RIP Food Network

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BAM! My bag of Cheetos was propelled upwards as my nuclear-orange fingers gripped and smeared our couch. I was startled. Why was this round-bellied chef with a weird accent yelling at me? And why did I weirdly like it?

Emeril Lagasse, the host of “Emeril Live,” mesmerized me with his rambunctious personality and passion for cooking good, rustic Italian food. Simply put, Emeril was my gateway drug into the fantastical world of the Food Network. He could even make garnishing a Bolognese with parsley look cool with his signature, explosive outbursts. “Let’s kick it up a notch and add some more gah-lic.” The live audience always went wild for that. After Emeril, I was soon lured into the kitchens of Giada, Ina, and Paula Deen before her unfortunate, yet inevitable public demise. No dish requires six sticks of butter or racist remarks.

Anyway. I digress. I would spend hours with my eyes glued to the T.V. watching Channel 73. I soon learned how to chiffonade herbs, what sous-vide was, and that when making chocolate cake, you should always add a little bit of espresso to bring out the chocolate essence. But, it had to be “‘really good quality’ chocolate; if not, store-bought works fine.” I don’t think Ina Garten understands that not everybody lives in the Hamptons with really good ingredients on demand. Anyway, I digress once again. My parents were confused, yet somewhat encouraging of my Food Network binges, but I think they sometimes wished their daughter would just watch Spongebob or the Simpsons. But, nope. The innate rebel-weirdo in me refused. Little did I know that this fascination and unhealthy obsession with the Food Network would hurt me in the long run. In exchange for culinary intelligence and a highly advanced palate for an eight-year-old, I had sacrificed my cultural identity.

I looked at the pristinely white kitchens of these celebrity chefs with their happy families and Golden-Retrievers, and I was jealous. Why didn’t my family look like that? Why weren’t we creepily happy all the time? More importantly, why did my mom only cook Korean food that smelled and looked like an exorcism had taken place on my plate? I became resentful and ashamed. I started to pack my own lunches filled with PB&J sandwiches, Red Delicious apples (by the way, these are terrible, go for the Honey Crisps), and Cheez-Its. It also didn’t help
that I attended a private high school with predominantly white families that lived in mansions with beautiful kitchens – just like the ones I’d seen on the Food Network. My friends’ families ate routinely timed dinners with vivacious conversations and tasty meals. On the other hand, my kitchen had two semi-functioning stoves and my family rarely ate together around the dinner table. When we did, the meal was quick, smelled, and usually ended with my parents
fighting. To top it off, our holiday meals were devoid of the expected turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing. Instead, we ordered KFC and called it a night. For years, I desperately tried to try to make a traditional holiday meal with my mom that mirrored Rachel Ray’s, but our turkey came out limp, soggy, and lifeless. Also, I found out that my family doesn’t even like or eat turkey. This was not our food. This was not our culture. It was forced. But I didn’t care. Where the hell was my happy family?

As I reflect now, I realized that watching these cooking shows made me feel terrible about my family, my cultural roots, and myself. But, I just couldn’t stop. I was addicted. Watching the Food Network became my form of comfort food since my mom didn’t know how to make anything but Korean food. I so badly wanted to be white. But, I settled for the visual stimulation and satisfaction I got from simply watching Ina Garten making homemade meatloaf and roast chicken. This strange fetish continued over the next few years until I began to notice that the Food Network seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis, too. We were both going through paralleling identity crises. Instructional shows began to give way to more competition-based shows. I couldn’t care less about what amateur chefs could hastily concoct in 30 stress-inducing minutes. I found myself ditching the Food Network altogether and soon moved on to the Travel Channel to watch other shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods.” They combined food and travel in an unique way that was neither instructional nor “reality-television-esque.” Instead, they exited their kitchens into foreign lands to explore and eat around the world. By being displaced from the pristine, white kitchens of a television set, I was able to realize that the world is actually best found by wandering the bustling and dirtied streets of Tokyo, Morocco or Trinidad.

 Photo by: Steven Elleman

Photo by: Steven Elleman

A shiny, bald head resting atop an orange flannel was what initially caught my attention. I had had just enough of watching Bobby Flay compete with amateur cooks in his show, “Throwdown.” What was the point of that show if he won almost every time? To feed his already enormous ego? I found solace and a rare sense of calm in Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods.” Zimmern’s whole spiel was that he would travel to foreign countries and eagerly try their respective native dishes that had “weird” ingredients – or at least in the Western perspective. These “bizarre foods” ranged from unfertilized eggs in the Philippines to pig head in Jamaica. His motto is “if it looks good, eat it.” By the way, I still don’t understand this maxim since I don’t get how raw, warm cow placenta looks appetizing in any way. But that’s just me. He did, however, somehow make slurping the dregs of fish sperm soup seem delectable enough to try. This middle-aged, white bald man excitedly dove right into these dishes and regarded them as highly sacred reminders of a nation’s past and tradition. This show made me realize how what’s considered “weird” in one country can be another person’s daily, normal meal. Watching him travel to all these different countries and try all these dishes with such excitement and vigor made me realize that my life doesn’t necessarily have to follow the traditional, Western idea of the path to happiness. Life is more adventurous and fun when experimenting and tasting new foods with an open mind.

After Zimmern came Anthony Bourdain. His badass swagger, snarky comments, lanky figure and crooked smile wooed me instantly. What a silver fox. His Emmy-winning show, “No Reservations,” was similar to “Bizarre Foods.” Bourdain is an acclaimed chef, writer, and traveler with an adventurous palate that matches Zimmern’s. However, his show highlights the historical, social, political, and economic background that all contribute to the national dishes of a country. In his visit to South Korea, his Korean producer, Nari Kye, accompanies and shows him the foods and culture of Korea with great pride and affection. They weave in and out of the cramped, lively streets and humbly eat on plastic stools outside tents that serve ddukboggi, kimbap and daenjangjjeegae. Bourdain even learns how to make kimchi! He meticulously spreads the fiery red spices on each leaf of the cabbage before it’s stored underground to marinate and blossom beautifully into our national dish. The process of making kimchi is like a religious resurrection. After the cabbage heads are lowered in the ground for a few months, they magically come back to life as an entirely transformed food. I didn’t realize how much love and patience it takes to make a simple side dish that I had long
neglected not because I didn’t enjoy its taste, but because of its shameful association. For the first time, I was proud of my heritage and decided to take a break from watching the Food Network altogether.

The timing seemed almost too perfect. I left at the initial transitional stages of the Food Network – the beginnings of their still continued and much confused television identity. I still don’t know if their main intent is to teach viewers how to cook or to morph food and reality TV together. But as I stopped watching, I began to unearth, solidify, and reclaim my own identity. I guess I can say karma’s a bitch? Reality competition shows now dominate its time slots, and Emeril was booted long ago. It seems as if we no longer want to watch chefs dump, mix, and cook ingredients in a pan. Instructional cooking shows have now been overtaken by competitive ones. The network first ditched talented chefs with strong TV personalities in exchange for celebrity-chefs with little to no experience of even working in a restaurant kitchen (remember Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade “kwanzaa” cake?). Now, it has fully entered the realm of competitive reality cooking shows. But, apparently the majority of Americans seem to like this stuff. There are 782,000 dedicated viewers watching any and every variation of “Chopped” possible from “Chopped Teen Tournament” to “Chopped Grill Masters.” Other top shows, like “Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off” also recently announced its third season. So perhaps the idea of the celebrity chef is not extinct, but they now need to do something other than just stir a pot. This isn’t just true with the Food Network, however. Bravo’s “Top Chef” is another highly popular cooking show that competes with those of the Food Network. With the explosion of online media content over the past year, the Food Network has had to adapt to our changing taste. We can now simply search YouTube to find out how to make chicken vindaloo in less than three minutes without waiting for the commercials to end on T.V. I understand the need to adapt to our rapidly changing times. Technology is advancing in a scary and fast pace. But, I think the Food Network has gone overboard. They have wholly sold their soul in exchange for profits.

For example, from 6pm to 3am tonight, Food Network will be airing “Chopped” with a brief hour intermission for “Cupcake Wars.” Tomorrow, Guy Fieri’s “Diner, Drive-Ins and Dives” will be airing for a total of seven hours. Seven. Seriously? Come on. What happened to the cooking? When I used to watch the Food Network, it was a time for me to wind down and take comfort in the soothing voices of Ina, Mario, and Nigella. Nowadays, I just get Guy Fieri nonsensically shouting, “Welcome back to TRIPLE D!!! Wanna head over to FLAVORTOWN?!” –his mouth full of quadruple bacon-wrapped deep-fried Oreos. I’m going to have to go with a strong hell no. Someone get this guy a box of Tums and a pacifier. It is upsetting that my once dear Food Network Channel has turned into hours of countless competitive cooking shows instead of actual cooking. A once relaxing pastime has managed to make me even more stressed whenever I watch it.

I could go on about the lack of diversity on the Food Network, but they’re not the only ones guilty. Television and media as a whole have a long way to go before diversity is fully shown and accepted as the norm. I still feel the utmost tenderness for the Food Network since it essentially shaped my childhood. It instilled a passion and love for cooking and the culinary world – a world I would have never been exposed to if it weren’t for them. Who knew a 24-hour program solely devoted to food and instructional cooking would be so popular to the masses? I guess it was a blessing in disguise. By stripping me of any sort of cultural diversity, it later challenged me to wrestle with my own identity to proudly reclaim my Korean roots.

But it seems like they should be focusing on their own identity now. The Food Network has stopped taking risks. What started as a small start-up taking a bold, creative gamble in television has shrunk into re-runs of watching Guy Fieri slobber over mediocre lasagna in a diner found in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps the demise of instructional cooking is due to our rapidly changing society. We simply don’t have the time to cook anymore. Time spent cooking is seen as time wasted. Instead, we want to know where to get the best Sloppy Joes in town. I’ll still give Food Network some time to reclaim its identity, just as I did (and still am doing) with my own, and most importantly, diversify because at the core, I strongly believe in their initial mission – reminding viewers of the importance of food. Eating and making good food from all cultures should be pursued as both a means of pleasure and a rare reminder to simply pause in our hectic schedules. It should use its influence to introduce America to different cuisines, not to stress viewers out with outrageous, time-restrained culinary challenges. I believe that this can be done in the kitchen, as well as outside of it, like in the Travel Channel. It’s time to reclaim the kitchen as a safe and authentic place to show viewers the importance of slowing down our lives to cook for ourselves and our loved ones. In the mean time, I’ll still be watching the Travel Channel. But, I have faith. Just as the Food Network took a creative risk with its bold birth into television, I have hope that it will bounce back. As Allen Sankin said, “Will it settle being the chicken it thinks the world wants it to be or go down fighting with tripe?” I’m rooting for the latter.

OtherGrace Cha