They seem almost as if they exist in a nether-world of sorts. Not part of the real world, where the majority of people eat at Outback Steakhouses and cook spaghetti with pre-made sauces from Ragu. Nor do they seem part of the celebrity world of US and People Magazine. They don’t seem to play in the same world as the A-list celebrities out there, regularly hanging out with the likes of Beyonce or Lindsey, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon. People Magazine rarely covers them, unless their name is Martha Stewart.
I’m refering to the group of people out there who sit atop of the Food World, those who either strike awe, influence, or both.
I’m of two minds when it comes to this group of people. Part of me is thrilled that there are a group of people who are recognized for their promotion and advocation of quality food. Whether it’s Mario showing us how to cook decent Italian, or Alice teaching us that local crops from smaller farmers are the path to better tasting dishes, it’s important that their voices, and more specifically, their messages get out into the national and international discourse on food.
But there is a dark side to being a food celebrity, one that I abhor. Part of my distaste of food celebrities comes from my aversion to most things “celebrity” oriented, a cross bred bastard of promotion and idolization that is both excessive and unnecessary. Only two food celebrities have ever crossed into this realm, although several are seemingly get close. Both Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray have evolved from individuals into institutions, where their once unique messages have become less important than their public personas (although Martha has chilled a bit since getting out of prison).
If recent news articles are to be believed, The Food Network wants to get on board this aspect of food celebrity, to profit from cult of food personality. Having missed out on the Rachel Ray express, contracts have lately been structured in such a way that they too can make money from the talents and popularity of the individuals on their network. The end result of this can be nothing but evil, with pseudo-personalities who have passed some sort of PR guru’s mail order course of “How to become a marketable Food Personality” foisted upon and spoon fed to the viewers of the cable network.
But this is the worst-case scenario. Most of the highly regarded food celebrities do not have to worry becoming institutionalized, as most food celebrities do not have what is termed broad-market appeal. The niche that they have created for themselves is too specialized. Alice Waters will never appeal to the Sandra Lee set, and Marion Nestle will never appeal to Paula Deen fans.
The second way Food Celebrities go bad is when they start believing that food should be judged solely by their preferences. Restaurant critics tend to be the biggest sellers of this nonsense, with examples too numerous to mention here. This is admittedly a hard line to walk upon. There are some foods that are better than others. Kraft singles can’t hold a candle to a handmade cheese, and a frozen pizza is never as good as a slice straight out of a wood burning oven. But even “bad” food can have a place where it shines in an appropriate place. Velveeta can work wonders in Tex-Mex, and joy can even be found in the bottom of a cereal bowl.
Upon reflection, I don’t mind food celebrities, regardless of if they are pompous food critics, over exposed 30 minute divas, or hell, even soapbox preaching food bloggers. They all have their place and messages. The real trick is for the consumers of food media to discover what works best for them. And if a Food TV star rubs someone the wrong way, tune them out and discard them into the white noise area of our brain, their message forever filtered out by the more important and relevant ideas.