THE BEST OF EARLY FOOD TELEVISION, ACCORDING TO A 5 YEAR OLD.
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Have you ever read the book Outliers: The Story of Success? In the book Malcom Gladwell discusses his theory on achieving success. Success is often out of one's control- but rather dictated by the circumstances of your life. His theory gets as specific as determining the potential for success by the month, year, and place you were born. One example are the early tech pioneers, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Both were born at a time where they were young enough to be the earliest adopters of all the new technology, but old enough that they could actually do something with that technology and knowledge.
ok, but How is this relevant to Food Television?
I don't necessarily qualify my obsession for food, and love of early food network shows a grand "success." However, after reading From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network, by: Allen Salkin, I quickly realized my nostalgic familiarity with the early days of food programing had to do with being born at exactly the right time.
In 1992 I was two years old turning three. While I was hitting monumental milestones that would impact the rest of my life, so was the U.S. Government. Much like the early days of the Internet, early cable TV was the Wild Wild West.
The fight that broke the government's back was between the existing broadcast stations (ABC, NBC, etc.) and the new cable providers. The broadcast channels which had always been available to consumers for free via-antenna wanted a piece of the new market and were demanding per-subscriber compensation from the cable providers. The cable providers said, no way, you've always been free, keep it free. The final blow came during Congress's passage of the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act.
The Broadcast channels were required to provide their signal for free, but the Cable providers agreed to carry the broadcast channel's newly created cable networks. This act is the reason we eventually get get ESPN (owned by ABC), Bravo (Owned by NBC), and how the world was blessed with the TV Food Network, founded by the broadcast arm of the Providence Journal.
As a a result, in the early 90's there was a BOOM of food content hitting the airwaves. Prior to cable, the only food programing that existed were the couple of shows on PBS, including Julia Child's. A few TV executives created the TV Food Network, taking an early gamble, and truly played the long game with their investment. The budgets were low, the talent was all over the place, the programs were not incredibly inventive at the start, but they knew they were on to something.
In 1993 my older sister was already in school full time. Lucky for me, I was at the right place at the right time, and only went to pre-school for half days when food hit the airwaves. We must have just gotten cable around that time. Being home with my mom those years, and getting to watch the various food programs had a huge impact on my life. Even if I didn't fully understand at that point what was happening on the shows, it was food, and I LOVED food.
While the early pioneers of the Food Network were struggling to figure their shit out, I was 4 years old and loving all of it.
My memories of these shows are sometimes vague, but I definitely remember watching them, and learning the drama behind them in Allen Salkin's book was INCREDIBLY satisfying.
So here we go, in NO particular order- a trip down memory lane into the early days of the Food Television Boom. Buckle up, because we're going to a land even further away than Flavor Town™.
1. READY SET COOK - This was first food competition show that made its way to the United States. (Iron Chef premiered in Japan in 1993, but did not make its way over until a few years later.) Ready, Set, Cook, A UK import is a dated gem that was one of the network's first actual big hits. It's the ancestor to Chopped, Top Chef, and every subsequent on-air cooking competition. The concept for this one: Each episode two chefs from around the country will compete against one another by creating a dish from the mystery ingredients chosen by their audience member Sous chefs. The budget for ingredients: $10. A great way to keep a budget low is have no budget! They had to pretty much bribe people off the street to fill the audience. Whats most hilarious about the premise is that the winner was chosen by an audience before any of the food was tasted in a very haphazard way. The very last 10 seconds of the video show really show is low budget glory: the 30 or so audience members are invited up to try each dish, and they only have ONE of each dish for all 30 people. Around 26:11, before the camera could cut away you see some paper plates come out for each person to get a crumb. It's perfect.
2. TWO HOT TAMALES - At a time when the other women on food TV were variations of moms or Julia Child- Susan Feniger and Mary-Sue Miliken were something completely different. Two badass women on TV, cooking badass food. They've gone on to appear on Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters proving that these women are not your usual Martha Stewart archetype. Something unfortunately most women on food tv were at the time. Whenever either of them pop up on a show today, like David Chang's most recent season of Ugly Delicious, it truly feels weirdly like seeing old friends....who I have never actually met. Before the days of Zoom Bombing - Food TV had its own scandal on its hands when 10 seconds of Pornography played during an evening airing of Two Hot Tamales. Whoever played the pre-recorded tapes at the time went to switch to a back up tape of the episode, which had also been spliced. That was way past my bedtime in 1997, but crazy to read about.
3. THE DESSERT SHOW WITH DEBBIE FIELDS - God bless Debbie Fields, and this show. The youtube clip below includes the intro which honestly might be the best part of the video, that or her nails. I'll leave that for you to decide. The Dessert Show starting THE Debbie Fields, who sold cookies at a suburban malls across America is a a perfect example of Food Network before they brought in coaches to work with the hosts, she relied on those cue cards pretty hard for the intros. As a child with a major sweet tooth living in a house where junk food was was pretty controlled, this show was one of my favorites. If I couldn't eat all desserts all the time, at least I could watch them on TV.
4. TASTE - David Rosengarten was the original IT boy of the Food Network. Before Emeril, Bobby Flay or Tyler Florence there was David Rosengarten who was on two shows of the original Food TV lineup. I'm sure it was mostly because it saved the network money making a deal with one host vs paying two separately. At the time he was, and truly still is a very respected food journalist. That was what I found most interesting about him. I remember my mother reading his restaurant reviews, and I'm 99% certain we had a copy of the Taste cookbook at home. Taste was the show you watched to learn about food, not to learn how to cook. It was a predecessor to Alton Brown's Good Eats (Which I enjoyed much more, but you really can't compare the two.) Another highlight of his career I learned while writing this: Authoring the now defunct Dean and Deluca cookbook (RIP). While no longer a regular on Food Network, he's returned as a judge on Iron Chef America. David also produces his own youtube series, it's basically Taste, but shot at his house. He's once again at the forefront with all other food shows moving to at home tapings! You go, David Rosengarten!
5. Hot Off The Grill with Bobby Flay- Food network took a different, now hilarious route for this show. This show was trying to target a younger audience, and definitely target the suburban mom market. The set was meant to look like you're at a party in Bobby's Apartment. Watching the episode linked below I am EXTRA confused. Why are the guys from RENT there? (Is it because his Dad was a partner at Joe Allen?) Who invited the Venison expert? (No idea.) Why is he even making Venison? Isn't this supposed to be accessible for mom's across America? Food Network really put a LOT of stock in Bobby Flay - hiring a coach to help him be smoother and more seductive on camera. I kid you not. If you watch his later shows he's far less awkward than he was during these early episodes of Hot Off the Grill.
It's very easy to go on for ages about the glory days of early Food Network. Emeril needs a post all on his own. I kind of miss the low budget charm - and honest passion for food. There are only so many episodes of Holiday Cake-Offs I'm willing to watch. In an age were people want to eat clean, organic, non-GMO I understand why Unwrapped left the air, but I still want to see how blue Jelly Beans are made! Food Network was the greatest gift to Cable TV. I am grateful we have gotten to grow up together.