Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hot dishes

Warning: It's about to get dirty in here, so stop reading if old-fashioned porn (as opposed to food porn) ain't your thing.

In the October 2005 Harper's is an article called "Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network at the Frontiers of Pornography" (I can't find it online UPDATE: here it is) by Frederick Kaufman. Kaufman's project is to literalize the metaphor of "food porn." He describes the shooting of several Food Network shows and visits with an old-fashioned pornographer to watch food porn together. The point is that the FN sells its audience a certain "wow" experience, a sensual fix that tickles the "brain in the gut." The pleasure of food porn is visceral.

This would seem to be obvious if not totally banal, but the argument in Kaufman's article is that there is something no less prurient about food porn than real porn, that Sara's Secrets, 30 Minute Meals, and Everyday Italian are depraved and that their viewers are debased by them. Food porn offers an unrealistic representation of food and eating just as porn porn offers an unrealistic representation of sex in which crotches are well lit and arms and hair never get in between them and the camera. Just as porn porn cultivates false expectations in its audience (e.g., sex can come without strings attached), the logic goes, so does food porn: dirty dishes never pile up, recipes never turn out to be disappointments. Kaufman thus offers a dose of moral judgment admixed with vivid descriptions of the two pornographies. The effects of both, he implies, are pernicious. A sampling of his descriptions and examples:
Tyler [Florence] gingerly rolled the glistening lips of chicken breast into a thick phallus, which he doused with raw egg.


Next up was the great Emeril Lagasse, who has singlehandedly replaced the stay-at-home mom's afternoon soap opera, and perhaps her 4:00 fuck.


When Giada [de Laurentiis] squeezed a lemon, the camera moved in for a closeup of the abundant yellow stream. "All that juice," came Giada's thick voiceover. "Oh my god," said [porn photographer Barbara] Nitke, "It's watersports."


Now Giada chopped garlic--quickly, hypnotically. "That's the equivalent of sexual skills," Nitke said. "The chopping--that's the hanging-from-the-chandelier-having-sex moment. It's amazing to watch that chopping, and we see it over and over, all day long. I would compare that to the deep-throat thing. That's the wow."


As the cameras converged on the cheese-exuding apple pie, I remembered one of the first anecdotes Barbara Nitke had told me, one about a philosophical discussion she once had with the editor of Climax magazine. Why, she asked, the unending publication of ultra-closeup pussy shots? Why so many? Why the exact same image, over and over again?

"We're all bored to death," the editor admitted, "but we get letters from readers. 'Can we see more?'"
OK, some points of dispute. First, it confuses me to hear of a chicken that has lips and is also a phallus. Is it a hermaphrodite? Second, Emeril's afternoon show is on at 2:00 Eastern, and who is stopping stay-at-home moms--and dads!--from enjoying a fuck while watching? Third, Nitke seems to have studied textual analysis at the school of free association. A pornographer would see genitals squirting fluids every time a fruit is juiced. Fourth, chopping garlic is more like foreplay. The deep-throat thing is actually the skillet toss. Giada isn't as good at either of these things as some of the FN chefs. What does that say? Fifth, I know every pussy is as beautiful as a snowflake in its own special way, but this comparison stinks. There is more variety in the things we see on the FN than there is in ultra-closeups of pussy, period. (As well, how is the discussion under discussion in any meaningful sense philosophical? And one more cavil: Kaufman repeatedly misspells Rachael Ray's name.)

Now I'm done trying to be cute and ready for my real criticisms. The article suffers from a certain slippage in its argument. Sometimes its claim is that it is the food in FN shows that is pornographic, and sometimes its claim is that the stars onscreen ooze sex. Ray-Ray is the girl next door grinning from her FHM spread, Giada is the "glamazon," Tyler is the "sensitive hunk." (Sadly forgotten is Padma Lakshmi, the most sexualized and exoticized of all of FN's on-screen personalities). I buy the second claim, but this makes FN no different from football pregame shows and cable news. The people on TV are sexy. As my brother likes to say, Shocker! But the first claim is not credible. For one thing, it demands that we take a blanket negative view of porn as debasing. No thanks. But more important, it asks that we buy the full literal truth of the food porn metaphor, and I'm not willing to go that far. Food porn is about eating, porn porn is about sex. Both are pleasures, but only sex is so thoroughly surrounded by taboo, only sex is confined to the private sphere, only sex is judged to be out of bounds by mainstream media standards. I don't endorse this moralistic conception of sex; indeed I find it repressive. But this is the way it is. To suggest that food porn is literally pornographic is to miss this boat entirely and is to find shame in any vicarious sensual pleasure. I find this ultimately to be puritanical and shallow. It also misses, whether on purpose or by accident, the significance of how audiences make meaning of food shows and reduces their reaction to physical stimulation. As with porn, there are lots of ways of interacting with cooking shows.

What irks me most about this article, though, is its sensationalism. It condemns a supposedly debased culture in the form of a "naughty" laundry list of specious comparisons. Check that: "specious" actually gives them too much credit; they are childish and stupid. I'm supposed to be titillated by reading "pussy" is the august pages of Harper's magazine? I'm supposed to confirm the author's judgment while getting off on his lousy chain-jerking? Gimme a break.

Finally, all this sex talk obscures a more important point about the FN: it has become unwatchable. It replaces real cooking shows (of the sort Kaufman finds pornographic) with fake cooking shows like Semi-Homemade. It replaces people who know how to cook with people who know only how to smile into the camera. It programs travelogues and 30-minute candy ads instead of shows about real people preparing real meals. I learned much of what I know about cooking watching the FN (yikes) but it's getting harder to learn anything from it any more. It would seem to the FN programmers that the desirable audience, the young fellas like me, just want to see pretty things. I like pretty things just fine, but I also want my old Food TV back, pornographic or not.


Blogger Indira said...

I don't know mzn, compare to old food shows, the new shows and their hosts seems to be more interested in food porno than the real food, what with their tight shirts and half of bossoms hanging out and their sexy voices. Most of their recipes stinks too. Who eats like that anyway?

3:19 PM  

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