I like the food channel.
by BILL BUFORD
The rise of food television.
Issue of 2006-10-02
The first sign that I’d been unknowingly affected by cooking shows occurred on a Sunday morning when I realized I was talking to myself. I’d bee making toast. “First, we cut our bread,” I whispered. “Do you know why?” I stopped what I was doing and looked up. “Let me tell you why.” It wa eight-thirty. It was also Hour 25 of a seventy-two-hour commitment I’d made to watch continuous food television (sleeping only when the show began repeating at midnight) I’d begun the venture on a lark, curious about what I’d discover. This, for instance, is what I had learned about the hazelnut: “They grow on hazel trees. . . . They’re super-duper rich.” That was from the Food Network’s “Everyday Italian,” with Giada De Laurentiis. (The following week, on a show hosted by Sandra Lee, I heard, “Do you know when the first cheesecake was ever documented as being eaten or served? It was in 776, or 776 B.C., by the Greeks at the Olympics. Isn’t that pretty cool? Say that at a dinner party and everyone’s going to think you’re brilliant and well read.”) I don’t want to sound harsh—this wasn’t the History Channel—but, on the evidence, there was a surprisingly strong affinity between preparing food and talking baby talk.
At around Hour 36, a more illuminating sign occurred. It was during a rerun of Bobby Flay’s “Throwdown.” Flay is a veteran food-television personality. “Throwdown” is his seventh show, and it involves Flay’s challenging old hands at their game: making Jamaican jerk chicken with a jerk-chicken diva, say, or taking on Cindy the Chili Queen, whose Cin Chili clearly rocks. Flay is then usually humiliated, and the old hand—Butch the pit master, say, with his secret spice rub—gets pumped beyond reason, the little-guy view of the world is vindicated, and everyone feels good. I set out to prepare some supper, and as I removed a loaf of bread from a paper bag I was struck by an unexpected sound: the dry, crisp noise of the bag being disturbed. I’d never noticed this before. It was loud and crinkly: so utterly brown paper. I shrugged (was it a lack of humidity?) and proceeded to dress a salad, in a bowl next to a candle. I cut up a lemon and squeezed a slice. The fruit, crushed in front of the flickering light, was magically transformed. I squeezed again: juice beaded up and fell in a stream of bright droplets. I squeezed one more time, enjoying what I now regarded as a citrusy translucence, a candle by lemon light. “Veeeeeery pretty!” I said to no one, feeling sixteen and having a late-night-munchies perception moment. I’d been brainwashed, in a fashion, my senses heightened by this long, uninterrupted session of food television. It wasn’t an unpleasant state (apart from the consequences for my salad, now inedible).
I had fallen victim to what is called, by its detractors, “food porn.” Its creators usually refer to it as “making beauties”—as in “Hey, Al, let’s do a beauty of those pecans.” Bob Tuschman, the Food Network’s head of programming, had described the concept when I visited him in his office, above the Chelsea Market, in Manhattan. The point is to get very close to what you are filming, so close that you can see an ingredient’s “pores” (“You should believe the dish is in your living room”), which then triggers some kind of Neanderthal reflex. “If you’re flicking from channel to channel and come upon food that has been shot in this way, you will be hardwired as a human being to stop, look, and bring it back to your cave.”
Earlier in the week, I’d watched that same Al—Al Liguori—film some of those beauty pecans at one of the Food Network’s studios. Al worked the jib—a high-powered camera at the end of a twelve-foot arm. The pecans, surrounded by five spotlights, were resting on a bent piece of Plexiglas, for a hundred-per-cent reflection (pecans both in a bowl and somehow below it, like mountains on a placid lake), while Al inched closer and closer (“getting tight”). He then manipulated a knob so that some nuts were in focus, while the ones behind, backlit, receded into an arty blur.
Al has shot a lot of food. (“More diced onions than anyone on the planet.”) He is thirty-six and has been behind a food camera for ten years. I’d watched him before, during a taping of “Emeril Live,” starring Emeril Lagasse, the portly Portuguese baker from Fall River, Massachusetts, who was probably more naturally an evangelist than a natural chef and, after years at the Commander’s Palace, in New Orleans, had been born again as a Creole kitchen crooner. Lagasse was the first to discover that cooking before a bleachers crowd, primed to respond raucously to theatrical additions of garlic or chili flakes or bacon (“Let’s take it up a notch!”), can make for inexplicably compelling television. “The trick,” Al had told me, “is to film during the lunch hour and get closeups of the audience—they’re crazy with hunger.”
After the pecans, Al shot a cup of milk being measured out. This required three takes and was followed by a “sound pass”—same event, but with a microphone close up to get the acoustic ripples. They would be amplified and edited back into the final version. Milk as waterfall.
“You should talk to Hugh,” Al said, pointing to a burly man with a handheld camera. “Hugh Walsh is the beauty specialist.”
Hugh was filming a carrot. The carrot, the pecans, and the acoustically amped milk were for “Party Line,” a new show hosted by Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, winners of last year’s search on “The Next Food Network Star.” (“Ten thousand tried! Only two succeeded!”) “We are a gay couple,” they’d announced on their audition video, “and you should really think about that, because the gays right now, they’re hot.” They are from Chicago—actors who started a catering business—with a low-wattage repartee (on dirty dishes: “We have people for that. We call him Dan”) and an anachronistic, almost blithely oblivious aesthetic: their meals seem like something someone’s parents once ate, a campy “Joy of Cooking,” or a display at a MOMA exhibit. The set was Grosse Pointe, 1960: brown sofa, brown chairs, a brown chest of drawers with round knobs, a throw rug, a linoleum floor; you could imagine a black-and-white television in the corner and the Kennedy-Nixon debate. Today, Dan and Steve were making a “veggie basket” (perfect with “a smoky ranch dip”). I knew nothing about veggie baskets, but there was instruction: a number (less than six veggies, too “skimpy”; more than twelve, too much), a technique (blanch your beans, then ice them, so the green pops), and a commitment to visual novelty (yellow carrots, purple peppers, rainbow greens). Putting the basket together took all afternoon, and there were many retakes.
During a break, I asked Hugh what he’d been doing with his camera. It had always been moving (if I hadn’t been studying it, I wouldn’t have noticed): a barely perceptible pan, a slow circle, a gentle back-and-forth.
MUCH more at: http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/061002fa_fact