Michael Pollan’s New York Times article “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch” hung heavily over the “Food on the Tube: How TV Shapes the Way We Think About Food” talk Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y. In attendance: Padma Lakshmi, Food 52’s Amanda Hesser, celebrity chef Charlie Trotter and author Kathleen Collins. More on Pollan later; let’s start with Trotter.
The chef kicked things off by quipping, “I’m always asked, ‘What role did food play early in my life?’ Well, no role.” He didn’t have an interest in food until college, when his gourmand roommate inspired him with his made-from-scratch cooking. Trotter studied his only cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure, which started the chain of events that led him to where he is today.
The lesson was clear: Not everybody has an Italian grandmother to patiently teach them recipes from the Old Country or adventurous parents who drag them unwillingly to dim sum. Food television is an entryway to a world that is foreign to many Americans raised on TV dinners and fast food.
In fact, all the speakers were vehemently pro-food television, although Padma did happen to drop the vague “there is a lot of bad food television out there” line, which was fun because the audience got to imagine the snarling visage of Paula Deen floating overhead. Padma pointed to the fact that now most people know what an amuse-bouche is because of Top Chef, which is true! But will said people actually get off their asses to prepare an amuse-bouche? That was the question of the night.
If you don’t recall, Pollan wrote an article last year that basically said that watching the current crop of food television shows has turned us into shallow gourmet dilettantes who watch pretty people cook on the TV but don’t ever cook, which is why we are all big ol’ fatties who will die by the age of 35. Back in his day, people like Julia Child actually taught us to cook; now a fat bald guy sticks grubs in his mouth and we chortle happily as we stuff KFC Double Downs down our throats.
“Nobody expects people who watch football to go out and exercise more,” said Hesser of the expectation that food television should lead to an increase in cooking. She was firmly in the food-TV-is-just-entertainment-so-why-get-all-huffy-about-it camp.
Yes, said the wise and beautiful Padma, but food is something we have to engage with all the time, while playing football is not, so we should take how we talk about food more seriously. Food television should be both entertaining and educational. (Side note: At one point Padma told a story about how she attended a bar mitzvah on the Upper East Side where tweens told her they re-enact Top Chef‘s Quickfire challenges with five ingredients and the help of their stopwatch-armed mother. Adorable or kind of weird? You be the judge.)
“Even if you are watching for entertainment, you are still absorbing something,” said Trotter. Everyone agreed that overall, we are more knowledgeable about food than we were before because of food television. Padma then expressed a yearning to host a more PBS-like show in which she would explore the cultural and historical significance of different ingredients from around the world, which actually sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, when she pitched it, the suits shot it down, presumably because it didn’t take place in the Kitchen Stadium.
Hesser made the good point that it’s unreasonable to expect people to cook every single day, let alone organic meals from scratch, when both parents are working long hours and there are kids to pick up from their many scheduled activities. If people cook dinner twice a week, but cook well with great ingredients, and then eat out at or order in from good restaurants the rest of the time, is it really the end of the world? As long as we know what good food is and aren’t subsisting on a diet of Hot Pockets and T.G.I. Friday’s chicken fingers, aren’t we going to be OK?
Yes, everyone nodded, and the matter was settled forever, or at least until Michael Pollan writes another article.