Tag Archives: Mario Batali

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

Jeffrey Steingarten

Full disclosure: I like Jeffrey Steingarten‘s writing a great amount. I think his approaches for articles and essays should be the envy of the food writing community. I think it’s also safe to say that he has a very clean palate. The man taste tested water for cryin’ out loud (and was the inspiration behind this post).

However, apparently he is also a bit of an ass. According to blogger Dan Dickinson, Steingarten went off on Alton Brown, Mario Batali, and especially Giada De Laurentiis at a recent panel discussion called “How to Cook for Television” (a panel discussion which included, oddly enough, Alton Brown, Mario Batali, and Giada De Laurentiis). As Dan noted:

Soon after the event started, it became immediately obvious that this was going to be different. Steingarten was, to put it nicely, off-topic. To put it poorly, he was a rude, obnoxious asshole.

Harsh words.

From the sounds of it, Steigarten doesn’t like the path Food Network is going down. While I share some of that opinion, there’s a time and place to address it. When your moderating a panel discussion celebrating the core function of the Food Network, it’s probably not the best time.

Fear, thy Name is Scrapple

Scrapple and eggsIf you look at the picture to the right, you’ll see a pile of a substance sitting next to the egg. At the mere mention of this product people have been known to shudder, gag, and deny its right to exist.

What you see there is a Pennsylvania Dutch product known as scrapple. As you can guess, it’s fairly popular in Pennsylvania, and can be found throughout surrounding states and the Mid-Atlanitc region with only a minimal amount of searching. But once you end up west of say, Cincinnati, it’s near impossible to locate.

Scrapple is one of those farm products made to use every bit of a downed pig. Back in the day (say, before the era of supermarkets and readily available foodstuffs) a farm had to make food last. It makes use of those parts of slaughtered food animals that can’t be eaten on their own, such as the meaty parts of hog heads, hearts, some liver, and other scraps.

It’s for this reason that scrapple is looked upon with much disdain. It is of my own opinion that those who do the disdaining have never sat down and actually, you know, eaten the stuff. It is typically eaten at breakfast in place of other pork products (such as bacon or sausage). It is often cut into thin slices, fried until the outsides form a crust, although I must admit to not having enough patience to let it remain a slice. While frying in the pan, I often poke and prod it often enough to have it become more of a pile of scrapple rather than a slice.

What does scrapple taste like? Think Bacon and sausage mixed with corn meal, and you’ll have a good start. Typically salty like most cured pork products with a fair amount of pork fat mixing ever so lovingly in the corn meal. Depending on who makes it, you can tasteeverything from sage and hungarian paprika, to the more basic salt and ground pepper. It’s one of those dishes that you have to taste before you truly understand just how good it is.

Back to the fear that scapple causes. It’s this use of hog parts often left on the butchers floor that cause this irrational distaste of scrapple. This is a recent development, probably started over here in the States, as it used to be common practice to use every bit of every animal, whether as food or as some other product. This is something that many chefs realize, and now you find chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali and Fergus Henderson all advocating the use of bits and pieces that we often throw away. In fact, if you pick up Chef Henderson’s book “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating“, you’ll find ingredients such as warm pig’s head, ox tongue, roast bone marrow, calf’s heart, brawn (headcheese), jellied tripe, rolled pig’s spleen, duck neck terrine, duck hearts on toast, many recipes for lamb’s brain, sweet breads, blood cake (made with 1 quart of pig’s blood), pig’s cheek and tongue, gratin of tripe, haggis, deviled kidneys, and lamb’s kidneys.

I place the blame of our disdain for these parts squarely on the shoulders of supermarkets. Most of these products do not have a lond shelf life, nor do they fit the aesthetic image that the meat counters wish to display. As such, one would often have to ask for these parts. Before long, they were quickly forgotten and tossed aside.

It’s a tradition we can get back quite easily. If you wish to see if it’s worth it, I highly recommend starting with scrapple, in order for you to see just exactly what can be done with these parts.

SIDE NOTE: Major Kudos to Tara, for not only trying scrapple, but for liking it. She and I have discussed scrapple before in which she raised some concerns. When I was able to procure some, there was a little bit of anxiety surrounding it’s place on our breakfast table. However, once tasted, the majority of the anxiety vanished. Another scrapple fan created!