I was always fascinated by the flickering flame that lit up the stove top. The blue lights gave off a seductive heat that I was warned against. The results were magical too. My grandma conjured up steaming concoctions of Chinese broccoli and sausage, sweet pork ribs, and sticky pork knuckles, glistening with a fine sheen of oil and love. But all my efforts, even under her tutelage, were met with disappointment. “Too much shrimp paste”, my grandma says, after the briefest taste of my limp green beans. “Not enough soy sauce”, she says of my steamed eggs. She teaches me how to wield the cleaver, but its overly large handle keeps slipping from my hand. She shows me how to shake and shiver the wok, but my garlic keeps burning anyway. I end our endeavors at the age of twelve in a petulant fit, disappointed.
It was years later, before I approached the kitchen again. This time, I was hesitant, much readier to leap away from the flame than to embrace it. I changed tactics. Instead of homegrown techniques, I turned to the endlessly tacky. Instead of the intimacy of family, I chose the distance of a stranger. Thus, began my journey into the depths of food television, starting with the most generic channel of all, the Food Network. As I watch Bobby Flay chop onions for his Chicken-Posole Soup or Giada De Laurentiis grate parmesan with a pearly smile, I wonder why I and thousands of others have fallen for their effortful charm. I am not sure that I am really looking to be an excellent chef. For I don’t need to know how to perfectly poach a chicken breast nor do I care how to pulverize a mixture of pine nuts, parsley, and peppercorns into a pesto. It even feels traitorous in some ways, to pursue this life of domesticity, instead of the modern, working woman that I was taught to be. Why do cooking shows, then, continue to entrance me?
But cooking shows were not born in the modern era. The first cooking show was an invention of the late 1940s by a balding British man named Philip Harben. According to current standards, he is not telegenic, but there is a jolly workman look to his crumpled tie and rolled up shirt sleeves. Harben taught people how to cook, not for entertainment, but out of necessity. With Britain still on rations, his cooking show showed how to cook with a nearly bare cupboard. Not so today, when television shows promote only fresh, organic, picked-minutes-ago produce. Perhaps Harben’s show does not seem to be the direct answer to my question. But one can easily see the key characteristics of the modern cooking show already germinating underneath the surface. By 1947, a year after his show first started, the BBC began referring to him as a ‘television chef’. It is more than a simple name change. It is the birth of an entirely new profession, a new genre of television. It turns what was once relegated to an individual kitchen to something broadcasted into a million homes at once.
It is a community that I thrive in. I eagerly look up recipes on the official Food Network website. I buy cookbooks and collect all the recommended gadgets. I have become a dedicated fan, not of cooking itself, but of cooking as an imagined lifestyle. It turns out I didn’t need cooking as a reality; only as a fantasy.