Tag Archives: Food Network

Dear Alton Brown, Thank You.

I’ve never been one to become so passionate about television shows, books, music, films, or people that I considered myself a “fan”. There are things I like and enjoy, and will gladly recommend to others, but that’s about the extent of my passion. I appreciate, I don’t obsess.

All of this is my way of laying the groundwork for the news that Alton Brown is wrapping up Good Eats, a food show that did for nerds and geeks over the past ten plus years what The French Chef did for housewives in the 60′s and 70′s.

Yes, I just compared Alton Brown with Julia Child. In fact, I would say that Alton Brown was the next logical progression after Julia Child. For if Julia took the mystique out of good food , and showed us the joy behind it (using the medium of French cuisine) , it was Alton Brown who deconstructed the act of cooking even further, and showed us the science behind it. What both Julia and Alton have in common is that they deconstructed the myths behind the food. Meals aren’t rare and exotic when put in context, and both Child and Brown worked at teaching us exactly this fact.

While the past fifteen years or so of food shows have been hell-bent on selling us a lifestyle, what Alton Brown’s show did was teach. The result of this tactic was tacit understanding that cooking works best with an understanding of some basic scientific principles, and you didn’t need special equipment or make above a certain salary in order to get it. You didn’t need to be a housewife from Connecticut or a grizzled chef with an attitude in order to make good food. Good Eats showed us that if you could understand ninth grade science, you could make a great meal.

The show was more than that, however, for the genius of the show was delivering this message with goofy, juvenile humor. Yes, he approached food like a ninth grade science teacher with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, silly puns, outlandish and exaggerated characters, and even puppets. That was the show’s charm, strength, and, admittedly at times, weakness. But as any good teacher will tell you, if you want to deliver your message effectively, you have to be part entertainer. By choosing the goofy approach, the subtext was this: Cooking is so simple, so non-serious, that a pre-teenager could appreciate it. As a teaching and marketing device, it was devious and effective, as evidenced by the thirteen year run of the show. How successful was Good Eats? Consider this: Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, and Sara Moulton all have had their shows canceled by the Food Network. Alton Brown ended his show on his own terms. That is a rare event, and one that should be recognized.

Alton? As a fan, let me say the following: Thank you. Thank you for inspiring me, thank you for making cooking accessible, and thank you for keeping us entertained. You’ve done something special and rare in food media. You’ve influenced others by making the kitchen understandable to millions of people.

You deserve both recognition for this, and a long, overdue, break.


New Food Media vs. Old Food Media (or Julie vs. Julia)

The upcoming movie Julie & Julia is bringing up some interesting discussions in the food world about old-school food journal vs. new-school food journalism. Or in other words, professional food writers who work at newspapers and have had cookbooks published by mainstream publishing houses are discussing the validity of those food writers who are cutting their teeth in the blog world, and then moving on to bigger and better things.

It makes sense that this movie would initiate such a discussion, for it details the life of two women who best represent each school. In one corner, you have Julia Child, whose legacy is nearly larger than life, an icon of the food movement. In the other you have Julie Powell, an ex-food blogger whose web site hit the big time when she parleyed her exploration of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking into a book deal and then subsequently a movie deal. Both women are quite representative of their eras, as well as the technologies of their eras, Julia Child’s popularity wouldn’t have been so great without television. Ms. Powell’s popularity would be non-existent without blog technology, even if she strongly feels the need to disassociate herself with the blogging generation.

The old-school/new-school debate was put forth once again by Virginia Willis, a food writer and photographer who was brought in old school traditions, even as she embraces new school technologies. She had an in-depth exploration of her feelings a week or so back. The entire thing is worth a read, but this is the part that took me in:

I also read the Julie/Julia Project blog and for a time, I followed Julie Powell. I was very intrigued by her nerve actually, of cooking the book. Pretty stiff stuff for an untrained cook. Good for her, I thought. What an undertaking. But one day she made a comment implying a recipe being wrong for roast chicken. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but it struck me as being so disrespectful, completely without deference to Julia Child, that I stopped. What the hell did she know about food? Had she even heard of poulet au Bresse?

(snip)

People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, “I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist”!

Granted, Julie Powell did not present herself as a food expert. I am not saying she did, quite the contrary. It’s also not a case of sour grapes on my part. Bravo for her. Her food memoir was a best-seller. A rising tide floats all boats, and as a food writer, I wholeheartedly thank her.

I am not necessarily saying my writing is better. After all, who am I to question what is published in the New York Times? Of course, I recognize the irony that I am sharing this indeed in an aforementioned self-serving blog. But good grief, people who don’t know how to begin to roast a ding dang chicken without following a recipe can be our new, ahem, food experts? This makes me a bit sad and more than a bit aggravated.

There’s so much I want to talk about with her perspective, I don’t know where to necessarily start.

For the most part, i don’t think that many individual food bloggers count themselves as food journalists. Granted my sampling is based off of those sites I happen to consume on a regular basis, but those I read come more from a personal memoir/diary perspective, with a tad bit of research thrown in to provide context. Not all food writers are food journalists, and to equate the two is doing a disservice to those who explicitly do not do food journalism.

But let’s talk about expertise for a moment. Can people who simply consume food without knowing its context be considered experts? If not, does this lack of expertise diminish their experience, or make that experience less important?

First and foremost, food is a reflection of any given culture, regardless of the era in which they live. Each culture has its own ignorance of items relating to their culture. Is Pliny the Elder’s position on beer to be dismissed because he didn’t know of yeast, nor of beer’s importance to the tribes of his enemies? Are the cooks of the Renaissance less important to food culture because they didn’t know the etymology and evolution of the recipes they were using? Of course not. The same can be said of those who simply mimic recipes and discuss their value on food blogs or other similar mediums. Their input has inherent value. Just because one knows the importance of Poulet au Bresse does not mean that their insight has more cultural value from one who does not.

So if cultural currency isn’t the issue, then what is? My guess is something I call “Institutional Relevancy”, or how important one person is to the institution they serve, in this case: food media.

Here’s an observation I have that most American food writers don’t want to hear – the majority of Americans don’t care about food, or at least not in the way the experts would like them to. There are many anecdotal statistics I could throw out there to support my position – the popularity of fast food restaurants, the ratio of sales of prepared food versus fresh produce, the number of people who call Kraft Singles “cheese”.

“But Kate!”, one might exclaim. “What about the popularity of The Food Network?”

Granted, The Food Networks growth over the past ten years or so have been impressive, but let’s take a look at the shows they have on. Some of them a pure entertainment, (Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef, The Search for the Next Food Network Star), others are recipe shows that have approach cooking from a very simplistic point of view (Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and others), and still others are simply border line food porn (Paula Deen). My point here is that the largest food media institution has succeeded because it either treats food as entertainment, or as a dumbed-down commodity. There are exceptions on the network, to be sure, but these tend to be the exceptions, and not the rule. On the Food Network, Poulet au Bresse is afforded the same respect as any other chicken.

The proliferation of food blogs that take this simplistic approach reflect the current standard of American food knowledge. That is to say, we are how we eat – kind of mindlessly.

But this is changing. I doubt the local food movement would be as successful today without blogs, the same could be said for the organic movement five years ago. And each of these movements have entered our culinary vernacular, and have made us smarter when it comes to food.

I will admit to one trend that I find disturbing – the proliferation of food blogs who do little more than regurgitate press releases and video links. I am not a fan of Slashfood or Eat Me Daily, who seem to believe that recapping Top Chef or providing obituaries about the Taco Bell Chihuahua are relevant to cooking or restaurant going. But this is a personal bias. I’m of the belief that the more we take these sites seriously, the more likely we’ll regress in our collective food knowledge.

Let me end on this – I’m a fan of Julia Child, and I believe her place in American food history is deserved. Her French Cooking cookbooks are near required for anyone’s cookbook library. But how effective was the method of her message when a mere generation later, someone following her cookbook didn’t understand the relevance of poulet au Bresse?


The Food Network and its True Purpose

Meeting new people is a chore for me. It’s not that I don’t wish to create new friendships and develop social networks; it’s that I’m so bad at it.

I make this admission, not only to provide you a bit of insight into my own psyche, but to explain why I don’t talk about the Food Network all that much on this site.

At the times when I do find myself at social events, I’ve found myself introduced as a “food blogger”, which is only interesting to about 1 tenth of one percent of the people to whom I’ve been introduced . In discussing food blogging, most people gravitate to the word “food” and inevitably ask the following question:

“So, do you watch the Food Network?”

I answer honestly – I don’t.

Cue awkward silence, as the only knot that tied together our conversation has been slowly unraveled. I then imagine my talking partner thinking “what kind of food expert doesn’t watch the Food Network” whilst at the same time my thought go something along the lines of  ”Doesn’t this person know that the Food Network is more about promoting an unattainable lifestyle than it is about promoting food?”

The conversation then dies a lonely death and each of us goes our separate way.

I blame the Food Network for all of this.

It’s not that I dislike the network. Truth be told, I rarely put forth any time even thinking about the channel. I like Alton Brown well enough, and I had a healthy respect for Sara Moulton, David Rosengarten and even Mario Batali. It wasn’t that they were necessarily entertaining (although most were). Rather, it was because after watching them, I felt as if I learned something. Whether it was learning the molecular composition of honey, or that it’s okay to serve beer with an alarming amount of “gourmet” dishes, I often felt enriched at the end of each respective program..

Once that feeling started going away, the less interested I became in the Food Network. If you followed the history of the network, you can probably figure out when that happened. Bill Buford knows about the Food Network, and spells it out quite plainly in his most recent New Yorker article about the Food Network:

(Judy) Girard became president in 2001. When I met her, the following year, she was fifty-six, with blond hair, a slight build, an easy manner, and nothing to hide; frank but not theatrical, calm to the point of seeming tranquillized, no flash or fast-talking speech about “a vision thing,” which I now suspect was because her job had been so simply defined: make the bottom line work. She wasn’t interested in James Beard Awards or good reviews; the only press that mattered was in the financial pages, because her allegiance was unwaveringly to “her community” -the investors.

It was roughly that time that I started to notice changes in the shows I saw. I was no longer being talked to, I was being talked at. Soft lighting started showing up, as well bagged vegetables and pre-made sauces. The food became sanitized, and the Martha Stewart lifestyle became the focus. The network was no longer about making good food and understanding it, it became about using food to impress other people. Whether it was getting a meal out in 30 minutes, or making the perfect thanksgiving feast, the shows seemed to sell the idea of “having” food knowledge, without actually having any.

Even Buford noted the sanitization:

I found myself taking stock not of what I’d seen during the preceding seventy-two hours but of what I hadn’t. I couldn’t recall very many potatoes with dirt on them, or beets with ragged greens, or carrots with soil in their creases, or pieces of meat remotely reminiscent of the animals they were butchered from – hardly anything, it seemed, from the planet Earth. There were hamburgers and bacon, but scarcely any other red animal tissue except skirt steak, probably, it occurs to me now, because of its two unique qualities: its texture and its name.

Food is not sanitized. Food can be dirty and bloody.

And more to the point, unsanitized, dirty and bloody food does not make for good television.

Let’s get straight to the issue here – the majority of American television networks are not designed with entertaining, education, or providing news reports. They are designed to make money. If the Food Network couldn’t make money through providing “food education” they had to find another way to do so. There’s nothing wrong with that. My own preference was for the former and when they moved away from it, I moved away from them.

I do give the Food Network kudos for at least keeping food in the national discourse. But just as one cannot understand the intricacies and nuances television or movies by reading Entertainment Weekly, one cannot understand the intricacies and nuances of food by watching the Food Network.

Technorati Tags: Bill Buford, Food Network

Iron Chef

Seriously....This is an advertisement. $100 bucks!
This is making the rounds on a few food blogs today…check out the ads for Iron Chef America, if you’re into that kinda thing.

Part of the reason I’m pimpin’ this link is that local Seattle Chefs Tom Douglas and Tamara Murphy are both featured this season. That and Food Network is paying me mad money for the shout out.

Go Tom and Tamara! Represent!


What would Jesus Eat?

Josh at The Food Section points us to a list of new Food Network shows, including one called “What would Jesus Eat?”. The fine folks over at eGullet have been wondering about what the show might offer.

I can tell you right now what to expect, if the show is based off the book that popped up in 2002: Nothing substantial.

The book, written by Dr. Don Colbert has been sold as “A cookbook inspired by Christ’s diet…” Dr. Colbert himself has said “”I thought I’d go back to the training manual — the Bible — and see what Jesus ate. Lo and behold, Jesus ate the healthiest diet ever developed, the Mediterranean diet.”

Which would be a wonderful place to start if it weren’t for a few pesky facts:
1) The New Testament apparently doesn’t talk about what Jesus ate all that much.
2) The Mediterranean Diet is based off of folks who lived a far different lifestyle than the rest of us.
3) In Biblical Times, the average life expectancy was roughly 30-40 years of age.

These facts make his choice of Jesus’ diet as questionable.

Then there’s the Old Testament vs. New Testament debate.When Dr. Colbert applies the theory that Jesus would have followed the Old Testament dietary restrictions (which seems plausible enough of a theory), the new Testament contradicts this in Mark 7:14-19:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ ˮ

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?ˮ he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.ˮ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.ˮ)

To top it off, his recipes include ingredients like lemons, avacodos, tomatoes; items not known in the Middle East during the time when it’s said that Jesus lived. Even though it’s possible that Jesus ate falafel, it’s impossible that he ate salsa. This makes Dr. Colbert’s work seem shallow and exploitive.

The food experts at Food TV should know this, and this is what makes the show seem equally shallow and exploitive, if not more so.

In Dr. Colbert’s defense, if you remove the religious apect of his diet, he gives decent (if not common sense) advice. From his introduction:

  • Eliminate all processed foods from your cupboards, and start over. Begin to buy whole-grain products and fresh fruits and vegetables. Stock your shelves with olive oil, nuts, seeds, and whole grain.
  • Cook and bake with whole-grain products. Eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and nuts.
  • Substitute olive oil for butter, margarine, salad dressings, and other oils.
  • Avoid all fried or deep-fried foods.
  • Limit cheese intake to Parmesan or feta cheese (used on main dishes or salads). Do not eat blocks of cheese.
  • Eat yogurt with fruit, or sweeten it with Stevia (a natural substitute for sugar with no harmful side effects).
  • Choose fish and poultry over red meat, and eat meat sparingly. Cut out sugar sweets.
  • Enjoy a glass of red wine with lunch or dinner.
  • Exercise regularly – walk more.
  • Make dining an experience that you enjoy with others. Slow down your eating, savor your food, and enjoy sharing life with family and friends.

The problem is, these words of advice are hardly revolutionary. This further makes his book look as if he’s using religion as a marketing tool…

…and The Food Network has bought into this hook, line and sinker.