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Holiday TV programming is a feast for adventurous foodies

TV viewers' appetites for food programming, even during the holidays, have become more adventurous

Harley "Sauce Boss" Morenstein is Canadian, but he's always had a certain reverence for the American holiday of Thanksgiving. That may be because he's all about overindulgence, as his popular Epic Meal Time franchise attests in calorie-drenched detail.

Morenstein and his kitchen team, after all, are the culinary bros who created "Turbaconepic," a few years back, stuffing quail, Cornish hen, chicken, duck and turkey into a pig, adding copious amounts of bacon throughout. The heart-stopping feast's how-to video has snagged nearly 18 million YouTube views to date.

As a follow-up, Epic Meal's grease mongers created "Turbaconepicentipede," that arranged 10 pigs end-to-end and topped 68,000 fat grams. Depending on queasiness levels, the makeup of this dish may be better left to the imagination.

How, then, could Morenstein's dude-food crew outdo itself for its first televised Thanksgiving special? The name of the pork-heavy project might provide a clue: HMS Swine Craft.

"We took everything you eat on Thanksgiving, put it between two pigs, made it into a boat and invited strangers to come eat it," said Morenstein, star of "Epic Meal Empire" on cable channel FYI. "This may be the one day of the year that everybody gets on our level."

"Epic Meal Empire" may be one indication that viewers' appetites for food programming, even during the vaunted holidays, have become more adventurous. TV channels, primarily cable, are responding to that demand with some quirky and nontraditional food shows that will dot the dial for the next several weeks.

Though there will be no shortage of ubiquitous celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and "Pioneer Woman" Ree Drummond walking viewers through their versions of turkey and fixings, there's other, out-of-the-box programming that could satisfy those viewers still hungry for more or those with quirkier appetites.

National Geographic Channel recently jumped into food series for the first time with two new shows, the libation-based "Chug," and famous-chef-fronted "Eric Greenspan Is Hungry." The network also aired an ambitious six-hour miniseries called "Eat: The Story of Food" that interviews nearly 90 chefs, authors, food historians, bloggers and scientists talking about sweeping evolution-of-food issues.

The six-part series, which will air again over the weekend and features installments such as "Carnivores," "Food Revolutionaries" and "Guilty Pleasures," profiles groundbreakers such as Chef Boiardi (yes, a real person) and the Swanson brothers, and reveals why Christopher Columbus is such an important food world figure (hint: spices). It covers buzz-worthy topics like sustainability, edible insects — 1,900 species just waiting to be munched — and food engineering.

"We hope you'll never look at your dinner plate the same way again," said Pam Caragol Wells, executive producer, National Geographic Studios, "and that you'll get some insight into the role that food plays in our lives and culture."

The show dovetails with an eight-month series of in-depth articles from National Geographic magazine on feeding the world's fast-growing population and other global food topics.

The TV project blends its facts and data with entertainment, like sultry chef Nigella Lawson talking about the joys of eating animal testicles and molecular gastronomist Nathan Myhrvold defending his five-volume, 2,200-page, $625 cookbook set "Modernist Cuisine." Marathons are scheduled for Sunday and Dec. 19, with re-airings through the holidays.

Because food shows, like other reality TV series, have matured, audiences want something unique and envelope-pushing these days, said Maude Standish, a trend forecaster and director of strategy at L.A. ad agency Mistress. And viewers are thirsty for knowledge that goes well beyond recipes, she said.

"It's part of the ongoing edutainment trend, where people are looking for VIP information, history and adventure, and not just how to cook a chicken," Standish said. "It's more Anthony Bourdain and less Rachael Ray."

Eric Greenspan, known for L.A. dining hot spots like the Roof on Wilshire and the Foundry, incorporates travel into his new series for just that reason. For his first Thanksgiving-themed episode, airing Dec. 8, he goes wild turkey hunting in rural Mississippi.

"A lot of us, even chefs, are really separated from our food because a piece of meat, for instance, comes to us tidy and pre-cleaned and ready to cook," Greenspan said. "But I think people want to get the source and have a better respect and understanding of where things come from."

"Eric Greenspan Is Hungry" will take him from Louisiana, where he fishes for crawfish, to Texas (hunting alligator gar) to Arkansas (bison) and beyond, where he'll also try to dispel myths about unimaginative American cooking.

"There's fascinating regional cuisine that people may not know about," he said. "And I figure if I'm being educated, then the audience may be too."

Even when some of TV's food programs will hit traditional holiday notes in the upcoming weeks, they may have an unusual spin. That's true of "Top Chef's" challenge to its Season 12 contestants to gather their own cranberries from a bog and replicate the first Thanksgiving. Only the amateur chefs couldn't use their immersion blenders and sous-vide machines, nor could they grab refrigerated ingredients or tap into running water.

The competitors could work only with cooking tools, methods and ingredients found in Massachusetts in the 1600s, which made judge Gail Simmons fear that she'd be eating "a lot of dirt and sand and overcooked meat."

Since the season is set is Boston, producers used Plimoth Plantation, the site of the first known Thanksgiving feast, which has rudimentary cooking utensils and open flames. Forget the convection oven — there's nothing but fire pits and smokehouses, and no electricity.

"There's possibly nothing more hard-core traditional than this," Simmons said, "and yet the contestants have probably done their training with every modern convenience and technique. They said it was the toughest thing they've done, and they just had to get creative and use what was in front of them."

The episode, with its clams and lobster, blueberries, onions, parsnips, rabbit and duck — no turkey — re-airs on Thanksgiving Day and through the month.

Simmons thinks both "Top Chef" and food shows in general need to keep refining their game, even at a tradition-steeped time of year, because everyone seems to be a sophisticated foodie.

Greenspan couldn't agree more, saying, "It's not enough to baste a turkey and call it a day. People want to see something unusual and exciting."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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