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I Can Almost Taste It

The classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking has enjoyed 78 years of success, with 18 million copies sold. I think it’s time for a sequel, one that better reflects the times. How ‘bout The Joy of Watching Others Cook?

Cooking shows are steamin’ hot, with Food Network alone reaching about 96 million US homes. My must-sees are Top Chef, Barefoot Contessa, Everyday Italian with Giada De Laurentiis, 30 Minute Meals with Rachel Ray, and Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. In fact, I could eliminate the other 1,950 cable channels and be perfectly content watching Bravo and The Food Network every night.

My obsession with cooking shows makes no sense. Maybe if the food these chefs prepared was magically transported from the screen onto a plate placed before me I could justify watching. Because, while I don’t like cooking, I’m all in favor of eating…often… in fact, more often than not. But that’s not an option, yet.

And so it seems counter-intuitive that I, and apparently millions of others, derive pleasure from watching TV chefs prepare delectable dishes without getting to taste—or even smell—them. Would we want to spend an hour in a friend’s kitchen watching her preparer poulet provencal and apple tartin for a dinner party and not get to sample them? Of course not! Where’s the “joy” in that?

Yet, for someone who a) doesn’t enjoy cooking (baking is another story), b) doesn’t have a particularly refined palette and c) wouldn’t know my mortars from my pestles, I seem to spend an awful lot of time observing chefs in action.

And, when I’m not being tantalized (taunted?) by food preparation on television, I’m subjecting myself to glorious photos of gourmet meals in magazines. I even have a subscription to Bon Appetit! Or, I’m reading sensory descriptions of sumptuous meals in one of the 9,372 books categorized by Amazon as “food literature” — these include the culinary adventures of restaurant critics in disguise or people who abandon corporate life for a year of torture, er, ‘learning’ at Le Cordon Bleu or those who want to live la dolce vita and move from the states to places like Tuscany, where they do nothing but cook and eat, drink wine, cook and eat some more, make love, cook and eat again, drink Prosecco, lie out in the sun, cook and eat…well, you get the picture.

Perhaps there are those of us who appreciate cooking as a fine art, on par with painting and poetry. Cooking certainly requires inspiration, dedication, creativity — maybe even a dash of madness. But, one would think that, as with the other arts, the audience would desire the full experience.

After all, when you go to a museum and view a painting—let’s say Van Gogh’s Postman Joseph Roulin at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—the journey from artist to art to audience is completed. Van Gogh expressed something on canvas, in this case the subject’s surprising soulfulness and wisdom, that was meant to be seen by a viewer (and absorbed and experienced)—and that’s exactly what happens, when standing before the actual painting.

In this analogy, eating and appreciating a succulent rack of lamb prepared by a master chef would be the equivalent of viewing Van Gogh’s painting .. but the tasting never occurs. Therefore, the transaction remains incomplete and, from an arts observer standpoint, is unsatisfying.

So maybe we watch cooking shows not so much for an artistic experience as an educational one. For instance, I’ve learned from Top Chef that the darker the roué, the better for the gumbo. And from Rachel Ray that EVOO means extra-virgin olive oil. And from the Barefoot Contessa that there isn’t a meal in all the world that can’t be improved upon with heaping quantities of butter, sugar, and flour. But, I don’t plan on converting this knowledge into practice, so what’s the point of having it fight for space in my overcrowded brain?

Ultimately, I think that cooking is a spectator sport for people who don’t like to cook and don’t give a fig about field goals and grand slams (I looked those up). And, certainly, the creators of Top Chef recognize this. Let’s consider the last season, which ended in early March.

Lisa of Top Chef

Head Judge Tom Colicchio, as always, played the role of the do-it-for-the-Gipper coach whose approval the competing chefs desperately seek but only occasionally receive (making it all the sweeter when attained). There was the thrill of victory when fan favorite Fabio won a competition by cooking his Mama’s roast chicken to perfection even after breaking his pinky, and the agony of defeat when finalist Carla blew her chance at winning by following the advice of former finalist Casey rather than cooking with l-o-v-e love.

And no sporting event would be complete without some homoerotic towel snapping, in this case by the two European contestants, Fabio and Stefan, who made it plain in every other way, for those who care, that they’re aggressively hetero.

The joys of cooking shows may be vicarious, but they’re joys, nonetheless.