Art Ginsburg, a.k.a. “Mr. Food,” died the day before Thanksgiving. What’s that, you say? You never heard of Mr. Food? You can’t be blamed. Mr. Food was never a celebrity, never had his own network TV show. He never became known by his first name, like Rachael or Guy or Mario. He was just a likable guy with a ridiculous puffy chef’s hat, an insipid catchphrase (“Ooh, it’s so good!”) and a syndicated 90-second recipe segment that appeared in more than 100 local newscasts around the country, usually sandwiched between the weather forecast and the sports highlights. His recipes were quick and easy, straight from the Betty Crocker playbook, and his affable manner made the 90 seconds go by fast. He wasn’t star material. But that’s not why you likely haven’t heard of him.
The reason you never heard, or were only vaguely aware, of Mr. Food is that he had, for the better part of the last 20 years, been in total eclipse, his presence utterly blotted out by the red giant known as The Food Network. Mr. Food wasn’t a Food Network type of guy. His food wasn’t very appetizing on camera. Nor was it generally very wholesome. Prior to the advent of Paula Deen, most of the shows on the Food Network at least made a show of trying to be healthy. Even Emeril Lagasse, the network’s first true star, specialized in lightened-up versions of the dishes he did in his New Orleans restaurant, with an occasional chicken marsala or mushroom pasta mixed in. A typical Mr. Food recipe, on the contrary, might call for a whole 15-oz. can of cream of coconut or, in the case of his legendarily bad Veal Oscar, frozen asparagus and a whole can of cheddar cheese sauce. Of course, Mr. Food also had plenty of lighter recipes; you don’t fill up 52 cookbooks by only having one kind of food.
Which is another reason why Mr. Food would never have made it on the Food Network. It wasn’t so much that he was a small-timer, per se; Rachael Ray, arguably the network’s biggest star, began her career doing essentially the same local news segments in upstate New York as Mr. Food did, he in Schenectady, she in Albany. But Ray had a niche – healthy family food made from scratch in 30 minutes or less. She didn’t invent the format — Pierre Franey wrote a “60-Minute Gourmet” column in the New York Times in the 70s — but she cultivated a certain larger-than-life energy that jumps off the small screen. (A note on Rachael: she and I are friends.) Mr. Food was more the genial uncle you enjoy hanging out with on Thanksgiving. That is to say, he was likeable, even lovable, but no dynamo: like Chef Tell, Jeff “The Frugal Gourmet” Smith, Justin Wilson, Martin Yan and all the other food personalities of his time, he was pretty much content to “stand and stir,” as they say in the TV food business, demonstrating banal recipes and letting his mensch-y personality speak for him.
Later, of course, The Food Network and its imitators upped the ante, requiring ever more outsized emoting, until the ritual closing taste required a veritable “o-face,” as this memorable slideshow from a few years ago demonstrated. Mr. Food wasn’t exciting, like Emeril, or charismatic like Mario, or a brilliant teacher, like Alton Brown; he was just a former butcher in an apron and puffy hat. In one way, though, there was a continuity between him and the subsequent wave of TV food personalities. His audience, like theirs, and really, like all TV audiences, watched him because they liked him, not because they necessarily wanted to make his recipes, which were after all available in every cookbook. Like his contemporaries Bob Ross, the afroed “happy trees” painter, or Jack Horkheimer, the squat, effervescent “Star Hustler,” who gave astronomy tips to fellow star gazers, it was all about the messenger, not the message. (How many Bob Ross viewers actually tried to follow his painting lessons?)
And, as with Ross and Horkheimer, it’s Mr. Food’s regular presence that I think I will miss the most. Yes, there was a good laugh to be had, half-mocking and half-nostalgic, at his comically unimaginative stage name and the utter rankness of his worst recipes. But long after we had had our joke, we kept watching, kept including him in our lives, 90 second at a time. Yes, he was corny, and yes, his cooking was backward and crude even by the standards of the time. But he was Art Ginsburg, ex-butcher, good guy, and he worked hard at what he did. He wasn’t a show business “everyman;” he was an actual everyman. I met him once, at a big foodie event, where he was wandering around on the margins of the celebrity-chef area, forgotten in his own time, even with his hat on. But he was happy, and proud, and still eager to talk about food with unfeigned enthusiasm. He was, after all, Mr. Food, and he deserves to be mourned, even if he never did make the big time.