June 26, 2009

BOOKS: Watching What We Eat, Kathleen Collins (2009)

For as long as there has been television, there have been television cooking shows, and Collins gives us an informative history of the genre.

For the most part, Collins takes a decade-by-decade approach, focusing in particular on one iconic figure from each decade -- Julia Child, Graham Kerr, and Jeff Smith represent the 60s, 70s, and 80s, for instance. Once she reaches the 90s and the birth of the Food Network -- what she calls the "modern era" of TV cookery -- that approach no longer works, as there are simply too many names to consider, and no single chef dominated those decades in quite the same way. (I think you could make a strong case for Emeril Lagasse as the TV chef of the 90s and Rachael Ray for the current decade.)

The great philosophical debate that has always dominated TV cooking has been education vs. entertainment. Is it better to demonstrate proper technique and elaborate recipes at the risk of intimidating the viewer, or to provide user-friendly convenience at the risk of dumbing down the recipes? That tension has been present since the beginning; in the 50s, the sides were represented by the very formal Dione Lucas and the more casual Poppy Cannon, who believed that a can opener was one of a cook's most important tools. Think of them as the Martha Stewart and the Sandra Lee of their era.

Collins' writing style is a bit on the stodgy and dry side, and I occasionally found myself wishing that she'd let herself have more fun with her material. It never descends into that pompous academic style that marks the dissertation-turned-book, though, and it's not difficult reading so much as it is bland. But it is a thorough and interesting history, and I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic.

No comments: