Dream Cuisine

The therapeutic value of food.

The Food Network has a jolly, sybaritic insularity, like some fantasy island where existence revolves around meals. The natives have their knives sharpened and ingredients ready; they greet you and chatter and hold up exotic fruits and meats; they chop things and swirl them in pans and put them in ovens and take them out (instantly!) all browned and puffy and luscious-looking. Nothing of the outside world intrudes, nor is it meant to. There is a “news” show, but it reports exclusively on edibles; a live call-in show where the calls go something like this: “I just made a blueberry buckle, and when I took it out of the oven, the whole thing collapsed in the center”; even a game show. Bertolt Brecht might have viewed this as a nightmarish outgrowth of the “culinary theater,” which was his term for the pap that he claimed hypnotized and neutralized the bourgeoisie. But TV, no matter how you labor to exalt it, is a drug, and at least this channel gives you lots of ideas for fabulous dinner parties.

Housewives were the principal audience for cooking shows once, and they probably still are, but the Food Network (which premiered, in much cruder form, in late 1993) runs all day and most of the night, and men I know curl up with their mates to watch, transfixed. Apart from Debbie Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies fame, blonde and sugary and wholesome in the Stepford Wife mode, none of the chefs evokes a stereotypical gender ideal. The psychology is more complex. Last year, during a depressive episode, I was a Food Network junkie myself, lost in pipe dreams of whipping up marvels for my girlfriend, my buddies, the odd stranger. (The network has a bounteous Web site, which gives you instant access to its recipes.) In my depths, the channel seemed to me to be the TV equivalent of comfort food, perhaps even TV in its purest incarnation–no stories, no stars, just an escape into pleasure.

T>he Food Network has produced its own celebrity chefs, though, and the brightest offer models for a more generous, sensual life–a design for pleasing. For me the exemplar is David Rosengarten, host of a cooking show called Taste and co-host (with Donna Hanover, who doubles as the first lady of New York City) of In Food Today. Bearded, with the soft, amorphous physique of a practiced epicurean, Rosengarten manages to come off not as a fey little know-it-all but as someone whose left brain is wired to his taste buds, who can experience ecstasy and offer a running commentary too. In the first act of Taste, Rosengarten gives a snap history of an ingredient or dish. In the middle act, he cooks, dexterously. The climax is a variation on an old Galloping Gourmet routine. Rosengarten dons a jacket and tie and sits down to sample his creation, which he has matched scrupulously with a wine. “Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm,” he purrs, taking a languorous pause to masticate and swallow. “Oooh, that is just outrageous. … That’s great food. … That will make anyone happy. …” He’s the cat who swallowed the canary and then chased it with Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Judging by his cookbook sales, a lot of folks are enamored of Emeril Lagasse, a New Orleans restaurateur with south-of-Boston diction and the hambone proletarianism of a summer-stock gangster. He’s so bizarre that he’s a hoot. On The Essence of Emeril, Lagasse buttonholes the camera like a barker in an old 3-D horror movie. To drive home the point that this is spicy fare, he pitches a fingerful of “essence”–a vaguely Cajun melange of paprika, garlic powder, cayenne, and herbs–into a pan and bellows “Bam! Bam!” as if he’s going to bonk Fred Flintstone with a club. “Oooh, baby!” he continues, scooping the air with his index finger, “You wanna talk about delicious!” The gestures are spasmodic, unnatural, yet Emeril achieves an odd fluidity; he transcends the sum of his mannerisms.

And on they come, a parade of chefs, each with his or her own act, each trying to cram his or her own personality and brand of culinary panache into an often ungainly high-concept package. The mild, lucid Mario Batali is hyped as the star of Molto Mario, a non-singing Pavarotti of the range top. Two tepid female chefs, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, become Too Hot Tamales. A summer buddy show called Grillin’ and Chillin’ features a Hee Haw country boy, Jack McDavid, and a Don Johnsonesque city slicker, Bobby Flay (who runs Mesa Grill and Bolo in New York City). On How To Boil Water, comedian Sean Donnellan behaves like a self-infatuated first-grader while the buttoned-up Cathy Lowe–ostensibly his mentor–leans away with her hands behind her back, wearing a faint look of disgust. (SHE: “You might have to grease the griddle again.” HE: “Watch your mouth.”) For mysterious reasons, the network has opted to rerun that ghastly racist cartoon Yan Can Cook (it used to crop up on PBS), with its eponymous host who minces ginger to audience applause and gets yucks with lines like, “One chicken bleast prus one chicken bleast equal … two chicken bleast!” In this context, the gentle Cooking Right is a balm: a tinkling arpeggio, a garden, and a host (John Ash) who looks as if he once taught wood shop in high school.

T>he Food Network is more hapless yet with its non-cooking shows. On Dining Around, satiny blonde Nina Griscom and helplessly dweebish Alan Richman sit in a studio over undisturbed glasses of wine and introduce video footage of trendy U.S. restaurants. The accompanying narration is boilerplate PR, but the cameras do poke around in the kitchens, and I get a kick out watching all those pots and pans on all those blazing burners. Then it’s back to Nina and Alan, who muse on the significance of what we have just seen with a note of portentousness, like Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters on, say, presidential character. “Has the crusting of salmon gone too far?” asks Alan, concerned. “Well,” says Nina, wrinkling her pretty brow, “It’s certainly out there a lot. I think if it’s done well, it’s great. If it’s not … not …” She concludes, “A lotta crusting going on.”

Just when you’re narcotized by drivel like this, a pick-me-up comes in the shape of the game show Ready…Set…Cook. Here, two members of a studio audience provide two chefs with a handful of ingredients, and we watch as these artists compete to create the most ingenious dish in a nerve-jangling 20 minutes. (The chefs must also contend with a clueless, though game, MC, who is being replaced in October.) Watching them scramble can change your view of cooking, which no longer seems an occasion for rigid, follow-the-recipe timorousness, but for disciplined improvisation, a kind of Zen zaniness. The show embodies what’s best about this weirdly addictive network, with its wizards and alchemists and nattering impresarios. The miracles happen live, before your eyes, on one of the few places on television where what’s being served up doesn’t look as if it came out of a can.