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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 [1] 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 [2]. 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.