Zeitgeist follies

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Lick your finger and stick it in the air; two lifestyle articles last weekend (AP and New York Times) lent their imprimatur to basic ideas about America, food, and the media.  What d'ya think? 

Students are seduced by the glamour of high-profile chefdom into disillusionment!  It's official, the glut is here. In "Celebrity chefs boost culinary schools," the AP reporter talks to culinary school grads who are disappointed by the life waiting for them on the outside. It's hard to imagine how anyone could not know, despite (as the article predictably cites) Emeril and rachaelray, that professional cooking is an extremely demanding, traditionally thankless profession (part of its Bourdainian glamour, yes?), from which even the possibility of serious perks has emerged only recently, and those as unlikely as the usual rich-n-famous odds. However, this article also claims some students are having a hard time finding work, period, to support themselves after school. One recent California culinary school grad (named Cuisinier!), unemployed and in debt, says, "When they're trying to get you enrolled in these programs, they tell you you're going to come out making top dollar. I've just been way disappointed." Tim Ryan, president of the CIA, demurs, noting that, "We spend a lot of time before we admit students to make sure they understand the realities of the industry and don't come in all starry-eyed with unrealistic expectations." 

The article doesn't shake out all the relevant issues, despite some interesting statistical fluffing (in the last ten years the number of cooking schools has doubled, but most food service jobs are held by fast-food workers). It is, however, much ado about the current glamour of  food celebrities, and depicts an America in love with its chefs. One sociologist is quoted: "It's becoming rarer to cook amongst young, urban professionals. We're watching TV and reading books about beautiful food."

But wait. Maybe the AP's definition of "chef" is just too broad.  According to the NYT, Americans want their food media served by people just like them! The first line of "Food for the People, Whipped Up by the People" reads: "If you wanted to appear in a food magazine or publish a cookbook in 2006, to star in a television cooking show or increase the traffic on your Web site, your best move was clear: don’t be a chef." The piece is a year-end look at changes in the food media landscape, arguing that it's not chefs who dominate the media anymore, but regular people/"the people" (à la Time mag's "Person of the Year" choice). "It was the year the people took back the food. Expertise was out." The article cites as evidence phenomena such as changes in presenters at Food Network from chefs to caterers/personalities (Batali out, DeLaurentiis in), the popularity of user-driven recipe sites and comfy magazines like Taste of Home, which has "about 3.5 million subscribers, more than Gourmet, Food & Wine and Bon Appétit combined," and is (according to their editor) "proud to be the comfortable shoe, not the stiletto, of food magazines. A lot more people wear comfortable shoes.”

I'm not sure there really is such a change evident in all this so much as an increased polarity amongst general increasing interest, period (appropriate somehow, during the Bush regime). There's always been a kind of high-end/low-end dichotomy in the food media. It's interesting to ponder, despite the fact that the polarity does often encourage the very tedious and cyclical (what I call) Sandra Lee Debate, in which foodies are elitist stressed-out snobs and crappy food made with McCormick seasoning mixes means you understand what's important. And no in between.

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