Posted by Sheila Connolly
(Following Kate Flora's lovely post) Has anybody noticed that television food shows recently have been getting more and more erotic? No, not all of them, but a significant number. All those opening shots of glistening, colorful vegetables, slabs of succulent meat, handsome potatoes and stacks of intricate pasta. And then there are the chefs... How did this happen?
In the good old days, there was Julia Child. No one will ever call Julia Child a sex symbol, but she was a goddess to many people who came of age watching her cook, first in black and white, then in color. If anything, she was a mother figure, always unflappable. Your souffle falls? Don't worry, just stick some mint leaves on it and call it a pudding. You dropped your Thanksgiving turkey? If you don't tell your guests, who's going to know? Dust it off and serve it with a smile–it will still taste marvelous.
When I moved into my first apartment after college, the Boston paper ran an article about Julia Child's actual kitchen–a few miles and many light-years from my place, shared with two other women. I cut out the picture from the paper and taped it to my refrigerator, where I would see it as I struggled to produce edible food in a room that measured maybe five feet by ten feet and had no windows at all. It was a symbol of hope. And Julia Child opened my eyes to what was possible in cooking–and the fact that it could be easy. Hers was the first cookbook I ever bought (along with Fanny Farmer, for those nuts and bolts things like how long to roast a hunk of meat), and I still have that battered, stained, taped copy. And use it.
Then came cable, and the proliferation of all kinds of shows, and cooking shows kept pace, sort of. Julia might have initiated the cult of food personality, which has given us a whole new crop of television cooks, who have become celebrities in their own right. Emeril, of course (bam!). Ming Tsai, the tennis-playing Harvard hunk who turns out interesting fusion food not far from where I live (I walk by the restaurant and press my nose to the glass now and then). Rachael Ray, who claims to make food fun and simple (can you tell I don't watch her?).
But then...there are the ones for whom cooking and eating is a truly sensual experience, and we get to share it vicariously. Not long ago I went to a book signing and ran into a couple of people I knew, all of us women who have quite a few years of cooking under our belt (pun intended) and we got to talking, and the name Anthony Bourdain came up. We all looked at each other and smiled. Oh yes. And one of those colleagues in culinary voyeurism said, don't you think food is the new porn? I agreed. Never mind that Tony (as we who know him well call him) is an intelligent and articulate man (who has actually written a couple of mysteries, although where he finds the time I do not know); never mind that he has a rather checkered past, which has included ingesting a few controlled substances. He eats, and we are transported. "Oh, that's good." Okay, sure, he gets paid to say that, and he does say that about almost everything he eats (and he eats a lot, and a lot of us would kill to know how to replicate his metabolism, because he never puts on a pound–the rat), and occasionally he throws in a "sublime". But his immediate response is truly sensual, and it makes us want to race out and find ash-baked warthog brains or a kind of snail that lives only under the Great Wall of China. Because Tony Bourdain makes it look so darn good.
He's not alone. Gordon Ramsey is the wild-eyed, wild-haired proselytizer: simplicity! Fresh ingredients! Do what you do well! But when something does work, he rewards it with a rapturous response. Nigella Lawson provides eye candy for the male audience while whipping up believable and tasty dishes for her elegant friends, and enjoys tasting every step of the way (try her chocopots!). Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef) is the scruffy boy who makes eating fun again. And then there are the Iron Chef competitions (how many now?): battle food! Who can add the most shaved truffle and caviar to the mystery ingredient, which may turn out to be as simple as...milk? Who can make their food look the least like food and the most like abstract sculpture with foam on top? But don't they have fun doing it?
But my point is, food has changed. Sure, we still need to eat to survive, but preparing and consuming food can be so much more than that: a rich experience on the tongue, an occasion to gather with friends and share the event of creation; a vehicle for solace or celebration as the need arises. Julie Child may have started something, but we've come a long way, and I'm prepared to revel in it.
Can anyone out there tell I haven't had my dinner yet?