Yesterday, NYU held a panel discussion entitled “Food Show: When Performance Becomes Lunch and Why We Finally Have an Appetite for a New Sort of Cooking Show.” Though the title could have used a bit of editing, the panelists were a well-curated bunch: Harold McGee, food stylist Delores Custer, Sara Moulton, Florent Morellet, and NYU food-studies professor Fabio Parasecoli chatted for an hour about how food and its portrayals in the media have changed in the past decade or so. The point of the panel, as moderator Clark Wolf said, was to “talk about the show that is food,” rather than a “TV smackdown.”
Although the panel didn’t really work as a larger conversation, owing both to time constraints and the unwieldy scope of the subject, the panelists did offer some interesting observations based on their own work.
Custer, who’s worked as a food stylist for 33 years, recalled that when she began her career, food stylists were called “home ecs,” referring to the fact that they needed to have a home ec degree to work for a major food company. Given that requirement, stylists were overwhelmingly female, while all of the photographers were male. Food was predominately illustrated when Custer started out; since then, she said, it’s gone from “get me an illustrator to get me a photographer to get me Photoshop to get me an illustrator” — a surprising observation given the increasing number of would-be bloggers snapping away at restaurants and the money-shot spreads that sell magazines.
Moulton, who got her start assisting Julia Child on Julia Child & More Company and was one of the Food Network’s earliest stars (in addition to being the executive chef at Gourmet), also observed a back-to-basics trend in food TV. Likening the Food Network’s new spin-off, the Cooking Channel, to MTV and VH1, Moulton said that we can expect to see more so-called dump-and-stir shows. “We’re heading back to a nice period,” she said, adding that despite their more workhorse, less glamorous nature, PBS cooking shows have always done well.
Pretty much everyone declared their love for the original Japanese version of Iron Chef: Paresecoli noted that the show marked “the first time we saw men being warriors with food,” departing from the tradition of associating food preparation with “ladies of the church.” Using food to express a version of swashbuckling masculinity tied in with McGee’s thoughts about molecular gastronomy: The chefs who practice it, he observed, are similar to the herbs and spices whose strong odors have evolved to ward of predators. “They’re not trying to repel you, but they’re not trying to please you, either,” McGee said. Those chefs, he elaborated, aren’t appealing to human biology, which makes us crave familiar and comforting foods, but to culture. “A meal at El Bulli has nothing to do with the pleasures of food,” he stated.
Unsurprisingly, when asked about the where he thought the future of American cuisine lies, McGee cited comfort food, adding that among Americans, there’s a growing interest in food in general. Moulton, who’d earlier allowed that she found it “frightening” that a certain chef was shilling for Diet Coke, painted less of a rosy picture, citing the inaccessibility of fresh, non-processed food to many Americans. “People are struggling to feed their families,” she said. “Until we get past that, I don’t know if we can address anything else.’