Top Chef and Top Chef Masters (featuring celebrity-chef contender Ludo Lefebvre, above) are what author Michael Pollan describes as "athletic" cooking shows — more concerned with competition than with teaching cooking techniques.
Bravo's Top Chef and Top Chef Masters (featuring celebrity-chef contender Ludo Lefebvre, above) are what author Michael Pollan describes as "athletic" cooking shows — more concerned with competition than with teaching cooking techniques. Kelsey McNeal/Bravo
The Food Network draws more viewers than any of the cable news channels, but Americans are actually cooking less than ever.
Michael Pollan's recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine explores America's obsession with cooking as a spectator sport — and why the rise of cooking shows has coincided with the rise of fast food and prepackaged meals.
As Pollan points out, the time it takes the average American to prepare dinner has dropped to less than half the amount of time it takes to watch an episode of Top Chef.
In a conversation with Fresh Air guest host Dave Davies, Pollan fondly remembers Julia Child, the woman credited with upgrading the meals coming out of American kitchens. Child, he says, spawned the cooking-show genre, now a TV mainstay.
But Pollan says today's cooking shows are much different than those of the 1960s. Shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef America, and the Next Food Network Star are "more like sports than cooking. They're competitive, they're very macho."
"The Food Network has made the kitchen a safe place for men by ramping up the testosterone," Pollan says. But "you certainly don't learn anything about cooking" from watching these shows; "they go by way too fast, they don't offer the recipes ... and the food they're making is so spectacular that it's really unlikely, I think, that anybody is trying this at home."
Then there are the shows — like the Rachael Ray Show and Semi-Homecooking with Sandra Lee — that stress expediency and convenience over quality of food.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
New York Times Magazine story contrasts the rise of cooking shows with the decline of time spent actually cooking.
Pollan's recent New York Times Magazine story contrasts the rise of cooking shows with the decline of time spent actually cooking. Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
"They're called dump and stir shows," Pollan says. "In a way, they're very much the children of Julia, although I think their style is different, and their cooking is different. It's all about the shortcut. ... I don't think they have the kind of conviction Julia had, even though I think they're probably useful to some people."
Pollan is a Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the author of several books, including In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire.