A few days ago salon.com ran an article explaining why Guy Fieri has ruined the Food Network. It is true that Guy’s most famous show, “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” isn’t exactly an icon of culinary artistry. This is the show where the loud blond guy with spiky hair drives around the country in a red convertible visiting local restaurants and heading back into stainless steel kitchens to watch the cook make vats of chili or mounds of carne asada or enough pulled pork to feed the invading hordes of Rome.
The Salon article complains about how Guy yells at the viewers, “ranting like an imbecile on fire,” while stuffing food into his face. I can’t argue with any of that. But I actually like watching recipes come together with things like 1/2 cup of garlic powder, five pounds of beef, a dozen onions and an entire bottle of ketchup stirred in a pot the size of a hot tub with a paddle you could use to spank sumo wrestlers. The whole concoction usually gets slid into the oven for two hours, no matter what is being made: this seems to be the magical time frame. Whatever comes out usually looks pretty tasty, and Guy always takes a big drippy, greasy bite, smacks his lips and says something like “That’s killer!”
They run “Diners, Drive-ins and Drives” on local cable here in Botswana, which is odd since the restaurants profiled are literally on the other side of the world and viewers will almost certainly never have the opportunity to visit a single one. The show is also not doing America any favors in fighting our global stereotype of a diabetic nation shovelling in huge portions of food composed largely of melted cheese. But I don’t hate the show, and plenty of times it makes me homesick (in particular, when Guy is visiting any restaurant that serves green chile enchiladas).
I like to watch cooking shows while I eat my lunch. Even if I am just having a hard-boiled egg and a sandwich on a Saturday afternoon, watching people on TV make rosemary-crusted roasts, goat cheese tarts, and limoncello mint granita imbues every bite of my boring meal with better flavor. I don’t really care about anything else on television, but I would miss the Food Network. This is why I happily pay the equivalent of sixty bucks a month for the pleasure of Botswana cable, even though many of the channels are filled with melodramatic South African soap operas or Nigerian movies where people are sobbing in 80% of the scenes.
My love affair with cooking shows has been a long one. I adored watching Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on PBS when I was home sick from school even as a kid: laying on the couch under a tattered afghan while Julia screeched for more “Butteeeer!” and Jacques sliced and diced in a French accent so thick I only caught half of it.
Today’s cooking shows take you deep into the action: close-ups on hands catching squeezed lemon seeds, each succulent chop through a juicy cantaloupe, the powdery thump of dough hitting the board. My favorite chef is the Barefoot Contessa, whose real name is Ina Garten and who looks nothing whatsoever like a Contessa. She is plump and round with a blunt short haircut and kind face, and her wardrobe is composed exclusively of voluminous, freshly pressed button-up blouses in all the colors of the rainbow. Her story is that she used to have a high-powered job as a nuclear policy analyst in the White House, but she realized her favorite part of her life was throwing elaborate dinner parties. So she quit and moved to East Hampton, bought a specialty food store and learned how to make 300 scones a day. Twenty years later, she has churned out stacks of beautifully photographed cookbooks and has her own show. Her style is Hamptons’ elegance all the way: each week Ina prepares lunch for a rotating chorus of her adoring and stylish best friends, all of whom have their own special skills such as gardening or flower arranging to bring to the table.
Ina’s show is set in her real kitchen: she strolls into her real herb garden to pick bunches of parsley and basil, and she makes gorgeous meals of effortless perfection for her real circle of friends. Her recipe for borscht, my favorite thing to watch her make, is generous with cream, as are most of her recipes, and she roasts and peels the beets herself, adding sprigs of delicate chopped dill and chunks of pure yellow butter like it is Christmas. You can tell she eats what she cooks: I think she has the best credibility.
It is hard not to compare her with Italian goddess Giada (“At Home with Giada”) whose show comes on right before hers. Giada speaks rapturously about butter, good wine, cream, and olive oil, but it’s clear she doesn’t eat an ounce of it. The woman is all chest on a tiny frame with a mouthful of white teeth in a freakishly large smile. She makes Italian-Californian fusion and takes huge bites of every dish when it is done, but I’m pretty sure she spits it all out in a steel bowl hidden under the table as soon as the cameras stop.
Paula Deen (“Paula’s Best Recipes”) doesn’t spit anything out. Her body shape is in the mold of the Barefoot Contessa, but her style is pure Southern comfort, from her copper-kettle and pine kitchen to recipes for shrimp po’boys, baked potato soup, and pineapple upside down cake. Of course these days Paula is most famous for being a racist and dreaming up weddings with offensive plantation themes. But even before that awful news broke, it was clear Paula had a certain disregard for decency. Ina would never use canned fruit: Paula uses it and then drinks the juice. She deep-fries something on almost every episode even after it was announced that she has diabetes. She not-so-secretly smokes and appeared on Dr. Oz a couple of years ago declaring “It’s time for me to get healthy, y’all,” but when she starts a recipe with a “little” olive oil it is still a 5 or 6-glug affair.
Then there’s Food Network’s offering from this part of the world: Siba’s Table, in which a gorgeous young South African woman makes crispy baked gammons and towering fruity trifles against the backdrop of Cape Town’s shining mountains. Siba makes South African fusion food, like peppadew dip or mfino fritters, turning a humble staple like maize meal into a fancy treat garnished with smoked salmon and crème fraiche. It is a pleasure just to listen to her cultured, soothing voice while she sautés a medley of vegetables and reminds us “we are a rainbow nation after all—a little color won’t hurt.” Classy, elegant, and understated—Siba is everything Guy Fieri isn’t (not to mention Paula Deen). So naturally, you can’t watch her show on the Food Network in the United States. However, ten episodes just launched on the Cooking Channel, so soon you should be able to see Siba’s grace for yourself and also learn how to pronounce “potjieko.”
|Photo from http://www.spunkymindfood.be/
I especially like Siba’s show because she gets most of her ingredients from local grocery store chain Woolworth’s (I recognize the packaging). This makes hers the only show where I can source all of the necessary items for the recipe right here in Botswana. Of course, actually making the recipes is a small or non-existent part of the cooking show experience, as Michael Pollan and others have noted (“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?”). But when I lust after the Contessa’s delicious ginger cookies with molasses and candied ginger, I want to make and taste them myself, which is mighty hard unless some kind person wants to mail me these pantry items by slow boat African post and I want to wait two months to receive them.
If I had my own cooking show I would wear my comfy yoga pants, talk gloriously about farmers’ market vegetables, and then show everyone how to make a quesadilla, since that’s pretty much what I make every day. I would demonstrate to the viewers how to balance a toddler on one hip while hauling tortillas and cheese out of the fridge, highlight how much friendly yellow Labradors enjoy scraps of avocado dropped on the floor, and note helpfully to the audience how everything comes out better when you are munching on little squares of dark chocolate while cooking to keep your blood sugar up. It would be a hit I’m sure.