US: Food tube
Posted: May 29th, 2009 - 4:41pm
Dawn Drzal, who has written about food, travel and fiction for The Times and other publication, writes in this book review set to appear Sunday that in 1950, only 9 percent of American homes had a television set, and the target food audience was “the hausfrau hankering to keep hubby happy with her scullery art,” as one male reviewer put it. By 2008, the Food Network alone reached 96 million homes, with 900,000 viewers per night, nearly half of them male. One constant, however, has been that TV food shows have never really been about food. As the bad-boy chef, author and food show host Anthony Bourdain put it, people don’t care about what’s cooking; they care only about who’s cooking.
Television’s first successful food personality, the Cordon Bleu-trained Dione Lucas, made her appearance in 1947 wearing a starched poplin blouse and dirndl skirt. Although Lucas had a formidable manner, she often leavened her legerdemain with wit. “It’s best to cook a strudel when you feel mean,” she advised her audience in 1955. “If you beat the dough 99 times, you will have a fair strudel. If you beat it 100 times, you will have a good strudel. But if you beat it 101 times, you will have a superb strudel.”
Of course, the ur-personality — the woman who changed both the face of American cooking and that of public television — was Julia Child. She burst onto PBS with the pilot episodes of “The French Chef” in 1962, and as the former Times food writer Molly O’Neill observed, “No one’s come up with anything new since.”
Nothing if not a zealous researcher, Kathleen Collins, the author of “Watching What We Eat,” has even tracked down the truth behind the slippery story of the chicken (or was it a turkey?) that landed on the kitchen floor. Rather anti–climactically, Child never scooped a large bird off the ground and plopped it back onto a platter; instead, it was a small piece of potato pancake, flipped with endearing maladroitness onto the stove top, that provoked her legendary remark, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”
Just over three decades after Child’s debut, the Food Network was born. Unable to fill 24 hours a day with classic “dump and stir” shows, the programmers quickly diversified, switching their focus from education to entertainment and “from people who like to cook to people who love to eat.” No single personality can be said to dominate what Collins calls the modern period of television culinary programming. Instead, the Food Network has become, in the words of one executive, a “surrogate” home in which the audience can imagine being cooked for by Paula, Bobby, Giada, Tyler and other stars in an ever-changing constellation.