Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a proliferation of food shows on television, both here in the U.S. and abroad. In America, The Food Network has been dedicated to that format sincethe 1990s, and a host of other channels also dabble in the genre.
It’s not going out on any kind of limb to say that these shows tend to be somewhat reductionist in their approach to food. Therefor, I feel perfectly justified in being a little reductionist in my approach towards these shows; turnaround’s fair play, after all. And in that vein, it seems to me that all of these many shows can be divided among three basic categories that I’ve come up with to describe them.
Exotica– You’ve never heard of many of the ingredients. If you have, you probably can’t afford most of them, and lord knows where you might even find them. Only the finest kitchen tools and implements are used to prepare dishes with skill and panache, and the result is mouth watering perfection. Viewers are invited to live vicariously through the food. Yes, you want to eat it. You also want to write poetry about it. Something inside says you must paint it. You want to make love to it.
Some people are wont to refer to this type of programming as Food Porn. I think the term’s a bad fit. Food Romance Novel might be a more accurate, albeit clumsier moniker. With an emphasis on eroticizing foreign food by casting it as an idealized version of The Other, or perfecting domestic food to a generally unattainable degree, the Exotica approach is more about romanticizing with supple caresses, whereas real pornography is about mindlessly cramming random, oversized monstrosities into various orifices. And that’s actually a pretty apt description for our next category.
Dumb Gluttony– For the person who wants it cheap and hot, and served up by the shit load, there’s the Dumb Gluttony approach to television food shows. All you need is a handheld camera and an overweight host in a battle worn shirt, then it’s off to the diner, the taco truck, the hamburger stand, or the place where they serve a steak so large that it’s free if you can eat the whole thing in one sitting and not barf.
This populist approach to food shows eschews the exotic, the expensive, and the complex, opting instead for man-sized portions of everyday fare scarfed down by everyman hosts (women are a rarity) who are cheered on as they consume calories by the thousand and carry on teary-eyed love affairs with chili peppers and hot sauces. Designed for consumers with less refined pallets who do not aspire to the food bourgeoisie but are rather put off by epicurean class barriers, this approach is also a lure for gawkers who either stare in dumbfounded silence or are apt to scream: Dude! Check it out! He ate the whole fuckin’ thing!
Celebrity Chef– When it’s not about perverting the food, but rather sublimating it to the dominant personality standing in front of the camera, we’re dealing with the Celebrity Chef approach to television. This type of program features a host who aspires to transcend the Food Show ghetto and take the world by storm. They may have a deep and genuine affection for food on a personal level, but within the context of their program, it’s no longer really about the food. Indeed, food is merely a tool for levering the host towards wider fame. In the broader popular culture then, this person’s association with food can border on the tangential, as he or she may be known more for their personality than any particular cuisine. Perhaps most TV food show hosts aspire to this status, but they don’t all make it. If successful, the Celebrity Chef will skyrocket to national or even international stardom, maybe even leaving the kitchen behind altogether.
Some examples can illustrate these categories, and also reveal their limitations.
Leading the way in Exotica these days is the BBC 4 program Exquisite Cuisine, a series of food documentaries that has added another layer to the formula. Not only are viewers treated to the preparation of stunning delicacies, but the show also intellectualizes food, or perhaps pseudo-intellectualizes it. The rarified ingredients and their masterful preparation are complemented with a high falutin’ discourse. In this way, the show caters to a modern foodie culture that often links upscale cookery to pressing social issues ranging from environmentalism to public heath to socio/economic class divisions. Each episode of Exquisite Cuisine develops a specific topic that serves as a vehicle for making such links: Art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon presents a biography of the late British gourmand Alan Davidson, who wrote a massive food encyclopedia and ate everything he could from aardvark to zucchini; a New Yorker writer turns a critical eye on the supposed superiority of French cuisine; and restauranteur and author Antonio Carluccio tours Italy to investigate the food featured in The Leopard, the 1956 novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
Haute cuisine is often subjected to various criticisms, ranging from the shallow (“How can you luxuriate in food when people are starving in Africa?”) to the devastating, such as this recent B.R. Myers piece in The Atlantic. Thus, lovers of fine food sometimes feel compelled to defend their particular pursuit by attaching it to something important. Exquisite Cuisine encourages this sense of over-inflated importance. Examples include episodes that relate food to British class conflict, Medieval social history, and yet another fictionalized rendering of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Of course nothing is more important than food in some ways. But paying a lot more money for higher quality food in and of itself neither swings a moral compass nor establishes one’s credentials as a thoughtful global citizen. And so in some ways, mythologizing the importance of great food is almost as ridiculous as some of the complaints against it. Feel free to enjoy an exquisitely prepared meal; it has no role in explaining why you are or aren’t a decadent, narcissistic asshole.
Exemplifying the Dumb Gluttony category is Travel Channel’s Man v. Food. At it’s core, the show is about funneling gender construction through a food show. As such, it goes something like this: Real men eat lots of greasy, spicy, fatty, meaty food, and host Adam Richman is a manly Brooklyn, NY native who can eat a shit ton of anything you put in front of him. The show itself is kind of like road movie meets hot dog eating contest. The preparation of food is secondary at best. Lip service is given to the food being fantastic, but anyone who actually likes food would have their doubts, and anyway, that’s hardly the point. Rather, this is about manly consumption, as Richman travels America accepting challenges to devour copious quantities of pedestrian food, sometimes within a set time limit: 50 chicken wings in under a half hour in Colorado; an 11 pound pizza in Atlanta; 422 oysters in Mobile, Alabama; a gallon of milkshake in St. Louis; and of course the requisite 72 oz. steaks in Nashville, Tennessee as well as in Amarillo, Texas.
I suspect Man v. Food isn’t called Man vs. Food because Richman ate the “s” on a dare from one of his colleagues.
When it comes to a Celebrity Chef turned pop culture icon, FoodTV host Rachel Ray is arguably the consummate example. From the moment she stepped in front of the camera, she eschewed all traces of Exotica, instead focusing exclusively on building an accessible TV persona. Unwilling to let the food compete with her for the spotlight, she beamed, smiled, bounced, and flirted as she offered up one uninspired dish after another and quickly rose to the top of the FoodTV heap. Eventually, of course, food was rendered completely negligible when she gained full-on celebrity status with her own syndicated daytime talk show. Her Ophra-lite program now typically relegates cooking to a hurried, closing segment where she quickly half-asses it through uninteresting recipes that sound like they came from an intern’s aunt, like Stale Bread Lasagna or Pigs in Ponchos: Quesadilla Wrapped Franks and Beans (No disrespect meant to anyone’s aunts; I love mine, and they can each dish it out better than that.).
As is the case with all contrived social categories, boundaries between Exotica, Dumb Gluttony, and Celebrity Chef can shift and blur. Many TV food personalities evolve over time, moving from one category to another, and maybe inhabiting more than one at a time.
Emeril Lagasse is an example of someone who moved through at least two categories, and maybe all three of them. Nowadays, it’s difficult to think of Lagasse as anything but a full fledged Celebrity Chef. In 2000, he even had his own network sitcom, a fiasco entitled Emeril that was canceled after only eleven episodes. But if you go back and watch his early appearances on FoodTV from nearly twenty years ago, you might be surprised to see just how understated and even uncomfortable he was in front of the camera. This is not yet the vivacious, dramatic Emeril with an in-house band, annoying tag lines (Bam! and Take it up a notch!), his own line of mediocre, pre-packed sauces, and a doe-eyed audience of unquestioning adulators who would give Rush Limbaugh’s “Ditto Heads” a run for their money.
Lagasse first appeared on FoodTV as a guest during several specials about the cuisine of New Orleans, where the Massachusetts native had a restaurant. The nature of the program placed him in the Exotica realm; in the early 1990s, Cajun and creole food was still a bit of a head scratcher to most Americans. Rewarded with his own show shortly thereafter, Lagasse soon began cultivating his persona, deftly building a warm, everyman approach. He also pushed an element of Dumb Gluttony as he reveled in indulgent recipes that featured gobs of fat and heaps of salt.
As Lagasse’s ratings grew, so did his personality. His success would eventually balloon to the point that highly paid NBC executives thought it a good idea to give him a sitcom. But while Lagasse’s dalliance with prime time comedy was an embarrassing disaster, his path to stardom revolutionized the upstart FoodTV channel. His show put the small cable network on the map with ratings that had been unheard of for a food show. Latching onto that success, the network quickly embraced the Celebrity Chef model, de-emphasizing food in favor of people with star appeal. And Lagasse himself made out like a bandit, using the show as the platform to craft an empire of restaurant chains, pre-packaged foods, and endorsements that by 2005 were estimated to be grossing $150,000,000 a year.
There are plenty of other boundary-crossers out there. Anthony Bourdain mixes faux tough-guy bullshit (Ooooh, he has tattoos and used to do heroin) and a prestigious New York restaurant lineage to straddle the Exotica and Celebrity Chef categories. Similarly, Guy Fieri’s already impressive Dumb Gluttony credentials became absolutely bona fide when he starred in a ubiquitous series of commercials for the
repulsive restaurant chain TGI Friday’s, an act which also threatened to earn him Celebrity Chef status, something his god awful haircut couldn’t do on its own. And Nigella Lawson has traded on her sexuality to attain trans-Atlantic celebrity status while specializing in over the top desserts that range dangerously close into Dumb Gluttony territory at the same time she uses her distinguished lineage (father was a Baron and member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, mother a wealthy heiress and socialite) to develop an air of Exotica that is more about her persona than her food. Of course here in America, where she’s now expanding her media presence, all she really needs is the accent.
Obviously there’s plenty of room for debate about which of the countless TV food shows out there go into which category. And one may challenge the nature these particular three categories, seeking to refine them, broaden them, or even come up with different ones altogether. And that’s perfectly fine. But details aside, what seems a bit beyond contention at this point is that these many shows do in fact conform to broad categories.
Why? Because in the same way that earlier generations of entrepreneurs turned games into professional sports, songs into chart-topping hits, and sex into pornography, TV producers over the last twenty years or so have figured out how to use mass media to successfully commodify food into spectator entertainment. And once something is successfully commodified through the mass media, purveyors will develop tropes that investors so dearly crave because among other things they signal a proven track record of success. If one show becomes a hit by emphasizing the exotic nature of food, others will follow. The same for shows that harvest big ratings from a charismatic host, whether that charisma is based on looks, personality, or an ability to eat a 6 lb. sandwich in Anchorage, Alaska.
But just as sports announcers prattle on about organized athletic competition “building character,” adoring critics and DJs flush with payola compare The Beatles to Beethoven, and pornographers attempt to hide behind tripe about “empowering women,” the shiny veneer that accompanies the commodification of food can also lead to silly reflections.
People who excel at sports, music, and “film making” can be fairly admired for their talent, skills, and even artistry. And the same is true of course for people who are wizards in the kitchen. But it would be ludicrous to assume that running a hundred meter dash in 10 seconds automatically builds character, that writing a catchy pop song verifies artistic genius, or that appearing in a pornographic film is likely to “empower” a woman, regardless of whatever Sasha Gray says from behind her glassy-eyed, thousand-yard stare.
Likewise, plating up some tremendously tasty food does not automatically endow someone with daring style, intellectual prowess, or superior ethics; and swallowing a heart attack’s worth of it in a single sitting certainly doesn’t make you more of a man. Well, literally it will, I suppose, but anyway . . .