As first lady, Michelle Obama received plenty of cable TV flak for her youth nutrition initiative, Let’s Move!, which combined the soft touch of the First Lady’s “mom-in-chief” persona with actual policies to combat childhood obesity and improve school lunches. The subsequent administration may have tarnished the Obamas’ legislative legacy, but soft power abounds on the streaming services; the latest in the lucrative partnership between the Obamas’ Higher Ground production and Netflix is Waffles + Mochi, a mostly charming, zany children’s series in which two puppets explore, via magic flying shopping cart, the world of food cast in its rosiest light.
Waffles + Mochi, created by Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner, with episodes directed by Konner and Alex Braverman, plays like the instructive, puppet-human collaboration formula of Sesame Street applied to nutritional and culinary literacy, with a dash of childlike whimsy. Waffles (puppeteer Michelle Zamora) is a half-Yeti, half frozen Eggos creature (with endearing waffles for ears), who does the speaking to companion Mochi’s (a palm-sized puppet version of the Japanese food) wordless sounds. The duo are from the “land of frozen foods” (a gesture at diets that involve little to no cooking) and journey to a charmingly animated neighborhood grocery store in New York, where they aspire to get jobs sorting food. There they meet “Mrs O”: Michelle in cameo as a friendly neighbor, accompanied by a neurotic busy bee, maintaining the winsome persona of her post-office years – loose, chatty, grounded.
Each of the 10 episodes, which run 20-25 minutes, focus on a different base ingredient, from produce such as tomatoes, mushrooms and corn to pantry staples including salt, herbs & spices, rice, pickles and water. Via the shopping cart, the puppets travel widely, from Peru to Japan to Oakland, for visits with local chefs and big names recruited by the Obama banner: Samin Nostrat of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat instructs on tomatoes, while José Andrés endearingly whips up gazpacho while dancing. The travels wrap with a generally unassailable lesson from Mrs O – on moderation and trusting one’s taste (salt), for example, or patience (pickles), or how families, to put it in kids speak, come in all shapes, sizes and color (rice AKA Mochi’s lineage).
Some of the bits would, I assume, appeal to children, such as an animation of tastebud personalities or one girl’s interpretation of a story about Ben Franklin rescuing the reputation of the potato in the 1700s, which plays like a very wholesome, child-version of drunk history for adults. But others, especially celebrity cross promo seem designed for adults accustomed to status flagging; it’s unlikely the show’s target demo will either get not care about a bit with Tan France, from Netflix’s Queer Eye, styling a potato (who ultimately needs no embellishment, the lesson being value others for how they are), or a Sia number by a tomato in a Chandelier-era wig about mistaken identity (as fruit or vegetable).
The episodes are a little harebrained, even for short attention spans, zinging from location to location, cook-along to instructional bit with little room for each segment to breathe; the potato episode, for examples, whizzes through a Peruvian farm, a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, Mars (cue the Martian), and the Queer Eye bit in less 15 minutes. Taken as a whole, the series embodies the many peaks and occasional valleys of the Obamas’ brand of liberalism – a diverse cast emphasizing inclusion, earnest and optimistic in tone, though generally riding on the assumption that nutrition is more a matter of choice than access.
There’s fair reason to be cynical about the crossover between politics and entertainment (and big dollars of streaming services), but it’s hard to fault a program that teaches kids to approach the foods they eat with curiosity, inclusiveness and a dose of background knowledge. From taste to geography, “blender dance” to a bit in which a chef from Savannah, Georgia describes how his ancestors were brought to America by force to grow rice, Waffles + Mochi mostly strikes the difficult balance between didacticism, age-appropriate messaging and zany fun.
Kids likely won’t leave begging for gazpacho or interested in award-winning restaurants or moved by celebrities they probably don’t know. But Waffles + Mochi works when its pantry-full of star ingredients strive not for name recognition but literacy, broadly construed: nutritional, geographical, emotional – a soup any open-hearted person can get behind.