The culinary mindset of most middle class Americans in the 1950s leaned to easy and convenient foods that played to an avalanche of prepackaged, highly processed products. This was the era that led to individually wrapped cheese, Jello, Tang and the TV dinner. The food trends for busy families crept in with cans, jars and boxes.
America was, at this time barely aware of its own developing cuisine. Serious cooking meant French food and James Beard was the primary on air personality. Cooking was mostly a skill a girl was expected to learn from her mother. A young couple might receive a copy of The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, or The Betty Crocker Cookbook, but rarely would classics of gastronomy such as Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne be among the wedding presents.
In 1963, the French Chef produced by WGBH in Boston debuted and Julia Child’s dedication and enthusiasm for good food began to carve a niche with home cooks. She was not the first television chef, but with her unassuming character and well known warbly voice, became the most widely watched cooking show. French food went from an elitist cuisine, to an attainable level of skills.
Through Julia Child and James Beard, other cooking shows on both PBS and the major networks began to find a place on television and influence how we define cuisine. Most of these shows used outstanding personalities that were as amusing to watch as they were to demonstrate preparation and new recipes.
Notable among these was The Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr whose first show ran from 1969 to 1971. Kerr balanced lighthearted humor with a sensuous enjoyment of food. His show demonstrated a range of skills from how to use a paring knife, to deboning a chicken. Filmed before a live audience, Kerr would bring a volunteer from the spectators to enjoy the repast with him at the end of the show.
The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith ran from 1988 to 1997 on PBS. Smith brought numerous world cuisines to American tables. His knowledge of cooking extended past generalities and for instance highlighted the differences in Italian cooking that characterizes a region, or even a town. Experimenting with ethnic cuisines became not only allowed, but a mark of advanced knowledge.
During this time, Americans began to demand access to wider cuisines, both in restaurants and at the grocer. Chains specializing in new food experiences such as Japanese, Chinese and Italian opened and fed a hunger for adventure. Larger groceries began to carry more exotic products once rarely seen outside of specialty stores, such as edamame, various pastas and hummus. Even periodicals that catered to expanding tastes opened and thrived, such as Food and Wine and Cooking Light magazine.
The Food Network launched in 1993 and soon experienced explosive growth. By 1997, it was named the fastest growing specialty network on cable. The Food Network was ideally positioned to fully explore cooking, wine and various cuisines. The shows range from daytime instructional programs to evening talk shows, travel specials and even competitions such as Emeril Live!, Iron Chef. Chefs became more than known for cookbooks, but celebrities whose fame rival rock stars.
Cooking shows have now gone mainstream past the confines of cable and PBS. As we have evolved, so have they. Gordon Ramsay is undoubtedly the current reigning chef de cuisine of prime time TV. The multi Michelin starred chef first achieved stardom on British TV with Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen, before coming to Fox TV in the United States. His shows stress his unwavering philosophy of fresh, well prepared dishes that range from standards like Beef Wellington to using locally available ingredients in a creative new dish.
Not everyone has the time, skill, or money to achieve haute cusine on a daily basis, but we all relate to the experience of cooking and sharing beloved dishes with friends and family. We have expanded our tastes beyond ketchup, salt and pepper. Perhaps it could be said we have attained a better world view. While Americans still rely on a level of convenience during busy times, cooking shows have opened our eyes to a world bridged not in its differences but in the commonalities we share in food.