Food Issue - Cooking television's EVOO genius

The masochistic pleasure of being a Food Network devotee

Thursday October 25, 2012 04:00 am EDT

It's en vogue among people who take cooking and eating seriously to malign our pop culture food icons. I'm not talking about icons like Cap'n Crunch or Chef Boyardee. I'm talking about those who probably aren't chefs at all, but rather caricatures with charisma who've been given half-hour programs on Food Network. Some of them have ridden the wave of food fame and remained unscathed. Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten comes to mind. With her house in the Hamptons and various ganaches, she's proven pleasantly pretentious enough to be taken seriously. But then there's her foil Paula Deen, a bug-eyed marsh-dweller with a drawl thicker than high fructose corn syrup and about as manipulated. Most serious food folks would burn Deen in effigy before they'd sample her mushroom canapés, which, by the way, consist of canned mushrooms, mayo, and Parmesan cheese, melted together atop Melba toasts. I happen to love her mushroom canapés.

Here's where the complexities of my identity reveal themselves (aren't you excited?). See, I'm a person who takes cooking and eating seriously. Not very seriously, but seriously enough that people might call me a "foodie" if they were the kinds of people who used the word "foodie." I'm also a masochist. If something smells funny, I'm going to keep sneaking whiffs of it. If a horror movie is really frightening, I'm going to watch it with the lights off and the front door unlocked. I like things that are painful in a good way. It's this very combination of qualities that makes me a perfect mark for the Food Network and the stars it's produced. So many of them hurt to watch, but I can't look away. Or maybe it's that I don't want to.

It started with Rachael Ray, the croaky-voiced nymph who calls thick soups "stoups," sandwiches "sammies," and olive oil "EVOO." Her program "30 Minute Meals" initially appealed to me for a number of reasons. For one, I liked to cook, but didn't have a lot of know-how or patience. Plus, I worked full time, so I was interested in making dinners I was assured wouldn't keep me in the kitchen till midnight. Also, as I mentioned previously, Ray makes up dork-dick names for things, has hands no bigger than silver dollar pancakes, and says, "Yummo." Constantly. She also insists that anchovies, when cooked down, have a nutty flavor. Constantly. But really, I liked a lot of her recipes. And even though I'd groan to the people I cooked for about how stomach-turning I thought her cutesy, pukey persona was, it's probably what kept me coming back for more.

Later, I became enamored with Deen and her many programs, a period of my life that culminated in visiting Savannah specifically to eat at her restaurant the Lady and Sons. What Ray is to small hands, Deen is to overblown personalities. She's just so much of a thing, such an in-your-face, butter-guzzling grandma that she's irresistible. Like her food, she's too much for lots of people, but just enough for me. I'll never forget watching her melt two sticks of butter in a bowl in the microwave, bring the bowl of the yellow grease up to her lips like she was going to take a sip, lower it, laugh, and say, "I wouldn't do that, y'aaaaall." Yes. Yes, you would and you probably have. Then she got diabetes and everything stopped being fun.

Which brings us to present day and the current object of my obsession, Guy Fieri. I know. Everything that could possibly be said about what a gigantic bleach-blond, flame-emblazoned peen he is has already been said. When Guy came into my life, I'd actually grown tired of Food Network's cooking programs. My attention had probably been captured by something more horrifying, like "Toddlers & Tiaras." Or "What Not to Wear." (I find Stacy London insufferable in such an attractive way. She calls boobs "the girls." What could be worse?) Anyway, "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" is an almost irrefutably entertaining show. Traveling to greasy spoons and finding out how they make their signature greasy goodthings is such a great idea. And for a long time I insisted I liked it despite Fieri being its host. The logic went: It's a good show, so I'm willing to overlook the gigantic shitheel who's forever shouting things like, "This burger is like hitting the jackpot on a riverboat cruise to Flavortown!" (I made that one up.) But, yet again, I've finally had to admit that Fieri is absolutely a reason I watch. It's a complicated relationship. Like, if I spent any amount of time with him in real life, I'd either say, "You're such a goober," and throw myself from a moving car. Or I'd say, "You're such a goober," then give him a noogie and we'd go get a beer. And that's what's great about these Food Network stars — I'll never have to find out.

You can read the manifestation of Gwynedd's obsession at gwyneddandguyproject.tumblr.com, where she's currently cooking her way through Guy Fieri's cookbook Cookin' It, Livin' It, Lovin' It and documenting the journey. Sorry. The journey to Flavortown.

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