Have you noticed the amount of cooking shows on TV? What is this? Have we as a society become obsessed with food? Frankly, how many ways can there be to prepare our victuals? Enough already! The hedonism is getting beyond any basic level of normalcy. It’s not just Food Network — it seems like these programs are everywhere. You might simply tell me not to watch them. I get that. But, really what is this excess of focus on food telling us about ourselves?
Confession: I am one of the most devoted food program watchers! As a major food preparer, I am always interested with mastering the “how tos” of cooking and am eternally fascinated with all of its stunning variations. But in spite of these personal predilections, I share your curiosity about this turn of television programming and have wondered what these shows tell us about ourselves, beyond that we like food — a lot. Perhaps these shows and competitions — “Iron Chef,” “Ace of Cakes,” “Chopping Block,” “The Next Food Network Star” or any of the other “Top Chef” kind of challenges out there — are teaching something beyond simply recipes and techniques. Perhaps we can learn some larger lessons here. So here we go: “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned by Watching Cooking Shows!”
1. Presentation matters — The plating is essential, have you noticed? I was raised on parsley. I actually read somewhere that parsley is love. That quirky little sprig of parsley, gingerly placed on a plate tells the diner “I care.” It transforms the food from simple belly-filling fuel to a lofty transcendent entity meant to delight the eye as well as the palate. Our eating begins with the eye. Granted, parsley has become quite the garnish cliché, but I suppose the lesson here is that we search for something beyond utilitarianism in just about everything we do. Hence, in that sense, beauty is truth. In the words of that sublime of sensual scrolls, Song of Songs: “How fair you are, how beautiful! Your stately form is like the palm…your brow like pomegranates….”
2. Teamwork — Have you noticed the emphasis on teamwork in many of the food programs? What we know about education these days is that if we do not prepare our students to work together in teams, we are not preparing them for life. On a recent show, viewers witnessed a dramatic transformation between two fierce competitors and their ability to work together. It was remarkable. Having started out as dreaded foes, faced with the reality of needing to work together they set aside their personal differences to win the competition. There’s a lesson: Two is better than one, declares Kohelet.
3. Ingredients — Many a contest involves springing unlikely ingredients on competitors. There you are, faced with somehow meshing an array of unlikely components into some sort of magically delicious concoction. What could be more life-like than this? On a daily basis we are forced to improvise, whether in cooking, work or even parenting. Unexpected ingredients always show up in the kitchen of life.
4. The judges’ table — Hopefully, few of us have had to face as hard and brutally honest judgment in this lifetime as do these cooking contestants. But on the other hand, what would that really look like? Perhaps a dose of frank feedback might set us on a much-needed re-calibration? I notice how some folks are better at taking this than others. Some, no matter what the feedback, are unable to hear the criticism. We know quickly how this is going to end. But look at those who take the critique to heart and resolve to improve. Wow — it can be inspiring. What does it take to offer precise and clear critique and what does it take to be open to it? A good question to reflect upon.
5. Defending yourself at the judges’ table — On the flipside, some strong challengers know how to speak up and, armed with a finely tuned self-knowledge, are able to save themselves. They really explain and articulate their thoughts and how things had actually gone down. This sometimes saves them, even when the dish they presented really left something to be desired. Ultimately, they had better offer a finer-quality dish in the next round, but a deftly presented defense can go a long way. Note to self: When all else fails, bring in the effective defense.
6. Tasting — No cooking demonstration is complete without the ritual of the chef tasting a forkful of food, dramatically opening his or her mouth, sensually closing his or lips over it, and tasting. The chefs almost always let loose with all sorts of “ooohs” and “ahhs” and “wows” and “yums.” What is this? A TV, after all, is limited; we have yet to invent a tasting app that allows us to actually savor the flavors on the screen. Then why the ceremonial tasting?
It’s not as if we have ever seen Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay decry said food. The big idea here is the viewers learn that tasting is important. To know something is to have not simply seen or created it or presented it — you must taste it. Taamu ureu ki tov! As the psalmist remarks in chapter 34, “Taste it and see how good the Lord is!” No accident in the metaphor here. To know something is to have experienced it; hence, though we cannot taste through the screen, those chefs had better raise the fork to the mouth!
7. There is much more fodder here for inspiration; Quick-Fire Challenges teach us that yes, time is of the essence, the day is short, and the work is great — our very own Pirke Avot maxim. The elimination round cannot help but graphically depict the reality that sometimes in life we lose and it’s never going to be easy. But if we can walk off the stage with a modicum of grace, that might be a triumph all its own.
Perhaps the biggest take-away from the proliferation of cooking shows and contests, challenges and demos is that we humans are clearly absorbed with food in all of its varieties and expressions. There is an eternal engagement with the edible. The Torah’s insistence on our consumption of only kosher food is a reflection of this human preoccupation with our fare and its necessary discipline. Food is no mere form of fuel to be relegated to happenstance. It has captured our imagination and creativity in ways that nothing else has; it warrants many a guideline and parameter.