The other F-Word

As food becomes a pop culture phenomenon, humans aren’t just eating to live anymore

Food’s depiction in popular media has transformed the act of eating into an aesthetically-oriented cultural activity, rather than the age-old mantra “eat to live.”
Food’s depiction in popular media has transformed the act of eating into an aesthetically-oriented cultural activity, rather than the age-old mantra “eat to live.”
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You should stay out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat, but a foodie fix is luckily only a remote click away.

The prevalence of cooking and food programming in media today highlights the obvious obsession that North Americans have with what they choose to put into their mouths.

Food culture has revolutionized the idea of “eat to live” and focuses its energies on popularizing the concept of living to eat. Food is the centre of social activity and like the proverb ‘you are what you eat,’ how people choose to eat essentially mirrors how they live. Familiarity with food and modern cooking is a revered and fashionable trait—and it’s becoming more and more obvious. People are seeking out resources like the Food Network that provide easy and accessible food know-how for the average person.

The Food Network offers a plethora of cooking programs to its viewers. From the reality-based styling of Gordon Ramsey’s Hell Kitchen, to Ina Garten’s more traditional Barefoot Contessa, the Food Network broadens knowledge of food while offering charismatic chefs and enticing entertainment. Andrew Rastapkevicius, ArtSci ’07 and a health studies Master’s student studying the Socio-cultural studies of food, said the popularization of cooking is a recent cultural idea.

“Food on television as far as I know started with Julia Child in the ’60s,” he said. “What Julia Child was doing is French cooking—and in America that was kind of contentious, mainly because America was very anti-French at the time.

“It was this lady on television boiling lobsters and making rouxs that brought it into the home for the everyday person and made it more accessible for them.”

Rastapkevicius said an interest in food is similar to an interest in other aesthetic aspects, like art or high fashion.

“When you become interested in things like fashion or art you start to explore them more and that is what the Food Network is doing—it’s democratizing this to people,” he said. “It’s bringing that aesthetic representation of eating well and living well into their homes—and at the same time, even if people can’t do it themselves, they are going to know what that is and look for it when they are dining out.”

Even if people are unsuccessful in applying their acquired knowledge of recipes, tricks and the process of cooking, Rastapkevicius said it’s nonetheless an important aspect of their everyday knowledge.

“You are building a [database of] knowledge—you understand a lot of different aspects of cooking because, for instance, you watch the Food Network and how they do it—even if you don’t put that knowledge into use you know about it—you are building this repertoire, this diction, this vernacular of culture—and it’s all cultural capital, with wine, food, music—any aesthetic comes down to art and art spreads itself much the same way.”

Rastapkevicius said the idea of taking food beyond its basic function holds a major aesthetic component.

“Art is form over function by any means,” Rastapkevicius said. “When you look at food as something that has some aesthetic representation—whether it be the cooking or plating—you are doing more than just appreciating the nutritional or filling up function. Food is fashion, food is art, wine is art.”

Rastapkevecius said the recent phenomenon of reality-based cooking shows is the result of viewer demands and the popularity of reality-style shows that emerged around the time of programs like Survivor. He said food is a progression—and this programming trend will eventually lose its edge.

“In terms of the shows—the Food Network is a business and they aren’t going to put up a show that isn’t watched—ratings are their bread and butter,” Rastapkevicius said. “I think that some of the more interesting shows on television that would progress food in larger culture would be the molecular gastronomy shows and like Ace of Cakes, where they are taking a different angle that hasn’t really been done before.”

Rastapkevecius said people buy into the consumerist aspect of cooking largely because cooking is now a status symbol.

“It’s sort of like the fancy car that you never drive,” he said. “If the rest of your house is so fashionable, why wouldn’t your kitchen be? Around the ’60s when French food started coming into vogue in the U.S. and Canada, exoticism was a good thing. 

“To have something you could cook from another part of the world was  a prestige symbol—international dining was the best you could do—but now that globalization has expanded so much it’s almost too easy to get something from another part of the world.  Everything is based around international culture—so now what’s at the top is local, but local is more expensive.”

Rastapkevicius said local is the new exotic.

“There is now this prestige that is attached to local because it’s less accessible and costs more,” he said. “Culture always reproduces—it never stays still. It is just like art or fashion. It is always changing.  As soon as it reaches a popular mass, you move onto the next one” Lisa Stowe, a communication and culture professor at the University of Calgary, said food as a commodity has led to a growing curiosity about the inner workings of food.

“I’m not sure if most people would say that it that consciously, but there is a fascination with food,” she said. “It’s a cycle. We are curious about food. The Food Network gives us food info, we become more curious or differently curious, and food shows understand that and give us shows to satiate us.”

Stowe said cooking on television is more about living well and how wellness is related to respect for food.

“It’s about making food producers accountable, ethical treatment of animals and so on,” she said. “I’m happy if people hear the message of respect for food and do the best they can to live by that.”

Stowe said despite the growing interest in food and cooking today, people don’t necessarily put to use the skills shown on the Food Network. “When readymade meals are so accessible and take out so cheap then why bother to cook?,” she said.

In extending the function of food to exude a certain trendiness, food has slowly capitalized on even the most basic human interactions. Contracts and deals are made over beautifully prepared meals, interviews are held over a glass of wine and trendy tapas.The popularity of slick cooking gadgets, celebrity-chef cookbooks and gourmet home-cooking is too a testament to a certain shift in popular culture—a shift towards the understanding the basis of our most innate need: the need to eat.

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