Fast forward to the present, amid the variety of FN programs such as the glossy “Giada at Home”, the fussy nerd-like earnestness of Alton Brown, the aggressive macho posings of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay”, or the people-pleasing Hamptons-stylings of Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa”, it still may be hard to believe that Mexican food has finally made it to this pristine network.
Valladolid, a classically-trained chef raised in just across the border in Baja, Mexico and the San Diego area, and a former editor at Bon Appetit, is the new host of “Mexican Made Easy”, which had its premiere on January 23. It’s a mostly fluffy affair, nothing too deep or too complex, as befits the show’s name, and if you think hard enough, the powers that be at Food Network wouldn’t have it any other way. Not that Valladolid doesn’t want to educate her viewers about Mexican food.
In an interview she gave to USA Today about her new show, she feels it’s her duty to clear some misconceptions about the native cuisine that is close to her:
People in this country just love Mexican food, but there’s so much more to it than people know. People associate Mexican food with nachos, burritos, margaritas and really deep-fried foods heavy in starches, and those dishes are beloved in the U.S. We have to be grateful because this is the stuff that opened up the doors for people like me. It’s not a coincidence that salsa’s like the best-selling condiment in the country. But these days, the ingredients are just so accessible. It used to be that you only had the Hispanic section at the supermarket - now there’s an entire aisle. I try to make it really fresh, really accessible, and obviously with ingredients you can find at your local supermarket.
She begins her first telecast with a brunch theme, which has been reworked to use some distinct Mexican ingredients. Chilaquiles is her first dish –essentially fried tortilla chips cooked with a green tomatillo sauce and then served with melted cheese and maybe even Mexican crema. She even explains that these could be served with some scrambled eggs on top, which is the way I grew up eating them.
She then moves on to make a variation on eggs Benedict, even going so far as to call it “Benedicto”. Instead of a pure Hollandaise sauce, she “kicks it up” (a common term by perky FN hosts to denote chili peppers that are being added to a dish) by adding some chipotle peppers, which are smoked jalapeno peppers. The dish looks OK, but still there was something missing.
Finally, the meal concludes with a Mexican Coffee, which is coffee seeped in cinnamon sticks, brown sugar or piloncillo and orange peel. A story she relates about how this was her Mexican father’s favorite meal connected the meal to her heritage.
I’m not challenging Valladolid’s ethnic cred or her ability to cook a meal. She is petite, bubbly, beautiful and energetic in her kitchen and she busts out with a few Spanish words every now and then, effortlessly rolling her r’s, as when she says “tortillas’. But if this is what the Food Network calls Mexican food, then we’re really not getting anything truly challenging.
What we are left with is a watered-down, vaguely-pleasing, one-size-fits-all approach to food info-tainment. Perhaps it isn’t Valladolid’s fault; maybe she really does want to put on a zarape or put colorful ribbons in her braided hair, and reach out to her culinary experiences as an accomplished Mexican cook that she grew up being. As a result, you get a clear sense that Food Network is all about “ethnic-cleansing”, for want of a better term. When was the last time anything resembling foreign cuisine ever made it as a full-fledged program?
If this is what Food Network has to offer in the way of exposing Mexican food as one of the world’s richest and most complex cuisines, it certainly won’t be displayed on a show called “Mexican Made Easy”.
Things don’t get better on episode 2. In fact, for some reason, one entire segment was repeated after the commercial break, which either means something was taken out or re-edited, or that the show still suffers from a sluggish pacing. In any case, the promised segment on “Rosemary Shrimp Skewers” marinated in yet another chipotle sauce, never aired. This time the theme is “Game Day Grabs”. That certainly sounds Mexican to me! Oh yeah, it’s the Super Bowl season and in case FN viewers don’t notice, Saturdays become literally theme days and therefore almost all the programming revolves around a theme.
Because the network doesn’t want to let a show have a real personality of its own, the shows have to conform to these often easy and populist themes (barbecue, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc.).
Valladolid begins her show quite awkwardly, giggling and trying to convince us she cares about the “big game day”, whatever that is. She even imports some friends who stand in, also appearing to be excited about some nondescript game on TV. When deciding what to serve, she slights another culture by stating “we’re definitely not doing Chinese!”. So what is her answer to this? Guacamole!
“People ask me about making the perfect guacamole…probably because I’m Mexican”, she chirps. Ugh. Is this the extent of her friends’ knowledge about Mexican food? And sure enough, all Valladolid does is cut open an avocado, mash it with a fork, add some salt and lime juice and serves it with some baked tortilla chips—another complex dish!—that just came out of the oven. She doesn’t break a sweat, mind you, but would anyone?
After the network re-plays this very same segment, she moves on to another dish that I have never seen on a Mexican menu, some chicken drumettes served with an ancho powder sauce made with a robust dash of Worcestershire and then, strangely, doused with diced pecans. What kind of texture do chicken wings/drumettes really need, and why go through the trouble of chopping pecans?
Suffice to say that I had to click on the “show info” tab on my TiVo to remind myself that this was allegedly a “Mexican”-theme program but it was fast becoming a Rachael Ray-like compendium of simple bar food that you eat while sitting on the couch. In keeping with the bar theme, the final “dish” really took the cake. Valladolid instructed us on how to prepare a michelada: get this –a cold beer served in a frosty mug! Add salt! Squeeze some lime! That’s it.
Put simply, the Food Network likes its shows and hosts to play it safe. Being ethnic means you celebrate all the Southern charm of Paula Deen and her scarily-fattening dishes, or the (still) Southern bawdy body language of Pat and Gina Neely in “Down Home with the Neelys” –and all the comfort food that it and many other shows celebrate. Comfort food —that which makes us nostalgic and takes us back to our childhood—is the real deal here, and to the extent that FN programs can celebrate this day in and day out, viewers are generally happy.
In fact, most of the most popular recipes on the network’s website not only come from the superstar shows (Paula, Rachael and Bobby), but they are the staples that, in large doses, are capable of making us very fat. To prove this, consider how many times the network panders its audience to multiple recipes about macaroni and cheese or various kinds of fried chicken. It’s no secret that the Neelys and even Aaron McCargo’s “Big Daddy’s House” have capitalized on Paula Deen’s formula and have emerged as some of the network’s most popular programs.
As for “Mexican Made Easy”, it will be interesting to see just how “Mexican” Valladolid will be allowed to become, or how “complex” she can become without:
1) losing her viewers or
2) becoming less perky and less TV-friendly that people can relate to
It’s a shame because whenever ethnic cuisine has appeared on FN, it’s been tacked on, but not necessarily the main theme of the show or brought by a host. Rachael Ray feels like doing a little pad thai tonight? Break out the peanuts and the lime juice and add it to her patter about EVOO and “stoup” in 30 minutes flat. Can’t Tyler Florence bring in an Indian chef to do his “Ultimate” show about cooking the best chicken vindaloo? He will take care of it because we trust Tyler; he makes us comfortable and he looks handsome, and we’ll need this when we have to figure out later what the hell “vindaloo” means.
Only Paula Deen has been able to bring in the guests and, to her credit, she has made it work only by the force and charm of her personality. Last August, she brought in Pat Jinich, an accomplished Mexican culinary expert at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington DC, which is tied to the Mexican Embassy. Jinich, a very appealing and enthusiastic Mexican woman with a charming accent, was teaching Paula how to make tacos with freshly ground corn tortillas, and filled with various savory fillings.
Paula was genuinely excited about the whole affair, diving in with gusto and charmingly murdering some words in Spanish. For a person who runs a lucrative food empire in Charleston, SC, it was hard (and fascinating) to believe that she had never seen a crispy beef taco or ever cooked with a tomatillo before. But here is the revealing part: again, the ethnic cuisine is brought in to accentuate, and not necessarily serve as the focus of the program. It’s still Paula and the sticks of butter she tosses in her dishes without any care of the world and her fluffy silver mane. But for a few minutes we had a taste of something new and unexpected, and in Pat Jinich, Paula found not only a kindred and feisty companion, but also someone who seemed at ease on camera and expressed great affection for her native cuisine.
No one expects “Mexican Made Easy” to suddenly start churning out traditional Mexican dishes like Camarones a la diabla, Bistec a la Tampiquena or Cochinita Pibil. If we’re lucky, one day we may only get to see how to make a tamal. But the show also doesn’t have to have the panache and thrill of Rick Bayless’s “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” either. This show is a true cultural escapade, a culinary journey, almost, to a land that shows the host’s tremendous affection for staying true to the traditions of Mexican cuisine.
We see Bayless inside the enormous Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City standing in front of deep, luxurious mounds of mole pastes, all from different kinds of dried chile peppers. Then he goes home, and in one amazing episode, he proceeded to make a 27-ingredient mole in a copper pot over a small fire in his backyard in Chicago, where he owns the famed Frontera Grill/Topolobampo restaurants.
Yes, “One Plate at a Time” is an entirely different kind of show than “Mexican Made Easy”. Yes, it’s on PBS. But is it so wrong to allow a show on the Food Network to develop its own character and not feel as if the show is being told to constantly tone it down? Another case in point is Daisy Martinez, the Puerto Rican host of “Viva Daisy”, seen only occasionally on Fridays on FN. Martinez, a thoroughly charming host and very adept on camera, actually started her show on PBS when it was called “Daisy Cooks!”. It worked there precisely because she got to spend some time discussing some important basics of her cuisine –the importance of sofrito, a distinct flavor base of Puerto Rican dishes, or making the colorful anato oil made from the fragrant anato seeds.
For whatever reason, Martinez didn’t quite catch on over at PBS, and it’s probably because of the solid fare of Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food”, and shows by Lidia Bastianich, Jacques Pepin, or even the precision lessons offered on “America’s Test Kitchen” and its fussy host, Cook’s Illustrated chief Christopher Kimball. Enter Rachael Ray (and husband John Cusimano). She decided to bring Martinez over to the Food Network and produce a show for her, “Viva Daisy!” And guess what? It became the Rachael Ray show all over again, minus the hoarse voice and chirpy shtick and giggles. Or at least it seemed that way because “Viva Daisy!” has not been allowed to develop its own character.
Not surprisingly, you’d be hard pressed to find much that is very Puerto Rican at all. Does the fact that she is making pork steaks, her son’s favorite, make it ethnic? At the same time, her show’s titles say nothing about the origins of the foods or its history but instead they are all about things that make sense to the lowest common denominator attention span of the average FN viewer: lunch with the girls, breakfast made easy, or yes, that old classic, “game day favorites”. Even on her old, much more entertaining show on PBS, Martinez introduced us to other Latin cuisines, not just Puerto Rican. On Food Network, Martinez is just another cook with vaguely interesting dishes to whip out before the next commercial break.
Without knowing what the next episodes of “Mexican Made Easy” will bring, I am fairly confident that there will be episodes about “romantic dinner for two” or “cooking with kids” (Valladolid has a 5-year-old named Fausto), or the requisite Valentine’s Day, Easter, or Halloween shows. That’s fine and it speaks to the FN viewers’ preferences perhaps. It’s just that in paying lip service to other cuisines beyond what is perceived as “American” —whatever that is, and thus a whole other topic altogether—the network refuses to make its programming reflective of a population that is more and more ethnically rich. Instead of seeing these trends as opportunities, it prefers to have it both ways.
“Mexican Made Easy” will succeed not because it has the boldness to move beyond enchiladas topped with sour cream (despite what Valladolid thinks) and embrace something richer and reflective of a culture, but because it will continually tow the line of conformity and a cuisine that is blander, not richer or deeper. For a network whose latest hyped creation is the unwatchable “Worst Cooks in America”, that may suit them just fine.