Monday, July 15, 2013

Evolving Thoughts on Food Media and Life

I wrote an entry on this blog in 2009 where I treated a few food celebrities rather harshly. Maybe one of the most satisfying while paradoxically uncomfortable experiences in life is to realize personal growth, and for this reason I believe that I particularly owe both Andrew Zimmern and Adam Richman an apology.

I still stand by my belief that Zimmern's overseas work on Bizarre Foods, the shows that made him a celebrity, are a little bit silly. But I think that in my needless cynicism I missed the humility with which he undertook the task, never taking himself too seriously. Of course, the work we have seen from him lately has, to use a dreadful food celebrity cliché, kicked it up a notch. I braced myself when Bizarre Foods America visited New Orleans, but found myself smiling inside as Zimmern rode around with Kermit Ruffins. This was nothing compared to the show's thoughtful and sensitive rendering of West Virginia, a place whose culture has been hackneyed more than perhaps any other in the nation. Buckwild anyone? Many kudos to Zimmern who may have done the impossible - capture the essence of West Virginia while neither sanitizing nor essentializing. 

It was Guy Fieri who actually opened my eyes to newfound appreciation for Adam Richman. If you compare the formula for Man vs. Food to Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, you will quickly see parallels. Both shows visit comfort food restaurants that most Americans would enjoy. This is where the similarities end. I don't know Guy Fieri, but the screen presence he delivers is flat and disingenuous. Is everything he eats at these places really "off the chain?" Nor does he seem to be liked very well by his peers if the reaction to his Times Square restaurant is any indication. Perhaps he is the victim of jealousy. I hadn't watched Man vs. Food for a while, and so it really hit me that Richman, like Zimmern, enters into the show with a great deal of personal humility, genuine interest, and overall good will. What a contrast it is to "Triple D." 

The viewpoints I shared on competitive cooking shows, however, have in some regard intensified over the last four years. I must confess that my wife and I are fans of Chopped, but not without reservations about the overall formula and what it says about the culture in which we live. A mystery basket, a ticking clock, even the judging of whose dish is best -- these are all fun. Yet the increasingly ludicrous tear-jerker stories of the contestants have grown so very tiresome. "I'm doing this for a charity who helps orphans with no legs" or "I'm doing this for my grandmammy who died last year," or "my daughter needs a special wheelchair." What is this, The Hunger Games? Dreadful.  Yes, $10,000 bananas is better than a sharp stick in the eye, but it won't change your life. Hell, it won't even buy a new Hyundai. Please, focus on the basket contents and try not to cry when the master-hipster of ceremonies, Ted Allen, invokes his best funeral director voice and tells you "I'm sorry, you've been chopped."

Yet the worst transgression of food television seems to be the furthering of everything that has gone wrong with the art of cooking by airing The Next Food Network Star. In its eighth season, this is the program that spawned Guy Fieri. Does the world really need another food celebrity? I can't help but wonder if Julia Child would have made it today. 

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