A Machine for Everything
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET
US: 21 Jan 2010
Recently, while watching some food show, I began to wonder who might have first tapped into a maple tree and consumed some of the thick liquid that came out. No one knows for sure, of course, but I do wonder about questions like that. Apparently, I am not alone.
For those who wonder about what\‘s in their hamburger or how egg rolls are mass produced, the History Channel presents Food Tech. Each episode features host Bobby Bognar dissecting a favorite American meal, tracking food from field or factory to our plates. Bognar himself isn’t a chef, but he has worked in the food industry and restaurants most of his life. It is apparent that he likes food. Happily, he stares into the camera to ask such questions as “Isn’t that cool?” and to declare everything “awesome.” If enthusiasm for the topic trumps actual training and knowledge, then Bognar is a perfect host.
Not everyone shares Bognar’s enthusiasm, though. Some of the workers who Bognar “works” beside for a few minutes seemed more irritated at the interruption than excited to be chopping heads of lettuce, for instance. One lady whose job it is to sort out pickle chips with holes in them from a conveyor belt zipping hundreds of chips by per minute clearly didn’t share his fascination with her job; one supposes the glamour wears off quickly, but Bognar failed to recognize that.
For the series’ premiere episode, Bognar examines “Burgers and Fries.” To cover the production of the various parts of the meal, he flies across the country, from California (buns, ketchup, and lettuce) to North Carolina (pickles). First up is a lesson on how cows become hamburger patties, in a segment not designed for animal lovers or vegetarians. Following are explanations of how sesame seed buns are made, slices of cheese are tested for perfect meltability, cucumbers get dill flavoring, tomatoes turn into ketchup, lettuce is picked and shredded, and what makes fast food fries crispy on the outside and fluffy inside.
The onion segment is the only one that fails to illuminate how the product gets to the burger. (Then again, what is there to explain? The onion is dug up, washed, and shipped.) The segment focuses on how onion seeds are harvested. Rest assured that we will never experience a shortage of onion seeds, but watching them grow and get their seed pods processed isn’t gripping TV.
Clearly, the episode is ambitious, exploring seven food items in 45 minutes. Thus, each segment flies by, with Bognar appearing as a fast-paced museum guide—“Here, we have… And we’re walking.” Perhaps a more sensible approach would have been to divide the meal into two shows, so that more attention could be given to each element. For instance, Bognar is amazed by a combine that can automatically sort red from green tomatoes, spitting the green ones out. It would be interesting to see how the machine works, or to find out what happens to the green tomatoes after they are rejected. But Bognar quickly moves on.
Still, I learned a couple of things from the episode. First, we use a frightening amount of water in our food production. It’s used to cook, mix, move, and clean food, and is of course an ingredient in many foods. Second, we should be looking to the food industry for the latest advances in technology. They have a machine for everything. The process for turning tomato juice into tomato sauce for ketchup rivals the finest oil refinery.
Cable has a variety of “how it’s made” programs, covering everything from food to household items. Most are successful because they delve deeply enough into their subjects to demystify them. Food Tech fails to do that. It gives us the abbreviated version of the story, and leaves me with as many questions popping into my head as it answers. Some viewers might find Bognar’s explanations pithy, but the rest of us will be left hungry for more.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article