'Northern Exposure' denizens are what they eat - quirky

Yakima Herald-Republic - 10/6/93

by Judith Blake, Seattle Times

In the make-believe world of TV's "Northern Exposure," an everyday reality - eating - often preoccupies the people of fictional Cicely, Alaska.

Or sometimes not eating. The season premiere [5.1 Three Doctors] recently saw town doctor Joel Fleischman (played by Rob Morrow) suffering from an aversion to shrimp - the symptom of a strange but temporary malady.

Food plays a frequent role in the popular show, which is filmed in Redmond, and in Roslyn, east of Snoqualmie Pass, and airs at 10 pm Mondays on CBS and KIMA-TV.

In the Brick Tavern, a favorite town haunt, characters eat simple, down-home grub - burgers, scrambled eggs, hash, chili.

"We love to play with the food of The Brick. It's a whole genre of American cooling - heartland of America. It's very colorful to talk about," Robin Green, a former restaurant reviewer who's now a regular writer for "Northern Exposure."

When Cicely's ex-astronaut-turned-capitalist Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) throws one of his feasts, the food takes on the high tone of classical French cuisine, especially if irascible chef Adam (Adam Arkin) does the cooking [4.21 The Big Feast]. Maurice gave a dinner party in a recent episode [5.3 Jaws of Life], and a segment airing on Oct. 25 has characters picking up cooking pointers by watching a TV chef [5.6 Birds of a Feather].

"Northern Exposure" is not "about" food. It's about a tiny Alaskan town whose inhabitants' eccentricities are exceeded only by their mutual tolerance and respect. But as in real life, food and the fiddling that goes with it help reveal characters' personality quirks - besides giving them something to do as story lines unfold.

Occasionally a food scene takes on a true taste of authenticity. Remember the spring fete scene last season[4.23 Mud and Blood] (recently rerun) in which Maurice serves elegant truffles brioche after his giant pig sniffs out a trove of precious wild truffles?

"That was my brioche," says Seattle caterer Melinda Burrows, who made the real thing for the scene, using genuine, and costly, truffles. Burrows prepared the foods featured in several episodes, also made a real rack of lamb for a scene. In fact, she prepared four or five of them, and all were used as the actors sliced into the meat during take after take of filming.

As the filming started, the actors "were going crazy" over the lamb, Burrows said, "but how long can you eat lamb, or anything?" After a couple of hours of shooting, "they were sick of it." At any rate, the scene ended up on the cutting room floor.

Burrows also catered meals several times for the show's cast and crew. Nor was this her first foray into show-business cooking. For about a year, she worked as a traveling chef for such big-name rock singers as Paul McCartney, Phil Collins and INXS, setting up her portable kitchen in the performance venues - in one case, a bull-fight ring in Spain. She says McCartney required vegetarian fare, Collins would eat just about anything, and the INXS guys insisted only their beer be cold.

Burrow's "Northern Exposure" involvement took a more personal turn last June when she married Darren E. Burrows, who plays Cicely's Ed Chigliak, the dreamy-eyed Indian youth who loves movies. They met when she catered a filming session. She says he likes whatever she cooks.

Although Burrows made real brioche and rack of lamb for some scenes, that's not the rule, says "Northern Exposure's" prop master, Paul Byers. Food has to be edible so actors can eat it on camera, and it has to look like whatever the script calls for. But it doesn't have to be the exact item - especially if a stand-in food would work together.

Potluck picnics happen a lot in Cicely, and the food's authentic look is no accident. The "Northern Exposure" producers sometimes contract with a Roslyn church to have members make potluck dishes.

The Redmond set, where the interiors are filmed, hints at food's role in the show. The tiny kitchen behind the bar of The Brick is outfitted with an ancient range and an old refrigerator topped with a big bottle of ketchup, pots and pans and other supplies. The camera seldom dwells on these details but they lend credibility to the scene.

"Northern Exposure's" award-winning writers are responsible for the show's feast of food moments.

"I think it really just came out of our personalities. Everybody (among the writers) loves food," says Diane Frolov. She and her husband, Andrew Schneider, are head writers and executive producers for the show.

Green, the former restaurant critic, co-wrote, with Mitchell Burgess, one of last season's most talked about episodes, "The Big Feast." In it, Maurice throws an elaborate banquet with the fanciest possible cuisine and many funny complications.

"I know from experience that the giving of a dinner party is a complete journey, with a beginning, a middle and an end," Green explains by phone from Los Angeles. She wanted the story to convey that sense of journey.

Ellis Weiner, author of "The Northern Exposure Cookbook," doesn't write for the show but has a theory about food's place in it.

"The show is about individualism. It makes the point to capture and reveal the quirkiness that everyone has ..." Whether it's the fancy cuisine Maurice serves to prove his sophistication, or the simple eats that others order at The Brick, food is one way to show how individuals look at the world.

Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Created 2/20/02
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