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.