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.