We don’t have a TV at our house. It’s a strange circumstance, considering the amount of television programs I watched growing up. However, thanks to the wonders of broadband Internet, today our television habits are “on-demand,” when we want it. We have a soft spot for travel documentaries, especially when combined with food, as the Travel Channel does with Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. A globe-trotting foodie cowboy and talented writer, Bourdain hogs the headlines every now and then — not for his latest gourmet adventures in some far-flung location, but for piping up, usually critically, about another food celebrity. His latest faux pas, according to The New York Times, was to label Paula Deen as a “menace” to America by virtue of her deep-fried, calorific-laden food universe. Perhaps because of his global palate and escargot-laden resume, it’s easy to label Bourdain as a food snob, as Deen did, triggering another war of opinions about America’s food habits.
The American food celebrity is a relatively young phenomenon, its rise largely attributable to the explosion of cable entertainment in homes across the country. Browse the Food Network or the Cooking Channel’s schedule and you’d find an array of programs as diverse in personality and interest as their audiences. In the fresh-faced, easy cooking entourage, Rachael Ray and Giada de Laurentis bring fragrant herbs home, while Sandra Lee, the queen of “semi-homemade,” offers canned shortcuts. Butted up against the gastrologically geeky Alton Brown is greasy-diner guru, Guy Fieri, while Jamie Oliver takes on not just your family’s meal, but an entire nation’s.
Despite the immense popularity of foodie entertainment, the interest in cooking seems to fizzle out somewhere between the television set and the kitchen stove. According to a recent Harris Poll, only three out of ten Americans profess a love for cooking, and just two out of five prepare home-cooked meals five or more times a week. It would seem that, for most Americans, twenty-first century cooking has evolved into a spectator sport, far from its humble beginnings as an educational tool on public television in the ‘60s.
To capitalize on America’s penchant for food-related entertainment, perhaps an opportunity for real change would have to come in the form of a food personality that represents what America genuinely aspires to: good, tasty food that’s not too expensive and easy to prepare, in a way that doesn’t destroy our health and the environment. In my mind, this celebrity would be a Super-Nanny-meets-Alice-Waters figure who helps working parents overcome the challenges of implementing a nutritious diet for their families. From loss of employment to picky eaters and sugar-driven misbehaviors, the Super Nanny of Food would be on-hand to navigate challenges from the grocery aisle to the dinner table: how to feed a family of four on food stamps; how to have a fresh, nutritious dinner on the table every day; how to change your children’s snacking habits.
Instead of arguing between the pork belly and the doughnut, it might be time to introduce the chef back to the people. What does today’s celebrity food culture say about Americans? Are food celebrities indicative of how people actually choose to eat?