Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Junk Food TV

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.


Corey~living and loving said...

Great post! I too have gotten sick of the food network moving more to reality TV stuff, and totally ignoring the obesity issue. ARGH!

Rachel said...

Beth, I think people are really calling out for local food shows and there an even better format for it than PBS - YouTube. I think you should tape some segments - maybe 10 minutes - cooking something from your CSA and post them here or on your other blogs. See what the reaction is. Could be the beginnning of a whole new career; your passion for cooking and using local food sources comes through so clearly in this blog and in the others you post to; I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. I know I'd tune in.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Rachel, you are my favorite cheerleader, but you HAVE seen my photo ... not much market for us old broads on video ... maybe I could get a body double or something. :)

I do think the next food shows will come from online and podcasts simply because so many of us are doing this for the love of food and nothing else.

Adam R. Paul said...

I so agree! Even Top Chef is wearing thin on me, probably due to 90% of all TV shows following the exact same format. I still enjoy Iron Chef America, but was also irked that they're reality'ify'ing the search for the next one as a mini-series.

The near-complete lack of glamor of the KQED/PBS food shows is very refreshing, and Jacques Pepin is my hero.

I'd still rather be reading a good book in the kitchen with a pot or three on, though!

Rachel said...

OK, first of all, yes I have seen your photo. You've got a great, passionate face for TV.

And let me remind you that our goddess of cooking is JULIA CHILD. I love the woman, she was a fabulous writer, passionate, strict, but, um, looks-wise? The fact that Dan Ackroyd could impersonate her on SNL and look a dead ringer pretty much says it all!

How about this: we do our project and do a few YouTube segments as a companion - ie, demonstrating some of the techniques we write about. Just promo work. See where it goes.

Shaping Youth said...

Beth, we have NOT forgotten about your wit and wisdom over here at Shaping Youth, and would LOVE for you to spend some of the time you're saving by giving up "junk food TV" to spin a few yarns on the children's chatter front!

I still would love your chef's take on the 'better alternatives' to encourage restaurant kid cuisine to nudge beyond gawdawful 'chicken fingers'...And I still want to interview you on your expertise for 'better bets' down the way! (been awol/swamped, sorry)

On the food show front, check out 'Doof' (food backwards) a 'pbs-style show' seeking a home on the airwaves...I'm hoping to blog about it soon, & perhaps even team somehow in terms of getting hands-on wholesome msgs. out to kids en masse...Urban Sprouts in Berkeley is doing some great gardening/eco-organic student stuff you'd love too...

Let me know if you'd like to do a 'guest editorial' on one of your fave food topics...we can chat & brainstorm further. I've missed your insightful prose, as you always have SO much to say. (and so cleverly!) Keep up the great work. Back atcha soon, Amy