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«The Food Network has achieved tremendous popularity with the American public in the last decade. It has created the genre of the celebrity chef and ...»

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Cooking Your Way

to Completeness:

The Food Network Phenomenon and the Creation of a

New Domestic Paragon – The Ideal Hostess

Mahvish Shahid Khan

The Food Network has achieved tremendous popularity with the American public in the last

decade. It has created the genre of the celebrity chef and has changed the relationship between food

and domestic labor. The network breaks with the traditional idea of cooking as a womanly chore

associated with economy, and instead engenders a new ideal in which cooking becomes an act of pleasure and a mark of leisure. Using Jacques Lacan’s theory of the imago, this paper explores the Food Network’s play with gender norms and the Network’s role in creating a new domestic paragon.

This paper focuses particularly on the Food Network’s daytime programming and explores the ways in which the Food Network markets itself to women, and the means by which it creates and presents its version of the Lacanian Ideal-I: the ideal hostess who cooks with pleasure and entertains lavishly.

R The Food Network Phenomenon and the Ideal-I in the Kitchen anked as one of the five favorite networks among those 18 and older, the Food Network has become an influential cultural agent for the contemporary American woman.1 One study published in 2001 calculates that the network’s website receives 1500 emails and 8000 posts on its bulletin boards every day.2 Clearly, the Food Network brand has made its mark on popular American media—its stars are celebrities known by their first names; family-friendly programming and promised happy endings make it widely popular. As a commercial enterprise, the network needs to sustain its popularity by continually re-creating the desire that drives its audience to tune in. In order to achieve this aim, the network has created a new kind of idealized cook: the perfect, extravagant hostess who spares no expense and expends all labor necessary to set a beautiful spread. This is especially true for the network’s daytime programming, which is mostly geared toward a female audience that stays at home. The network presents cooking as an act of pleasure, one that is really not a chore at all, but an expression of creativity and an activity of leisure.

The workforce woman is a relatively recent phenomenon in American history. Traditionally, female-oriented media had focused on bringing advice and support to women whose first concern was Hibberd in Ketchum, p 220 Whitney qtd in Ketchum, p 220 their home, contributing to the creation of the ideal domestic paragon. This traditional paragon used to be thrifty, creative and perfectly at ease in the kitchen. But with recent developments and cultural shifts, a new paragon has emerged. In the contemporary age, staying at home has become a luxury. For these new stay-at-home wives and moms, the role of the woman-as-cook has changed. Once upon a time advertisers and media outlets would fall back on concepts of good mothering and the natural joy of cooking to appeal to women. But new outlets such as the Food Network choose instead to present cooking as an aesthetic practice fit for the leisured, social woman. Cooking is not presented as a wifely duty, but as a way of entertaining and gaining social popularity. This paradigm targets both traditional gender roles and class mobility as attractive aspirations for its audience.

Daytime programming on the Food Network markets the idea of the ideal hostess to its mainly female audience. This strategy tells its audience that cooking and hosting is not just a function of housework; rather, it is a social activity that has the ability to elevate a woman from the role of housewife to that of a socialite. In effect, the ideal hostess becomes a woman who uses the most basic performance of her traditional gender role (cooking) for a purpose beyond that of merely taking care of her family: The woman’s performance of cooking makes a socio-economic contribution to her family.

The ideal hostess then is a complete woman who takes the traditional feminine labor of cooking and transforms it into a pleasurable activity that can elevate her status from domestic laborer to leisured socialite. This ideal hostess becomes the Lacanian Ideal-I for the daytime female viewers of the Food Network.

Jacques Lacan’s work on psychoanalysis relies on the idea of the imago. According to his theory of the mirror stage, a child first recognizes himself when he sees his own reflection and becomes a subject of and in language. At that initial moment of the mirror stage, the child misunderstands his reflection to be his complete and perfect self. When the child realizes that the image is not the self, but a mere reflection, the child realizes his inability to ever completely express the self. And so, the initial reflection (misunderstood as the self) becomes the imago—the complete Ideal-I that the child aims to become for the rest of his life.3 Marketers and advertisers exploit this sense of incompleteness inherent in all of us. They appeal to their target audience by telling her that she is not complete until she possesses their commodity. Indeed, the entire world of consumer culture is built on the subject’s desire to and inability to ever be complete.

Accordingly, the Food Network constructs and sells the fantasy of the complete and happy hostess. It plays with contemporary fears of the loss of an “organic” society and persuades its viewers to go forth and entertain richly. It promises a tactile, aromatic world of homemade goodness, but all it can present is a visual spectacle. The Food Network does not actually produce a singular persona and label her the extravagant hostess or domestic goddess, but rather the cumulative effect of its daytime lineup gives to its consumer the image and imago of the perfect hostess who has the ability to acquire and use all the tools deemed necessary to become this ideal.

Guy Debord, writing about his concept of the spectacle, states that “[s]ince the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialized mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch;

the most


of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present-day society’s generalized abstraction.”4 As a television event, the Food Network relies on sight alone to tempt its viewers. All it needs to do is to make food look good. Sometimes the host can insert a comment about how great something smells and tastes, but the audience is left with nothing but sight. The network is a spectacle where Lacan, p 735 Debord, Thesis 18, p 17 65 gnovis journal ● Fall 2007 ● Volume 8, No. 1 cooks speak intimately into the camera, pretending they are conversing with the audience, somehow masking the mediation provided by the camera. Finally, the audience is allowed to see everything that is created, but the only real product the consumer gains is that sight of the food. The task of actually getting the food is ultimately the viewer’s responsibility.

Cooking Roles in Recent American History Traditionally, and in most societies, domestic work has been associated with womanhood.

American cookbooks from the beginning of the twentieth century until well into the 1960s often told their readers that cooking was the surest way to catch and keep a man.5 Cookbooks targeting a teenaged audience from the same era told young girls that it was natural for them to love cooking. These cookbooks revealed the gender norms that their young readers were supposed to adopt and perform for life. When cookbooks did include boys and men in their target audience, this decision was largely based on the question of “how in the world is a boy going to manage a camping trip or even a one-day picnic in the woods if he doesn’t know how to cook?”6 Whereas boys needed to learn about cooking to be better outdoorsmen, girls had to learn a large variety of lessons from these cookbooks in order to be prepared to uphold their womanly duty of caring by cooking. A strictly gendered task, cooking was a girl’s and a woman’s “natural” responsibility.

The last four decades have gone a long way to refashion gender norms and behaviors, but by and large the space of domesticity is still part of the feminine domain. According to a study conducted by Suzanne Bianchi, Melissa Milkie, Liana Sayer and John Robinson, male contribution to domestic work had gone up in the 1990s, but men were still only doing about one-third of all the domestic work in the United States.7 In another study that Arlie Hochschild cites in the 2003 edition of her book, The Second Shift, researchers found that in 1999 men were doing more housework than in 1969. However, the researchers also found that between 1994 and 1999, the amount of time that men spent doing housework had actually dropped from 8.2 hours per week to 7.1 hours. Additionally, in 1999 women put in an average of 12.9 hours more per week than men.8 So while men’s involvement in household labor varied, one thing held true: women did more work inside the house.

A large part of the traditional association of women with house and kitchen work has been developed by popular media, often to serve a greater, national need. This was particularly true during the Depression, the Second World War, and the post-war years. Sherrie Innes traces popular media during the Depression era and notes that the message sent out to women at that time was that they could serve their country by preparing tasty and nutritious meals for their family and doing so economically. During this time, many women had to find work. At the same time, the society was particularly hostile toward women—especially married women—in the workplace. Innes marks that during this time of economic crisis, working women were viewed as selfish because they had taken jobs away from men so that they could buy fripperies. Also, these women were stereotyped as bad housewives, who depended on canned and pre-prepared meals instead of cooking fresh food that was deemed healthier and more nutritious for their families.

In the cooking literature of the Depression era, a thrifty paragon emerged of the housewife who

stretched each dollar to the extreme and took excellent care of her family:

She was a domesticated image of womanhood. The thrifty housewife seemingly spent Neuhaus, p 95 Judson, qtd in Innes, p 130 Bainchi et al, p 1 Juster, Thomas et al qtd in Hochschild (2003) p xxviii

–  –  –

During the Second World War, advertisements targeted women as homemakers as well as workers. Women were still expected to cook healthy meals while living with rations. They were also supposed to go out and do work they had never before encountered, but this was not to interfere with their domestic duties. According to cooking literature of the time, if women were unable to keep up with their domestic duties first and foremost, the American way of life would be jeopardized.10 Despite various economic constraints, each of these turbulent times persisted in re-fashioning the woman as a natural cook, whose first duty was to the domestic hearth. An idealized paragon was held up as an example to all. She was described in cooking literature and admired for her willingness to do her patriotic duty. She was the imago that was created to serve a higher purpose: she was going to save America and she was going to enjoy doing it.

In each of the foregoing cases, the paragon of domestic goddess serves not simply the man or husband, but rather her life’s satisfaction comes from the fact that she serves the entire nation. Bringing up a healthy family with economical home-cooked meals equaled keeping the nation healthy. In sharp contrast, the imago of the current moment cooks only for pleasure and entertainment.

Innes argues that when it comes to kitchen culture and cooking, traditional gender norms still prevail, even though more men are stepping into the kitchen and taking up other domestic roles. The Food Network, for instance, features both male and female hosts for its programs. On the individual web pages of Food Network hosts, the difference in titles for the male and female hosts is notable. For daytime programming, the only men who are not referred to with the title of chef are Emeril Lagasse and Tyler Florence; of the women, however, only one is referred to as “chef,” and that is Sarah Moulton.11 Viewers of the network are expected to be familiar with Emeril Lagasse due to the popularity of his prime-time show, Emeril Live. They are expected to know that Lagasse has his own restaurant in New Orleans, and that he has actually studied French cuisine. For the other male hosts, somehow, the title of chef needs to be mentioned for promotional purposes, and also to justify their presence and the time they spend cooking. The female hosts, on the other hand, need no title; they can be accepted as experts because they are women who claim to have cooked all their lives. They don’t cook for profit, their shows seem to imply, but for the natural love of cooking and the pleasure of entertaining (their audience, their guests, and themselves) through the process.

With the Food Network, a new paragon of the kitchen goddess has been born. She loves to cook high quality meals and entertain. She does not need to be economical. In fact, she is encouraged to use the best and freshest ingredients, top-of-the-line cookware as well as decorative accents to make her spread look polished and dainty. This is the new imago marketed to the woman who stays at home.

Whereas the crises of the Depression and the Second World War called for sacrifice and economy, the crisis of this decade is fear of the loss of the traditional family and of social skills, due to fast-paced lives and the role of the Internet in mediating all relationships. To avert this crisis, the woman of today Innes, p 46 Innes, p 47-48 For TV schedule listing, look at Table 1 67 gnovis journal ● Fall 2007 ● Volume 8, No. 1 must use her food to hold on to traditions and, at the same time, to foster real human contact. The Food Network builds on a fantasy of bringing people together through food: cooking and making food is not a necessary, unglamorous duty but instead a pleasurable, creative activity. To the daytime viewer, the network markets the idea that she is not complete until her friends and family fall in love with her cooking and entertaining skills.

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