• February 9, 2023

“Waffles + Mochi,” Reviewed: The Pure Joy of Michelle Obama’s Food Show for Kids

“The sound of meep is cheering,” wrote lexicographer Erin McKean in a 2009 column in the Boston Globe. (She commented on an odd case – a Massachusetts headmistress, troubled by his students’ insane obsession with the nonsense sound, recently banned the use of “meep” because of suspension pain – but that’s a story for another day. ) Even more appealing, I would argue, is the pairing of an expressive meepers with a partner who speaks normally and also understands her friend’s musical meeps as fluent language. Waffles and mochi, the felt and fur dolls from the new Netflix children’s series of the same name, are such a pair. Two food-obsessed best friends (both of whom are food, though maternal waffles are a yeti) are Orator and Meeper in the great Muppet tradition of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker and from “Strindberg and Helium”, an early two thousand animated series that combined the grumpy Swedish playwright with a tiny pink balloon of incorrigible happiness, with the mochi – also tiny, also pink, also in the pipe register – an uncanny resemblance having . Waffles aren’t the least bit Strindbergian (and thank goodness considering she’s the protagonist of a show primarily aimed at preschoolers) – she’s sunny, curious, and outgoing, an émigré from the land of frozen foods who, after stowing it in a van, ends up in a grocery store owned by the friendly Ms. O., an enthusiastic gardener who is ready to help the duo embark on global adventures to find out daily something about tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, eggs and others Learning things culinary wonders.

In 2018, Ms. O. – using her full name Michelle Obama – signed a development contract with Netflix with her husband, the former president. A year later, Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, announced a series of shows, including a half-hour children’s series entitled “Listen to Your Vegetables and Eat Your Parents.” Sometime between then and now, that spoonerism was downgraded from title to rally scream – in every episode where Waffles and Mochi take off in a magical flying shopping cart to explore a special ingredient, Intercommy calls the intercom Valedictory Fanfare – but his mind is more childlike Anarchy persists. (The show was created by Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner.) The laws of the puppet-human universe of “Waffles + Mochi” were written decades ago by programs such as “The Muppet Show” and “Pee-Wees Playhouse”: everything lives, except when it is not; Everything that lives is a friend, even if it is an enemy. and people will break into songs on occasion, but it’s cool because the songs are really, really good.

“What a beautiful basket with clown noses!” Waffles (performed and voiced by puppeteer Michelle Zamora) exclaim and admire a pile of shiny red balls at the beginning of the first episode of the series. Ms O. explains that it is actually tomatoes; Waffles and mochi’s first job in the grocery store is deciding where to go in the store. The duo board MagiCart, which takes them to Oakland, California, where Samin Nosrat, the chef and another Netflix star, live. In Nosrat’s sunny garden, they make a dish of pasta with “tomato candy” – roasted cherry tomatoes – while Nosrat explains that technically tomatoes are fruit because they have seeds inside. After a musical break with an animated tomato in a Sia wig (it turns out, voiced by Sia), waffles and mochi hit a pizza shop where they learn that chefs often treat tomatoes like vegetables. Perhaps MagiCart senses that waffles are swaying on the edge of an ontological abyss and next brings the friends to the chef José Andrés, who explains in a child-friendly way that categories are sometimes completely meaningless. “Can a tomato be a fruit and a vegetable?” Asks waffles. “Yes,” says Andrés, “and you would be right in both directions.”

“Waffles + Mochi” is global in his view: The foods and people shot in Italy, Peru and Japan are treated as no more exotic than those in California, from a father in Kyoto who makes onigiri with his son to a Peruvian seller Selling Mazamorra Morada, a purple corn pudding. (The international segments are dubbed in English, which is frustrating to me, but certainly a lot friendlier for small viewers who may not be able to follow subtitles.) While waffles are sometimes unfamiliar, or even unfamiliar with a dish or ingredient a little scared of it (yes, mushrooms are pretty weird!), she is never disgusted. When she and Mochi try new things, they say out loud what they are experiencing: not just taste, but textures as well. When the friends find themselves at the counter at Kichi Kichi Omurice, a restaurant in Kyoto famous for a dish of spiced rice with a custard-soft omelette, waffles are delighted but mochi meepert is ambiguous. “Mochi likes the taste but not the texture,” interprets Waffles, and a whole generation of tiny food critics is born.

Children’s television has a long tradition of modeling ideals of diversity and acceptance through food – one of my earliest memories of food TV is from the 1980s “Sesame Street” segment where two boys help their father shop, prepare and cook for his Mexican restaurant. There are moments like this in “Waffles + Mochi” – a section in the “Pickle” episode where a boy in Seoul, Korea, talks about attending a kimchi festival with his family that feels so pure and intimate like the best of PBS children’s programming in the Golden Age. But the food culture is far more expansive and creative today than it was when I was the target audience for this type of show. What waffles and mochi really want is to become chefs – just like many other kids who grew up on second wave reality shows like “MasterChef Junior”, “Chopped Junior” and “Food Network Star Kids”.

By expecting young viewers to be already interested in food, “Waffles + Mochi” is saved from the manic desperation that can overwhelm educational media that are less confident in the coolness of their subject. Each episode is full of fun facts, cooking tips, and warm, non-culinary hours of life. (“You can use old things even when they’re broken,” says Ms. O. happily as she plants vegetable seedlings in soil-filled eggshells.) The show’s message reflects Michelle Obama’s longstanding commitment to child nutrition and health ; Children should know that food is fascinating and fresh food is delicious. These ideas are good and important, but they are also broad and undisputed. Given the Obama’s powerful cultural influence, shouldn’t we expect them to say more about America’s food, hunger, and nutritional health crises, based on a fundamentally broken, exploitative, and unsustainable food system than simply reminding children that fresh food is essential are neat?

On the other hand, “Waffles + Mochi” is a puppet show for preschoolers with a talking mop named Steve. And the relaxed, integrative view of the show makes it possible to address topics that most food programs (including adults!) Shy away from: water scarcity, inclusion of disabilities, indigenous food routes. One of the most noticeable moments in the series is the episode “Rice,” where Mochi searches for his roots so he can build a family tree that Ms. O. was working on at the beginning of the episode. (“Who is that man next to you?” A doll friend asks about a head cut of a young Barack Obama. “This is my husband,” Mrs. O Deadpans.) To learn more about rice, mochi and waffles visit Michael Twitty, den Writer and culinary historian. As a magnetic storyteller, he tells the puppets a painful story with ruthless simplicity. “My people were the Mende, in a place called Sierra Leone,” says Twitty. “Long ago, people from Sierra Leone were brought to the United States of America, in the south, to forcibly grow rice.” He explains that his grandmother, grandmother, “was enslaved, which meant that she was separated from her family and home and had to work in violence for free. And why? Because she knew how to grow and process rice. And so my people grew rice during and after slavery. And rice was a common part of our diet and identity. “

Twitty, a well-respected writer and scholar, may not be an obvious choice for a guest star spot on a kids’ show, but it is segments like his that lead “Waffles + Mochi” to transcend the sometimes predictable tropes of this type of programming. The world of “Waffles + Mochi” is populated by celebrity chefs and celebrities (many of them from other Netflix shows) as well as mycologists, salt farmers, deaf pizzaiolos, tortellini rollers with special needs, experienced miso makers and a trio of children, eager to show off the brightly colored eggs their urban chickens have laid on the farm. The familiar cameos are for the adults in the audience (who is Zach Galifianakis or Rashida Jones for a three year old anyway?), And that goes for Michelle Obama as well as anyone else. She will always be the former first lady for the parents in the audience who may struggle to adjust to her new identity as a child edutainment superstar. But for the kids who grow up with “Waffles + Mochi” on Netflix, she might just be Ms. O., the nice lady from TV who tends a roof garden over a grocery store filled with dolls.

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