Comfort Food Pop Culture

Well, here we all still are three weeks into a quarantine with the end too far away to contemplate and still retain sanity. Although I’m finding things to occupy my time, I’ve entered a state of brain fog. I’m fairly certain that Jeopardy and People magazine’s crossword are all that’s keeping my little gray cells from going on strike.

With full kudos to those who feel equipped to tackle Gravity’s Rainbow and the like right now, I find myself seeking the pop culture equivalent of a mug of tea. One sector of TV that helps accomplish that is food programming.

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Girl Meets Farm, Food Network, Sundays at 11 am EST, streaming on foodnetwork.com

Molly Yeh’s cooking show presents a delightful take on modern Midwest cuisine. Rather than whipping up entrees dictated by gourmet trends in a kitchen the size of an entire apartment, Yeh cooks family dinners in a modest kitchen on she and her husband’s farm. Her casseroles and desserts will remind you of your grandparents’ cooking (if you were lucky enough to have foodie grandparents) in the best way possible. Yeh also often features her take on the Chinese and Jewish cuisine she grew up eating with her family.

The show’s ability to evoke the cozy domesticity of previous generations while avoiding hackneyed Stepford Wives stereotypes is rare. Yeh’s excitement and energy come across as genuine rather than manufactured and represent a new generation of millennial home cooks.

Last week, I made her taco hot dish for my quarantine crew. It was a) elegantly simple b) featured easy-to-find ingredients (even with quarantine-era grocery supplies) and c) completely delicious.

Somewhere South, PBS, Fridays at 9 pm EST, streaming on pbs.org

Vivian Howard, best known for A Chef’s Life, writes and hosts a new PBS show about the cultural connections forged through food. Each episode focuses on a single dish. For example, last week Howard explored many different kinds of hand pies.

What impressed me most about the show was Howard’s inclusive version of today’s American South. The first episode moved from sweet, fruit-based hand pies like applejacks to pepperoni rolls created by Italian-American immigrants in West Virginia to various kinds of empanadas made by Latinx home cooks and chefs across the South. My favorite section featured three generations of a family making turcos, a Mexican-inspired South Texas empanada, and explaining the complex roots of their family and this dish. Warning: this show will make you hungry! Have some snacks ready!

The Big Family Cooking Showdown, streaming on Netflix

Featuring a cooking tournament among everyday British families, The Big Family Cooking Showdown highlights home cooks’ talent and passion for food. Early episodes feature two family teams competing in three challenges with only one team moving forward. My favorite part about the initial round is that instead of cooking only on the set (a gorgeous converted barn) the families must prepare and serve a meal to the judges in their own home. Teams that make it into the semi-finals then face all new challenges like a dessert round where judges select the dish they must make. Bonus points: the show is co-hosted by Nadiya Hussain, a Great British Baking Show winner!

In addition to the typical cooking show fare of recipe chat and food history, you get the added bonuses of a house tour and family drama. There is some sniping among families and between teams early on but that decreases as the competition progresses. If quarantine’s got you tired of your own family togetherness, swap it out for someone else’s family dynamics!

(Disclaimer: Season two of this show ditched everything I loved about it. I didn’t finish more than one episode of the second season.)

Quarantine Distractions

Finding myself with some extra time on my hands, I sat down to write and . . . didn’t really know what to say. Offering pop culture reviews or recommendations just felt too insignificant in light of everything happening with COVID-19. After the first week of quarantine, though, I noticed how much I enjoyed seeing everyone’s lists of what they’re distracting themselves with right now.

So, in that spirit, (with a smidge of “what else do I have going on right now?” thrown in) below are some podcasts I enjoyed over the past week.

In times of stress I try to avoid being alone with my thoughts too much. Having a funny, reassuring, or just different, voice can help minimize anxious spiraling thoughts. Podcasts are excellent for adding another voice in your head because you can multitask while listening and the blessing of headphones means you don’t have to subject other members of your quarantine posse to your listening choices.

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Staying in with Emily and Kumail

Staying In is made directly in response to COVID-19 but is done so with humor and rationality as opposed to abject panic (deep breaths, everyone). In addition, money raised by the podcast’s ads will help those impacted by COVID-19. Kumail Nanjiani is a comedian and actor and, his wife, Emily V. Gordon is a former therapist and writer. (They co-wrote the film The Big Sick and Nanjiani starred in it.) The podcast gives advice and coping mechanisms for working from home and quarantining with loved ones (both things the couple has experience with as they explain in the first episode). I’ve always enjoyed this couple’s sense of humor and their tips, coupled with a warm and funny tone, delighted me.

Unlocking Us with Brené Brown

Unlocking Us was supposed to launch at South by Southwest last week but, luckily, is still being released on podcast streaming apps. Brené Brown is a research professor who reached mainstream audiences with books like Rising Strong and Braving the Wilderness as well as her TED Talk on vulnerability.

In the podcast, Brown plans to “reflect the universal experiences of being human, from the bravest to the most brokenhearted.” Her first episode is just Brown talking directly to the audience (although it seems most episodes will feature interviews). The first episode also reflects on COVID-19, but puts it within the framework of how scary and vulnerable it is to experience something for the first time. What I love about Brown’s work is that she explains concepts she’s learned through research and then illustrates them with interesting, funny stories from her own life. Although overall more serious than Staying In, Unlocking Us provides ideas you can dig into and potentially use to navigate the weird days we’re currently experiencing.

I Said No Gifts!

Comedian Bridger Winegar hosts a conversation between himself and another comedian based on the (faux) premise that he’s forbidden them to bring a gift. Inevitably, (at least in the two episodes currently available) the guest does bring a gift which Winegar unwraps and they discuss. They also answer listeners’ gift-related questions. This podcast is much more ramble-y than Unlocking Us (particularly because the gift talk and questions only constitutes about fifty percent of the run time) so if you prefer a more structured conversation this may not be for you. However, I found both episodes to be laugh out loud, entertaining distractions.

What’s got you distracted in a good way this week?

Apocalypse To-Do List

Clean the house. Why bother? The germs have clearly already won.

Complete your daily tasks by lunchtime then walk in laps around your living room trying to figure out how to fill the afternoon. (Stress pacing is great cardio, I hear!)

Stare into the abyss for no less than one hour each day. (Doctors do recommend, however, that you limit abyss staring to no more than three hours maximum. Strive for balance, folks.)

Making a list of fun and/or productive activities you could accomplish. Take a nap.

Wait in line to buy toilet paper. Practice responsible social distancing in line even though the toilet paper mere inches from your face is covered in germs.

Cook a nutritious meal. Ravage your pantry like a hoard of crazed raccoons and curse the fact that you made healthy choices at the store and didn’t stock up on either Pop Tarts or Cheez Its. What were you thinking?

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Hope you laughed a bit today! Hang in there, everyone!

Writing Prompt Ideas to Use with Julie Murphy’s Dear Sweet Pea

Check out my earlier post on Dear Sweet Pea for a synopsis and review of the book.

Since Dear Sweet Pea is intended for elementary school-aged readers, it would be a great class read. In addition, since a large part of the plot focuses on advice columns it lends itself to fun student writing prompts.

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Media and how we consume it has changed so rapidly over the last few decades, I’m betting that many middle grade readers haven’t read advice columns. Reading and discussing advice columns, before eventually having students write some of their own, can be a great way to teach students about genre (something even my college students still struggled with from time to time). Genre is a category of writing that differs from other categories of writing in terms of its content, characteristics, and even its formatting. It is a great concept for students to learn to help distinguish informal writing (like social media) from formal writing (like academic writing).

Class brainstorming: Collect some age-appropriate advice columns for your class. Have your students read the columns. Then, in small groups, students should brainstorm about the genre of an advice column. You can prompt them to respond to questions like: What are the different parts of an advice column? What are some similarities among the advice columns we read? Then, the class can share their brainstorming ideas to help solidify the concepts of genre and what that specifically translates to in an advice column.

Writing prompts: There’s many different writing prompts you could use to springboard from the genre brainstorming in the previous step.

Writing Prompt A: If students are still in the middle of reading Dear Sweet Pea, you might have them write a letter of advice to Sweet Pea herself. Sweet Pea has quite a few situations where she is unsure of how to act. Pick a specific moment the students have already read. Ask them to write a response to Sweet Pea’s dilemma, explaining what she should do and why.

Writing Prompt B: If you’re reading Dear Sweet Pea towards the end of the school year, you may want to use this prompt to have the students reflect on the previous year. Ask the students to write an advice letter to themselves on the first day of the school year. Looking back, what would they tell themselves to help prepare for this year?

Have fun writing along with Dear Sweet Pea!

Dear Readers

Review of Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

I remember standing in Target’s book section several years ago and picking up a book titled Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy about a fat girl who loves Dolly Parton and enrolls in her local beauty pageant. Enchanted, I picked up a copy but didn’t get around to reading it right away (although its cover of a blonde woman in a red evening dress standing in thrall to a tiara never failed to elicit a chuckle when I walked past). Fast forward to December 2018 when said book was adapted into a Netflix movie. It’s heartfelt and funny with a great Dolly Parton soundtrack. So, last winter my reading consisted of a binge of all of Murphy’s novels (including Puddin’, a sort-of-sequel that focuses on some of Dumplin’s secondary characters). Then, once I exhausted her canon, I pre-ordered of her new middle grade novel (designated for readers roughly eight to twelve years old), Dear Sweet Pea, which is on bookshelves now.

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Dear Sweet Pea is set in a small Texas town where, following a recent and amicable divorce, thirteen-year-old Sweet Pea’s mom and dad live in near-identical houses on the same street. Sweet Pea finds this same-but-not-the-sameness frustrating as she splits time between the two houses. School is equally challenging as well since a former best friend, now frenemy, creates new drama. In the middle of all these changes in Sweet Pea’s life, her eccentric neighbor and newspaper advice columnist, Miss Flora Mae, asks Sweet Pea to water the plants and forward the advice column correspondence while Flora Mae’s out of town. Sweet Pea intercepts a few letters and gives some advice of her own.

Despite transitioning to a middle grade book after her earlier YA novels, Murphy’s writing is confident in both its style and storytelling. The vocabulary and sentence structure are streamlined for younger readers (but also kept this big kid reader very entertained). Murphy creates a beautiful array of characters from Sweet Pea and her classmates to assorted teachers and parents. My favorite might just be the deliciously eccentric Miss Flora Mae who keeps her most important documents in the oven and who the local kids suspect may be a vampire. Murphy perfectly captures the feeling of being caught halfway between childhood and teenagedom as well as the uncertainty of not knowing how to move from one stage to the next. Dear Sweet Pea is ideal for fifth to seventh grade readers (and anyone who remembers what those in-between years were like).

For fans craving the next movie adapted from Julie Murphy’s work, Disney Channel has your back as they are developing a movie version of Dear Sweet Pea!

Read if you like: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh as well as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ by Julie Murphy.

New Adventures in TV Land

Review of Prodigal Son, Mondays at 9pm EST on Fox

Growing up, I did not have cable television (except for when my family stayed in hotels). So the advent of Fall TV meant that there were actually new shows to watch on television every evening of the week (and not just on PBS)! Now we live in a blessed age where approximately three shows a day drop onto streaming platforms and even broadcast networks have started programming more seasonal offerings outside of the traditional September to May schedule. The result is that we’ll all likely have ten shows still on our watch lists when we ascend to the Great Big Couch in the Sky. As an avowed pop culture addict, I wouldn’t choose to live any other way. Still, I look forward every year to seeing what new offerings network television has to offer, creating a schedule of what I want to check out, and determining what I’m willing to commit to (at least for a few more weeks).

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Admittedly, there were not a huge amount of shows that intrigued me enough to watch even the pilot this year. (Optimist’s Translation: more time to watch streaming shows as they drop throughout the fall and winter.) That being said, I test drove the police procedural Prodigal Son that premiered last week.

The premise of Prodigal Son is that Malcom Bright (Tom Payne) is both a criminal profiler and the son of Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), a serial killer known as the Surgeon who was captured and incarcerated in the late 1990s. The pilot episode sees Bright working as a consultant to an NYPD case only to discover that the case is a copycat of four murders his father committed years ago.

Familiar territory? Yes, and that is one of the show’s biggest potential pitfalls. A detective/profiler/forensic pathologist with a personal connection to a killer/landmark case/crime is a trope mystery lovers have seen before in television, movies, and books. However, the police procedural format as a whole is not particularly new either and that doesn’t stop viewers from enjoying interesting characters and unusual cases. More episodes should help shed light on whether the writers are able to find new perspectives on these tropes or fail to make them work with these characters and within the particular environment they’ve created in Prodigal Son.

My other biggest concern with this show is that it too often uses shock factor to elicit viewers’ emotion rather than relying on the strength of the writing and acting without layering on gore. For example, the show’s opening scene depicts Bright entering a butchering process plant that has a series of severed heads preserved in jars in the background. Obviously, that is a horrifying concept. However, on screen I couldn’t help but think they looked like cheap Halloween masks in jars filled with goop. It certainly didn’t scare me; it just seemed hokey. Similarly, later, the director uses a tight closeup of Bright’s face screaming, eyes bugged out, after he has a nightmare about his father. This kind of in-your-face, “isn’t this scaaary?” tactic definitely backfired for me (and I’d wager for many other viewers as well). Rather than letting the storytelling and filmmaking stand on its own in evoking reactions from viewers it seems like the creators are smashing the “break open only in case of emergency” toolbox too frequently.

The show’s house style is fairly stark, relying on low-key lighting and heavy shadows and filters that seem to leach almost all color from the screen. A very minimalist color palette of creams, grays, and blacks only enhances this effect. Many shots also used shallow focus, meaning only part of the image is in focus and the rest remains blurry. To be fair, this cinematographic choice may be trying to illustrate how much viewers don’t know. We only know a little bit of the history between Bright and his dad and we know about it primarily from Bright’s perspective. However, I found the frequent use of shallow focus a bit distracting because it was so pervasive.

Now, what I really liked about the show were the actors and performances. Michael Sheen’s Dr. Whitly/Surgeon was truly creepy and seemed to hint at layers of characterization that will (hopefully) develop over the course of the season. The show also did a good job of using him enough to establish his backstory and relationship with Bright without letting him overly dominate the story.

In addition, there are a trio of treasures playing supporting characters that I hope to see more of in the coming weeks. First, certified National Treasure Lou Diamond Phillips plays Gil Arroyo, an NYPD cop with a connection to Bright that’s explained at the end of the pilot. We don’t learn much about his character in the pilot other than his trust in Bright but I always enjoy Phillips. He also serves as a more grounded character compared to the heightened Bright and Whitly and their strange father-son relationship. Second, the show features Gilmore Girls treasure Keiko Agena who played Lane in the beloved coming-of-age series. Here, she’s Dr. Edrisa Tanaka, a forensic pathologist who nervously geeks out over identifying wounds with Bright, injecting a nice bit of comedy into an otherwise grim show. Finally, Scandal treasure Bellamy Young, who played Mellie Grant in the political drama, now plays Jessica Whitly, the mother of Malcom Bright and wife of serial killer Malcolm Whitly. In the pilot she appears like an aristocratic society mother, almost as if Edith Wharton’s matriarchs were revamped for the 21st century. Still, Young’s performance hints at the trauma below the character’s shiny superficiality and I hope the show will explore that as it progresses.

Verdict: I’m not yet ready to hit the “record series” button on my DVR. However, I was intrigued enough by the setup and the actors to keep watching for several more weeks to see how the story develops.

Pumpkin Spice Confessional

Review of Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks with color by Sarah Stern

I write to you, dear readers, from inside my pumpkin spice confessional. Today is the first official day of fall, but for me once Labor Day passes all I can think about are cooler fall temperatures and all the seasonal trappings that are soon to follow from mums on front porches to cider in the stores and then, later, the smoky smell of fire pits at twilight and stories of supernatural beings as Halloween approaches. Needless to say, I’ve already tasted my first Reese’s pumpkin of the season and have a pumpkin decorating plan locked in (spoiler alert: my pumpkin’s going to look like a unicorn!).

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For the autumnally inclined among us, then, the young adult graphic novel Pumpkinheads, written by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks, and with color by Sarah Stern, could not come at a better time. This may well be the ideal read for a fall night. What’s more, you can easily devour it in one sitting if you choose. Set at what Rowell describes in an interview as “the Disneyland of pumpkin patches,” Pumpkinheads follows two patch employees, Deja and Josiah, on their last night working at the patch in their senior year of high school. What follows is a delightful blend of friendship, romance, and bursts of adventure.

First, the patch itself will make you want to launch yourself headfirst into a fall festival as it sports a pumpkin slingshot and haunted hacienda in addition to the more traditional haystack ride and corn maize (this book has puns galore and I find them adorable). The inside cover of the book features a map of the über-deluxe patch to help readers orient themselves during Deja and Josiah’s journey to various attractions. In addition, Hicks’ renderings of converted barns and families in costume coupled with Stern’s warm colors create a cozy canvas for the characters to ramble through on their last night.

Second, have your snacks ready when you read this because each of the patch’s many food stands outdoes the one before it from the Kettle Corn Kettle to the Chili Fries Stand to— my favorite— the Pumpkin Bomb Stand. (I wish I could add sound effects here to give this last one the flourish it deserves.) The Pumpkin Bomb is a mythical concoction of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two slices of pumpkin pie, covered with chocolate, and mounted on a stick. In other words, it’s pumpkin spice heaven.

Of course, all this delightful scene setting wouldn’t add up to a story without characters and conflict. Luckily, Rowell delivers on both fronts. Although we only spend one night with Deja and Josiah, Rowell capably demonstrates their personalities as they interact with each other and patch employees and visitors. Here, again, Hicks’ panels provide beautiful facial reactions during conversations and a sense of movement in the action sequences. The protagonists’ quick-witted dialogue made me laugh more than once but they also talk about ideas like fate and free will without those conversations seeming pretentious or out of context for their situation. As It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown demonstrates, the pumpkin patch has long been a site for existential contemplation and this remains true for Deja and Josiah.

I would happily read many more stories with Rowell’s lovable characters in or outside of the patch. The graphic novel hints that they may apply to be Christmas elves for a mall Santa, and I can only hope this leads to more holiday sequels! For now, though, I’m off to try and recreate the Pumpkin Bomb in my kitchen. Happy Fall everybody!