One of my favorite channels to watch on TV is the Food Network. Most of the time, I have it on as background noise or on mute if I’m doing homework. I think that the thing that appeals to me the most about cooking shows is their predictability and familiarity. There are almost no plot lines to keep up with (or if there are plot lines, their simple ones like, “my sister is coming for dinner and I’m going to make her something wonderful.”) Plus, there are never any plot twists or dramatic moments in a cooking show, nothing to keep me on the edge of my seat. I don’t have to piece together plot lines or delve into the motivation of the character; I can actually relax when I watch them. If I miss ten minutes of the middle of the show, it doesn’t matter because I can jump right back into the show and not be confused about what’s going on. In addition, I really like watching people cook and seeing what kinds of food people come up with to make. Most of the time, the dishes they make are never something I would make and/or eat, but it’s intriguing to see how people make them and the kinds of techniques they use.
A lot of the predictability and familiarity of cooking shows stems from the fact that almost all of them use the exact same format and just switch out ingredients and “chefs.” There is always at least one chef (sometimes there is two, but that gets kind of crowded and annoying.) The chef never really seems to be overly qualified to be a cooking show host; some have no culinary education and others have only finished part of culinary school. However, the chef is almost always somewhat attractive and has an engaging, bubbly personality (all of them are always super excited to be making whatever it is they are making.) Most shows have some kind of premise or category they specialize in, for example, 30-minute Meals centers on complete meals that can be made in 30 minutes or less and Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee focuses on making complete meals with store-bought food mixed with fresh ingredients. In addition to the over-arching premise of the show, each individual episode usually has a theme that is carried throughout the episode, such as an episode of Giada at Home where Giada makes three different dishes that she will serve to her aunt who is coming to visit. Despite these different themes, almost every show works with the assumption that its audience is somewhat inexperienced in the kitchen. The show then tries to show its viewers that cooking really is easy and that anyone can do it if they simply follow the recipes, techniques, and tips that the chefs describe.
I think one of the biggest assumptions that cooking shows have about the world is that cooking is solely a woman’s job, or more specifically, it is a stay-at-home mother’s job. The majority of cooking shows have a female host and are set in a mock kitchen. The host tries to relate to a busy or working mother, often giving her tips on how to make a “quick and easy meal that the whole family will love” or how to get your kids to eat healthily. A perfect example of this is Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals where she gives countless easy recipes that can easily be made in the 30 minutes between the time that a working mother gets home and dinner time. Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa also works toward this assumption. Although she doesn’t have kids, her show always focuses on her cooking for her husband or any one of her male friends. In addition to this, cooking shows seem to portray their women hosts as sex objects; their bodies are focused on just as much as the food they make. For example, Giada de Laurentis and Sandra Lee are always perfectly made up for their shows, often wearing low-cut tops or tight-fitting clothes, lending themselves to the idea of a “perfect woman” (not only can she cook, but she’s sexy too!) If there happens to be a male host, he is depicted doing super masculine things, perhaps to off-set the perception that cooking is a woman’s job. For example, on Grill It with Bobby Flay, Flay leaves behind the “feminine” space of the kitchen completely and takes his cooking show outside, focusing on barbequing and grilling, ultimately more masculine forms of cooking. When a male host doesn’t opt to go outside, he instead makes the kitchen as masculine as possible. For example, on Guy’s Big Bite with Guy Fieri, the kitchen is decorated with a variety of essentially masculine things, such as a pool table, car parts, and a drum set. Even his refrigerator is “masculinized”: it is painted and stuck with decals to look like a race car.
To help teach students about the cooking show genre, I would focus on how the cooking show has evolved from highly trained chefs cooking exotic foods to be more focused on everyday people and common ingredients. To do this, I would show a clip from an older cooking show (such as this one from The Frugal Gourmet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkjcUc8ekRY&feature=related). I would contrast this with a clip from a modern cooking show (such as Rachel Ray http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHgvkq3aCqQ). Students would then discuss how the cooking shows differ. To get them thinking about this, they could answer questions such as: How is each chef dressed? What kinds of ingredients does each chef use? Who prepares the ingredients? What techniques do each use? Eventually I want students to be able to think about the audiences for each show and how cooking shows have changed their format to cater to their audience. I also want them to think about societal changes have affected the focus of the cooking shows (for example, how has the emergence of working mothers changed the agendas of cooking shows?)
Here's a link to my powerpoint presentation. (You may have to download it. Google Docs isn't letting me view it.)