Monday, May 14, 2007

The Secret Garten, Dept.

Readers will know that I generally despise the Food Network's "personalities". The yawping Rachael Ray like a wet Labrador retriever and you in your dinner clothes. The Joker-grinning Giada De Laurentiis and her invariably-bared cleavage. The y'all-come-back-now-y'hear? cornpone bullshit of Paula Deen who inexplicably thinks I, as a viewer, give any size rat's ass you might propose about her sons and grandkids and her late-in-life marriage and especially her artery-clogging, tourist-trap "kew-zeen". I mean, it's as if the focus groups for these shows (and their spinoff magazines and books) were drawn from a benighted pool of gaptoothed, chinless goobers who think Branson, Missouri is just a little too high-class for the likes of themselves. (And that's just the women. Don't get me started on Emeril and his bridge'n'tunnel minstrel show.)

Among their number, I've always included Ina Garten. Despite the fact that hers are some of the best recipes on the distaff side of Food Network.
Mainly because of her on-screen persona.
Her horribly whiny, clutchy, neeeeeedy on-screen persona.

I watched her "Boss for Dinner" episode again yesterday wherein she prepares garlic bread and spaghetti and meatballs for Stephen Drucker, her "boss" at House Beautiful magazine, and it was actually excruciatingly-painful to see. Her fawning, desperate-to-please manner, her nervous laughter at the dead air, her solicitations for praise, all confronted by the supercilious smiles of Drucker and his associates who seem to tolerate her because, you know, they have to. One so strongly senses that, as soon as she leaves the room, the first words out of any one of their mouths are "ohmyghod, do you believe what she..." Garten seems so brutally insecure about herself and her work that, after a while, one ceases to be irritated by her incessant requests for validation from any of her guests ("Isn't this wonderful? Isn't this great? Isn't this delicious?") and, instead, commences to feel deep discomfort at her naked need for approval. And this is a cooking show for fuck's sake. I just want a recipe for meat loaf, not an searing insight into the host's psyche.

Imagine my shock'n'surprise, then, when I read the Wikipedia article on Ina Garten and found that she is and has been a very, very accomplished person. Married for almost forty years, MBA from George Washington University, budget analyst for nuclear energy under Presidents Ford and Carter, successful real-estate flipper, very canny business owner, super-successful author, in addition to her achievements and recognition as a developer and presenter of excellent, demystified recipes for home cooks.

So, what the fuck?

Is her onscreen persona something into which she slips? Or is her onscreen self a faithful depiction of Ina Garten?
Because neither makes me feel particularly good.
For, if the latter, I just feel sorry for her and, really, I don't want to feel anything while watching Food Network besides lust for the treats on display.
If the latter, however, then I feel insulted that someone who's accomplished so much would condescend so brazenly to a perceived segment of the viewing public that might feel daunted by a presenter who's intelligent and able.

That's why I love Nigella Lawson's first series, Nigella Bites. It was done for UK Channel 4 and it's presented in conversational English spoken at a proper speed by an obviously-intelligent woman with a sense of humor. The show is not aimed at idiots or mall zombies. Bigger words and occasional cultural allusions are sprinkled in her rapid speech alongside bits of Polari and Yiddish. She makes jokes, half under her breath, that aren't overplayed and explained and forced into catchphrase status. By contrast, her show for Food Network, Nigella Feasts, is considerably less enjoyable. The overplayed "Englishness", the plummy "poetic" descriptions of the food, the sloooowness of speech. It plays into every parody of Lawson I've seen and yet is presumably exactly what Food Network wants. A name "class act" to counterbalance sorority sis Ray and Ozark yahoo Dean. But compared with her earlier work, the new show reeks of calculation and condescension. The 1999-2001 Nigella was hot, smart, fast, fun. The 2006 Nigella is panto Joan Collins.

So, who knows who Ina Garten really is? Or Nigella Lawson? Or any of these people? While that is a question one could really ask of any familiar TV or movie face--do you have any real sense of who Kiefer Sutherland or Jay Leno or Katie Couric really is?--the fact that Food Network chooses to present each of its presenters in the worst possible facet of his or her personality says so very much about how a specialized "foodie" channel that features ads for Cool Whip and Miracle Whip and Velveeta views its audience: a sea of mouths ready to swallow anything so long as it's sickly-sweet, inoffensively-bland, and easy-to-pronounce.


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