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Watch this: On Girl Meets Farm, Molly Yeh tries to change the Midwest, one dish at a time

The Food Network series is a millennial answer to The Pioneer Woman, with a dash of Office-style sass.

Girl Meets Farm
Molly Yeh hosts Girl Meets Farm, and recently received a Daytime Emmy nomination for her work.
Food Network
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm, which airs Sundays at 12:30 pm Eastern.

In some ways, Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm feels like a transparent attempt to create a millennial version of its highly successful cooking series about Oklahoma’s own The Pioneer Woman, a.k.a. Ree Drummond, a.k.a. a woman who parlayed her marriage to a real-life rancher into a multimillion-dollar empire. (She even has a magazine now!)

And the story of Girl Meets Farm is at least somewhat similar. It stars acclaimed food blogger Molly Yeh, a Chicago native who met and fell in love with a farm boy at Juilliard, then married him and moved out to his home state of North Dakota. And in similar fashion to its predecessor, Girl Meets Farm centers on Yeh as a transplant to rural America who’s had to learn the ways of farm life. But where The Pioneer Woman is drenched with hokey sentimentality for old-fashioned life on the farm, Girl Meets Farm boasts a winky playfulness that I find incredibly captivating.

A more apt comparison to Girl Meets Farm is The Office, because Yeh has the same sort of relationship to the camera as the characters on the beloved workplace comedy. She frequently mugs for it, then raises an eyebrow, then gives it a conspiratorial grin, as if to invite viewers into her quest to convince Midwesterners to be more culinarily adventurous.

Hosting Girl Meets Farm earned Yeh a Daytime Emmy nomination for best culinary host earlier this year, and her relationship with the camera — and consequently, the audience — is a big part of what makes the show so delightful.

Because make no mistake: This is a show about Molly Yeh trying to convince the people she knows in North Dakota to broaden their culinary horizons and finding herself stymied at every turn.

Spicy food? In the Midwest??

In each episode of Girl Meets Farm, Yeh describes her cooking as a “delicious mix” of her “Chinese and Jewish heritage” (her dad is Chinese, her mother Jewish) and “the taste of the Midwest.” That sounds delicious, in theory! In practice, it means Yeh tries to infuse her food with flavor, but not so much flavor that it scares off her skittish in-laws.

On one hand, I’m not quite sure how to explain what sets Girl Meets Farm apart from other shows of its ilk. On the surface, it’s just a cooking show. But on the other hand, it genuinely does feel like Yeh and everybody in her life are aware the producers want them to play certain roles, and they (especially Yeh and her husband) play them with just enough ironic detachment that you realize they’re in on the joke, just a little bit.

Yeh will talk about getting rid of the jalapeño seeds in a recipe so it’s not so spicy, and then give the camera a Jim Halpert loook, because you know she could totally handle more heat. She’ll add tahini to absolutely everything, even though it’s hard to imagine that a majority of her North Dakota friends and family have tried the roasted sesame paste that is so vital to Mediterranean cooking. Her husband, Nick, will say he loves how “vegetable forward” her menus are, and then everybody will laugh, because he’s probably being a little sarcastic about meat not being a primary ingredient in her recipes that week.

It’s this weird layer of extratextual commentary — which seems so overt to me, though your mileage may vary — that makes Girl Meets Farm enjoyable for me, where I find The Pioneer Woman a chore. Yeh, her husband, and her husband’s family are locked into a relationship where Yeh is constantly trying to give bland Midwestern staples a new culinary zing, and everybody says they like what she comes up with, but do they? There’s a weird, rehearsed tightness to the frequent scenes where Yeh presents a prepared meal to her family. It’s as if she just stepped off a TV set and into somebody’s home videos, where nobody is quite sure how to act in front of the camera.

This slight remove, this sense of awkwardness, gives Girl Meets Farm a handmade feel. I particularly love the scenes between Yeh and Nick, where she brings food out to him as he’s doing his chores. They’re very clearly staged, with barely a rudimentary understanding of what farming entails. (The show effectively suggests that farming consists almost entirely of riding around in a tractor.) But Nick himself seems deeply amused by his role as a supporting character on a TV show while he also has to work on an honest-to-god farm.

It’s entirely possible that the reason I like Girl Meets Farm is that I grew up around people like Nick and his family, who complained that food was too spicy if it contained too much garlic or a single jalapeño pepper. Food on a farm is so often merely functional, meant to provide a quick infusion of nutrients before work resumes in the field. Yeh would like it to be more than that, and there’s something compelling about the way her mission functions as an underlying conflict for the show. And, crucially, none of her intentions or interactions ever come across as condescending or spiteful. The result is at once charmingly sincere and agreeably sly.

Though Yeh’s fight to replace white bread sandwiches with sausage and broccolini pizza pockets is sweet and probably futile, it also gives Girl Meets Farm a sneaky, built-in story arc. Perhaps this will be the week her mother-in-law finally exclaims, “My god! I love tahini!”

Girl Meets Farm airs Sundays at 12:30 pm Eastern on Food Network. It’s available for digital purchase but isn’t streaming anywhere. C’mon, Food Network! Get it together!