Are Reality Cooking Shows Really Fantasy Cooking Shows?

A group of us were chatting about a local restaurant whose chef was eliminated from the Food Network show, “Chopped.” The restaurant was popular; the show was not.

“The problem,” said someone, “is that the contestants are supposed to combine weird ingredients like Marshmallow Fluff and mushrooms into something edible and do it in 30 minutes or less.  How can of you make an entrée with side dishes in thirty minutes?  And using ingredients that are familiar, not Halloween candy and duck breast?”  We laughed but the question resonated and the group’s response was, “No way.”

As one person commented, it would be possible if we employed a full time assistant who would do all the basic prep work like chopping onions, peeling garlic, dicing carrots, and washing greens. And also making sure that water for pasta was always boiling, sauté pans were at the correct temperature and, we all chimed in, “Cleans up as the cooking goes along.”

“Watching the cooking shows, and then expecting to make the same dishes in 30 minutes or less, is like watching an international tennis match and then expecting to serve the same way,” said one of the women. “Even assuming I have all the ingredients on the counter before I start to cook—and that is a big assumption—it takes me twice as long, if not longer, to prepare the same meal.  And the shows are so deceptive. The cook will say something like, “…wilt the onions or beat the egg whites… and 3 seconds later it is done. Tell that to my onions! “

The women were of a certain age; that is, they had raised children, prepared thousands of meals, entertained, and had done this while working most, if not all, of these years. They may or may not have been good cooks, but they were experienced. And the consensus among us  was that cooking shows, whether competitive ones or in demonstrations by individual chefs, were deceptive. It looked too easy, too fast. Indeed, one woman said that she wondered if a younger generation, inexperienced in meal preparation, would end up serving undercooked food if they tried to imitate what they saw on television.

Wouldn’t it be useful to have one cooking program that was closer to reality? Onions would be burnt because the cook forgot to turn down the heat while answering the phone call from a telemarketer. The chicken would still be half frozen and dripping reddish chicken juice, the cat would leap onto the counter and poke around at the fish, the brownies would be overcooked around the edges and too moist in the center, and the food processor, used to puree the squash soup, would thrust its contents all over the floor like an erupting volcano.  But of course who needs to watch this on television when one can see it in one’s own kitchen?

Unrealistic menus or meal preparations are nothing new. During the 19th century and early 20th centuries, women studied and practiced a discipline called Home Economics, whose goals were to teach housewives basic nutritional requirements for their families and healthy cooking techniques on how to prepare food for the household. The goals were worthy, but some of the so-called nutritional meals were anything but. Cream sauces were poured over just about everything.  Salads consisting of Jell-O cubes, canned pineapple chunks and maraschino cherries were considered elegant enough for a luncheon. And, often disdain was shown toward ethnic dishes prepared by new immigrants, despite the fact that they were nourishing and familiar.  Women’s magazines often promoted recipes, not for their nutritional content, but because they used ingredients of their advertisers. The famous string bean dish in which the vegetable is drenched in canned cream of mushroom soup and sprinkled with canned fried onions rings certainly promoted the sales of these products.

But of course, in those far-off times in the last century, people were still cooking. Today one cannot assume that younger generations will or even want to cook at all.  Thus, if a non-cooking younger generation is to be weaned from supermarket or fast food take-out, prepackaged meals, or a diet of smoothies and shakes, they have to be shown, realistically, how to prepare a meal with more than two ingredients (salt and pepper).  Fortunately, the Internet is replacing the food channels in meeting this need. A little bit of searching will produce videos on how to prepare anything from baked potatoes to a soufflé.  And since they can be viewed as often as necessary, a refresher view is possible if it has been several months since the dish, say meatloaf or roast chicken, has been made.

Ingredients in a box that cook into a meal for two or more, delivered to your door, are becoming popular. Certainly the advertisements looks compelling, especially to cooks like this one who always seem to be lacking one or more ingredients essential to the recipe.  These could be considered starter meals. As they are more expensive than meals assembled from one’s own kitchen, they are unlikely to be a permanent substitute for reading a recipe, finding the ingredients, and cooking. Or maybe not.

Programs on the food channels are entertaining, which is their intent. If a recipe looks worth trying, it is always available on the website of the television personality who prepared it. But just don’t try making it in 30 minutes or less.

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