It is with caution that I inform you that I often watch the Food Network. It’s kind of embarrassing, really; I like to cook, but I’m a total amateur. I am cautious about fucking with recipes too much, and it would never occur to me to, say, add fennel to anything unless specifically directed to. But that doesn’t have much to do with the Food Network, because the Food Network has about as much to do with cooking as Hustler magazine has to do with human relationships. Most of the time, cooking is utterly ancillary to what is actually going on, whether it be cult (or, depending on the person, “occult”) of personality (the odious Emeril, the cloying Wolfgang Puck, the unclassifiable asshole Bobby Flay), naked advertising presented as infotainment (how do they make Milk Duds? We need a half hour on this!) or simple addleheaded travelogue tripe (The Thirsty Traveler mugs his way through Spain! Somebody forgot to ask the important question, “Who gives a ripe fuck?”).
It’s not wholly without its pleasures. If you’re not a fan of the Iron Chef, that’s fine, but I must question why anyone couldn’t like a show that combines incredible, over-the-top theatrics with such utterly conspicuous consumption, and finally culminates in forcing cheerful, ridiculous rich people to eat concoctions such as deep-fried chicken brains and eel-flavored ice cream. (“It tastes like Autumn to me.” Groovy! I prefer my food to taste like . . . food. But sadly, I’m not a fatuous rich person.) Another good show–and it goes without saying that because it is fairly intelligent, it is woefully underpromoted–is Good Eats, in which the affable Alton Brown patiently explains in lay science terms why cooking works the way it does. It’s smart and charming and endearingly low-fi.
And of course there are the cooking shows. They are, to varying degrees depending on your affinity for whoever’s hosting, all basically intolerable (apart from Good Eats, which is really a different animal). I won’t even go into Emeril, unless I have a hatchet, in which case I will enthusiastically “get into him.” Wolfgang Puck carries the lingering stink of the Eighties, and just kind of looks desperate and tanned in that panicky way that says, “I can’t possibly be irrelevant. I’m tan!” And Bobby Flay is about as entertaining and informative as formica. He is resolutely unenthusiastic as he tours America, tasting various regional dishes, and invariably pronouncing said dishes in a bored monotone, “Delicious.” “Delicous,” in his context, makes it sound like it means “This gives me a wasting, consumptive disease.” He speaks of other people’s cooking as if he were clinically evaluating their toilets by licking them.
And finally, there is Jamie Oliver, a young, handsome Brit who makes food as if someone off camera has a rifle trained on him. But in a fun way! This moppet is so relentlessly cuddly that they gave him two shows, neither of them watchable (though I obviously managed, because I suck). Hyperactive Jamie scooters about London terrorizing fishmongers and vegetable stands, and then goes back home (or wherever–I think one episode had him cooking halibut on an agreeable Tony Blair’s engine block) and maniacally cooks the fucking shit out of whatever he has found. He grabs . . . something. You don’t know what. It’s green. “Gitchyer mortar en pessle and bash the hell ou’ uvvit!” And bash it he does, as if the food owed him a lot of money, his curly blonde locks flying madly. “There we are thin luv!” He’s thrown the mortar and pestle into the plaster wall of the set and has now flung the whole green mess on to some fish morbidly shrinking in a pan. “Stir it oop, mates!” he screams, as if in the grips of a fever. Twenty minutes of this, and you can feel your pulmonary capillaries howling for oxygen, but whew, now he’s done. and he’s finally calmly devouring the ninety-two dishes he’s prepared along with two dozen of his ridiculously pretty friends, also known as “paid extras.” His demeanor suggests a man who, having come off of a shrieking adrenaline rush, has now made his peace with the unseen rifleman.
Food Network is, as I said, not without its charms. It is, in fact, a little more charming than the equally awful major networks, if only because of its single-minded nature. You can’t really claim undue surprise from the Food Network the same way you can with the Big Four when they assault you with something as soul-wrenching as, say, Joe Millionaire. The Food Network is, after all, going to be about food. The worst they can do is prepare it.