure in its pretensions and prejudices.

Richard E. Grant as Simon Marchmont

Among its conceits are Simon's undercurrent of sexual innuendo, "like schoolboys, Reislings are best enjoyed young," which Minty does her best to gloss over. Indeed, the subtle tug-of-war between Simon and Minty is the true narrative of the series. Simon is the over-refined sexual predator with exalted ego, Minty the ambitious social climber, hopelessly de-classé, who tries to pass herself off as a cultured matron. She makes repeated references to Simon's late mother, from whom she has inherited her kitchen wares. Simon fancies himself a wine expert, and a tennis buff, but obviously loves his dog (and his old boyfriends), and his privileges, more than he does Minty.

It's unclear what the producers of the show intend about food. Is it just cooking shows that they find so amusing, or the over-refinement about living which they imply? Or is it simply a class conflict, the practical middle skewering the affectations and airs of the rich? Probably both, though it's all in good fun. Or is it?

In America, our lust for political correctness inevitably lands upon regional, ethnic and racial types. The latest iterations, predictably enough, have been focused upon Central and South American cuisine. There are taverns in the Bay Area which can boast over a hundred different tequila choices on their menus. In the 1970's and 1980's, Nouvelle was all the rage, spearheaded by a generation of professional cooks which included Alice Waters, MFK Fisher, Richard Olney, Elizabeth David, etc. French wines, Provencal cooking, simple "country" flavors, clean (whole, holistic), fresh ingredients, unpretentious preparation, Mediterranean flair, down-home honesty. By now, this movement has probably run its course, and once more, the exhausted palates of the well-to-do (and those who lust after the good life) have begun to move on. Peasant food, exotic Asian and Caribbean dishes, sushi and Samarkand.

In any case, this is just a tip for a pleasant evening's amusement. If you want to see Minty "embarrass" some vegetables, or "disappoint" some chestnuts, or "frighten" some mussels, or "butter-waltz" around the bundt pan, by all means do tune into the nine delightful episodes, which you can now view toll-free on YouTube, beginning with episode #1 here (many thanks to faelanae for loading them up).

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