Culture

Stephen Colbert's Consumption of Junk Food Is Deeply American -- and Catholic

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert examines food in a manner that is Catholic. But also, it engages with food in a manner that is catholic.

Stephen Colbert is a Catholic and a foodie. Many people consider both of these labels to have negative connotations. But we can resolve this negativity in part by looking at the intersection of the two labels.

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert examines food in a manner that is Catholic. But also, it engages with food in a manner that is catholic. Yep, check that lowercase. We often forget “catholic”: an adjective meaning comprehensive, universal, broad or liberal scope. This is in some ways the opposite of the connotation of “Catholic”: an adjective meaning of or pertaining to the Roman Catholic Church. The former is open and the latter is closed. The Late Show presents food through a lens that is at once both Catholic and catholic.

Food is a regular part of all different segments on the show. It's frequently a monologue topic presented as either news of the day or personal anecdotes about the host’s weekend. Food is also a category on the wheel of topics sometimes used in the desk monologue in the program’s second slot. There are often food-related guests in slots two and three, or pre-produced segments on food in those slots. Nearly all of the segments and guests point toward a specific type of food, perhaps best characterized, according to Chris Offutt’s excellent Oxford American article, "Trash Food" as “trash food”. Trash food is loaded with regional and socioeconomic baggage -- and often sugar and fat.

In episode 123, Colbert refers to these foods collectively as “shame foods”. In context, he and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are discussing why they love Taco Bell. While “trash” appears to carry mainly a pecuniary connotation, “shame” appears to carry a religious one. In both cases, the adjective has a negative connotation meant to promote exclusion. We should not want to be associated with trash, and eating food that is trash will bring us shame.

But Colbert enthusiastically embraces the joys of trash food, just as he delights in the resultant shame. In fact, feeling the shame is an integral part of the enjoyment of trash foods, for Colbert freely admits that he is not a very good Catholic. He’s not clearly applying the label of “lapsed” to his Catholicism, but he is out of the closet as a sinner. This is reflected in many segments, especially the one with the confessional booth, in which food is sometimes prominently featured as a subject.

The Late Show advocates overconsumption of trash food as a means of preserving one’s quality of life, not only in spite of the fact that this food results in feelings of shame, but because of that shame. To draw a weak but parallel analogy from rhetoric, it’s not unlike the LGBT community’s embrace of “queer” as an umbrella label of inclusion rather than as an epithet, which has until recent history been the primary mode of its deployment.

There are dozens of examples of this on the show. I first noticed it around a month after Colbert’s tenure on The Late Show began. He gleefully ate an entire plate of bacon after reporting on a new study showing its carcinogenic nature. He did the same with an entire bag of Oreo cookies, making noises that indicated his enjoyment of this food was almost sexual in nature.

In episode 38, Colbert reported on the Guinness decision to eliminate fish bladders as an ingredient in beer. He editorialized strongly against the decision, despite the fact that it would make Guinness more palatable to vegans and improve the nutritional content of the beverage. Also, fish bladders are self-evidently a little gross. Nevertheless, Colbert posted a petition online in favor of keeping the fish bladders.

I felt compelled to sign it. So did more than 18,000 other people. Guinness, alas, did not change its mind on the issue.

In episode 44, Colbert covered the McDonald’s decision to offer all-day breakfast. Colbert said he prides himself on bringing his audience the latest news in “breakfast-related crises”. He predicted the menu shift would wreak havoc both between fast food companies and within McDonald’s itself, characterizing the decision as an “abomination” -- a delicious abomination that he would personally partake of as often as possible until it is no longer offered.

In episode 46, in response to the cornucopia of Star Wars-branded items that have no connection to the actual film franchise, he proposed Star Wars light side and dark side eggs. These promotional items are no more absurd than any of the actually existent products he showcased, such as nail polish. Both of these examples have a whiff of communion about them, plus a reversal of the sinful food being the more delectable.

Around Thanksgiving, Colbert made much of beloved American traditions surrounding turkey. Every year, the Butterball turkey people open a hotline to assist struggling holiday hosts with their preparations. In episode 50, Colbert calls the hotline with a series of awkward, emotional questions that are not really about turkey at all, conversing outside the ballpark of what is acceptable subject matter for the hotline.

In episode 52, he engages in some turkey pornography with Daniel Bouloud, treating the bird corpse in a variety of rough ways that are symbolically violent or sexualized. These are variations of the theme of the altered-state hedonism of eating, like in episode 93, where Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer bring in some super trendy rainbow bagels, the consumption of which induces an acid trip sketch that quickly turns ugly.

Colbert is reflective as far as how these food concerns break through with his viewers. In episode 57, he addresses Milano cookie knockoffs: “It’s a big story. […] I realize I talk a lot about food on the show, but food is an important subject. After all, if you are what you eat, then I am like, half food. The other half is those pieces of paper they put between cheese slices to try to slow you down. Nice try. Not even a speed bump, as far as I'm concerned."

He continues to cover Oreos in his opening monologue, as in the end-cap for episode 64, "one more thing: late night snacks have a negative impact on memory. And if you weren't eating right now, you'd remember that tomorrow." Then he uses the Oreo phone to send snacks to Ammon Bundy and his embarrassingly unprepared militiamen holed up in Oregon.

Colbert is concerned about overly commercial or manipulative foods, but not too concerned. In episode 60, he wisecracks about learning Ewoks are delicious and hunting them to extinction. When the audience sighs “awwwww” because the Star Wars characters are cute, Colbert insists the audience was not rooting for the Ewoks in the film franchise anyway.

In episode 61, he introduces the fake cereal Oatie-Os, with its adaptive advertising that watches viewers eat. Despite the scary two-way exchange between him and his cereal, Colbert keeps stuffing his face with the simple defense that “they’re really pretty good.” In episode 75, he declares excessive food courts at shopping malls as “inherently American”.

The interview segment also emphasizes the contrast between trash food and prestige food as a matter of cultural dialogue. In episode 75, Reverend Run talks about his cooking show and makes beef steak kabob with fruit in a demo while Colbert waxes poetic about the importance of family dinner and not having cell phones at the table. The food is down home cooking, but the virtue of it is running high. In episode 80, the third guest is Columbia student Jonah Reider, a lowly college kid running a hot-spot restaurant out of his dorm room.

In episode 63, Colbert talks to the founder of League of Kitchens, a charitable endeavor where immigrants teach New Yorkers how to cook. In a follow-up sketch, Colbert meets Yamini Joshi, an Indian immigrant for cultural exchange. He offers her deep frying techniques and a pack of Slim Jims, and compares her prepping with ghee to Paula Deen’s excessive use of butter. He ends by squirting Ready Whip directly into her mouth, then into his mouth, then taking a nap. The lesson? "There are no cultural differences that cannot be bridged by a stick of butter."

His love of trash food is hardly free of anxiety. In the opener for episode 66, he declares that "if there is one universal truth in our chaotic, random universe, it is this: breakfast is the most important meal of the day." He orders a BLT for breakfast. When the BLT does not include enough tomato for his personal taste, he gets angry enough to march out into the street and confront Letterman’s deli guy for making the sandwich abomination.

In episode 67, he confesses he’s already broken his New Year's Resolution not to eat cake frosting directly out of the canister. In episode 98, he binges on Nutella in the confessional booth. In episode 68, he and Jane Lynch profess their undying love for Diet Coke.

Colbert explicitly worries there is no Diet Coke in Heaven. And there’s the rub: you can be a Catholic who is catholic about food, but the heavenly delights of trash food don’t exactly jive with a Catholic’s idea of virtue.

It’s a good thing Colbert chose to lapse in his embrace of religion instead of his embrace of food. Watching him manufacture the cognitive dissonance needed to reconcile his food and his faith every night is a decidedly excellent course in distinctly American ethics.


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