RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of television's most enduring stars is food. From the days of black and white with prim homemakers whipping up casseroles and cream pies, to today's 24/7 Food Channel dedicated to the most colorful of concoctions. Writer Kathleen Collins offers a history of television cooking shows in a new book, "Watching What We Eat." She says the ingredients for the TV shows came from radio beginning in 1926, with "Housekeeper's Chat" from the Farm Radio Service, starring Aunt Sammy.
Ms. KATHLEEN COLLINS (Author, "Watching What We Eat"): She was a fictitious character created by the USDA, and she delivered household tips to housewives across the country. They would have different actresses playing the role of Aunt Sammy, and she would adopt different regional accents to fit the area that she was broadcasting to. And while it was not ever made terribly explicit, she was supposed to be the wife of Uncle Sam.
MONTAGNE: We have some tape here of the "Mary Lee Taylor Show." It began in 1933, ran for two decades.
Ms. COLLINS: Right.
MONTAGNE: Let's take a listen to her.
Ms. MARY LEE TAYLOR (Host of the "Mary Lee Taylor Show"): And now good morning to everyone in my nice audience. If you could look into this (unintelligible) kitchen through your loudspeaker, I know you'd think that the stuffed vanilla wafers I've been putting together look mighty festive. The creamy yellow filling, bristling with coconut, certainly has the…
Ms. COLLINS: I love that clip so much because it's sort of seductive in a way, and she's actually, in that clip, with a man named Mr. Cole, who she describes how he's reaching for a second one because they look so good. And what comes later in that clip, also, is that she dictates the recipe for these vanilla wafer cookies and makes it sound so nutritious when of course, we look at it today and know it's just junk food.
Ms. TAYLOR: Two tablespoons flour, two tablespoons flour, stir in slowly, stir in slowly.
Ms. COLLINS: It's just so funny now to hear her dictating as if someone's actually doing it along.
MONTAGNE: They would mail you out the recipe if you wrote in and requested it.
Ms. COLLINS: Sure, sure, that's how it was done.
MONTAGNE: Let's move on to the first nationally televised cooking show, post-war, of course, and a very familiar name.
Ms. COLLINS: James Beard, who many, many people know as the dean of American cookery, and his "I Love to Eat" is what it was all about. But the thing was that most people didn't get to see him because it was still too early for televisions to be in people's homes.
MONTAGNE: I'm looking at a picture in your book of James Beard on the set of his first TV cooking show, and it's this teeny, tiny kitchen. He fills it.
Ms. COLLINS: Um-hum. He also has, if you notice, a cigarette in his hand.
MONTAGNE: Hovering, I must say, very near to the - I think it's chicken here, very near to the cutlet.
Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, he was just doing what he loved. He was showing people about food and living life to the fullest, and that's just who he was.
MONTAGNE: Who ended up watching the James Beard show - and I just gathered there wasn't exactly what you might think the target audience would be.
Ms. COLLINS, Um-hum, not at all. Because people didn't have televisions in their homes - it would be very rare to find a television in a home - you would find them in public places such as taverns and saloons. And men used to gather in these bars on Friday nights to watch the boxing matches. And they were the first audience for television cooking shows.
Unidentified Woman: Hello, welcome to our Philadelphia electric television kitchen. I really like it, don't you? And you know, cooking electrically is just like magic. You push a button or turn a switch, and that's all there is to it. It's easy - and fun, too.
MONTAGNE: Let's get to what has to have been the breakthrough moment for the TV cooking show, at every level - the food itself, the personality, the presentation - that would have to be Julia Child.
Ms. JULIA CHILD (Television Cooking Personality): Julia Child presents the Chicken Sisters: Miss Broiler, Miss Fryer, Miss Roaster, Miss Caponet, Miss Stewer and Old Madam Hen. But we're spotlighting Miss Roaster of the Year.
MONTAGNE: This is not a parody.
Ms. COLLINS: Yes.
MONTAGNE: That was the real Julia Child.
Ms. COLLINS: That was it, and she - I mean, how can you not love this woman? That is her natural personality. She had absolutely no intention of being as funny as she ended up being. That was just her natural personality and she was extremely serious about imparting this knowledge to America, both men and women. She was not on it to be an entertainer. She just happened to be very entertaining.
MONTAGNE: There's a - there's also another show that had a lot of funny moments, and this was the "Galloping Gourmet," which came on the scene in the early 1970s.
Ms. COLLINS: Um-hum.
MONTAGNE: Let's take a listen.
Mr. GRAHAM KERR (Television Cooking Personality): Then - so you keep on whisking this and in - into there, into that blender, you put your nuts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KERR: Ten ounces of hazelnuts. Funny when you think about it, hazelnuts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KERR: What's your name? Hazel.
MONTAGNE: Now this is Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, and really in a sense, a product of his era - I mean, the sexual references and that sort of thing. This is real 1970s stuff.
Ms. COLLINS: Um-hum. He, in addition to the little nuts clip that you played, he was reprimanded by the Canadian Broadcasting Company not to refer to circumcising a cucumber, and that was very much his personality. And he, too, was a very serious cook, very well-trained, and absolutely made it the central focus of the show to be entertaining.
MONTAGNE: When you think about the sheer number of cooking shows today and an entire channel devoted to them, how has the appeal changed, and maybe in some ways how - is it still the same as it was in those early days?
Ms. COLLINS: Well, I think what's always been there is an element of teaching. People like to learn, and certainly at the same time enjoy themselves. But it also speaks to the immense popularity, longevity; the virility of this genre is that it speaks to so many different parts of us. It's soothing, it's sensual, it somehow speaks to everybody a little bit, and that's why they've been around for so long.
MONTAGNE: Kathleen Collins's new book is "Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows." Thanks for joining us.
Ms. COLLINS: Thank you so much, Renee.
Ms. CHILD: So that's all for today on "The French Chef." This is Julia Child, bon appetite.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And you can get a taste of what's in "Watching What We Eat" at our Web site, npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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