Puzzling Thoughts

Heather says:

Riddle me this:

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? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali andMartha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.

This question was posed by Michael Pollan in a recent post on the New York Time’s site.

If we have time to sit on our butts and watch people cook, why can’t we find the time to hone the skill ourselves? Have we gotten so used to living vicariously that we’re content to enjoy even basic skills vicariously?

Or alternately, have we become such perfectionists that we’re willing to accept mediocre over the possibility of failure?

It’s a mad, mad world, my friends.


  1. Judith on August 14, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Cooking shows were an obsession with me for a while (we won’t go into the depression story now ……) but I’ve always enjoyed reading about cooking as well (I, too read cookbooks, like my mother did.) Mom never taught me to cook, but she did teach me to love to eat!

    But I think the cooking shows are less important to me now because I’m finally actually cooking ………… well, I’ve cooked for years, but it was basic stuff, with lots of cream of mushroom soup sorts of ingredients. But by watching Alton and Sara and Mario and Rachel and Emeril I’ve gained a knowledge of technique and a certain modicum of derring-do ………. just tonight I made pork chops with a yummy sauce (apricot preserves, dijon mustard, garlic, soy sauce), sliced some yellow squash and onion into a saute pan with garlic, oil, and butter, and steamed some little red potatoes. YUM, YUM, YUM.
    Could not have had that when the kids were small because I raised them on cream of mushroom soup concoctions (sorry, kids). But hubs and I are enjoying my new-found cooking confidence!

  2. Nancy on August 4, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    A friend introduced me to Good Eats, and it did push me to try things I would not have otherwise done – like making my own sausage. But, now that I have seen most of them, I find that I would rather cook than watch TV.

  3. NGS on August 4, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Did you hear Pollan’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air today? He talked a bit about how the evolution of the cooking show has changed with our changing eating habits. Julia Child’s show had little to no editing – so you sat with her and she chatted while the butter melted and the onions cooked. If you watch those shows today, each step is fast paced and very unlike how actual cooking is. It makes sense that watching it on tv is so much easier to do than actually doing!! It was an interesting discussion and it made me sit down and figure out how much time I spent cooking today!!

  4. ThatBobbieGirl on August 3, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I’ve pondered these same things myself. Hopefully, those who watch rather than cook are actually soaking up some techniques that they can try out when push comes to shove and they simply must cook because otherwise they will starve. Then again, perhaps, I hope too much there.

    When I ran off and got married (literally) I knew enough to keep us from starving, but there was tons I had no clue about. This was 1986 – no food network, but there was PBS. I watched every cooking show I could find – Jeff Smith (Frugal Gourmet) and Justin Wilson were my favorites. I learned so much watching Jeff Smith. The Frug taught me tons, and I bought his first 4 cookbooks. Then i just kept buying cookbooks. I read a cookbook like most people read novels – start at the beginning and go thru to the end.

    When I was in the hospital for 7 weeks in 1999 (appendicitis with lots of complications) I was not allowed food for most of that time. After the first couple weeks (when I regained conciousness) I would watch Food Network. By that time I really enjoyed cooking, but since I was unable to cook or eat, it was strangely comforting to watch people doing both. Tiny little Sara Moulton and big Mario Batalli were my favorites, and Emeril was entertaining. Bobby Flay, on the other hand, made me not mind when my roommate wanted to watch wrestling instead. He is just annoying!

    And I just had to look this up to share – if you’ve never seen Dan Aykroyd’s version of Julia Child on SNL in the seventies, go watch it here:


    • Ceci on August 3, 2009 at 3:15 pm

      What no Yan Can Cook? Maybe he wasn’t on PBS, but i know he was on in ’86 becasue that was my mothers test on if we were really sick or if we just wanted to stay home from school. When we would sit and watch Yan Can Cook without complaining, she knew we were really sick.

      • ThatBobbieGirl on August 3, 2009 at 4:51 pm

        I know I’ve watched that too, but don’t remember when. I pretty much watched whatever cooking show I was able to find.

        We haven’t had TV reception for 10 years now, so I only see cooking shows if we’re at someone else’s house and they happen to have it on. The only one I would really watch regularly if I could would be Alton Brown. He’s the right combination of quirky and cool and smart.

  5. Sánodr on August 3, 2009 at 10:40 am

    We’re entertainment junkies. When we’re not sharing every nuance and minutia of our humdrum lives on the interwebs with people too concerned about their own humdrum lives to care about ours, we live to be entertained. We especially like entertainment in such a form as it appears to inform or teach us, so we can justify being entertained more by saying we’re doing something productive. Cooking is not entertaining (to most of us, at any rate), but watching cooking is.

    • Heather on August 3, 2009 at 11:25 am

      What, Sándor?
      Are you saying I overshare? I know I do 😉
      I see absolutely no harm in entertainment until it degrades my quality of life. Cooking can be boring, especially if someone is doing so for ungrateful people. However, so are so many of our other chores in life, basic hygiene isn’t the highlight of my day, but we do it, because the consequences become apparent quickly.
      I guess the consequences of this question don’t happen quickly enough to be of great concern in a world that thrives on perceived drama and “emergency” situations.
      I kind of wish the PSA ads about making small choices showed the end result of uncontrolled diabetes. Maybe that’s something we need to see as camp in front of the tube.

  6. Angela on August 3, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Why I watch… I simply envy those people that can cook. I have gotten better, not by watching, but by doing, but it is still fun to watch them, that make it seam almost magical sometimes. I am also the one to watch those crazy house shows and I don’t even own a house, so go figure. I am still learning the line between making it from scratch and not.

  7. Vera on August 3, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Intriguing question. I love to watch cooking shows, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Julie and Julia, but I’d probably never eat home cooked foods if my husband didn’t do it.

    Like Keter said, on television everything is perfect with the latest gadgets, freshest foods, and few if any mishaps.

    I do keep things in mind, and I learn a lot from the shows, just haven’t gotten around to actually cooking just yet.

  8. Stacy on August 3, 2009 at 2:25 am

    I think the initial questions are very valid for our society, and it doesn’t relate only to cooking. I have a very troubled relationship with TV. On the one hand, I was raised at babysitters whose basic caretaking technique was to sit me in front of the TV. I watched TONS of tv, and to this day I find it very comforting to veg in front of it. On the other hand, my brain and my ethics lead me to reject the way we over-consume, over-validate, and over-…I dunno..over-everything what we see on TV. We watch and watch and watch, and I think, live, reason, and do less and less and less.

    Okay, I went on a big rant there. Anyway, I agree that we do live, much too often, vicariously rather than live and in person. On the other hand, I can contradict myself at the same time and say that I have definitely been inspired to try several of Alton Brown’s recipes after watching “Good Eats.”

    • Carol on August 3, 2009 at 2:38 am

      I read the article too, and I think part of the dichtomy is the day time shows do actually show how to cook things but the evening shows do not. I think a lot of the shows make it seem to difficult to make good AND visually appealing food. Why should I, a home cook, have to worry about plating? My mom didn’t really cook (and was mindboggled that I make pancakes and waffles from scratch) Needing to save money certainly helped me learn to cook. (Although I no longer make our own bread.)

    • Heather on August 3, 2009 at 7:28 am

      I adore Good Eats, but we canceled cable when we moved to our current home. I realized recently that it has been five years. I enjoy watching while I’m on the treadmill at the gym. I do find a lot of irony in the idea that I’m pushing myself to become healthier while drooling over food.
      That said, I have issues with a lot of the shows using difficult ingredients. I live in a small to medium town in the South. If I have to drive to Charleston to find an ingredient I know a large portion of the population may not have access, either. That’s why most of the recipes unless otherwise noted (some Fearless Fridays for example) are as simple as possible.
      However, I don’t go for the 5 ingredient gimmick, as so often those include a seasoning packet or cream of something soup, both of which contain many ingredients with quite a few that shouldn’t be part of our daily diet.
      I don’t use any gimmicks. All of the recipes here are real foods that my family eats. For a long time, I had one white plate to use for pictures, then one of the kids broke it (a happy here, let me tell you).
      Internet cooking sites have raised the expectations of food photography and I’m trying to keep up, but I promise that I will never doctor the food for an appealing image. These recipes are made to be eaten. I don’t want to have a novice cook aiming for a meal that cannot be recreated.

  9. kathleen on August 2, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    I agree with Jolene!

    I received absolutely zero cooking instructions growing up – by the time I was 8 my overworked mom had had enough of us turning up our noses at her hockey puck style meats and waterlogged veggies. From that point on we were on our own. It wasn’t until after college (~10yrs ago) that I found the Food Network and learned about roasting, sauteing, broiling, steaming, whipping, folding, kneading…

    Life is much better with the skills I picked from my tv!

    • Heather on August 2, 2009 at 10:23 pm

      That is exactly why we started this site. What Pollan is saying though is even though the information has become more accessible, people are turning to fast food in greater numbers. As in, buying McD’s and sitting on the couch while Emeril entertains.

  10. Keter on August 2, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    The obvious answer is that the TV shows kitchens are all well lit, full of great appliances, and the food is always prepped and ready to go (mise en place) and somebody else has to clean it up afterward.

    I find cooking to be relaxing, now that my kitchen is at least semi-usable (it was an absolute disaster area and I’m about half done remodeling it) and now that I have finally assembled a full set of reliable, good quality cookware, utensils, serving pieces and dishes. (That only took me 30 years to do…well, I’m still missing a good mixer. Soon.) Making do is always unpleasant and particularly in the case of knives, can be downright dangerous. It also takes a lot of the pleasure out of cooking a good meal if it has to be served on ugly, mismatched plates.

    Another reason cooking on TV is more appealing than cooking in real life may be exhaustion, pain, and child interruptions. All of the physical discomfort things are generally more tolerable from the couch. If you glance out of the window to discover that your “napping” toddler has just learned how to work the safety latches on the window in his bedroom and is running down the street stark naked, you’re a lot less likely to set the house on fire while you’re chasing after him in a panic if you’re engaged in “virtual” as opposed to actual cooking at the time! (Um…voice of almost-experience – I ran home, my son tucked under one arm like a football, and caught the smoking skillet just in time. We ate ramen that night because that that was the last of our real food, too.)

  11. Jolene on August 2, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Watching the food network has inspired us to cook a LOT more. My 10 year old son and 12 year old daughter developed a passion for cooking. My only job is to print recipes they find online and then to supervise and offer suggestions while sitting back and letting them prepare meals! It’s awesome!

    • Heather on August 2, 2009 at 10:21 pm

      If Pollan’s statistics are accurate you are the exception to the rule. I have not read his book In Defense of Food. I should put it on my list.

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