Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Joylessness of Cooking

Call it the American Idolization of food television. Cooking competition shows a là the music industry’s mega-hyped, mega-successful talent showcase have proliferated in the last several years, to the point of absurdity (Cupcake Wars, anyone?). Networks have discovered that, like American Idol and its imitators like The Voice and Duets, such shows cook up booming business. But something crucial is lost in the race for ratings.

The Food Network used to thrive on the standard celebrity chef cooking instruction shows like Everyday Italian with the glamorous Giada DeLaurentiis, Paula’s Home Cooking with downhome Paula Deen, Thirty Minute Meals with superstar Rachael Ray, and Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten, who disappointingly is not actually a barefoot contessa. Those shows, or variations thereof featuring the same hosts, still anchor the network’s weekday schedule, but its prime time lineup now is given over almost entirely to cooking competitions.

Here’s a list just off the top of my head: Top Chef, Top Chef: Just Desserts, Iron Chef, Iron Chef America, Next Iron Chef, Next Food Network Star, Throwdown, Chopped, Cupcake Wars, Dinner: Impossible, The Taste, Rachel vs. Guy Celebrity Cook-off, Bobby’s Dinner Battle, Food Network Challenge, Halloween Wars, Last Cake Standing, Food Feuds, Food Fights, Ready…Set…Cook!, Sweet Genius, Ultimate Recipe Showdown, Worst Cooks in America, Chef Wanted, Chefs vs. City, Next Great Baker – but you get the idea.

A variation on these is restaurant-themed competition shows, often in which the host has to get a failing restaurant shipshape under an insanely pressing deadline: Restaurant: Impossible, 3 Days to Open, 24-Hour Restaurant Battle, The Great Food Truck Race, etc. Don’t forget shows in which chefs or caterers hustle to get their businesses off the ground, like Chef Academy or Chef Roblé & Co (these shows aren’t all on the Food Network; they appear on the Cooking Channel – owned by the same company –Bravo, and others.)

What all these shows have in common is the artificially generated drama of strong-willed personalities competing to win under a ticking clock, often before a panel of stern, hyper-critical judges to the accompaniment of tense, ominous music. The drama is ramped up even further when abrasive egos clash, making for what people often cynically refer to as “good television” – a phrase that usually implies not so much satisfying, edifying entertainment as empty spectacle.

What all these shows too often lack, sadly, is an emphasis on the joy of cooking* – the simple but deep satisfaction of creating delicious food, infusing it with love, and sharing it with your friends and family and even strangers. What the frenzied competitions rarely if ever convey is the kind of meaningful appreciation for food found in more intimate instruction shows like Everyday Italian or Barefoot Contessa, which do indeed end with the hostesses sharing their creations with grateful friends and family.

As a guy who formerly held a typical guy’s attitude toward food (buy it ready-made, shove as much of it in your mouth as fast as you can, and then forget about it), I had never truly appreciated either the making of good food or the enjoyment of it until my food blogger wife opened up that radically different experience for me. Married to her, I not only see what joy and care she puts into the making of her food for her family, I can taste them. Cooking for someone isn’t just about going through the motions to fill their belly and yours – it’s an act of love. It’s a humbling, generous, ennobling act of love.

And that joyful aspect is sadly trampled in the noisy, nerve-wracking competition shows and their desperation for television ratings.

* Irma Rombauer’s 1931 cooking classic The Joy of Cooking was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important and influential books of the twentieth century.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 2/26/13)