2000s Archive

The Joy of Looking

Originally Published June 2000
Veteran film-and-television critic and reluctant cook Judith Crist channel surfs through food TV.

This is the way my century ended, not with a bang or even a whimper but with a “bam!” from the most popular chef-performer in the nation, and the sizzles, stirrings, and chop-chops from grills and stoves on stage sets and in TV cooks’ home kitchens. I’m not alone: Some 60 million American households are enthralled by the sounds and sights, if not the smells, thereof, courtesy of local, network, cable, and public television stations.

It has not always been so, this mass preoccupation with food and cookery. Of course there were the great chefs, the great restaurants, the great and small gourmets, and Mom’s home cooking, great and not so great. There were even a limited number of cookbooks: I remember as a child finding one of the very few, on our kitchen shelf, the Borzoi Cookbook, and opening it to a recipe that began, “Take one suckling pig…” I uttered the then equivalent of “gross!” and did not resort to a cookbook for more than 20 years.

My mother, a librarian who had given up her career for housewifery, always felt I had “better things to do” than develop kitchen skills, but somewhere along the way I learned to make chopped liver and a chocolate cake encased in thick cocoa-and-butter icing—both of which you could die for then and probably die from now. When I married I did have the ability to boil water, fry an egg, and broil a chop, but not the courage to use a wedding-present pressure cooker, the in appliance of the day. My husband did: It was he who experimented with the thing, passing some of what he learned on to me.

And so the pressure-cooker cookbook and others (bless The Joy of Cooking!) became this working wife’s and working mother’s prime supports. Beyond the books there were food columnists to be read, the most inspiring in mid-century the great Clementine Paddleford, whose mouthwatering pieces were the pride of the New York Herald Tribune worked. There were recipes to be clipped—and perhaps even followed—from newspapers and magazines, and to be traded with friends and relatives. My mother-in-law’s put me off with “butter the size of a walnut” or “as much flour as needed.” And neither my brother nor I could ever duplicate Aunt Mollie’s fabulous potato kugel. As the century progressed, there were also—not on a working woman’s schedule—cooking segments and programs on radio and television.

And then came Julia Child, certainly the star of cookery gone public—on, in fact, public television. With her debut in the winter of 1963 as The French Chef, she set an extraordinarily high standard for that mix of culinary art, exposition, and personality that is the hallmark of a good cooking program. The First Lady of food shows, now 87 and as feisty, carnivorous, and pro-butter as ever, is still going strong in her eighth series for public television, a 22-parter, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Julia’s home. Jacques, of course, is Jacques Pépin, the French-born chef whose current, sixth series, Jacques Pépin’s Kitchen: Encore with Claudine, teams him with his daughter, who knows a lot about wine but could use a few pointers on making a plum cobbler.

The success of child, the public-broadcasting mother of it all, has been a major factor in the proliferation of cooking shows. And in that continuing proliferation lies the paradox: all these lessons, demonstrations, talk-abouts, and how-tos in the course of a century that in its final decade had fewer and fewer family cooks.

Of course, fewer cooks mean more mothers like mine—unable to pass on kitchen wisdom to their offspring. Someone has to teach us how to bake a cherry pie, which means we need cookbooks and cooking shows more than ever. A major source is the Food Network, which was launched in November 1993, 30 years after Julia Child’s debut. It got off to a rocky start, with a mere 6 million households tuned in, and wound up the century with more than 45 million. It’s currently offering more than 30 programs, with some repeats, between 9:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. on weekdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends—far beyond the more normal hours on public broadcasting and local and network stations.

In its statement of “philosophy,” Food Network declares, “Food is the ultimate social and emotional connection, and Food Network is well connected, with shows that touch, reach, teach, and, above all else, entertain.” Put that last word in italics. The man who put “bam!” in the national vocabulary when he added spices to his concoctions, Emeril Lagasse, a respected chef and restaurateur, is the network’s star: His hour-long Emeril Live is on at least twice a day seven days a week. His casual approach to cuisine, his cavalier manner in mixing, his scattering of information (“Canapés [which he pronounces variably as “canapeas” and “canapay”] comes from the word for ‘sofa’ or ‘couch,’ so you can lay something on them”), his catchphrases (“Kick it up a notch”), his naughty-boy–connoisseur attitude toward matters alcoholic (“Life’s too short to drink bad wine”), all bring applause and laughter and oohs and aahs from his studio audience of all ages. Entertainment? Suffice it to say that while there are about a thousand requests a week for recipes, there were some 500,000 first-day requests for tickets when this show was opened to a studio audience in 1997.

judith crist,
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