I’d Rather Eat Like a Pig Than Dine Like a Mogul
"In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy" is a much-needed balm of radical self-acceptance
The celebrity cookbook is a curious genre: its essential premise is that a person who is famous for something other than cooking can, on the basis of that fame, also teach us how to cook. At the same time, it’s a tried-and-true publishing gambit: Gwyneth Paltrow and Stanley Tucci are following in the footsteps of Sophia Loren, Patti LaBelle, and, fabulously, Liberace.
My favorite celebrity cookbook addresses this disjuncture right in the jacket copy. A note from the author confesses, “I’ve always wanted to write a cookbook. There’s just one problem. Moi doesn’t cook … moi eats!” It’s the unmistakable voice of Miss Piggy.
In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy, from 1996, is a celebrity cookbook par excellence. Miss Piggy, the plump and plush porcine puppet, is the narrator and “author” of this book. (It was actually written by Muppets staff writer Jim Lewis, but his name doesn’t appear anywhere in the text; the Library of Congress cataloging data lists the author as “moi.”) Each recipe, more than fifty in total, is the contribution of Piggy’s famous friends, so the table of contents doubles as a Who’s Who of 90s pop culture. Think Larry King’s “Favorite Tuna Health Salad,” Kristi Yamaguchi’s chicken scaloppine, and dueling recipes for pesto from Lauren Hutton and Melanie Griffith. The book was a fundraiser for Citymeals on Wheels, and while I haven’t been able to ascertain how much money it brought in, I know the venture succeeded in its other goal: to goof on celebrity culture, and one celebrity in particular. As Piggy says in the introduction, “When I was approached to write this cookbook, moi thought: Why not? If Oprah can do it ….”
In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy is a spoof of In the Kitchen with Rosie, a slender volume that went on to become the bestselling cookbook of the 1990s. It was the first and basically only book by Rosie Daley, whose fame and legitimacy came from her relationship to her employer: she was the personal chef of Oprah Winfrey. (Her only other book, 2003’s The Healthy Kitchen, was co-authored with another Oprah acolyte, Dr. Andrew Weil.) In the Kitchen with Rosie: Oprah’s Favorite Recipes was a publishing supernova. It came out in May 1994 with an initial print run of 400,000; by November of that year, it was already the fourth highest selling cookbook of all time. According to the New York Times, In the Kitchen with Rosie was outsold only by The Betty Crocker Cookbook, Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, and The Joy of Cooking (an ode to Joy here), all of which had been in print for decades. And whereas those books are encyclopedic, In the Kitchen with Rosie is a tight 130 pages. (Piggy’s page count is 128.) Daley’s book would eventually sell five million copies.
Still wielding massive cultural clout today, Oprah was at the height of her powers in the mid 90s. The runaway success of In the Kitchen with Rosie established Oprah’s abilities as a kingmaker in the book business, leading to the formation two years later of Oprah’s Book Club. Any book that Oprah endorsed, whether it be by Toni Morrison, Lev Tolstoy, or a previously unknown spa chef, sprinted up the bestseller list. (Although Miss Piggy promoted her book during a riotous appearance on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee for their 1996 Celebrity Cooking Week, the world is still waiting for her Oprah interview.)
But the cookbook also illustrates a more complicated aspect of Oprah’s brand: her very public weight loss campaign. Oprah’s struggles to maintain a “healthy weight” and positive body image have played out in the public eye throughout her career. In a memorable 1988 segment on her talk show, she wheeled a wagon containing sixty-seven pounds of fat, representing a recent weight loss “triumph” achieved through crash dieting; she now considers this one of the most regrettable moments in her career (on which the podcast Maintenance Phase has an excellent episode). More recently, in 2015, Oprah bought $43.5 million dollars’ worth of stock in Weight Watchers, leading to a revival of the company’s fortunes, and an instantly iconic commercial in which Oprah declares, “I love bread!”
Because in some ways Oprah herself is the product she sells, it’s impossible to disentangle her body, body image, and monetizing of her complex body image issues from her public persona and media empire. Historians and cultural theorists have argued that centuries of mainstream media, from 19th-century World’s Fairs to 1990s rap videos, treat the Black female body as being “in excess.” In her chapter “Excess Flesh” from the book Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, the art historian Nicole R. Fleetwood, writes:
… the context of mass culture and the ways in which visual spectacle is manufactured and widely distributed muddies issues of intentionality. The relationships between corporate sponsorship and the black body in contemporary mass culture are deliberately sensationalized, as black celebrities self-consciously produce hypervisible representations of themselves as commercial vehicles.
The narrative of In the Kitchen with Rosie is how Oprah learned to stop being so excessive. The media mogul penned the book’s introduction in her trademark style, equal parts rousing and confessional. In it, we learn about Oprah’s journey to what she calls “clean eating.”
I grew up eating well. Cheese grits, homemade biscuits smothered in butter, home-cured ham, red-eyed gravy—and that was just breakfast. […] Back then food meant security and comfort. Food meant love. It didn’t matter what you ate, just that you had enough. I’ve paid a heavy price for believing that. It took me a long time to change the way I thought about food. I once believed that eating healthy meant eating food that was missing something—TASTE. I once believed eating healthy meant being unsatisfied. I once believed eating healthy meant no security, no comfort, no love.
I’ve struggled with body image as much as the next person, and I count myself lucky that my livelihood is not tied to my physical appearance, so I sympathize with the pain that’s perceptible between the lines of this girl-boss manifesto. But even more painful for me is the fix the cookbook proposes: decoupling food from love.
Piggy’s book, in stark contrast, celebrates food as a vehicle for affection: through dinner parties, romantic suppers, and, above all, satisfaction of one’s own appetites. Surprisingly, although this is a Muppets production, it isn’t a book for kids, or for parents trying to teach their kids how to cook. Frankly, it’s too horny to be kid lit. The opening chapter consists of Piggy’s tips for entertaining, including a section on ideal seating:
Traditionally, the seating chart at a dinner party is boy-girl-boy-girl. But who cares about tradition when John Travolta and Harry Belafonte are coming to dinner? […] moi has devised an ingenious boy-boy-boy-MOI-boy-boy-boy-boy seating arrangement.
Yes, this joke depends on a gender binary, but I let it pass for two reasons. First, this reflects the mainstream understanding of gender in 1996. Second, and more importantly, Piggy has always been performed and voiced by a man—she was brought to life by the legendary Frank Oz and is now played by Eric Jacobson. The actual author of this book is a man, the aforementioned Jim Lewis. So, Miss Piggy is a queer character, and with her larger-than-life persona and exaggerated hungers for food and attention, she’s something like a drag queen. While Piggy dedicates the book “To Kermit, who has always been the hottest dish in moi’s life,” she also gives herself space to flirt at the male contributors. Each recipe is punctuated by her chaotic, hedonistic commentary; accompanying Samuel L. Jackson’s spinach linguine and ground turkey sauce is the note: “Samuel is in all of those darling little shoot-’em-up movies with big sweaty men and guns. Like his movies, I’d rate his recipe ‘R’ as in: R you busy tonight, Samuel?” For Piggy at least, food still means love.
But it’s Piggy’s commentary on recipes from female contributors that most meaningfully differentiates this from the Oprah cookbook. Many of these women faced the same pressures as Oprah, so their recipes similarly skew low-fat. But in her almost fifty-year career, Miss Piggy has never expressed interest in losing weight, so she is equally uninterested in recipes that advance that goal. Of Lauren Bacall’s recipe, for example, Piggy notes, “Her Spinach and Sesame Salad is perfect for her svelte figure. Of course, for more full-figured women, like moi, some fries and a burrito make it all happen.” A recipe for fruit crumble from Gael Greene, New York Magazine’s restaurant critic and the founder of Citymeals on Wheels, suggests a topping of “mock crème fraîche”—brown sugar, vanilla, and nonfat plain yogurt. By way of comparison, the dessert section of In the Kitchen with Rosie also has a recipe for “mock whipped cream,” made of evaporated skim milk with vanilla and brandy. While not disparaging the recipe itself, Piggy champions eating indulgently by asserting, “Unlike Gael, moi could never be critical of food. In fact I never met a meal I didn’t like!”
The recipes in Piggy’s book vary widely in terms of complexity, sophistication, and instructional detail, all of which amounts to a recipe writer’s voice. This diversity reiterates that each of these recipes really was contributed by a different celebrity (or their personal chef). You can learn how to make Maya Angelou’s jollof rice or Ivana Trump’s beef goulash (of which Piggy quips, “I wouldn’t think of naming a recipe after a rain boot”). Perhaps the most incongruous contributor is Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. Army General who led the efforts during the 1991 Gulf War and shared with Piggy his recipe for sour cream peach pie. Indeed, our associations with the contributor may impact whether we find the recipe appealing. For my part, I’m intrigued by James Earl Jones’ Chilean sea bass (the most 90s of all fishes) and Paul Newman’s “Tasty Thai Shrimp and Sesame Noodles,” but I find Barbara Bush’s “Bologna for a Cocktail Buffet” downright repulsive. Even Piggy struggles to say something nice about this appetizer which consists of roll beef bologna, mustard, soy sauce, rosemary, ginger, and salad oil. The best she can muster is, “Bar is such a dear, dear friend. I usually never have enough good things to say about her, but this recipe leaves me speechless ….”
The recipes from In the Kitchen with Rosie are accompanied by nutritional information. They make use of processed foods and sneaky substitutes, typical for 90s cooking but at odds with today’s fashion for full-fat ingredients. A black bean and smoked chicken soup, for example, includes light vegetable oil cooking spray, chicken stock (fat skimmed off), barbecue sauce (“no-oil variety”), and evaporated skim milk. Brooke Shields’ contribution to Piggy’s book may well show the influence of Rosie Daley: the model-actress uses just a spritz of oil spray to start her “Vegetable Health Soup,” skims the fat from her canned chicken broth, and tops the finished product with cottage cheese.
Daley’s book has all the consistency that Piggy’s lacks, but none of the warmth. In a 1994 New York Times review of diet cookbooks, Richard Flaste wrote of In the Kitchen with Rosie, “… if there is a compelling and original underlying philosophy in Rosie Daley’s book—an approach to eating that will make you somehow just like Oprah—I can’t find it.” The exact opposite is true of In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy: the recipes are all over the place, but the volume is coherent because of Piggy’s approach to food: eat what tastes good and relish the company of those you love, whether that’s your fabulous friends, your charmingly neurotic partner, or your exquisite self.
For all its commercial success, In the Kitchen with Rosie didn’t change the way America cooked in the long run, not in the way books by Julia Child, Alice Waters, or, more recently, Yotam Ottolengthi did. Instead, it reflected the ideas about healthy eating of the time and capitalized on readymade celebrity. What’s more, Rosie herself never went further as a chef. The sales of In the Kitchen with Rosie seem to have set her up for life, so one thing we can say for the author is, she’s not a chazzer.
Of course, In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy didn’t change the way we cooked either, but there was no reason to expect it would: it’s a cookbook by a pig puppet. Still, twenty-five years after it was published, all as a charity gambit and as a joke, it feels impeccably fresh. That’s because Piggy not only espoused radical self-acceptance, she modeled it. There is no understating the importance of what Oprah has accomplished as a Black woman in entertainment and entrepreneurship; her cultural impact was unprecedented and remains unmatched. But her well-documented, decades-long struggle to maintain a trim figure is a reminder that even she has been trapped by a culture of objectification and self-abnegation. When you don’t allow food to carry the meaning of love, eating becomes a war with the self. To borrow a phrase Oprah coined, I had an “aha moment” when I realized I’d rather eat like a pig than dine like a mogul.