A Viewable Feast

Darryl Campbell wonders if he ever learns anything from cooking shows, or if they just leave him with disturbing mental images.

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If there’s a food show on TV, I’ve probably watched it. From the classic such as The Galloping Gourmet and In Julia’s Kitchen to modern-day shows like Cupcake Wars and (ugh) Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee, food-related programming has provided me with some combination of entertainment, background noise, and nothing-else-is-on fallback viewing for years.

Given the thousands of hours of food and cooking shows I’ve watched, you’d think that quite a bit would have rubbed off on me. Now, I’m no slouch in the kitchen. But some things—for instance, making a pie crust or tempering chocolate—don’t stick and maybe never will, no matter how many times I watch someone demonstrate them on TV. What’s going on here?

To quote Erica Gruen, the former exec of Food Network: “people don’t watch television to learn things.” Is she right? Well, I’ve seen plenty of Julia and Jacques and Giada, but I didn’t learn much from them (or at least, their shows). For me, techniques, tips, and dishes leap off of the screen and into my brain only when there is an accompanying spectacle. When I cut up a whole chicken, I don’t see the practiced, manicured hands of Martha Stewart but the flying cleaver of Iron Chef Chen Kenichi doing it. I know the flavor of ancho chiles off the top of my head because of Bobby Flay’s constant reminders that they taste “like a spicy raisin.” And I have the confidence to flambé something because I’ve seen it done dozens of times from a variety of camera angles.

In other words, my ability to recall the actual skills-and-recipes part of food TV pales in comparison to my ability to recall all the food-related showboating, excesses, and grotesqueries that regularly appear on my television. No wonder I glaze over, or change the channel, when we get to the judging portions of Top Chef or Chopped — although I stay tuned for Jeffrey Steingarten’s corpulent crankiness on Iron Chef America, the exception that proves the rule.

My personal highlight reel begins with the kinds of things that test your constitution: the perpetually smarmy Andrew Zimmern choking his way through some of the grossest-sounding stuff in southeastern Asia: fermented rice and fish, rats, and durian (a fruit that, as I later discovered, does not taste all that bad); Sandra Lee’s talent for making gross meat products ; the fact that every McRib commercial features people smearing sauce all over their faces and/or chewing with their mouths open.

From grossness to plain gluttony: the episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain and David Chang eat their way through most of Momofuku Ssam Bar’s menu, and then get inspired to reminisce about their guilty pleasures (Bourdain’s is the “nuclear orange” mac and cheese from KFC; Chang’s is chicken nuggets with sweet and sour dipping sauce); The midpoint of every final challenge of every Man vs. Food, when a sweating, overstuffed Adam Richman has to psych himself up to eat the rest of his multiple-pound entrée du jour. If the mind doesn’t boggle, at least the stomach churns.

But the most enduring memory of televised food I may ever have came on Super Bowl Sunday, 2007. I was stuck in a hotel room in northern Indiana in the middle of a blizzard — temperatures had dipped to 30 below with wind chill, such that it was physically dangerous to go outside for more than 15 minutes. It was hours before the Super Bowl would begin (and the Bears would lose in an unspectacular fashion). So all I could do was watch TV.

Tired of the endless pre-game shows, I flipped over to ESPN2, which was showing basically the anti-Super Bowl: the Competitive Eating Championships. Four or five guys had to eat their way through consecutive dish-based rounds, each served on a gigantic platter: spaghetti bolognese, cheese fries, chicken wings, and the final “combo” round (featuring several different kinds of fried appetizers all at once). The contestants had to devour as much food (by weight) as they could without choking or suffering what was euphemistically called a “reversal of fortune” — i.e. throwing up. Fascinated, I watched all the way through the third round. But there are only so many times you can watch someone else throwing up — especially in a close-up shot against a black background — before you start to feel queasy yourself.

No, it hasn’t been all bad. One episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives inspired me to check out a ‘50s-style diner that was right on my very doorstep, but that I would never have noticed otherwise. And I learned about the Breton pastry called the kouign amann by way of Pat and Gina Neely’s raves about it on The Best Thing I Ever Ate .

In most cases, though, my ability to remember a piece of food-related programming seems to depend on its ability to engage my gag reflex rather than my cerebral cortex. I can’t contend with five-pound hamburgers, twenty-course meals, and cooking shows where exotic ingredients and bursts of technical showmanship are the norm rather than the exception; I’m cheap, lazy, and easily awed.

And I have to say that it’s pretty sobering, realizing that you are constantly proving a television executive right.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.