Sunday, September 25, 2005

Cooking Shows Reveal All

I had a rather stressful week. Between working a trade show in London, an offsite meeting with my team, and a two-day retreat for a leadership training course, I was not only exhausted when I got home on Friday but a bit overwhelmed by all the talking and interacting I'd been doing. I longed for sleep, relaxation, and peace and quiet.

After a 12 hour sleep on Friday night (followed by a two-hour post-coffee nap,) I decided to read the online news and watch a little television. UK Food Network was having a marathon of their most famous television chef, Delia Smith. I love cooking shows so this seemed like a good non-intensive way to multi-task...read a little, watch a little, etc. etc.

But what started as a casual time-killer turned into a revealing education into the differences between my homeland and my current home.

Take, for instance, beloved US TV chefs such as Sara Moulton, Rachel Ray, or Emeril. They chat, they smile, they make jokes, they make mistakes. They leave the dirty dishes in the sink, sometimes even on the counter they're working on. Sometimes they don't measure things. Their shows are action television, they're entertainment masquerading as recipe advice, and regular viewers develop a relationship with these chefs. (For example, my friend Tom and I have decided that Rachel Ray is actually a friend we have yet to meet, so enamored are we by her on-screen style and goofy demeanor.)

Not so Delia. Delia is friendly enough, but she is very controlled and precise. Her conversation is like listening to very superficial small talk intended not to offend. You would never, ever hear her say something like, "Pork fat rules," or, "I hate anchovies." She tells antecdotes about ingredients or recipes, but they aren't long and they don't distract from the task at hand. Every ingredient is measured to the gram/ounce, and if she deviates she warns you that you must first do as required and THEN experiment. And the weirdest thing...somehow, in the mix of closeups and action shots all used utensils/pans/dishes magically disappear so that the only visible items are those immediately in use.

Sarah Moulton takes live calls and lets callers ask any question they like. She asks them questions, too, and has regular conversations with these total strangers on the phone as she cooks. Emeril does his show with a live audience...he talks to them as he cooks, he let's them sample his final product, he even has a band there to entertain them. Delia cooks in what appears to be the kitchen of her country home. She's the only one in the room (except for whatever sprites are whisking away the used bowls and spatulas.) The only personal pronouns she uses are "one," and the occasional "I" to explain something she has tried/learned/does.

The recipes themselves are different, as well. Emeril, Sarah, and Rachel will use pretty much any ingredient they can think of. They try ethic recipes and add lots of spices and flavours. Some of what they cook is healthy, some is a bit indulgent, but their signature seems to be a wide variety of influences/processes/ideas to fuse into a new American cuisine.

Delia's methods, ingredients, and recipes are much simpler and definitely British. Don't get me wrong...she has some amazing flavours and ideas going on. But she tends to use very traditional British ingredients, often combined with a simple sauce of some sort. Her ethnic forays are those common in England...a bit of Indian, a bit of Thai, perhaps some Moroccan or Spanish, but that's about it. And all of these influences are still secondary to the British ingredients and techniques that dominate. For example, you can do a North African stew, but you wouldn't do a tangine. Nothing is extremely healthy or exotic, nothing is extremely decadent...everything is in moderation.

My conclusions:
  • Americans are loud and discuss personal things. The English are quite reserved and have safe subjects to discuss with everyone else...they wouldn't even consider approaching many subjects with anyone other than the most intimate friends and family.
  • Americans talk to strangers. The English, well, they don't.
  • Americans are messy rule-breakers. The English value order and appropriateness above individuality.
  • Americans are adventurous risk takers. The English calculate their risks.
  • Americans are comfortable with their melting pot. The English are English...foreigners are great as long as they learn to be English.
  • I like both cultures very much, but I am very much an American living in England.

3 comments:

lulu said...

Is Nigella as big in her homeland as she is here? She is messy and chatty.
I can't believe you and Tom like R.R. doesn't the repeated use fo the expression "E.V.O.O." drive you over the edge?

Melinda June said...

Nigella is, in fact, big here, but part of her appeal is the gawker slowdown. She is SO off-type that people are fascinated by her. People are practically scandalized by her lack of control.

lulu said...

I want to be her when I grow up, but I think Jane already has dibs.