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’Listen to your vegetables’

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Ashland native is co-creator of hit Netflix series ‘Waffles + Mochi’
Netflix photo From left are Ashland native Erika Thormahlen, co-creator of the new Netflix show, "Waffles + Mochi," with producer and star Michelle Obama and co-creator Jeremy Konner. The former First Lady plays Mrs. O, the owner of a grocery story.
Netflix photo. Erika Thormahlen, left, and puppeteer Michelle Zamora snuggle up to Waffles, one of the eponymous puppet stars of the show.
Netflix photo Puppeteers work on location in Venice, Italy, for the Netflix series "Waffles + Mochi." As part of the show, a sentient flying Magicart whisks the puppet pals around the globe in search of food and ingredients that changed the world.

Erika Thormahlen was a fussy eater as a kid growing up in Ashland. Whether it was a breaded pork chop, lasagna or enchiladas, she was put off by any unfamiliar smell or texture. A slippery mushroom could put her off a dish for months.

Today she is the co-creator of “Waffles + Mochi,” a new Netflix series about curious puppet pals who travel the world exploring the wonders of food and culture while learning how to cook with fresh ingredients.

And, oh, yes, it stars and is produced by former First Lady Michelle Obama, who plays a grocery store owner on the show. It debuted March 16 to rave reviews.

Beyond Mrs. Obama and the eponymous puppet stars, the 10-episode series boasts a roster of special guests — celebrities and famous chefs.

The show had its genesis in an Ashland childhood.

Thormahlen grew up across the street from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her parents ran a travelers’ lodging, The Stone House — "bed but no breakfast,” as her mom used to call it.

“I was a horribly picky eater,” she said. “Dinner times were very stressful at my house. But, looking back, the foods I was comfortable eating were the ones I was allowed to have ownership over, the ones I got to know in the process of choosing or preparing.”

Tomatoes, for instance, with their gelatinous innards and tangy skin, can be a tricky food for young eaters. But not for Thormahlen.

“I loved tomatoes,” she said. “Each summer, we would visit a field off Highway 99 in Phoenix, and for a few dollars each, pick as much as our buckets could carry. I loved the Easter egg hunt of it all, the prickly fuzz of their stems, and the pride of the scale’s number at the end of an afternoon haul.”

By going to the source, she made friends with her food, and ever since has always been happy to see a sliced raw tomato on her plate.

Fast forward some 25 years to the show’s first episode and sure enough, one of the stars is the tomato. You find Waffles and Mochi in the kitchen of chef Samin Nosrat of “Salt Fat Acid Heat” fame, watching her make a pasta dish with caramelized “tomato candy.”

Thormahlen co-created the show with Jeremy Konner, in both its earliest iteration and as today’s Netflix hit. She also is a writer and producer for the series, and Konner directs several episodes.

“We hoped to do for eating what Sesame Street did for learning: make food fun,” she said. “Our goal was to get kids to fall in love with the discovery of ingredients — make them amazing, silly, and surprising — in order to bring families together in the kitchen and at the dinner table.”

Thormahlen and Konner had a hunch if you got kids and parents to see cooking together as an adventure, not a homework lesson, the healthy stuff would come naturally.

Waffles and Mochi are special creatures from the land of frozen food who embark on an adventure across the globe. In every episode, they travel the world via Magicart, a sentient flying shopping cart, in search of information and recipes.

“We want kids to walk away feeling inspired and awed of foods and flavors,” she said. “You’ll never hear us talking about vitamin content or nutritional pyramids.”

The idea for the show has traveled its own 16-year journey with lots of ups and downs along the way.

In the fall of 2004, Thormahlen was taking a children’s book writing class and came up with the characters and idea of puppets traveling the world in search of food. It was in Ashland in 2005 when she fleshed out the characters for a TV show.

“I created the first concept in my folks’ guest room and hired Ashland artist Elena Rose to create the original puppets,” she said.

She and Konner, who have known each other since their early 20s, put together a “pilot” called “What’s Cooking with Waffles and Mousemeat.” (Her father called her “mousemeat” when she was a kid.)

“Unfortunately, though, 15 years ago the landscape of children’s programming didn’t see a lot of space for kids in the kitchen,” she said.

It was picked up for the New York Television Festival and lived on YouTube for a while until it was finally laid to rest in anticipation of today’s vision and characters.

Much of the inspiration for the show came from attending Chautauqua Ranch School in Ashland during her preschool, kindergarten and first-grade years.

“It was run by Jim and Myrna Ochs at the time,” she said, “and had a Waldorf-like approach to its hands-on curriculum.” The Waldorf process is essentially three-fold — thinking, feeling and doing.

Among the barn chores expected of students was milking the goats.

“I can’t tell you how scared I was to wrap my fingers around that poor goat’s udder,” she said. “But once I did and the hot milk zapped out into the metal pail, I was hooked.”

Knowing Erika struggled with new foods, Mrs. Ochs took her into their home kitchen one day after school and asked her to slice bananas with a plastic knife and put a handful of ice into a blender.

“As she poured the strained goat’s milk from that morning into the whirring blades, I couldn’t wait to taste,” Thormahlen said.

“While my mother didn’t let us get a goat, the after-school snack of Safeway milk blended with ice, bananas and honey became a favorite and satisfying staple — and sometimes a full meal when all else failed.”

Thormahlen and Konner sold the show to Higher Ground, a production company founded by the Obamas. They were very nervous about their first meeting with Michelle Obama, which had been scheduled for a 15-minute slot.

But after Mrs. Obama came into the room, appearing to be excited about the project, a full 90 minutes passed before the meeting was adjourned.

“We all were telling stories about childhood eating and food memories,” Thormahlen said. “So many ideas that percolated out of that first meeting made it into our first show.”

In many ways, “Waffles + Mochi” is an extension of Mrs. Obama’s work to support children’s health as First Lady.

“I couldn’t be more excited to join in this heartwarming and simply magical show,” she said. “I only wish ‘Waffles + Mochi’ had been around when my daughters were growing up, because it’s the kind of program that’s fun to watch together as a family.”

It is a scripted show, but ad libs do occur.

“When Mrs. Obama appeared on set, nothing we scripted was ever going to be as warm or wise as when she is riffing on our episode’s lessons at the end,” Thormahlen said. “Speaking from the heart is her superpower.”

Thormahlen has accomplished a lot in her 40 years. She began modeling at the age of 10, mostly for catalogs and ads.

“I went to Paris,” she said, “but never made it big in the fashion sense. I had fun along the way.”

She went to college at UCLA, taking a break to star in NBC’s “Just Deal” before finishing her bachelor’s degree. She earned a master’s of education in arts and humanities at New York University.

She went on to teach preschool in Soho, New York City, for a few years, and then migrated to the world of fashion and beauty brands as a copywriter, working in-house at companies like Estee Lauder and J. Crew, as well as for advertising agencies.

Today she’s busy working on her first novel about a young woman’s pursuit of fame after the kidnapping of her brother gets her a taste of the spotlight.

“It’s very dark,” she said, “the opposite of ‘Waffles + Mochi.’ Checks and balances!”

Meanwhile, the show continues to play on Netflix. Originally irreverently titled, “Listen to Your Vegetables and Eat Your Parents,” the phrase can be heard in the opening theme song and is the catchphrase in every episode.

“The line can be seen as a deeply affectionate phrase,” she said, “as in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and its repeated line, ‘I’ll eat you up, I love you so.’

“It also could be seen as a challenge to the ideas around nutrition and eating from our parents’ generation. But most of all, it just makes kids laugh.”

It’s making a lot parents and grandparents laugh as well, as they watch along with the kids.

You can visit wafflesandmochi.org online or follow the show on Instagram @wafflesandmochiofficial for recipes and ingredient activities.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.