TV's Mr. Food likes simple fare and lots of it

January 05, 1994|By Steve Rhodes | Steve Rhodes,Chicago Tribune

Mr. Food is a happy guy. It's not just the book sales, the syndicated TV feature, the adoring fans. It's the pasta, square noodles, tuna and giant vegetables on his plate. After a long day signing books and answering reporters' questions, this homespun cook of the middle-class masses likes to hunker down to a solid meal.

As those who know him would expect, pretense is out the window when you're dining with Mr. Food.

"Give me what belongs on my plate. Don't give me the nonsense," he implores.

What, pray tell, doesn't belong on a plate?

"A flower doesn't belong on a plate. We look at flowers and admire them. We don't need flowers on a plate. A plate doesn't need empty space. It should be filled. We don't need artificial greens, we can use greens that taste good."

Mr. Food, whose real name is Art Ginsburg, hosts a syndicated TV "spot" about cooking. "Mr. Food," as the features are called, are short takes that are dropped into other shows, usually news, and they are not known for forays into the exotica of cuisine.

Having covered flowers on plates, Mr. Food is off on a tirade that starts with iceberg lettuce, stops off at blue-plate specials, takes swipe at "nouveau" cuisine and ends with his mama.

"You know how long it took the people of the United States, all of us, to find out that nouvelle cuisine was people drawing pictures with my food, little, little tiny portions that made me go out hungry, and charging a big price for it?

"I had to be a dummy, you had to be a dummy, we all had to be dummies. Today you can hardly buy a nouvelle cuisine meal. We've wised up. And with that, when practicality took over for nonsense, you come back to the basics. The big stink today? The blue-plate special."

Pause. Mr. Food looks down at his plate, an Italian smorgasbord, and proclaims his love of food. Of meatloaf. Mashed potatoes. Green beans. Blue-plate specials.

"You know what I enjoy eating? I enjoy eating what tastes like what Mama makes. I don't want that pretentious stuff. I'd rather have fun. I'd rather have the warmth."

The kitchen anti-hero

Before he was Mr. Food, Mr. Ginsburg says he was a Depression-era baby reared on the kitchen scraps and practical creativity of his mother. Stints as a butcher and caterer led to a guest appearance on a Troy, N.Y., TV show that launched his career as "Mr. Food," author and telecook.

His gimmick is being anti-gimmick. In these times of anti-heroes and marketed rebellion, that may seem like a pose. But Mr. Ginsburg's sincerity seems to be in place. He squarely denounces the art school concept of culinary design, the obsession with "health" food, the web of diets that eliminates all things unnatural, filling, good-tasting or tainted with such "pesky distractions as pesticides."

He doesn't eat Twinkies, but he doesn't hold it against anyone who does.

No, there's no turning back for Mr. Food. Here is a partial transcript of his screed against the anti-eaters of the world and the researchers who buoy them, researchers he suspects are really just three interns sitting in a cafeteria in Kansas City making a connection between the green beans they eat and their hair loss.

"I think the percentages of what they're talking about [salmonella] with raw eggs in Caesar salad are nonsense. I think the people who went crazy with cholesterol counts -- where they couldn't eat a piece of cake because there was one egg in the whole cake -- are nuts. It is so minute it's ridiculous. People make it a religion.

"I got a letter from a woman in California once who said, 'I don't want to watch, I don't want to cook anything of yours anymore because you use salt in your food. Salt is probably what causes all the nutritional problems of this world. I don't even let my child go into one of our neighbors' houses because they have salt on their shelf.' I thought somebody was putting me on. I called her, she was a nut. She was nutsy. She believed in running 26 miles a day. Her whole life was taken up by that. But if that's what makes her happy . . ."

Lessons in oatmeal

Next pitch: health, diet and food trends. Batting again, Mr. Food.

"They think that [any fad] is the magic bullet. Oatmeal was going to save the world. But after they ate it for six weeks they realized why people hadn't eaten it that whole time.

"People say to me, 'Why don't you do any low-cholesterol recipes?' Why? Because people don't buy the book. Because after they eat this no-cholesterol stuff once, they don't like it, and even the people who asked for the recipes don't buy the books.

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