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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Michael Pollan on Food Television

Several weeks ago, just before "Julie and Julia" hit the movie theaters, Michael Pollan came out with a long (as usual) article in the New York Times about the evolution of food television. In Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch Pollan traces (and criticizes) the long way that food television has gone since Julia Child first appeared on public television some 45 years ago and tries to answer the question "How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?". I recommend reading the article - it is lengthy but it makes some very interesting points. He starts with his own experience watching Julia Child when he was young and the courage she gave American women, goes through the mass exodus of women out of the kitchen and into the work force and the post-war effort to get us all to eat military rations (very successful effort indeed), looks at our life today where we spend only 27 minutes a day on average cooking and ~ 2 hours watching television and discusses what the future holds - will we go back in the kitchen?

I'd never watched Julia Child myself, until yesterday. I was surfing the channels on TV and came across the public TV station and lo and behold, it wad Julia Child in black and white making bouillabaisse. She cleaned the fish, made the soup and then sat at the table, poured herself a glass of wine and showed viewers how to serve and eat the magical concoction. It was fascinating, and extremely educational. I now feel that if the need should arise, I can make bouillabaisse. That sense of having learned something is vary rarely the result of watching the Food Network these days. After that experience I very much agree with Michael Pollen that food television is no longer about learning how to cook but rather about watching other people cook and/or eat. I was also struck with how accurate Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julia Child was - her manners, her voice and intonation were so perfect. Rarely have I seen such a striking resemblance on screen (Salma Hayek as Frida Khalo is another one which comes to mind). Also, I was struck with how thin Julia Child was. Honestly, for someone who uses butter with such unbridled generosity, I thought she'd be a bit more.... plump.

But back to Michael Pollan. A large portion of the article is devoted to a detailed criticism of The Food Network. As I recently acquired cable subscription for the first time in my life, I, too, was struck with the content of most cooking shows. It's been two months since I have been watching The Food Network and I have not yet cooked a single thing I have seen there. Granted I usually turn the TV on in the evening when The Food Network is all about the race against the clock than about showing you how to cook. But even during the day (as in right now, on Sunday afternoon) the shows are about quick, cheap and easy "dump-and-stir" meals which promote the culture of cheap food and how to wow your family and guests with as little effort as possible. What if you want to wow them with some quality food that goes beyond fried chicken breasts you bought on sale for 50% off? Which reminds me that I recently heard an interview with Ellen Ruppel Shell, the author of Cheap - The Hight Cost of Discount Culture and it sounded fascinating. Check it out.

What do you think of food television today? Do you watch it? What do you watch? If you have had the chance to read Michael Pollan's article - what did you think? What struck you the most? Do you agree or disagree with it?

PS. A nearly complete list of Michael Pollan's works (including links to articles) can be found here (scroll down for the articles). Here are two which particularly appealed to me:A Letter to the Farmer in Chief and Unhappy Meals.

PPS. And if you, like me, have never see the original Julia Child series The French Chef, 36 of the original episodes have been published in two DVD box sets which are available on Amazon (Set 1 and Set 2) and on Netflix. You know, Christmas is coming and wouldn't these make wonderful presents for your favorite foodie?


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