Meaning of taro

Part 2 of "The Meaning of Food," a three-part PBS series airing April 14, features a segment on taro-growing in Hawaii.


Chef Marcus Samuelsson hosts "The Meaning of Food."
It begins with a tourist luau as a means of having the uninitiated offer their opinions on the Hawaiian staple.

But then it progresses to the traditional story of taro, or kalo, as the older brother of man, to taro farms and to the table, with locals who eat poi every day.

The politics of water and its impact on the taro-growing lifestyle and the availability of poi are also examined.

But it's not all heavy-duty stuff.

The show also visits Las Vegas, for a look at how successfully "local" food has traveled so far from home.


The Orsak family of Snook, Texas, prepare kolaches with care for the Kolache Festival, a yearly tradition in the area's Czech community. Such ethnic and community traditions are the focus of PBS' three-part series, "The Meaning of Food."

Food series sets
inviting table, while
avoiding weighty issues

That sausage pizza you had the other night -- what did it mean to you?

Perhaps it reminded you of your youth, and Saturday nights with your family. Or maybe, if you are Italian, it struck a cultural chord.

"The Meaning of Food"
Airing at 10 p.m. Thursdays for three weeks starting tomorrow on KHET/PBS

Or maybe it was just ... food.

Sometimes, after all, a pizza is just a pizza -- although you wouldn't know it from watching "The Meaning of Food," a three-part series airing Thursday nights beginning tomorrow on KHET/PBS.

Which is OK, to a point. This is a very entertaining series, with a very charming host -- Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised executive chef of Riingo and Aquavit, two acclaimed Manhattan restaurants.

The first show, which examines the ties between food and love, is the best. We watch as Mike Piancone, owner of a California Italian deli, caters his daughter's wedding -- a labor of love in every sense.

He shows off a jar containing enough garlic to ward off legions of vampires. "Lots of garlic, already peeled and ready to go. God bless America."

In the course of the hour, we also meet a former prison inmate who found his ministry in cooking the last meals of condemned men; a Muslim teenager who struggles to fast during Ramadan as others scarf down their food around her; a concentration camp survivor, who makes dishes from a cookbook written by women in the camps.

Most poignant is Thomas Soukakos, a Greek immigrant who closed his restaurant after his beloved wife, in the throes of postpartum depression, killed herself. Now, with his young son at his side, he's opening a new restaurant -- a cafe called Vios, Greek for "life."

The second show looks at food and culture, with segments on taro and on the Makah Indians, who were briefly granted the right to hunt and eat whales as their ancestors did.

The last installment looks at food and family, featuring a Seattle food critic whose family operates a Chinese restaurant, an elaborate Samoan funeral feast and a cookoff between police and firefighters in St. Paul, Minn.

All of the food looks scrumptious. The music is swell -- Johnny Cash singing, "We are gathered here together to break bread"; Cab Calloway singing, "Everybody eats when they come to my house."

And the people are vivacious; at the end of each show, we see them gathered in a TV studio with Samuelsson, dining and exchanging toasts. Fine company, fine food -- it's a table anyone would want to join.

They are so beguiling that it seems peevish to point out that much of this is the equivalent of empty calories.

It's not just that everyone knows that food is wrapped up in culture and family. There are serious issues involving food, and they are ignored or winked at during these three hours.

The show mentions that cuisine has become homogenized, that you can eat the same food nearly everywhere. It gives a minute or two to the almighty hamburger, but otherwise does not dwell on fast food and its central role in the U.S. diet.

Nor does it talk about the onslaught of convenience foods that lack both taste and nutritional value. It shows people washing rice to make Gullah specialties, but it never points out that most Americans couldn't make a cake from scratch if you spotted them the mixed batter in a bowl.

(Perhaps coincidentally, "The Meaning of Food" is presented by Knorr, makers of bouillon and instant gravy.)

Also, watch this series and you can't help but notice that a lot of the people on screen are, well, portly. Obesity is the elephant in the kitchen -- obvious to all, but never confronted.

A customer in a Chicago breakfast joint says he once weighed 172 pounds, but thanks to the food at the White Palace Grill he now tips the scales at 272. Then, he laughs.

If we're talking about the meaning of food, how can we ignore the meaning of eating too much, and eating too much that is bad for us?

This is, perhaps, criticizing the series for failing to be something it never set out to be. These are engaging stories about people and food, artfully presented. But with the title "The Meaning of Food," you expect more.

"Food is nothing and it is everything," Samuelsson says near the end of the third show.

That about covers it, though this show does not.

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