Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why Worst Cooks in America May Be the Best Kind of Cooking Show

There’s something gruesome about Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America. Watching it is akin to witnessing a well-lit car-wreck unfold in slow motion—like a lot of reality television, its allure as entertainment lies in the gory, uncomfortable details. In any given episode of Worst Cooks, the viewer is treated to such cringe-worthy, sickening moments as contestant Kat, 37, finding a rotting sardine encased in the stomach of the calamari she’s preparing, its grayish guts squeezed onto the cutting board, or Season Two winner Joshie, 36, accidentally slicing his hand open and bleeding all over his seafood filling.

It seems a straightforward enough premise: divide 16 hapless, hopeless cooks into two teams, assign them culinary mentors, and unleash them on the kitchen. This is a model that Food Network (along with Bravo, TLC and Fox) has perfected: a high-pressure, high-stress foodie race to the finish. These shows (Top Chef, Iron Chef America and especially Chopped) celebrate the ability to perform outrageous feats of gastronomic wizardry in ever-shrinking amounts of time. Unfortunately, this approach comes at the expense of meticulous, deliberate cooking. There’s no drama to be wrung from slow-food, and primetime has no use for patience.

So what’s awry about amateurs’ night in Kitchen Stadium? Here are 16 people who have managed to reach adulthood without conquering that one most fundamental skill of living: feeding themselves. How did this happen? Carlos, 28, blames his mother’s babying. Others say a full-time job or talented partner is the culprit. Some, like Kelsey, 23, have genuine cooking-phobia. Kelsey’s is the product of an incident with a gas grill and several bouts of self-inflicted food poisoning.

In a microwaveable, prepackaged 21st century world, Worst Cooks’ contingent of clumsy, clueless competitors comes as no surprise. The idea that their survival depends on a combination of TV dinners and Big Macs doesn’t faze us. In fact, it seems singularly normal. But seen through clearer eyes (our grandmothers,’ perhaps) the trend encapsulated by Worst Cooks in America is a very strange phenomenon, one unprecedented in all of human history.

Less than a third of Americans cook dinner from scratch regularly, and half of all meals consumed at home are takeout or delivery. 8% of people report that they do not cook at all. Last year, Americans collectively spent more on fast food than they did on education.

There are many reasons for the dilapidated state of the American home kitchen. Is the rise of food competition TV shows among them? It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of question, because it’s also possible that the media are merely reflecting an already present cultural shift. Still, there’s an argument to be made that they do at least perpetuate the problem.

These days, cooking shows that fall into the how-to category are relegated to the morning and early afternoon; they’ve become dinosaurs of the genre, targeted at an older, old-fashioned demographic. Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa is a classic example. Garten spends most episodes at home, fastidiously preparing meals for her working husband. It’s a daily half-hour time warp, with Garten playing the role of 1950s housewife doting on gainfully employed spouse.

If Barefoot Contessa is the past, Worst Cooks in America is the future. Worst Cooks relies on the established tropes of food reality TV, in which cooking is a professional sport, an activity best left to experts and observed from a distance. They drive the point home with panels of haughty connoisseurs, who take dainty tastes and dispense minute judgments. In an interview, Season One champion Rachel, 23, said she was “scared out her mind” at the finale because she was about to be evaluated by “people who eat for a living.”

That so many need to be taught how to cook is beyond disconcerting, it’s abnormal. Society has divorced us from our food and convinced us that the separation is natural, when it is anything but. We don’t know where our food comes from, how to prepare it or how much of it to eat. In a few short decades, we’ve nearly obliterated centuries of culinary tradition, rules and customs that had been carefully preserved and passed on for generations. Instead, we look to nutritionists (with their constantly changing and often shoddily researched recommendations) for guidance, and are bewildered when their advice turns out to be little more than a veiled commercial endorsement.

It’s pretty obvious we’ve been led astray: pollution, obesity, allergies, and food poisoning are all on the upswing, and there are numerous other problems cropping up that are tangentially linked to poor diet. If our surrogate-grandmothers are false idols, whom can we trust to right this growing crisis?

Some of the soundest counsel comes from author Michael Pollan, who preaches never to eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, and to avoid anything advertised as “healthy,” as that’s usually a surefire means of identifying products that are pumped with hormones, colorings and chemicals.

Worst Cooks in America may actually be a blessing in disguise. It might be just another cooking competition, but it is also the only one that advocates ordinary people taking a stab at dinner, using fresh ingredients and a host of vegetables and fish. And while it is a TV show (and therefore tied to the sedentary lifestyle at the root of the issue,) anything with the potential to motivate Americans to get off the couch and into the kitchen is worth supporting.

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