Monday, September 21, 2009

Food Porn or Dump and Stir?

A post over at the IFA by Ezra Klein, criticizing the Food Network, has provoked quite a bit of commentary thereabouts (including my own)... and gotten me to thinking enough to post about it here. Criticizing the Food Network, or food related television in general, has been quite popular lately so Ezra didn't break much new ground there. Pollan did it in the New York Times a couple of months a go with Michael Ruhlman posting some similar thoughts in response, while within said comments Ruhlman pointed to three year old criticism from Bill Buford in the New Yorker (that I hadn't seen).

What I found interesting in comparing Pollan's, Ruhlman's, and Buford's comments to Ezra's... is that the prior three hold up Julia Child up as the epitome of food/cooking related television... that is: "dump and stir" or how-to shows... while Ezra is head over heels for Top Chef, No Reservations, and Iron Chef... i.e. food porn. While I have no patience for the reality T.V. aspects of Top Chef, I dearly love No Reservations and get a great deal of enjoyment out of Iron Chef and watch them both whenever I have the opportunity. However, as entertaining as I find them, those shows have not taught me a thing about cooking nor inspired me to cook a single dish. Insofar as I watch television for purely entertainment purposes, that's obviously perfectly fine... but for the most part, in my food television I would like: to learn about a cooking technique, see a recipe or variation that I've never heard of, and/or feel like cooking something after watching... preferably all three at the same time.

Unfortunatley, the only two shows I'm aware of that do those things consistently are Good Eats and America's Test Kitchen. While I've certainly gotten some of the above out of the various shows the still demonstrate how to cook things on Food Network or PBS (during viewing sessions when I have access to television in Maine or Maryland and nothing to do), those two seem to consistently deliver the goods. It wasn't always that way, but the descent into mediocre cooking shows had begun even before Buford penned his article... as Mario Batali's and Sarah Moulton's shows had already been cancelled at that point, in favor or Giada and Rachael Ray. Personally, I don't really have a problem with Rachael Ray, since a large number of people seem to actually cook her recipes... as opposed to just watching and drooling... but I can't say she's made much I've wanted to replicate, and you certainly don't learn much about cooking from her... so I can see where some of the criticism comes from. As for Giada... well... she has incredibly precise enunciation, and I'll leave it at that.

Though honestly, from a Dump and Stir fan's perspective, Rachael Ray and Giada are the least of the problem when it comes to the decline of food TV... it really comes down to the rise of Food Pr0n and shows for foodies instead of cooks. Not that you can't be both or that there is something wrong with being a foodie... but the more the Food Network tries to cater to that demographic, and knockoff the shows Ezra loves... the worse its cooking shows will be.

I guess that means that, while I don't think the Food Network is "a wasteland"... I do think it's going in the wrong direction, though ironically precisely because it is unsuccesfully trying to cater to viewers like Ezra Klein. I don't presume they're going to stop trying to mimic the success of Top Chef, but I hope they always have a place for Alton Brown.

photo of Batman stirring polenta from flickr user jspace3 and used under a Creative Commons license