The Evolution of TV Cooking

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Julia Child poses in her kitchen in Santa Barbara, California.

Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows
By Kathleen Collins
Continuum, 228 pages

The Gist:

Many TV genres have shorter shelf lives than organic produce: the curtain rang down on variety shows in the 1970s, while the Western rode into the sunset long ago. But cooking programs, which began on the radio and transitioned to television in the 1940's, have stood the test of time: as author Kathleen Collins explains, the genre's managed to stay current and appeal to audiences from generation to generation by holding up a mirror to our own domesticated lives. Collins explores the history of TV cooking from its beginnings as a way to promote rationing-friendly recipes during World War II to its current renaissance with reality-show hybrids like Top Chef. The genre, she writes, has enjoyed a "triumphant fate" — thanks to its ability to seamlessly keep up with evolving cultural and culinary tastes. (See why food auctions are booming.)

Highlight Reel:

On the timeless popularity of cooking shows:
"Cooking shows have taught us, changed us and changed with us. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, they have evolved to satisfy our yearning for quality, affordable, environmentally and health conscious, easy to prepare yet sophisticated food. And while many viewers may not have the time to execute the lessons nor the money to afford the high-end ingredients or appliances used by cooking show hosts, these shows prevail because everyone eats, knows something about food, and can relate to the endeavor."

On whether cooking shows will survive the recession: "As the American economy takes a beating, so our food television —a forum that is so closely tied with our consumer behavior — must continue to evolve... The genre has withstood decades of economic highs and lows and will continue to respond in kind, but it might do so in ways we cannot yet imagine."

One why Julia Child is still a legend: "She had, in the words of one fan, an 'unassuming, unruffled manner.' She was not prissy — she would stick her fingers in the sauce to taste, lick spoons, drop ingredients, and then toss them into the stew pot. As different as she was from her predecessors, so she was from her progeny. Today's cooking shows groom their hosts for celebrity-hood. For non-live shows, any dropped utensils or unsanitary peccadilloes can be edited out. Those imperfections, however, were a crucial element to Child's persona.

On the similarities between food TV and porn: Today's camera angles, lighting, colors and sounds are a world away from [90's TV chef] David Rosengarten's information-filled but unmoist monologues, delivered from a wobbly, faux- kitchen set. Though the recipes might often be the same then as now, presentation trumps content. Add that to the sexy hosts and kitchens, close-ups of food, fingers and lips, Emeril's 'oh yeah babe,' groans of pleasure from the hosts and the aroused audience, and its tough to argue against the analogy."

The Lowdown:

Collins, a college librarian with a lifelong love of cooking shows, gives a decade-by-decade breakdown of the evolution of TV cooking as a dead-accurate social barometer. From providing helpful hints for homemakers in the 1950's, catering to the lavish lifestyles and culinary excess of the 80's and satisfying the celeb-hungry, reality-crazed audience of the new millennium, Collins examines how far cooking programs have gone to adapt their content, style and character to both suit and define various moments in the 20th century. Her thorough research is spiced with anecdotes and personal testimonials from chefs, historians and foodies about the world of TV cooking and the eccentric personalities that populate it. Her love of the subject is obvious, but occasionally blinding: it's arguable that equally enduring genres like soap operas and crime dramas share a similar ability to tell us about ourselves, but Collins elevates cooking shows above all else. Watching What We Eat is a readable combination of sociology and wit sure to appeal to TV-food addicts, though kitchen novices might feel overwhelmed by the dense subject matter and obsessively detailed descriptions of lesser-known chefs and their programs. Still, it's a topic rich enough to reward deeper study — all the more reason to Tivo the next season of Top Chef.

Verdict: Read

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