Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Oct

Cooking As a Spectator Sport

Unless you live in a cave (not that I would frown upon that), you’re at least somewhat familiar with the phenomenon of Food Network and other offshoot culinary-focused programming. Since the advent of cable television every hobby, interest, niche and daily pastime has been assigned its own channel with round the clock exposition of every conceivable detail. Cooking has been no exception. In fact, the kitchen genre has caught on so much that it’s graduated to network day and evening as well. We’re apparently entranced by watching other people make food – and likely by the images of the food itself. (I’ve heard these shows referred to as “food porn” for their attractive but gratuitous displays.) I’m not much of a T.V. follower, but for years the craze has somewhat confounded me.

A few weeks ago Michael Pollan wrote a great and detailed piece about the evolution and popularity of these cooking shows. The contradiction he cites is the same I’ve noticed (and probably all of us have thought about at some point). For all the lure and luster of these shows, the collective fascination doesn’t appear to translate into action. As Pollan (among many others) have noted, we as a society spend less time cooking for ourselves than ever before – some 27 minutes a day. (Rather startling, isn’t it?) Evidently, the Food Network’s producers strategically took these shifting priorities into account. Erica Gruen, a pivotal executive force for the network, advantageously modified the “target audience from people who love to cook to people who love to eat.” The cynical side of me, you could say, isn’t terribly surprised. A few weeks ago I blogged about the popularity (and terribly misguided approach) of The Biggest Loser. It all comes full circle, I guess. We watch people make elaborate dishes while we shortchange our own food preparation. Then we sit down yet again to watch people lose the weight they gained by spending inadequate time and thought on their own physical realities.

The programming runs the spectrum – everything from the upscale Martha Stewart and Ina Garten fare to the down home charm of Paula Deen and (literally) “Down Home with the Neelys.” There’s the “health conscious” Eli Krieger (CW’s definition of healthy of course), the time possessed Rachel Ray, and the sugar obsessed Sandra Lee (the last person you’d want catering your kid’s birthday party from the little I’ve seen.). The list goes on and on apparently. Not being a fan, I’ll leave it to others to dissect the particular shows. The point isn’t any particular show itself. I’m sure some could be said to have more legitimate instructive value than others if you’re one of the rare few watching for that purpose.

My real criticisms are multifold. Sure, you can go into sugar shock just watching most of these shows. A good deal of what they promote as healthy is the typical bogus crap we see all the time (whole grain this and that). That aside, however, I’m bothered by bigger issues that these. Clearly, something more significant is lost in the reframing of cooking as entertainment. Pollan waxes poetic on our draw to food shows as cultural nostalgia for simpler times (watching Mom or Grandma in the kitchen after school) and even evolutionary heritage (sitting around the tribal fire together for communal feasting). I think he has a genuine point with both, but let me play the curmudgeon foil to Pollan’s philosopher. First off, is anyone else bothered by how quick we are as a culture to accept a virtual substitute – even for something as sensory, tactile and traditionally social as cooking? Nostalgia? How about delusion? What’s more disturbing is, on some level, we dupe ourselves into thinking we’ve somehow participated in what we’ve seen; we believe we’re somehow keeping one foot in the world of real food (simply by watching it being handled) while we personally surround ourselves with food as processed as these shows are stylized. To boot, we simultaneously steal this time and show of interest from the real social exchange of food preparation and sharing.

Beyond the general disconnect from reality the food spectacle encourages, I’m also bothered by the passivity and impatience it helps breed. Though the shows are supposed to make cooking feel more accessible, the opposite often happens, particularly if viewers bring an already ambivalent attitude to kitchen duty. Let’s face it – things aren’t going to look quite as bright and pretty in most people’s kitchens as they do in perfectly lit, spotless studios. No stage hands are there to do the unseen prep and clean up. The real act for too many people feels less glamorous, more remote from everyday possibility or at least desirability.

As Pollan notes, viewers who have observed (though not necessarily envisioned) something better for dinner still hold fast to their “convenience” foods. They continue to reject the simple and modest work of cooking as well as the social pleasures of it as a basic human task in order to have more time for outings, games, events… T.V.

I obviously use technology and believe it can benefit people by stirring the dissemination and exchange of information, practical ideas and support. As I mentioned, I’m sure some of these shows do offer something helpful, useful and inspirational for viewers who approach them with that intention. Nonetheless, I always come back to the conclusion that relying too much on representation distances us from the real thing. The spectator stance becomes ingrained more easily than we think. Making a point of turning off the media representations of life, particularly the parts so fundamental to our basic humanity and history, has a way of reengaging your own creativity and resetting your expectations, your appreciation for the small things. Life isn’t all about convenience, and there’s both fun and enjoyment to be had from everyday tasks when you don’t approach them with disdain. My wife and I have had our best conversations in our kitchen cleaning up after dinner. Friends of ours, the best dinner party hosts you can imagine, routinely get us (their lucky guests) involved with this or that small chopping, grating, or other preparatory job. The result is a casual, convivial and very natural feeling ambiance. At the end of the day, I think, health and happiness have a lot to do with how we live in the moment and embrace the value of small things. I’m reminded of a quote by William Morris – one that I’ve kept since I stumbled upon it a few years ago: “The true secret to happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.” (How ridiculous that we have to clarify real life, not T.V. representation.) Simplicity has its rewards – healthful and otherwise.

Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Absolutely awesome, spot on analysis!

    I spent this entire last weekend (Thanksgiving for us up North) with my grandmother helping her in the kitchen. There is nothing more enjoyable then being in that room with her, listening, learning, and soaking up her history.

    ccarrigan wrote on October 14th, 2009
  2. I’ve always loved to watch cooking shows. Currently I don’t have cable service, but whenever I find myself holding a remote for a TV that DOES have cable, I’m flipping to the Food Network. For me it isn’t about disconnect…I enjoy cooking but I love watching people more experienced than me do it, too. I learn from them. I’d still not know how to chop an onion easily with a knife if it weren’t for Food TV. So for me, it’s educational, just like HGTV gives me ideas for what I can do around my house.

    Granted, I haven’t watched Food Network since embarking on the Primal journey, so it might be that now I would cringe when watching like you apparently do, Mark. 😉 But, I still think there are ways we can let these things enhance our lives rather than consume them. Everything in moderation, in other words.

    JamieBelle wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • I could’ve written this! I don’t have cable now either but loved watching food network when I did… I get lots of good ideas from it, and also have learned techniques. Same with me for the onion – I learned from Rachael Ray.

      I also learned how to smash/peel garlic cloves from Food Network, plus lots of scientific goodies about WHY things happen in cooking from Alton Brown.

      Coming from parents who didn’t ever really cook much, Food Network has been a great substitute teacher for me.

      Though I know plenty of people who watch it all the time and never actually cook anything… so… it goes both ways.

      FlyNavyWife wrote on October 14th, 2009
      • oh but I also haven’t watched it since the primal switch, so maybe there’s more “poison” out there than I remember.

        And Sandra Lee’s stuff has NEVER been appealing to me. Ever. Blech.
        Been cracking up at for about a week now.

        FlyNavyWife wrote on October 14th, 2009
  3. I enjoy watching Food Network once in a while, particularly Barefoot Contessa, for the cooking/prep tips and a bit of inspiration. Nonetheless, after a while I notice I’m not really getting anything out of it. I just kind of get sucked into the visuals of it – a common experience I think Mark picked up on. While there’s nothing wrong with cooking shows in and of themselves, everything in our culture seems to converge toward a passive, aloof stance toward food.

    Jen wrote on October 14th, 2009
  4. Thanksgiving. I live for that. We start cooking two days before. It’s spectacular.

    Michael wrote on October 14th, 2009
  5. Mark,

    Bravo! I am the father of 3 boys. 3.5, 18 months, and 3 months. Needless to say, I am around the house a fair amount on the weekends, and my wife needs all the help that she can get.

    One of my favorite things to do is bat around some meal ideas with my wife. Then I prepare it, and cook it. The longer the better! Saturday and Sunday dinners are some of the best things that we do together. I could not agree with you more. I get more recipes from paleo websites than I do from tv, to avoid the sugar. It’s entirely underrated. It’s slowly becoming a passion for me. Some people woodwork, I cook!

    I made the Puerco Pibil recipe this weekend. Very good, very different…I added a little coconut milk at the end, and that paired well.

    Keep it up, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures!

    Do you think that there would be appetite for grilling recipes and discussions? At some point, I might try to contribute!


    James wrote on October 14th, 2009
  6. Nigella Lawson gets me everytime! But not for the cooking 😛

    I used to be big into cooking shows when I had cable but only because I love to cook, and I love to watch others cook. I was always inspired to make my food that much better after watching these kitchen wizards. And 99% of the time, it did result in action. If I had to choose another career to move to, it would be a chef of some sort. Too bad I can’t spend all day in a kitchen right now :(

    When my son was about less than 1 he was fixated on cooking shows. Other kids were watching Barney and he was watching Food TV. We LOVE our food.

    Lovestoclimb wrote on October 14th, 2009
  7. Watching “How to make poison more appealing”, served up by overweight, inflamed and ignorant chefs and foodies, is not my way of passing the time.
    I am resigned to having to prepare and cook good food, for for at least an hour a day, for the rest of my life. That’s just how it is.

    Bill wrote on October 14th, 2009
  8. I love Food Network and have learned a ton of culinary skills from watching chefs prepare food. However, I can’t stand to watch Elie Krieger (sp?). The information she puts out there irks me to no end. Other than that, I watch and see how I could possibly make the recipes without all the additives. Bobby Flay has some great recipes that require little tweaking.

    Kate wrote on October 14th, 2009
  9. The real spectator sport of FoodTV is watching Mario Batali and Ina Garten and Tyler Florence and Emeril Lagasse get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.

    M wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • SO TRUE!!!! Rachel Ray, too, is fattening up like a brood mare.

      Jamie wrote on October 14th, 2009
  10. I watch Anthony Bourdain, not for the food as much as the culture. Almost all the food on his show is local and healthy.

    Gordon wrote on October 14th, 2009
  11. Thanks for this post, it is spot on. We got rid of our cable and no longer watch any TV.

    But when we had cable I watched all those shows because I love to cook, but then I began to feel like they were really infomercials for carbs, sugar, and vegetable oils. If they cooked something that looked and sounded good, I felt like I had to make it or buy it and eat it, even if it wasn’t healthy, or something I ordinarily ate. The power of the idiot box. No thank you. Just another way the proponents of CW keep us fat, dumb and too sick to care.

    I would definitely enjoy DVD’s on cooking techniques for grass fed beef, pastured pork poultry and wild game, if someone gets around to making them.

    waterlily wrote on October 14th, 2009
  12. I can’t speak to the national trend, but in my own experience, the fascination with watching FoodTV food porn has definitely turned into action.

    In fact, it was repeatedly watching Food Network to relax that eventually made me realize, “hey, I could do that”, and the basic tenets of cooking (put some fat on a heat source, add food, deliciousness ensues). I would say that this gradual realization led me ultimately to my primal search, since it helped me take the responsibility for my meals off of restaurants and convenience stores, and put it back into my own hands and kitchen.

    Also, I get a kick out of watching meals being made, and thinking up clever ways to make them more primal or substitute ingredients to make them healthier. I would guess that the net effect of this tv trend is a good one, as it shows people what is possible and removes the mystery from the kitchen.

    Parley wrote on October 14th, 2009
  13. Who can forget The Galloping Gourmet getting sloshed while telling jokes and whipping up a meal?

    Bob wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • Ooh! I grew up watching him and Julia! I think the biggest difference between then and now is that they were teachers that didn’t strive for perfection. If the chicken was a little less than perfect, Well, that was what good company was for. The chefs now make porn -looks good, leaves you feeling more empty than when you started. Who has dinner parties anymore? or even has other people over for dinner that doesn’t involve a holiday? I started cooking more (well, my DH did anyway!) when we went primal and now I am starting to invite people over because if your making steak and salad for 3 what difference does 4 more make?

      Lisette wrote on October 14th, 2009
  14. Food Network is not what it used to be sadly..its more of a food competition channel than anything.

    Aside from Alton B that is 😉

    Gfly wrote on October 14th, 2009
  15. Since I’m not from the USA, I wasn’t familiar with the Food Network.
    However, over here this craze is emerging as well … it seems like every actor or singer now has their own cooking show and there are several cooking reality TV shows on every night … it gets ridiculous.

    The solution, of course, is not watching TV at all 😉

    I did catch that Nigella Lawson lady one time .. the stuff she made was disgusting but I understand why she’s so popular!

    Bert Brams wrote on October 14th, 2009
  16. I don’t watch Food Network much anymore, but when I first started eating more healthy, some of their shows were pretty good. Alton Brown has some pretty good recipes that usually only involve a small amount of tweaking, and since he’s providing the science behind why we use certain ingredients, it can really help get the imagination working on how to primalize some of those not-so-primal recipes. I stayed away from a lot of their bigger shows: Emeril never made anything I could modify in any way, and the same for Paula Deen, The Neely’s, or Mario Battalli. Bobby Flay is over-rated, but he usually offers some decent grill tips and marinades or prep tips.

    It’s certainly not something I watch regularly anymore; once you’ve got the basics, there’s better means of finding information geared towards a more primal life style. I’ll still watch things like Iron Chef or Good Eats to get a couple of new ideas, but they’re not something I work actively to watch anymore.

    Brian wrote on October 14th, 2009
  17. “Unless you live in a cave (not that I would frown upon that)…” You crack me up, Mark!

    Karin wrote on October 14th, 2009
  18. There is a show called “Primal Grill” that comes on our local PBS station that is pretty good. Pretty much all about grilling and well done.

    worthc wrote on October 14th, 2009
  19. Primal Grill’s website is Seems pretty primal to me or at least a lot of meat over a fire.

    worthc wrote on October 14th, 2009
  20. totally agree Mark. But unfortunately the average person just doesn’t have as much time as in the past. The main concern is eating healthier food, whether prepared in 5 mins or 50. So I tell my clients to get the cooking for the week done as quickly as possible (cooking in batches, eating leftover dinner for lunch etc) to save time, and then to make the time on weekends to plan out slow cook style dinners with friends.

    Here’s a video of me attempting to prepare a days worth of meals and snacks in 5 mins.

    Darren wrote on October 14th, 2009
  21. From a daily standpoint, there’s no other more precious time than that spent in the kitchen with my wife preparing our meals while enjoying a glass of wine, listening to music in the background, and talking about the day.

    I’d imagine that, without this, a terrible disconnection would ensue — in our relationship and to the self.

    Thank you for a great article!

    Ogg the Caveman wrote on October 14th, 2009
  22. I love Bobby Flay, especially Boy Meets Grill. Such a fantastic show with lots of information that you can apply to healthy cooking.

    Dane wrote on October 14th, 2009
  23. I do love watching cooking shows, mostly because I love cooking and everything about it. I will even cook things I don’t like to eat — just for the fun of making them.

    My favorite shows are “Chopped” where chefs have to take four mystery ingredients and make a dish in 20-30 minutes, and Iron Chef America. Lots of creativity on display, I find it fun and inspiring to watch.

    Ina Garten has some great recipes (her herb roasted turkey breast is a favorite primal recipe of mine), and Bobby Flay has some good stuff also.

    Tami wrote on October 14th, 2009
  24. I’ve never had cable TV, so I don’t know about the Food Network.
    BUT! cooking shows on PBS have taught me a LOT. My mother never ever cooked and I grew up eating boxed mac&cheese and frozen TV dinners. Watching PBS shows taught me how to chop an onion, how to add herbs to dishes, how to create colorful salads…
    For me they’ve been very helpful since I was completely clueless before.

    PrimalNewbie wrote on October 14th, 2009
  25. I don’t get the cooking show thing. I happen to know many people for whom cooking, eating and watching these shows is their LIFE. I think it amounts to food porn. Isn’t it enough that we as a country are already eating way too much? Now we have to supplement it by watching others prepare food too? Weird.

    HIIT Mama wrote on October 14th, 2009
  26. Everything you mention about virtuality here is so true. We need to live in the tangible sensory present and get out of our own personal virtual realities or risk becoming truly social inept as a culture.

    From my perspective, no one is going to be inspired to cook by these show – not even the semi homemade, how to boil water nonsense. Either you have the hutspa to get your arse in kitchen and make a glorious mess, or you don’t. But those who already cook do get something out of watching to get new ideas. Julia Child is missing from this thread, so I need to mention her and the success of the recent book and movie about her, love of food and putting people into your kitchen. When I saw the movie, I was amazed at all the 20 somes that thought this was all novel… cooking at home, dining with friends and family, putting love and grace into living. Really? I’m starting to think I’m the only parent on the planet that expects their kids to eat dinner at home 6-7 nights a week, help make it, and graciously wash the dishes. And oh… the other night you just happen to not dine at my table, that’s because you’re at some body elses HOUSE, not eating a sandwich out of the back seat of a car. The standard for a good meal around here is still measured by the number of hands, diversity of ages, and messy pots and utensils in the composition.

    Good also to see Alton Brown be mentioned… recent heart attack, shed 50 lbs this year… has his name on the AHA website with recipe suggestions. Of course it all follows that ridiculous food pyramid, but it is progress. His show is the one I do seek since it is more about science and technique than recipe per se. And he’s a geek from my generation… a food lover with Tolkien and Lewis in his blood.

    Christine wrote on October 14th, 2009
  27. I actually tried out for The Next Food Network Star a couple months ago (I was the youngest one there at 21) I wanted to do a Primal/Meat & Fresh Food Heavy angle – uh yeah, that doesn’t jive with Food Network since fresh & local food doesn’t usually have a gigantic marketing and advertising team behind each “brand” who buy advertising spots on Food Network.

    Primal_Pebbles wrote on October 14th, 2009
  28. Hey, don’t forget about Good Eats with Alton Brown. I really like how he goes into the science of cooking as much as the art.

    Alejandro wrote on October 14th, 2009
  29. Excellent observations Mark. I get a laugh out of that cooking show were it’s actually a contest to see who can cook the best very very fast,,what’s the name? Extreme something or other. Basically they turn cooking into an olympic event. LOL It actually gives me a headache to try to watch the swishing angles, rapid shot tranfers. Ah, just like gramma used to cook. :)

    rachel allen wrote on October 14th, 2009
  30. With some slight modifications, you could rewrite this article substituting “sports” for “cooking”.

    I find the watching of tv sports to be equally confounding.

    dragonmamma wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • I imagine Grok watched his buddies heave rocks for distance or have foot races. Many people who play sports also watch sports, and sports on TV or radio have been around a lot longer than the Food Network.

      Trish wrote on October 15th, 2009
  31. Interesting topic! I find the shows make me REALLY hungry.
    I enjoy the PBS ones a lot more than the food network. Especially bc they often combine travel with food on PBS.
    Even though the recipes are usually not primal, you can get great flavor combination ideas from the shows.

    Yummy wrote on October 14th, 2009
  32. 1. Even though I don’t always agree with Alton Brown’s nutritional advice, Good Eats is the best cooking show on TV.

    2. Prep work is very relaxing. I’ve found that chopping vegetables has a meditative quality. As long as I don’t daydream, my fingers are safe.

    Mike wrote on October 14th, 2009
  33. I completely disagree that cooking shows don’t inspire to cook. I’ve cooked more this year then the rest of my life combined. Part of it is going primal but watching and reading online about cooking sparks my interest and I share this passion with a bunch of friends and co-workers.

    one_eye_mike wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • Me too. Everyone who knows me is amazed that “I Don’t Cook” Ginger is looking up recipes I’ve just seen on FN and *actually making them.* Despite my feet hurting from standing so much and the kitchen looking like a bomb went off in it, I am enjoying myself. No one is more surprised than me. Without Food Network, I’d still be cooking (i.e., burning) everything at the highest temperature without any oil to keep the food from sticking to the pan and without any spices whatsoever. (Yeah, I was that bad. LOL.)

      Ginger wrote on October 26th, 2009
  34. I watch Top Chef, and I like it.

    Huey wrote on October 14th, 2009
  35. I don’t remember seeing Alton Brown ever needing to lose 50 pounds…gee, it’s only been a few months since I last watched him on TV!

    I agree there can be inspiration and some new ideas from some of the shows, and I’d just as soon relax watching Food Network as any sitcom, but generally I skip all the above. The comment about it all starting to seem like an informercial for veggie oils, sugar and packaged foods is so true.

    Jeanmarie wrote on October 14th, 2009
  36. You guys have TV?

    I’m glad you wouldn’t frown on my living quarters Mark. It’s about as close to a cave as you can get. It does have all the modern amenities like running water and electricity.

    Now if I can figure out a way to keep the damn bugs from coming in (unfortunately not desirable to eat varieties).

    Grok wrote on October 14th, 2009
  37. I enjoy the pbs food lineup, especially the “Diary of a Foodie” shows–beautifully shot and edited, and showing native peoples preparing their traditional dishes.

    From a primal perspective it’s always fascinating to see what people have long eaten that’s healthy or not–primal or not. For example, many times you see Hispanic people preparing their native dishes–everything has corn in it, and many of the men, women and children have puffy faces, puffy bodies.

    ron wrote on October 14th, 2009
  38. Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa cake. Worst. Recipe. Ever. Instead of just buying chocolate frosting, she added cocoa powder to vanilla frosting. Later in the show, she scooped the contents out of an apple pie into the middle of the cake and then suggested that viewers save the crust to put on ice cream. Canned apple pie filling would have been much cheaper. The final insult was trimming the bottom of the chocolate-frosted, apple-filled Kwanzaa cake with cornnuts. YUCK!

    Alton Brown was the only host worth watching. Real cooking mostly from scratch with lots of helpful tips.

    Sonagi wrote on October 14th, 2009
  39. Weirdly enough, the Food Channel is one of the channels on the TV’s at the gym (in front of cardio equipment). No doubt that cooking is central to human existence. Come on, is there anything better than coming home from work and smelling dinner cooking?? I am an avid NPR listener and they had an interview with a guy that modeled and alternative type nursing home…more like a real home. The one thing they stated that was important to keeping residents grounded and moving forward was THE SMELL OF FOOD COOKING! Not to mention the fact that the most important time you can spend with your family is at the dinner table. Ask any successful family the one thing they have in common and that will be it. When my kids were growing up (not that long ago) dinnertime was sacred and home-cooked. No TV, no other distractions. Now I’m hungry….gotta go make dinner!

    Cherie wrote on October 14th, 2009
  40. Oh, yeah…they guy that has the low-carb show is pretty good.

    Cherie wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • Yes! I just printed out his awesome meatloaf recipe last night. Will be making it later this week.

      Ginger wrote on October 26th, 2009

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