I watched "The Next Food Network Star" followed by "The Next Home & Garden Network Star" last night. There are some reality shows I'm hooked on, some I'm not, and I'm fascinated by the concept that we are watching anything vaguely connected to reality.
Food TV interests me because I love to cook. The new movie Julie & Julia might expose another generation to the phenomenon that was Julia Child, but the movie, charming though it promises to be, is not particularly likely to create an interest in cooking great dishes from scratch, like the original Julia did. In her way, because television was live, Child's public tv offerings were among the first "reality" shows. Not slick, not prepackaged--anything could happen, and we could all count on our dear, dotty Aunt Julia to entertain us by behaving like a real live human being under pressure.
The Next Food Network Star is not anything like Julia Child's show. This session there was very little drama leading up to the selection, and, try as they did to milk that for the finale, it was pretty much a boring love fest except for the presentations of the two contenders. The judges didn't give reasons for their selection, but it's likely they felt they chose the most appropriate new persona for their specific viewing demographic.
You all know I've taken an interest in the glossy "Real Housewives of New Jersey" and will probably give it a look if it returns in the fall. That one, however, seemed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, which was that the housewives began to see there is such a thing as overexposure and they're better off out of the limelight now.
Yesterday's New York Times has an article suggesting that the producers of some of the shows like "Hell's Kitchen" and "The Bachelor" provide the dramatic tension necessary for "good television" by enhancing reality by a combination of witholding creature comforts and providing copious amounts of alcohol. The Times also had an exhaustive article yesterday about the Food Network itself, saying essentially that it is not in place to teach people to cook, but instead to teach them to watch people cook, and to stimulate the kind of interest in food that will send them to gourmet restaurants and sell them status-symbol kitchen appliances and prepackaged foods. It is cooking as entertainment. Most of its lineup is involved with short cuts and sandwich making. In order to induce more men to watch, it has created shows like "Iron Chef" and the many contest shows that clog its schedule. I don't know if a complete novice cook could learn the old-fashioned basics from any of the Food Network offerings.
I learned to cook in two ways: Somebody gave me a basic cookbook as a wedding gift and I decided to cook every recipe in it. A few years later Julia Child came on tv and I refined my knowledge by trying what she demonstrated. I made croissants from scratch after seeing her do it. I made a Yule Log for (and with) my daughter and stepdaughter at ages 6 and 7. And I learned all about wine, cheese, bread, plating, and I cooked dozens of recipes I never heard about as a girl in Lower Alabama with a mother who couldn't care less about food. I came to the conclusion that one of the most effective uses of television was that it could teach people how to cook.
It's a different world now. I live in a place where there are excellent restaurants on every corner and everybody uses takeout as an adjunct to the kitchen, if they ever use their kitchens at all. I'm about to move to an apartment with one of the best-equipped kitchens I've ever had--it's essentially a great kitchen with a few rooms attached. I wonder whether I'll take up where I left off with Julia Child, slinging knives and producing delicate souffles, or slip into old age just watching other people do it on tv. I'm hoping for the former.