food. In civilisational terms, one would think that talking about food is the best thing that cultured people can be interested in these days - not to mention something that uncultured ones dabble in to convince others that just because they have no idea what an iambic pentameter is, doesn't mean that they should be consigned to the Andamans.
Food TV comes in three formats: one, programmes using food as the entry point into cultures and places; two, cooking programmes; and three, contests involving people.
The first kind, used by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Bikramjit Ray, Vir Sanghvi, Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma and the late Keith Floyd, involves the bloke going off to some place to taste meals. This could mean going round the block to infuse a deeper meaning into your pav bhaji or going to Outer Mongolia to taste buuz (read: steamed momos). I enjoy this kind of food TV because here food and eating becomes an entry point to something else.
The second format is trickier as it can be boring for the wrong kind of viewer. This involves someone cooking with a camera sucking in his or her goings-on in the kitchen. Here, the host is a cook and not a guide telling us about someone else's cooking. Jamie Oliver, Kylie Kwong and Sanjeev Kapoor present these recipe-centric programmes.
Considering I don't cook and cooking, for me, isn't as much a thing of joy as a return to 'chemistry practicals', I find this format tedious. Although, I must admit that watching Nigella Lawson cooking has presented me with the kind of curiosity factor that I feel while watching Twenty20 cricket through the filter of those cheerleaders on the sidelines.
But on asking people genuinely interested in food, I have come to believe that these shows serve a purpose beyond showcasing kitchen utensils. At least two people have told me - yes, that's the kind of demographics I'm happy to spin out a thesis from - that even though they might not sit in front of the TV taking notes on how to create the perfect upside down pineapple cake, they end up being influenced by what they watch when they cook.
Since I believe that the proof of a pudding is in its eating, I dismiss the viewer enthusiasm in this department as a modern form of mass hypnotism. (I'm yet to meet someone who, after following Jamie Oliver's tips on making grilled spatchcocked chicken, will blame him for the undigestible crock of crap that he or she has produced at home.)
The third and the most-popular format of food TV: cooking contests. This has as much to do with imparting a sense of good cooking to the viewer as a documentary on mating lions has to do with providing tips about upping one's sex life. When watching 'Master Chef Australia', 'Top Chef' and 'Hell's Kitchen', I find myself witnessing drama on the lines of an Ekta Kapoor soap with better production quality rather than anything at all to do with making a fine venison dish.
Which is why most of the world is hooked to cooking contest programmes and I find them utterly fascinating. Watching people break down, conduct machinations worthy of a Medici courtier and indulge in S&M manoeuvres not only provides the perfect filter to watch humans at their basest form, but it also provides the illusion that you're watching something that is culturally significant. The fact is that such programmes are just a level shy of the other kind of 'food' programmes I adore that they show on some (Bengali) channels involving two fat ladies in sarees with their hands tied behind their backs competing against each other to see who can pick the most number of rosogollas from a bowl with their mouths and eat them. There's something spiritually fulfilling about watching humiliated humans.
Frankly, as an occasional viewer of food TV, I admit that watching these shows is a far better experience for me than actually eating food. To quote AJ Liebling (whose writings on boxing are pure gold dust) out of context, "The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite." For making or viewing good food TV shows, you don't need all that after-product of things you ingest.