Two of a Kind: The Wild Ones
Now, I grant that there are a lot of cooking shows out there that share the came basic conceit (quick and easy home cooking, Ethnic cooking that won’t scare you, down home Southern cookin’ by an insane overweight woman). Occasionally, though, two shows cross over so closely that they have no choice but to square off against each other, or forever frustrate those with PVRs and an attention span too short to realize which one they’re recording.
Both of the shows this week are ones that I enjoy greatly, but can they both dare to occupy the same niche in my television viewing? Must one fall for the other to prosper? Are they really just cribbing each other and do we get an apology if they do?
It’s time to measure up the battle of the Wild Food cooking shows!
Dedicate a show to the concept of challenging conventional cooking by getting back out into nature, gathering one’s own food in a traditional manner, and preparing it with only the resources available to them on the spot.
That we should somehow revere the cooks of earlier times for being able to get so much out of food, and gain the appreciation our ancestors had for food when they bashed its brains out on a rock somewhere in the woods. That we would appreciate our food a whole lot more if we had to go fish it out of a river instead of the back of the freezer at No Frills. That beautiful gourmet food can come from rough places, and we shouldn’t be afraid of involvement in every gruesome step of eating.
The true enjoyment:
Watching otherwise normal, urban people get their hands dirty slaughtering animals in the wild, and still turning it into palatable food at the end of a half hour. Or, listening to our significant other squirm audibly when a squirrel has its paws chopped off.
Who gets it done better?
In this corner, The Wild Chef
Concept: Picard and Dufour take an element of traditional Quebecois cooking, and depart from their restaurant to a remote location in order to find the food at its source. Upon arrival at their (usually freezing cold and inhospitable) destination, they suffer tremendously in their attempts to locate their quarry, usually with the assistance of a knowledgeable local who will ultimately ensure they don’t fail utterly. At roughly the halfway mark of each episode, they will shift into cooking mode and attempt to use every single element of their theme ingredient in a classic dish.
- Both Picard and Dufour are really, really, extra-super French-Canadian. As such they have a very difficult time taking anything seriously, particularly themselves — consequently, there will be not-insignificant stretches where everyone pauses to make fun of each other, explain in detail how they screwed something up, or just generally bitch and moan before cheerily moving along.
- At the end of roughly half the episodes I’ve seen, they are half-drunk by the middle of the episode and fully trashed by the credits.
- For anyone who grew up outside of French Canada, the insights into what makes up Quebecois cuisine is actually fascinating. That Picard looks at old-fashioned ways of preparing staples like salmon is intriguing; that he then hatches bizarre schemes to update them is all the more reason to stay tuned, and see if he can pull it off.
- The food always looks really good, even when it involves boiled heads.
- Really, really, extra-super French-Canadians are really, really extra-super hard to understand if you’re not used to the accent. They’re even more difficult to understand when they can’t find the word they want to say in English, or just give up entirely and chat to each other in French for a little while. I personally think it’s hilarious, but that’s because I grew up taking French my entire life and lived next to a French-Canadian lady who thought we named our family dog after the French word for “carrot.” People without such a background may be less amused.
- Picard is an unconventional celebrity chef, to put it mildly. As a huge, sometimes-grouchy, often-sweaty and occasionally naked host, he is like a slightly-demented Mario Batali who will eat an eyeball on camera, just because he’s never done so before.
- With only eight episodes, the series feels like it ran out right when it was getting good — it’s like your cool new French friend suddenly found someone who likes red wine more than you.
- Seriously: They boiled heads on this show.
- During an episode featuring a pig roast, Picard invited a group of his chef friends out, with each assigned to an individual part of the pig. Naturally, the rail-thin ancient French-Canadian woman flocks to a meat grinder — not just cutting the meat, but feeding it through the grinder, cranking the handle and forming the sausage all by herself. When Picard offers to help, he’s shooed away, and is five seconds later told, “This really is a two-person job, I would never suggest to anyone that they should do it alone. But you, you can go now.”
In this corner, The Wild Gourmets
Concept: Grieve and Miers load up a Canola-oil-powered van (no, seriously) with some basic staples and head off on a trek through Britain, determined to live off nothing but the land and the food they’re able to scavenge, hunt or barter for. On the way, their goal is to prove that their home country is rich with native cuisine and hype up the local food message in general. Plus Grieve takes off his pants a lot, if you’re into that kind of thing.
- The show is beautifully shot, and if nothing else serves as a lovely travelogue that just happens to have food as its focus. By virtue of the concept, Miers and Grieve steer well clear of anything urban, and so the audience is treated to a tour of rural Britain that is refreshing.
- The difference in skills between Grieve and Miers is always obvious, even when they’re not praising each other for how astounding they are. It’s hard not to be impressed as Grieve snaps off hip shots to bring down pigeon, or to see how Miers turns it into restaurant-quality food within only a few hours of the animals meeting their maker.
- Throughout the series, the show does a good job of sticking to its difficult concept, even when the hosts occasionally resort to barter or indentured service to earn their way. There aren’t many cooking shows that will show their glamorous stars, red-nosed and greasy-haired, huddled over a fire and trying to making the best of handful of roasted chestnuts (“These will be a great breakfast!” they cheer, without irony), but this one does.
- It is similarly unflinching in depicting every step of the way between finding prey, hunting and killing it, cleaning and cooking it. Ever see what it looks like when you nail a squirrel through the heart with a shotgun pellet? Because now I have! Thanks, Wild Gourmets!
- Did I say the show serves as a travelogue? Because in fact it is. There is always an instructional cooking component to the show, but it’s just as focused on sharing with you the blight of the English Red Squirrel against the encroaching Gray, or the varieties of mushrooms that you’ll find growing out of the side of a tree in Cornwall forest. It isn’t that you won’t learn about cooking, it’s just pretty clear that’s not the whole point.
- As manfully awesome as Grieve is, and as handily resourceful as Miers becomes, by the end they feel a bit super-heroic. The message that local food is only a shotgun blast away is comforting, but by the end you feel as though only a man who can hew a shelter out of a living pine tree or a woman who won a TV cooking competition could really hack the whole lifestyle. The rest of us mortals might just confine ourselves to buying organic, or something.
- Did I say that the other show was a short one? Try six episodes, baby. Apparently there isn’t that much wild food in Britain.
- If you’re not ready to watch someone pull apart a rabbit like a pair of socks fresh out of the drawer, then you may find this show a little too wild. Seriously, unless you’re ready to answer some serious questions about where the food at the grocery store comes from, don’t leave this on with the kids unsupervised.
- During an episode featuring a rabbit hunt, Miers stands on the sidelines while Grieves and a local hunter grab the prey and do the dirty work. Finally she works up the courage to grab a rabbit of her own, pull it up against her leg, and break its neck with her bare hands. There is no way that it is not glorious: for those who scorn Miers, they can watch her suffer; for those who buy into the show concept, they might as well be standing in Miers’ shoes when she does the deed; for someone who lives with a woman who was practically in tears after the fishmonger laid waste to a trout, it was… a conversation-starter.
And the winner is: The Wild Gourmets
I almost wanted to wimp out and call this a tie, but that’s just because I have such a soft spot for Quebec. As much fun as Picard and Dufour’s banter was, and as enjoyable as it was to watch them figure out how to cook a moose, The Wild Gourmets just has more to it.
Maybe it’s expressly because it doesn’t fit perfectly as a cooking show, but more as an educational show about food, outdoor survival, herbalism, geography, animals, and about six other things. Yeah, at one point you learn how to make your own Chinese five-spice — but you also learn what the largest lake in Britain is, or why Pike are so hard to catch, or the methods that people use to hunt particular types of birds. And even though that sounds like a big hodge-podge of information, the show somehow manages to string it all together in a way that’s true to its concept, whether you actually buy it or not.
Plus, no kidding, you watch a little squirrel get his paws whacked off as Grieve cleans him. That is fucking intense for the Food network on a Friday night, and I am all for that kind of jolt any time.