James Martin’s United Cakes of America
Good Food, 25 February at 9am
America isn’t your first thought when contemplating the world’s great gastronomic regions. When it comes to baking, cooking and jouet cuisine, they make the British look positively French. Anyone who’s ever watched Man v Food knows quantity is the marker of quality when it comes to your average American diner.
There’s more than a little of such US imports in James Martin’s latest vehicle. The cook travels around the States learning how to make good ol’ American food – and then showing us how to prepare something completely different. The cuts come every couple of seconds, and constant recapping and foreshadowing make damn sure that even those suffering micro-bouts of narcolepsy can keep up.
Ignoring adverts, each episode’s a mere 22 minutes, yet somehow time still feels wasted. Laboured spontaneity and un-amusing discussions of Martin’s car try to build some story beyond the cooking, but Top Gear this ain’t. While Martin’s capable enough during the instructional pieces – delivered in a set trying so hard to be Yankee doodle-dandy it can only be in Chiswick – he’s not terribly engaging outside of them.
The set-ups he’s continually shoved into don’t help. The best travelogues offer glimpses and insights into the everyday world of alien places. Sometimes they may stumble upon the eccentric, the endemic or the extreme, but they retain a documentarist’s distance. United Cakes of America feels as artificial as the average American hamburger.
The programme’s not alone in possessing any of these faults. It’s designed to go up against Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars and all the other corn syrup starching up the Food Network. But that doesn’t excuse it: it just means it’s generic as well as paper-thin. There’s no use getting annoyed about something even its makers didn’t intend to mean anything – but there’s no reason to watch it either.
Did I learn anything about the USA’s relationship with food from United Cakes of America? Not really. Did I learn how to bake any actual American cakes an arty chef hadn’t fiddled with? No. Might the show catch my attention for a few moments as I flick through the digital channels? Possibly. Would I feel I’d wasted those three minutes the moment I moved on? Definitely.