My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

Food TV, Sex, and Hunger: The Entertainment Value of Basic Needs in the First World

First World Problem:  not enough butter in the fridge to make a hummingbird cake!

First World Problem: not enough butter in the fridge to make Paula Deen’s hummingbird cake.

According to the United Nations, about a billion people on the planet Earth—or one out of every seven of our fellow human beings—do not get enough to eat. Some of these people live in my community. My daughter’s second grade teacher provides snacks every day because she knows that some of the kids really need a snack.

And yet, here in the First World, we just love using food as a form of entertainment. Between the Food Network and Top Chef and all the hours we spend reviewing and reading about restaurants on Yelp, food isn’t just nutrients—or at least for us First World denizens with cable and high speed Internet.  Food is fun.  We even call ourselves foodies.

I suppose it’s no surprise that humans have turned one of our basic needs into entertainment. We’ve done the same with sex.  For most animals, sex is exclusively a procreative survival mechanism.  Humans are one of the only species for whom sex is recreational.  And oh, how recreational it is.  If we’re not currently doing it, we’re just an Internet click away from seeing someone else doing it.

Food and sex are certainly our two most pleasurably awesome basic needs.  There’s a reason why there’s no Water Channel or Air Channel. (The Oxygen Network doesn’t count.)  I suppose there is a Shelter Channel, in the form of HGTV, where First World people expound on the need for granite countertops while many of the world’s citizens are homeless or close to it.  But mostly, it’s sex and food that top our media representations of basic needs.

As is the case with most basic needs, when it comes to food and sex, there’s a serious worldwide disconnect between amount needed and amount consumed.  In terms of the procreation side of sex, we’ve overprocreated, especially in the Third World.  Seven billion people represents a crisis, for many reasons, but among them is that it’s awfully hard to feed all the people we’ve procreated.  And as far as food is concerned, there’s a huge disconnect when one billion people are hungry and lots of us First Worlders are overfed.

The overabundance of both sex and food has spilled out into the media.  The media have reflected our obsession with sex for a long time, whether we’re talking about pornography or music videos or Fifty Shades of Gray, or the adage that “sex sells everything.”  While food has always been present in the media—Julia Child, for example, or recipes in women’s magazines—the orgasmic explosion of food entertainment has come in the last decade.  At any given time, I can turn on the Food Network or the Cooking Channel and see somebody cooking something with great pleasure, or eating something with great pleasure, or both.

And, of course, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the connection between food TV and sex.  For those of us who live in a culture where we’re desperately trying to balance easy access to fabulous food with health concerns and unrealistic body image expectations, food TV is food porn.  There’s a reason why shows about healthy cooking are few and far between.  Americans want to watch Paula Deen make a hummingbird cake, which contains four full sticks of butter.  We want to watch Guy Fieri tour “America’s greatest diners, drive-ins, and dives” and stuff his face with greasy pork in its apparently infinite varieties.  And is there any more obvious connection between food TV and sex than watching Emeril Lagasse cry, “BAM!” as he finishes off a dish with a climactic blast of seasoning?

What’s even more a First World phenomenon than the cooking show is the cooking competition show.  Along with Bravo’s popular Top Chef, Food Network is positively bursting with chefs competing to transform mystery ingredients or to bake superior cupcakes or to decorate superior cakes.  (As this clip aptly demonstrates, there’s no bigger First World problem than competing on one of the many, many Shows About Cake.)

Like all reality TV shows, these cooking competition shows are peppered with exaggerated and artificial drama.  Watching people compete in contrived, dramatic food contests while there are hungry people everywhere, I feel like I am in Panem, the dystopian future America in The Hunger Games.  I am one of the privileged citizens of Capitol, with access to more food than I can ever need, watching people compete for my amusement with food while citizens in the surrounding provinces starve.

Of course, you may argue that food-related media has an educational value, and it certainly does.  Thanks to Giada de Laurentiis, I know how to zest a lemon.  Thanks, Giada.  And I appreciate all the recipe websites out there (especially my friend Valerie Whitmore’s CDKitchen.)  When I search for recipes, I’m not looking for entertainment. I’m looking for information. But these days, most consumption of food-related media isn’t about information.  It’s about the transformation of a basic need into entertainment.

There are worse ways to be entertained, I know.  I’d rather watch an episode of Chopped with my daughter than, say, 90% of the rest of the hypercommercial, sexual, or violent stuff that’s on television.  We’re not bad people for watching Food Network, and neither are you.  I’m just wholly aware that as my daughter and I watch food competition shows like Chopped with full bellies, we watch from an acutely First World vantage point.

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One thought on “Food TV, Sex, and Hunger: The Entertainment Value of Basic Needs in the First World

  1. Good points, all.

    Also a First World phenomenon: watching others do to replace doing it yourself. As an average viewer, I might learn a lot from watching a chef on TV and feel satisfied with the new knowledge I’ve gained, then turn around and microwave some pre-made chicken nuggets for my kids’ dinner.

    (Hey, we’ve all been there. 🙂 )

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