TV Chefs as Religious Icons
In a recent issue of The New York Times (slower, dinosaur cousin to The Faster Times), Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, takes aim at American television viewers’ obsession with watching cooking shows. Why, he asks, is viewership for celebrity-packed cooking shows on the rise while at-home cooking is at an all-time low? Why do viewers prefer to watch their favorite cooking show host prepare a sensuous feast while downing a fast food burger and fries?
Using the recent Meryl Streep Oscar vehicle, “Julie and Julia”, as a jumping off point, Pollan argues that our relationship to cooking shows has changed. Once, viewers watched Julia Child’s program not just to gape at her atonal voice and lead-footed charm but also—gasp—in order to learn how to cook. When Julia made a creamy filet of sole, mom took notes and thought about how to make a similar dish at home. Today, we watch these shows differently. We live in the era of the Food Network-ization of food. Rachael Ray is the modern-day equivalent of a religious icon, her mouth, with its excess of teeth, stretched into a beatific Joker smile. Paula Deen is everybody’s favorite mommy figure, admonishing us to hurry up and finish our fried meats, real butter, and creamed vegetables with gusto. In real life, we don’t know where our food comes from and we don’t really care.
According to Pollan, food shows like Ray’s and Deen’s are so popular precisely because of our alienation from what we eat. We can lose ourselves in the caramelized onions and chilled gazpacho and beurre blanc on the screen without ever intending to cook said food ourselves. And, when we do attempt to cook, we often do so without the frills—opting for pre-packaged ingredients like canned soup and high fructose sauces to make a meal.
For the most part, I agree with Pollan. He writes convincingly about how our preoccupation with culinary programming is just a symptom of how cut off we are from the origins of what we consume. (Note: Pollan is pretty much always convincing; see the new doc “Food Inc.” for only one example of him making great sense about the problem with American food culture). But, I feel like his argument neglects one of the central reasons many of us are foodies-by-proxy instead of genuine foodies. That is: People’s love for televised food shows has very little to do with food and a lot more to do with fantasy. Television shows like “Top Chef” and “The Next Food Network Star” provide their fans with an existential vacation from tedious 9-5 jobs, substituting towers of luscious, primary-colored vegetables for their towers of paperwork.
I teach and write—hardly Dickensian hard labor—but I still fantasize about the visceral pleasures of a career like cooking. The chefs on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and the Food Network’s “Chopped” are tattooed by ink and life. They pride themselves on having left school after the 8th grade while I scarcely made it out of alive after roughly 25 years of schooling. Most strikingly: they work together in what seems like a truly communal endeavor—something of which few of us can boast in the twenty-first century. Michael Pollan makes the mistake of conflating cooking shows with a single host-personality, like Rachael Ray’s and Paula Deen’s programs, with food competition shows like “Top Chef.” To me, they seem like entirely different animals. ”Top Chef,” like “Project Runway” or “So You Think You Can Dance,” is appealing less because of its subject (food preparation) than because it offers the spectacle of watching a community of people working toward a goal and working with their hands—something its generally white collar viewers don’t get to see nearly enough of in their own lives.
The late, great writer David Foster Wallace took on the subject of American viewers’ preoccupation with television in a fabulous essay called “E Unibus Pluram.” Here, Wallace suggests that the growing popularity of television has less to do with the medium’s omnipresence than it does with the loneliness of the average viewer. I think Wallace has a point. When you’re watching television, you get to maintain the illusion that you are involved with the scenarios and people you are observing. We might be alienated from our food, as Pollan contends, but we are also alienated from one another. Food shows help us to assuage that feeling. And, at least until that problem is addressed, I’ll be reachable at my usual spot: in front of the television, watching the Food Network and eating Chinese food (no need to hold the MSG)
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook