Parks and Recreation is my food porn

Originally published on Junkee.

Keep your cravat-wearing critics and grudge-match cooking contests, there’s only one foodie TV show for me. As a comedy series delivering local government LOLs,  Parks and Recreation‘s not exactly a cooking show, but in the fictional town of Pawnee, food is an integral part of life.

With the right mix of sincerity, humour and heart, Parks and Recreation uses a  “food is culture” philosophy to shape its world, distinguishing social, political and personal identities around it. Food is not only used as an identifier, a location, a recurrent joke and a dramatic device, but as a means through which to tap into the culinary preoccupation of our culture.

Allow me demonstrate.

THE POLITICAL:

Pawnee has a strong and bizarre mythology, with many historical tragedies and civic celebrations that are garnished with culinary flavour, from the Bread Factory fire to the Harvest Festival.

Pawnee town meetings involve citizens complaining about the sandwich they found at the park lacking mayonnaise, and JJ’s diner serves as “the unofficial meeting place of Pawnee’s political elite.” Conversely, rival-town Eagleton holds their catered council meetings at the country club and their air smells like vanilla cupcakes (Pawnee parks have a forty-year-old sewage smell).

Food narratives hold this little world together like butcher’s string around stuffed pork tenderloin.

THE SOCIAL:

As a comedy, matters of health and wellbeing in Parks And Rec are at once serious and trivial. In season three, eternal optimist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) introduced us to Pawnee’s slogan:

pawnee

 

By the time season five wrapped up, now-Councilwoman Knope joyously announced that “diabetes and obesity is down” at a public forum; the show uses the opportunity to highlight the power that fast food chains hold over the citizens of Pawnee, often a go-to joke. By the finale, Paunch Burger’s megalomaniac figurehead had turned the town against Leslie and her health-improving ways; to them, Leslie was a do-gooder bureaucrat out to undermine their civil liberties, and their right to eat and drink in excess.

Junk food is Pawnee’s core commercial trade: its major business is a candy conglomerate, Sweetums, and the town is home to a lucrative fast-food industry that includes ranges of chains like Slop Trough (which opened after Sue’s Salad went out of business).

It’s an important societal subject that’s played for both awareness and laughs; while the Big Gulp debate might have been satirised in Parks, the irony of sugar-binging Leslie imposing a topical tax on child-size (“literally the size of a child”) sugar drinks in ‘Soda Tax’ is not lost. Leslie may prevent another Paunch Burger franchise from opening (‘Two Parties’) but she still very much loathes salad.

THE PERSONAL:

In the same way you know which of your friends are pescetarian, lactose intolerant, vegan or love chocolate, over the past five seasons we’ve gotten to know the dietary requirements of the Parks and Rec family. Each character has a strong identification with specific foods and practices, which function as revealing markers of their personalities. Like a mixed bag of lollies from your local milk bar circa 1991, the Pawnee Parks Department are a colourful and assorted mix: of food-based idealism, ignorance, health awareness, hipsterdom and gluttony. If there was a Parks and Recreation cookbook I’d order it immediately, based on its variety alone.

LESLIE KNOPE

Leslie’s hatred of salad and love affair with waffles are defining characteristics of her personality. She openly celebrates Waffle Days with friends, wears a scented waffle necklace, owns a waffle purse, and is JJ’s favourite customer because she spends “over a thousand dollars last year on waffles alone” (the internets calculated; it translates to roughly 300 waffles a year).

They say you are what you eat, and in the case of sweet, golden, comforting Leslie — a waffle personified — it’s true.

(It should be noted that her other favourite food is whipped cream – it’s featured so often it should have a star credit.)

BEN WYATT

Likewise, Leslie’s paramour Ben (Adam Scott) is a super-sweet guy, whose relationship with food mirrors his endearing character. Ben could author a relationship advice book called The Way to a Woman’s Heart is Through Her Stomach and Other Romantic Non-Clichés. From planning to cook a mac’n’cheese pizza for their romantic night in (DREAM!), to presenting her with an L-shaped éclair during their courtship, he knows that the good stuff is both adorable and edible.

But more often than not, Ben fails dismally on the food front, losing all epicurean credibility thanks to his love of calzones.  Even after calzones have been rejected by Leslie (they’re just “like pizza but harder to eat”), as well as Pawnee’s police force and everyone else in the town, Ben remains optimistically obstinate, with daggy determination.  His affection for the food verges on sad when, plummeting to depths of despair during housebound depression, Ben claims he’s going to opening the ‘Low-Cal Calzone Zone’ eatery. 😦

RON SWANSON

Ron Swanson is the show’s extreme carnivore, who refuses salad (the food his food eats), and shops only in bulk at mega market Food-and-Stuff. Ron follows a strict diet built around a mountain of machismo – the ethos outlined in ‘Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness’.

Ron eats excessively but he isn’t a glutton; a hands on guy, his consumption is tied to his energy expenditure. Ron has dishes named after him (a turkey leg wrapped in bacon is “The Swanson”; and then there’s this faux Ben & Jerry’s flavour), a picture of breakfast food hanging on his office wall, and is aroused when his ex-wife slaps jerky against herself. And it all makes sense – because he’s Ron Fucking Swanson.

CHRIS TRAEGER AND TOM HAVERFORD

On the other, lighter end of the food identity spectrum lie the far less-brutish Chris Traeger and Tom Haverford.

Verging on the new age, Chris is a health-obsessed, turkey burger-championing, chipper salad eater.

Tom, on the other hand, is a self-ascribed ‘foodie’. Touching on our contemporary need to publicise our food intellect and decadence, he would rather be ‘about’ food than eat it, developing his own food-based lexicon, and acknowledging the importance of presentation.

FOOD AS NARRATIVE:

The recent episode of ‘Ann’s Direction’ is just one of many in which the characters’ food affinities come together as a narrative tool. In order to determine the perfect caterer for his impending wedding, Ben Wyatt recruits Ron Swanson, Chris Traeger, and Tom Haverford  for their specialised dietary knowledge: Ron as the meat lover, Chris as the health expert, and Tom as the foodie (“which apparently means taking Instagrams of food instead of eating it”).

Combining these three characters with Ben’s calzone-inclined ways, the catering adventure ends up a great bonding experience. Until they all end up with food poisoning – well, Tom emerges unscathed, after refusing to eat the mini calzones due to Haverfood Rule #6: “Never eat anything with a sauce I have to dip myself. Drizzle it on for me. I’m not yo maid.”

Meanwhile:

These shared food experiences are key to character relationships in Parks and Rec. Like when Leslie and Ron bond over preferred meals (“why would anyone eat anything other than breakfast food?”), or when Jerry’s (Jim O’Heir) family tradition of The Breakfast Song reveals a side of him previously undisclosed.

When Ann (Rashida Jones) dates Chris, she takes on his specific food ordering mannerisms, which becomes a key turning point for her character’s trajectory. And then of course there’s that time when she forces Ron to eat a banana. Chaos ensues.

So who needs food porn when you’ve got Team Knope? The Parks Department’s mixed pallets – a combination of extreme carnivores, obsessive-herbivores, food wankers, sweet tooths – and culinary adventures make Parks and Recreation a perfectly balanced TV dinner.

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