Channel 4 in the UK has just finished showing the six-part Jamie’s Food Revolution, which documented Jamie ‘The Naked Chef’ Oliver’s attempt to get residents in Huntington, West Virginia, to improve their eating habits.

What follows is my open letter to Mr Oliver:

Jamie, I do wish that we knew each other so that I could have sat down with you before you filmed this documentary. Growing up, I lived in small- to mid-size towns and cities across America (my dad got transferred frequently, part of his job).  I know first-hand how many residents are friendly yet reserved to ‘outsiders’, people who haven’t lived there for three or four generations, as they have.

I can also tell you that you’d better say you like a lot of what you find in that town or else you’ll get an earful.  That means you don’t barge in, all guns blazing, to tell people whom you’ve never seen before that they’re fat, ignorant and in need of ‘change’.

I’ve seen almost all your documentaries and cooking shows in full, starting with The Naked Chef in the 1990s.  Yep, you were a cute, skinny Essex boy then.  Now, you’re a bit heavier, older and more like an experienced community organiser working a town.  (Hint: the ‘community organiser’ bit isn’t a compliment.)

It’s no surprise then that WDGG (‘The Dawg’) Radio‘s Rod Willis reacted the way he did to you. (Photo at left courtesy of delish.com — Jamie, Rod and radio sidekick Rocky.) Ditto dinner lady Alice Gue.  I met a lot of Rods and Alices when I was growing up.  They’re just regular folk telling you home truths in an uncompromising way. And what did you do but cry because they had the temerity to … disagree with you? Pull your socks up, mate.

You were fortunate in that Rod eased up on you during the 1,000-resident cooking session which appeared on Good Morning America.  But I do agree with him when he told Huntington News Net after the series premiere in March 2010:

I should have been a little more receptive to the [nutritious] things he was talking about and a little more cruel to him. I don’t think Jamie Oliver should be the one to tell us how to live our lives. After all, this guy is a rich, British b——d.

(That he is, Rod — a multi-millionaire several times over who lives in Primrose Hill in London now, well-shielded from fat people.)

Jamie, how much did you know about Huntington before you went there, other than an obesity statistic?  How much do you know about the history of the Appalachians?  I lived across the river from another city in West Virginia for a summer.

To get there, I crossed the Appalachians by car with my parents in the 1960s.  I know the conditions people were living in then.  They were dignified, God-fearing people from British stock who lived in dilapidated shacks. While all of President Johnson’s special funding was going towards the inner cities, these people had nothing.  They had to rely on growing their own basic crops on a tiny plot, raising a few chickens and were probably lucky to have meat once a week. I saw many women on foot carrying boxes of charity shop clothes from their nearest small town back to their shacks a few miles away. There was little industry in the parts we went through and few jobs.  It really was like Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Okay, I realise Huntington is a city, but how many people there have their roots going back to the mountains?  If you think about it, we may be seeing the first couple of generations for whom food — thankfully — hasn’t been an issue.  Granted, the type of fare on offer hasn’t been the best, as we saw from some of the youngsters and their parents featured in your show.  However, I would have suggested delving into the psyches and backgrounds of people like the Edwards family before hauling them off to the hospital for checkups.   Food means different things to different people.  I think you would have been surprised at the answers you would have received … if only you had cared enough to ask.

Incidentally, I contrasted the way you treated the people of Huntington with the way you acted towards the people in your inner-city television series.  Remarkable.  It didn’t matter that your inner-city ‘mates’ ate deep-fried food, did it?  No, that’s because those recipes came from their grandmothers.  It didn’t matter, did it, that they were still high-calorie, fat-laden dishes?  Apparently not.  Then you told us that the United States had stolen land which rightfully belonged to Mexico and that it should be given back.  Fair enough, you can air your views (again, you’re missing some history there), but there was no such empathy for something as simple as eating habits of the residents in Huntington, was there?  Even if some of those schoolkids were probably on the same socio-economic level as their inner-city counterparts.

And how could you expect those first-year students to know what an aubergine (eggplant) was?  Or what peas in a pod looked like?  Even in the most middle-class of supermarkets, they aren’t even on offer most of the time apart from on the East or West Coast.

So, no, I’m not surprised that Rod Willis and Alice Gue were offhand with you, even though they probably never watched one of your series. And you should have taken it like a man.  They weren’t being nasty to you as you alleged, just honest.

Let’s look at things from Alice’s perspective, shall we? (Jamie, I’ve borrowed a photo from your website to show the folks who Alice is — the lady in black.) In one episode, Alice expressed concern that she and the other dinner ladies would need to come in earlier to begin preparing meals for no extra pay.  Funny that, because I remember the English dinner ladies saying the same thing during your school lunch crusade this side of the pond.   Either that, or they would have to try to get some extra help in the kitchen.  Do you realise those costs need to be factored in to a school’s or a council’s budget — months in advance?  It didn’t seem to me in either case that you cared too much.

What’s more, rules in the United States for what goes on a child’s school lunch tray are remarkably bureaucratic.  And, yes, French fries do count as a vegetable. I’m not sure whether ketchup still does. I watched in amazement as you expected the rules to be bent and budgets to suddenly be increased just because … you asked?  The best scene for me was at the end as the ineffably polite lady in charge of local school food services, Rhonda McCoy, and the superintendent of schools suggested you discuss matters with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).  Why did that take you by surprise?

What Jamie’s Food Revolution showed us was yet another facet to your personality — the man who cannot bear to hear the word ‘no’.  You want to change the eating habits of certain people — not all, mind — and you go in swaggering and matey but don’t know a thing about where you’re going or with whom you’re dealing.  Many viewers saw a display of pride and arrogance which we certainly didn’t see in your inner-city series.

Maybe you and your dad should have a bit of a father-son chat concerning how you go about making these shows.  I’ve picked up a lot of useful culinary short-cuts from you over the years, but sometimes your desire to ‘change’ — not to mention control — some people and not others leaves me wondering about you and your motives.

Humility in all things, Jamie — humility.  Not to mention patience.  And a bit of understanding.

On that note, Cabell Huntington Hospital has just pledged another $50,000 towards your programme.

For further reading:

Jamie’s Food Revolution USA

‘Huntington Still Welcomes Jamie Oliver’Huntington News Network

‘West Virginia eats Jamie Oliver for breakfast’The Independent

‘Can Jamie Oliver Really Start a Food Revolution in Huntington, WV?’Huffington Post

‘Can Jamie Oliver Convince Americans to Eat Well?’Newsweek

‘The Food Issue — Jamie Oliver Puts America’s Diet on a Diet’New York Times