Do Home Cooking Shows Practice Food Apartheid?

'Ayurvedic Way 13' photo (c) 2009, Ken Stewart - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/The Guardian’s Elaine Glaser writes about the supposed Food Revolution, asking whether it is a big fat lie. She criticizes the television cooking shows most of all (emphasis mine):

Reality, normality, hard-working families: this is the mantra of the multimillionaire celebrity chef. But the recipes have trouble sticking to it because, despite the homely trappings, they are essentially restaurant food. Take Nigella Express, the book of the TV show promising “fabulous fast food and incredible short cuts”. The recipes are quick to make, it’s true, but look at the ingredients: mirin, poussin, pomegranate juice, quail, harissa, sake, garlic oil. It would take an afternoon to track them down. I have for many years wrestled with the matter of fresh herbs. They improve simple dishes no end: most of Jamie [Oliver]’s 30-Minute Meals rely on them. But I always find myself rummaging impatiently through a supermarket’s highly selective herb selection to find the one I need.

Yes, yes, yes. Cooking shows might be fun to watch, but your average working person does not have the time or the money to cook like that. Even if one lives near the market and has the time to buy fresh ingredients each day, what is supposed to be done with all of the leftovers? I don’t want to keep several shelves and drawers full of condiments and spices that I will rarely use. Heck, I just bought sesame oil and haven’t figured out what to do with it, since none of the recipes I generally make call for it. I don’t have time to look around for new recipes either—I stick with what is easy for me and what I am fairly sure that (most) of my family will eat.

Finally, cooking shows do not show any of the prep time. The ingredients are washed, peeled and chopped, just waiting in small bowls for their 15 seconds of fame.

I agree with Glaser that fresh herbs are a relatively easy way to enhance your food. But why stick to what the recipe calls for? My balcony garden boasts some hardy plants like mint and chives. Still, my experience is similar to Glaser’s, whose herbs died after a few weeks. So I’ll get a big bunch of parsley or dill and keep using it in various soups, main dishes and salads until it’s gone. Or I’ll preserve it—more on that in a future post.

Glaser criticizes Oliver as well. He is best known for his efforts to improve school lunches.

. . . My problem is our refusal to admit that reality is obscured by illusory ideals. It’s not only that Jamie employs around 5,000 staff and is reportedly worth £65m, it’s that he foregrounds his lovely-jubbly persona and rapport with dinner ladies. TV executives try to get around these contradictions with the help of that weasel word “aspirational”. But it just doesn’t wash. This is not just food. This is 100% mock-authentic, mock-egalitarian class hierarchy. Supermarket labels such as “organic”, “finest” and “taste the difference”, or “economy”, “basics” and “everyday”, are euphemisms for food apartheid.

“Food apartheid!” I love it. There is something to this.

Glaser also writes about not finding “seasonal” vegetables or even knowing which ones they are, in today’s urban supermarkets. Her solution: “But if the other [cooking celebrities] really wanted to come up with a quick and easy cookbook for “hard-working families”, they’d write one that used only the kind of ingredients I can buy at my local Costcutter: potatoes, tomatoes, onions and carrots.”

I don’t live in England, but I suspect that most of the year there are a few other options. Perhaps look out for the less extravagant ones—like squash, fennel, turnips, spinach, broccoli, cabbage or beets—when they appear, and experiment. The trick is not to be afraid of an unfamiliar vegetable.

I’ve always felt that the American approach of planning a menu by starting with a recipe–whether from a cooking show, website, or cookbook–is misguided. One should always start with what is in the house, and move on to what is fresh and reasonably priced in the grocery store. Then it becomes a matter of figuring out how to cook it and making the adjustments to match your skills, ingredients, equipment and time limitations. One can easily find information about cooking techniques for virtually every ingredient through a Google search.

Practical, quick and frugal home meals prepared each day by busy adults each day are simply not exciting enough for a cooking show. The vegetable-washing and chopping that takes up the bulk of the work will never make good television.

But I can’t help wonder what the “Cooking Manager” reality TV show would look like. Hmmm. . .

 Related: 

The Secret to Great Home Cooking

Tips for Choosing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Ten Quick Tips for Cutting Your Produce Bill

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  1. Hannah writes:
    “Heck, I just bought sesame oil and haven’t figured out what to do with it, since none of the recipes I generally make call for it. I don’t have time to look around for new recipes either”

    What if you could get 3,718 recipes for sesame oil that are listed in order of popularity? Please see if this link helps:
    http://www.food.com/recipe-finder/all/sesame-seed-oil

  2. Great article! Love this sentence: “One should always start with what is in the house, and move on to what is fresh and reasonably priced in the grocery store.”
    For our daily meals I often do like you – buy 1 or 2 herbs + green onions and use them every day until I finish them. The gophers got our herb garden so I have only rosemary in a pot.

  3. Sesame oil – Drizzle a bit on grilled eggplant + a little soy sauce and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds. Same is good on cooked broccoli, spinach and other greens, or on tofu.

  4. Great,love this piece! Soup cooking now is whatever veggies were starting to rot in the fridge, plus chopped onion and barley. Fresh herbs can be washed and what will not be used can be frozen, perfect for those soups.

  5. Dena Lerner says:

    I agree and disagree. I love cooking shows because they insprie me to make things differently, add a new technique or try a new vegetable. At the same time, I rarely if ever 1. follow an actual recipe 2. buy a specialty item. It is the best advice to use what you have and then buy.
    I believe that cooking shows are really there to educate people into understanding resturant food better, which is what the majority of americans eat on a daily basis.
    As for home cooks, well stick with cooking manager and other blogs better advice all around.

  6. Sesame oil — sesame noodles (an excellent cold side dish), fried rice (w or w/out tofu), “chinese-style” veg. Marries well with soy sauce.

  7. The Mishpacha magazine read a story about food photography a few weeks ago. Turns out, 3 out of 4 times it’s not food in those photos (or not the one they are saying it is), or they make multiple batches and mix and match the best pieces. I think many of us get wistful that we can’t reproduce these “masterpieces” when in fact, it’s all fake!

  8. I read that article a couple of days ago and found it a bit overwrought; I’m wary of any article with the word “apartheid” in it. But I agree with most of what Glaser wrote. Myself, I do keep lots of different condiments in my fridge, most of which I make myself and use frequently – I do grow favorite herbs and find that they generously pay back the minimal care I give them. I’m a foodie. But those are trivial points. I was more impressed with Glaser’s analysis of today’s food culture, where popular chefs create ever more elaborate foods while pretending to be just folks, like me and you. And the public watching these shows is cooking less, eating more industrialized, processed foods. That’s the dark side.

    Regarding food photography, it’s not all fake. Just some. :) I don’t think it’s such a big deal to dress up the food for the camera. Even we put on makeup for getting photographed. People love those glistening veggies, that perfect, golden roasted chicken, that pizza slice with the cheese melting perfectly as it separates from the pie. As a blogger and amateur photographer, I also try to arrange food and lighting to look good in the picture. If food photoraphy stirs creativity in readers and motivate them to get up and go cook something, then I’m for it.
    Miriam Kresh recently posted..Jerusalem Artichokes and MushroomsMy Profile

  9. Miriam, I agree with you about the word “apartheid.” Thanks for letting us know the low-down on food photography.

  10. Ms. Krieger says:

    Hmmm…I agree that the cooking shows are a little unhealthy. But I would use the word “cooking pornography”. Or perhaps pornography is too strong…my point is that they satisfy a natural urge (to eat well) by proxy, not in reality.

    But I would disagree about the focus on seasonal ingredients being ridiculous. Garden plots are practically a religion in England — there are laws on the books requiring towns to give one to anyone who asks. And even if you can’t/won’t garden, it’s pretty obvious what is in season even in a regular grocery store. Just look at prices. I’ve noticed in the US that shopping frugally = shopping for in-season vegetables.

  11. I agree with Miriam about the condiments and the food photography. I have lots of different condiments because I love to taste new foods but I use them.
    For the photos in my books, everything was natural. We cooked the food exactly as in the recipe and enjoyed eating it afterwards. The food stylist sometimes brushed food with oil to make it shiny or sprayed water on something if the photographer said it was drying out. For shoots that took long to set up the lighting and props, we made 2 of those dishes so that one could be used during setting up, and then we took out a fresh one when the photographers were ready.

  12. Mrs. Krieger has a point regarding the value of seasonal shopping. The article did give rise to mixed reactions in me too. And with Faye, I also photograph the food as it is naturally, hoping my attempts to style it turn out well. Sometimes that backfires, even – like when I spent too much time photographing my cold, unbaked hamentaschen and found that they started falling apart in the warm room. I had to include a note in the recipe telling the reader to bake them right away.
    Miriam Kresh recently posted..Hamentaschen RecipeMy Profile

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