surely its no accident that so many food Network stars have themselves found a way to transcend barriers of social class in the kitchen — beginning with Emeril Lagasse, the working-class guy from Fall river, mass., who, though he may not be able to sound. Once upon a time julia made the same promise in reverse: she showed you how you, too, could cook like someone who could not only prepare but properly pronounce a béarnaise. So-called fancy food has always served as a form of cultural capital, and cooking programs help you acquire it, now without so much as lifting a spatula. The glamour of food has made it something of a class leveler in America, a fact that many of these shows implicitly celebrate. Television likes nothing better than to serve up elitism to the masses, paradoxical as that might sound. How wonderful is it that something like arugula can at the same time be a mark of sophistication and be found in almost every salad bar in America? But the shift from producing food on television to consuming it strikes me as a far-less-salubrious development.
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No, for anyone hoping to bulimia pick up a few dinnertime tips, the implicit message of todays prime-time cooking shows is, dont try this at home. If for you really want to eat this way, go to a restaurant. Or as a chef friend put it when i asked him if he thought I could learn anything about cooking by watching the food Network, how much do you learn about playing basketball by watching the. Photo Credit Photo Illustration by Erwin Olaf for The new York times. Photograph on Screen by paul Child/Schlesinger Library, radcliffe Institute, harvard University. What we mainly learn about on the food Network in prime time is culinary fashion, which is no small thing: if Julia took the fear out of cooking, these shows take the fear — the social anxiety — out of ordering in restaurants. Hey, now i know what a shiso leaf is and what crudo means! ) Then, at the judges table, we learn how to taste and how to talk about food. For viewers, these shows have become less about the production of high-end food than about its consumption — including its conspicuous consumption. I think Ill start with the sawfish crudo wrapped in shiso leaves.
But you do have to essay wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen — or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? ) never, is when. The skills celebrated on the food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on Gods green earth. We learn things watching these cooking competitions, but theyre not things about how to cook. There are no recipes to follow; the contests fly by much too fast for viewers to take in any practical tips; and the kind of cooking practiced in prime time is far more spectacular than anything you would ever try at home.
Can we get a camera on this, alton Brown will ask in a hushed, this-must-be-golf tone of voice. It looks like chef Flays going to try for a last-minute garnish grab before the clock runs out! Will he make it? These shows move so fast, in such a blur of flashing knives, frantic pantry raids and plan more sheer fire than you would ever want to see in your own kitchen, that I honestly cant tell you whether that last-minute garnish grab happened on Iron Chef. But impressive it surely was, in the same way its impressive to watch a handful of eager young chefs on Chopped figure out how to make a passable appetizer from chicken wings, celery, soba noodles and a package of string cheese in just 20 minutes. (If you ask me, the key to victory on any of these shows comes down to one factor: bacon. Whichever contestant puts bacon in the dish invariably seems to win.).
Well, thats exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. After my discouraging hour on the phone with Balzer, i settled in for a couple more with the food Network, trying to square his dismal view of our interest in cooking with the hyperexuberant, even fetishized images of cooking that are presented on the screen. The food Network undergoes a complete change of personality at night, when it trades the cozy precincts of the home kitchen and chirpy softball coaching of Rachael ray or Sandra lee for something markedly less feminine and less practical. Erica Gruen, the cable executive often credited with putting the food Network on the map in the late 90s, recognized early on that, as she told a journalist, people dont watch television to learn things. So she shifted the networks target audience from people who love to cook to people who love to eat, a considerably larger universe and one that — important for a cable network — happens to contain a great many more men. In prime time, the food Networks mise-en-scène shifts to masculine arenas like the kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef, where famous restaurant chefs wage gladiatorial combat to see who can, in 60 minutes, concoct the most spectacular meal from a secret ingredient ceremoniously unveiled just. Whether in the kitchen Stadium or on Chopped or The next food Network Star or, over on Bravo, top Chef, cooking in prime time is a form of athletic competition, drawing its visual and even aural vocabulary from Monday night football. On Iron Chef America, one of the food Networks biggest hits, the cookingcaster Alton Brown delivers a breathless (though always gently tongue-in-cheek) play by play and color commentary, as the iron chefs and their team of iron sous-chefs race the clock to peel, chop, slice. A particularly dazzling display of chefly knife skills — a term bandied as freely on the food Network as passing game or slugging percentage is on espn — will earn an instant replay: an onion minced in slo-mo.
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Balzer has been studying American eating habits since 1978; the npd group, the firm he works for, collects data from a pool of 2,000 food diaries to track American eating habits. Years ago balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents note had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of to cook at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of assembly of elements. So microwaving a pizza doesnt count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, youre also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty. (Currently the most popular meal in America, at both lunch and dinner, is def a sandwich; the. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda.) At least by balzers none-too-exacting standard, Americans are still cooking up a storm — 58 percent of our evening meals qualify, though even that figure has been falling steadily since the 1980s.
Like most people who study consumer behavior, balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity i referred to as real scratch cooking, but he wouldnt touch the term. Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement. Heres an analogy, balzer said. A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy!
They actually had a great deal in common, as Childs biographer, laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia never referred to her viewers as housewives — a word she detested — and never condescended to them. She tried to show the sort of women who read The feminine mystique that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent womans attention. (A mans too.) Second-wave feminists were often ambivalent on the gender politics of cooking. Simone de beauvoir wrote in The second Sex that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can. This can be read either as a special Frenchie exemption for the culinary arts ( féminisme, cest bon, but we must not jeopardize those flaky pastries!
) or as a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen. To the kitchen stadium, whichever, kitchen work itself has changed considerably since 1963, judging from its depiction on todays how-to shows. Take the concept of cooking from scratch. Many of todays cooking programs rely unapologetically on ingredients that themselves contain lots of ingredients: canned soups, jarred mayonnaise, frozen vegetables, powdered sauces, vanilla wafers, limeade concentrate, marshmallow Fluff. This probably shouldnt surprise us: processed foods have so thoroughly colonized the American kitchen and diet that they have redefined what passes today for cooking, not to mention food. Many of these convenience foods have been sold to women as tools of liberation; the rhetoric of kitchen oppression has been cleverly hijacked by food marketers and the cooking shows they sponsor to sell more stuff. So the shows encourage home cooks to take all manner of shortcuts, each of which involves buying another product, and all of which taken together have succeeded in redefining what is commonly meant by the verb to cook. I spent an enlightening if somewhat depressing hour on the phone with a veteran food-marketing researcher, harry balzer, who explained that people call things cooking today that would roll their grandmother in her grave — heating up a can of soup or microwaving a frozen.
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By the end of the potato show, julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest.) resumes Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didnt do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who remote have followed her on television. Curiously, the year Julia child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published The feminine mystique, the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldnt be quite right.
Photo julia child on the set of "The French Chef" in 1963, the year it was first broadcast on American television. Credit paul Child/Schlesinger Library, radcliffe Institute, harvard University. It was a kind of courage — not only to cook but to cook the worlds most glamorous and intimidating cuisine — that Julia child gave my mother and so many other women like her, and to watch her empower viewers in episode after episode. There are still cooking programs that will teach you how to cook. Public television offers the eminently useful Americas Test Kitchen. The food Network essay carries a whole slate of so-called dump-and-stir shows during the day, and the networks research suggests that at least some viewers are following along. But many of these programs — im thinking of Rachael ray, paula deen, sandra lee — tend to be aimed at stay-at-home moms who are in a hurry and eager to please. (How good are you going to look when you serve this? Asks paula deen, a southern gal of the old school.) These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton.
was a potato pancake, and it didnt quite make it to the floor. Still, this was a classic live-television moment, inconceivable on any modern cooking show: Martha Stewart would sooner commit seppuku than let such an outtake ever see the light of day. The episode has Julia making a plate-size potato pancake, sautéing a big disc of mashed potato into which she has folded impressive quantities of cream and butter. Then the fateful moment arrives: When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions, she declares, clearly a tad nervous at the prospect, and then gives the big pancake a flip. On the way down, half of it catches the lip of the pan and splats onto the stovetop. Undaunted, julia scoops the thing up and roughly patches the pancake back together, explaining: When I flipped it, i didnt have the courage to do it the way i should have. You can always pick. And then, looking right through the camera as if taking us into her confidence, she utters the line that did so much to lift the fear of failure from my mother and her contemporaries: If youre alone in the kitchen, whoooo — the pronoun. For a generation of women eager to transcend their mothers recipe box (and perhaps, too, their mothers social standing julias little kitchen catastrophe was a liberation and a lesson: The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!
Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the cultures continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching. Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes margaret a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up thats less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia arrived on our television screens. Its also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef or Chopped or The next food Network Star. What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for. What is wrong with this picture? The courage to flip, when i asked my mother recently what exactly endeared Julia child to her, she explained that for so many of us she took the fear out of cooking and, to illustrate the point, brought up the famous potato show (or,.
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The food Network can now be seen in nearly 100 million American homes and on most nights commands more viewers than any of the cable news channels. Millions of Americans, including my 16-year-old son, can tell you months after the finale which contestant emerged victorious in season 5 of Top Chef (Hosea rosenberg, followed by Stefan Richter, his favorite, and Carla hall). The popularity of cooking shows — or perhaps I should say golf food shows — has spread beyond the precincts of public or cable television to the broadcast networks, where gordon Ramsay terrorizes newbie chefs on Hells Kitchen on Fox and Jamie oliver is preparing. Its no wonder that a hollywood studio would conclude that American audiences had an appetite for a movie in which the road to personal fulfillment and public success passes through the kitchen and turns, crucially, on a recipe for boeuf bourguignon. (The secret is to pat dry your beef before you brown.). But heres what I dont get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice waters and Mario batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food. That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to.