If you're a serious student of food history, then you won't want want to miss Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows. Kathleen Collins covers a lot of ground from the pre-television days of food personalities on the radio to the current crop of hot young thangs on the Food Network. Like I said, though, you've got to be serious about food history to dig into this book.
Collins breaks the book into three parts: The early period 1945-1962; the middle period 1963-1992, and the modern period 1993-present. The early period zeros in on radio shows, the work of home economicists to spread good health and kitchen hygiene throughout the land, the advent of James Beard, and introduces readers to Dione Lucas.
I thought I "knew it all," about the history of food and media since reading Laura Shapiro's Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America a few years ago. In fact, Collins quotes Shapiro frequently. But, I didn't know it all. Far from it.
Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet, and the Frugal Gourmet comprise the second section in which Collins also adds Joyce Chen and her show Joyce Chen Cooks to the mix. Collins credits Chen with introducing Americans to Chinese cooking techniques and ingredients.Reading about Julia Child is always a treat, but Collins confirmed that Child's show, success, and celebrity were all accidental by pointing out todays emphasis upon celebrity, the cult of personality, and the attractiveness quotient that cooking show wannabes must project.
Then, in the modern era Collins chronicles the establishment of the Food Network and why that was such a change in programming when most media outlets could not imagine networks devoted to a sole subject, which nowadays is de rigueur. Collins dips into Food Network and its stars. She charts Emeril Lagassee's failures and successes as he changed formats in his cooking shows.
And for me, that was probably the section where I wanted more. Not more Emeril, but more about the individual chefs who have shows on the network. Granted, one could write an entire book about Food Network, but I felt that the complexities of their television cooks was not adequately addressed. However, Collins notes how sex interplays with cooking in the styles and shows of Nigella Lawson, who moans and groans as she tastes the fruits of her labor, and particularly how Giada de Laurentiis brought more male viewers to the network due to her bombshell looks and low-cut blouses.
So if you want a meaty book to dig into that covers all aspects of the history of televised cooking shows, this is it. Collins contextualizes every television show by grounding it in the changes in diet and lifestyles that Americans adopted during that time frame. Her writing is good, spirited, and informed. Her training as a journalist is evident in her skilled writing and excellent research.
Quite after the fact, by visiting her website and reading her biographical information, I learned that she is a librarian. I was impressed with the back matter of the book, her detailed chapter by chapter list of references and selected bibliography were outstanding. Now I know why. Her index isn't shabby either. Yet, she referenced social class a few times in the book and I failed to note those pages. When I search the index under social class, class, SES, blue-collar, middle class, poverty, etc. I don't find those topics anywhere. Most readers won't criticize the index. So just pretend you didn't read this part.