A Woman's Place in the TV Kitchen
The HBO Max-Discovery mashup reveals two different tastes
In 1962, Andy Warhol would forever enshrine an avatar of everyday Americana as a lasting icon of modern culture. His serial work Campbell's Soup Cans made its debut, a series of 32 canvases, each devoted to a different variety of the ubiquitous canned soup. Those screen-printed paintings put the emerging Pop Art movement on the map, displaying the artist’s nonchalance about what subjects were fit for artistic glory. (The now-priceless canvases first exhibited by Los Angeles gallerist Irving Blum are now part of MoMA’s permanent collection but Eli Broad paid $11 million in 2006 for a later single soup can painting.)
But that all came later. As the seemingly guileless Warhol explained his choice at the time, Campbell’s soup was simply what he ate for lunch every single day.
However, the same year that Warhol unveiled his seminal Pop Art pieces — his paean to the ordinary, the corporate ideal of American mass-production — came the beginnings of a counter-revolution in how the country would regard food on their tables. This time, the medium was not the gallery wall; it was televised.
In 1962, one of the authors of the just-published Mastering the Art of French Cooking turned up on Boston public television show I’ve Been Reading and astonished the grumpy book-reviewing host by turning out a perfectly made omelet with a hot plate, giant whisk and a few eggs she brought along. Afterwards, dozens of viewers wrote to WGBH wanting more. After three pilots, Julia Child made her series debut in The French Chef in 1963.
Child on potatoes in 1963 👇
Child would have turned 110 this month (hat tip to Lane Doss’ Broken Palette newsletter for the reminder and this summary):
“In an era that embraced the modernity of frozen TV dinners and instant Jell-O, Child reminded people that the act of cooking for someone is also an act of love. She also taught American housewives — and later everyone else, that cooking need not be a chore — it can be a creative outlet and a source of great pride.”
Child’s initial series ran 10 years, winning the first Emmy for an educational program and a Peabody. With almost 20 books and countless series, she didn’t put down her whisk until age 85, after her last program in 1998, Julia Child & Jacques Pépin: Cooking at Home. A towering cultural figure, literally (at six-foot-two), she was lampooned by Dan Aykroyd in an unforgettable 1978 Saturday Night Live skit. Julia was so tickled that she used to play a videotape of the segment for her dinner guests, shouting, “Save the liver!”
JUST THE APPETIZER
Today, we have a food-stuffed television landscape, including a whole cable channel devoted to cooking, star TV chefs, and even just food-adjacent stars.
Meryl Streep earned one of her multitude of Oscar nominations for her portrayal of Child in the 2009 Julie and Julia. Today, Child, who died in 2004, is the subject of an HBO Max narrative series Julia starring British actor Sarah Lancashire, now readying its second season.
Considered unscripted TV’s fastest-growing sub-genre, a sample of today’s food TV includes, also on HBO Max, Selena Gomez’s popular Selena + Chef (with a parade of bold-face-name chef guests like Marcus Samuelsson, Roy Choi, José Andrés and Rachel Ray); Bravo’s Top Chef (now filming its 13th season in London) and its imitators; and Netflix’s The Great British Baking Show, which just announced an American iteration produced by Roku with Ellie Kemper and Zach Cherry. Scripted food drama is also proving delectable: this summer’s unsettling The Bear gave Hulu an edgy talker, and the upcoming black comedy horror film The Menu, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult fending off a scary chef played by Ralph Fiennes, is premiering at the Toronto Film Festival.
It’s a smorgasbord, fragmented from Child’s singular vision into a hundred directions. But food, and its subsequent TV programming, is more than ever proxy for our larger cultural conversations.
And in the context of the entertainment industry’s sweeping changes — where Warner Bros. and Discovery, two companies with distinct identities, are in the throes of an arranged marriage — it seemed a moment to examine the culture of what today’s food TV reflects about the times.
THREE DEFINING WOMEN
In the '60s, America had an extended love affair with all things Gallic. There was a Francophile First Lady in Jacqueline Kennedy. In New York, the apogee of fine dining in the U.S. was a group of mannered French restaurants that included Lutèce, La Côte Basque and La Caravelle, a Kennedy favorite. (California was but a culinary backwater.) In the first season of The French Chef, Julia exhorted her viewers to make duck à l’orange, chicken livers à la Francaise (with Madeira sauce) and crepes suzette for their dinner parties.
Jackie Kennedy speaking French 👇
Child ushered in a new appreciation of cooking, but it was a style devoted to a singular vision of haute cuisine, a reflection of her Cordon Bleu training. She cemented the notion by signing off each episode with the just-prepared dish, a glass of wine and a hearty bon appetit!
As the ‘70s entered the Me Decade ‘80s, a new star-chef hit the airwaves and came to symbolize women’s emerging role in business (the era of Working Girl). Martha Stewart’s first book Entertaining hit in 1982, grown out of the former model and then stockbroker’s Connecticut catering business. Stoked by frequent newspaper publicity and appearances on shows of the time — The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live — she published a book every year for the rest of the decade (often efficiently ghost-written, something Julia would have blanched at). Her careful precision and aesthetic cemented a largely white, Northeastern WASP Americana ideal, companion meals to the constructed Ralph Lauren aesthetic of the time.
Martha and Oprah on centerpieces 👇
Eventually, Martha became more: a brand. Commonplace today, it was head-turning when she consolidated all her tv, print, and merchandising into a new company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (not just media, but omnimedia!). When the stock went public, she became the first female self-made billionaire in the U.S.
At 81 today, Stewart has evolved with the times, defrosting her image. She has her own “Martha’s Chard” chardonnay, Martha Meal Kits, her just-opened The Bedford restaurant on the strip at Paris Las Vegas (modeled, said Eater on her own 1925 country farmhouse in Bedford, New York where she served part of her felony prison sentence in her 2005 stock-trading imbroglio) and her line of CBD edibles — and of course another just-announced streaming series, this time on Roku. She also recently responded to rumors that she was dating Pete Davidson with the comment that he was “like the son I never had. He’s a charming boy finding his way.”
A FOOD NETWORK STAR
Which brings us to Ree “The Pioneer Woman” Drummond.
If you’re not familiar, let’s get you up to speed. With nods to Giada De Laurentiis, Ina Garten and Rachel Ray, it’s Drummond, who has been climbing the ranks at now Discovery-owned Food Network for the last 10 years, who seems to have met the moment, all from her countrified ranch kitchen just outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma. With her husband, Ladd, whom she euphemistically refers to as “Marlboro Man”, they are somewhat at odds with Ree’s “homey” vibe since their share of the family ranch empire totals a massive 433,000 acres, making them the 23rd largest landowners in the country. (Cue Yellowstone!)
They homeschool their four kids, and she is unabashedly “traditional” in matters of romance. She claims he wouldn’t marry her until she was able to make his favorite breakfast, Eggs in a Hole — and her version is a dish made with at least a half-stick of butter. (Contrast that with Stewart, divorced and largely single the entire time she built her empire.)
In 2017, Food Network and Drummond were criticized after a particularly distasteful segment resurfaced from five years earlier.
As reported by Huffington Post:
The questionable segment…shows Drummond playing a “trick” on her family by serving them a batch of “Asian hot wings” instead of the Buffalo-style they’re expecting.
Drummond’s crew is askance, asking, “Where are the real wings?”
Another man says, “I don’t trust ’em.”
Then Drummond chuckles indulgently and tells them, “I’m just kidding guys. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Then she pulls a tray of traditional Buffalo wings out of the oven, inspiring one of these gourmets to say, “Now those are some wings.”
A couple of weeks ago, Drummond made a big step up to prime-time host with Big Bad Budget Battle, produced by the Food Network’s biggest draw, portly good ‘ole boy Guy Fieri, with his white shock of hair.
Besides starring on The Pioneer Woman since 2011, Drummond also turns out cookbooks, children’s series, and home goods, cookware and women’s wear, all exclusive at Walmart. Drummond fans can even get a taste of the lifestyle with a stay in Pawhuska at the Drummond-owned lodging and retail-restaurant complex. Last year she even logged her first role in her own Yule movie, Candy Coated Christmas, for Discovery+, playing a small-town bakery owner.
Drummond presents herself as a bit of a rube and she’s okay with that. Her backcountry voice timbre and jokey manner is probably as beloved by her fans as they seem ridiculous to “city folk.” Though the Oklahoma native actually went to college at USC, it doesn’t seem to have rubbed off.
It’s tempting to speculate on The Pioneer Woman and the network’s lineup of mostly male, white, prime-time hosts (the various shows are populated with a diverse slate of contestants and the network also features “daytime” cooking shows featuring more diverse chefs, like Delicious Miss Brown and Molly Yeh of Girl Meets Farm). But Food Network seems untouched by the same battles that have roiled gourmands, with issues of equity and representation that led to the resignations of Bon Appetit editor Adam Rappaport, New York Times columnist Alison Roman, the editor of the Los Angeles Times food section and others.
One could call those travails coastal fights, internecine media battles that most Americans don’t care about. But as Discovery+, the streaming home of Drummond and all of Food Network, prepares to combine into one entity with HBO Max as part of CEO David Zaslav’s new kingdom, some are predicting culture clash.
There’s been a welter of speculation about a regressive turn coming on Zaslav’s watch following his hiring of a nearly all white male leadership team, and appointment of six white men to the board.
The Daily Beast reported that laid-off Warners executives are foreseeing “a rejection of left-wing or highly diverse content in favor of more homogenous, Middle America-friendly fare.” Interesting detail from the piece:
THE NEXT RECIPE
So will Max’s Selena + Chef, CNN’s reruns of humanist Anthony Bourdain, or even its bio-pic series Julia (wherein the first season, she came face to face with her drag-queen doppelgänger), comfortably coexist on the same platform as The Pioneer Woman? One has to wonder, even in the era of algorithms that allow the viewer to choose their own adventure.
Our narrative of any era’s defining female chef has mirrored our cultural shifts: from globalist Child, ambitious post-women’s rights empire builder Stewart, to Drummond, whose popularity stems in part out of a seeming rejection of our media’s progressive values.
Putting all those ingredients together in 2022’s ultra-bifurcated era, and, to this scribe, it sounds like one potentially messy kitchen.