Three Mouthketeers: The Simpsons Eat African and Become Foodies

So, I rarely watch The Simpsons, one of the longest running shows in television history—but a friend taped it and told me that “this episode wasn’t necessarily written for you but its all you!”  If you are not really familiar with the show–I will do my best to be as generic as possible but if you are Simpson devotee—don’t get pi//ed off–I only know what I know and that’s it..lol

Spoiler alert: Want to see it for yourself go to www.hulu.com and see it on 11/21; the title of the episode is “The Food Wife.”  Don’t give a care–keep reading for my take!

I once read a really fascinating book about The Simpsons and the relationship of the characters to American culture through trends in religion. Matt Groening and his writing team, including Matt Selman, the episode’s author, are experts at poking fun and satirizing the contemporary world through their never-aging, always four fingered, bubble-eyed, sometimes cheese-yellow other times ruddy-brown characters.  There is very little the show has not touched on in its 20 odd year history,  including many things of interest to me–Black culture “Black G-d Rocks!” —and Judaism, (see Krusty’s bar mitzvah) among other things.

Sunday night however, Marge, Bart and Lisa became Foodies–and all of a sudden I felt myself under  a playful, animated microscope.  The genius of the show and its spinoffs and inspired work by other writers/artists/comedians is that everybody gets made fun of–and therefore, everbody’s number comes up.  It’s cool to see Lenny Kravitz Simpsonized but if you think carefully about why you find the witty banter and silly plays on words and images funny, you will quickly see yourself in the screen, being laughed at along with the trends and subcultures you belong to.  And its always well-packed owing to the power of drawn life—Angry Birds, Christian appropriation of pop culture as a means of spreading the Gospel, the cult of the impossible video game and our addiction to video games and computer programs that lure us in with a simulated version of the life we already live all get their lighthearted comeupance in this episode.

Drifting into Springfield’s (the anywhere, everywhere setting for the series) charmingly seedy “Little Ethiopia,” (our Little Ethiopias/Addis Ababas in DC is hardly seedy and we call them Adams Morgan and U Street) the Simpson family jallope breaks down in front of a restaurant appropriately named Haile (as in Haile Selassie, the last Emperor of Ethiopia) Delicious.  Bart exclaims: “They’re eating their food with pancakes! Let’s go see what else they do wrong.”  The family walks in, immediately becomes a minority—a white, sorry, yellow family of three in a room full of brown Ethiopian Americans…Marge is scared to death–they have CDs for sale, there’s no side salad!  But she has to prove she’s as exciting….MORE exciting than Homer (her husband) and the “fun parent.”  The menu is authentically captioned with kitfo–Ethiopia’s answer to steak tartare, and doro wat–the traditional chicken stew well seasoned with berbere, the national condiment of Ethiopia—a rich blend of spices and red pepper guaranteed to make your lips burn and your tongue sing.  Just before she jets out of the door, Marge is urged into ordering a plate of something off the Amharic-only menu to the great shock of the Ethiopian majority in the restaurant.  I don’t know if the slightly unintelligible sounding Amharic name is real…Ethiopian brothers and sisters please let me know!  However, Marge slurps it down on a dare and her taste buds start shoulder-dancing to an Ethiopian pop driven groove, disco lights; red green and yellow colors swirling in her soul. “Holy Casserolie–that’s good gloop!” Marge screams!  “I wish I lived in Ethiopia!” says Bart…  (We get the sarcasm in the joke on the other side of the TV’s glass.  How many times have I served “slave comfort food” (discomfort food) to somebody and they suddenly thought slavery was delicious….?)

Immediately Springfield’s crew of nerds and hipsters marches in, inlcluding Comic Book Guy and Sideshow Mel and friends….(also all “yellow“…subtle..but mostly true…)  incensed that the Simpson clan is feasting on something off the Amharic-only menu.  Lisa, the enyclopedia of the family informs her mom that they have been joined by Springfield’s Foodie club.  Here’s where I start to blush…

Comic Guy: “Our passion is to seek out interesting foods, savor their exotic flavors and blog about them!”

“We discovered Korean barbecue in this town!” exclaims the Hipster Foodie.

“Even before the Koreans?” Lisa asks?
“Sure they cook it but they don’t get it!” the his buddy replies.

It’s interesting how many social “cues” the Selman picked up on about some—some–not all of today’s centrist Foodies.  Comic Book Guy, Springfield’s midriff showing expert on all things semi-trivial is the first to burst in, crowned with his “indigenous beaded head gear.”  Thanks for calling that one out!  I could never have articulated that mess any better—the idea that some Foodies–heh heh–harbor the idea that ethnic people somehow “don’t get” the intricate meaning of their own culinary tradition.  When it comes to African and African American and African Diaspora foodways, this has certainly been a frequent “issue,” in the dialogue!  Wow…it takes a comic-comedy…

It also is clear that food is the episode’s chosen metaphor for (white) suburbia to engage safely with larger “ethnic” worlds without really being a part of those worlds.  If I eat it, and apprehend it, then I can understand and appreciate “The Other,”  and possibly even make commentary without their presence, input, or corrective truths to be present.  I LOATHE watching shows where people shove down food talking about the “plantation days,” and “Southern” this and that….For example, on Eat St. one of my favorite shows on the Cooking Channel, there was a truck in Texas that served up chicken and waffles, referencing the “plantation days.”  No context whatsoever for the African American cooks who prepared it and the upper crust on the plantation that scarfed it down.  This is one of our interesting early fusion foods in American culture–it has a story, a somewhat painful one to be quite honest.  Is that history being honored is what I ask…  I have no problem with people of various backgrounds experiencing each other’s food cultures..I do it myself…I just like my foods and food culture in the context of history, place, identity, all of it–so I’m not being disrespectful to the preparer or the intricate narratives that make food precious to a culture.

On the other hand, food is a powerful way for people to relate to and experience history.  I often make hoecake or ashcake at my presentations, and no disrespect to Paula Deen but htey are not just another Southern treat–they were the food of the poor and enslaved and the displaced….When you sit two kids down whose Southern roots go way back and one is white and one is black and you can look them in the eyes and say–now your indentured servant great-great-great….grandfather and your enslaved great-great-great….grandfather would have eaten the same thing–and one spits it out and another asks for another–you know you’ve started a dialogue–not only between these kids but between their minds and the world of their ancestors–its all about connection.

The Simpson family -minus baby Maggie and Dad Homer, start their own food blog, the Three Mouthketeers, with an Alicia Keys-esque “New York…” like rap in the background to the montage, including a very cute and hilarious “diss” on famed Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio.  (Hey, well he did save my pal Joan Nathan–I do like that about him–I just wish he smiled more and made me feel more comfy about life…) My favorite quote is from Buddhist Lisa’s posting on her column “The Faceless Palette,” “this vegan meal was completely cruelty free..except I saw the chef beating one of the busboys in the alley.”
(So much for food ethics LOL)…And as far as Bart’s concerned, his meal felt like “the zoo exploding in his mouth.”

Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fierri, Julia Child, the Swedish chefs from Sesame Street, all make appearances  Simpsonized in “The Food Wife.”  My jaw dropped as Bourdain, Batali and Ramsay lent their voices to the show, giving me extra respect for these lions of the culinary world….reminds me of the Jewish proverb that a real teacher knows how to make fun of themself…See a clip: http://www.cinemablend.com/television/Simpsons-Preview-Food-Wife-Featuring-Gordon-Ramsay-Anthony-Bourdain-Mario-Batali-36896.html.

The climax takes place in a restaurant vaguely reminiscent of Ferran Adria’s now closed chapel of molecular gastronomy, El Bulli, named El Chemistri….home of “pine needle sorbet.”  Homer not only hates his kids “acting ethnic,” he doesn’t want them eating sorbet, only “sherbert.”  The Mouthketeers are treated to a deconstructed Caesar salad in test tubes made of gels and airs and foams, pork chops 100 ways and mints that vibrate when your table is ready.  While scarfing down all this culinary mind-candy, Homer, who doesn’t eat anything new unless he’s eaten before, is busy at the local meth-taurant after Marge purposely misguides him in order to keep the Foodie novelty to herself.  Hell of a metaphor!  Is the methaurant where every body else eats while Foodies chow down on food nobody else can understand or truly appreciate?

There have been a lot of very public, very ugly rants and raves across imaginary boundary lines drawn to delineate tribes and ghettoes among Food people.  The truth is we are all food people, and there is no contiuum or ladder….How we experience food and how much we want to know about it, appreciate it, engage with it is purely a matter of personal choice not trend.  Do we have to earn our way into an elite that gets to travel and get treated to special foods from special places?  Can we make special places and special plates of our own and be just as satisfied?  Can we make our own fusion cuisines?  Who sets the rules, the eater or the cook, or the thing being cooked?  Does eating like the tribe grandfather us into the tribe?

You existential, satirical, ironic, bewildering Simpsons—ugh—you gorsha-ed me and gave me food for thought, can I have some more?

Dehna hun! Dehna hungi!

“I’m reading the comments…checking out the page views, page views…..”

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About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in African Food Culture, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Pop Culture and Pop Food and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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