TV dinners

America loves to eat. Just go to any mall food court and you’ll see troughing like nowhere else on earth. And what, pray tell, are the hungry and harried jamming down their gullets? Comfort food, the very stuff that makes the surgeon general and the American Medical Association swoon.

Even that bellwether of food neuroses, the exercise infomercial, has taken note. Billy Blanks and his imitators are not going after the legions of sluggards surfing the sofa. Giving them up for dead – or soon to be so – Blanks goes after the gym denizen and hardcore narcissist.

That leaves the rest of us to salivate in front of the telly, watching the Food Network. More specifically, we can’t seem to get enough Emeril Lagasse, the grandmaster of butter, bacon and all things rich and sclerotic. Once a renowned chef in New Orleans, Lagasse runs less a cooking show than a wet dream factory for a nation that has been badgered and scolded away from the dinner table and into the arms of Jenny Craig.

I can remember those hard-won sick days from elementary school when I watched, utterly enthralled, as the Galloping Gourmet sliced and diced an onion behind his back before tossing it into a classic French heart stopper. Then Julia Child would come on, twittering away as she whipped up a brie soufflé or some such delight. America, always caught between a sense of inferiority and superiority when it comes to the Continent, couldn’t have asked for two better ambassadors.

Years later, after his wife suffered a heart attack, a contrite Galloping Gourmet came back with "Mini-Max" cooking – all the taste of French with none of the fat. A very hard sell, even for someone like me who has eaten his fair share of nouvelle cuisine. The Food Network, sensing that people were tired of small plates with even smaller calorie counts, brought in Lagasse and he’s now number one on the network.

Whereas Martha Stewart is all about neatness and precision, Emeril is a slop artist. On a regular basis, he botches a dish and those that he doesn’t end up looking like he did. Things fall down. A sauce doesn’t gel. Just like at home. Indeed, what Lagasse gives his viewers is a license to indulge in excess, even if it ain’t too pretty on the plate.

Yet the man is far from my favorite. That honor belongs to "The Two Fat Ladies," one of an increasing number of cooking shows coming out of "Cool Britannia," as Tony Blair would like to have us think of the green and pleasant land. Combining cookery with bucolic touring of the grand "between wars" tradition, Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright trundle around the British countryside on a Triumph Thunderbird – with Jennifer at the controls and Clarissa crammed like Humpty-Dumpty into a Watsonian Jubilee sidecar. Occasionally, they pop in on a farmer raising organic cattle or a cheese maker who specializes in blue double creams.

The vibe is very much "town and country" – combining the traditional allure of fresh ingredients direct from the land with the streak of culinary innovation that first energizes the city and then makes its way out to country inns. Fans of the show "Chef" will know exactly what I mean.

I love everything about these two but, good Lord, that title – "The Two Fat Ladies"? Just imagine if some genius had tried to float that stateside. The phone lines would have been jammed at the Food Network for days by irate plumpers, resulting in the program getting the hook in short order.

As much as political correctness is mocked in the United States, it still holds sway when the chips are down for the hitherto maligned and marginalized. Alas, something got lost in fervor – a sense of irreverent fun. And I’m not talking about up-front vulgarity like There’s Something about Mary or the self-promotion sweepstakes of "Politically Incorrect." Where in this country is one free from mincing euphemism, shaded words and calculated niceties? Where is the straight talk, the self-effacing slur, the tart acceptance of imperfection?

So why the devil not two fat ladies? Just look at them in their muumuus as they shamble jauntily about the kitchens they visit, trading ribald chat while mucking about with the vittles. They know who they are and have no problem with it, which is a large part of their appeal. These women not only know food, they actually eat it.

In a recent episode, they stop in at a girl’s school. As they stand on the sidelines watching lithe young things indulge in a heated game of lacrosse, Jennifer and Clarissa, with not a little cattiness, recall their youths wasted on such foolish pursuits. Then it’s back to the kitchen to finish up a pot roast cooked in a Thai coconut sauce and a succulent meatloaf featuring lamb and chicken livers.

God bless ’em: comfort food with the cheek we need in times when fun has too many rules.