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Appetitive Imaginaries: Television and the American Foodscape
by Hannah Soebbing

This lecture features clips from food-centric television programs, with a focus on content produced or broadcast in the United States. It is intended as an aid in tracing the history of American food culture and its attendant media objects -- from Julia Child's seminal instructional home cooking show, "The French Chef" (WGBH, 1963-1973), to David Chang's explorations of the intersections between food, ethnicity, and local culture in "Ugly Delicious" (Netflix, 2018- ).

As Pauline Adema notes, “food and television have been closely linked, both on and off screen,” for as long as television has been a fixture in the American domestic landscape (114). In 1946, when television sets were only just beginning to penetrate the U.S. consumer market, NBC would pioneer the national cooking show with James Beard’s I Love to Eat (“James Beard: Timeline”). By the mid-1950s, the percentage of U.S households owning televisions would rise above 70 percent, with sponsorship from food companies supplying a key source of revenue for early broadcasters (Edgerton 124). Concomitant with broader shifts toward a consumerist paradigm and processes of suburbanization under the postwar economic boom, new products like the (still-extant) TV dinner, the (bygone) TV stove, and a range of daytime programs aimed at housewives, were among the forms that worked to reshape consumer fantasies and practices around food in ways intimately bound up with television’s growing ubiquity (Adema 114; Spigel 83).

Things, of course, have developed quite a bit in the intervening years. In the 1960s, Julia Child’s “straight-forward yet formal demonstrations” of French cooking on national television helped codify the form of the instructional cooking show, while also making gourmet cuisine more accessible to a broad viewership (Adema 144). By the 1990s, the rise of cable in the United States had led to a fracturing of the television landscape and a proliferation of niche channels. This included the Food Network which, along with along with trends toward lifestyle programming and reality TV, helped to expand the number and variety of food programs on television. With phenomena such as the rise of the celebrity chef, food blogging, and a general rise of foodie culture over the past several decades, “our lives [have become] increasingly inundated with an endless flow of mediatised images of food” from within television and beyond (de Solier 465).

The clips and commentaries in this lecture are intended as aids in tracing the interweaving histories of American television and American culinary culture. While platitudinous, it is nonetheless true that food is deeply tied to conceptions of self and community. As such, food media operate as intriguing and impactful sites through which discourses around race, class, gender, and local or national identity take place, in ways both implicit and explicit. At the same time, developments in food media have been underwritten by capitalist logics, which tend to privilege consumerist fantasies while de-privileging discourse around, for instance, issues of labor and/or environmental impact within food production, distribution, and service industries; structures of economic inequality which determine differential food access along class or regional lines; or racialized hierarchies which produce such categories as “ethnic” vs. “American” food. (Johnston and Baumann 1-29)

It is thus worth taking note of the ways in which these issues do and do not surface in food-centric television. Other avenues for consideration involve questions such as: Do food media function as empowering forms of “edutainment”? Arguments to this end might note that traditional instructional cooking shows raise viewers’ awareness around kitchen techniques, healthy or cost-effective food choices, and culinary history, or that Anthony Bourdain-style culinary travelogues can help viewers become more informed citizens of the world. Yet it is also worth interrogating whether these same “edutainment” functions work to reproduce particular social and cultural logics. E.g., do cooking shows primarily work to interpellate us as consumers? To reinforce gender norms? Or how might forms such as the culinary travelogue be understood in terms of articulations of cultural colonialism?

This lecture's survey of American food television programming, while entirely non-comprehensive, may serve as a way into addressing some of the above questions.

The French Chef by WBGH, Julia Child (1963 ) THE FRENCH CHEF starring Julia Child helped popularize and codify the form of the instructional cooking show. Child's personable styles of address meanwhile made bourgeois cuisine more accessible to a broad American viewership.