Burt Wolf was curious about the tea in China. Not the price, but the way they drink it.
So he traveled to Taiwan, where among other things he learned why the Chinese drink tea from a cup with no handle. Wolf shares such findings in "Burt Wolf--Eating Well," a new PBS show that is more than just cooking and recipes.
"I'm a food reporter," Wolf says, "and for the last 30 years my job has been to travel around the world and find out why people eat the way they do. In Taiwan I'm served tea in a cup with no handle and I want to know why. The rest of the world drinks tea in a cup with a handle.
"I find that the tongue is one of the most sensitive areas of the body to heat. If you put hot stuff in your mouth you burn your tongue. If you pick up a cup with no handle your fingers instantly tell you if it's too hot. But if you're a sophisticated Westerner you pick up a cup with a handle, sip the too-hot tea and burn your tongue."
While in Taiwan, Wolf also finds out about the history of tea, how to make the perfect cup of tea and what is the relationship between tea and health. From Washington he talks about the bean soup served in the U.S. Senate. He talks about cooking halibut in Norway, lingonberry pancakes from Stockholm and Idaho potatoes from Boise.
Wolf is telling about his show, appropriately enough, over a late breakfast. He occasionally pops into the kitchen to see what the chef is preparing. He picks up a tin of tea and notes; it's called Stash.
"The old sea captains who carried the tea kept samples to show the tea merchants," he says. "The best tea was called the captain's stash."
Wolf spends 264 days a year investigating food around the world. He calls his New York apartment the world's most expensive storage container.
He's contributed a daily report to CNN for the last 10 years. His series "What's Cooking" has been syndicated for 12 years. The new half-hour PBS show was first seen last summer on some stations before it began reaching the full PBS lineup.
Each show covers four areas: the history and anthropology of a certain food, its nutritional and health value, how to prepare it properly and why a society eats the way it does.
Wolf already has filmed 52 shows in such places as Taiwan, Canada, Paris, Greece, New York, Hawaii, San Francisco, Sweden and Denmark. In collecting recipes, he says he looks for good food that can be easily prepared and has no more than eight ingredients.
Wolf, who brought his high blood pressure down by diet and exercise, stresses healthful eating. "Good food is essential to good health," he says, "but I don't think you have to give up any foods. I think there are only wrong amounts. We know what we eat affects our health, so it's foolish not to eat accordingly."
Although Wolf, with his white hair and beard, looks like he was born to wear a chef's uniform, he began his career as a lawyer. He went to work for an investment banking firm in Switzerland.
"The banking group was interested in investing in food companies and asked me to investigate it for them," he says.
"I did a lot of research on companies that make cooking utensils. Out of that came a book called 'The Cook's Catalogue.' I edited it and did some of the writing.
"The book (published in 1973) also looked into the history of food. For instance, why some countries serve single-crusted pies and why the English serve double-crusted pies. In England during the Tudor period they developed a 'surprise' pie in which the surprise was hidden by a top crust."
When Wolf was in Los Angeles to promote the book on "The Tonight Show," it was suggested he had the makings of a television show. Out of that came the syndicated program.
"Later, Ted Turner said he wanted to carry the show on cable," Wolf says. "I talked to some of the station people and they laughed and said, 'CNN? You better get your money first.' Little did we know how successful CNN would become. But that was the time when I decided I didn't need to be in the banking business anymore."
Although he grew up thinking he would become a lawyer, Wolf supported himself by working in restaurants.
"My grandmother owned a cooking equipment store," he says. "I literally grew up in the cooking business. So all the time I was training myself for food."
"Burt Wolf--Eating Well" airs Saturdays at 11 a.m. on KCET.