Friday, October 06, 2006

buford on the food network

From the Oct 2 Issue, Bill Buford on "TV Dinners, The Rise of Food Television" As you probably know, I don't have cable, so my knowledge of this phenomenon is fleeting, or second hand. And, duh, I think the food sounds nasty. So maybe I'm not Ray's best defense. But . . .

On Rachel Ray: "a likable sales-rep personality, with a me-and-my-mom vocabulary." (45) I'm not sure what this means, exactly. But does it have something to do with that trend diagnosed by (among many, many others) Teen Vogue, the mom as best friend thing? Only more down home?

I don't actually think it's that new. When you're out and about in Pittsburgh you often run into mother-daughter pairs gabbing their hearts out in intimate ways made possible, I think, only by close geographical and emotional proximity. And somehow the moms then know all about the daughter's jobs and family life and all. I think this might be what Buford is talking about . . . and it's key.

Only I'd say it's more than a vocabulary . . . and let's just say that for geographical, economic, personal and political reaons most of the people I'm closest to (who may or may not have passed on Rachel Ray's trash bowl tip to me) don't have this with their moms. . . at least not regularly, or dependably.

On the Audience: The network was now in seventy-five million households and its audience was among the most affluent people watching television in America. 'And nearly half of our viewers are men,' Girard said. This was a different audience from the one conceived by Schoenfeld, and rather elusive to picture. I found myself imagining stock traders and dot-com millionaires at home all day, kneading dough, trying out new recipes, wondering what to do with the saffron. (45)

I think this last is a bit dismissive and wilfully obtuse. For one, Girard (the Food TV pres, I think) claims that her audience is the most affluent TV watchers, not the most affluent Americans. And what's so funny about well-to-do men learning to cook, Bill Buford? He of all people.

Why is so hard for Buford to imagine that there might be men, and women, who, perhaps lack some kind of easy old-fashioned me-and-my-mom relationship, but want a little guidence (maybe even guidence they don't entirely buy and enjoy feeling superior to?) in the kitchen? I don't want to argue that the Food Network is a surrogate mother, but I think it probably fills a niche that other kinds of learning (home ec?) used to fill, and it offers this learning to a wider, less strictly gendered audience . . .

To her credit, the inclusion of the story about Julia's early on-air omelette suggests that she understood food TV this way too and (to his credit) that Buford understands that she understood food TV this way.

Maybe Buford commentary on the Food Network would have been more interesting in a less formal form, like, as mzn suggested, blogging. But you know what he could do given the resources, etc of the New Yorker? Write a short history on the following:

Ours is a different audience from the one that watched Julia Child. In 1962, “microwave oven” and “fast food” hadn’t entered the national lexicon. And restaurants were more expensive. Tim Zagat, the publisher of Zagat Guides, points out that for more than two decades the cost of going to restaurants or getting takeout has risen less than the annual rate of inflation—that it’s much less expensive today than at any other moment in our history to pay other people to prepare our dinner. Never in our history as a species have we been so ignorant about our food. And it is revealing about our culture that, in the face of such widespread ignorance about a human being’s most essential function—the ability to feed itself—there is now a network broadcasting into ninety million American homes, entertaining people with shows about making coleslaw. (47)

The very interesting thoughts that close the article.

But I love the description of Julia: Child, too, was unlike anything else on television: six-feet-two, virtually hunchbacked, seeming too ungainly for a small screen, with a long, manly face, but one that was also remarkable for its intelligent expressiveness. (44)

And if you're wondering why there are horseradish photos on my flickr, well, I was provoked by the smartypants at Epifurious. They plan to post on Buford's Food TV experience too and I'll link when they do.

The images here are of brilliant, beautiful Michel Simon in Boudu Saved From Drowing/Boudu Sauve des Eaux (Jean Renoir, 1932).

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Blogger mzn said...

I like the image of the Food Net as a mother, in particular as a mother to professional men who never learned to cook as kids because that's not what boys do.

8:00 PM  
Blogger zp said...

Yeah, my thoughts on this were guided by yet another flawlessly scientific survey of my personal acquaintence.

8:46 PM  
Blogger juniper pearl said...

my father watches the food network simply because he likes food; he isn't interested in trying to learn how to prepare anything, but he does love to imagine himself eating the things that are being prepared. for him, i think, and maybe for a lot of other men in our excessively well-fed nation, watching someone else eat a delicious, non-health-conscious meal is a little bit like watching porn. and then there's the barefoot contessa, whom my uncle watches because she looks like she could be in porn.

at its outset, the network really was focused on making gourmet cooking accessible to the average viewer. but lately everything is about what you can prepare in under 30 minutes and how to make the best use of canned ingredients, and those are very useful tips for a lot of people . . . but the authentic, from-scratch recipes were useful to some of us, as well, and they've virtually disappeared. my mother and i complain about this often, and it inevitably leads to a discussion of our shared loathing of rachel ray. i don't know how that plays into any of your theories, but there it is.

3:14 PM  
Blogger zp said...

hi jp, long time no see. i've got an upcoming grammar question for you, from lahr's mirren profile.

on your second point (the handcrafted to ready-made transition), this makes sense given the history of the channel that buford charts and the very deliberate change in strategy. the question remains, though, WHY

on your first point, people who watch but don't cook, i think your vicarious eating theory rocks. i also think that for a lot of people who've never participated in kitchen work watching people cook de-mystifies the process. like reading labels.

and i am glad we now have a "me-and-my-mom" hate rachel ray story. maybe its just another participatory structure (like giving advice to characters in suspense dramas, or yelling at football players), "no TV cook, do not do that. no. not lemon and vinegar. no. stop. that's nasty."

11:57 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

I believe juniper pearl (or her uncle?) means Giada rather than the BC.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Julie said...

When I read the line about Rachel Ray's "me-and-my-mom" vocabulary, I thought it referred to the grammatical error of "me and my mom" as being emblematic of a casual, non-technical way of speaking. I thought he was saying she's not a sophisticate, she's a regular, girl-next-door kind of person.

But from my occasional watching of Rachel Ray, she does seem close to her family and mentions her mother (as well as other family members) frequently, so maybe that is what Buford is referring to.

6:00 PM  
Blogger zp said...

I like thinking it's both. Though either way it's not so much a vocabulary as a diction. Or possibly a grammar.

9:48 AM  
Blogger juniper pearl said...

i expect you're right, mzn. although it's hard to tell with him, he's dated some nontraditionally beautiful women, as well as some flat-out horrid women. maybe he, too, is in it for the food. i've never seen either of those women and don't know what they prepare, so i can't really say.

zp: i've been skulking around. i would understand if the network had chosen to add more shows catering (haw, haw) to the quick-and-easy demographic, but there was no good reason to dumb down the entire network schedule. at least we still have alton brown; he may talk to us like we're fourth-grade science-fair hopefuls, but that means he has faith in our ability to learn. and i hate the american iron chef. that's just rubbish.

oh, and bring on the grammar, i'm up for anything.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, I watch the Food Network for ideas and recipes, too. And I think you're right on, juniper, about the vicarious eating motive. But here's a poser:

My little brother does not cook. He has the most awful American fast food tastes and he just will not eat anything even remotely adventurous (we used to joke that if it wasn't white or brown, don't bother). But he will watch that Great Chefs program on the Discovery Channel for hours at a time!

He's not imagining himself eating the things that are being prepared. He's not looking for ideas. So why is he watching?

And about Giada: they need to start lighting that set better. Numerous people have described the "strange" appearance of her program, and I'm pretty sure it's because they're using a slow shutter speed and shooting with natural light. It's not working for me.

10:32 AM  

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