I spend a whopping one-to-two hours a week watching TV. Until recently, I saved that time for programs on Food Network. Then, they canceled Sara Moulton. And Mario Batali’s “Molto Mario” (other than spots on Iron Chef). Jamie Oliver, chef and school food activist — gone. They started adding irritating reality shows. Recruiting ever more Rachel Ray non-chef types. And kept taping things like Unwrapped’s Homage to the Processed Food Industry. As a final insult, I saw Paula Deen pimping her recipes on sponsor Smithfield Farms web site.
The coupe de grace, though, is the current “specials” being run entitled “Heavyweights” comparing top junk food manufacturers in segments titled “High Stakes Snack Cakes: Hostess and Drake's and Little Debbie's” and “Big Chocolate: Mars and Hershey's.” Other highlighted companies include Dominos, Pizza Hut, Pepsi, Coke and Lays potato chips. Unwrapped kicks in a “special” of their own, perpetuating the myth of kids’ preference for junk food with “Kiddie Cravings Unwrapped,” covering such food marketing tactics as a cereal icon museum, and manufacturing process for items like Kool Aid, Spagettios, tater tots, and cracker jacks, animal crackers and gummi bears.
Doesn’t the “food” actually have to be food in order to qualify it as “Food TV?”
Food TV missed the mark on everything with the local food movement. Cancelled any real cooking shows that teach about food and culture. Blatently disregards the childhood obesity epidemic. Anything edgy that relates to food is noticeably absent, or dumbed down to the point of mush. Mush is not good food. Not for the body, not for the mind.
When I looked at their programming guide, I realized that most of the shows that I like on the list have been canceled. They are just continuing to show the reruns. Of the others, hosts like Bobby Flay appear on no less than FIVE different shows, Rachel Ray is on FOUR. Which is a lot like a rerun in and of itself. All that’s left on the plate is Alton Brown (I still love you, Alton) The cool-under-pressure sexy discipline of Robert Irvine, and “Iron Chef.” Even this sacred show is next under the hatchet with the upcoming reality show twist, “The Next Iron Chef.”
Lately, I have been wondering if there isn’t something else on the culinary TV menu. If, perhaps, armed with Tivo and my two hours a week, I might be able to find something better. Turns out, I can. Even in some unlikely places. Like the Travel Channel, which hosts Tony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and some notable specials like “Jamie Oliver’s Italy.” Bravo’s “Top Chef” has more content about food, making “The Next Food Network Star” look more like a Miss USA Pageant in comparison.
The most promising food TV source, however, isn’t on cable. It’s the same network that pioneered cooking shows with Julia Child’s “The French Chef” in 1962. I am talking, of course, about PBS. The commercial-free network offers no less than 18 different shows on cooking and food, some of which are hosted by high-caliber chefs like Lidia Bastianich, Ming Tsai, Rick Bayless, Todd English, and Jacques Pepin. Good programming, if you are burnt on celebrity chefs and want to watch chefs who teach and mentor instead.
The shows feature intriguing cultural explorations like “Food for the Ancestors,” a culinary-history exploration of Days of the Dead, Mexican traditions and ancient ways of life that still exist there.
Maybe I’ve been listening to NPR too much. I am beginning to demand more from my media, especially as I have less and less time for it. At the same time, I have even more options. I don’t even have to turn on the TV. NPR hosts a series of podcasts on “Hidden Kitchens.” Gourmet magazines Ruth Reichl hosts a podcast series “Diary of a Foodie.” I can watch Michael Pollan host debates on the Farm Bill and take on Whole Food’s founder in a discussion on the future of sustainable food. Or, I can read millions of blogs about food written by fascinating people that will never be on TV.
Just like my personal food choices feed my body better, I am realizing there are much better options out there for feeding my mind as well. It’s time to tune into something healthy.