An Open Letter to the Food Network

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

Dear Food Network,

I like cooking and I like eating, so I often use you as my default channel when there is nothing else on. But increasingly I find myself frustrated with the fare you churn out. First of all, I know it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial cable channel to be uncommercial, but do you have to have so many commercial breaks — seemingly more than any other channel? I find this especially annoying given that many of your shows are themselves advertisements. I’m thinking not only of shows like Unwrapped, which are basically industrial films showcasing candy bar factories, but also shows like Top Five Marketing Moments, which tell the story of advertising campaigns of yore. (I was narcissistic enough to agree to be a commentator on that one, but it’s turned into a nightmare. I never considered the fact that you repeat programs even more frequently than Bravo, so at odd hours of the night I flip to you for solace and distraction only to confront Anna McCarthy’s double chin and weird nasal accent.)

Let me also complain for a moment about your hosts. I’ll go through them in the order in which I revile them:

1. Bobby Flay. An earlier column disparaged him enough, so I’ll just say here that his recipes are really terrible. They’re ostentatiously restaurantish, not things you’d ever enjoy making or eating at home.

2. Like Bobby Flay, Emeril emits a fraternity brother vibe that I find very tiresome (no offense to my Greek brethren.) But what really annoys me about Emeril is the way he tries so hard, especially when he tries to be down with the Black guys in his band. The recipes are actually okay — overseasoned, but the techniques basically work.

3. Rachael Ray. The chirpiness drives me crazy. And while I appreciate the 30-minute meal concept, I think her approach is all wrong. Why try to make a quick, ersatz version of bouillabaisse? What’s the point? It won’t taste as good as the real thing. Why not show people how to make a good salad dressing, or a Spanish omelette? Things with only 4 or 5 ingredients? I make tons of meals in less than 30 minutes, but they’re not fussy stuff. And they make use of things I have lying around, not ingredients that require a special trip to the store. Plus, I have a feeling that most people make pasta for dinner when they want to cook and eat quickly. Why not show us variations on different quick sauces for pasta?

4. Alton Brown. I used to love him. There’s something very appealing about all the science, and even though some might find the Ernie Kovacs-esque style of Good Eats cheesy, I think it’s well done and inventive. But last month I caught a show in which he claimed that a tarragon sauce made with fat free yoghurt and a ton of dried tarragon added at the last minute is just as good as a traditional tarragon sauce (which would, I presume involve a roux, infused milk or cream, and a lot more calories). Basically, I think you are on the right track with Alton Brown because he focuses on technique and principles, but this low fat direction is really wrong. More about this later.

5. Sara Moulton. She’s a good cook, but she’s so sweet and earnest. It only affirms my sense of the gender divide among your stars. The guys get to be wisecracking impresarios, but the gals (not only Rachael and Sara but also Giada of Everyday Italian, who surely never eats) are all uniformly nice. Perky and fun. And always nurturing. What’s more, they perform a maddening girly affect around rich or fattening food. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s sort of a variation on the familiar “ooh this is so forbidden” script.

I won’t go on with the list, although there’s surely more to say about Mario Batali, or the Food 911 guy, or Roker on the Road. Just let me finish, dear Food Network, by talking about what seems to be the deepest “issue” you raise for me. I just get depressed at having to confront the sad, obsessive, and ultimately contradictory American relationship to eating whenever I flip to your shows. There just isn’t room here for me to rant about American fat obsessions. I have friends, both men and women, who are utterly consumed by fat calories and carbs, and for whom exercise exists only in relation to food. They think about eating and staying thin more than they think about anything else. What’s going on?

The recent widely publicized revisions of the FDA’s dietary guidelines emphasize the fact that people are eating too many processed foods and not enough basic healthy fruits and vegetables. In light of such recent attempts at culinary governance there’s something really perverse about the way you spend hours promoting processed sugar products like candy and pie. I don’t mean to sound moralistic — I actually think it’s great that you celebrate sugar and fat and all those things. But I can’t stand the way you air three hours of Unwrapped in a row then turn around and have Alton Brown teach people how to make disgusting low fat versions of recipes that deserve to be made properly — calories and all. There’s no middle ground between excess and self-denial in your shows, and that’s very sad for those of us who love to cook and to eat.

The fact of the matter is, as Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times Magazine last year, Americans are fat compared to Europeans because their portion sizes are far too big, and they eat way too much processed food. Fatkins notwithstanding, Americans remain scandalized by how fatty the European diet is, and they can’t understand why Europeans are so thin. (Yes, I know class is a factor in the U.S., but it doesn’t explain everything given that Europeans of all classes are thinner than Americans). What you convey to me about American relationships to food, Food Network, is that there’s little respect for basic ingredients. You don’t encourage people to stop and admire a lovely fresh Savoy cabbage in the produce aisle. You don’t encourage them to cook with interesting but widely available staples like lentils. Is it just that there’s no brand-name tie-in?

My dream show would not be the spectator sport of watching some arrogant guy make a blood orange reduction. It would be a show that focuses on fresh ingredients and how to prepare them — sort of like Alton Brown’s Good Eats, but without the gadgetry and the “healthy” substitutions. That would be really something. Perhaps what I have in mind is the Nigella Lawson model, without the poshness and pretension. A cookbook of the air. Yes, it’s very middlebrow, but that’s where I come from. You can’t change your nature.

In closing, I offer a recipe of my own as a model for the kind of stuff you could do. It’s barely a recipe at all, really. It uses as few ingredients as possible and it combines them in a common-sense way, making a perfectly fine dinner when you have it with a nice bit of cheese, a baguette, and a glass of wine. This is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of when I turn to you during commercial breaks in The O.C.

Fennel Salad (serves 2)

Ingredients:
1 Fennel bulb
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
Lemon juice
Sea salt (ideally Maldon Salt from the U.K. See self-identification as middlebrow, above)
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

1. Remove the stalks and fronds from the fennel and slice crosswise in thin slices. (You can use a mandoline to do this if you want to be very tidy. When cut with the finest blade the result is something like fennel slaw, which is not bad at all. In fact makes it a good side-dish for something like Pork Tenderloin roasted with fennel seeds.)

2. In a large bowl toss fennel slices with the juice of half a lemon, a big pinch of sea salt and enough twists of the pepper grinder to make your carpal tunnel syndrome flare up. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. (Sometimes I omit the oil, for example, when serving the salad as a side dish with fish, and end up wondering if it’s better that way. Try it and see what you think.)

3. Serve on a nice serving plate. Or not. If you want to make it beforehand this will keep an hour or so in the fridge.

Thanks for listening,

Anna

Links
Food TV
Bobby Flay
The Anti-Bobby Flay Webring
Alton Brown
Sara Moulton
FDA
International Cooking Links

Please feel free to comment.

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31 comments

  • When McDonald’s offered the burger with a side of burger, I knew there was something really, really wrong.

    Like Dr. McCarthy, I have found that the Food Network is the default channel for both me and many other grad students – the kind of channel you can drop in on but not get sucked into. It is a strange line the Food Network straddles – acknowledging the emphasis on dieting while emphasizing sugar. How about a gooey chocolate cake with your salad with no dressing? At the same time, it seems very representative of American tastes (salad bar with an extra large Coke, counting carbs but eating a pint of ice cream at night). So, I agree with Dr. McCarthy. If the Food Network is all about teaching, maybe they should teach us how to take care of ourselves in an easy way. And please, hold the tarragon sauce.

  • From a cable-less kitchen…

    While my humble abode does not boast of cable, I find Dr. McCarthy’s points to be in line with a general problem that exists amongst American eating culture–a disconnect between quick and healthy forms of cooking, as well as a conflict in low-maintenance, affordable eats and healthy content. Dr. McCarthy’s suggestions could go beyond the Food Network–cookbook industries could take up her advice as well. Now the question–where do I find a fennel bulb?

  • saffron and slow food

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Rick’s saffron suggestion would work great. Maybe whisk it together with the lemon juice and oil (if using) at the beginning. Heat the fronds in a teaspoon over an open flame for 10 seconds first, so it crumbles better. As for Fennel, a lot of regular supermarkets have it. Watch out that it isn’t really old when you buy it. My Gristedes here in new york strips the outer layers from the bulbs when they get brown, so they get smaller and smaller each week (but cost the same as they’re priced per piece. Pretty sneaky.)

    It occurred to me that what I’m advocating is something similar to a “slow food” approach, with a few caveats.

    1. Slow food is for the (mainly urban) bourgeoisie. I realized this when the slow food movement’s membership director told me that the office is overwhelmed at Thanksgiving time by calls from demanding, entitled people wanting to know where to order their organic free range turkey. So I don’t really want to call the approach I’m advocating Slow Food because that naming restricts it to a certain kind of consumer. And viewer.

    2. The Food Network barely ever mentions organic food, presumably so as not to alienate advertisers hostile to the wholefoods alternatives. Sara Moulton sometimes mentions organic chicken, but she’ll always nervously add that regular supermarket chicken is just as good. Perhaps the avoidance of the O word is also a way of reaching the broadest audience. Not anyone has access to, nor can afford, organic food. So calling this approach Slow Food would be to identify it with a political economy and a demographic somewhat alien to the Food Network.

    3. Having said that, the slow food people have nothing to lose from pitching a show to the Network. But they probably hate TV too. That’s the final caveat, and reason why I distance the above approach from theirs: it’s a somewhat puritanical movement identified with the rejection of all things popular. Can’t go there–I am just too fond of Project Runway.

    Those are some further musings–thanks to everyone for their comments.

  • Pedagogy

    so what I am wondering is, where would a cable viewer who loves to eat but (1) cannot even brown onions without burning them, and (2) does not know what fennel *is*….go to learn, well, the very basics? Like how to turn on a gas oven without blowing up the house??? I think McCarthy should have her own show–she could combine cooking pedagogy with fashion advice and knitting instructions–with a short course on neoliberalism as evidenced by the food industry thrown in….

  • Although esoteric at times, refreshing and fun…

    I agree that at times the Food Network is a bit out on a limb, however I do think it provides an outlet for people of all ages. My husband comments nearly every other day that “If PBS would have had this type of programming on when I was a kid, I would have taken a much different career path”. PBS does offer some great culinary shows now, and I watch those with the same regularity as I do the Food Network.I am in the restaurant business, at the present time, and I am a Food Network addict. Although Rachel Ray is… well lets just call her “high on life”, over all, complaining over the programs seems a bit harsh. I am sure they are always looking for ways to improve, and appreciate the comments, but in the grand scheme of things I am happy to come home to a program without violence, sex, gambling, etc. Food is a creative outlet, and The Food Network serves as a catalyst for those of us who are a bit “creative recipe impaired”, not to mention it gets us away from the tired old recipes we have been forced to consume since childhood! Agreed that some changes could be made, but give some credit to the Network as well… my two/three cents.

  • It’s not so bad

    While I can agree that The Food Network is unashamedly commercial, it is a channel based solely on product. If you turned to the “Clothes Network” or the “Car Network,” would you not expect to see brand-name clothes and cars? When I turn to the food network, I don’t look to become the world’s greatest chef, or to be given suggestions that forever change my methods of cooking. I watch this channel for some ideas, some yummy recipes that I’ve never tried, both which are provided, and the number one reason anyone turns on the TV, for entertainment. The food network isn’t perfect, but it does it’s job.

  • The Food Network

    Good correctives to the over produced relentlessly cheerful or testosterone driven Food Network shows are the public access tv food programs that you can catch on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (and I imagine public access programs elsewhere). It’s interesting to ponder why someone would set up a video camera in his or her studio apartment kitchen and try to demonstrate how to make scrambled eggs (see “Recipes for Survival”).

  • Alternative to the Food Network

    As Dr. McCarthy notes, Europeans are in general thinner than Americans. In addition to eating better, they also walk more than we do. Apparently one does not need X minutes of aerobic exercise to keep those fat cells off the hips–plain old walking seems to do the trick for Europeans.

    As an alternative to the Food Network (which I do watch, more often than I should), I recommend the PBS shows America’s Test Kitchen for good procedures and Lidia’s Kitchen for old-fashioned pasta with plenty of fat. Any show featuring Jacques Pepin and the late Julia Child will also emphasize fresh ingredients over low-fat substitutes.

  • Grocery shopping and food prep

    Clearly the Food Network has many audience members amongst FLOW readers. This is a great discussion.I agree with both McCarthy’s criticisms and those who want to give the network credit for what it does do. I would like to add an additional complaint to McCarthy’s letter: I would like to see the network focus more on grocery shopping. This would work well with the commercial environment, teach folks what fennel looks like and where to find it, and help viewers think about how they stock their larders. I would also like it if more programs, like Good Eats, showed the food preparation. So often the cook has all the ingredients chopped up and ready to go. Much of what I make requires more chopping time than cooking time and cooking shows that have all this done before the taping begins misrepresent the process of food preparation. Fresh ingredients require some preparation and they are worth the effort.

  • Alton’s sauce

    While I share some of your feelings about the too-big personalities of the Food Net’s hosts, you are off base in criticizing Alton Brown for favoring low-fat cooking. He does whole shows about butter, mayo, ice cream, deep frying, nuts, etc., and the guy clearly loves all kinds of food, high and low fat as the case may be. More importantly, though, his tarraon yogurt sauce isn’t made with non-fat yogurt. (http://www.foodnetwork.com/foo.....97,00.html). It’s made with homemade yogurt made with 2% milk and it sounds pretty good to me.

  • one last cent

    I must make one last comment about organic shopping… although the hosts on the Food Network may not openly mention organic on their programs, I have watched many a show that has the host shopping at markets such as Whole Foods. These grocery stores are holistic and organically based, and it is obvious that the food offered at these places is fresh and natural. Although it may not be blatanly said in every show, I do think that this should be recognized. I guess I am just a food lover/geek, and I take every type of food show into consideration- good, or bad.

  • A flavorful discussion

    Thanks, Mike for pointing out my erronious indictment of Alton’s sauce. 2% is my own yoghurt of choice, although I don’t use it for sauces (except Cucumber Raita.) Both Fred and Emily raise good points about grocery shopping, but rather than take on particular comments, allow me to stimulate your culinary tastebuds one more time with a recipe.

    My Mum’s Shortbread Biscuits.

    6oz of flour, 4oz of butter soft, but not runny. 2oz of caster sugar or you can use icing sugar, which makes it more melt in the mouth.

    You cream the butter and sugar until it is nearly sloppy and add the sifted flour and with a bit of a muscle. Stir until meld. But on floured board and with the heel of your hand pat it into an oval, turning the mass round, just over 1 quarter of an inch thick.

    Now if you have a food processor shove all the ingredients into the bowl and process until it forms a ball. .Now put the oval carefully with a wide spatula on to greased cookie tray and put it into 325 F oven or gas no 3 for about 40 mins or until it is light biscuit colour cut it into squares while hot as it hardens when cool buena suerte abrazos mama

    This was transcribed with only minor revision from the original email. The measurements are expressed in weight, which is the standard in the UK. For baking, weight is much more reliable than cups, although I appreciate that not every home cook in America has a kitchen scale. They’re not that expensive though, and I highly recommend one.

    These cookies are buttery and sublime. They crumble into melting shards of heaven on your tongue. The taste transports me back in Proustian fashion back to my childhood.

  • fennel

    I like Anna McCarthy. No, I adore Anna McCarthy. But I have to say, what is up with fennel, yo? Fennel is the most overrated vegetable. I mean, it kinda tastes like perfume. I have never eaten perfume, but that is what I imagine perfume to taste like. Also, I wonder what Professor Mccarthy’s take on Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade Cooking is? Is it divine to make Baked Alaska with store-bought marble cake or just trashy?

  • Fennel

    Please allow me to defend the mysterious vegetable called the fennel.

    Fact: fennel is the vegetable equivalent of the misanthrope. All other vegetables refuse to thrive when planted near it in the garden. (Except mint, which can be a nice addition to Fennel Salad.) I bring these antisocial tendencies up because to me, they confirm the uniuque and interesting nature of this anise-perfumed bulb.

    fact: Fennel seeds are a fantastically refreshing background flavor. Try this delicious red lentil dhal:

    boil the lentils in 6-8 times the volume of water add to the pot when the lentils are cooked: browned onions plus a powder made of FENNEL SEEDS and cumin seeds toasted and ground up in a pestle and mortar with turmeric, chili powder, and garam masala . simmer briefly and serve with nan, hot pickle, and cucumber raita made with 2% (at least) yoghurt.

    I have not seen Sandra Lee’s show but am intrigued by the concept, although it’s obviously not in line with the culinary orthodoxy advocated in the above column. On a related note, I have a friend who wants to write a cookbook based on take out. It would suggest ordering combinations from classic take-out cuisines in urban america and ways of jazzing up the subsequent reheatings.

    Clearly this food thing is a topic for further discussion…

  • Food for Thought

    I am actually a huge fan of the Food Network. Rachel Ray is my girl when it comes to easy, quick dinners that make me look like a good cook for my boyfriend. I agree that the network is contradictory in its display of health-nut substitues between three hour marathons of candy shops.

    What I do not agree with is the blame placed on the Network rather than ourselves for the way we eat and the resulting body fat that takes over our arteries. Also, I don’t find myself making extra trips to the grocery store…its called planning. I make a list before I go to the store every couple of weeks. If I know there is a recipe that I want to try out, I will make sure the ingredients are all on my list. Its almost convenient when one recipe calls for a spice I bought for another recipe. I don’t feel so wasteful at that point.

    I am a huge fan of food. I feel that I should not have to diet to look the way I want. The key is working out, and eating only what makes you full. Now that second one is really hard for me. Ultimately I can’t blame it on the TV show though. It would actually be much smarter for me to eat until I am full, and then save the rest for left overs rather than eating twice my portion size.

    I think the Food Network does a good job of getting some programs on with really down home fatty cooking we all crave sometimes, while reminding us that while there are temptations (Unwrapped) we need to watch out for our own health. Its no one else’s problem. I certainly don’t think we can afford another embarassing lawsuit like “McDonald’s made me fat.”

  • Stuffed

    The only time I ever watch the Food network is ironically whenever I’m someone’s parents house to have dinner. The entire time before dinner the only conversation is about food and dieting all the while we watch the food channel and wait for dinner to be ready. Every time I dine with them I think the same thing Ms. McCarthy does about her friends, “They think about eating and staying thin more than they think about anything else. What’s going on?” If the Food Network did promote healthier eating I doubt it would be as popular, most people I know watch the Food Network just to look at all the nicely decorated or fabulous looking food. To me the Food Network is just a verification of how in the U.S. we are so excessive with food that we have to have an entire channel dedicated to it. The food channel just makes me hungry even when I’m not and reading this article about the food channel has given me the munchies.

  • Food as Entertainment

    The argument seems valid enough, but can we really blame them? It’s called the Food Network. It is exactly what it says it is. A channel based solely on food. While the Food Network does offer us interesting recipes and food history, its main aim seems to be entertainment. I can’t say that I’ve ever watched the channel in an effort to help plan a healthy meal, but I do watch quite often. Not because it’s helpful, but because it is entertaining. The Food Network is aimed to entertain people with all sorts of lifestyles. Some of us are concerned with eating healthy, others are concerned with creating an exciting entre, and others just watch to pick up interesting facts about the history of candy bars. No matter what you tune in for, I’m sure that the Food Network has acheived its share of viewers by simply offering good, clean entertainment that revolves around America’s favorite pastime: Food.

  • Food Food Food

    While I agree that the Food Network’s programming might seem self-contradictory at times, I am personally not offended by it. I think that the network’s decision to put shows like Unwrapped back to back with Alton Brown should not come as a shock at all. The American people are just as fickle with their eating habits in their own lives. I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I (or someone I know) have decided to diet and have fallen off the wagon. You realize that your unhealthy eating habits are going to start affecting you, so you try to make yourself feel better by eating healthy. It’s one way to not feel as guilty. I personally think that it is slightly unrealistic to expect a network to not contradict itself through programming.

    I am not really a fan of the Food Network, but I don’t find the hosts nearly as abrasive as they were made out to be in this letter. Maybe that is simply because I do not watch them on a regular basis. I think that in the case of the Rachel Ray show, it is a good idea for her to teach people how to make some of the fancier dishes in 30 minutes. Most of us already know how to make simple dishes, but it would be nice to be able to make something more special on occasion in a short amount of time. Perhaps the best thing would be for the show teach how to prepare a little bit of both types of meals.

    Americans are going to keep eating what they want despite what the Food Network shows them. After all, Americans love food.

  • At least she didn’t dis Iron Chef

    As much as I enjoy the Food Network (yes, I admit it), I have to agree with some of what Ms. McCarthy has to say about it. It’s hard to watch any show that Alton Brown is hosting, and Rachael Ray annoys me almost to the point that I wish I didn’t have ears. As for its programming, I beg to differ with the author’s complaints. Is there ever a good time to talk about food in this food-obsessed country? As much as the Food Network’s shows make me want to eat, we can all choose to simply change the channel. Most importantly, a heartfelt thanks goes out to Ms. McCarthy for not dogging “Iron Chef” throughout the article. This culinary competition tops the list of my all-time guilty pleasures – I just can’t get enough of it. And yes, Ms. McCarthy, we could all use a little more fennel in our lives.

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  • I was disappointed with Alton after he spent a whole episode NOT making guacamole with avocaodes and then turned around and made tapenade on his olive show. Yawn!

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  • I like very much “CHOPPED”, but the music usaually is SO loud that I can not hear people talking.
    The music is so exhausting, loud, even causing a headache. Why the music is so offensive and aggressive???

  • There is always a two-sided argument present. To me all the things happened in the episode doesn’t seem to me realistic.

  • Anna sounds like a twit! If you don’t like the chefs and what they prepare, stop watching them. I have watched all of them at one time or another and have tried many of their recipes, some I like, some I don’t. Your obsession with fat is nonsense, simply eat it in moderation. This is a much better alternative to eating the tasteless low-fat recipes that are constantly being foisted on us.

  • How did Giada not make this list, she’s at the top of mine and everyone else I know.

  • Tricia….. please do not say spaghetti noodles!!!!! Say either spaghetti OR noodles! Not both. Sounds really ignorant of the English language.

  • Down with Food Network. If I had my way, I would revamp the entire programming on this station. This network at one time quite enjoyable to watch. All of the original “CHEFS” were enjoyable to watch. This network has dropped so bad in the field of professionalism, what with all the reality crap, it’s like watching a circus, and the judges they use to admonish other guests on the show is humiliating. I noticed one so called “CHEF” which he’s not, he’s a con, has “conned” the Food Network into running his show from noon to 3am. How sickening. Come on folks back to some original programming. Be careful, the way cable is going these days, your gonna be all GONE.

  • TacoBell is the great place to get awesome Tacos. Now one can get a chance to win $500 by taking Tell The Bell survey

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