‘Iron Chef,’ iron stomach: the ‘masculinization’ of food on TV
As we Americans head into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, our consuming culture, over-saturated as it already is with saturated fats, will throw off all pretense of restraint and moderation; for the next five weeks, we’re going to go food-crazy, and we don’t care who knows it.
And like any good enabler, the Food Network is tailoring its efforts to feed (forgive me) our addiction to all things cuisine. Its programming this week has been aimed primarily at holiday cooking — the ultimate Thanksgiving turkey and sweet potato sides for under $10 dollars, etc. And Christmas hams are right around the corner. None of this is a surprise.
But if you’ve been watching the Food Network recently, you’ve also noticed the promos touting their newest series, premiering in January: “Worst Cooks in America,” a competition/reality show in which kitchen novices, guided by professionals, compete to learn knife skills, sauce pans and the chance to impress a panel of judges with gourmet dishes. Those who can’t master… say, a chiffonade… are eliminated each week. It’s a kind of “Biggest Loser” — except the goal is to eat more.
“Worst Cooks in America” is the latest in a string of next-generation food-centric shows that have left the old “chop and drop” school of TV cooking back in the days of rabbit antennas and horizontal/tilt dials. Quickly disappearing from the TV schedule — or being relegated to low-viewership timeslots and edged onto the Internet — are the “how-to-cook” shows. In their place are “extreme” eating shows, cooking competitions pitched over gas burners and a quest to out-eat, out-gross, outdo the next host in an arms race of sweat, pressure and barely edible gastronomic gluttony that shows no sign of abating.
Even the names of the shows are a tip off that we’re a long way from the soft side of sauteeing: From the Food Network we’ve got “Iron Chef America,” “The Next Iron Chef,” “Chopped,” “Dinner: Impossible” and “Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin” — while the Travel Channel gives us, among other things, “Bizarre Foods” and “Man v. Food.” Even the vaunted Anthony Bourdain, on his “No Reservations,” seems to revel in discovering the strangest cuisine he can find – strange, at least, to his American audience — and then manning up and wolfing it down.
I won’t pretend I’m the first person to notice this, so I asked folks with more smarts than me to help explain it. Please clink your glasses together for Iri Greco, chef, food stylist and food television producer at her company, Panaforte Productions and Matthew Tinkcom, associate professor at Georgetown University in the graduate program in communication, culture and technology. The three of us discussed, via e-mail, why food TV is more and more about how to eat 48 ozs. of steak rather than how to cook it.
Q: The story arc of cooking on television has certainly changed, as everyone from Michael Pollan to Food Network executives have described: it’s less about cooking now and more about eating. Does it reflect a larger trend in our culture?
Iri Greco: Since the advent of reality-based programming and competitive challenge shows, we are seeing more series pitched and produced along documentary-style characters. Foodie TV has become largely about entertainment and less about the information itself being the driving factor for viewership. The success of shows like “Fear Factor” has played a major role in influencing many other network series since. The advent of these shocking food shows is a direct result.
Prof. Matthew Tinkcom: I think there’s a shift from food as a topic that’s more typically feminized — i.e. cooking shows have historically been targeted at women viewers, because of the larger cultural expectations that women shop for and prepare food — to food becoming newly masculinized, where it’s associated with adventure, travel and danger. I also think that the shift from home preparation of food to the expansion of pre-packaged food means that fewer viewers may actually care about how to cook, but are simultaneously conversant in the conventions of adventure TV.
Q: Foodie TV is more and more focused on competition — do you think these shows reflect larger trends in our culture? Or is this the logical next step once TV runs out of ways to show people how to roast a chicken and bake scones?
Tinkcom: Reality programming is now beginning to lose its initial fascination and to hybridize with other TV genres, in this instance, food TV — thus the competitive elements of these food programs emerge from the discovery, most notably on ‘Survivor,’ and ‘Fear Factor,’ that audiences respond powerfully to the sight of other people having to eat unfamiliar food.
Greco: There’s no shortage of new content being produced that still offers educational/instructional content on the “how to” angle — just look at new programming online from Hearst, Rodale, TVFN, and blogs. But we do see an ever-growing influx of user-generated content that has swelled the voyeuristic component — and I think professional video and film enterprises are aiming to get that demographic by creating similar content, but with higher professional production value.
Q: There’s an uptick in shows that zero in on what you could call “gross” eating — that is, finding the most disgusting or strangest things to eat around the world. Is this the natural progression for television — to keeping upping the ante?
Greco: Our culture is currently one of over-stimulus and saturation.. from all areas (technology, branding, exposure to outrageous tales and news, etc). Nothing seems filtered or edited and the dependency of instant information-sharing has meant there is little escape from this stimulation — for good and bad. Because of that, some viewers have become desensitized and it takes ever-more increasingly shocking and absurd content to “wow” the viewer. Hence, all of the sensationalist programming and its popularity.
Q: There are also more shows now focused on simply eating obscene amounts of food as part of a “prove you can do it” competition, such as “Man vs. Food.” What is it about us that makes us want to watch other people on TV eat vast amounts of food?
Tinkcom: The emphasis here needs to be on other people — that television is the ideal medium to witness someone besides yourself having to consume what the viewer probably won’t, and not in a fictionalized way, but in a way that the quasi-documentary camera of reality programming says, ‘yes, this really happened — he ate a live bug, etc.’
Greco: This trend has existed for a long time. I grew up in New York with the infamous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. [On a recent] weekend in New York City was a Dumpling Eating contest. The 1950s saw pie-eating contests. It has a long history.
As TV producers and filmmakers, the media community is always looking for new story lines and new angles. The fact that we are now filming these activities and people are watching them on TV and online instead of attending them as a family outing or community event just shows how much food influences all of us in some way or another. You don’t have to be a foodie anymore to enjoy food TV.
Tinkcom: It’s worth noting the economics of what’s involved, in both food and reality TV: both are made out of comparatively inexpensive components and stand to command handsome profits. Plus, like a dish that doesn’t work out, the gross-out-food-program can afford to fail — it doesn’t require the investments that fictional programming demand and, if it succeeds in finding an audience, it commands that much more advertising dollars.
And that — the bottom line — may be the bottom line to this discussion. Ina Garten may be the greatest TV chef going today, but she’s famous, which means she’s pricey — and this is TV, after all. If you can make more money showing no-name comedians eating their weight in banana pancakes until their eyes glaze over in insulin shock, what producer wouldn’t leap at that?
And with that, thanks Iri and Matthew — and have a Happy Thanksgiving.