There is little to be gained in watching the Food Network ironically. Sure, flaunting your faux-“obsession” with “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” might score some cheap laughs, but Guy Fieri is low-hanging comedic fruit, like Nickelback jokes and Harambe memes. What’s more, the Food Network and, by extension, the wide-ranging pantheon of food-related television certainly don’t deserve this. If the endurance of the crime procedural is any indication, then what we essentially crave in our TV is comfort — and no genre provides such sustained, agreeable varieties of it than food television.
My love for the Food Network began, as every young obsession does, with Alton Brown. As a fourth-grader, my personal after school special was “Good Eats,” displays of technical virtuosity and impromptu chemistry lessons all baked into one delicious half-hour of television each day. Mr. Brown turned out to be a gateway drug of sorts. Sandra Lee and “Semi-Homemade,” Giada de Laurentiis and “Everyday Italian,” Ina Garten and the goddamn “Barefoot Contessa” — I became captivated with these personas and their TV shows.
It’s tempting to view this admission — and this piece — as some sort of tongue-in-cheek hipster trash. But there is nothing insincere about the claims I aim to make. My current devotion to Ree Drummond, “The Pioneer Woman,” is almost post-ironic. This show is incredible, full stop. Drummond lives on a fully functioning ranch in flyover country Oklahoma. Her life is ostensibly somewhat idyllic, though a bit regressive socially: she spends her (filmed) days doting on and cooking for her family, which consists of the sons who help their father out on the ranch and the daughters who sometimes lend a hand in the kitchen and go to sleepovers. She is charming and “folksy,” amusingly honest and occasionally downright hilarious (“I have this game I play on Sundays after church, and it’s called ‘Beat the Baptists!’”). You couldn’t write a sitcom better than this. “The Pioneer Woman” is a window into a life I have never known, and will never know.
Because, for all that narrative television can do, cooking shows all share this one common thread. There is no need to toy with plot devices or plumb the depths of the human condition; there is food and the environment that surrounds it. The genre is, in this way, somewhat like the best of mumblecore: slice-of-life type programs that have no other aim than to allow the viewer a peek inside.
Consider the other end of the spectrum: Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa.” This long-running series is, truly, a marvel of cinematography, a 30-minute visual “humble brag.” Garten’s upscale Hamptons lifestyle is carefully lit, detailed and composed in natural Long Island light. Her home decor is the pinnacle of the modern, upper class aesthetic, complete with white countertops and glass bowls. She ends almost every episode with her trademark stinger, “Jeffrey’s gonna love this!” The show is devoted to chronicling the minutiae of the Contessa’s social calendar: her — I must say it — incredibly white cocktail parties in her backyard, cross-country trips to Napa Valley and more.
And this is to say nothing of the food she actually cooks. Simply the background noise is enough to stay invested in your average cooking show. Yes, scripted television, like “Atlanta” or “Queen Sugar” can also function as a transporting device of sorts, but food television has the more accessible mix of some veneer of reality and the universality of cooking. The “I could do this” mentality is inherent in instructional cooking shows, and this makes them all the more receptive to the casual viewer uninterested in the time investment of season-long commitments.
The pinnacle of food television, then, is CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” A former chef in his own right, Bourdain is the culinary world’s resident “bad boy” (however cringeworthy that phrase is), yet he’s still beloved by René Redzepi, Eric Ripert, David Chang and many other famed cooks. He has, for over a decade, been the avatar for America’s collective obsession with travel; across variously titled but similarly premised shows, he has ventured to innumerable places around the world to sample all the food and drink up all the culture. His production team is outfitted with a collection of what seems like the world’s most talented but unheralded cinematographers. He has a network of friends in the most remote of areas who seem to know the secrets to what makes exciting TV. But it’s his willingness to wholly submit to the demands of food and travel that is most captivating.
It’s intriguing to chart the televised history of the years-long maturation of the character of Anthony Bourdain. What once began as sardonic, sometimes grating commentary on the world outside the US has now developed into some of the most thoughtful programming on television. There is little narrative television that can compare to Bourdain’s visit to Jerusalem a few years back on “Parts Unknown,” an episode that remains possibly the most sophisticated and nuanced treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever presented on the medium. Or consider his extended visit to Iran, an exploration of a people that, by the end of the hour-and-a-half, are infinitely more humanized than standard American media depictions often make them out to be.
The open-minded, humble guest is Bourdain’s most successful character. He bonds with his gracious hosts over delicious-looking food and presents their wants and desires with a nonjudgmental lens. This dynamic, I’ve discovered, is the paragon of what food television can accomplish. The simplicity of capturing food on video is undergoing a minor renaissance: the proliferation of “Tasty” videos on Facebook, the popularity of movies like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and the food porn masquerading as documentaries like “Chef’s Table.” But it’s that intoxicating blend of TV personas, a meal on a plate and clear-eyed wonder that is the genre’s core appeal. It’s definitively what TV often purports to be: a brief respite from our own dinner tables, and an exhilarating taste of the flavors of others.