A couple of weeks ago, my kids and I watched an episode of “Chopped,” the Food Network series where contestants cook their way through a series of mystery baskets filled with familiar and bizarre ingredients. The three entree baskets on this particular episode included big, beautiful pork shoulders — cuts that feed a crowd and are best braised over many hours. I watched as the contestants butchered the shoulders down to thin pieces of meat they could cook within a 30-minute time frame and serve to three judges. Everyone’s counter was littered with huge scraps of fat and flesh.
It was profane.
Now, I love cooking shows, and I’m a longtime viewer of Food Network and the Cooking Channel. But the continued shift from cooking to competition troubles me.
Should cooking be entertainment?
Instruction, yes. Edification, of course. But entertainment? When we sit in the coliseum of our TV rooms and watch people throw food together in a race against the clock, we’re devaluing that food and insulting the millions of people who can’t get enough of it to survive.
According to Feeding America, the national network of more than 200 U.S. food banks, 46.5 million people in the United States needed help getting food to eat in 2014. The median monthly household income of those using the Feeding America network is $927 — meaning they often have to make critical choices no one should face:
Do I eat … or get health care?
Do I eat … or get to work?
Do I eat … or pay my rent? Pay my electric bill? My water bill?
What message do we send when we sling pork shoulder all over a television studio while millions in the U.S. go to bed hungry?
Not a good one.
Most competition shows take pains to say they give leftover food to charitable organizations or let contestants take their foodstuffs home. But that doesn’t address the image of waste in the name of competitive cooking.
“Chopped” and its cousins “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Camp Cutthroat” put contestants in crazy food situations. We watch as the game players (and make no mistake … these people are playing games) struggle to incorporate candied almonds into poultry; attempt to make turkey burgers with lunch meat; try to prepare dishes while blindfolded. It’s all great fun … until you consider the cost. Not only are these shows shaving the dignity away from people who can’t afford to eat, they’re also chipping away at the sanctity of the ingredients they’re manipulating.
In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” author Michael Pollan writes about the sacrifice of eating. “Another thing cooking is, or can be, is a way to honor the things we’re eating, the animals and plants and fungi that have been sacrificed to gratify our needs and desires, as well as the places and the people that produced them,” he says. “Cooks have their ways of saying grace, too … Cooking something thoughtfully is a way to celebrate both that species and our relation to it.”
Where’s the grace in a mutilated pork shoulder? Where’s the celebration of the animal in a race-against-the-clock television episode?
Put another way … Did the pig really die for this?
I don’t know what the solution is. America loves its entertainment — the bigger, the sillier, the more outlandish the better. Expecting Food Network and its cadre of celebrity chefs to abstain from competitive cooking is probably naive.
But I can take a stand in my own small home. I can choose to watch cooking shows that teach me a new technique, introduce me to a new dish or give me ideas for entertaining. (Hello, “The Kitchen”!) I can turn off the silly, wasteful competition shows.
I can honor the pig.