TV Food: Overserved

Publish date:
Social count:

Listening to Paula Deen on Food Network
often transports me back home to my grandmother’s
kitchen. Her easy laugh is infectious, and
her sugary-sweet Southern drawl, peppered with
“y’alls” and “sugar,” reminds me of the master cook in
my family who’d won hundreds of blue ribbons in parish fairs.

But there’s where the similarities end. My grandmother never
made anything close to Paula Deen’s “Lady’s Brunch Burger,”
a concoction that would put the Dagwood sandwich to
shame. It’s a hamburger, topped with an over-easy
fried egg, three slices of bacon, sandwiched between
two glazed donuts. Season to taste. This is a woman
who’s given us “Paula’s Fried Butter Balls.”

In Grandma Minnie’s kitchen, you were more likely
to find food that grew in the rich black soil fed by
Bayou Rapides behind her kitchen window: tomatoes,
cucumbers, string beans, turnip greens, spinach,
okra and peppers. Now Ms. Deen, no doubt,
makes tasty, even healthy, dishes in her massive repertoire,
but “Deep-Fried Lasagna?” Seriously?

It’s not just Paula Deen, but chefs all over the dial
seem more interested in making meals with catchy
names or bizarre ingredients, or they seem to go
out of their way to create a dish that’s so decadently outlandish
you might go into cardiac arrest just looking at it.

Moreover, U.S. viewers can’t just watch someone make soup.
Every meal now has to be a competition, or a race against the
clock or, better yet, both elements are combined in popular
culinary game shows. (Think Iron Chef America, Top Chef,
Chopped, Throwdown With Bobby Flay
) We love a good contest,
no matter where it’s held.

Adam Richman, host of Travel Channel’s Man v. Food,
serves up the something truly special in a show almost designed
to encourage overeating and obesity. Each week he
takes on a local challenge (Suicide Hot Wings Challenge!)
to consume a certain tonnage of food, and viewers are
treated to watching him nearly gag on Flintstones-sized sandwiches or gargantuan cuts of bloody beef.

All this might be funny, if it weren’t for epidemic rates of obesity,
heart disease and diabetes. Today one in four people die
of heart disease in the U.S., making it the No. 1 killer. In 2010,
heart disease will cost the nation $316.4 billion, according to the
American Heart Association, a fi gure that includes the cost of
health care services, medications, and lost productivity. Likewise,
23.6 million children and adults in the United States—
nearly 8% of the population—have diabetes, according to the
American Diabetes Association.

Our Content story this week details
the explosion in popularity of food shows on cable
TV, and how we’ve gotten away from simpler shows
that actually teach folks how to cook at home in a
frantic, fast-paced world. Ratings are up, but true
cooking in viewers’ kitchens is down.

From my recliner, I’ve rarely seen any of the top
“talent,” as they effortlessly dice carrots into perfect
half-inch slices, make mistakes on-air, so viewers
are often discouraged from even attempting what
looks to be a flawless food creation. As the New York
Times writer, cook and author Mark Bittman, said in
a recent blog, “The home cook, especially the aspiring
home cook, needs encouragement — not befuddlement.”

Perhaps the best guru on the topic is quoted by Janice Littlejohn
in this week’s story: “One of the things I preach to people is it’s really
important to cook. It’s important to your health, it’s important
to the farmers and it’s important to your family life — cooking
meals together — and people tell me they don’t have time to cook,”
said Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food.

As Pollan pointed out, food companies are persuading Americans
to let them do the cooking. The “advances” can be found on
supermarket aisles in “edible, food-like substances — no longer
the products of nature, but of food science” and they are ever so
surely making us unhealthy, he argues. But, said Pollan, “if we
would just take some of that time we’re spending watching people
cook on TV and just do it, we’d be so much better off .”