In Praise of the Two Fat Ladies

Mr. Game Show was a Hanukkah gift that my parents bought me one year in the 1980s. It looked like a regular board game (small tokens that you moved around a large, printed board) except there, in the middle, was a plastic figurine that talked. “Hello!” it announced in a Guy Smiley voice, “I’m Mr. Game Show! Who’s ready to play a game?”

Mr. Game Show’s Mr. Gameshow had slick-backed hair and big white teeth. He embodied everything that was false and mockable about that most loathsome TV type: the game show host. As time marched on, and we moved through the 80s to the 90s to today, the TV landscape has shifted enough that, even though there are still game show hosts (Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek haven’t gone anywhere) there’s a new contender for that most loathsome TV type: the food show host.

Turn on Food Network today, and you’re likely to see a big-eyed specimen smiling a toothy smile on an over-lit set that isn’t that different from the sets of “Let’s Make a Deal” or “The Price Is Right.” Except, instead of velvet curtains and podiums, there are granite countertops and big jars of flour, sugar and salt. The theme music is similarly chintzy and the speech patterns are similarly affected; in short, if you want a taste of real life, the only thing further away than a game show is a modern day food show.

Which is why I’m so relieved, so delighted, so incredibly grateful to have discovered—however belatedly—a food show that avoids these trappings in such an outrageous way, it’s almost shocking how gritty and down-to-earth it is. The show (which is currently airing on Food Network’s sister network, The Cooking Channel) is “Two Fat Ladies.” I think it’s my new favorite cooking show of all time.

The Two Fat Ladies subvert every preconceived notion you might have about a food show host. For starters, as promised in the title, they are, indeed, two fat ladies. They ride around England on a motorcycle: Jennifer (the one with glasses) driving while Clarissa (the blonde) sits in the sidecar. Jennifer enjoys a cigarette now and then (which she smokes, rather grandly, at the end of several episodes). Her teeth, like most real people teeth, aren’t big and white; they’re small and slightly stained with tar.

Whereas a modern day food show host goes through the motions like a rehearsed circus act (words filling time while hands shift things around), Jennifer and Clarissa cook from the soul. Their lives are deeply rooted in food; Jennifer’s hands are most at home kneading a big mound of dough, and Clarissa’s knowledge of a dish’s origins is nothing short of encyclopedic. When they talk about a dish, their talk isn’t empty banter; they engage one another, they speak with mutual admiration and sincerity, and they do so with something very rare, something you’re not likely to find anywhere on food television today: genuine wit.

Bawdy wit too. On one episode, Jennifer was making Coq au Vin and she commented that you’ve got to use an old bird. Clarissa quipped: “There’s a lot of good in an old cock.” The wicked look in her eye when she said it is worth a million false Food Network smiles.

The format of the show also allows for a whole extra layer of erudition: the women ride their way around England and cook for various parties at various venues. So they cater a polo match, they take over the kitchen at the Brazilian Embassy, or, as seen here, they make a tea for the “gallant cricketers”:

[Can we pause and enjoy the moment where Jennifer says to Clarissa: “We can’t have you savaging the men”?]

As they cook at these various venues, you learn about British history (Clarissa is particularly articulate on the subject), geography and culture. You also get a peek at the strange dynamics that make up the British class system, a system that Clarissa and Jennifer also seem to subvert, at home, as they are, with both the “underclass” doing the cooking and the privileged class enjoying the food.

As for the food itself, it’s occasionally repulsive (if only for the vast quantities of lard and bacon and butter), but for the most part it’s made with good sense and care. You’ll learn something as you watch; the women are very opinionated and even if you don’t agree with them about everything (I season with a heavier hand than they do) you’re likely to think about food in a different way.

You’re also likely to start rolling your Rs and pronouncing basil “bahsil.” The two fat ladies lure you in like creatures out of a fairy tale; watching them, you feel like you’ve entered a rare and unusual world, a world that you’re privileged to be a part of for thirty minutes at a time. Modern day food show hosts are disposable, instantly replaceable (“The Next Food Network” star proves that, like Mr. Game Show himself, you can carve a successful TV show host out of wax) and forgettable. The Two Fat ladies, on the other hand, are rare birds the likes of which we’ll probably never see again.

Catch them on “The Cooking Channel” before they’re replaced by skinnier, whiter-teethed versions of themselves. When it comes to modern day Food TV, nothing is sacred.

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