Chew on This

The title of Linda Ellerbee’s robust new memoir is Take Big Bites, although, in fact, in the book and in life, she thinks things through and chews everything thoroughly.

Food metaphors come easily to Ellerbee, notably her still-operative putdown of the genderless genre of sponge-headed, cream-filled, all-sugar-and-chemicals newscasters. She long ago dubbed them Twinkies: “You’ve seen them on television acting the news, modeling and fracturing the news while you wonder whether they’ve read the news or if they’ve blow-dried their brains, too.”

Amen to that. Don’t be surprised to turn on a newscast and hear one of them report breathlessly, “This just in! Terri Schiavo still dead!”

Sadly, attitudes have changed only marginally in the 24 years since a Kansas City news anchor named Christine Craft was famously informed by the tree stump running her station that viewers found her “too old [mid 30s], too unattractive [only nice-looking] and…not sufficiently deferential to men [the nerve: she knew sports].” Forget being bright, articulate and a strong journalist. Craft was history as a K.C. anchor.

Here we are in 2005. And even as media are redefined daily in this blogaspheric, anything-goes age of communications, when it comes to TV news biz, from locals to CNN, Twinkiedom persists like halitosis.

Against that backdrop, here comes Ellerbee, with a laugh-out-loud-funny book, published by Putnan, that is ostensibly about her eating odysseys but just as often is tender and perceptive in addressing the wider complex universe and her own shaping influences while growing up Linda Jane Smith in Texas. Witty, intelligent reflection has been her signature in a long and varied media career, from her days as an NBC correspondent to her inspired guidance of Nick News. In her grand news documentaries for kids—through Lucky Duck Productions, which she runs with her partner, Rolfe Tessem—she never talks down to the little ones.

With all this and more, plus several books under her belt, Ellerbee has morphed into a lusty, earthy Renaissance babe who mulls life’s vagaries in a brand of sensible plainspeak and “Hey, chum” intimacy. She sounds like she’s talking to you from the next barstool.

Her manner wins through again in Take Big Bites, subtitled “Adventures Around the World and Across the Table.” Ellerbee describes herself in it as someone “who’s traveled and eaten her way around the planet and lived to tell some tales.” One tale is that she owed her girlhood popularity to her mother’s fudge pie. Another finds her eating Grape-Nuts sprinkled over cold spaghetti on an Outward Bound expedition.

In many of these essays, food is just a side dish. The book is much less about Ellerbee’s chowing down than about her observations on topics from Christian missionaries to global hunger to that TV-news staple, the almighty standup: “You’re in the middle of a crowd, talking to a television camera you’re trying to pretend isn’t there, sounding like an idiot and certainly looking like one.”

After various life pit stops, she arrives at the cuisine and then later at the recipes that cap each chapter. These range from something called Liar’s Soup to a “recipe” she suggests during a visit to Kabul in 2002 to tape a show about the children of Afghanistan: “Buy a bag of oranges. Give them to children who don’t have oranges.”

Ellerbee calls herself a “recovering journalist,” but sadly, the 12-step program hasn’t taken hold. Throughout her travels chronicled here, she continues to act and think as a journalist—one teed-off at the craft. She pairs that beef at one point with her belief (and who would argue?) that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and kicked out the Taliban solely as payback for 9/11, not from a desire to better the plight of ordinary Afghanis.

“The United States hasn’t come here to right wrongs against women or to ensure the future of children,” she writes. “Why would it? Who cares? Not the mainstream media. In America, what makes news is America.”

There may be sterner indictments of U.S. media ethnocentrism, but this one will do for the moment.

As a bonus, she’s right, especially about the fissure-narrow global view of television news, which is a miserable failure in its self-proclaimed role as a Bethlehem Star of enlightenment. Newscasters must share some of the blame that many real problems go unheeded by Americans and that we remain generally ignorant of the world beyond our borders and are concerned mostly with who is sleeping with whom.

When a celebrity does shed that skin, as Brad Pitt did in urging more aid to destitute countries during a recent ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, the impact is ultimately drowned out by media trying to figure out his love life.

But let’s hear it for Ellerbee. In revolutionary TV work aimed at kids, she has titillated them not with gossip but with ideas and other cultures, turning them on to what they need to know.

Extending that to her entire career, she has made herself a provocative role model by becoming TV journalism’s worst nightmare, its equivalent of the Antichrist: the AntiTwinkie.