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Does My Kitchen Rule in “Foodie” World?

This is the unedited version of my column that appeared in the Courier Mail, 8th Februrary 2012 (I took the mistake out!).

Glancing at the major commercial networks prime-time offerings Monday through to Thursday you could be forgiven for thinking we’re a nation obsessed with food.

From 7pm nightly, viewers get to choose between My Kitchen Rules (MKR) on 7, the celebrity weight-loss show, Excess Baggage on 9, or The Biggest Loser (singles) on Ten. Whether we’re concerned about quality or quantity, we’ve a growing appetite for cuisine-related TV.

According to the OzTAM figures, we’re more interested in cooking and eating than we are shedding weight with MKR out-rating the diet and exercise fly-on-the-wall programs by a wide margin.

While Excess Baggage and The Biggest Loser are not directly about food, they are about nutrition, diet and the fact that having an unhealthy relationship with the latter and non-existent understanding of the former lead contestants to a very public battle of the bulge.

MKR is all about gastronomy and providing, initially within the contestants’ home, a fine-dining experience. Yet, this reasonable aspiration was undermined from the outset this series when judge, Pete Evans, described Greek siblings, Steve and Helen’s first efforts as “home-cooked”, as if it were a pejorative.

If it’s not a great home-cooked meal prepared by laypeople they’ve craving, what is it exactly they’re after?

As Indian journalist Vanita Kohl-Khandekar asks, “does anyone watch food shows for the food anymore?”

Evolving from instructional step-by step shows last century that demonstrated in detail how to cook a dish, fronted by Gabriel Gate, Iain Hewitson, and Peter Russell-Clarke, cooking shows have transformed into culinary and cultural adventures or cut-throat battlegrounds known as “foodtainment”: the place where food porn meets competition.

It’s a type of “Hunger Games” replete with sacrificial victims who are burned by the experience or emerge, phoenix-like, to triumph.

Sourcing, preparing, cooking and serving food become metaphors for the transformation and inner growth or the lack of either in contestants, but also for the way shows are assembled. Participants are sourced, auditioned, chosen, filmed, edited, screened and devoured (by fans). Forget what’s served on the plate, it’s the side dishes of emotions, how the contestants look and interact, that’s the icing on the viewing cake.

In his book, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, cultural theorist Mark Anrejevic’s discusses how RTV turns social activities into professional ones. The act of cooking for others, the entire dining experience, is altered into a specialised competitive arena, stripping the warmth and meaning out of sharing food.

Encouraging fellow contestants (and viewers) to critique what they’re served, the joy of food and its function as a human social activity – as a necessity and as a bonding experience – is also elided.

The attention MKRs’ Adelaide contestant, Jennifer “princess” Evans, has received in the cyberverse with her negative comments about the other competitors’ efforts is a case in point. Running a close second to Jennifer in the unpopularity stakes is Victorian, podiatrist Thomas, whose foot-in-mouth invective sees him stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Contrary to turning the collective stomach, all this bile and snarkiness has done is turn, as Anooska Tucker-Evans notes in The Sunday Mail, “hating into ratings.”

Please sir, we want some more…

When villains emerge over the dining room table, in someone’s home, in what’s supposed to be a spirited atmosphere founded on goodwill, the kitchen mitts are off.

While there have been some objectionable comments in cyberspace about the contestants, especially Jennifer, viewers are mostly enjoying the bitter-sweet experience of watching participants cook, serve, score and be scorched.

This is partly because we know what’s on the menu when it comes to foodtainment. These types of show cater to an increasingly sophisticated audience with educated palates who relish being known as “foodies”.

Ask anyone and you’ll be told about their favourite restaurant, farmers’ market and chef. Cookbooks replace or stand by literature in bookshelves, and stylish kitchen utensils are displayed like works of art.

Instead of turning us into a nation of gastronomes with an appreciation for fine food and the effort that accompanies it, we’ve become more selfish, mean-spirited and, frankly, a bit wanky around dining.

As if we’re also contestants on a food reality show, we evaluate with abandon and feel qualified and entitled to demand more – not of the paid dining experience alone, but even of our friends.

Still, we can choose whether we want to be a villain or a hero in the food-stakes and what we want on our menus.

I firmly believe what while haters may be raters in TV land, most of us want heart, not heat in our kitchens.

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