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TV Dinner: All the Ways Television Lied to Me About Food (And One Where TV Was Right)

It’s not that my parents didn’t raise me. They did. I clearly remember them being around. It’s just that they didn’t raise me alone.

The TV was (and is) the central feature of the living room. And if you weren’t in the living room, there were questions.

Are you OK? (Yes.)

Don’t you like us anymore? (Yes.)

What are you doing in there? (Pooping.)

We spent a lot of time together, but since we’re not particularly interesting people, we didn’t have a lot to say to each other. That’s where the TV came in.

Even though we didn’t have cable, like the Amish, we still found plenty to stare at with our mouths agape. The warm glow of the TV, like a wide-open hug, bathed me in love. It taught me everything I needed to know about the world outside. Which was nice, since going outside would have meant leaving the TV.

My relationship with my parents has had its ups and downs over the years, but the bond with television has only grown stronger.

Still, much as with those who actually birthed me, I’ve come to recognize that not everything TV taught me was correct. Girls do not go for the nice friend who has been there all along. Kindly police officers do not let you off with a warning. Fedoras do not belong anywhere but in the 1950s.

As someone who deals primarily in food, though, the falsehoods that have come most glaringly to light are the ones regarding cuisine.


The way I feel about sushi now could best be summed up in this song from 1974:

But when I first tried sushi, I was apprehensive. After all, TV had been using this Japanese delicacy as a punchline for most of my youth.

“Raw fish?!” [laugh track] “Why not just take your date to the bait shop?” [audience hoots and hollers, prepares to die alone]

Honestly, having spent almost all my life in Oklahoma, it’s a wonder I had any fish at all. Catfish, sure, but thanks to a freezer-burned fish incident as a child, fruit de mer became even more forbidden.

In a now-forgotten sushi buffet in Stillwater my friends took me for my first taste. I really was nervous, in that way only someone whose life has been utterly and completely conflict-free up until that point is nervous. They piled a few pieces of California roll on my plate and promptly ignored me as I tentatively lifted a bite to my lips.

Sushi from Dekora!

Like so much of my life, I look back in ashamed awe at what a huge wuss I was. If you don’t like a California roll, it’s not proof you don’t enjoy sushi so much as it’s a sign that you aren’t meant to enjoy life. Rice, crabstick, avocado and cucumber are such a perfect combination — creamy, crunchy, cool and starchy — that saying you don’t like sushi based on a California roll is akin to admitting that you’ve never known happiness and you’d like to keep it that way.

In the decades since, I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to convert my parents to the ways of sushi. No need trying to convert TV, though. Watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on Netflix is proof that TV has long since come around.


Was there any scourge in the ’80s and ’90s greater than garlic?

Yes. It was crack cocaine. And its debilitating effects are still being felt across the country to this day.

But living in the suburbs in Oklahoma, I wasn’t terribly well-versed in the world of illegal drugs. The scourge I heard most about was garlic.

How bad was garlic? They used to make pills so you could get all the health benefits of garlic without forever ruining your breath and any shot at finding love by just eating it.

I saw ads for Garlique every day during the summer when I watched “The Price is Right.” Yes. Every day. I had a very sad childhood.

Garlic was a signifier for weird, foreign people who wear dirty brown clothes and like food with “flavor.” Anytime there was a funny, out-of-place foreigner on TV, you could be sure he was eating piles of garlic.

Here’s what the makers of Garlique have to say:

Why do millions of people take a garlic supplement like GARLIQUE instead of eating garlic?The enteric coated GARLIQUE tablet supports cardiovascular health* without the tell-tale garlic breath and body odor that may result from eating fresh garlic, and GARLIQUE provides a convenient way to get those healthful benefits, irrespective of your daily diet.

Now? If I smell roasted garlic on someone, I want to get closer. Hello, sir, and where are you going that I might meet you there for some hot garlic-on-garlic action?

Garlic is one of the most basic, most important ingredients in the kitchen. Even things you don’t think have garlic in them probably have some garlic. It’s so versatile! It can be spicy and bitter and sweet and savory and pungent and SO MANY THINGS.

Garlic is not a joke and I’m so sorry I ever listened to TV. Forgive me, garlic. I love you.


I’m going to toss sardines in here, too, because small fish got a bad rap on TV in the ’80s.

Anchovies were a joke topping on pizzas, meant to show how out of touch and weird someone was.

“Ooooh, let’s get pizza! But don’t tell Bill — he’ll want anchovies.” [sad trombone, audience murmurs among themselves, unsure if this studio is even a safe place anymore]

I don’t love all anchovies, but I definitely understand the purpose they serve. Go to Szechuan Bistro and get the fried anchovies for a real treat. Or go underground to Junior’s for the tableside Caesar salad.

Szechuan Bistro special anchovies

Have you tried a Caesar salad without anchovies? It’s the saddest salad in the world. Anchovies bring life and flavor and zest to an otherwise heavy sauce.

And sardines can and should be eaten straight from the can. Good lord, they are so tasty and nutritious. If you haven’t mashed them up and made a sandwich out of them, you’re missing out.


“Mom,” we said. “We would like to try meatloaf.”

After years of TV kids groaning when their TV moms said they were having meatloaf for dinner, my brother and I finally demanded the opportunity to hate it for ourselves.

My mom and dad cooked, but it was a pretty limited menu. I ate a lot of boneless, skinless, flavorless, colorless chicken breasts in my day. We had goulash, which is basically spaghetti bolognese with macaroni instead of spaghetti, and the occasional casserole. But never meatloaf.

My mom shrugged and said, “Sure.”

The first bite was key. The brown lump of meat, smothered in roasted ketchup, didn’t look particularly appetizing. I cut off a hunk with my fork and slowly raised it toward my lips.




Meatloaf from Grill on the Hill

Those TV kids were morons, each and every one. Meatloaf is a glorious creation. It’s like somebody decided to make a giant, sliceable hamburger. And you can work in so many flavors — onions and garlic and seasonings — to bring it to life.

We loved it and requested meatloaf often, much to my mom’s chagrin. But this might be the very first time I learned that television didn’t always hold the answers to what I should eat next.

Mashed potatoes

“Lumpy mashed potatoes? Not again!”

Shut up, TV kids. You didn’t know what you were talking about with meatloaf and you certainly had no idea how lucky you were to be eating those lumpy mashed potatoes, either.

Potatoes were a staple in our house, but mashed was not among the varieties we saw frequently. Boiled. Occasionally baked. But rarely were we treated to a full-on mashed-with-butter-and-salt potato.

Mom was candid about why: real mashed potatoes take work. You have to peel them, cut them up, boil them, add milk, add salt, smash them thoroughly. And don’t bother trying to whip most potatoes with the handheld mixer, because they’ll turn into glue.

Honestly, we were fine with potato flake mashed potatoes. We were just hungry kids. (I’m a hair above 6’1 and my “little” brother is close to 6’6.) We required mass about as much as we wanted it to taste good.

These days, I love a good lumpy mashed potato. So long as the potato is fully cooked, I don’t mind letting my teeth do a little of the mashing. It’s just nice to know someone went to the trouble of cooking them.

When we began asking for mashed potatoes, my mom put us to work peeling them and dicing them. It wasn’t my favorite chore, but at least I knew I’d get to reap the rewards of it later.

Haute Cuisine

In the epic battle of snobs vs. slobs, my family are proud slobs. We are also, based on the piles of clothes, books and other detritus around the house, slobs in the more traditional sense.

But one big battleground in the conflict centered on food. Slobs could enjoy the not-so-finer things in life, like fast food and big pieces of pot roast. Snobs only ate at restaurants and usually had expensive plates of snails or two peas sitting next to a smear of something yellow.

Hahaha, stupid snobs! Don’t you see you’re being had by the chefs of your snooty restaurants? For so much less, you could be enjoying a greasy hamburger and fries and maybe even a free toy!

I’m not saying that type of haute cuisine doesn’t exist, but it’s far less outrageous than dinner scenes in “American Psycho” would have you believe.

Locally, we can still turn to places like Ludivine, En Croute, Vast, The Metro and others to feed us artfully designed plates with exotic ingredients, but the goal is never to send you away hungry. If anything, the smaller portions are a nice reminder to slow your roll and be thoughtful about your bites.

It’s hard, believe me I know, to take smaller bites and pace yourself, especially when you’re hungry. But haute cuisine is about letting you try something new and special, not making you resentful of paying a lot without even slaking your hunger.


TV talked about steak like it was manna from heaven. You had a big date? You were taking her out for a fancy steak dinner.

That was not my experience.

My dad used to buy steaks by the yard at Safeway. The quality of the meat was suspect to begin with and the thinness of the steaks meant any chance for a nice, juicy bite of beef was unlikely at best.

Dad would take the meat into the backyard to grill it, though it was thin enough he probably could have waved it at the sun for a minute and it would have cooked through.

When it was done, i.e. overdone, he brought it inside and cut it into five pieces immediately. No resting. No chance for whatever juice remained in the steak to find its way back into the outer reaches. It spilled out on the plate while each of us received a piece of shoe leather and a serrated knife to cut it with.

How was TV this wrong about steak? Everyone treated it like the end-all be-all of fine dining and I just cursed the heavens when I heard steak was on the menu.

It wasn’t until my boss at bluntnews.com (on sale now for a scant $1,195) took us out to Jamil’s in Stillwater that I had my revelatory steak.

It was a strip steak, cooked medium. Each bite was supple and succulent. As the fork entered the beef, a tiny teardrop of juice would appear. This steak was crying and it was my job to end its misery.

Since then I’ve formed several theories about steak: A great chef can make a sirloin taste like a filet. A bad chef can make a filet taste like nothing. And I’ve learned to cook them fairly well, myself.

I still prefer the work of a restaurant to my own, of course, but it’s nice that my dad generally approaches me when he wants grilled steak for dinner. A little salt. A little pepper. A 2-level fire that won’t make everything taste like Satan’s toenails.

TV knew. For once.

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About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.


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