What happens when TV cooking shows teach us how to cook?
I know exactly where I was when I first realized how big food-on-television was going to get. It was 1997, the weekend just after Thanksgiving, and I was out in the suburbs staying with the parents of my then-girlfriend when, at one point, I found myself trapped alone in the den with her strange uncle. We’d never really gotten along, me and the uncle. He was a gruff, no-nonsense type who ran some sort of crew in, I think, either the construction or waste-management sectors, whereas I…well, I had no crew, and I traffic almost exclusively in nonsense, and I can barely manage my own waste, to be frank about it, let alone whole cities’ worth of other people’s. We were different types of guy, is the bottom line here, and my only desperate plan, as I sank faux-casually onto the faux-leather beside him, was to ask him again to explain hockey’s really quite straightforward “icing” rule to me, for that was the only conversation he and I had ever managed.
He wasn’t watching hockey, though, for once. He was watching The Essence of Emeril.
“I like this guy,” grunted the uncle after a bit. “When he adds, uh, salt or…or spicing to the food, well, he, uh…he says, ‘Bam.’”
I felt myself relaxing, like a sheet of gelatin sliding silently beneath the surface of a bowl of warm water. “Not always,” I said. “Sometimes he says that he’s ‘kicking it up a notch.’”
We were friends after that, the uncle and me. He went on to master Emeril’s shrimp étouffée, making his own shrimp stock and everything. I was happy for him, but hardly surprised, for by that point it was clear that a proper revolution was under way in American cooking, with television leading the charge, and the unlikeliest of people were étouff-ing shrimp all across this great land.
And I was a part of it. Back then, I was under contract to write a difficult postmodern novel, and, as I suspect would also have been James Joyce and Samuel Beckett’s regimen had the Food Network been around back in their day, I would generally rise in time for the midday showing of Molto Mario, take careful notes in the notebook that is the constant companion of every proper writer, then pound the streets of Manhattan all afternoon looking for cardoons and guanciale, so as to have a steaming platter of Italian regional pasta on the table by the time my girlfriend came home from her actual job. My food wasn’t perfect; there were usually rubber bands in it, for one thing, and/or shreds of grated plastic wrap. At the first hint of any more than medium-serious trouble with a dish—spilled detergent, the protein still being alive, etc.—my first instinct was to pump mascarpone at the problem, much as firemen use that flame-retardant foam. But I was getting there. Had you asked me back then, as I was tweezering shards of glass from my polenta, where I saw my cooking in 15 years’ time, I’d have told you that I saw it getting much, much better, just so long as the Food Network remained on the air.
The Food Network has indeed remained on the air. Its content, like a baker’s “starter,” has expanded, spilled over, and been duplicated across our airwaves. Alton Brown, Sandra Lee, Bobby Flay, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten and more—each occupying his or her own particular culinary niche, and, along with the Top Chef, Martha Stewart, and America’s Test Kitchen franchises, among many others, representing the sprawling apotheosis of the celebrity TV-chef phenomenon. Other parts of the world, you find out quickly when you travel, have their own kitchen messiahs—Sanjeev Kapoor in India, for example, and Karlos Arguiñano in Spain. The rise of the celebrity chef transcends language and geography.
The result, for me personally, has been a long series of small leaps forward in my technical cooking ability. I can chop an onion now in less than 10 minutes. If a recipe calls for two tablespoons of oil, I no longer need to measure it out, but can fling it straight from the bottle, just like Mario, in great, confident, swooping spirals, like a cowboy lassoing a docile steer. I know from hours of Jamie Oliver that salt and herbs and julienned basil must always be sprinkled from a height, and from Gordon Ramsay that the mocking belittlement of one’s subordinate chefs—be they a spouse, an elderly parent, or a tiny, terrified, weeping child—is a vital lubricant in the engine of any well-run kitchen.
Despite all I’ve gained, however, something has been lost as well, something big and hard to describe.
I feel its absence most keenly in the kitchen, where nothing is as brightly lit as I remember it, nor as colorful, and where the level of drudgery required in food preparation feels like it has quadrupled or quintupled since the early 1990’s. When I reach out for an ingredient—some salt, perhaps, a stick of celery, nothing fancy—my fingers these days find only packaging: a can that needs opening, some cellophane that must be torn. To surmount these obstacles, what’s more, is to find one’s workspace, all of a sudden, quite literally strewn with garbage, and while I know in my logical mind that this must always have been the case, nobody else seems to have to deal with it, not on television, anyway.
I’ve no one to talk to either, anymore, when I’m cooking. Oh, there are people there sometimes; a friend, a lover, a family member, and we might exchange some pleasantries, some idle chatter. But the things I want to say to them, I know that I mustn’t. What I want to say, obviously, as I’m tossing handfuls of newly popped spring peas into a pan of rendered pancetta, is that they can probably find these peas at their local farmers’ market or, if they don’t live near a farmers’ market, that frozen peas will do just as well. Because that’s what you do say, when you’re doing that, but I can’t, because usually they were with me at the farmers’ market when I bought the peas in question, and so I bite my tongue.
And then there are restaurants. The arrival of one’s entrée, I recall, was once a happy thing, and a cause for celebration. I suppose it still is, but it comes now with a side salad of anxiety and dissatisfaction at having missed all the action of its preparation. The dish may be delicious, but that’s scant consolation for having been deprived the sight of the chef sprinting through Whole Foods trying desperately to sniff the freshness of scallops through shrink-wrap. I was sheltered, cruelly, from the heart-pounding crisis in the kitchen, when the duck soufflé had to be cajoled back from the brink of collapse with only a snail fork and a soda siphon….I missed the whole show, is how it feels, apart from, yes, the finished-plate-of-food part, and now I’m expected to leave before the judging.
They say you shouldn’t run from your problems, that you should turn and try to face them, and in principle I agree, but I have tried to run from this one, except there’s nowhere left to run to. Australia? They’ve got MasterChef now. France? They’ve got their own Top Chef, if you can believe it. No, there’s nothing for it but to try and numb that sense of loss, and an anesthetic, for better or worse, is close at hand. And so you sink into the upholstery, lower your eyelids to half-mast, your breathing to shallow, and let a professional sauté your cares away, in a brightly lit fake kitchen, on a fake, perpetual afternoon.
Bruno Maddox is a T+L contributing editor.
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