I’m not sure why I watch so much Food Network programming. It could be because it’s the default channel on the little TV that’s perched on my kitchen counter. I know it has nothing to do with me wanting to acquire the skills needed to chiffonade a leaf of basil.I prefer to let my basil expire in peace, shriveling to unidentifiable brittleness in the vegetable drawer of my fridge. Besides, if I really wanted pesto, I figure I could just open a jar of it.
I guess I need some sort of distraction when eating a meal at the kitchen table – something to take my mind off my uninspired tuna sandwich or workaday TV dinner. I could scan the newspaper for instance, or listen to my wife talk about stuff that’s more boring than the Stouffer’s meatloaf I’m shoveling into my mouth, or maybe watch the miniature countertop television. Sometimes I’ll select all these options, just to test my hand/eye/fork coordination.
But unless there’s baseball, football, or roller derby on one of my two other default channels, I’m watching Sandra Lee – or Giada, Guy, Bobby, or yes, Ina. I’m drawn to these bewitching, enlightened heroes of the kitchen like a monkey contemplating a banana plant. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me, but somehow they’re more captivating than most of the weighty human interest stories that flood my local paper, and more gripping than my better-half chronicling how she opened a can of Diet Coke while her nails were still wet and now can’t leave the house for a week.
I think it’s that lots of Food Network shows are like big, colorful picture books. You know, they’re the kind of shows that don’t necessarily have a great story to tell, but beg consideration. I like picture books – their heft, their glossiness, how they don’t have to be read in their entirety to be appreciated (or how they don’t ever have to be read in their entirety). Anyway, these food-focused shows offer much more than crisp shots of salmon filets that have been fussed over more than Pharrell’s hat, or seemingly indecent close-ups of drool-worthy crème fraiche – whatever that is. There’s always a compelling narrative threading over the visual of Scallops Provencal as it sautés, broils, or steams (I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying that close attention). For instance, Sandra describing the hangover she’s going to create for herself once she’s finished decorating her table with eighty-four purple tchotchkes and five bottles of complementary pink booze, Bobby explaining (I’m sure just to me) how I’ve screwed up every grilled steak I’ve ever made, or Ina discussing the virtues of “good butter.” Oh, and Giada saying something or other. I think she talks, but I can’t focus on everything.
Not only are these shows like vibrant picture books, they’re the fantasy genre of picture books; not the unicorn falls for a grouchy dragon fantasy genre, but the never having to clean up after making a huge mess in the kitchen fantasy genre. Heck, I’d cook all day if Icould use every pot, pan, and utensil in my kitchen without having to worry about breaking into a second box of Brillo pads. And the fact that the stars of these shows are always smiling? This too is a mark of fantasy. Who in the real world smiles while they’re julienning three cups of watercress? These shows may look and sound like picture books, but they read more like George R. R. Martin bestsellers.
I love picture books. So I guess that’s why I enjoy the Food Network. Their shows speak to me, just like a good book does. Ina and the others are heroes saving the world, one incredibly difficult to assemble meal at a time. And at the end of each of these stories the hero wins – always – just like in any good fantasy. I’ll never be able to slay a dragon like St. George. And I’ll never be able to deglaze like Giada. But if I watch enough Food Network, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to fashion the proper backstory my tuna sandwich truly deserves.