This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, TV Dinners, first released on February 2, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
JULIA CHILD: Julia Child presents, the chicken sisters! Miss Broiler, Miss Fryer, Miss Roaster, Miss Caponette, Miss Stewer, and old madam hen.
MAN: Here’s a grilling tip from Bobby Flay.
BOBBY FLAY: What could be better than lobster on the grill? I just love the rich, creamy flavor. However, there is a trick to making it perfect.
BENJAMINA: I have cried over cake.
TOM: I’ve shouted at pie.
SELASI: I think I’m too laid back.
KATE: I think I was about to give birth the last time I felt this nervous. [LAUGHS]
NICOLA TWILLEY: They may be nervous but I am in nirvana when a new season of Bake Off begins. If you know me, you know that Bake Off is my food TV. All I need is cake.
CYNTHIA GRABER: It’s such an integral part of Gastropod that we basically created an entire episode that let us hang out and fangirl with Bake Off stars—if you haven’t heard it you should definitely check out The Great Gastropod Pudding-Off.
TWILLEY: I’ll be honest, I could actually watch people making cake sculptures of Freddie Mercury’s head all day.
GRABER: Oh my god, I can picture this as you say it—that Freddie Mercury head was amazing.
TWILLEY: I nearly cried when I watched it. Geoff thought I was having an emotional breakdown. But as it turns out, there is more than cake on our TV screens. You can, if you want, watch food on the small screen all day long and all night too.
GRABER: It’s not even just the Food Network—in America, you can watch food TV on PBS, the Travel Channel, Netflix, YouTube…
TWILLEY: Probably the kids are watching it on TikTok too.
GRABER: Not that we would know. But this got us wondering: what is it about food TV that is so incredibly captivating? Why do we care about watching other people cook and eat?
TWILLEY: What was the very first food TV show—Bake-Off’s long lost ancestor? Would we even recognize it? Were they making Freddie Mercury heads out of cake back then?
GRABER: Um, Freddie Mercury wasn’t alive when televisions were first invented. But anyway. How has food TV changed over time?
TWILLEY: And how has it changed us? Us all, not just us Gastropod.
GRABER: That’s right, you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we’re taking a spin around the dial. Which sounds medieval, but believe us when we say: TVs used to not have remotes! You had to literally spin a dial. Even I barely remember those wild and wonderful days.
GRABER: The first thing to know about the very earliest food TV is that it wasn’t actually on TV, it was on the radio.
KATHLEEN COLLINS: Almost as soon as a radio came into being in the 1920s in the US, food radio came into being. It was a really easy way for programs to be created, because they were easy and cheap, they were they were obvious outlets for advertising, for sponsorship, for food products and appliances. So that’s where we saw food instruction before TV was even a twinkle in the eye.
GRABER: Kathleen Collins is a librarian and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and she’s the author of the book Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows.
TWILLEY: The stars of these very first food shows were hardly stars in today’s sense. These radio shows were very unglamorous. It was all teaching housewives how to economize and optimize and generally do all their chores better.
GRABER: One of the not remotely glamorous stars was a woman named Aunt Sammy, who we can only imagine was supposed to be the wife of Uncle Sam.
TWILLEY: Which is kind of disturbing.
GRABER: Well, she wasn’t actually a person.
COLLINS: It was a program delivered by an arm of the USDA. And the “she” was not just one person, but several different actors around the country adopting regional accents. Similarly, a figure that’s much more well known was Betty Crocker. She actually started on the radio, and like Aunt Sammy was played by many different actresses. And she was one of the first—we could, I guess, call her one of the first cooking teachers in broadcasting.
OLD TIMEY ORGAN MUSIC
BETTY CROCKER: Many of you have had our Christmas cookie recipes of former years, and we have some fine new ones for you. Our cooking school lesson this week is on some new Christmas cookies. And besides that, we’re sending several extra cookie recipes to all the members of my cooking school who have indicated that they want the Wednesday menus and recipes. So I hope you’ll be sure to watch for them.
TWILLEY: Aunt Sammy’s show was called “Housekeeper’s Chat,” and Betty Crocker’s was the slightly more enticing “Cooking School of the Air.” That sounds as though it was all about meringues and souffles and all things fluffy. Which it decidedly was not.
GRABER: And then the first television station came into being in the 1920s. Though at the time the technology was still super experimental, and people did not have TVs in their homes yet.
TWILLEY: Even as late as 1950, only 9 percent of American homes had a TV set. But food made the jump to TV before TV even made the jump to people’s living rooms.
GILLY SMITH: So Moira Meighn was the first TV chef. And her snappily titled TV show was called “Suggestions for Dishes to be Prepared and Cooked in 15 Minutes.” And that demonstrated single-ring cookery back in 1936.
TWILLEY: This is Gilly Smith, she’s a food writer and a podcaster and the author of a new book called Taste And The TV Chef. And she is British so I will translate for her: single-ring cookery means the kind of thing you can make on just one burner in your bedsit, which is British for a studio apartment.
GRABER: Thanks for the cross-pond translation.
TWILLEY: I have my uses as well as my bizarre accent.
GRABER: True. Also interesting that Moira Meghn was doing this 15-minute meal about 80 years before Jamie Oliver’s TV show and book of the same title!
TWILLEY: We have a picture of her filming her show, dressed in what looks like a rain coat, on our website. Glamor personified.
GRABER: Moira Meghn was first, but by the 1940s, food TV shows started showing up for real in the US, too. The shows were cheap to produce and they were sponsored by kitchen and food companies, and they were pretty boring.
COLLINS: It was very practical, probably rather dry. And yet, a lot of the airtime was filled with these programs and in different markets around the country.
TWILLEY: These shows were obviously targeted at women. Even though most TVs at the time were actually in public places, rather than homes. Especially bars, where there weren’t a lot of housewives.
COLLINS: There was a show actually, the first national televised TV show was James Beard, and it started in the mid 1940s. And despite everything I just said about how most of the TV shows and the radio shows were led by home economists, James Beard, as we know, was not a home economist. He was a gourmand. He was really all about the food. And so it was a little strange to have the show on a TV in a bar being watched by men.
GRABER: James Beard was kind of a one-off for a long time, but still—here we go, right off the bat, you can see a gender divide in food TV. Women were the ones who were proper and teaching viewers how to cook, the man got to be a gourmand and just appreciate food for food.
TWILLEY: Food was a chore for women and a pleasure for men. Until Dione Lucas came along.
COLLINS: So Dione Lucas, again, like James Beard, was a bit of an anachronism. She was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who was born in Britain, came from a very artistically oriented family.
GRABER: Dione had a restaurant and cooking school in New York, and she treated the kitchen as her art studio, it was her serious creative outlet. Her recipes were complex and mostly French and they took a lot of time to make. She was also kind of a task-master.
TWILLEY: She had her British accent and her scraped-back hair and she did not cut corners, but Kathleen says that Dione did occasionally have a little sparkle in her eye, like when she told viewers to use as much rum as they liked—or needed—in their crepes suzette.
GRABER: Dione’s show was on in the evening in prime time, and it ran from 1947 until 1956. But she was kind of ahead of her time.
COLLINS: I would not be surprised if many of your listeners have never heard of Dione Lucas. She just came along at the wrong time for the public viewing audience.
GRABER: Dione did have a big influence on one particularly important person. Julia Child.
CHILD: Welcome to The French Chef! I’m Julia Child.
COLLINS: Oh, she was a California girl. She was not a spy for the CIA, before being a cooking show guru, as many people think. She was a research assistant at the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, but she was really in one of these happy accidents. She married Paul Child who had a Foreign Service assignment in France, they moved to France, and she fell in love with food. And she got herself trained, you know, at the Cordon Bleu School, which was really challenging as a woman. And she just became, you know, a master.
GRABER: In 1961, Julia published a book with two other women called Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is a TOME. And that 752-page book provided the kick that landed Julia in front of millions of viewers.
TWILLEY: What happened was, Julia was doing the rounds promoting her book. And she’d been invited onto a book show hosted by a local professor, on WGBH, which is the Boston public TV station. And she decided she didn’t want to just talk with the professor. She wanted to cook. She wanted to teach him to make a proper French omelette.
GRABER: The professor wasn’t a particularly skilled cook in this live TV cooking class. But 27 people wrote in to the show after it aired, they called Julia a “hoot,” and the producer thought Julia was incredibly well spoken. So WGBH gave her her own show! It would eventually become “The French Chef.” The show was a huge hit, it was on national TV for three decades, and it not only made Julia a household name, but it also kind of launched the modern era of food TV.
TWILLEY: Julia always said she was inspired by Dione Lucas, and her show was definitely that same blend of instruction but also entertainment. Most of the entertainment was just Julia herself.
COLLINS: I absolutely loved the show. I was very young when I watched it first, you know, the late 1960s, early 1970s. But, you know, my mother loved it. I loved it. She captivated the hearts of anyone who laid eyes on her. She had an interesting way of speaking, she had kind of a weird, nowhere accent. She was from Pasadena but she had a slightly almost British sound to her voice, a little bit creaky and croaky at times. There was just something like a favorite aunt, you know, who you would want to just hang around with, she sort of had that air about her.
TWILLEY: Side note, Julia totally bombed in the UK, because her voice was so peculiar sounding to Brits that they thought she was either drunk or insane.
GRABER: She does have this kind of off-kilter way of going about things in the kitchen—it’s not that she doesn’t seem like she’s in control or knows what she’s doing, but she’s just also fun and carefree about it.
TWILLEY: She was a little ungainly sometimes—she was super tall, 6 foot 2, and the studio kitchen actually had to be designed to accommodate her. And she could be a little clumsy.
CHILD: When you flip anything, you really, you just have to have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this.
CHILD: Well, that didn’t go very well. See when I flipped it, I didn’t, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should’ve. But you can always pick it up if you’re alone in the kitchen. Who is going to see? But the only way you learn how to flip things is to flip them.
COLLINS: But this is exactly what led her to be so well loved and so popular is that she was clearly a skilled, serious cook, but she made mistakes.
GRABER: Julia made food TV and cooking itself more fun than the dreary home ec shows that women had been relegated to in the past.
COLLINS: It was really different. She was talking about food and cooking, and it was really about the gourmet taste and interest in the food itself. She had absolutely no interest in sharing homemaking tips.
TWILLEY: Julia was a role model for other people who might want to entertain their friends at home with delicious, sophisticated but doable French food. She wasn’t just more entertaining— she was aspirational.
COLLINS: She came along at a time when people were, their ears were perked for this information. The Kennedys were in the White House. They were Francophiles. People wanted to emulate them. And Julia Child was giving them an entree to actually learn how to try to do that. And so I believe that a strong reason, in addition to her excellent telegenic personality that she was so well remembered, was because she came along at the right time.
GRABER: Julia was kind of alone at the beginning, but not for long.
TWILLEY: Julia’s show was so popular right out of the gate that WGBH quickly looked around for more cooking shows. And they found Joyce Chen.
JOYCE CHEN: Ni hao, ni hao. Welcome to my dining room.
COLLINS: And in the same studio that they used for Julia, Joyce Chen had a Chinese cooking show. They actually just would, you know, finagle the set a little bit to have an Asian background and some other, you know, some other accoutrements that made it look quite different from Julia’s set. And they had to have Joyce stand on something to reach the counters, because Julia was probably a foot taller than Joyce.
GRABER: Joyce was the first non-white chef on national TV. At the time in the 1960s, Chinese food was quite exotic to most Americans. As you may remember if you’ve heard our episode the United States of Chinese Food.
TWILLEY: Joyce Chen had sold insurance back in China, but when she immigrated to the US, she started a cooking class in her home, and then opened a restaurant, and then she got her show and taught America how to separate a duck skin from its flesh using a bicycle pump. As well how to make other Chinese delicacies.
GRABER: And PBS was so excited by the success of both Julia and Joyce’s shows that they introduced yet more food TV shows.
COLLINS: It was sort of a proto Food Network. Some of the ones that listeners might remember because the hosts did get a modicum of fame were Justin Wilson, who cooked Cajun food, Martin Yan, “Yan Can Cook.”
TWILLEY: One of the most popular shows on the foodie channel, a.k.a. PBS, was an import: “The Galloping Gourmet.” It was another first, before Justin Wilson and Yan Can Cook—they weren’t till the 80s.
COLLINS: It came to the US in 1969. And so what was new about this, first of all, was a male host. Even though we had seen James Beard, nobody remembered him or really ever saw that show.
GRABER: But even more than his manliness, what was so new about Galloping Gourmet’s host Graham Kerr was how incredibly entertaining he was.
GRAHAM KERR: I have the most ridiculous dish that you would ever imagine in your life being done. It is a dish which nobody in their right mind would ever do on television. In fact, would never in their right mind do at home. I don’t expect you to do it, except if you’re grabbed by the whole thing, and think to yourself, Gosh that’s almost indecent, I think I’ll have a go.
TWILLEY: Anyone in their right mind would immediately want to know what this ridiculous decadent dish is, which is how he hooked the viewers. We can reveal: it was Gateau St. Honoré, which is choux pastry balls stuck together with puff pastry and caramel—I became acquainted with it as a technical challenge on Bake Off.
GRABER: It’s all about Bake Off. But the point really was just how much fun Graham was to watch on TV.
COLLINS: Julia Child was entertaining by accident. Graham Kerr was entertaining intentionally. And his wife Treena saw to that.
TWILLEY: Treena was the show’s producer and she thought that cooking was boring AF. So she spiced things up. She introduced a huge innovation in food TV—a live in-studio audience, with a camera focused on them too. And she set up Graham’s trademark move, where he entered the set by jumping over a chair holding a glass of wine.
GRABER: Treena didn’t leave the entertainment to chance, or to Graham, though. She would literally booby trap the set if she thought Graham was getting a little tired, and then he might be shocked to see that his cupboard had become walled off.
TWILLEY: In short, he was funny because Treena made him funny. And audiences all over the world—including Gilly Smith in England—loved it.
SMITH: This is when I was kind of growing up. And I was watching this wonderful man, Graham Kerr, waltz around the stage, grabbing ladies from the audience to come and drink with him. He always had a glass of wine in his hand.
GRABER: And after Graham, that was it—food TV could maybe teach you how to cook something, but it absolutely had to be fun.
TWILLEY: By the 1980s, this was the trend: fewer and fewer people cooked at home, because of microwaves and restaurants, more and more people found that they liked to relax of an evening by watching other people cook and eat and talk about food. This was also the era of the first celebrity chefs—the first chefs as household names like Wolfgang Puck. Food was starting to be trendy.
GRABER: And so there were a lot of cooking shows on TV. PBS really was in step with the zeitgeist at the time. Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse made their first TV appearances on PBS.
TWILLEY: But by the 90s, PBS lost their lead. They were the food network, but then they were scooped.
GRABER: The next big thing in food TV came out of a tiny state in New England. The smallest state in the country, in fact.
COLLINS: In the early 90s, there was a company called the Providence Journal Company, in Providence, Rhode Island. And the head of that company wanted to start some cable network because, you know, cable TV had already begun kind of taking the country and the television world by storm. There is money in it. So he’s like, What can we do? What kind of cable channel can we have? He sent one of his employees named Joe Langhan out: Go figure out what is popular in the world of print media that we’re not seeing represented on television. So Joe Langhan went out, he saw all these cooking and food magazines.
TWILLEY: So Joe said, Why don’t we make a cooking and food cable channel? And thus the Television Food Network, now known as just The Food Network, was born.
GRABER: They went on the air before they even had any content, they had no office, they just really wanted to be the first out of the gate and lay claim to this idea.
TWILLEY: It was a real scramble at first. They had no money because they were 100% reliant on advertising and they couldn’t persuade advertisers that they were a good bet because they had no viewers. And then their first headquarters, a floor of a building in New York—it had no plumbing or gas for the studio kitchens and there were buckets under the work surfaces that runners would empty out at commercial breaks. The whole thing was a complete mess.
GRABER: They first ran a lot of reruns of shows like Julia Child and Dione Lucas. Then there were new shows with serious food experts on, like the New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl. But the sets were cheaply produced and kind of cheesy. And then there were the lifestyle shows, like “Food News and Views,” which was hosted by Donna Hanover. She was, at the time, the wife of Rudy Giuliani.
TWILLEY: One of the early hosts was a working class guy from Fall River, Massachusetts, Emeril Lagasse.
COLLINS: And he was not really the great host that we knew later on. He was very stiff and uncomfortable on camera at first.
TWILLEY: Emeril’s show was called “How to Boil Water.” He was reading from a script and it was flat as a pancake. And I’m not talking crepes suzette here.
GRABER: But Emeril’s show changed, because at the time, everything at the Food Network was changing. They were shaking up the leadership, they were shaking up the shows—
TWILLEY: Someone had the bright idea of borrowing a trick from the “Galloping Gourmet” and bringing in a live studio audience to pump Emeril up and make him way more fun.
EMERIL LAGASSE: Nice pinch o’ sugar. BAM!! You can kinda BAM it like that. Ya know, get excited. APPLAUSE I don’t have any sugar, I’ll get some. Pinch o’ sugar. Bring it up to a boil, let it simmer, FUGGETTA BOUT IT, ya know what I mean?
GRABER: And this was a real shift for the network and for food TV in general. The head of the channel at the time was a woman named Erica Gruen—by the way, she was the first female executive to head up a TV network.
COLLINS: Erica Gruen’s philosophy was: Let’s make this network be not about people who love to cook, but about people who love food. And it does seem that from that point on, the Food Network shows did change, they were more popular, the hosts were a little bit different. The numbers of viewers increased. So it really was around 1996 and thereafter that the Food Network really hit its stride and became something that captured audiences of all stripes.
TWILLEY: For a long time, the format for food TV had been pretty fixed. Star cooks things in studio kitchen. Yes, the studio kitchen might have some bamboo lattice work if you were Joyce Chen, or a live band if you were Emeril, but still. And that format has stayed pretty solid: Ina Garten does it from the Hamptons, Bobby Flay does it outdoors over the grill, Rachael Ray does it in 30 minutes.
GRABER: But there was a new format that launched in the 1990s.
TWILLEY: The Brits seem to have been first to the food competition game, with amateur chefs competing for the title of Masterchef.
HOST: We’re looking for a great amateur cook who can make it as a professional. Someone who can turn out exceptional food.
WOMAN: I think I’ve got what it takes.
TWILLEY: This exciting new format—the Masterchef model—was licensed around the world. There were surprise ingredients and time limits and all the things. And everyone copied it. There’s been Masterchef Albania and Masterchef China and Masterchef United Arab Emirates and about 30 other countries besides. It’s such a huge deal in Australia that they’ve rescheduled presidential debates to not clash with the Masterchef final.
GRABER: The Iron Chef got its start in Japan in ‘93 but Americans first got a chance to see it on the Food Network in 1999 dubbed into English. I hadn’t seen Masterchef. Iron Chef, and later the American version of it, this was my first taste of the throw-down, no-holds barred, who’s going home format of food TV.
HOST: The time has come to once again answer life’s most savory question: Whose cuisine reigns supreme?
GRABER: I have to admit I was a little disappointed to learn that in the US, the Iron Chef contestants knew about the surprise ingredient in advance. It wasn’t actually a surprise. But, you know, most things on reality TV aren’t actually real.
TWILLEY: These food contest shows, they’re all just part of a huge rise in this kind of quote unquote reality TV, in general, in the 90s and 2000s. The company that started Masterchef—they were the ones behind Big Brother.
COLLINS Everything is a competition now, everything. And I can’t even name them all. I think people liked watching them for the same reason they liked watching Survivor. It’s a very entertaining, compelling, captivating, nail-biting, people love winners and losers. And so it’s still going on.
GRABER: Top Chef, Chopped, Nailed It, on and on and on. But really, to me, and to Nicky, it is all about Bake Off.
TWILLEY: Bake Off is a phenomenon. Some years, it is the most watched show in the entire British Isles. And the US eventually caught on too.
GRABER: I used to watch Top Chef, that was my previous cooking competition show. But Bake Off is so totally different. It’s soothing. There’s very little backstory and almost no personal drama, everyone is so nice to each other. The only thing you worry about is whether their bottoms will be soggy. The bottoms of their pastries, that is.
PAUL HOLLYWOOD: We could be looking at a soggy bottom, and I think we could be looking at a slightly raw bottom as well.
EMILY CONTOIS: The element of competition is so different. It is so communal in a sort of feminist sense, where you care about every participant. And I know sometimes even we don’t know the folks very long when they… Something goes wrong, like you are gutted, right? Like you’re crying when these people don’t win, while on Chopped, right, it’s like cutthroat, like, you don’t care who wins or loses even, right. It’s just sort of the thrill of the competition.
TWILLEY: This is Emily Contois, she is professor of media studies and the author of Diners, Dudes and Diets, How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture.
GRABER: Emily has looked at food TV through the lens of who gets to tell these stories, and how. Unsurprisingly, as we’ve mentioned already, women have continually played the role of instructors, and men were allowed to just love food. This is just a reflection of the world in general—women had to get dinner on the table, night in and night out, while men were feted and paid for the beautiful meals they created at restaurants.
TWILLEY: Julia was a little bit the exception—she got to be fun and performative, rather than just practical and home economics-y. But for sure, the target audience was women. And if your audience is women, you’re missing 50 percent of the possible market.
GRABER: And Erica Gruen at the Food Network wanted that market. That’s what Erica was brought in to do, to make the Food Network really profitable.
CONTOIS: So the pressure put upon her was to grow the audience. And so to bring more men in, one of their first big stars is Emeril Lagasse.
COLLINS: For some reason, the most sought-after demographic is the young and male, you know, that’s up to economists and advertising people to understand. But so they were very interested in viewers of this age and gender group. And you know, Emeril was really great for that. There were other shows, like, hosted by Bobby Flay, he was another relatively early host on the Food Network, who was young, kind of macho, attractive guy that would attract more male viewers, and of course, keep the women viewers.
TWILLEY: Guys were suddenly in the home kitchen—but they were still being guys. Bobby Flay was grilling, which we all know you need testicles to do, and Alton Brown was being science-y about cooking, which again, definitely only doable with a Y chromosome.
GRABER: Emeril had a huge personality and rock-star set up—no woman got to be accompanied by a live band. And Jamie Oliver—he slid down the banister.
SMITH: He was by spinning down those staircases and onto his scooter and scooting around London as if it was a village, and shouting “Hi!” to the market traders. The idea of condensing London into this little village felt really approachable. And then you come home and there’s a whole load of your mates in the back garden and you throw a prawn on the barbie and you’ve got a gorgeous girlfriend.
JAMIE OLIVER: Heyyy.
LAD: Hey Jamie, how are ya, mate? HAND CLAP
JAMIE: You alright mate?
LAD: Yeah good to see ya!
JAMIE: Thanks for coming.
LAD: No worries, I’m not too late, am I?
SMITH: We’d never had a lad on telly who was promising this extraordinary dream of, you know, cook like me and you can have it all. Jamie, the geezer.
GRABER: I was confused by this when Gilly said it because here in the US geezers are only old people, and Jamie was very young.
TWILLEY: Oh my god, so young. If you look at those early Naked Chef episodes, he looks like he’s 12. But also geezer is just another word for a bloke in the UK.
GRABER: Once again, helpful translation.
TWILLEY: But that whole geezer, I’m just a lad with my mates, having a laugh—that was actually a carefully engineered performance. Jamie the lad started out as Jamie the very serious chef.
GRABER: Gilly told us the story of the woman who discovered him. Pat Llewellyn was a TV producer, and she found him cooking fancy food at the River Cafe, and for his TV show pilot he was dressed in chef whites and he used formal kitchen French and he was super awkward.
SMITH: And they’d spent 60,000 pounds on the pilot.
TWILLEY: And it was crap. Pat was in a panic. She called her boss, the woman who’d commissioned the show, Jane.
SMITH: And she just rang Jane Root. And she said, listen, this isn’t working. Can we drop this and start again? And Jane Root said, Yeah. Absolutely we can. And she said, I’m going to take the camera off the legs. I’m going to make it a bit, you know, wibbly wobbly, and I’m going to follow him around. And if you remember the first example, the first episodes of The Naked Chef had Posh Pat behind the camera asking Jamie the geezer, all these questions. You know, what are you doing? Oh, just doing this. Bish bash bosh and all that sort of stuff.
OLIVER: Put them in like little individual soldiers and—nahhhh, come on, just sprinkle it on top, you know I’m only jokin’!
GRABER: The new looser, freewheeling format fit Jamie perfectly, and the audience loved it. Everyone loved it—but it really did attract young men.
COLLINS: Jamie Oliver is a great example of getting the male viewer, because he was a young, fun personality and would hang out with his friends, have his friends over, you know, his band and everything. So you could see a sort of 20 or 30 something guy feeling quite fine about watching a show like that.
SMITH: A lot of blokes started cooking—I mean, it sounds ridiculous, but they really did because of Jamie.
TWILLEY: And—forgive me—BAM! Cooking TV had been transformed once again—the same way that Julia and then the Galloping Gourmet made cooking TV have to be entertaining, Jamie made it have to be aspirational. Food TV was lifestyle TV now.
GRABER: In the early 2000s, another type of very male food TV was born, and it was pioneered by Anthony Bourdain. He got to travel the world, eating all sorts of deliciousness and meeting fascinating people.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: Even if you’ve been traveling nonstop for nearly 15 years like me, there are places that snap you out of your comfortable worldview, take your assumptions and your prejudices, and turn them upside down.
COLLINS: When you say food travel, I think of Anthony Bourdain, you know, having these amazing, wonderful experiences all over the world in beautiful places. And I can’t think of a woman who was doing that. You see a woman in an apron behind a counter, kind of when you think of that.
TWILLEY: This is so true. Take two people who were huge on the Food Network in the 2000s: Guy Fieri and Rachael Ray. Both very down to earth, very all American, not fancy or foodie. Rachael becomes famous as the host of 30 Minute Meals.
RACHAEL RAY: Thank goodness for chicken! It’s one of those foods you can eat all year long, and never get tired of it, provided you got a few ideas to keep it fresh and exciting.
GRABER: Guy Fieri on the other hand won a contest on the Food Network, literally called the Next Food Network star. And he gets his own show—
CONTOIS: So his first program is Cooking Off the Hook, this sort of masculine language. The fridge looks like a NASCAR, you know, race car, right? It has a number and stripes. It has a stage area where there’s a drum kit and a guitar. There are, you know, hubcaps from cars on the wall. Like, it’s a ridiculous amalgamation of masculine symbols to convince you that this is cooking at home for men. And so that show is successful enough and people relate to his ,you know, character and persona, that Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is his second show and the one that has run for dozens and dozens of seasons—that has tons of fans.
GUY FIERI: I’m Guy Fieri and we’re rollin’ out, lookin’ for America’s greatest diners, drive-ins and dives! And this trip is epic, outta the gate dynamite! Triple D’s 50th state.
TWILLEY: I hate to judge but honestly Guy Fieri is a lot.
CONTOIS: So I think what people often note are his sartorial choices. This is an adult man who wears shorts and T shirts and jewelry who has spiked, bleached blond hair, who was known for wearing, you know, visors and sunglasses on the back of his head, gigantic bangly bracelets, who’s always yelling you at top volume with huge enthusiasm. He is not what you imagine as a Food Network celebrity. He isn’t what you think of for a “real man.” Or, you know, for a chef, he pushes all of those boundaries. And for that some people dearly love him, while others revile him.
GRABER: Love him or hate him, Guy became particularly famous for being a dude. It wasn’t about cooking at home, instead he could spend all his time traveling around, in this case it was around the US, and meet people and taste all sorts of foods. And then he’d make his own recipes that were also basically huge. Big flavors, big portions.
TWILLEY: Dudes being dudes. Did I say plus ça change already? But actually, things did start to change. My personal food TV hero from my early watching wasn’t Jamie, it was Nigella. I was on a first name basis with Nigella when I was at university, dreaming of my future sophisticated London life. And I was not alone.
COLLINS: I mean, she’s so appealing. She’s so, you know, attractive, but also just had a great philosophy about cooking and eating. And women loved her, men loved her, children loved her. She made you feel okay about like having cravings and standing in front of your fridge, eating the leftover chocolate cake at three in the morning, that kind of idea.
Nigella: Cook, eat, repeat is frankly, the story of my life. Food is more than just sustenance. It brings such joy. And it has the power to make a real difference every single day.
COLLINS: And also, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, it was so much about entertaining, and sharing the food with friends, which is so, it’s just so fun to watch.
GRABER: And frankly Nigella was pretty sexy when she ate chocolate cake out of the fridge at 3am.
TWILLEY: She did make it look like a really good idea. Which it is.
SMITH: While Jamie was sliding down the banisters and rushing around a pretend London on his scooter, Nigella was much more sophisticated. So she was appealing to a very different crowd, the dinner party crowd. And it was an absolutely How To, same as Jamie’s. So she would whisk up a fabulous dinner party, but it would end with the dinner party as well. You know, beautifully candlelit in her home. It wasn’t actually in her home. She moved out later, but she kept it as her own studio. And it was exactly how a certain kind of person would like to be.
TWILLEY: Specifically college-age me.
GRABER: That sexiness I mentioned is really kind of a key part of her appeal—she has a book called How To Be a Domestic Goddess. But just like Jamie’s kind of carefree lad persona, that was a deliberately created character.
NIGELLA: I warm salted tortilla chips in the oven and spoon over the paprika-spiked, cheese-rich velvety crab sauce.
SMITH: So from a feminist perspective, she’s driving her own bus. I think she decides what she wants to talk about. She coined the term “the domestic goddess” and “gastroporn.” And all the things that are said about her—and she used the word as a preemptive strike. She was a journalist. She knows the way the media spins a story. And she wanted to get in there first. So she created Nigella. Nigella, even as a one word term, is a cartoon version of Nigella Lawson. You know, one of her programs was called Nigellisima—you know, even more than Nigella.
TWILLEY: Say what you will about whether playing to these caricatures of domestic sexiness is liberating or not, Nigella was and is a total powerhouse and she really broke the mold for a female food TV star—she was truly aspirational rather than just instructional. She was just like Jamie and all the other guys.
GRABER: And then in America recently, someone else broke through into what had been until now mostly the realm of men, and that’s the food travel show.
CLIP SAMIN NOSRAT: I’ve spent my entire life in pursuit of flavor. Starting at the legendary Chez Panisse…
GRABER: The host of the recent Netflix food travel show Salt Fat Acid Heat is Samin Nosrat, author of the book of the same name, and we had her on Gastropod for our episode about sharbat. She’s fantastic in general, and I loved watching her on TV.
TWILLEY: The thing about Samin for me, is that just like Nigella, and in fact just like us, she really really really loves to eat delicious food.
CONTOIS: I think part of the thing that lots of people wrote about was just the pleasure she shows in eating. I think I’ve written a little bit about the expectations, right, that women have to be, you know, dainty and in control, and you can’t ever make a mess, and you’re somehow supposed to look beautiful while you’re doing it, which is absolutely bonkers. And so the fact that she was so wonderfully, authentically, fully herself, and we got to be a part of that pleasure. That was just so genuine, that that was special.
NOSRAT: It’s SO good. It’s so good. It’s bringing tears to my eyes.
WOMAN: Thank you.
NOSRAT: It’s so good. I don’t know how it could get better, but let’s try. LAUGHTER
CONTOIS: And then we hadn’t had a lot of women of color, who got to be on television and cook and talk about more than the food of just their ethnic background, that she is the far-reaching expert that cares so much about reaching the everyday cook.
GRABER: That issue that Emily brings up—that non-white chefs are supposed to just talk about the food of their ethnic background—this was one of the problems that led to a big scandal at the venerable food media company Bon Appetit.
CONTOIS: Yes, well before Bon Appetit’s significant fall from grace, their YouTube channel was one of the things everyone was talking about. And what people loved about it were the diversity of the folks that we saw cooking and sharing their personalities.
NAVNEET ALANG: So Bon Appetit turned into a little bit of a cultural phenomenon when their YouTube channel kind of took off. And people started to kind of follow these chefs and sort of idolize them. And so, you know, people like Claire Saffitz would, you know, have like, entire Instagram meme accounts dedicated, dedicated to, you know, their hair.
TWILLEY: That second voice you heard, introducing us to Claire’s hair, is Navneet Alang, he goes by Nav. And he is a freelance writer who wrote a really great article about what went down at Bon Appetit’s video channel and what it all meant for food TV in general—we’ve got a link to that article on our website at gastropod dot com.
GRABER: What happened is that the editor-in-chief of the magazine, a guy named Adam Rapoport, a photo was found of him dressing up as a Puerto Rican. It was pretty offensive, and people started looking much more closely at the racial dynamics at Bon Appetit in general.
ALANG: And that was kind of like the pebble that that sort of started a bit of an avalanche. When it turned out that on this very popular YouTube channel, you know, cooks of color, were not being paid for their appearances.
GRABER: The white cooks were being paid, the cooks of color weren’t being paid or weren’t being paid as highly, but they were certainly still being used on camera. One woman named Sohla El-Waylly was constantly being asked to help out her white colleagues.
ALANG: There was a very viral video that went round, in which a number of the famous and well-paid hosts would call on Sohla El-Waylly to explain how to do things. And it was just sort of, like, indicative of the way in which Sohla had the expertise. And the other cooks relied on that expertise without that expertise being recognized, or, you know, promoted.
WOMAN 1: Sohla, do you have a minute?
WOMAN 1: Sohla, do you have a minute?
WOMAN 1: Sohla, when you have a minute, you wanna talk sugar?
WOMAN 2: I came over to ask if you had time to temper chocolate at some point.
MAN: Hey Sohla, can I ask you a question about technique real quick?
WOMAN 1: Do you mind explaining what tempered chocolate is?
ALANG: And so it was kind of a—I don’t know if “canary in the coalmine” is the correct expression here. But it was a very significant moment, I think, in American food media, because as it became symbolic of the broader problems of how food media has sort of failed to deal with race and equity and diversity.
TWILLEY: One of the issues at Bon Appetit was this issue of not paying Sohla the same as some of the white talent, even though she was used on camera. But there was also another issue, around who was allowed to cook what.
ALANG: Like, you know, like Priya Krishna, you know, who was at Bon Appetit, but now, you know, does stuff in the New York Times, etc. And they tend to kind of be like: Here is Indian culture or whatever, you know, Korean culture, personified in a human being, you know. And then they end up being like the authority on that thing. And so I feel like what it ends up doing is not only are you then looked at as a representative of that culture, but you also then are expected to only ever cook that kind of food as well.
GRABER: Nav and Emily say this is another way in which Samin’s show is really unusual—she can travel, she can enjoy food thoroughly, and she can teach us how to prepare focaccia and ceviche.
ALANG: I think that Samin Nosrat is kind of given or maybe has taken for herself more kind of leeway in terms of what she’s allowed to cook—it’s not like anyone ever expects her to only cook Iranian or Persian food, right, like she can cook whatever it is and is seen as an authority figure. And so I think that she’s a great example of how things can change, and can change for the better.
TWILLEY: Samin is great. Full stop. But Nav and Emily say it’s not yet quite time to pat ourselves on the back and say job done.
CONTOIS: Well, we can think of her. How many others can we name? There was a piece that I was interviewed for recently, that was about the fact that there are sort of two or three really incredible, you know, Indian food writers right now. And they were saying that’s not because there’s tons of us, like you’re noticing, because there’s two of us, and we’re good. And so I think there’s still significant need for diversifying food media, across gender, across race, across sexualities—that we still need to break that open. And it’s not just about representation, but about who’s making those decisions about what shows we produce? How do we produce them? How do we tell those stories?
GRABER: One of the most famous Indian-Americans in food media is Padma Lakshmi, she’s been hosting Top Chef for more than a decade. I was shocked to read her interview the other month in the New York Times when she said she had a really difficult time getting her food travel show Taste the Nation picked up. It did eventually air on Hulu, but it was an incredibly tough slog to get there.
PADMA LAKSHMI: This is my first rodent.
WOMAN: What does it taste like to you?
LAKSHMI: Tastes like chicken. LAUGHTER
LAKSHMI: Everything that the American cuisine is today is because all these different people and different cultures contributed to it.
LAKSHMI: Mm, mm, mm. Oh, my god, it’s such a flavor explosion.
TWILLEY: Padma has been on prime time for 14 years, her shows air all over the world, she has been nominated for more Emmys than I have fingers to count them. Her star power should not be in doubt. But when she pitched a show with her traveling around America exploring its food, the way Guy gets to, the answer at most networks was no.
CONTOIS: It’s infuriating. No, I heard that interview too, where it’s just like, you went to how many places, with your following and, and the fact that she is this you know, hyper feminine, beautiful, thin woman. So, yeah, well, I have nothing smart to say about that, besides my utter frustration.
ALANG: If Padma Lakshmi has problems getting a TV show off the ground, then I feel like, maybe it might almost be asking too much of Samin Nosrat to ask whether or not she has kind of changed things or whether or not she’s indicative of change, because it would require people in management or in the, you know, ownership of media to change.
CONTOIS: That again, points to this need to not just diversify the representations that we see in food media, but to diversify, who has a seat at the table, who has the power to make decisions, and to make sure everybody right is paid equitably, and what they’re worth.
TWILLEY: Food TV has changed a lot since Aunt Sammy and Moira Meighn’s single-ring cookery, but it hasn’t yet changed enough. Maybe it will. We can but hope.
GRABER: One thing is for sure, though, watching all this food TV over the decades, it has certainly changed us.
TWILLEY: Starting with Julia.
COLLINS: She had a huge influence on what stores would stock, whether it was garlic, mushrooms, a type of saucepan, a type of knife, or serving fork or anything like that. And so she had an enormous impact on what people were eating, how they were cooking.
GRABER: In the UK, cooking shows have also influenced what people ran out to buy. In the 2000s, one of the people who sent them to the grocery store was Jamie Oliver.
SMITH: His production team actually had to phone Sainsbury’s to say what ingredients they were going to be using in that show so that they could get more of them. New markets were found to kind of get enough of these ingredients in. I mean, it was a phenomenal boon to the food industry.
TWILLEY: Often these ingredients were not ones that many people had been familiar with before—Julia made Americans comfortable with using lots of garlic, Jamie helped introduce many Brits to pine nuts and rocket, or arugula as it is known in the US. Just last November, Nigella had everyone in the UK saving their banana skins for her new show, where she made banana skin curry and baffled an entire nation.
GRABER: Banana peels? I am also baffled.
NIGELLA: I can’t tell you how happy I was when I discovered that you could eat banana skins. Now, I admit—not totally visually appealing.
TWILLEY: I have not tried it but I may be the only person with a British passport who hasn’t, judging by my Instagram feed.
GRABER: Getting us to try new foods is something a lot of food TV has done, from Iron Chef to Guy Fieri to Samin Nosrat to Nigella and her banana peels. We learn about new ingredients and new dishes, how to order them at restaurants, how to be comfortable talking about them and eating them.
COLLINS: I think it’s made people more adventurous, more curious, more open minded, less fearful, more creative.
TWILLEY: Whether it’s made more people comfortable actually cooking with them, rather than just ordering them and eating them—that’s an open question. But food TV did definitely inspire some people to get in the kitchen who might not have otherwise—including a bunch of men.
SMITH: A lot of the chefs who I interview, you know, who are in their 30s now, they became chefs because of Jamie Oliver. Particularly the guys. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he really did teach a whole generation of blokes to come to the stove. And a lot of those went on to become professional cooks.
GRABER: This has been another impact of food TV. Katherine told us that even starting back with Julia, she helped make chefs into celebrities. With food TV, more people want to be professional chefs, and the rest of us have even more respect for the job.
TWILLEY: Food TV can create real change—we’ve talked about the way that Jamie Oliver used his platform to campaign for healthier school lunches on Gastropod before. But, campaigning and social change aside, it’s also just really fun to watch.
COLLINS: I think some people like watching the transformations. Sometimes the transformations are surprising. When we watch these competition shows for example, you start out with these raw whole basic ingredients and you think how on earth is this person going to turn that into a souffle, you know, so in and of itself, there’s kind of a narrative arc there that’s very exciting. So there’s that. I think it’s subjective—people like watching it for different things. Some people, I know lots of people who actually say that they learned how to cook from watching shows on the Food Network. Other people say: I love the host. And other people, like me, just like looking at food.
TWILLEY: And some people just want to see Freddie Mercury’s head explode.
PRUE: CHUCKLES Sorry.
LAURA: You’re not supposed to laugh! It was all going really well, like his jacket looked great and everything. And then, the head exploded. LAUGHTER I think, but I’m hoping that the flavor will redeem.
PAUL: And what are the flavors?
LAURA: Lemon and elderflower.
PRUE: I do think his jacket is lovely.
LAURA: Thank you.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Kathleen Collins, Gilly Smith, Emily Contois, and Navneet Alang. We have links to their books and articles on our website, gastropod.com
TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to our Gastropod fellow Sonja Swanson who had to watch a lot of TV to help us put this together. It’s a tough gig, but Sonja makes it look easy.
GRABER: We’re back to our regular schedule now, and, yes, we will be back in two short weeks with an episode that is a hot topic today—so hot, it’s one of President Biden’s priorities that he announced in his COVID relief bill, and that’s making sure even tipped restaurant workers get paid at least the same minimum wage as everyone else. Which could lead to a world without tipping…
TWILLEY: In America? Impossible, surely?