August 22, 2007

Anthony Bourdain, Rachel Ray and Julia childs

I was reading this CNN article on Anthony Bourdain. It's a typical promo article, talking up his show on the Travel Channel, with little bit of biography sprinkled over it.

I like Bourdain. He knows good food, and he usually judges it on its actual merits, and not some pre-ordained dogma of cuisine. That's to say that if he's tasting burgers, he measures it on a burger scale and not a filet mignon scale. At the same time, understanding the difference between a feast and a meal, he knows how to step up a basic entree and make it something...more. And he will try ANYTHING at least once.

And he's an honest to god New Yorker. He's the real deal, and if you don't know what that means it just goes to show that there are not as many of them as there used to be. What I mean is that he isn't afraid to voice his opinion even if it might get him beaten up. It's a New York thing. Politically incorrect? F**k that.

In a recent blog about TOP CHEF, he discusses his widely discussed critique of chef Rocco DiSpirito . He mentions that his biggest ire isn't that Rocco "sold out" or that he's jealous of DiSpirito; it's that DiSpirito isn't cooking.

Bourdain, bless is cynical New York soul, is an idealist. He apparently believes it is the job of every chef to not only prepare fantastic meals, but to explore the boundaries of cuisine, to find new ways to excite our palette.

Which brings us to Rachel Ray and Julia Childs.

In the "cooking community", Rachel is held in some contempt. They complain that she doesn't pay attention to nutritive content, or that her meals are too basic. They slam the premise of her "30 Minute Meals" program, and the recipe books that are spun off from it.

Julia Childs, on the other hand, is rightly regarded as the messiah, who turned Home Cooking into American Cuisine by teaching us the techniques perfected by the French.

What do they have in common? To start with, they both hosted extremely successful TV cooking shows. It's not surprising that someone might ask Bourdain about possible comparisons:

"Julia Child was about aspirations, about becoming better, cooking
better, saying 'you can do this,' " he said. "I don't just feel that's
the business that Rachael Ray is in. Somebody with that kind of power
and influence to aim so low -- it bothers me."
Tony, I'm going to have to disagree with you. I don't think she's aiming low at all; I think she's performing the same service as Julia Childs. It's just that everything else has changed. You have to put both women into the correct context, just like you do with cuisine. All things, including cuisine, are relative.

When Julia Childs emerged, most American households were anchored by the housewife. She kept the home, and cooked all the meals, while hubby went out and worked to support the household. Their meals were prepared in accordance to Home Economics classes, and what they learned from their mothers. They were taught to prepare menus based on some obscure studies (or the tastes of the textbook authors); a meal containing a meat entree, potatoes, and a vegetable. Preparation might be as simple as boiling each entree, or frying one or two of them. Pepper was an extreme spice. A roast on Sundays, Chops on Monday, chicken on Tuesday, leftovers on Wednesday, Meatloaf on Thursdays, fish on Friday, and steaks on the grill on Saturday. Repeat with minor variations, ad nauseam.

So along comes Julia Childs. Women were already cooking most meals, but she showed them that it wasn't hard to turn a meal into a feast. Don't FRY in lard when you can SAUTEE in BUTTER. A little garlic is your friend. Different meats can be cooked in a VARIETY of ways. She completely changed the way we prepare our foods; steaks got rarer, vegetables got crisper, and potatoes gave way to rice and pasta.

So you can see that Bourdain is absolutely right about Julia Childs; she helped us to see that not only was there a next level, but that any of us could reach it.

But that was the sixties.

In the seventies, women roared and stopped spending so much time in the kitchen. They were helped by a leap of technology. While TV dinners had been around in the fifties and sixties, women spending the day at home were scorned for serving them. But mom's out having a career - and that doesn't leave a lot of time for cooking. Manufacturers had created a wide variety of palatable frozen dinners, and these meals could be ready almost instantly in that new appliance, the microwave oven.

It didn't happen overnight. First, it would be once a or twice a week. Moms would still cook several days out of the week. But leftovers cook up real nice in the microwave; so she'd cook a big meal twice a week, you'd have two nights of leftovers, and the balance would be filled by frozen prepared meals or takeout.

Schools, pressured to teach more for less money, phased out Home Ec courses. People, and by that I mean girls, weren't learning to cook at school, and their mothers weren't cooking much at all. And those mothers that did still prepare meals were supplementing more of them with prepared elements; she'd bake the chicken and throw a vegetable dish in the microwave. Hamburger Helper might be a complicated meal in most households

So at the dawn of the 21st century, we have an army of people who don't really know how to cook - at all. I actually know some young women - and men - who can't boil water. They don't know what "simmer" means, or "rapid boil," and they are terrified of the concepts. "Cooking" is now throwing some complete meal in a microwave and heating it up. Breakfast is cold cereal, or a waffle in a toaster, or a bagel with a shmear.

And along comes Rachel Ray.

She correctly identifies that the major problem facing Gen-X home makers isn't how to cook BETTER, it's how to cook AT ALL.

So she makes the meals simple, and quick to prepare. Tony, you might have three hours to prepare a dinner, but I get home at 6pm, and I want to eat before primetime TV is on. And so do a lot of other people.

Rachel Ray isn't "aiming low", she's doing EXACTLY what Julia Childs did: she's saying "you CAN do this!" She's showing a generation of americans that they CAN cook a good meal, that they have all the skills to do it, that it doesn't take years at the Sorbonne to prepare a meal that you can serve your friends and family.

You see, Rachel Ray isn't aiming at helping people like me; I can already cook. I don't watch her show, because she has nothing to teach ME. (Yes, I have SEEN the show. Damn, she's perky!)

Rachel Ray has had at least the same impact on America as Julia Childs did; but she's not making Americans into better cooks; and she's not turning them from cooks into chefs; she's turning unskilled people into people who can cook. Rachel Ray is sending America back into the kitchen.

And from where I sit, Tony, that ain't aiming low.

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  1. Her Name was Julia Child! Learn her name first, before you say who she is. Rachel Ray is not in the same league!

  2. You mean her "name is Julia Child." "Name" shouldn't have been capitalized, as long as we're being ridiculously nitpicky.

    I never said Rachel Ray was in the same league as Julia Child. I said she fulfills the same function for the league of today. And I stand by that.

    The current "league" is different than Julia's. Julia Child would not be the same success in today's market; even all the great chefs with their own shows do not have the same impact.

    We need a Rachel Ray to get younger Americans into the kitchen. Once there, they will be ready to graduate to the Emerils and whoever else is hot.

  3. How is it nitpicky to ask that you spell someone's name correctly? Please correct your blog. It is Julia Child. To misspell it so many times is disrespectful.

  4. anonymous: since you're being such an asshole about it, and this post has been up for a year, and because I don't regard "anonymous" as name I pay any attention to, I'll leave the post as it is.

    Mostly because it pisses you off, though.

    Ask nicely, under a pleasant pen name, and I might fix it.

  5. I disagree with this article on several counts. First, the TV dinner was already a main stay in the American kitchen by the time Julia Child came around. The idea of fast cuisine came about during the war, and during the depression the number of ingredients decreased dramatically from traditional foods to starch, a few veggies, and whatever protein you could get. Spice, which had been the mainstay of most immigrant cooking, particularly for Mediterran and Near Eastern immigrants were reduced due to the depression, but many people grew some spices such as parsley, cilantro, thyme, oregano, and peppers in their backyards.
    When service men came back from the war the problem happened when they took their new wife into the suburbs away from the traditional extended family. With extended family, women's domestic tasks are drastically reduced, and many women were working and going to school, all be it certificate oriented classes and secretarial work, but women had lives. What happened in the 50's was a travesty of locking single woman alone in these new homes away from art, music, the community, the extended family, and all the love and respect it engenders. Cooking was no longer shared between several people, with even grandfathers and brothers helping with roasting and growing peppers, and making particular dishes, it was all thrust on a young woman with a few scant memories.
    Then came Julia Child, who reached out to these women who were lonely and isolated with the idea of making art in their kitchens inspired by Paris, Asia, New Orleans, and German and Italian cooking. Much of traditional food knowledge had been lost so Julia helped people remake it, and as they ate they remembered the food of their childhood.
    Women began to find artistic vision again which helped lead to the women's movement. Today we are at another such crossroads, the microwave was a short side step, the real motivator has been take out. People get such great food from traditional cooks for good value that cooking has been cut down. But with better ingredients in the burgeoning health industry at places such as Whole Foods, the departed Wild Oats, and New Seasons, plus the Slow Food Network's association of farmer's markets with status, together with the fall out of the economy, and more and more people are trying to make the stuff they get out, at home.
    Rachel Ray looks for the lowest denominator, she tends to make recipes for areas such as Texas, simple chilis and the like, and steers away from anything Mediterran, although she's Italian, or remotely interesting, like Pan-Asian.
    Julia never did that, and the audience today is much more wordly through take out than the audience of then. I agree that Ray is trying to lower the bar, her choices of foods, such as nachos have more to do with frat parties then what people are cooking for their families. You want to help people with simple recipes then focus on stews, marinated salads that keep well like purple cabbage, meats that can be marinated and grilled the next day, fishes that freeze well, and well simple mediterran cooking.
    You learn more from Depression Cooking with Carla on how to cook large meals fast for a large number of people than from Rachel Ray. In fact lets give her her own show, she showed how to make several weeks worth of bread in 15 minute segments through the day, and used a lot of good olive oil.
    I can't remember the last time I had chili, but a good pasta and sauce, yea that makes sense.
    I also abhor the remarks the women's movement, and these stereotypical statements about women's lives, and men's participation in the kitchen. Most men I know cook. Hell in this day and age most people are single till their 30's you damn well better be able to cook. Don't blame women for lazy cooking, blame the economy. As times get tougher people are cooking more, and eating out less. Just a thought-Cheer Randi in PDX

  6. Randi wrote:
    I disagree with this article on several counts.

    Well, since you completely ignore the points raised in my article to beat your own dead horse, your "rebuttal" has little merit.

    Here's the big flaw in your so-called "counter-argument;"

    For your claim that Rachel Ray is "lowering the bar" to have merit, you have to assum that the very small minority of people (myself included) who actually prepare our own food from fresh ingredients, and have done for decades, are her target audience.

    And we're not.

    Rachel Ray's audience are all the 20 something slackers who really, honestly and literally do not know how to cook.

    I don't know who you've been hanging around with, but I would guess it's people who know how to cook and delight in it.

    But out in corporate America, I meet hundreds of young people who exist solely on take out or frozen prepared foods. I remember a young co-worker complaining that she wanted to cook something for her boyfriend, but she simply couldn't make any sense out of the recipes she found.

    So I offered to give her something simple; an easy basic recipe that while simple, would be tasty and fresh. I told her to bring pot of water to a rolling boil.

    "You see? That's my problem! Crap like that! What the hell is a 'rolling boil'" she wailed. This college graduate, a young business professional, didn't know ANY cooking terms. And using them terrified her.

    She is Rachel Ray's audience.

    Anthony Bourdain can't reach this young woman. Neither can Carla, or any of the people you approve of. They are not for the REAL beginner. That takes a Rachel Ray.

    And once they've learned to cook some exceedingly simple recipes using ingredients they can procure without having to study horticulture to appreciate, then they will look to the REAL chefs.

    BTW, frozen dinners were far from a mainstay when Julia Child aired in 1961. They were the convenience food the babysitter fed your kids while you and your spouse went out for an evening on the town. They didn't become a mainstay until the microwave oven became a common household appliance in the 1980's.

  7. Anthony Bourdain6/18/2011 04:21:00 AM

    That woman you mentioned in your reply, the one who didn't know what a rolling boil meant, is a retard. If most Americans, like you say, are like that, then I'm sorry to say that this country is F'ed.

    Rachel Ray is a joke. Her so-called meals are no better than your average frozen TV dinner. Julia Child, on the other hand, was a master of the French cuisine, and still is a culinary icon. So don't ever try to say we need a Rachel Ray.

  8. Well, no, "Anthony," she was not "a retard," she was someone who never learned to cook. When I was in school, everyone took a couple of units of Home Ec at some point; it was required. In this era of teaching to acheive high test scores, I doubt most schools even have a program in place.

    BTW, that young woman is now a successful business person who does know how to cook, and quite well.

    As for Rachel Ray, her food isn't gourmet or fine dining, but if you don't think it's a step up from frozen dinners, then all I can say is that you've haven't had a frozen dinner in a loooong time. Which, if you really were Mr. Bourdain, would hardly be surprising.

    If people are afraid to go in the kitchen, they aren't going to appreciate the work of Ms. Child. If Ms. Ray can get people to prepare food instead of buying prepared food, then she is performing a public service.

    Is she Julia Child? Of course not. Does she inspire people to cook their own food? Inarguably so; we'd not be having this conversation if she didn't.

    Aspiring to the finest cuisine in the world is admirable. But one must walk before one dances the ballet, and one must crawl before that. Rachel Ray is helping the toddlers.

    And if you don't see the need for that, well, I guess you can't help being an idiot. Sucks to be you.