Saturday, September 6, 2008

FOOD as popular culture

I love cooking shows. But I do not love reality television shows, in fact, they seem to me to bring out the worst of humanity, and celebrate that. So you might think that I watch but do so as a guilty pleasure Gordon Ramsey's television series, Hell's Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares and assorted specials. I do not. Food to me is not the result of a high stress speed race to excellence. It might be, mind you, but when I watch chefs cook it is generally accompanied by soft music in the background a chef who speaks quietly. The idiom about sausage making should not be watched, is a true one, for more than food. Gordon Ramsey is someone I would likely get into a fight with, even if I were to therefore lose the competition. So the anger and loudness his shows have are not my style, however much they reflect the truth behind the doors of the kitchen of a major restaurant.

There is something to be argued for regarding watching the skills of chefs, and there is a joy in the expression of invention, of expertise, and of knowledge of food. I am far from an expert, but I can say that when I've ventured into meal making I've found some help in the food shows I've watched. But I've never cooked for many customers, all demanding excellence. So I do find watching Iron Chef and its cousins to be interesting, if not helpful in general. The foods created all reflect a need to create something from very little, and in that it is something to appreciate. Much like when I cooked in college, making ground turkey into ground turkey loaf. You make do, and if you are able, you make do and it is good.

The chefs I've learned most from are the ones who described flavors and textures, so that when I cook even if I am not a fan of what I am preparing for my wife, I can know it is good. (Salmon for instance.) Jeffrey Smith, the Frugal Gourmet was a chef who mostly shot his program in one take, being a person who wanted the effect to be as amazing in result as it was a miracle to have worked. Many episodes show mistakes, as you will no doubt make in the kitchen. My very favorite show about cooking was TWO FAT LADIES, which celebrated the greatest things about food and beverage and the family meal. They never counted calories, never worried, for them it was about life. Martin Yan and Stephen Yan are two chefs who cooked in a very entertaining way, and they showed me how to cook as well. I appreciate mostly Stephen Yan as his food definitely looked amazing.

Justin Wilson, homestyle Cajun chef was fun and entertaining, but I did not learn a lot from him. Christina Pirello uses whole foods, and teaches as much as she prepares cuisine. I like that a lot. And Tommy Tang is someone who makes cooking look easy, and his food looks amazing.

Food though, however good it is, is an expression of abundance, even affluence. You would not see celebrations of food where people are starving, they just eat it gratefully. I think it is important to remember this when watching food shows, that it is only because we have so much, that we can celebrate it so much. I am not trying to preach, here, if I were I'd link to THIS.

Enjoy your dinner, food is good.


Derek Handley said...

I always enjoyed "Ready, Steady, Cook" on the BBC. They had limited ingredients and time, but created great dishes. The recipes were available online too, so it was very educational.

alex-ness said...

I like seeing the food being prepared as well as cooked, even if it is messy. So shows that present cooking as clean and easy when it is dirty and messy, well I prefer to see the real thing.

It is strange about cooking shows, even bad ones you can watch without listening to and still get a good idea if it is worth turning up the sound. Just the flow on the stage.

Steve Chaput said...

I remember my mother watching both Julia Childs and Graham Kerr (The Galloping Gourmet), but I never recall her trying to follow any of their recipes.

I actually worked in several restaurants while in high school and worked in the kitchen of one while attending cook/chef school for a short time. This was in the late '60s, but after entering the Navy, I never returned to that vocation.

Ramsey comes off even in promos for his various shows as such an SOB that I can't bring myself to watch them. On the other hand, Donna and I are totally addicted to TOP CHEF and WHO WANTS TO BE THE NEXT FOOD NETWORK STAR each season.