I have spent the last two days home very sick with a stomach flu. I find it hard to believe that it has been so long since I spent two straight days entirely confined to the couch watching TV, but I guess it has. Eighteen odd hours of sofa living and TV watching leave me with one question. What happened to the Food Network?
I used to be able to sit home and watch a couple of hours of some very talented chefs sharing insights on how to greatly increase the quality of my culinary life. I can’t tell you how much I learned from Emeril, Mario, Ming, and Sarah Mouton in a couple of simple hours in front of the TV. Back then, it was a bummer if Bobby came on and turned the focus on cuteness rather than cuisine. Yesterday and today the shows were uniformly embarrassing, the only saving grace being Mario whipping up a cardoon dish one day and a ravioli dish the other.
All of a sudden there is some woman named Rachel Ray who, as best I can tell, is reinventing ways to make casseroles easy by adding soup to frozen vegetables. Isn’t that exactly where the whole world went wrong in the fifties? Wasn’t America’s belief in these quick, timesaving steps exactly what led us to a world where a tomato is a crunchy fruit from Florida that’s always available in the same size and shade of what can only be called off red?
Then there is some really hot woman named DeLaurentis sharing her vast insights on ways to chop garlic and add vinegar to salad dressings, and some Paula lady overcooking vegetables from some nameless supermarket and calling it home cooking.
My hope has been that, with Americans realizing their food has been so manipulated to fit packaging that there are hardly any nutrients left in it, and that we are getting fatter from not cooking for ourselves, Food TV would help. The Food channel was a place that pointed out there was still one butcher left in most areas and that introducing yourself and making friends with him would amazingly improve the quality of all of your dishes involving meat.
Food TV started with group of very talented chefs showing us that it was not too hard to make the wonderful dishes of the better restaurants of America at home, we just needed to learn some simple techniques and improve the produce we were getting. Mario would tell us of the wonders of guanciale and explain that pancetta or even good quality bacon could play the role. All of a sudden we were looking past the Oscar Meyer packages and noticing that some places actually had bacon in their fridges. These places were doing better business on better product, and a simple solution was rolling in. The stage was set for Whole Foods and all the others to sweep in because now at least those of us that would listen were looking for more authentic product.
Now there is some very nice-seeming, cheery woman touting the genius of canned beets. Can anything be more antithetical to moving away from the dilemma of the American diet then encouraging the use of canned beets?
Some would say, “it is a step in the right direction that people are cooking at home at all.” I have to disagree. If what you are learning is to simply combine prepackaged ingredients to mimic a chicken tetrazzini by Stouffer’s, with nothing more then a recipe that is “a snap to do in under 30 minutes,” you still have to clean, and what you are making is not uniquely better then its prepackaged counterpart.
Simple diets that show us “by slightly modifying our lives away from processed carbs and flour our quality of health will improve” fail because, in reality, we stray from their simplicity for the more simple alternative when time runs short, we are too lazy, or worst of all a “Domino’s craving” strikes (I swear I have been told these exist). For people to want to cook at home it doesn’t need to be easy it needs be good. We need to realize that life gets better when what we are cooking at home with a modicum of effort and time is exceedingly better than what we can get at the local chain restaurant, or from the freezers in the middle of the store. When we see that, for the cost of two adults and two children to sit down to an all-you-can-eat pasta and salad at the Olive Garden, you can make a better version yourself and even pay up for better ingredients at the market. Best of all, the dish won’t be a glop of glue flown in from Ohio and “authentically” reheated in your town.
What this channel used to offer was a glimpse into the method of thinking of good chefs. By watching them work and listening to their thought processes you were learning to think like the chefs rather then mimic them. When you worked in your own kitchen, what you had picked up was a technique rather then a recipe. Not only has all this been lost, they have gone backwards; they now have food talking-heads with no comprehension of process looking for an easy way out of the chore of cooking.
I can’t wait till next time I am sick, maybe by then I will watch some pundit arguing from behind some set made to look like a news show that “cooking in pans is for dilettantes,” “real Americans cook in microwaves,” and “all the fat-cat foodocrats have to put their ears to the pulse of the heartland and give the people what they want,” all while some crawl goes along the bottom about how 75 more cases of mad cow have been discovered in chickens at the Tyson packaging plant.