The Boob Tube, or Why We Watch Food Shows

Sep 2, 2010 at 10:44 am
click to enlarge Nigella Lawson: "My eyes are up here." - Image via
Nigella Lawson: "My eyes are up here."
On Tuesday, the RFT's dear friends at Jezebel looked at the comments posted on a Guardian article about celebrity chef Nigella Lawson.

Sadie Stein noted how several of these comments criticized Lawson for her sexy-chef act and then broadened the issue to ask, "What is it about food personalities that gets us so riled?"

Stein's conclusion is thoughtful:
The ambivalence towards current food celebrities, of course, is not that different from that we see leveled at any celeb: the scrutiny of appearance and private life is as cruel and irrational as that applied to all entertainers. But there's something more, and I wonder if it doesn't have to do with the fact that, well, we all eat. Those of us who have to cook are naturally placed in a position of either wistful aspiration or contemptuous superiority, and resentment can come from either of these.
However, I think there might be more to the first part of her theory -- our dysfunctional relationship with celebrities of every kind -- than the food-focused second.

No doubt it's easy for those of us who are passionate about food -- foochebags, if you will -- to become enraged by the antics of this or that food personality. When you surround yourself with like-minded people, both in real life and especially in the echo chamber of the Internet, it can be tempting to view everything through the lens of this passion.

But what if food has little, if anything, to do with it?

Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic at the New York Times and author of the very good memoir Born Hungry, recently posted a though-provoking essay about the appeal of food television on his blog. (You have to scroll down to find the essay, titled "The Lure of Food TV.") many of the people doing the admiring, gasping and ogling [of food television] like to cook, dream of cooking or want to know more about the mechanics of cooking? Even if it's a majority, that still leaves a lot of non-cooks in the audience. What prompts THEM to tune into food television?
He discusses a friend's theory, which tracks fairly closely to Stein's, before reaching his own conclusion:
When many people turn on the television set, as opposed to picking up a book or doing something more interactive, they're looking for a passive, mind-resting experience. They want something that doesn't require close attention, the way a twisty plot might. Something akin to visual music. Something ambient, in a way.

Much food television gives them that. It's a banquet of colorful, seductive and familiar images, presented rhythmically, with a soundtrack of oohs and aahs.
I find Bruni's idea compelling. It certainly puts the dumbing down of the Food Network -- best embodied by the fact that rather than introduce more cooking to its daily programming, the network's parent company started an entirely new channel -- into context, and it reinforces the idea that food celebrities are no different from other celebrities.

More importantly, it's another reminder to all of us who are passionate about food that to understand how our society as a whole views food, sometimes we have to force ourselves to step outside the echo chamber.