Weighty issues

Food - Bee Wilson salutes Oprah Winfrey and her healthy appetite for life

The end of an era is announced. Oprah says she is giving up her show for good in 2005/06. The most important woman in American show business is abandoning her microphone.

Now, maybe you don't care. Maybe you have this great woman down as some overemotional exponent of the victim culture. British columnists sometimes refer to Oprah unthinkingly as "grotesque", muddling her up with Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer. Maybe you never saw her interviews with Al Gore and George Bush in 2000, which were by far the most telling of that inexplicable election (demonstrating a) just how hard it would be to vote for Al Gore, and b) that Dubbya takes after his mother not his father, both in his "wisecracking" humour and in his looks - just picture him with a white fluffy wig). Some people think Oprah is just a yo-yo dieter who spends her life branding sappy books and feeling people's pain. They are wrong.

Even if we restrict ourselves to the subject of food, Oprah is far more complex and fascinating than her enemies (usually people too snobby to have watched one of her shows) could ever understand.

Yes, there were bad times. She spent much of the Eighties in unfortunate pink, shoulder-padded suits in vastly varying sizes. It has been said that her downfall was food courts at shopping malls, those unsettling assemblies where the appetite is tipped over the edge by smelling barbecue ribs, tacos and cinnamon rolls all at the same time. Oprah herself has said that she became fat to please people, so no one could complain about her success. But periodically, she would go on terrible crash diets. On the most famous occasion, she lost almost 70lb on a liquid diet and walked gauntly into the studio in tight jeans, with numerous packages of chicken fat in a wheelbarrow, in triumphal procession, to symbolise all the weight she'd lost. It wasn't long, however, before the fat reattached itself to her body and the cycle of loathing began again.

But Oprah Winfrey today is different. She has a mission, of which her book club is only a part (she also believes everyone should keep a daily "gratitude" journal). Mock if you will, but its pedagogical aim is to educate her audience about the civilised pleasures of life, about the "extraordinary" things that ordinary lives can encompass. She has taken to quoting Aristotle. And much of this involves food: Oprah no longer recommends any sort of crash diet. Instead, she uses her show and her magazine (O) to tell us how to make the perfect piecrust, the most comforting roast chicken and the most American apple pie ("Is this a great country or what?"). She offers cosy tips on sending gifts of pound cake packed in a green hatbox with fresh flowers, or buying the most gourmet "grandma's cinnamon-walnut coffee cake" over the internet (for $45), informing us that it is "crumbly yet moist, overtly vanilla yet subtly cinnamon". Her favourite jam is the "absolutely delightful" Sarabeth's apricot-orange marmalade, at $10 a jar.

It need hardly be said that there are still conflicts aplenty in Oprah's attitude to food. For one thing, her aspirational magazine is interspersed with ads for Campbell's mushroom soup (now even creamier!), Kraft cheese (eat it instead of taking calcium supplements!) and no-sugar cherry-pie filling. For another, the "weight" issue never goes away, and it seems rather odd to have a website, as she does, that carries a recipe for chocolate-Guinness layer cake with cream-cheese frosting alongside advice to "get with the programme" and lose weight. Sometimes the comfort eating thing goes too far: "Fish, steaks, muffins, pie - according to one Vermont chef, there isn't anything that doesn't taste better with a helping of maple syrup."

After the syrup comes the diet. But the diet gurus Oprah has on her show these days are notable for offering very literal-minded, reasonable advice about eating more tomatoes and fewer chips. I am rather fond of one guru called Dr Andrew Weil, who has the naive beard of an Amish man and has taken America by storm, and who has made a fortune simply by telling people that it's quite a good thing to eat olive oil, fish, pasta and fruit. Another guru is straight-talking Dr Phil, who bluntly tells you to stop lying to yourself about what you eat and the reasons you eat it. After years of bewilderment, Oprah has finally realised that the answer to diminishing oneself is to eat healthily and move more.

She can still be squeamish about food. Oprah possesses that curious mix of intrepidity and conservatism you often find in very successful Americans. She revealed recently on a Book Club show discussing Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance that she had never in her life eaten Indian food. But never say never. She is on a tireless quest for the next book to enlighten her mind, the next way of eating to transform her body, the next bit of information she can pass on to the millions who love her.

In diet as in life, Oprah represents the strange and endless optimism of the American spirit. I salute her.