«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 ...»
From Chef to Celebrity to Ideal Host/ess When Julia Child first came onto the television stage, she revolutionized the industry. She came at a time when kitchen gadgets had only just become items for every mom, and Campbell’s and Betty Crocker had successfully turned American women onto boxed cake mixes and canned tomato soups.
General Mills’ television persona of Betty Crocker never actually cooked in her show—she dispensed advice and remained distanced and professional. Unlike her radio show, Betty Crocker’s television appearance flopped. And yet, somehow, she was able to sell her promised perfection in a boxed cake mix to the American cook. Julia Child, on the other hand, came onto her television show and got
elbow-deep into her food:
Julia Child offered no guarantees, and she never promised she could make cooking easy. Instead, she promised to make it understandable—and to make the woman in the kitchen strong. Homemakers watched and listened, hungrily. More than four decades later, her daughters number in the millions.12 And so, Julia Child brought forth a new genre in American cooking and American stardom.
With her, the television cooking show with the celebrity chef was born. Child’s program, The French Chef, which first aired in the 1960s, demystified French cooking for the American cook. She intended to prove that “cooking was not a chore but an art.”13 Julia Child, then, became the imago and the spectacle. She showed how cooking was not a form of domestic labor, nor was it a performance of duty, but rather, it was a creation of art.
Although there is little doubt that Child enjoyed cooking, one has to face the fact that her show began a commercial enterprise to launch her cookbook. Later, a San Francisco station sold her cooking knives as its first membership gifts the year her show was syndicated. Child’s show was also underwritten by Polaroid.14 Similarly, when the founding president of Cable News Network (CNN), Reese Schonfield, agreed to the promise of a network devoted to food, he was already thinking of meshing “programming and ads so that editorials would look like ads and ads would look like editorials.”15 And so the Food Network came to be. By fashioning a space where programming and advertising flow seamlessly together, the Food Network is able to continually play with the age-old marketing strategy of telling its audience that she is incomplete until she tries the network’s product.
At its inception, the network was a place that audiences looked to for reruns of Julia Child’s cooking shows. It has since created numerous celebrity chefs and sent its stars and their families all over the world looking for good eats everywhere16. Despite the fact that the great treats featured on Shapiro, p 39 qtd in Miller, p 81 Miller, p 81 Ketchum, p 219 For example, Alton Brown visits roadside diners all across America in his series, Feasting on Asphalt. And in a Food Network special, Paula goes to Europe, Paula Deen takes an emotional gastronomic tour of Europe with her husband, Michael Groover.
68 gnovis journal ● Fall 2007 ● Volume 8, No. 1 these shows are frequently local to a small town far away, any Food Network viewer can log onto the network’s website and find all the right links to get them delivered to her door. Schonfield’s goal seems to have materialized: the Food Network has its own array of cooking stars, and its programming also sells merchandise. Most shows that feature traveling chefs and product promotion air in the evening, and most of the network’s daytime programming is devoted to the preparation of food. Almost every one of the daytime programming stars has his or her own cookbook on the market. Additionally, many of these stars also have their own line of kitchen and cooking ware that devoted fans can buy.
This seamless flow of product promotion and programming markets itself solely on the basis of desire. The celebrity chef seen on the network is popular and successful because of her cooking, and, indeed, because she has a job she loves—cooking. If an audience member desires similar success and popularity, the message that she needs the host’s recipes as well as her tools is born out of a desire for the imago and supported by the very availability of these tools and recipes.
In December 2006, a typical weekday schedule looked like this17:
Almost all the programs shown at this time are geared toward actual cooking. On some shows the host appears alone on a kitchen set, cooking and instructing; on others (such as Molto Mario) the host appears in a kitchen set but with a two or three people on set, watching, learning and helping with small tasks. The fact that most of these daytime shows are geared toward the actual preparation of food does not mean that the network indulges in any transparent attempt to proffer any ideology about a woman’s place in the kitchen. The Food Network serves its own purpose: it is the spectacle. Its aim is to promote itself and to get advertising money and brand value. And yet, while doing this, it does send a message to its viewers: cooking can make you happier and more loved. Our product will make you whole.
Most of the daytime audience is comprised of women who stay at home. The imago that is being marketed to these women is not the same imago of the domestic paragon that existed during the Food Network schedule from foodnetwork.com. Available at http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/programdaily/0,1904,FOOD_9927__EST,00.html 69 gnovis journal ● Fall 2007 ● Volume 8, No. 1 Depression and Second World War years. The Food Network has no need to market thrift and economy (quite the opposite, in fact). And it cannot risk losing a following by taking any explicit stance on what
roles women need to perform in the home or workplace. Instead, the network creates its own paragon:
the indulgent and extravagant hostess.
The Food Network offers the fantasy of the socialite. Women who follow the advice of the network’s stars can make their spread look tasteful and taste dainty. The network’s programs showcase all kinds of recipes, from those that are easy to some that are complicated and take long hours to complete. The touted reward for all this housework is usually the pleasure in practicing the art of cooking. By representing cooking as both the means and the end, the Food Network is able to recreate the means of its own production. At the same time, it is able to promise its audience something new every day. Since the ideal hostess whips up a new recipe every time she entertains, the audience needs to keep coming back to learn more.
The Food Network uses the persona of the cooking host to stage its spectacle. The network’s biggest and longest-running star is Emeril Lagasse. His signature show, Emeril Live, happens on set, where Emeril cooks at the center of an adoring audience seated very much like the audience of a talk show. Emeril not only cooks, he performs, making words like “bam!” into virtual trademarks of his style. This particular program airs in the evenings for a more diverse audience. His daytime television show is very different.
Emeril’s daytime program, The Essence of Emeril, is a toned-down affair where he cooks on set, but without the attendant audience and energetic “bam”s. Here, Emeril focuses more on ingredients and techniques, actually teaching the television audience about the ingredients he uses. Whereas The Essence of Emeril targets a mostly female audience, his evening show, Emeril Live, is intended to appeal to both men and women. It is no coincidence that the show targeting women is one that guides its television audience through the process of cooking, teaching them about working properly with ingredients in the kitchen. Knowing all the right ingredients and techniques, it would seem, will help the audience to also entertain with their cooking, just as Emeril does in his evening show. In the evening show, which has a significant number of men in the audience, Emeril focuses only on the theatrics of cooking, where the chef’s job is not merely to teach, but to entertain with his food and cooking.
Another popular Food Network star who entertains with her cooking is Ina Garten. She hosts the show Barefoot Contessa, where every episode is a party. Every day, Garten has some wonderful friends arriving, and she has to prepare a lovely, homemade, yet luxurious meal for them. Garten uses exotic flavors and only the best ingredients from all over the world to create scrumptious meals and, in the end, her friends love her for it. Garten’s appeal lies in the casual luxury of her food and the general atmosphere of where she lives—the Hamptons.
The audience gets to see her guests enjoy themselves and exclaim over their treats. The message is that social popularity can begin with and be sustained by food. When old friends drop by with their new infant, all you need to know is how to prepare that chicken and whip up a wonderful, exotic cocktail. And out-of-town visitors will appreciate you for the hearty sandwiches that you wrapped so daintily. For Ina Garten, cooking is not even remotely a question of unpaid domestic labor.
Instead, it is an enjoyable way to become socially popular and be appreciated by all of the many people who drop by for lunch, tea, dinner or a weekend.
In contrast to Emeril’s love of fresh ingredients and Garten’s complicated, made-from-scratch dishes, the network offers another, easier way to entertain: this is Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee. In this program, Lee creates her treats by adding a small amount of labor and extra ingredients to store-bought mixes and other items. For instance, she will take a packaged mix for bread 70 gnovis journal ● Fall 2007 ● Volume 8, No. 1 and instead of milk she will add beer and then set it to bake.18 Voilà! A unique, semi-homemade treat is ready to be enjoyed. Although Lee’s recipes allegedly save on labor, she will spare no expense when it comes to ingredients and additives. Lee takes pleasure in making something homemade by adding fresh ingredients to store-bought items. She markets the idea that any woman can come off looking like the perfect hostess as long as she makes her food look like it requires a lot of labor. The desire here is to create a final product that can impress guests. Notably, it is never acceptable for a hostess to use a boxed cake mix as well as a can of icing, as this is indicative of a woman with little time for the kitchen. It is absolutely necessary that the home cook add something a little extra: a good cook may sometimes use store-bought items, but she should never set them in front of the guests without first adding a personal touch. Sandra Lee promises a minimum amount of work, but she makes it obvious that to be a good and ideal hostess, one has to put in more effort than simply following directions on the box.
Materialist Considerations of Television, the Network, and Market Products With all of its emphasis on food and cooking, the Food Network has created a new kind of voyeurism dedicated to looking at food and watching cooking. This is no small feat: food, traditionally about texture, flavor and taste, is reduced, due to the nature of the television medium, to a merely visual experience for the audience. The person viewing the shows does not get to experience the food beyond looking at it on the screen and hearing the hosts talk about its flavor, smell and texture. Food itself then is not the spectacle that mediates relationships and holds people together. It is actually the image of food that is able to do so. In Michel de Certeau’s words, the quality of food, then, is measured by “its ability to show or be shown…”19 The network sells the idea that its viewer is not complete unless she buys into the spectacle and tries the recipes. In fact, she sometimes needs to also buy special equipment to make sure her dishes always turn out looking great.
Kitchen technology has had a curiously ambivalent role with respect to women and domesticity.
It promises to free women from drudgery, while also promising to make domesticity and cooking far more fun and reliable. In effect, all it really promises to do is make the kitchen appear more appealing and by doing so, it actually keeps the women in the cooking role. The Food Network takes this newfound appeal of cooking to another level—it builds on the star power of its hosts and sells products on the strength of their corresponding brand names. These products are not only supposed to make the fan’s experience of cooking easier and more fun; they also serve to bestow some of the star’s power and persona onto the consumer herself.
The only way the viewer can actually taste Batali’s recipe is by making it herself. At the Food Network’s online store she can shop according to brand, show or host. As a result, the true Food Network fan can purchase kitchen tools and equipment sponsored by her favorite hosts using in addition to accessing their signature recipes. She can make Mario Batali’s special Italian dish using a cheese grater from his own line of kitchenware. The viewer and fan does all the labor while the credit goes to the name of Batali.
In this way, the food that was once just an image on the television screen can come alive for a fan. But she needs to put in the work. And that’s a good thing, the network says, because real happiness comes through the process of cooking; the chef or host can only show her how. Making the dish is the viewer’s responsibility. Therein lies the genius of the Food Network: it transforms the labor-intensive process of cooking into a fun way to interact with its programming. Since the network’s daytime programs are all largely instructional, the viewer is told that she needs to keep coming back to the Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, episode Beer Bash de Certeau, p xxi 71 gnovis journal ● Fall 2007 ● Volume 8, No. 1 network for more tips because she can’t keep doing it on her own. As the network sells the dream of becoming a popular and appreciated, lavish hostess, it keeps reminding its viewer that the only way that she can keep up with latest food trends and continue to become the best hostess is by perpetually coming back to the network.