And “sadly, for some people there is as much pleasure in not eating food as in eating it,” Rousseau writes. “If the pleasure of eating is followed by the guilt of having eaten (perhaps too much), then consuming food vicariously may indeed be more pleasurable, or at least the ‘safer’ option.”
Maybe viewers are here for that vicarious pleasure because they aren’t cooking themselves. (People in the U.S. spent the least time cooking out of 34 countries in a 2011 study.) It’s certainly easier to watch the Barefoot Contessa make beef bourguignon than to do all that chopping and sautéing and simmering yourself.
But interestingly enough, as America goes, so has gone the Food Network. The network is now less cooking, more competition, as Quartz reported last year. In 2014, the five most-watched primetime shows on the channel were all competition shows: Food Network Star, Worst Cooks in America, Chopped Tournament, Cutthroat Kitchen, and Guy’s Grocery Games. And that’s been the Food Network’s goal for some time. “The more we can convince people that we’re not a cooking channel, the better,” Rousseau’s book quotes former Food Network president Judy Girard as saying in 2000.
And while, sure, these shows are cooking competitions, they aren’t very educational. Turn on an episode of Chopped (it won’t be hard, it’s always on), and you’ll hear contestants tossing around culinary jargon rapidfire as they struggle to cook with whatever ingredients they’re given. In a recent episode I watched, somebody made a “sabayon” which, as far as I can tell, is an egg yolk with sugar in it? There is a certain amount of learning through osmosis, but not really any step-by-step instruction.
The competition show formula is successful, though, on the Food Network and elsewhere, and it may be because research shows people are coming to cooking shows to be entertained, not educated. That’s what Martin Caraher, a professor of food and health policy at City University London found when he surveyed people in the U.K. for a study published in the Journal for the Study of Food and Society.
“The majority of respondents reported not actually trying recipes from TV cookery programs,” the study reads. “When asked about the role of cookery programs in providing health messages, the overwhelming opinion was that this was not why people viewed them.”
Even the instructional shows (which are still aired, even if they don’t tend to get the primo primetime slots) err on the side of entertainment. They need to be compelling, after all. So they portray “consumer fantasies,” according to a paper by Cheri Ketchum in the Journal of Communication Inquiry. She notes “attention to aesthetics,” and “the fantasy of closeness…achieved through hosts consistently using the term you.”
Caraher agrees. “I think what they’re doing is creating an elite culture around cooking,” he says. “They set out to make it ‘everyday’ and somewhere along the line, the plot is lost. It’s not really everyday for most people. I think that’s a major problem.”