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.

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