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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Is It Elitist to Criticize the Food Network?

The Food Network has come under fire quite a bit in the past couple of years. Many viewers feel betrayed by the changes in programming. The top chefs are disappearing. It's more about personality than food. The focus has gone away from teaching cooking skills and mastering techniques and is now on throwing meals together quickly. Despite the complaints, the Food Network is enjoying its highest ratings ever. Obviously someone is enjoying their current offerings.

Fans of the Food Network are just as critical of the critics. Dislike of the Food Network is rooted in elitism and snobbery and only "foodies" have a problem with the programming. FN critics clearly don't know about how Middle America cooks and don't know how hard it is for busy moms to get food on the table for their families. These wealthy critics don't know how to cook on a budget. Don't those food snobs understand that they want to learn to cook from real people, and not some fancy-schmancy chefs? (Are all professional chefs robots? I never got the whole "real person" thing.)

Does the Food Network truly believe that it's viewers are, or at least shoud be this bland, white-bread, unschooled cook who is threatened by anyone with skill? Do they believe everyone is afraid of any cuisine that isn't based in American or Western European cuisine? Is so, then it's just as insulting to the audience.

Do I know how Middle America cooks? Of course I don't. The US has a pretty big population. I couldn't tell you how my next-door-neighbors cook, let alone folks living 1000 miles away from me. One's job, ethnic background, family history, health, and willingness to cook a meal is going to change from person to person. Why would I assume everyone who doesn't live on the coasts cooks and eats the same way? How do I know there isn't some woman in Iowa or Nebraska out there mourning the loss of Sara Moulton and Wolfgang Puck on the Food Network and my next-door-neighbor isn't a die-hard Sandra Lee fan? Why make assumptions like this?

Who is making these assumptions? In the world of the Food Network, everyone is white, married, has kids, has no free time, and is inimidated by both expertise and cuisines that venture out of the European comfort zone. Why shouldn't I be critical of these insults against Food Network viewers? I don't think it's elitism at all to be critical of the Food Network's blatant stereotyping.

I know I grew up somewhat advantaged food-wise. My mother is something of a health nut and my father is an unapologetic foodie. I have lived most of my life in an area sandwiched between NYC and the bountiful farms upstate. I just don't think that anyone who wasn't raised in such an environment is incapable of learning to appreciate a wider variety of food, or be willing to learn how to cook more than meat and potatoes.

The diversity of America is completely ignored by the Food Network. I don't think it's me who doesn't understand the Food Network audience (or its potential audience). Am I the only person who notices that almost every personalilty on the Food Network is white? Other than Everyday Italian (which is very Americanized Italian), the cuisines presented are generic. Few chefs have a real specialty. Mario Batali's more authentic regional Italian cuisine is now gone. Ming Tsai was gone a long time ago. I guess you could consider Paula Deen and Bobby Flay's shows specialized, but their cuisine consists of standard American favorites. Emeril has a specialty, but he has strayed pretty far away from the Creole roots over the years. The most ethnic show we have is the pathetic Simply Delicioso. That arrived on the scene after Latin chefs were booted from the last two seasons of The Next Food Network Star. Ingrid Hoffman's Latin cuisine is completely watered down. Wouldn't it be nice to see a Carribean chef, or a soul food chef, or an Eastern European chef? Wouldn't anyone like to see Asian cuisine that's authentic and not just Rachael Ray preparing "Chinese Take Out At Home"? I'm not asking this out of snobbery. I'm asking this because not all potential viewers of the Food Network are white people interested in American and Western European food.

"But you don't understand the life of busy moms," protest the Food Network executives and the FN viewers. That's true. I'm not a mother. I am, however a full-time-employed wife. I often don't see the inside of my home for more than a few waking hours each day. I have a lot of hobbies and interests. I have horses that I keep 90 minutes away in NJ. I study dance. I belong to the board of directors for a community theater group and also perform in their productions from time to time. Despite this, I manage to throw together meals two or three times a week. I like to avoid takeout and convenience foods and always make enough for leftovers when I cook a meal.

It's the "busy moms" who are supposed to be the target audience of the likes of Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee. It's not just that these women cook simply, it's that they're non-threatening. They promise a meal with ease and simplicity with simple ingredients. This approach is nothing new really. There are plenty of chefs who present simple, straightforward, and easy-to-follow recipes on the Food Network. Some of the shows that did this are now gone like Sara's Secrets and How to Boil Water. I don't think there is anything terribly complex or difficult about the recipe presenations of Tyler Florence, Ina Garten, or Giada DeLaurentis. The only thing these chefs lack is a gimmick. None of these chefs promise a meal in 30 minutes. I find it poor reasoning because even die-hard Rachael Ray fans say that in real life you can't reproduce her meals in 30 minutes. She has the advantage of someone organizing her studio kitchen before the show and cleaning things during commercial breaks. Most of us don't have that luxury.

I can put together a much better meal in less than an hour and I'm not an expert. I would bet even Rachael Ray has better skills in many areas than I do. The point is that I'd rather look to someone who is truly an expert if I want to expand my skills. That doesn't make me an elitist. I think it just makes me a good cook. I don't judge my instructors on their likeability or how much like me they are. I don't want my instructors to be like me. I want them to be much better.

The next protest is that I don't understand about what it's like to cook on a budget. I'm not a wealthy person and I have the added disadvantaged that my lack of wealth is housed in one of the most expensive regions of the country. I don't have an enormous food budget. In fact, I pay so much attention to my budget and how things cost that I know that many popular chefs on the Food Network are not cooking on a budget. Pre-chopped vegetables and bagged salads cost far more than buying things whole and cutting them up yourself. Sandra Lee's love of Cool Whip is a pricey habit compared to the cost of a pint of heavy cream that you can easily whip in a few minutes (and the real cream tastes better too). Do I need to mention Rachael Ray's love of lamb, veal, and pancetta or her heavy use of manchego and parmiggiano-reggiano cheeses. (There is decent domestic parmesan out there. They don't all come pre-grated with a shaker top.) Not only is she fond of beef tenderloin, but she uses it in recipes where a cheaper cut would wokr much better. Sandra Lee and Robin Miller both require you to go out and buy a Crock Pot, which is really dumb because many foods take far less time and effort if you make them in the oven (like bread pudding). Let's not forget that the obscene amounts of oil, cheese, and bacon in so many of these recipes make for some rather unhealthful meals.

If I really thought the Food Network were making an honest effort to provide nutritious, inexpensive, and easy-to-prepare meals (Wait! Dave Lieberman did that. Now he's gone too.) I would not be writing this. If I hated it only because the chefs were untrained and the food wasn't fancy, then I would indeed be an elitist. What I criticize is that the The Food Network is now all about image, false hope, and mistruths. Think of the image that they are selling to the public. Do you really see yourself in it? I don't see myself in it, but then again, I'm an elitist, right?

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