1.25.2008

How Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver Jumped the Shark, Part II

(Editor's Note: This is the second part of a commentary by Hilary Crowe on Jamie Oliver's program about chicken dinners on British television. To read this from the beginning, please go here.)

I am, however, but one of the unwashed masses Ringmaster Oliver attempts to educate with his circus of shockjock barnyard horrors – cramming 100 hens into one pen onstage and electrocuting a chicken into stupefaction then cutting its throat so that blood flows out of its beak and into his hands as the bird dangles from metal hooks on a mock-assembly line set, the live audience looking on agape and aghast. It was clear that months of preparation and filming had gone into the production of this “Fowl” show (Jamie's Fowl Dinners), as documentary segments of Jamie Oliver touring processing plants to watch fuzzy yellow chirping chicks get gassed, mini-Auschwitz-style, for not fully absorbing the yolk sack prior to hatching and of our culinary crusader strolling among the rank-and-file cages on growers’ properties, tut-tutting all the way. Representatives from Mr. Oliver’s employer Sainsbury’s and its rival Waitrose, two bargain-priced supermarkets selling indistinguishable stock at trivial differences in price, discussed, as if at a run-of-the-mill press conference, their companies’ efforts to decrease or eliminate the number of cage-reared chickens and eggs they sell.

Between broadcasting such doom and gloom and casting the carcass on my plate as the martyr of the animal kingdom, Mr. Oliver urged the audience to buy free range, organic poultry products. Every fifteen minutes, when asked their thoughts of what they learned so far, audience members eschewed the Colonel and extolled the pricier, “freer” chicken – convinced that the free range dishes Oliver served them tasted detectably better than the caged-bird version. Among this saccharine schlock, however, only one poor woman brought up the price difference, the obvious fact that many Britons were living on a tight budget, and said she’d stick to the cheaper alternative. Oliver cheekily vilified her and promptly moved on to his next adoring fan.

Though much of the studio audience was too smitten with the charming young (Oliver is 32) muckraker to agree with this woman, the fact is that, for many, it’s not easy being green. And it’s neither simple enough nor justified to point the knotted finger of blame solely at those of us who live on a tight budget and need a source of cheap, lean protein, or at supermarkets, like ASDA and Tesco, that exist because a significant percentage of Britons need affordable groceries to live. It’s quite easy, if not reckless, for a figure as prominent as Mr. Oliver, who gets paid £1.2 million to front Sainsbury’s ad campaign, to bite the hand that feeds. Even as said contract now hangs heavy over flames after Mr. Oliver cost his employers that invaluable currency, consumer confidence. Oliver, the disgruntled Sainsbury’s mutineer, is financially set for life with his stable empire of books and extra-ornithological crusades (i.e. nutritional re-education and healthier school lunches). But for the rest of us, time is money – in the form of pay checks – and it’s no secret or new development that for some there is a tragically inverse relationship between the two.

I have heard the expression quite a lot since coming to London that Americans live to work, while the British work to live. So, Mr. Oliver, I wonder what kind of life working class Britons can expect if the cost of living (eating inclusive) is raised so that chickens can meet the same inevitable fate, but at the end of a longer, greener path? What about the quality of life of those who live paycheck to paycheck? In a perfect world, chickens and humans would lead happier lives beyond the confines of literal and financial cages, without humans having to work overtime to fulfill the righteous mission of keeping agribusiness and supermarkets from flooding shelves with tortured meat and ill-gotten eggs. I’m sure we all look forward to a day when eco-sensitivity and healthy living are the popular norm instead of the aristocratic privilege.

I realize that it does take baby steps – as Mr. Oliver eventually suggested (no doubt humbled by hindsight), paying for the best quality organic and free range food products one can afford – if such a higher goal is to be achieved. However, the one group Mr. Oliver has yet to ensnare in the debate, and the one group with any real power to more expediently change the status quo, is the government. Perhaps the government should mandate that all livestock be grown free-range and cage-free. Perhaps then consumers will not be forced to choose between less food and a quiet conscience or more food and the mark of Cain.

(To read this commentary from the beginning, please go here.)

(The photo of Jamie Oliver at a book event in London's Borough Market is by rockandrollbruce from a public album via webshots.)








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