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

“The very sound of meep is cheering,” the lexicographer Erin McKean wrote, in 2009, in a column in the Boston Globe . (She was commentin...


“The very sound of meep is cheering,” the lexicographer Erin McKean wrote, in 2009, in a column in the Boston Globe. (She was commenting on an odd case—a Massachusetts high-school principal, distressed by his students’ faddish obsession with the nonsense sound, had recently banned all use of “meep,” on pain of suspension—but that’s a story for another day.) Even more delightful, I’d argue, is the pairing of an expressive meeper with a partner who speaks normally, and who, moreover, understands her friend’s musical meeps as fluent speech. Waffles and Mochi, the felt-and-fur puppets of the new Netflix children’s series of the same name, are such a pair. Two food-obsessed best friends (who also both happen to be food, although on her mother’s side Waffles is a yeti), they are a talker and meeper in the grand tradition of the Muppets Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant, Beaker, of “Strindberg and Helium,” an early-two-thousands animated series that paired the morose Swedish playwright with a tiny pink balloon of incorrigible cheerfulness, to whom Mochi—also tiny, also pink, also conversing in whistle register—bears an uncanny resemblance. Waffles, though, is not Strindbergian in the least (and thank goodness, considering she’s the protagonist of a show aimed primarily at preschoolers)—she’s sunny, curious, and open-hearted, an émigré from the Land of Frozen Food who, after stowing away in a delivery truck, ends up at a grocery store owned by the friendly Mrs. O., an avid gardener who’s ready to help the duo embark on globe-spanning adventures to learn about tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, eggs, and other everyday culinary miracles.

In 2018, Mrs. O.—under her full name, Michelle Obama—signed a development deal with Netflix along with her husband, the former President. A year later, the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, announced a slate of shows in the works, among them a half-hour kids’ series titled “Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents.” At some point between then and now, that spoonerism was downgraded from title to rallying cry—in each episode, as Waffles and Mochi take off in a magic flying shopping cart to explore a special ingredient, Intercommy the intercom calls it out as a valedictory fanfare—but its spirit of childlike anarchy remains. (The show is created by Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner.) The laws of “Waffles + Mochi” ’s puppet-human universe were written decades ago, by programs such as “The Muppet Show” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”: everything is alive, except when it isn’t; everything alive is a friend, even when it’s an enemy; and people are going to break into song occasionally, but it’s cool, because the songs are really, really good.

“What a beautiful basket of clown noses!” Waffles (performed and voiced by the puppeteer Michelle Zamora) exclaims, admiring a pile of shiny red orbs, early in the show’s first episode. Mrs. O. explains that, actually, these are tomatoes; Waffles and Mochi’s first task at the grocery is to decide where in the store they ought to go. The duo hop aboard MagiCart, which whisks them to Oakland, California, home of Samin Nosrat, the chef and a fellow Netflix star. In Nosrat’s sunny garden, they make a dish of pasta with “tomato candy”—roasted cherry tomatoes—while Nosrat explains that, because tomatoes have seeds on the inside, they’re technically fruits. After a musical interlude, featuring an animated tomato in a Sia wig (voiced, it turns out, by Sia), Waffles and Mochi visit a pizza shop, where they learn that chefs often treat tomatoes like a vegetable. Perhaps sensing that Waffles is teetering on the edge of an ontological abyss, MagiCart next ferries the friends to see the chef José Andrés, who explains, in a kid-friendly way, that sometimes categories are entirely meaningless. “A tomato can be a fruit and a vegetable?” Waffles asks. “Yes,” Andrés says, “and you would be right in both ways.”

“Waffles + Mochi” is global in its point of view: the foods and people filmed in Italy, Peru, and Japan are treated as no more exotic than those in California, from a dad in Kyoto making onigiri with his son to a Peruvian vendor selling mazamorra morada, a purple-corn pudding. (The international segments are dubbed in English, which is frustrating to me, but certainly much friendlier to little viewers who might not be able to follow subtitles.) While Waffles might sometimes be unfamiliar with a dish or an ingredient, or even slightly afraid of it (yeah, mushrooms are pretty weird!), she’s never disgusted. When she and Mochi try new things, they make a point of saying out loud what they’re experiencing: not just tastes but textures, too. When the friends find themselves at the counter of Kichi Kichi Omurice, a Kyoto restaurant famous for a dish of seasoned rice topped with a custard-soft omelette, Waffles is elated, but Mochi meeps ambiguously. “Mochi likes the taste, but not the texture,” Waffles interprets, and an entire generation of tiny food critics is born.

Kids’ television has a history of modelling ideals of diversity and acceptance through food—one of my own earliest memories of food TV is a nineteen-eighties “Sesame Street” segment in which two boys help their father to shop, prep, and cook for his Mexican restaurant. There are moments like that in “Waffles + Mochi”—a segment, in the “Pickle” episode, where a young boy in Seoul, Korea, talks about attending a kimchi-making festival with his family, felt as pure and intimate as the best of golden-age PBS kids’ programming. But food culture today is far more expansive, and creative, than it was when I was the target audience for this kind of show. What Waffles and Mochi really want is to become chefs—just like swathes of other kids who’ve grown up watching second-wave reality shows such as “MasterChef Junior,” “Chopped Junior,” and “Food Network Star Kids.”

By expecting that its young viewers are already interested in food, “Waffles + Mochi” is saved from the air of manic desperation that can overwhelm educational media that is less confident in the coolness of its subject. Each episode is full of fun facts, cooking tips, and warm nonculinary life lessons. (“You can make use of old things even when they’re broken,” Mrs. O. says happily, while planting vegetable seedlings in soil-filled eggshells.) The show’s message is in keeping with Michelle Obama’s long-standing commitment to issues of children’s nutrition and health; it wants kids to know that food is fascinating, and that fresh food is delicious. These ideas are good and important, but they’re also broad and uncontroversial. Given the Obamas’ mighty cultural influence, shouldn’t we expect them to say more about America’s nutrition, hunger, and diet-based health crises—rooted in a fundamentally broken, exploitative, unsustainable food system—than simply reminding children that fresh food is neat?

Then again, “Waffles + Mochi” is a puppet show for preschoolers that features a talking mop named Steve. And the show’s casual, inclusive point of view allows it to address topics that most food programming (even for adults!) shies away from: water scarcity, disability inclusion, indigenous foodways. One of the series’ most striking moments comes in the “Rice” episode, when Mochi is looking for his roots, so that he can make a family tree like one Mrs. O. was working on at the beginning of the episode. (“Who’s that man next to you?” a puppet friend asks about a cutout head shot of a young Barack Obama. “That’s my husband,” Mrs. O deadpans.) To learn about rice, Mochi and Waffles visit Michael Twitty, the writer and culinary historian. A magnetic storyteller, he tells the puppets a painful tale with unsparing simplicity. “My people were the Mende people, in a place called Sierra Leone,” Twitty says. “A long time ago, people from Sierra Leone were brought to the United States of America, to the South, to grow rice, by force.” He explains that his many-greats-grandmother “was enslaved, which meant she was separated from her family and her home, and had to work by force, for free. And why? Because she knew how to grow and process rice. And so my people grew rice during slavery, and after slavery. And rice was a common part of our diet and our identity.”

Twitty, a highly respected writer and scholar, is perhaps not an obvious choice for a guest-star spot on a kids’ show, but it’s segments like his that make “Waffles + Mochi” transcend the sometimes predictable tropes of this kind of programming. The world of “Waffles +Mochi” is populated by celebrity chefs and celebrity celebrities (plenty of them from other Netflix shows), and also by mycologists, salt farmers, deaf pizzaiolos, tortellini rollers with special needs, expert miso-makers, and a trio of kids who are eager to show off the multicolored eggs laid by their urban-farmyard chickens. The big-name cameos are for the grownups in the audience (who’s Zach Galifianakis or Rashida Jones to a three-year-old anyway?), and that goes for Michelle Obama as much as anyone. She is always going to be the former First Lady to the parents in the audience, who may have trouble adjusting to her new identity as a children’s-edutainment superstar. But for the kids who grow up watching “Waffles + Mochi” on Netflix, maybe she’ll just be Mrs. O., the nice lady from TV who tends a rooftop garden set above a puppet-filled grocery store.

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