[22 January 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
I don’t watch much TV. If you’ve read this column before, you probably already know that. A full-fledged cord-cutter for years now, I’m rarely in the presence of a real, live cable television package, though when I am, it’s usually turned to something regarding sports or music. I’ve been able to carve a tiny life for myself this way. It’s not extravagant (and it surely provides a fair share of awkward silences whenever I’m put in a position to entertain company), but it does me fine. At this point, actually, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Naturally, this means that when I do find myself in front of friends’ or family members’ television sets—and the picture on the screen has nothing to do with either sports or music—all bets are off as I swirl into an abyss I know little to nothing about. “Oh, there’s an entire network dedicated to true crime?! Grab me a bag of potato chips and cancel all my plans,” I feel like yelling. “I’m not moving from this couch!”
Innovations in content, coupled with the subsequent rise of (admittedly imaginative) narrow-thinking corporate minds have led to an entire subculture of niche television that is insatiable to the core. Marathons of scripted reality competitions can lure you into their grasp for hours at a time, forcing anyone with two eyes and a heartbeat to dedicate their life’s work toward figuring out the details on how someone lands a spot on MTV’s Inferno. You know this kind of indulgence is the visual equivalent of a bag of Funyuns, but you also know that putting the snack back in the cupboard is damn near impossible after that initial taste… especially if that seductive, habit-forming taste can somehow be replicated by watching the Food Network for an hour—or 17.
It’s been a while since I first laid eyes on anything that the Food Network broadcasts, but from that first five-minute passing glance of some prepared piece of meat, a harsh reality became frighteningly clear almost immediately: If I ever decide to call up the local cable provider and ask them to grant me access to normal TV, my next phone call better be to my boss and family, because none of those people will ever see me again. I’ll be lost in some type of food porn trance, scheming ways to make a roasted-apple hamburger with caramelized onions, feta cheese and a Snickers bar. I’ll be bound by the ghost of Guy Fieri, never allowing myself to sleep a wink without making sure my sunglasses are on backwards, my hair sharply pointed to the skies.
“What is it that makes food and television go so well together—or, more to the point, achieve such high ratings?” Bruce Palling wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Matthew Fort, a food writer and judge on The Great British Menu, says one reason for the plethora of programs is that they are relatively cheap to make, and while gardening or DIY programs have loyal followings too, not everyone has a garden or the desire to do home repairs—but everyone eats three times a day.” (“Smile, You’re on Camera”, 1 July 2011)
And sometimes we feel a need to eat even more. As Alyssa Sparacino of health.com pointed out in 2011, the rise in popularity of food-centric television may have also led to a rise in other, less-flattering areas.
“In the early 1990s, before the Food Network or Top Chef, 56% of Americans were overweight or obese,” she wrote. “That number has since grown to 68%... Celebrity chefs aren’t entirely to blame, of course. But our fascination with food TV may not be helping. Most hit cooking shows don’t exactly focus on health food, and research suggests that being exposed to images of appetizing food can spur us to eat—and overeat.” (“Are Foodie Shows Making Us Fat?”, Health.com, 5 May 2011)
Guilty. As. Charged.
Spending one simple evening cuddled up with a Chopped marathon during the holiday season made me want to both wolfe down multiple dinners and devise plans to open my own four-star restaurant. Commercials for Diners Drive-ins and Dives had me wondering if I should call off any New Year’s Eve plans, so that I could eat my way through the celebrations, instead. Shoot, even a few quick profiles of some absurdly large, impossible-to-eat, you-have-to-be-kidding-me pieces of sirloin inevitably forced my hand as I was out to dinner. Bring me any type of meat with grill marks seared into it, my mind told my stomach. And bring it now.
Here’s the thing, though: Not for a second do I believe that such exposure ultimately led to any adverse long-term effect on my eating habits. Sure, I allowed myself to succumb to my taste buds for a night or three, but the act of being indulged was just that—the act of being indulged. As in, brief. As in, OK, I get it. As in, that was fun, but now I know not to eat a seven-pound hot dog ever again.
This is why I don’t understand why the Food Network gets a bad wrap. The minds behind this phenomenon don’t tie you down and force food into your mouth. Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this stuff, and you’d be a fool to believe that anybody on the screen actually wants to glorify the act of becoming obese. It’s nothing more than taking some time to worship at the Church of Cuisine or bathe in the boroughs of bread. Nobody preaches lifestyle on the Food Network, for pizza’s sake. They merely preach escape.
Escape from the inadequacies of your own kitchen (since when did they start making coffee pots that can brew beverages automatically?!). Escape from the day jobs that don’t afford you the opportunity to eat at the five-star restaurants often profiled. Escape from being told what you “should eat”. Escape from knowing that your culinary expertise doesn’t really advance much further than Ramen noodles, because look how easy it is to prepare fish tacos now.
Plus, it’s a hell of a lot less exploitative than anything you could watch involving real housewives from Montana or one of the scores of Kardashians that troll this Earth. The Food Network niche is harmless, a mere televised way to make us feel like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can somehow be extravagant. You can’t really call it a guilty pleasure because there’s nothing really guilty about it. If anything, these programs can educational.
In essence, the channel succeeds because it takes the phrase “mindless entertainment” to brand new heights. How so? It affords the viewer an array of dreams similar channels could never sell. From the comfort of our couches through other networks we can watch contestants eat spiders and spin wheels and manipulate frenemies in order to try and win thousands of dollars overnight, yet we all know that regardless of whatever happens on that screen, none of us are waking up to a check for $100,000, no matter how many times we yell “Deal!” or “No Deal!” at the TV.
The Food Network? Instant gratification. Bachelors. Husbands. Wives. Children. All of us in various walks of life can be transformed into amateur chefs in a matter of a few hours with only a little bit of attention and a boatload of DVR space. The payoff is more substantial than cheering on someone else to win by pulling off some outrageous stunt. With cooking shows you—yes, you!—can benefit, that is learn, from the programming. It’s like being able to build a house after watching a Bob Vila marathon or opening an art gallery in the wake of looking in on Bob Ross painting trees. You can accomplish something artful.
Oh, and about the channel’s often-despised personalities ...
“It turns out that half of Reddit hates the celebrities on the Food Network,” The Braiser’s Tina Nguyen wrote in October. “When asked ‘What celebrity do you have an irrational hatred for?’, members of the subreddit r/AskReddit flooded it with the usual suspects: Megan Fox, Taylor Swift, Kate Gosselin, Will.i.Am. But oddly enough, a large chunk of the named celebrities were all Food Network personalities… An entire thread was devoted to people who hated Guy Fieri.” (“Which Food Network Stars Do Redditors Hate Most?”.
Ahhh, yes. The food-host-who-is-obnoxious argument, the major crux of all detractive dialogue aimed in the Food Network’s direction. The New York Times used Fieri’s recent restaurant-opening as an insult-laden tee from which it sent a ball soaring thousands of yards over fences both near and far. Anthony Bourdain hasn’t even tried to mask his disdain for everybody from Rachael Ray to “The overmuscled fuckwit from DINNER SLIGHTLY DIFFICULT”, as he so eloquently once put it while ranting about the Food Network Awards.
Yet while such criticisms are completely fair (no doubt Fieri needs to be punched every now and then), none of the talking heads overshadow the true star of the whole operation: Food. Sure, some of the chefs and judges can be condescending, and yeah all the hosts take the notion of being overly enthusiastic to plateaus previously unknown. But at the end of the day, the only things that matter are the delicious dishes and complicated concoctions that aren’t only profiled, but they’re oftentimes explained well enough to encourage viewers to give it a try.
At its core, the Food Network is nothing more than a love letter to culinary experimentation. It’s a lab we can all visit whenever we get bored with regular spaghetti or the traditional French Fry. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s instructional. It’s wacky. It’s overbearing. It’s obnoxious. It’s interesting. It’s suggestive. It’s informative.
And most of all, it’s, well, it’s making me hungry just thinking about the hours of programming I devoured over the holidays. Maybe I should get a TV. With cable.
Splash image from 5 questions with Tom Pizzica of Food Network’s Outrageous Food, Premium Hollywood