Serious Eats

Serious Reads: Watching What We Eat, by Kathleen Collins

In today's food- and foodie-obsessed culture, cooking shows have taken on an amazing cultural importance. From Ina Garten to Guy Fieri, from old-school Ming Tsai to the newest competition show on the Cooking Channel, everyone has their favorite program and style of culinary entertainment. Kathleen Collins explores the history of food television in her new book, Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows.

Collins catalogues food television into three time periods: the early period of 1946 to 1962; the middle period of 1963 to 1993, and the modern period of 1993 to the present. 1946 marked the beginning of television and cooking shows; 1963 brought the enormously influential Julia Child to the scene; and 1993 was the year that the Food Network changed the face of food television forever. Each period of cooking shows reflects certain cultural and social tropes of the time, and Collins calls upon the broader historical context to explain how and why food television is a continually evolving genre.

The first food programs were, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little dry. Often hosted by prim and proper married women, the shows were for homemakers. Dione Lucas was the star of this period, and her stern demeanor brought both adulation and scorn. But the invention of canned goods, convenient kitchen appliances, and the early stirrings of feminism began to change the tone of food television in the late 1950s. The stage was set for a more natural female host when Julia Child's The French Chef premiered.

Child remains one of the most heralded and important television chefs. Her frank attitude, large and not entirely feminine build, and flexibility with her recipes was appealing to a growing audience of both men and women. Television was still an almost untapped resource in the early 1960s, and programmers came to realize that food TV was a big crowd pleaser. Soon, several important food shows—with hosts like Craig Claibourne, Graham Kerr, and James Beard—came on the air.

When the Television Food Network aired in 1993, the idea of a 24-hour food channel was almost laughable in the industry. How could one fill so much time with just food-centric programming? The entrepreneurial minds behind the network realized quickly that food shows should be tailored to people who love to eat—not just people who love to cook. This approach led to a variety of easy-to-follow, beautifully shot shows with engaging hosts.

Collins' account of the history of cooking shows is interesting, readable, and relevant. For any of us who have spent an afternoon (or many afternoons) in front of a screen full of delicious treats, cooked for our entertainment by a suspiciously attractive host, it's worth reflecting on how we came to be so cooking obsessed. And Collins' uncritical, well-researched tone makes this a great read for learning more about one of our favorite pastimes.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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