Emeril: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

bamtv.pngBam! The news hit the blogosphere and the airwaves like a ton of gumbo. The Food Network was canceling Emeril Live, the long-running piece of "eatertainment" that put both its star and its network on the cultural and culinary map on our collective psyches.

So what does a serious eater make of all this? Now that prime-time television is going to be an Emeril-free zone for the first time in what seems like forever is that cause for celebration? In some ways, yes. The show had run its course. The Food Network had ridden the Emeril horse to death. Think about it. Emeril Live had been coming into our lives in prime-time Monday through Friday for ten years. Not once or even twice a week like House or American Idol, but five times a week for ten years, which is forever in prime-time terms.

Food snobs had come to hate him. He came to represent everything they hated about food on television. He was style triumphing over substance. Personality trumping skill. In a now-legendary piece in the New York Times Dining section in 1998, Amanda Hesser took Emeril to task for recipes that didn't work and food that didn't taste good.

I'm sure the recipes Hesser tried didn't work, and I don't doubt that the food she tasted on his show was not very good. But in retrospect she and everyone else in the serious food world piling on Emeril for not being serious enough were missing the point. The fact is that Emeril has done a great deal for the cause of serious and delicious food in this country, and it's time that we acknowledge that.

Think about it. Emeril introduced much of America to many of the things serious eaters hold near and dear. Seasonality? Farmers? Serious chefs and cooks from all over the world? Broccoli rabe? Foie gras? Artisanally made andouille sausage? Sweetbreads? Locally grown produce? Organics? Local food traditions? The very act of cooking at home for family and friends? Emeril took up every one of these causes and brought them into tens of millions of homes in this country.

And in so doing if he made himself into a wealthy star, so what? This is what happens to successful television personalities in this country. The point is that most of the things and causes Alice Waters and the rest of us hold near and dear in terms of food have been furthered by Lagasse. He had been a general in Alice Waters's Delicious Revolution long before many people had even been drafted into the fight.

There's one more thing. In the early '90s I ate at Emeril's in New Orleans. And I have to tell you that much of the food was awesome. He is a really good cook. Whether that translates into consistently great food being made throughout his far-flung empire is another question entirely. There is no doubt that Emeril has put his name on some products that are most assuredly not delicious, like his very ordinary jarred pasta sauces. But I don't doubt Wolfgang Puck's ability to cook just because his frozen pizzas are less than wonderful.

So sure, it's time to give Emeril Live a permanent rest. But we should realize it's time to give the dude his due as well. Emeril has contributed a great deal to the cause of delicious and important food in this country. It doesn't mean he's a saint. It does mean it's time to recognize he's done way more good than harm.

What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down for Mr. Lagasse?