The Meaning of Food

I'm not sure Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef and co-owner of New York's Aquavit, was the ideal choice to host this three-part series. Though his enthusiasm is undeniable, his screen presence leaves a bit to be desired. Despite its obvious good intentions, the series as a whole—portions of which were filmed in Seattle—similarly fails to live up to its ambitious title. Most of the meaning it finds is fairly routine: Episode three, "Food and Family," leads us through predictable venues (a family-run Chinese restaurant in Missouri) and occasions (a Maori funeral in the Northwest, a Texan tamale-making party). Struggling mightily to balance culture and cuisine, the show often gets lost in familial tangents. It's only when it strays from its earnest quest for meaning, ironically enough, that Meaning shines. My favorite segment chronicles an annual culinary showdown between the police and fire departments of St. Paul, Minn., in which both sides spend an entire day cooking up ridiculous quantities of "booya," whose name derives from the French "bouillabaisse." The competition, billed as "Guns and Hoses," is less about the end product (once defined in the Star-Tribune as "a greenish-gray concoction of unknown, mostly inedible ingredients") than about the tradition behind it, which makes it an excellent subject for the show. The segment's tone even flirts with irreverence, a refreshing change of pace for a series that feels dutiful a little too much of the time. The Meaning of Food, produced by Pie in the Sly Productions, in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting. First installment airs April 7 at 10 p.m. on KCTS.

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