The Evolution of Cooking Shows, featuring Anxiety

These days, I’m not too big a fan of TV in general.  Growing up, like most self-respecting child-products of the nineties, I watched the Simpsons religiously (5 pm every weekday with new episodes Sundays at 9), and could tell you exactly when the show started to go downhill (I’m sure all the good writers died), as well as give you a first hand account of the craziness that took over the world in the summer of 1995 while we were forced to wait a whole 4 months to find out who shot Mr. Burns.

In recent years I’ve found that I just don’t have the patience for TV.  I should probably specify that by saying that I have not purposefully set aside time for the sole purpose of watching a particular show in a long time.  The commercials, combined with the fact that there is really not much that I find worthwhile to watch, have wholly converted me to the practice of watching TV series on DVD, and I’m certain that the experience is 10 times more pleasurable.

yan can cook

Martin Yan back in his glory days

Having said that, there are a couple of notable exceptions.  Living in a semi-rival city, I don’t often get to watch games featuring my team, so I usually watch the occasional ones that I can.  But the place where I easily spend my most time in TV land is the Food Network.  I don’t know what it is, but I love cooking shows.  I have since I was quite young and used to watch (fantastic) shows like The Urban Peasant and Yan Can Cook.  Back then, there wasn’t a Food Network to speak of.  These shows were running on local TV stations during daytime TV hours.

Despite the basic premise of filming someone cooking food, cooking shows have evolved somewhat.  There are still great shows that follow the basic formula – I’m a big fan of Chef At Home – but by and large, cooking shows have become one of two things: “reality” shows with a competition-based cook-off, or the standard-esque formula delivered towards a niche audience with or without an obvious twist.  Both categories are home to a great many terrible shows and also some that are worth watching.  From the former, I would recommend anything featuring Gordon Ramsey.  The man is a genius.  I’m a fan of a lot of the grill-based shows in the latter category, as well (as long as it’s not Road Grill… the horror…Matt Dunnigan, you are my worst grill-based nightmare).

By this point, you’re no doubt wondering: Dave, it’s great that you think so many fascinating thoughts about cooking shows, but why are you writing about them here, on a psychology-themed blog?

matt dunnigan and gordon ramsay

Matt Dunnigan? No. For the love of God, no. Gordon Ramsay? That's more like it.

Relax, I was getting there.  See, there’s a show that started airing on the Food Network this season that seemed from the name alone that it had just gone too far.  Deviated too far from the mean of what makes a cooking show good, into the realm of the extreme for the sake of being extreme.  I’m talking about a show called Bitchin’ Kitchen.  From what I can gather (gasp! No Wikipedia article!), the show’s humble origins were online before it was picked up by the Food Network.

Anyway, the show is hosted by Nadia G., (or ‘Nads,’ as she self-refers) a young woman with a burly New York-esque Italian (eye-talian) accent, decked out in punk rock gear and brightly coloured make-up.  The show features recipes like “one night stand breakfast,” “pissed penne,” and “get famous frittata.”  Points for originality, sure.  Hey, points for comedy while we’re at it.  Maybe even some points for trying to make cooking shows cool.  But again, something just seems wrong about it all.  Am I too much of an old-school cooking show purist?  What happened to the days of gray-haired, overweight people using a stick of butter per recipe? (you don’t count, Paula Deen… you’re too… Southern.)

bitchin kitchen

Nadia G. rocking a frying pan

Regardless, the particular episode that I watched was called “Anxiety Stricken Chicken,” which is what made me decide to write this post.  The link above is to the web episode, not the Food Network one, so there are some differences.  Read the by-line for the episode for yourself:

Anxiety is the plague of the Net Generation. In this episode Nadia G. teaches us how to cook a chicken soup that will sooth the soul, the way mom used to make it… unless mom was a crack-ho, but that’s another episode.

Crack-hos aside, the episode makes frequent pokes at anxiety and the people that suffer from it.  Nadia G. talks about having her own panic attacks as if they were a psychotic break (“hundreds of skinless creatures crawling all over the room,” which she later cites as the reason for straining the chicken skin from her soup).  There is even a reference to anxious people being nerds.  For most of the episode, Nadia makes references to being obsessed with a lump on her neck.  She lists “cloneezapam” as an ingredient in the soup (“clonazepam” aka klonopin is a widely used and quite potent benzodiazepine, a class of anti-anxiety medication). Towards the end of the episode, she opines,

For the longest time, I was convinced that my panic attacks were due to rocking too hard.  So, I cleaned up my act, and surprise, surprise: life still sucks!

I haven’t made up my mind about whether this is the kind of humour that’s hurting society’s perception of mental illness and more specifically anxiety and anxiety sufferers or if, a la the racially charged comedic stylings of Russell Peters, the ability to make fun of anxiety is actually a crucial step in raising our awareness of it.  Conquering it.  Though Peters is a a minority who makes fun of minorities, so that changes the rules a bit.  Does Nadia G. really suffer crippling panic attacks?  It’s quite possible, but we may never know.

One thing’s for certain.  Whether or not the humour is good-intentioned and whether it raises awareness or it further raises stigmatization, until we see more of a positive presence of mental illness in the media, it doesn’t really matter.