In the last week, I’ve mainlined every episode of Supersizers Go, a British TV program in which restaurant critic Giles Corren and comedian Sue Perkins get medically tested, then dress up in costumes and eat the food they would have eaten during various periods of history, such as ancient Rome or wartime Britain. They get tested again at week’s end to see what damage the foods of bygone eras have done to their health.
Originally, I thought today’s blog post would be about how I learned to cook. (It was in self-defense.) Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Giles Corren had to eat the food I grew up on? Wouldn’t Sue Perkins make amazing faces?” (Sue Perkins makes the best faces.)
So here I present a loving parody of my newest favorite TV show. I call it Supersizers Go: The American South.
Casting spoiler: I play the chef.
GILES (voiceover) : I’m Giles Corren. I’m a writer and restaurant critic, and my refined palate ensures that I suffer a great deal in the filming of this show. I’m joined by comedian Sue Perkins. I find her incomprehensible, because she is a vegetarian.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be engaging in gastronomic time travel. Each week, we visit a private doctor, because we are sufficiently middle class not to be personally affected by drastic cuts to the NHS. We then raid the BBC costume department and hire world class chefs to make revolting foods for us to mock.
This week, we’re eating our way through the larders of a lower middle class household in the 1990’s American south. This will be hilarious, because we never play people who aren’t wealthy, and also we are English. We’ll be feeling dehydrated and sluggish after consuming twice our recommended daily salt intake at each meal, mocking the sexual exploits of President Bill Clinton, and dining with elderly neighbors who still think the polite way to refer to black people is by calling them “colored”.
GILES: (voiceover) The 1990’s technically qualify as the past. This is in spite of the fact that people our age and slightly younger persist in thinking of it as being about ten years ago, which is the same thing as “yesterday.”
Sue and I will both have jobs that pay just enough over minimum wage to enable us to own our own modest home. Because we grew up very poor, we will obstinately persist in believing that anyone can attain this version of the American dream with hard work alone. Republican party leaders will convince us that gay people are trying to destroy everything we hold dear, and Sue will go to see Jurassic Park in the movie theater five times.
But before all that, Sue is off for medical testing at the offices of Dr. James McGillicuddy. Since, unlike the characters we are playing, we actually have health insurance, this will not put Sue into debt for the rest of the year. The obesity epidemic of recent decades affected the poor disproportionately, owing to the fact that the food that is the worst for you is also the cheapest. She’s concerned what a week of mayonnaise-based salads and salted fruit will do to her health.
SCENE: The doctor’s office
SUE: So, how am I getting on?
DR. MCGILLICUDDY: You’re very healthy! But isn’t it time you were pregnant?
SUE: …Um, no, I don’t think so?
DR. MCGILLICUDDY: Better start now! You’re in your forties, can’t put it off much longer!
SUE: I, I think I can, actually. I think I can put it off pretty much permanently.
DR. MCGILLICUDDY: Have an informative brochure for a fertility clinic.
SCENE: Outside the doctor’s office
GILES (voiceover): This week, Sue and I will don the uniforms of our respective professions. Sue will work in the bakery department of a large, non-unionized chain grocery store, and I will work in the maintenance division of a large, non-unionized computer manufacturing plant that employs 60% of the working population of our small southern town.
SUE (wearing cheap navy blue slacks and a white buttoned shirt with a name tag pinned on): It’s like a slightly less posh version of school uniform.
GILES (wearing cheap navy blue slacks and a white buttoned shirt with his name embroidered on the pocket): Is that a sort of—perm you’ve got? In your hair?
SUE: Hot rollers. All the rage, apparently.
GILES: And the smell is…
GILES (voiceover): Guiding us through the culinary norms of working class life in the American south of the 1990’s, we have Brittany Harrison, a completely untrained cook who watches Gordon Ramsay, enjoys visiting farmer’s markets, and eats far too much cheese.
Our hourly wages are high enough that we’re in no danger of going hungry, but we will have to mentally calculate the cost of everything we buy at the supermarket to make certain that our grocery bill doesn’t render us incapable of paying bills or making mortgage payments.
BRITTANY: Grocery store. Not supermarket.
GILES: Oh, right, sorry. So what are we eating this week?
BRITTANY: You’ll be eating whatever Sue cooks, for the most part, because in spite of the fact that you both work the same number of hours in a week, you subscribe to an outdated model of heteronormativity that gives you a free pass when it comes to household labor. Sue will take all of her meals cold, because she’ll serve you first and then get distracted putting in a load of laundry before she makes her way back to the kitchen.
BREAKFAST: For Giles: Biscuits. Gravy. Fried eggs. Bacon. Toast. Grape jelly. Coffee with sugar and half-and-half. For Sue: Slim-Fast milkshake.
SUE: Right, well I’m trying to lose weight, apparently. Or else this is all I have time for, after cooking for you. What have you got?
GILES: I…I haven’t the faintest idea. These aren’t biscuits. This isn’t gravy. And that is not jelly.
SUE: Those look like eggs, though.
GILES: Yes, but apparently the grape stuff goes on them, which renders them fairly unrecognizable. What does your thing taste like?
SUE: Hmm. Like…sweet milk, with wheat germ, cornstarch…no real chocolate of any kind, that I can tell. Yours?
GILES: I appear to have a bread item rather like a chewy scone, and…is this some sort of béchamel, with chunks of…I don’t know what sort of meat that’s supposed to be. (tastes it) That tastes like…salt.
SUE: So you’ve got salt, and I’ve got sweet. There’s the food groups nicely rounded out.
SCENE: The grocery store where Sue works.
SUE (voiceover): In the American south, where state laws favoring big business make it difficult for workers to unionize, employees are often forced to work through their lunch breaks. Fortunately, I’m caught up with my duties, so I’m free to sit and enjoy my half hour break in this very cramped office cubicle in the back of the bakery.
The small child seated at the table next to me is the daughter of one of my co-workers. She was sent home from school early because she has a fever. Since there is no one at home to watch her, and her mother can’t afford to take a half day off work, she’s stowed her away to sit quietly in the office. We can only hope that our manager won’t notice. Fortunately, the little girl has done this before, so she knows what’s expected of her.
LUNCH: Potato salad, expired.
SUE: So I didn’t have time to pack a lunch for myself this morning. Instead, I’ve nicked a pint of potato salad that they were chucking out, because it’s past its expiry date. Now I’ve got to eat quite quickly, because if I’m seen eating this food that I was supposed to toss in the bin, I’ll be fired for stealing.
SMALL CHILD: That looks like throw up.
SUE: Let’s see, it’s…over-cooked potato cubes, sour mayonnaise, bit of yellow mustard…not much else. Can’t think this is doing my diet much good, but there’s no employee fridge, so I couldn’t bring the milk to make another Slim-Fast shake. Bit of a dire state of affairs, when Slim-Fast is the tastier option.
SUE (voiceover): Meanwhile, Giles has a leisurely 45 minutes to enjoy his lunch. Even though there is an employee cafeteria at his manufacturing plant, he prefers to swing through the drive-thru at the nearby McDonald’s. His cheeseburger, fries, and drink are ordered off the dollar menu, and therefore cost about half of what he would have paid for the meatloaf with side of two veg back at work.
At six o’clock, Giles and I both get into our cars and begin an hour-long slog through rush hour traffic. I am just as happy to be sitting down, as I’ve been on my feet since eight in the morning. Giles stops off at a bar on his way home, where he will nurse a single domestic beer as he waits for the roads to clear up a bit. I, however, have to get home promptly, so that I can finish cooking dinner in time to have a few hours in front of the television before I go to bed.
However, I am positively weak with hunger, thanks to my calorie conscious breakfast and inedible lunch, so I pull out of stand-still traffic for just long enough to go through the drive-thru of my favorite frozen yogurt shop: TCBY.
SCENE: Inside Sue’s car at the drive-thru of TCBY.
SUE: TCBY stands for “This Can’t Be Yogurt”. Apparently, froyo was rather unpleasantly yogurt-y tasting when it first came out in the seventies, until they sort of sweetened it up and started putting it through soft serve ice cream machines about ten years ago. It has fewer calories than ice cream, so it’s the indulgence of choice for women like me, who somehow never manage to lose weight despite the fact that every muscle in my body is aching with the exertion of being on my feet for eight straight hours. Possibly if I didn’t think salads should come dressed in mayonnaise, I’d make a bit more progress.
SUE (voiceover): I’ve finished off my yogurt by the time I pull in the driveway back home. I’ve got just about an hour before Giles gets back from the bar, although of course I don’t know that he’s been to a bar. I’ve got to get dinner going, and I’ve also got housework to finish. On a normal day, I would be finished with everything just in time to catch the latest episode of MacGuyver.
Fortunately, Brittany has dinner well under way by the time I get home.
SCENE: A cramped kitchen.
BRITTANY: So, because Sue doesn’t really have the time to experiment and learn how to cook new dishes, she makes pretty much all the same foods that she and Giles ate when they were growing up. They were way poorer back then, so they basically eat shit. Like, if they eat vegetables, they’re gonna come out of a can, both because it costs more money and takes more time to prepare fresh vegetables. Also because Giles grew up in an area where they didn’t have public water treated with fluoride, so he has a complete set of false teeth. Basically, the softer the food is, the easier on his gums.
SCENE: The living room. Giles and Sue are sitting on the couch, watching TV, balancing plates and bowls on their lap.
DINNER: Boiled elbow macaroni in sweetened tomato juice with pinto beans. Fried potatoes with ketchup. Green onion. Slice of cornbread.
GILES: Once again, I am rather confused. It’s almost like minestrone, but somehow…not.
SUE: Oh my god. (spits back into the bowl) I don’t know what that is. It’s literally as if they took tomato juice from a can and seasoned it with aspartame.
GILES: I think they did, yeah. This was sort of the age for aspartame. People thought it was healthier than sugar, when really it gives you migraine. And just think, you had it in your healthy shake thing this morning too.
SUE: The potatoes are all right. They taste of potato. Nice sort of crunchy caramelized texture, and the ketchup hides the burnt bits.
GILES: This is cornbread? It isn’t really bread, though, is it. You touch it and it crumbles like sawdust. The outside is solid, though. Like a carapace.
SUE: I took a bite of that and it sucked 90% of the moisture right out of my body. Isn’t there anything to dull the edge? Maybe a nice 1993 boxed merlot?
GILES: No, no. We don’t drink. Alcohol is a drug, you know. I certainly don’t have a jar of moonshine that my mates from work distilled in the shed in their garden. If I did, you’d divorce me.
SUE: Quite rightly, if you’ve not let me have any of it.
BRITTANY (entering): Well, how is it?
SUE: How am I not thin as a rake?
BRITTANY: Because all of this is terrible for you?
SUE: Is it healthier just not to eat it? Like, to not eat. At all. Maybe you’d die, but you wouldn’t have that taste in your mouth.
BRITTANY: Cheer up, I made dessert.
DESSERT: Salted apple slices.
GILES: Why in God’s name is there salt on the apples. This—I don’t believe this. She’s winding us up. Surely they had ice cream in the nineties, I distinctly remember there being ice cream.
SUE: Oh god, it’s burning the inside of my mouth.
SCENE: Giles’ video diary
GILES: Well I’m a bit thirsty, honestly. We don’t keep anything in the house apart from milk and Diet Coke, so I’m sort of guzzling tap water to make up for the incredible sodium content of my meals, and especially that incredibly dry bread. That was twice we had foods that masqueraded under the name of bread, and neither of them were anything like bread at all. Although I believe there’s quite a bit of white bread coming up in the next few days.
SCENE: Sue’s video diary
SUE: What I want to know is, what is the point? Giles and I both worked long, tedious days for very little pay, and then what had we earned with it? This horrid, heart-attack inducing salty slop. I suppose I would like it if I’d grown up eating it, sort of how people still eat things like Pot Noodle for the nostalgia, but objectively it’s hardly even food. I’d much rather have had the tomato juice served cold in a glass with a bit of vodka and tobacco, and eaten the macaroni and the beans with a bit of olive oil. I think in the morning I’m going to try and persuade Giles to sell this house of ours that we’re breaking our backs paying the mortgage on, get a flat, and use the money to invest in eating habits that won’t kill before we’re fifty.
SCENE: The sidewalk outside of Dr. McGillicuddy’s office.
GILES (voiceover): Ordinarily, Sue and I spend an entire week in whatever era of history we’ve chosen to explore. However, when we woke up this morning, we had both arrived at the conclusion that this “being poor” business is for chumps. So we’re skiving off.
GILES: Are you going to go back in for tests again? See if twenty-four hours made any appreciable difference to your health?
SUE: I was going to, but I rang up the insurance company this morning, and my doctor’s been moved out of network. So, yeah, they’re not going to cover any more tests.
GILES: Right. Airport, then?
SUE: God. Airplane food. What a relief.
GILES (voiceover): Join us next week, when Sue and I will be comfortably middle class again.
And now I encourage you all to check out the actual show, which is available on YouTube for Americans.
(This was a parody. No insult is intended to Giles or Sue, because I love them and want to squish them. Especially Sue. Any resemblance to real people, including myself, is entirely a product of your overactive imagination.)