March 14, 2011

Gorging on Food TV

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With a lot of free time on my hands this semester, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to indulge in a side of television that I had hitherto avoided. Without any shows left on my DVR to finish watching, I decided to enter the world of daytime television. From previous experience, to me this programming consisted of ER and Law & Order repeats on TNT (“we know drama”). But in the confines of my Collegetown apartment, I’ve ventured past these repeats, and immersed myself into food television. That’s right: Paula Deen and the wacky chefs on The Food Network became the Tina Fey and Steve Carell of my daytime programming.

Watching Paula Deen prepare meals is almost as entertaining as catching an episode of 30 Rock or The Office. Her Southern charm and excessive use of butter perfectly satisfies my television appetite. In an episode of her Food Network show devoted to brunch foods that aired last week, she instructed that pancakes “be like mama: fluffy!”

Ina Garten, on Barefoot Contessa, is a bit more restrained. She’s the sophisticated, more refined chef who shows her audiences how to prepare for dinner parties from her home in the Hamptons. The East Coast vibe starkly contrasts with Deen’s southern hospitality. There’s really a program out there for everyone.

Bobby Flay, on his show Throwdown!, visits the masters of different cuisines across the country, challenging their products. Being exposed to the best recipes for French toast blew my mind. Brie-stuffed French toast at the Carriage House has never been the same since.

What I find the most fascinating are the reality competition programs: Top Chef, Iron Chef, Chopped and Cupcake Wars. These programs have completely revolutionized the reality television genre, saving it for the better. Networks like Bravo, TLC and The Food Network are smartly making competitions out of these cooking shows. Television programming that revolves around food is a brilliant concept, for it takes the stigma out of the reality program genre by infusing it with a healthy dose of education.

As a novice in the kitchen myself, taking a cooking class last semester inspired me to learn the trade. I’m constantly amazed by the level of creativity on display in these programs that motivates me to follow along. Ingeniously, these shows have helped make the act of creating a healthy dish into a competitive sport.

The shows that feature competitions, like Chopped and Top Chef, also feature outrageously entertaining antics. In one recent episode of Chopped, the chefs had to creatively introduce Fruit Loops cereal into their venison dishes. One chef used a knife to cut the top of the box open. The producers of the show are guilty of generating suspense, since I’m not convinced that the footage being shown always syncs up with the time left on the clock, as the chefs rush to prepare their meals on time. With five seconds left, the meat is still cooking, but then when time is called, all the plates are magically arranged. These fake-outs create an artificial sense of urgency.

Just like any reality series, the contestants give the audiences a reason to watch. Just as Omarosa’s antics on The Apprentice, or the behavior of any of the wives on Real Housewifes, can lure viewers in, so too can the ultra-competitiveness behind these chefs’ desire to win. Last week on Chopped, chef Michael Proietti said, “I want to win so bad I will kill a litter of puppies to win.”

The key to these shows’ successes is that they are centered on a universally loved concept. Viewers interact with the food intellectually — it’s part of an experience that draws on the appreciation of the aesthetic appeal and the science behind creating the finished product. Considering that there is no opportunity to taste the food, there are no consequences. Finally, reality television shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure … unless you are following along with Paula Deen. That’s enough butter y’all!

Original Author: Scott Eidler