Her kitchen lacks the at-home realism of Giada De Laurentiis’ magisterial ocean view (Everyday Italian), Paula Deen’s Southern spaciousness (Paula’s Home Cooking), or Ina Garten’s airy, affluent East Hampton digs (Barefoot Contessa) as these female cooking show hosts sell their various versions of upscale domestic utopia. Instead, Nadia G., the 31-year-old Canadian writer and star of Cooking Channel’s Bitchin’ Kitchen (Wed. 9/ET) cuts her spicy swath through a riot of deliberate, shiny tackiness. An obvious studio set, tiny beveled pink glass tiles glitter on the back wall, the paired red/black/chrome stove and fridge have the curved, streamlined functionality of a 1950s-era “Kitchen of the Future,” and the numerous disheveled and vaguely creepy baby dolls slouched around on various shelves remind me of the playthings tortured by Sid, the Gothic, anti-Andy, kid Id from Toy Story. Appropriately, just as Sid provided a vivid counterpoint to the wholesome boy next door, Nadia Giosia – who first launched her brand through digital media as an online series – offers an alternative characterization of a woman cooking in a kitchen.
She is not Tamasin Day-Lewis (Sweet Dreams), who promises that “nothing can comfort or nurture” like pie. Nadia G. does not cook for or with kids – smashing through the maternal initiatives often welded to this particular television genre – but rather, goes out of her way to scoff at small children and their parents (episode: “Anxiety Soups”). She never proposes that her viewer labor over the pastoral picnic, the poolside birthday, or the perfectly hostess-ed family holiday, tailgate party, or dessert tea. She does not reference the household budget or themed table settings and, when she prepares a weight-loss meal, it is targeted not at you, or herself, but at a pudgy mate. The person doing the cooking in this inverted scenario is rewarded instead by a creamy Pot au Chocolat with Fleur de Sel (episode: “Deflate Your Mate”). What madness is this?
Nadia G's Bitchin' Kitchen: Cookin' for Trouble
(Ballantine; US: Oct 2011)
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm
I’ll tell you, a lot of it boils down (no pun intended) to Nadia G.’s distinctive narrative framework: comedy. She performs in character, peppering her precise, complex, culinary execution with green screen skits, sound yet skewed “N’advice,” Godfather-Zen sarcasm, and a vaudevillian cast of supporting players. She doesn’t just cook, she cooks funny. She creates a comic persona of tattooed, tough-chick independence that simultaneously exalts her character’s own sublime self-regard and allows for moments of chagrined, goofy, Italian bluster. Her telegenic prettiness is not of the pale pink, understated nail polish variety embodied by Giada – she of the brilliant smile and tasteful cleavage – or of the comfortable domestic softness of Paula or Ina, or of the dark, glossy, infinitely humbling, earth-mother gorgeousness of British foodie, Nigella Lawson. No, Nadia harnesses the power of figure-hugging, jewel-toned sequins, three-inch gold peep-toes, rock ‘n’ roll bling, purple eye shadow, and a wildly smart mouth. Not just as in smart ass, itself a tingly departure from the traditional performance of cooking show femininity, but as in the brainy dialogue—cutting the pasta “into shapes: circles, squares, fractals” (episode: “Underground Nadventures”)—she lobs about like hot Thai chilis.
Comedy, as a cultural expression, punctures revered social institutions and disrupts our own perspectives on who we are and how we fit into the world. In the case of Bitchin’ Kitchen, the disruption is to the image of a woman in domestic space (or, apropos of the cooking show format, the representation of domestic space) and how it might be expanded beyond the magazine-layout kitchens of Giada, Ina, and Paula. In “Underground Nadventures,” Nadia juxtaposes “the secret tastiness of underground vegetables” (Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, cauliflower, parsnips) with the “underground subcultures” of three identifiable (and male) types—the raw foodist, the hipster, and the gamer—and conquers them all. For the veggies, she accomplishes this through generous lashings of mascarpone and Pancetta and, for the men, through anthropological light bondage against a green screen jungle. Linking each dude to food (the gamer, for example, is pale like the cauliflower whose leaves keep it out of direct sunlight) and not cooking for him, she disrupts the cooking show genre along with the female and male spheres it typically imagines.
Nadia G. stakes out her position in both culinary and pop culture domains and, through her comedic critique, another narrative is revealed. Her vegetable recipe montage linking the kitchen and the jungle, for instance, makes the home cook’s world a little bigger. When Giada leaves the kitchen on Everyday Italian, she steps into her family’s backyard pool area to unveil snacks. And when Ina Garten exits in Barefoot Contessa it is to invite us along on a genteel, specialty-shop excursion for the ingredients in her dishes. In either case, we witness the appreciative consumption of their food by family and friends as a culmination, an articulation, of the feminine act of cooking/caring for others. The implied viewer of these demonstrations has similar motive and lifestyle.
The act of feminine cookery on Bitchin’ Kitchen does not attempt such a universalization of norms. Nadia adopts, instead, a mode of audience address which does not assume heterosexuality, suburban aspirations, motherhood, or even matrimony. She largely avoids gendered pronouns: “Just because the relationship is over doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave them with a good taste in their mouth. Remember, you once cared for them but, more importantly, they know your secrets and probably got them on tape, so let’s get cooking” (episode: “The Break-up Meal”). She literally writes these open identity borders onto her presentation of food. She spells out a break-up message in chocolate sauce next to her Peanut Butter Banana Fritters for those recalcitrant soon-to-be exes who aren’t moving out the door fast enough. Options?: “I’m gay.” “I’m straight.” “I’m Born Again.” And, finally, “Ciao.”
As both a performer/cook and writer/producer, Nadia G. extends the TV kitchen into new territory. She uses comedy to eliminate some of the mainstream man-boy characters (above) who dominate our cultural imaginary. Instead, the males in her story-world are characterized by the diverse (and working-class) ethnicities of her supporting cast: Panos, the Greek “Fish & Meat Guy,” Yeheskel, the Israeli “Spice Agent”, and Hans, the compulsively vain, pec-flexing chocoholic. Nadia opens up the proscribed kitchen space of her television peers through the transgressive potential of comedy. And, with her fluid, entrepreneurial movement from ‘Net to network—as well as with her use of social media to maintain borderless communication with her viewing community—Nadia G. makes her Bitchin’ Kitchen brand a protean, living thing.
She also calls out dominant media complicity in reinforcing the romantic, marital, and domestic ideology made visible in the cooking show genre (and in the culture industry itself). “Sometimes Hollywood will have you believing that you should be waking up every morning with butterflies in your stomach, instead of gas” (episode: “The Break-Up Meal”). Freud may not have ever figured out what women want, but he was right to say (in 1928) that humor is about rebellion. The chain mail towel hanging from Nadia G.’s on-set stove and her nearby Jolly Roger-ish logo (a pink skull whose eye-sockets are pierced by criss-crossed utensils) evoke both the warrior and the pirate in a space that is normally associated with neither. The gendered ideology in which women in kitchens do natural, invisible, unpaid labor and—even as TV spectators—are culturally/industrially envisioned as mirroring their televised counterparts is worthy of rebellion, I’d say. The undifferentiated spectator, as both film and television studies have shown, is a myth of media criticism.
When Bad Teacher came out in June to some starchy reception over the selfish, unlikeable Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), it made me wonder why a female character has to stand in or be a symbolic figure for all women, especially when the same expectations are not applied to fictional male characters, who are allowed sufficient latitude to be (and, not coincidentally, have) dicks. Liane Bonin Starr, reviewing the film for Hit Flix, called Diaz’s character a “pot-smoking, booze-guzzling, man-eating borderline sociopath. She breaks laws, hurls dodgeballs at 7th graders’ crotches and is generally mean to anyone who can’t do something for her.” Her final judgment: “Clearly, Diaz isn’t taking a big step forward for womankind here, is she?”
When Will Smith was accused of not being “black enough” for hip-hop radio, he countered by writing, “maybe I’ll jack a truck full of cigarettes, guns & drugs & stuff” in his 2005 song, “I Wish I Made That”, refusing to perform of some kind of authentic (i.e. militant) brand of black masculinity. The racial assumptions underlying such criticisms of his choices are similar to the gender politics that characterize a universal Woman (one which must often nevertheless satisfy competing interests) against which any other incarnations are a symbolic violation. Singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco mentions this dynamic in “Little Plastic Castle” (1998): “People talk about my image / Like I come in two dimensions / Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind / Like what I happen to be wearing / The day that someone takes a picture / Is my new statement for all of womankind.” By un-domesticating her TV representation of the home cook and unmooring it from a fixed standard of universal womanhood, Nadia G. performs culinary comedy as social therapy.
In 1952, the TV-Stove was marketed by the Western-Holly Company so the housewife wouldn’t be so distracted by her electronic window to the outside world that she neglected her housework. The doctrine of separate spheres, situating men in the public world of commerce and production with women occupying the private domain of home and family, has marked gender relations from the 19th century cult of Victorian womanhood all the way through many of our current television representations. Particularly in the realm of household objects—appliances and cleaning products —this doctrine visualizes one mode of femininity. And these women want to have it all. What goes unquestioned is that the requirement for having it all is doing it all. When Kelly Ripa breezes through her (representation of) domestic space, magically flinging pre-folded laundry and freshly-baked cookies to, tellingly, three little girls, accompanied by the Bewitched theme song, she (and Electrolux) are teaching us not only how to be consumers but how to be female: ”I can juggle more things in my day!”
The music in this spot takes us back to an era of classic sitcoms. In the ‘50s, June Cleaver cooked in heels and pearls on. In the ‘60s, Samantha Stephens possessed the embodied ability to use magic to do her housework with ease but agreed, after her husband insisted, to repress what came naturally and tend to it the mortal (i.e. natural) way. Doing it all, one imagines, is only possible with magical superpowers. The retro appliances and stiletto-and-bling bedazzled protagonist of Bitchin’ Kitchen conjure the style and nostalgia of those earlier media interpretations of domestic femininity but, through her dialogue and narrative, Nadia G.’s character makes it clear that she doesn’t want it all. All is the manufactured image of perfect romance—“that special someone to stare off into the sunset with and all that crap” (episode: “The Dish on Dating”)—and the predetermined female path toward (straight) matrimony (“Cook up these meals and I guarantee your lover’s gonna stick around and, before you know it, you’ll be bored of them, bitter about your life, and basking in the tepid warmth of a Dutch oven for 30 years. Commitment. Whaddya gonna do?”) (episode: “Bag Em Tag Em Meals”).
The New York Times (and they should know) tells us that single households now outnumber married ones (“To Be Married Is to Be Outnumbered” 15/10/2006). So, it’s nice to see Nadia G. champion the benefits (and normalcy) of singular autonomy. When she savors—with gusto—her Applewood smoked bacon/grilled pineapple/chipotle-suffused Hawaiian Burger (episode: “The Break-Up Meal”), she frames her pleasure in cinematic terms that disrupt traditional couplehood and (unlike the home cook held captive by the TV-Stove) dissolve the boundary that confines her to the private sphere. She runs through a field with the burger, she rides a motorcycle along a scenic coastal highway with it perched on her shoulder and, finally, she lounges in black lingerie beneath a gold velvet headboard as it snuggles alongside her, green screen fireworks erupting overhead.
With urban bluntness (rather than suburban gentility), the Italian-Canadian host of Bitchin’ Kitchen doesn’t color inside the lines of cooking show femininity. She pours heavy cream into boiling sugar water (a scary proposition!), she uses the metal reflection of a meat cleaver to apply her fire-engine red lipstick, she advises online daters who post their photos to get out of the bathroom and “Put some pants on!” and she cooks to the assorted rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll (emphatically not Nickelback), ice-rink Hammond organ, and James-Bond-meets-surf guitar. The lines of media convergence that meet in her kitchen are significantly different from the established personalities and formats when television was new.
Lynn Spigel, in her essay “Women’s Work” (from Television: The Critical View 6th ed., Oxford University Press, 2000) chronicles the ways in which ‘50s television programmers modeled daytime formats on earlier print models, specifically, women’s magazines, “guided by the implicit assumption that the female audience had much in common with the typical magazine reader.” In this way, practical instruction, on cooking, cleaning, child care, and fashion, would be transmitted through a “subtle balance” of class address, educating the housewife “beyond her means, but only through mixing upperclass fantasy with tropes of averageness”—all delivered by the “figure of the female hostess”.
Beyond the ongoing, relative under-representation of cooks of color, the contemporary television depiction of women in kitchens, bitchin’ or otherwise, can only benefit from the kind of flow signified by Nadia G. and her out-of-the-box (re-) branding of food and comedy. She acknowledges (through her characterizations and word choices) the fluidity of human relationships/identity in much the same way that she encourages mobility between old and new media, as well as between producer and consumer. From her DIY Web segments, to her subsequent cookbook (Bitchin’ Kitchen Cookbook: Rock Your Kitchen and Let the Boys Clean Up the Mess, skirt!, 2008) and into her current half-hour network format, Nadia G. integrates alternative cultural content along with media literacy and critique into her distinctive femminista persona.
She makes no bones. She confides, “If you want to know the truth, it really ticks me off the way women are portrayed in the media.” Then, softening her badda-bing accent, adopting an ingratiating smile and a self-effacing, apologetic, sing-song delivery, she seems to backwalk: “I know this sounds like a feminist rant but”—pointing a laser gaze and a defiant forefinger right at us—“IT IS. At some point, it’s just plain insulting: we should be rail thin, but have lots of babies [and] be neurotic enough to constantly obsess about crow’s feet, yet relaxed enough to orgasm just by sniffing a freakin’ shampoo bottle” (episode: “Deflate Your Mate”).
There is much to admire in many of the women who host cooking shows, in who they are and what they do. Ina Garten is a pilot and an MBA, while Giada De Laurentiis leaves her kitchen in Giada’s Weekend Getaways and explores cities across America through their sights and their signature foods, matter-of-factly going solo. Paula Deen overcame a difficult divorce and agoraphobia to build a flourishing business and, her protégée, Gina Neely (a rare African-American presence on Food Network/Cooking Channel), co-owns a successful Memphis restaurant with her husband, and team-cooks alongside him in Down Home with the Neelys. For myself, though, Nadia G.’s giddy outward momentum (“My mouth is bursting with flavor and adjectives!” episode: “Rockstar Recipes”) and her undomesticated kitchen Id (“I met my one true love years ago: Me.” Episode: “The Dish on Dating”) confirm that my own, now statistically-normal, household is actually pretty bitchin’.