I will be the first to admit that I love a good food show on a lazy Sunday morning. As someone who loves to cook and loves to eat even more, I find myself regularly transfixed by Tyler Florence or Paula Deen--who wouldn't stop to watch someone make (and eat!) deep fried butter balls? All along, however, I've had an uneasy relationship with this kind of television, telling myself that it's an hour well spent--I'm learning something!--but knowing somewhere inside me that I'm walking away with very few additional skills or ideas, if any.
Enter Michael Pollan, who more than validates this feeling in his most recent article in The New York Times Magazine, "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch: how American cooking became a spectator sport, and what we lost along the way." In it, he tackles a current paradox in our food culture: how is it that Americans are so eager to spend hours watching shows like Top Chefand The Next Food Network Star but spend less time actually using our kitchens than ever before? He traces the development of food television from the inspiring and unedited Julia Child to the current slew of shortcut-filled "dump-and-stir" shows on the Food Network. No longer are cooking shows designed to educate those who love to cook, argues Pollan. Instead, they are designed for those who love to eat, including competition-based shows like Iron Chefand Chopped, which are breathless, down-to-the-last-second affairs more akin to sporting events than a cooking lesson.
One thing we do get out of the Food Network, according to Pollan, is "culinary fashion," picking up fancy words like crudo. And, while such terms can provide the appearance of sophistication when ordering from a menu, they don't really improve our cooking skills, as illustrated by a recent incident in my own kitchen. As I prepared dinner for a dear friend who happens to know a great deal about food, I asked her opinion on how to best prepare basil. "Do you chop it or tear it?" I asked, having seen an episode of Rachel Ray wherein the host stated that some people prefer to tear it, as the knife can cause bruising. "I know you're not supposed to chop it," I said, as though I really knew a lot about the matter, "but I really like to do a nice chiffonade." My friend raised her eyebrows and smiled. "What's a chiffonade?" she asked, and we both had a good laugh at my use of such a fancy word in such an everyday setting. Yes, it's true the the thin ribbons of a chiffonade can make basil look extra pretty, but as my mother used to say when things didn't look the way I wanted them to on my plate, "It still tastes the same." In other words, what matters most in cooking is really the substance of what we create, a truth that we've lost sight of in many arenas today, the Food Network being just one of them.
In life, there is a place for just about everything in moderation, but Pollan's article has certainly added some weight to that funny Food Network feeling that I get when watching their programs. I can't say that I'll resist the temptation of tonight's finale episode of The Next Food Network Star, but maybe the next time I get the urge to plop down in front of some random food TV I'll head for the kitchen instead. Not only will I wind up with something delicious to eat, but I'll be much more likely to learn something along the way.