Dear Julia Child, We Need You!

There was a time not so long ago that cooking shows resembled today’s reality TV, where mistakes were made and corrected right before your very eyes.  No second takes.  No editing.  Just the real thing.

How times have changed.  

Mark Bittman’s recent Bitten column, TV Cooking v. Real Cooking, shines a bright light on the “charade” that is today’s modern cooking shows.

A charade because it’s all taped, and therefore not only doesn’t take place in real time but doesn’t even give a sense of what “real time” might be. And I’m not talking about braising time or the like but the actual work involved.  A further charade because when it’s taped, all sorts of egregious mistakes can be magically made to disappear. 

Baffling and intimidating because nearly every ingredient is usually prepared in advance, and what isn’t is selected so that the chef can show off his (almost never “her”) knife skills, which are bound to intimidate nearly all of us who can never aspire (and why would we, really?) to chopping an onion with our eyes closed; his ability to make food fly in the air while cooking it; and/or his skill at presentation, which has absolutely nothing to do with taste.

Julia Child In Action

”The grand thing about cooking is you can eat your mistakes” — Julia Child

I wonder how the rising popularity of cooking networks and shows – available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – has contributed to the migration of eating away from home, which is nearly on par with eating at home in terms of consumer food expenditures.  Have we decided to live vicariously through TV’s celebrity chefs?  Are we truly baffled and intiminated by the process of cooking?

Mr. Bittman’s column, while entertaining to read, also points out a serious challenge for people interested in developing a more sustainable food system.  We need confident and flexible home cooks in order to move away from highly processed, unsustainable foods.

Consider a hypothetical case of a CSA program “newbie.”  Let’s call him Bill.

Bill has been buying his food from a major supermarket chain for years.  He shops there 3-4 times a week, stopping in to pick up a couple things, but walking out with more than expected every time (another victim of impulse buys and sophisticated in-store marketing).  He often opts for prepared foods or frozen entrees, which he eats while watching back-to-back cooking shows on The Food Network.

After the urging of his friends, Bill joins a local CSA farm.  He’s excited about supporting a local organic farmer.  He receives his first box, takes it home, unloads it on the counter, and scratches his head.  What is all this?, he wonders.  More important, what am I supposed to do with it?  He makes a great salad and stores the balance of food in the fridge.  The next night, he makes another great salad, but with less zeal, and considers making something with some of the  radishes, beets and chard.  No clue.

Within a couple weeks, he has become discouraged and ends up throwing away (hopefully Bill composts) much of the food from the farm.  He tries to opt out, but his money was given up front and the farm can’t afford to give him his money back.  Bill does not renew, and becomes an outspoken critic of CSA programs in general.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.  He was supposed to “learn to eat seasonally” and to “enjoy experimenting with new foods.”  But, Bill was overwhelmed and The Food Network and its line up of celebrity chefs were of little help.  This insecurity in being able to cook like Giada De Laurentiis, along with his “supermarket withdrawal” (common symptom associated with CSA newbies), caused Bill to yearn for the “any food, any time” offerings of the industrial food system.

Another missed opportunity.

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25 responses to “Dear Julia Child, We Need You!

  1. As usual, a great article! I rarely follow Bittman, but I think he was on this time. I’ve more or less stopped watching the Food Channel. Too much fat, too much salt, too much! Instead, I read cookbooks, and check out the food blogs online. Those are real people!

  2. I do think for CSA or even farmers’ market newbies it’s easy to be intimated. To combat exactly what you’re talking about, here in CT there is an effort for farmers markets to have “guest chefs” doing live demos of a recipe made from what’s available that day at the market. I was lucky enough to have participated as a “guest chef” at the Litchfield Hills Farm Fresh Market last summer and saw how it inspired customers. These types of programs, I think, is a great way to prevent folks from turning their backs on eating seasonally and locally.

    • Thanks, Alicia, for your comments. I think the idea of having professional chefs interacting with consumers at farmers markets is a great step in the right direction. Like farmers, chefs have the ability to raise consumers comfort level and confidence around food. In addition, they can help people find ways to be more seasonal in the food they select through proven and tasty recipes.

      To address sustainable food on a significantly larger scale, we need to do similar things throughout the year and in other retail food channels. Please comment here or send me an email (robert.b.smart@gmail.com) if you know of any examples where this is happening.

  3. I know many people who feel this way. They are so unused to cooking real food from scratch that they’re intimidated by the whole idea. The truth is that the best meals are often the most simple ones, and even when cooking from scratch dinner comes together in less than a half hour.

    People could definitely use a good dose of reality in TV cooking shows.

  4. I liked Bittman’s article, but I don’t think people have the patience to watch people doing all of their prep or making mistakes and doing things over again on a cooking show.

    At this point it seems to me that the majority of cooking shows aren’t really to teach people about food or how to cook, but to entertain.

    The food network shows have created a lot of interest in food, which is great, but I do think they need some programs with more educational value at this point. Molto Mario was a great example of a program that really taught the viewers something.

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  6. Seems natural that cooking shows would go the way of news shows, which are all sizzle, and very little (locally grown, grass-fed) steak.

    How ironic that adventurous eating means eating what grows locally, in season. Shouldn’t that be called “normal eating”? “Adventurous eating” is the leap of faith we take when we consume bread from Sara Lee and hope to live through it. :-)

  7. I can recall the loose approach of the Cajun Cook, Justin Wilson who was on TV in the 80s and early 90s. He encouraged people to improvise, especially when it came to adding hot sauce or wine to a dish. Sure he was entertaining, but also educational. He inspired me to experiment with my cooking.

    Aside from television, encouraging folks to have potluck dinners may be another way to eventually educate others about cooking. I’m seldom intimidated when I have to cook for a group of friends – they’ll understand if I didn’t get the seasoning just right. Conversations usually revolve around food at some point in the evening, giving you an opportunity to ask questions and talk about how you prepared your dish. Potluck dinner parties are ideal right now and can be promoted as an alternative to eating out. The food is often as good or better than most restaurants I can afford to eat at.

  8. I have to admit this is something I have struggled with understanding. I grew up in a large three generation family. We gardened extensively. We cooked from scratch and I thought that was the way it was. I learned to cook as a very young child. I continued that, teaching our children to garden and farm. I try to understand “Bill” and his point of view but it is a struggle. I somehow missed out on the brain trigger for the advertising. I don’t understand cities either, probably for similar reasons – they’re alien to me. The thing is, I need to understand because “Bill” is a customer and I need to understand what he wants. So Bill and I look through the mirror trying to understand each others ways…

  9. Lovely article. I still watch Julia Child re-runs on PBS. The CSA can be quite intimidating for folks who didn’t grow up with a garden in their back yard. Here’s to the movement towards eating seasonally! :)

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  11. Anyone else see the resemblance between Susan Boyle and Julia Child in that photo above? Wonder if Susan can cook. And I’m only partly joshing.

    I love to experiment with food and thus have some occasional failures. But you’re right, confidence is the key. Who was it that suggested having neighborhood parties to help learn how to work through a CSA box? I’d certainly be willing to help with that. Of course, there are no CSAs in my area…. or farmers’ markets…

  12. carol blonder

    Cooking school programs offer students an opportunity to learn about ingredients, equipment, as well as methods and techniques. A good recreational (v. professional) program will offer classes in hands on learning as well as demonstration classes. As an instructor at one of these schools, I look at mistakes in the kitchen as an opportunity to learn and experiment. Which I encourage my students to do at home. We have recently become a pick up location for a local CSA. Our company as well as employees subscribe to the CSA, and we offer a class to inspire use of ingredients.

  13. If “Bill” joined a good CSA, the farm should supply a newsletter with his box, instructing him on keeping his food freshest, and including recipes for the produce.

    If the farm doesn’t do that, you can subscribe to the newsletters of two of the best CSA’s in my region (Santa Cruz, California is farm central): Two Small Farms, and Live Earth Farm. Both are comprehensive and excellent resources.

    One of the partners of Two Small Farms is Mariquita Farm, and Julia, the farmers wife, has been producing her newsletter for over a decade, I seem to believe.

    http://www.mariquita.com

    http://www.liveearthfarm.net

    http://www.twosmallfarms.com

    Please share these resources with all your CSA friends: they will learn and lot, and be happy for it.

    • Tana,

      Thanks for the comment.

      The challenges I was attempting to highlight with the fictitious “Bill” were more about needing to meet this everyday consumer where they are today. Like you, I can see CSA programs evolving to better serve customer demands/needs, but the one thing a CSA program is not is a retail food store that can be accessed seven days a week.

      We need different sustainable food (Pro Food) solutions for different segments of the population. CSA farms are great for the relatively small segment of the population that values a direct relationship with farmers, and isn’t put off by the need to alter their food habits to better support those farmers. Farmers markets are a great solution for people that want to support farmers and engage socially with the larger community.

      My concern is that we are not focusing enough attention on developing retail food channels designed to bring in the vast majority of American consumers that won’t and/or can’t participate in either.

      Food for thought…

      Cheers,

      Rob Smart

  14. I think one of the key differences between then (Julia) and Now (Insert Food Network “Star” Name Here) is that Julia was in the business of de-mystifying food & cooking & French Cuisine. While her audience largely knew how to cook–more so than the average person these days–they lacked theory, technique and repertoire to go beyond the basics. Today most people can’t even get to the basics.

    And so enters the Food Network’s commercialized, advertiser–have you ever noticed the amount of pre-prepared garbage they push–driven vision of cooking. I truly believe the Food Network starts with the premise that food is somehow boring. That we all need to be entertained 24/7 and that instructional shows would cause people to turn their sets off & sponsors to flee. In 20 minutes–or less given the amount of commercials and re-caps they present (just in case you were multitasking & not paying attention, or fell asleep with your TV dinner resting on your belly)–they strive to dazzle, amaze & present the old anew. Anymore it’s all about holiday cooking. 8 months of they year presenting variation upon variation of new takes on this or that, all presented 2 months before the big day, and announced many months before that. It’s pablum. No real content. Rather than train new generations of cooks how to cook and about traditions–cultural, culinary, regional & seasonal–we get how to be different with produce ad nauseum.

    Today’s TV chef crowd is firmly in the cult of ego, whereas Julia was not. She sought to teach. Today it’s all about the dazzle, sell another pan, joke with the band in the background (WTF is up with that trend…?) serve the live audience something they would never complain about on live TV, so you can feel good about yourself. Nothing of substance is taught, nothing foundational is exchanged.

    So Bill gets his CSA box with razamataz cookery dancing in his head, but TV chefs haven’t presented 87 ways to use garlic scapes, the 10 do’s and don’t of Arugula, or Beets of another Summer. (I mention roasting beets & all the feedback I get is like it’s some revelation. Yet it’s the most basic, simple technique going back to pre-famine Ireland.) Bill is lost & disillusioned. Sure CSA broadsheets of recipes, chefs demoing foods at farmer’s markets (again–think cult of personality…they’re not going to be putting arugula on a piece of bread under a roasted bell pepper, they’re going to be showing off their restaurant’s signature dish, or latest big-city taste fad, not, most of the time, what you are going to go home and replicate or springboard off of with a new riff–not that there’s anything wrong with this, it’s just not teaching anything much useful) these things have their place to broaden CSA shareholders visions, but without the fundamental skills–the so called sharp knives in their drawer–they won’t get very far.

    Granted cooking is a skill which takes time. It is also a gift which you either have intuitively or struggle to master. But fundamentally it is approachable, building block after block. We need to get back to step-by-step instruction, backed with reasons & techniques. They hows, whys and what-fors of cooking. Perhaps not the McGee science behind every step, but at least why hollandaise breaks and how to fix it and why we should even bother making hollandaise

    I was blessed with not only Julia Child in my childhood, but a mother who cooked ala Child and a public school system which actually had a home-economic program which taught cooking to a mixed class of boys and girls and made it cool–like using liquid nitrogen to freeze things long before Heston Blumenthal thought about making ice cream with it. If we are going to tackle America’s ignorance in the kitchen, we’ve got to get back to no-nonsense cookery which engages kids and adults and gets them thinking about how to feed themselves better and healthier.

    • Podcast: Seems to me we need the “Julia Food Network” to get things right, and get people pointed and moving toward real action in their kitchens, other than pressing buttons on the microwave. You game for that?

      • I think there is merit in that idea. The solution lies party in a program like Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, and partly in a home-ec boot-camp scenario. Start by teaching the basics and build from there. The shows are not only about soups, stews, roasts & braises, and seasonal food timings, but also about ingredients–butter, eggs, wine, flours. Once some fundamentals are taught, then progress to pasta, sauces, dealing with leftovers.

        The current TV food trend is all about the marathon, the contest, either between chefs or to impress your guests. They are off and running at the starter’s gun. Problem is most home cooks haven’t even learned to crawl. Why is a dull knife more dangerous than a sharp one? Why is a fresh egg best for poaching, but an older egg for hard boiling? If we could present a show like this which was engaging, informative & tasty then there would be a winner. Lining up corporate sponsors might be a problem…one reason Jacques Pepin & Julia had such great shows on PBS..free from too much control.

        I would love to watch a cooking show like this–especially if the opening was of a microwave exploding!

      • Podchef: Enter YouTube? Other Internet properties? Or how about your food programming vision falls under the Pro Food umbrella? Some of us are flirting with ideas about making Pro Food more than an idea, including some media related concepts (not cooking shows). I’ll have to throw this in the pot and see what comes of it. Stay tuned…!

  15. My grandmother was a great cook. My mother has a degree in Home economics and is a terrible cook. When I was a kid i had no interest in learning to cook. When I was about 20 i started an organic garden and taught myself to cook. That was in 1973. I bought a cook book. The Southern Living Cookbook was the first one I bought. I still have it and use it today. Today we have the internet where Bill can find out how to cook anything in his box.

  16. Great post and discussion. I grew up in a family that cooked. I served my major apprenticeship under my Jewish grandmother who had been a caterer for decades so I learned the basics plus all sorts of interesting and useful extras.

    Mostly I learned to be fearless in the kitchen. I have fond memories of my seventh birthday, when she was nuts enough to agree that a taffy pull was a *wonderful* idea. Easily a dozen kids and one very brave woman made taffy that day, and I know a few of my friends had never made anything they ate before that day. (I could not imagine that!) In fact, many of my fond memories revolve around the kitchen, which is probably much less true for kids growing up now.

    The cult of personality and product placement has overtaken the actual teaching that used to take place on the tiny little kitchens inside the TV.

    Bread has become circus.

    Can you imagine any of the earlier shows, or people, on TV today? Can you imagine the people who taught *you* to cook getting a show? Somehow I doubt my grandmother is what they are hiring, but damn, could she teach people to cook!

    I am doing my small part, having just published my first cookbook last year. Picture Yourself Cooking With Your Kids is the sort of back to basics book you are talking about, but not exactly. Each recipe has step-by-step color photos, nutritional info (I am amazed how few cookbooks do), and is made from scratch: no assembling English Muffin pizzas and calling it cooking.

    My favorite part, however, is a Cook’s Primer a 50 page chapter that touches on everything I could shove in there: basic techniques, nutrition, organics, factory farms, farms and farmer’s markets, shopping, strategies for picky eaters, planning a meal, and so on. If a parent who did not cook bought it, they could learn along with their child. Everyone who gets their hands on it says that it’s a great book and I am very proud of it.

    The sad part is that, in the market of food personalities, the book languishes on shelves while ‘food memoirs’ (the Food Network of books?) and yet another Rachael/Aunt Sandy/Giada book fly off the shelves…

    So now that I have rambled myself into something verging on an ad, let me just say, yes, I agree, we need the Julia Childs, the farmers who put recipes in the CSA bag, and I dare say, more books like the one I wrote.

    • KitchenMage: This is just the place for someone doing such important work to let others know about what you are doing. So, thanks for sharing. I’m especially fond of kids in kitchens (and gardens), as it is an important part of what makes my family (my wife and me and four kids) strong and health. As an example, my 11-year-old daughter and I have been making mole dinners on Christmas Day for the last three years…from Rick Bayless cook book. Translated: We spend the entire day in the kitchen. Imagine an eight-year-old doing that and loving it. We have to find effective ways to make this all more commonplace!

  17. Rob, great post! My box also sends out fabulous recipes, which I appreciate. I grew up on farm with huge vegetable garden, but meals were always quite plain. It seems to me that there is a lot of pressure to cook “cuisine” and that if that isn’t able to be done, to switch to frozen/ready-made “cuisine” instead of just having some plain carrots with potatoes. Need to strike some sort of a balance here.

  18. Such a great post. There is such a huge information gap when it comes to food these days. I spoke with one of the managers of the brand new farmer’s market in our town recently and she mentioned that they are working on providing an info table where recipes and information is provided because they recognize that the gap is there.

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