An Expert's Theory of Food Television's Appeal

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At drinks with a friend the other night, the subject of "Top Chef" and other food television came up, and he remarked that his early twentysomething sons watch more than a few cooking programs, as do many of their friends. He'd overheard the discussions that attested to that. But none of these young men, he said, were home cooks. Nor did they seem to aspire to be. They just like the programs, and not solely the ones, like "Top Chef" and its imitators, that have elimination-competition suspense built into them. They like more straightforward cooking demonstrations, too.

That shouldn't really be surprising. The proliferation of food television suggests that its audience is not only huge but also varied; otherwise, there wouldn't be such a vigorous push to conceive and distribute so many food-related programs on the Food Network and on its relatively new spawn, the Cooking Channel, and on Fox (Gordon Ramsay screams some more!) and on Bravo and, well, I could keep going like this for several paragraphs. It now seems that at any hour on any day, you can choose among a half dozen shows that will let you admire (or gasp at) someone's culinary efforts and ogle the food he or she produces.

It's a banquet of colorful, seductive, and familiar images, presented rhythmically, with a soundtrack of oohs and aahs.

But how many of the people doing the admiring, gasping, and ogling like to cook, dream of cooking, or want to know more about the mechanics of cooking? Even if it's a majority, that still leaves a lot of non-cooks in the audience. What prompts THEM to tune into food television?

My friend has a theory I find interesting. He wonders if there's a sort of broad cultural nostalgia at work. By that he means: as fewer and fewer young people know the much-talked-about ideal of home-cooked meals and of families gathering at the table at night to eat them, do the glossy, dreamy culinary demonstrations on TV tap into, and satisfy, a kind of curiosity and longing? For these young people, does the televised cooking have the appeal of a missive from a lost utopia? Is it like an artifact from a bygone era?

The lifestyle porn of food television is more often discussed in terms of aspiration: would-be home cooks with limited budgets and time watch Martha and Ina and Giada go through their fluid, calm, dexterous paces and fantasize that they can or someday will do the same. But for younger viewers, is this same lifestyle porn more of a "Little House on the Prarie" or "Leave it to Beaver" experience?

As my friend was laying out this theory for me, I remembered a conversation a year ago with a recent college grad working for a glossy men's magazine. He wasn't a big home cook. He wasn't a big restaurantgoer. He didn't have the money to make those things happen, and beyond that, his culinary curiosity wasn't all that keen.

But he was a committed fan of "The Barefoot Contessa" on TV. Why? He just loved Ina's kitchen. He just loved the idea that he was in there, with her, watching her cook, presumably for him. It pleased him. Lulled him.

This leads me to one of my own theories about the popularity of food television among those who don't cook. When many people turn on the television set, as opposed to picking up a book or doing something more interactive, they're looking for a passive, mind-resting experience. They want something that doesn't require close attention, the way a twisty plot might. Something akin to visual music. Something ambient, in a way.

Much food television gives them that. It's a banquet of colorful, seductive, and familiar images, presented rhythmically, with a soundtrack of oohs and aahs.

I don't watch a lot of it, but when I do happen to turn to a cooking program and then get distracted. I sometimes lose any active awareness of it and don't even remember, for hours, that it or the cooking programs that follow it are on. I don't change the channel. I sit at the nearby computer while, just 12 feet away, chops are being grilled and vegetables sautéed and potatoes mashed. Is this footage not so much exhorting me to the stove or priming my appetite but, in some corner of my brain, simply putting me at peace?

This article also appears on bornround.com.

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Frank Bruni was the restaurant critic for The New York Times from June 2004 to September 2009. He is the author of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite. Learn more at bornround.com. More

Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. Before that, he was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief, a White House reporter, the lead correspondent covering George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. His latest book, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, is now out in paperback. To learn more about Born Round and ask questions about the book, click here.

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