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Is Anthony Bourdain off his rocker, or is Food Network an abomination to the culinary world?

Brent Abel dishes the lowdown on the true value of Food Network:

Where the ingredients for this essay came from

When I was in high school, my mum used to cut out newspaper articles she thought I might enjoy. Although it sounds odd, up until the time I submitted my first letter notifying Tufts of my intent to enroll, I envisioned moving to Nice, France and working at a not-to-be-named restaurant after graduating high school. My mum’s triumphant attempt to persuade me of the value of a college education included her attempt for me to read academically-revered literary work she thought I might find rousing enough to think about the benefits of expanding my educational horizons. For those who have been to any of my residences at Tufts, including my typical spot in level G of Tisch, I have a problem getting rid of old papers, even those of low personal significance, and it was not until this winter break that I went through a stack of newspaper articles my mother gave to me to read years ago. At the top of the stack was an article my mum saved for me during my first semester away at Tufts, my mum either (a) nostalgically missing my complaints about how any type of literature analyzing anything was boring and a waste of paper or likely (b) hoping to inspire me after a rather painful first semester taking dreary introductory courses and acquiring mono. This article now inspires me to make a cathartic attempt to translate this old article into a hopefully brief examination of the controversy viscerally discussed within the article, at times a bit academic post-2.5 years at Tufts and at times, a bit of personal perspective. I urge you to please continue reading this article, if not for personal interest, to justify this self-indulgent attempt.

The article appearing at the top of my stack came from none other than Anthony Bourdain, whose article, published in the Times circa 2009, provided his personal views on the state of the culinary world then. “But 2007 was also the year that Food Network canceled ‘Emeril Live,’ and stopped ordering episodes of ‘Molto Mario,’ a calculated break with the idea of the celebrity chef as a seasoned professional and a move toward an entirely new definition: a personality with a sauté pan1.” My thoughts when re-reading the article an hour ago: simply, ouch2. Once ago in my life, I was practically numb to Bourdain’s comments, so almost-obsessed with his edgy, delinquent, and college drop-out persona, that I considered his academically-revered remarks expected and non-malicious. But 2.5 years sans dreams of becoming the next Bourdain, I now question for the first time whether his criticism is fair. Simply put, what is the purpose of the Food Network within the frame of the culinary world? Although the number of people watching the Food Network across the United States continues to decline3, can something be said that nearly 1 million people still tune in every night after work to watch an untrained home cook? And even if few people watch the channel now, might the Food Network have already revolutionized the way society, including us, views everyday food, a key issue to the obesity epidemic? To ironically quote one of the only 2 current Food Network personalities that I can tolerate, how easy is that? While on one hand I think about my mum’s own culinary refinement at the hands of Rachel Ray, I also think about when my ex-boss in high school described Guy Fieri as the death of the Food Network. I normally have difficulty digesting heavily one-sided opinion pieces, and while I write this piece with my own biases, I hope to fairly present aspects of both sides of this possibly complex argument.

The Stars I Love: Before I delve into specific arguments, I wish to go even further with my self-indulgence and give a shout out to Food Network stars I will always love. My love will always go out to Sara Moulton. I used to watch her show on Food Network every night at 7pm with my mum, and she taught me that anything was possible in a kitchen, even if I had no prior experience doing whatever she was doing. Any cooking technique seemed to be within my reach when watching her show, and I still have old scraps of paper stuffed into my mum’s passed-down, 1950’s-era Betty Croker cookbook scribed with recipes and notes from her show. Her departure from the Food Network was a gloomy day in my adolescence, and I still occasionally watch her current PBS show for a boost. If Sara Moulton were to be considered my ought self when examining my discrepancies as an awkward teenager, then my other two Food Network sweethearts, Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, are to be considered my ideal depiction. Though I realized even back as a teenager that I could never quite replicate the lifestyles of Martha or Ina, I still watch the Barefoot Contessa with my mum in awe of how exact their techniques are. Ina and Martha were more frequent users of the oven then other stove-infatuated Food Network personalities, and as someone living with an aged stove/oven combo, I appreciated their use of cooking techniques I could more easily rely upon given the better consistency of my oven compared with my stove. I appreciated their exact measurements of all ingredients in their dishes, even salt and pepper, which were extremely convenient when relying upon my overly salt-conscious mum to make a tasty dish for dinner. But most importantly, I strived for their ability to match the most delicious-sounding foods with the most visually stunning tabletops for every occasion; a feat I think can only be accomplished with a genetic predisposition I do not possess.

This contradiction between ought and ideal personalities of cooking is, in my opinion, one of the reasons the Food Network has become so contentious amongst the culinary world. I believe the programs of the channel can roughly be divided into two categories, regardless of whether the show is based on travel, competition, or home cooking: self-indulgence and emulation. The line between the two types of programs can be blurry, and often dependent upon self-perception, but the blurry line is exactly what constitutes the core issue: both ideas of self-indulgence and emulation have their own benefits and drawbacks to the perceived effect of Food Network on society and the culinary world. Because programs may mean different things to different people, it is hard to tell where the line should be drawn to determine whether a show has any a positive or negative effect on the culinary world as we now know it. Entangled with this core argument are the different levels of analysis: should programs be analyzed strictly on a nutritional and taste basis, or does the Food Network affect the culinary world socially and emotionally? In hind sight, some of my opinions are coincidentally quite similar to those already expressed in a well-written, academic paper4, but I hope to express my own spin on the major issues of this murky battle.

The fine line between the joys and perils of indulgence

Self-indulgence has both its positive and negative effects, used to either support or to denounce Food Network programming, respectively. The positive effects of self-indulgence are sentiments of escape and pleasure that come from watching any program distant from personal reality. Take for example Iron Chef, a precursor to programs like Top Chef (though not on Food Network) and other battle-oriented shows that feature professional chefs placed in extreme situations. I’d like to think that many viewers realize this is nothing like the challenges they personally face, and so the intense drama of the program is seen as a way to unwind from the stresses of their own lives. A sense of pleasure, centered on the culinary world, can provide social and emotional satisfaction, much like other reality shows far off from our own realities. I do not believe many people watch Iron Chef in an attempt to replicate any of the dishes made, but many people would agree that an episode of Iron Chef is a great way to end a tiresome day before going to bed. Little harm is done by watching chefs prepare food in situations far from the ordinary of most viewers, and so many programs like Iron Chef with professional chefs are rarely those cited by opponents of the Food Network. Please note the difference between programs with professional chefs like Iron Chef and other reality programs featuring home cook ‘cheftestants’ like the case of The Next Food Network Star. I think many viewers can relate to these ordinary people cooking, and so the programs is less far from reality and becomes a question of “what what I do in that circumstance”. This is an issue of emulation, discussed later, and lacks the same degree of self-indulgence of programs on the Food Network like Iron Chef that feature professional chefs with a higher degree of training.

Of course self-indulgence also comes with its consequences (as I am now experience writing this article), and many of those consequences can be seen as drawbacks to Food Network programs aimed to let viewers escape from their own personal lives. Using the same example of Iron Chef that demonstrated the benefits of self-indulgence, Iron Chef can also make viewers realize their own lack of culinary skills compared to others, demoralizing home cook viewers from attempting to create dishes involving a certain degree of technique and skill. The question sort of becomes, “If Bobby Flay is a trained chef and makes flan, is making flan without any prior experience out of my reach? Why don’t I stick with purchasing a flan made by a bakery instead, or make an easier recipe?” While this question is based on self-perceived perception, watching a chef execute a dish with precision learned from training can easily make less-trained viewers doubt their own skills. I ultimately feel that as many people as possible should learn how to make delicious meals of their choosing at their home when desired, and so this discouragement is a drawback for me when millions of viewers watch these programs. Feelings of guilt also arise from self-indulgence, and this guilt is best exemplified by food destination shows such as Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, hosted by Guy Fieri. I may never personally understand the appeal of Guy Fieri or several other Food Network personalities featured on these travel-based shows, but aside from that, I often have difficulty understanding the appeal of watching programs that highlight overtly unhealthy foods. After watching enough episodes of deep fried Oreos or monstrous cheeseburgers too big to take a bite of, one begins to wonder about the food culture being promoted in these programs. My apologies for all the rhetorical questions, but when should one start to feel shame that either (a) one develops a craving for such ungodly fatty foods by just its appearance on television, or (b) the own nation in which one lives is apparently filled with restaurants creating this ghastly food? As a pot of water boils, I occasionally watch such programs, and after watching my fellow country’s civilians fill their mouths with fat, I almost immediately feel guilty when preparing my next meal. I think I even occasionally try to overcompensate for my fellow country’s citizens by adding additional vegetable to the meal I am making. Maybe nutritionally, this guilt is a positive aspect of such programs (though I’d like to think there are other ways to inspire others to eat healthy foods), but the reputation of the culinary scene in the United States is still tarnished. In a world filled with fast food, can’t we all just learn of places we can go for health-conscious meals?

Should a recipe always be following word for word?

Although the Food Network may leave much to be desired, Food Network programming shines the brightest when thinking about the positive effects of emulation. Before my mum began watching the Food Network, the weekday dinners served at my house were, to say the least, far from ideal. We’re talking overcooked pork, a fear of any seafood product requiring cooking, and a tendency to cook every single vegetable in a sauce heavy in soy. While this cooking influenced my desire to become more active in the kitchen, there were nights before I could cook independently when I preferred to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (my only permitted alternative) over the dinner my mother herself often dreaded to prepare after a tiresome day of work fighting the glass ceiling. But then my mum began falling in love, episode by episode, with Rachel Ray and her quick, seemingly delicious-sounding dishes. My mum began to apply Rachel Ray’s overall approach to her daily weekday dinners, and while the dinners she made still were no trip to Citronelle, they did become more appetizing and creative. People including Anthony Bourdain express major beef with Rachel Ray and her styling of cooking, but I can tell you first-hand that Rachel Ray’s style of cooking did more to transform my house’s kitchen every weekday night more than Mario Batali ever could have done. I certainly can imagine that other Food Network programming besides Rachel Ray leads to equally improved culinary skills on the home front, and these effects go far beyond culinary satisfaction. Like my mum, I also agree that weekday dinners do a lot for influencing nutrition later in life and establishing a type of food culture based upon bringing everything together to have a relaxing time, and I think having a better meal associated with those time does a lot more good than a less memorable one. Certain Food Network shows can do a lot for improving the culinary world at the level of every home’s kitchen, and these improvements should be appreciated rather than rejected for a lack of culinary finesse.

Emulation of certain foods shown in Food Network television shows, however, is not always the best. I hate to bring this up given her recent diagnosis of type 2 diabetes5, but emulation of Paula Deen’s dishes across the United Station could result in public health doom. But the obesity-prone influence of Food Network shows is not only limited to Paula Deen. Even Rachel Ray’s dishes do not skimp on the calories or fat, and the much elitist Barefoot Contessa seems to almost always use at least 1 stick of butter in whatever baked good she is preparing. Emulation of culinary skills may be good, but at what cost if the skills always utilize such unhealthy ingredients. This issue is particularly important given the audience of Food Network programming. An increasing number of 18-34 year olds used to watch the Food Network as of 20076, and I would be unsurprised if many of the people that watch the Food Network now are parents of children below the age of 18. The programs they watch could have significant effects on their children, especially if one considers children being raised in constant presence of unhealthy foods learned from the Food Network (Augustus Gloom, I’m talking to you). At the same token, without much research being openly published for me to find, maybe much of the audience currently watching the Food Network remains stuck in the old culinary ways with which they were raised, and the methods of Paula Deen and other Food Network chefs serves merely as an escape or an acknowledged extreme of the culinary world. It could be very well possible that my mum is an exception to the majority, and I know a few more elderly and established home chefs than my mum who continue to cook the same food they always have despite their claims they are a huge fan of Tyler Florence. I don’t know the stats, but the issue of audience adds a further layer of complexity to these other issues.

So there you have it, a little bit of food for thought if you will. The Food Network certainly has its pros and cons, and I think there is certainly no right answer to whether the Food Network can be thought of as solely either a positive or negative influence on the culinary world. Bourdain may have been off his rocker at one point in his life while on LSD, but his comments are justified, just are comments in defense of the Food Network by its own personalities7. I personally do not think the problems of Food Network outweigh its benefits, but I could likely be persuaded to argue the opposite depending upon my mood. Think what you’d like to think, but to end this piece, as Anton Ego wrote in the film Ratatouille, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so…In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

– Brent Abel

2For his best one-liners about the Food Network, check out this great source of procrastination:
4Ketchum, Cheri “The Essence of Cooking Shows: How the Food Network Constructs Consumer Fantasies.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, 2005: 29, 217

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