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. My weakness wasn’t foot TV, it was cookbooks. I had a massive collection of them. I would pore over them, tag recipes, read them for entertainment, but rarely cook much at home at all. Now that I’ve been cooking at home lots, they’re just not interesting anymore. Has anybody else had that happen?

    lschermann wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • No. I’ve always read cookbooks for entertainment, but now I’m actually cooking from them. I’ve been cooking some terrific stuff.

      CFS wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • Oh, yeah. Tons of them I haven’t even read…

      Sara wrote on November 21st, 2009
  2. Excellent and interesting point – the concept of people happily putting time aside to indulge in cooking shows whilst complaining of no time for food preparation. To be honest I’m quite surprised that the average kitchen time is as much as 27 minutes! I seem to almost daily come across people who claim no time for cooking, and the fact that most of them also seem to think any cooking they do undertake needs to be complex and gourmet means that they’re unlikely to make time soon.

    When it comes to food preparation and eating well I think a real key needs to be bringing people back to true basics – that food, for the majority of our meals, needs to be about fuel. Not presentation, not who we can impress, not placing such great expectations on ourselves that we become completely unmotivated to do anything but hit up the freezer section of 7-Eleven for a microwave ‘meal’. How tough is it to prepare a truly sustaining meal? Meat, fat, maybe some green veg. Sure, you can add complexity to it if you choose, but the basics of correct nutrition have evolved from almost no cooking time at all. And unless you’re still hunting your food, your preparation time should be fairly minimal these days!

    The recipe for success is to remember what food is there for – fuel and nutrition. ANd when you get that right, enjoyment most definitely follows.

    Kat Eden wrote on October 14th, 2009
    • Exactly. For me, thinking about how good a meal is going to taste is always secondary to making sure I’ve got all the essential elements PRO, CHO (veggie) and FAT.

      Jason wrote on October 15th, 2009
  3. Mark, I totally respect a message like this that cautions us not to live vicariously…to *do* not to just sit back and watch it! I must admit I have and still do enjoy the Food Network a great deal…as well HGTV, The Discovery Channel, History Channel and National Geographic…you can see a trend. I love learning and besides reading, that is a relaxing way for me to do so. Just like any other bad habits or approaches, I suspect the response has more to do with the people exposed to them than the habits themselves. I, for one, have been greatly inspired by cooking shows since the days of PBS (Great Chefs and Frugal Gourmet) and now to the network devoted to food. LOL And yeah, Alton is my geeky, foody man! Love him! But I guess my point is that I still strive to cook better and better for my family, but my techniques have absolutely been inspired by many shows. The only drawback is I’m getting more and more irked with them nutritionally. But it’s a challenge to come up with my own better versions anyhow.

    Lisa wrote on October 14th, 2009
  4. Who doesn’t like Jamie Oliver? just skip the rice and pasta. He uses healthy amount of clean meat and organic veggies straight from his garden with his muddy hands.
    The “glugs” of olive oil and ‘knobs’ of butter.
    I really feel motivated to cook after watching his shows, he pays attention to details yet makes it easy with tips for the viewer when they might actually cook the food. simple and easy.
    I spend 1.5 to 2 hrs in the kitchen everyday.Make elaborate meals very often. It does take a lot of planning(think 5-6 meals ahead) and stocking(shop often), i still go to uni, play video games(also make em), all without even having a car or bus ticket. Just my bike.

    Madhu wrote on October 15th, 2009
  5. Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t understand the point of cooking shows ? 2 essential elements of food I’d always thought were TASTE and SMELL. Unless the US TV network has made some dramatic technological breakthroughs I haven’t heard about yet, I suspect those 2 elements are still sadly lacking, so at the end of the show when everyone gathers round for a taste and tells the viewers how wonderful it all is, I’m left thinking “What the **** “? It’s like listening to an art programme on the radio….

    davidy48 wrote on October 15th, 2009
  6. I use cooking shows the same way I use DIY design shows… as inspiration. As a result I have my own power tools, professional cutlery, a cabinet full of spices and an organic garden.

    It’s not the shows per se but people themselves and the information they receive from such. I look forward to trying out different recipes or design ideas. It motivates me… helps to recapture my muse when I am feeling uninspired.

    For me as a creative person in general… I learn, then do.

    seporter003 wrote on October 15th, 2009
  7. True, 99% of the dishes prepared on the various shows on FN are non-primal, but with a little creativity you can easily make them primal. I can’t tell you how many ideas we’ve gotten from FN that were easily converted into a caveman feast. Easily one of my top 5 channels to watch.

    Jason wrote on October 15th, 2009
  8. Alton Brown!

    Martin P. wrote on October 15th, 2009
  9. I love the food Network, Alton Brown’s, Guy Fiery’s and Bobby Flay’s shows are fun to watch. As far as social implications, i think the blog post is a bit too dramatic and is reaching for assumptions to support it’s conclusions.

    Not everyone is married and have families or even have a group of friends who they can even cook for if they wanted to.

    For me, the channel is useful, I am someone who never cooked in my life and since going primal, i have been watching the Food Network and it has helped a lot. I always cook for myself, friends and family now and i am learning something new everyday.

    Steve wrote on October 15th, 2009
  10. I loved watching cooking shows ever since I was a little kid. Julia Child and Jacque Pepin and the Galloping Gourmet were very influtential when I was young. Especially on PBS. I’ve actually learned lot from Caprial Pence, Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson. I also love Mario Batali.

    I also enjoy cooking and baking though, not just watching.

    vargas wrote on October 15th, 2009
  11. I also love Alton Brown!

    vargas wrote on October 15th, 2009
  12. I’ve not actually ever watched a cooking show, but I read a lot of food blogs to get recipe ideas and love so I guess I’m not that much better in terms of the information being presented to me. Everything looks so fresh, so well prepared, so beautifully presented, green, in lovely dishes with a lovely backdrop. These people aren’t professionals either, and even when I copy their recipes, mine look burnt, colourless, and ultimately, tasteless.

    I used to say I loved to cook, but I don’t any more. I hate the prep, I hate waiting for something and I burn it anyway, I hate how long it takes vs how quickly I eat it. Then I hate how I get hungry three hours later and have to do it all over again. I like coming up with recipes though. Most of them I never use.

    paleo_piper wrote on October 15th, 2009
    • The cook vs. consume time definitely gets me down sometimes too. I find it better when I don’t cook alone… the cooking is more than just food prep. And while during the week, it is hard because of homework and other committments, I really try to keep people at the table as long as possible. I think we all go through phases where we just get tired of the whole shooting match… I know I do and then it is time to change gears and find a new recipe, dig out an old one, or my favorite fix, work in a soup kitchen, collect for a food bank, etc. It really gets me over the food slump

      Christine wrote on October 16th, 2009
  13. Actually, watching the Food Network has inspired and informed me. When I decided to go primal, it was a true lifestyle change for me because, for the first time ever, it meant I had to cook. And I had no idea how (despite being 40). Many of the things Rachael Ray makes are primal and/or lower carb or can easily be modified to be and aren’t overwhelming for a beginner like me. I’ve had many “so THAT’S how you do it” moments while watching Rachael Ray cook. I was just watching a clip of RR’s today where she said she was intentionally cooking and eating more low carb now. I also enjoy Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller, which is geared towards the easy/beginner and focuses around making 1 large meat per week and making recipes utilizing that in various forms throughout the rest of the week. Paula Dean’s recipes — she really should be 500 pounds and I gain weight just seeing that stuff. Obesity/heart attack city! Sandra Lee is too Stepford Wife for me. The Neely’s are embarrassing. They practically hump each other on the counter.

    Ginger wrote on October 26th, 2009
    • I hate Rachael Ray. But I always said: “The one thing I DO like about her is that she gets people who otherwise don’t cook (or know how) to do it”.

      I’m glad she’s helped you.
      Sandra Lee isn’t even a cook. One episode she was cooking in a towel. A TOWEL!

      Never seen the Neely’s, but maybe it’s a good thing to get couples to cook together? It can be quite sexy…

      Sara wrote on November 21st, 2009
  14. Alton Brown’s Good Eats show on the Food Network (and associated cookbooks) taught me everything I know about how to cook. The primal/paleo/evolutionary lifestyle is something that has interested me for a long time but it was the specific interest in cooking and knowledge gained from Alton Brown that has enabled me to change my diet by understanding how to make tasty meals from fresh ingredients.

    Dave wrote on October 29th, 2009
  15. When the cable rep was repairing our service, I was surprised to find out that of all the cable channels, Food Network was the most watched.

    The rep mentioned that the average household watches 3-4 hours of the Food Network per day! That was more than HBO, ESPN, or MTV! People leave the Food Network on like background music.

    Ray wrote on November 11th, 2009
  16. I cook, But it takes me forever. Where can I get one of those guys who pre-chops everything for me? Haha… I know exactly where, but I can’t afford a prep cook. I’ve watched cooking shows since I was a little kid, and I believe that made a huge impact on my going to culinary school.
    My biggest problem with cooking time: screaming toddler at my feet. The hour or often more it takes to cook a nice, well rounded dinner is just too much for her. Been better about it lately. Let her sit on the dishwasher and play with bowls and spatulas. Start her off right!

    Sara wrote on November 21st, 2009

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