Marie: Oh I agree… restaurants are to people in the ‘80s what theatre was to people in the 60s. I read that in a magazine.
Jess: I wrote that […] I also wrote, “Pesto is the quiche of the 80s.”
My epigraph comes from Rob Reiner’s 1989 When Harry Met Sally - best known as the film which forever ruined all ‘what’s the greatest movie ever?’ discussions - and perfectly exemplifies the kind of banal, epochal chatter which makes that film such a hypergeneric masterpiece. I will premise this ‘essay’ on the kind of broad cultural statement which can only arise from a misspent childhood or an utterly unjustifiable self-confidence: people eat more on English-language television now than at any other time in the medium’s history. I refer to all televised consumption: ‘Cheers’ or ‘Central Perk’-type foci of orality around which modern sitcom plots inevitably resolve; the increasing profusion of reality shows featuring supremely wealthy individuals spinning from social showdown to social showdown across a range of luxurious restaurants and bars - think Made in Chelsea and Real Housewives; and particularly I’m referring to the increasing profusion of ‘food reality shows’ across the daytime TV universe. It was not always like this. Just watch the sitcoms of the ‘70s from both sides of the Atlantic, or the light comedy shows of the ‘50s, or the American crime dramas of the ‘80s: people used to be able to have conversations on television in a living room or a park. Now, though, a televised conversation uninterrupted by the slurp of a frappucino or the guzzling of a green salad is a genuine rarity. There is a cynical - Marxist, perhaps, but at least Culturally Materialist - reading of this change in televisual practise which blames the shift in programme structure on canny product placement. Personally, I’d happily place an uninformed bet that, if one examined the diaries of the average teenager now and the average teenager of 1970, one would find a far greater social-meetings-with-coffee to social-meetings-without-coffee ratio in the modern case. Have we been the duped victims of major corporations who use television to make us believe that conversation without food is a social nonsense, thereby funding their own mega-chains? Perhaps, partially. But I suspect there is more to it than this functional non-analysis would suggest.
Having dinner with my ex’s family introduced to me a cultural phenomenon which I found, and still find, simultaneously oddly discomforting and almost utterly inexplicable. As dinner was cooking, or as the takeaway approached, her family would sit at their dinner table watching (on a notably large-screened TV) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage. As if watching pornography before sex, the entire family would settle down and watch the master at work. Salivating hungrily, with curiously little comment, we would watch Hugh skinning a salmon, Hugh gutting a trout, Hugh slicing a courgette and then, before the show had come to its logical conclusion of Hugh filling his face, the television would be turned off. Finally, with me apparently the only unnerved participant at the feast, we would commence the inevitably anti-climactic process of actually eating. It was a ritual which seemed thoroughly to hollow out the oral ritual of nourishment. Cooking along to a cooking show, or even taking recipe notes along the way, had always seemed to me just about comprehensible: with the chef (or contestant) we approach the climax of orality through a process which is illusorily educative - but then we get to the culinary crux, the foody fundament of eating the meal which you have just seen cooked. However, removing this objective appeared to me almost inhumane: why were we watching this bloody ‘real food’ show before a non-organic Chinese takeaway? Let us consider too the cooking competition show more generally which, often under the Masterchef franchise, is such a popular means of procrastination at Cambridge. In this case, students watch the show without even the intention (or budgetary means) of recreating the meal they are watching cooked. Even the tokenistic post-show meal which had justified my ex’s family’s enthusiasm is removed and one is simply left watching a crowd of semi-literates having a cook off. Is it the competition which excites them? Surely nothing so banal could occupy us. Nor, I believe, is it the gastronomy which, without any eating or cooking, is surely a hollow hobby. Given the lack of the pretence to or means of eating a comparable meal to that on the show in almost all cases, are we here onto some hint towards a theory of televisual orality?
People watch culture shows in an armchair, arms folded, silently accepting their BBC 4, soft-shoe education. When not enjoined in the cultural ritual of footy -and-pint, people will also happily watch TV sport without any accompanying snack. Not so with the ‘real food’ show, the Masterchef, or even the sitcom which hops from restaurant to café to bar to kitchen and back again. If you are not hungry whilst watching these shows, then you are at least being induced to hunger. If you do not watch with cheeky kit-kat and casual curry at the ready, then you will probably fancy one just afterwards. The complex origins behind the social and personal anxieties which are, both consciously and unconsciously, associated with orality require more attention than I can here give them - D.H. Lawrence, Freud and Bakhtin are probably good places to start if you’re interested - but they go far beyond the kind of body image problems which are given more than ample attention in the national press. Watching a reality show where the ‘characters’ bounce from meal to meal (an analysis of eating to non-eating time ratios in The Real Housewives of New York might productively demonstrate the kind of life-style such shows encourage) and yet maintain a socially desirable figure both justifies and gestures towards our own cultural obsession with orality, and yet perpetuates a fantasy which combines endless eating and postponed or negated weight gain. Gradually one’s interest in the show has shifted: the ego may affect an interest in the evermore flimsily constructed ‘plot’ but, for the id, the interest is all in the feeding. The oral ritual expands in significance until it eventually envelops the intellectual pretence. Who really gives a monkeys if Ramona’s a bitch so long as she’s stuffing some steak in between those pinched little lips? So what if Spencer has cheated again if we can only watch these beautiful people eating these beautiful foods for just a little while longer?
Of course, this is going somewhere and where this is going is an extended panegyric to the greatest show on television: Man v. Food, Adam Richman’s sublime tribute to direct television. At the opening of every episode - each one a perfect ritualistic celebration of pure orality - our host (‘guru’ if you will) declares, with that frankness and honesty which is the necessary fruit of the self-justified belief in a good cause: ‘I'm Adam Richman. For years I was one man on a quest to discover the country's greatest chowdown joints and take on its legendary food challenges. Now it's your turn. Together we'll find the most delicious local eats and face down the mightiest meals. This is... Man v. Food Nation.’ For 21 minutes an utterly, literally, engrossed audience watch with co-mingled delight and horror as Richman takes on a series of exquisitely immense masses of food, each one apparently drenched in entire paddling pools worth of barbecue sauce. This is honest television. Gone is the pseudo-plot, the agonized quasi-characterization, the crack-competition: here is man and food, orifice and substance, food as semi-sexual demi-God. Celebrity chef Alton Brown has written of Richman’s masterpiece: "That show is about gluttony, and gluttony is wrong. It's wasteful. Think about people that are starving to death and think about that show. I think it's an embarrassment." Brown, the creator of the sickeningly self-righteous Good Eats is scared of Richman and rightly so. The message Man v. Food declares again and again with the repetition compulsion of the righteously indignant (and the hungry) is that shows like Good Eats are a precious hypocrisy: stop pretending you care about gastronomy, Richman declares, and start showing your audience a brash, bearded, chubby American stuffing his face. As television programming streamlines its social function from plot to symbol, here is narrative reduced to its increasingly predictable conclusion: ultimate televisual orality.
By Anthony Lazarus