ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you're one of the many addicts to the current crop of food shows, try this. Go to YouTube and watch a clip of Julia Child. It's like visiting a different planet.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE CLIP, "FRENCH CHEF")
JULIA CHILD: Welcome to the "French Chef." I'm Julia Child. Whenever you do French onion soup, you just need an awful lot of onions. And if you're going to have an awful lot of sliced onions, you've got to have a good sharp knife.
RATH: You kind of wonder how long she would last in the gladiator's arena that modern cooking shows have become.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRON CHEF")
PADMA LAKSHMI: Please pack your knives and go.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Today, two champions met to battle peanuts here in Kitchen Stadium.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're about to chop this competition down to just three chefs.
RATH: Since the original Japanese "Iron Chef" first appeared on the Food Network here 15 years ago, how-to cook shows have gradually been displaced by food combat - reality shows that pit chefs against each other.
Krishnendu Ray is a professor of food studies at NYU's Steinhardt School. He says networks love these shows because they're cheap to produce. But they also reflect a changing audience.
KRISHNENDU RAY: Part of it is it's targeted towards young men - kind of a newer audience than the typical cooking show, which had an overwhelmingly female audience.
RATH: In terms of sheer numbers though, more women are also watching the shows. They're really popular, right?
RAY: They are. They are. And food has entered both the fashion cycle, I think, and a kind of a public discourse. A lot of things are driving it.
One of the things that's new is this kind of an aesthetic approach to food - that you want to watch food. You want to talk about food. There's now room for people to argue about good taste in a relatively much more democratic way than say higher art or architecture. Those domains have been taken over much more extensively by experts.
RATH: It feels like it wasn't that long ago that we were talking about the rise of food porn - that's, you know, the cooking shows that luxuriated in the details of preparation. Is the day of food porn over now replaced by food sports?
RAY: Yeah, I never liked the phrase food porn. The discussion about food, beautiful pictures, good food, good taste is drawing a lot of people into the discussion. And to use food porn is to dismiss that engagement.
But there was also a rightful criticism about the fact that we are looking at basically just beautiful food and not worrying about all the labor that goes behind it. And all this public discussion of food is very good for celebrity chefs. It's very good for people at the upper end of it - I would say 20 percent of that. But most of the 2 million cooks who cook for about nine or $10 an hour, this discussion hasn't touched or improved their lives at all.
RATH: Does any of this reflect people actually cooking less and ordering food more?
RAY: As Michael Pollan says, I think that what food TV does is trains you how to order in restaurants. I think the reason for people not cooking are kind of socioeconomic demographic reasons - one is of course women escaping the kitchen. And the other part is people being very busy, long commutes to jobs - those are the reasons why people are not cooking.
RATH: I'm wondering if you've noticed the relationship between marketing of certain things and this trend with food shows. I mean, the way that pork bellies are popping up on these.
RAY: Absolutely, yes.
RATH: It's one of these items that you have to use in the competition and we're seeing these on menus.
RAY: You are absolutely right. Food has entered the fashion cycle and everybody has to deal with pork belly and then bacon in everything. And then everybody gets tired. So it has acquired a kind of a seasonal characteristic, which is one of the peculiar things when you, I think, are mediatize something and commercialize something so proximate and domestic and care based. And that's the price you pay for excessive discussion, I guess, of something.
RATH: Krishnendu Ray is an associate professor of food studies at NYU Steinhardt School. Thank you so much.
RAY: Thank you.
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