Dumb and Dumber

One of my first posts when I started up this journal was about how I hated the Food Network, about how I thought it was becoming insipid and fluffy and annoying.

Turns out I’m not alone. Bill Burford of the New Yorker has written a piece for the latest issue on the dumbing down of the Food Network.

What’s really sad is that genuinely talented chefs with information and skills and techniques to share, chefs such as Sara Moulton, Anthony Bourdain and David Rosengarten, are being pushed out by talentless hacks with a schtick. There should be no comparison whatsoever between Moulton ands someone like Rachael Ray, yet the viewing audience would rather watch Ray unwrap packages of cooked ham and pound skinless bonelss chicken breasts into tasteless goop. I don’t get it.

That’s not true, actually, I do. Because the world of cooking is a lot like the world of fashion.

Bear with me for an explanation.

Both are necessities – we have to eat and, in most cases, we have to wear clothes. Just as there are fashionistas who buy designer gear or spend hours or even days creating an outfit, the same goes for foodies. Some of us will hunt for the perfect purse, some of us will hunt for the perfect cheese.

And just as there are people out there for whom clothing holds little interest other than to cover their personal bits and keep them warm and dry, there are, believe it or not, people for whom food is simply fuel.

Those are the extremes, of course, but in between is a whole grey area – the mid-range folks. These are the folks who, when it comes to fashion, aspire to look good, but don’t want to put in a lot of effort or money. They’ll shop at department stores and pull together something easy to wear and easy to care for. Mid-rangers hate dry-cleaning, mending or anything that requires alterations, hand-washing or polishing. They tend to buy cheap knock-offs of current fashions and then ditch them when they go out of style. The food equivalent of a mid-ranger is the 30 minute meal ideal. These folks want the cachet attached with a “home-cooked” meal, they want to be able to say they made it themselves, but they’re not willing to put in the effort to cook food that truly looks and tastes good. Mediocre is acceptable, excellence is too much trouble, and the slop they see on many of the Food Network shows becomes their goal, under the theory that, hey, if it’s on the Food Network, it must be acceptable.

It’s the mid-rangers, many of whom are not actually dumb, but who simply believe that they don’t have enough time, who are provoking the dumbing down, not just of the Food Network, but of society as a whole. Those of you familiar with my regular journal know that I regularly rant about succumbing to the lowest common denominator with regards to social standards.

The Food Network isn’t really about cooking, or teaching home cooks skills and techniques – it’s about entertaining people long enough to keep their butts on the sofa to watch the advertising. Real chefs intimidate the mid-ranger, they make them feel inferior and stupid. Mid rangers are busy driving the kids to soccer, you see, they don’t have time to learn anything themselves, and often they can’t bring themselves to admit there is anything they don’t know. They’d rather watch idiots like Rachael Ray – who makes the same mistakes the untrained home cook makes – than learn how to do something properly and safely.

Unfortunately, there is no real solution to the problem. As long as people watch the fluffy insipid shows, the Food Network will continue to produce them. As long as people are intimidated by real chefs with genuine knowledge to share, there will be no place for those chefs on the Food Network. It’s a tragedy that there are folks out there watching Rachael Ray use a metal whisk on a non-stick pan or spreading salmonella across her set as she uses the same tongs to handle chicken and then toss a salad without washing the thing in between, who believe that someone like this is not only a good cook, but a good teacher, and that they in turn, by making her dishes, are themselves “good cooks”. One can only hope that they’ll somehow be inspired to move beyond the quick and easy slop into real, healthy meals and will seek out real chefs with real knowledge to guide them on their journey.

If the salmonella they picked up from Rachael Ray doesn’t kill them first, of course.