Thursday, May 1, 2014

From Scratch: Inside the Food Network by Allen Salkin [book review]

This month's Kitchen Reader book is From Scratch: Inside the Food Network by Allen Salkin (chosen by Pech of Pechluck’s Food Adventures). First, a confession: I have barely ever watched the Food Network. But that didn't stop me from reading about it and reporting back to you!

The book is a lengthy chronicle of the Food Network from before its birth until 2013. It's fascinating to read about the interplay of characters who shaped what it was and is. Even for me, with little background knowledge, the book was written in a way that allowed me to understand and enjoy the ups and downs.

I've decided to take a different format for this review. I'm going to share some quotations from the book and tell you what they made me think. I found that since I don't know much about the Food Network, I was always reading with a focus on how people reacted to food media as a whole. I found that a lot of the comments could be connected to food blogging (and food writing, magazines, and food entertainment as a whole). All my thoughts revolve around the question: What makes a good food-related story or TV idea?

An early show host, Bill Boggs, was "doing phone interviews with celebrities..., asking each a question he had honed to get them talking: 'What was your dinner table like when you were ten years old?'" This made me think that it is our more personal stories that are interesting and help us connect to others. Talking about your childhood experiences of food can be very powerful, both for you and the other person. I have a few childhood stories that I have been writing and plan to share soon. I think the beauty of childhood and family stories is that, although they are so varied, we usually resonate with the ideas each person shares.

"This network really did see food as something that could be serious, funny, beautiful, and culturally and economically important." This made me think that there is merit in all kinds of food stories, from family and cultural ones, to national and global ones; sometimes sincere and sometimes comical. I am not very food at comical stories and tend to stick to personal and serious ones here on my blog. What about you?

One management executive at Food Network once said,
"The network is not [yet] expressive of all food can be for all people." [She] liked the idea of supplanting a run of instructional in-studio cooking shows with programming that was more fun and free-ranging. Food does not get divorced, nor thrown in prison, but there had to be a way to inject more drama into it.... Food Network should be aimed not only at those who loved to cook, but also--and more broadly--at those who liked to eat.
This partly explains the now extremely broad food TV programs you see now. They are more entertainment than education in most cases. (The move from food education to food entertainment is a key theme of the book.) It made me wonder where my food blogging fits in that continuum. I enjoy sharing "teachable moments" on my blog and hope that my readers learn from it. But I wonder if, primarily, my readers are looking for a diversion and a food experience to enjoy? If I understood this better, I wonder if my blogging posts and style would also change?

The network wanted to stay true to food, though, and the same executive "developed a rule: every program had to show food within the first thirty seconds." I guess this is a reminder that if I want to stay in the food blogging niche, I need to keep the focus on the food. Or at least an equal focus on the food and the story. I have a personal blog for other topics so I don't feel tempted to write about random stuff here. Although, reading this book has made me wonder if some of my more tangential thoughts might be welcome here on Simply Cooked, too.

One producer was grilling a potential show host and said, "'Do you see this as a cooking show with entertainment or an entertainment show with cooking?'" For me, this is a cooking blog with lifestyle elements. It is definitely not a lifestyle blog with some food-related content. Reading Inside the Food Network made me more sure that I really want to write a blog that celebrates home cooking.

Another executive did a presentation to help with a rebranding and revitalising of the network. Her presentation to the staff
concluded with a list of words associated with [the slogan] 'Full of Flavor' that the network's marketers and programmers should try to include in every advertisement, promotion, and show. They included fresh, zesty, smoky, juicy, succulent, aromatic, luscious, chewy, chilly, saucy, nutty, fruity, spicy, crunchy, gooey, tart, creamy, oaky, sweet, smooth, meaty.
This list of words impressed on me how important it is to describe the taste and feel of food, especially when communicating through a visual medium, such as TV or a blog. You can look at a picture of my food, but describing it plays a big role in how much you understand its appeal and how much you want to make it yourself. Or in the words of a Food Network member, we need to grab people by the stomach. Descriptive words are a great way to do this.

The Food Network used a media coach for some of their on-air personalities to help them connect with viewers. He was driving and listening to a local radio station and heard the young Rachel Ray talking about a cookbook she had published. "He was so transfixed by how natural she was on the air that after he pulled into the parking lot... he sat in the car to listen to her. She did everything he would have coached someone to do--be charming, reveal personal details, be concise, and be clear." The coach called his contact at the network and recommended Rachel Ray to them. This sounds like a brilliant list for how a blogger connects with others: be charming, reveal personal details, be concise, and be clear. Those would make great goals for my blogging!

After 9/11, more Americans began to watch the Food Network, particularly Paula Deen and Rachel Ray. "Many Americans craved a simple way back to the kitchen--or, at least the feeling of being back int he kitchen.... Rachel, the smooth storyteller, was doing something intimate...--just calm, comforting small talk as a hot dinner came together on a set that looked more like a real kitchen. How could that warmth be stoked? What more the Food Network put on the air that would strike those crucial inner chords?" The answer was clear: "Rachel and Paula came across as members of a viewer's family." I feel as though the blogging community is also a family, in many ways, and I feel a connection to my readers akin to family. I want to learn how to build those relationships further and make stronger connections through stories and food.

I'm really glad this was our Kitchen Reader book in April. Thanks to Pech from Pechluck's Food Adventures for recommending it. Would you like to join us? In May we are reading A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage (chosen by Amanda of Omar Niode Foundation).

Do you watch the Food Network?
In your opinion, what makes a good food-related TV show or blog? 

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