In Defense of the Food Network

bobby-flay-iron-chef-americaMichael Pollan, acclaimed author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food (which I reviewed), offers a thought-provoking critique of TV food culture in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. There are many different components to Pollan’s argument (I wouldn’t be surprised if a book on the subject is forthcoming) but the gist of it is that the Food Network and TV food programs generally encourage a culture of eating and spectating, as opposed to actually cooking at home, and that this cultural shift is—on the whole—harmful. I will argue that TV food programs are not only valuable as a form of diversionary entertainment but also that they have the potential to be inspirational.

Let me first present Pollan’s own words:

“We learn things watching these cooking competitions, but they’re not things about how to cook. There are no recipes to follow; the contests fly by too much too fast for viewers to take in any practical tips; and the kind of cooking practices in prime time is far more spectacular than anything you would ever try at home. No, for anyone hoping to pick up a few dinnertime tips, the implicit message of today’s prime-time cooking shows is, Don’t try this at home. If you really want to eat this way, go to a restaurant. Or as a chef friend put it when I asked him if he thought I could learn anything about cooking by watching the Food Network, ‘How much could you learn about playing basketball by watching the NBA?’”


Pollan does have a point. There’s little doubt that more home cooking (meaning actual home cooking, not placing a can of soup in the microwave) is a desirable end in itself. Among other benefits, it’s generally cheaper than eating out and healthier if done right (meaning, minimizing processed ingredients), as Pollan argues in In Defense of Food. Moreover, for some, cooking is a creative process, an art. Taking elements of nature and transforming them into a delectable meal is unlike any other form of art. It involves not just beauty but science: Understanding how ingredients interact with each other (and with heat) can be a valuable asset for cooking a good meal. Of course, one need not understand the scientific complexities of cooking, as much of the knowledge gained is experiential. Nonetheless, the point is that cooking can be a rewarding creative activity.

One problem with Pollan’s critique is that it he fails to take seriously the trade-offs that come with more home cooking. From the premise that cooking is a valuable activity, Pollan concludes that a decline in cooking is a disappointing development. He bemoans the fact that “the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation.” Then, he goes on to argue that the popularity of cooking shows suggest that “a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves.”

This latter conclusion is misleading. Pollan takes two aggregated statistics and, from them, offers conclusions about individual Americans. We don’t know that the Americans watching the cooking shows are the same Americans who are driving down the average cooking time per day. In fact, it’s possible that those who watch food shows (whether they be about cooking or eating) are more likely to spend more time in the kitchen due to their interest in food.

Moreover, there is an opportunity cost in spending time cooking: More time cooking means less time available for other activities. The opportunity cost varies based on the preferences of the individual. The mother who loves to cook more than anything else is going to have a lower opportunity cost than the mother (let’s call her Martina) who prefers playing tennis to cooking after work. Martina may very well realize that there are trade-offs in her choice to play tennis instead of spending hours in the kitchen. The food may be less healthy, although it may be tastier assuming Martina isn’t a very talented cook and she chooses her take-out options relatively wisely. Additionally, Martina may hate cooking. Many people just do not enjoy the process of cooking. The “good” that comes from cooking may just not be sufficient to overcome the costs for those people and their families.

Admittedly, Pollan does acknowledge that women cook less because of work and that this is a mixed blessing. But, in the end, he still laments the general demise of cooking. Based on opportunity cost considerations, that just doesn’t seem justified. Even if cooking is a good thing, if the benefits a person gets from performing alternative activities are sufficiently high, then performing those activities is a better outcome. At that point, I guess spending less time cooking is lamentable, but in a much more general way: Just as we generally wish people exercise, read, play instruments, and travel more, we wish people cooked more. But, in a world where time and resources are scarce, what matters is whether there is something wrong with the trade-off being made. Pollan fails to justify that there is.

An assumption of Pollan’s critique is that watching cooking shows for entertainment value is bad. He brings up sports analogies a couple of times and I think these are generally appropriate. Why do we watch professional sports? One reason is to see the premier athletes in the country competing at an incredibly high level. We hold professional athletes to very high standards and are often in awe of their accomplishments. I think there’s something similar at work with cooking shows. When I watch Iron Chef America, I’m not watching it to learn how to cook, just as I don’t watch Major League Baseball to learn how to play. I watch it to see some of the top chefs in the country competing against one another. More so than sports, spectators are nudged to realize not to take this whole competitive cooking thing too seriously. The show satirizes itself fairly blatantly. Whether it is Alton Brown’s scientistic analysis (and playful urges to cut to alternative camera angles) or the Japanese Chairman’s plea to follow the words of his apparently French uncle and “Allez Cuisine!”, Iron Chef America mockingly recognizes its place as an entertaining cooking show.

Admittedly, there are the eating shows too which are more purely about diversionary entertainment. Take Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods: It’s not about cooking; rather it’s about watching a charismatic middle-aged guy eat very odd foods all across the world. It is interesting on an intellectual level to learn how the custom of eating of some of the more unusual foods of other cultures came about.  However, I have to say, it’s quite entertaining to see Zimmern’s reactions to bizarre delicacies such as bull testicles.

At worst, then, cooking (and eating) shows provide mere entertainment, but at best they are inspiring. Some people watch sports just for fun, but there are numerous instances of people watching professional sports as a form of inspiration. If you haven’t seen Hoop Dreams, you should. In it, young inner-city Chicago basketball players work hard to become the next Michael Jordan. Even at the old age of twenty-two, I can’t help but to be motivated to improve my recreational tennis game after watching Roger Federer play. It’s not a coincidence that some of the busiest days on golf courses are the Mondays after major championships. After watching Iron Chef America and reading some Anthony Bourdain, a friend of mine became encouraged to broaden her cooking horizons. Even if these programs do not show the process of cooking in replicable detail, their glorification of food and the cooking process can and does provide inspiration.

Therefore, we should take Pollan’s critique with a grain of unprocessed salt.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John Vining on August 2, 2009 at 2:18 PM

    I agree. For me, I only found the food network interesting once I started cooking. In the past week, I think I’ve learned about 7 different ways to cook a green pepper Santa Fe style.

    I think the most important service it does is get people thinking about food, and, for me, getting the viewer used to the vocabulary of cooking. Being comfortable with different processes and knowing the right vocabulary make following a recipe a lot easier down the road. There’s a lot of learning we do which is just a product of being exposed to something a few times, however quickly.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Doc on August 2, 2009 at 3:18 PM

    Total agreement on this one Josh. Watch the reaction of the chefs on Bobby Flay’s “Throwdown” and they all know him from the Food Network. Plenty of top chefs have learned from Flay and his kind on the network, and certainly others have been inspired to become chefs from their TV watching. When one looks at an average, they see nothing but a statistic. There may only be one great French chef on Long Island, Guy Reuge, but one is enough, even though he represents 1/4,000,000th of the Long Island population.

    I have also been inspired by watching these shows. I once suggested dry mustard for a crabcake preparation after watching the Food Network – it was an excellent choice.

    Reply

  3. […] worldview, racism is unfortunate but understandable, like using “literally” incorrectly, or not cooking your own meals (except presumably slightly worse). Now, compassionate understanding is certainly admirable, but […]

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  4. […] has written about Michael Pollan in the past. In the NY Times Magazine’s food issue, Pollan offers some […]

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  5. Posted by Kate on October 30, 2009 at 5:07 PM

    I found your blog whilst searching for images to base my son’s Halloween costume. He is going to be Bobby Flay. While I don’t encourage my children to ever idolize celebrities, my son loves watching Iron Chef, it’s a fun show and Bobby is a humble and excellent chef who just keeps getting better. He is a pleasure to watch and always beats out the young hotshot “chemical chefs” by just making good food. He can also wield some of those trendier techniques without losing touch with his own style of cooking and sense of good taste. The challengers, while talented, seem often to just be style over substance. And he is a successful entrepreneur. I looked down my nose at Food Network when I was learning how to cook at the C.I.A., but now that I stay at home with the children my perspective has changed.

    Michael Pollan, I’ve been seeing his name a lot lately. He has some good points about how over-regulated our food has become (Europeans point out it’s why we don’t make good cheese, and they’re probably right.) But I sense an overreach on the part of Mr. Pollan’s expertise, and with this scolding about what to watch on the telly regarding food, he sounds a bit sanctimonious and snobby.

    Reply

  6. Posted by hannah on January 1, 2010 at 3:15 PM

    I LIKE CHEEZE!

    Reply

  7. i love u bobby flay i watch u every night and u are the best of cooks i look up to u keep going so that i follow u right up your cooking path

    Yours truely RAHEEM POLK

    LOVE U BOBBY FLAY

    Reply

  8. […] deep dish pizza to the evolution of TV to Mariano Rivera, from The Sopranos to the Old Testament to the Food Network, from the 1999 NLCS to apologism to David Foster Wallace. We’ve ranked the Bill of Rights, the […]

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