Thursday, August 31, 2006

Requiem for a Deen

A couple weeks ago I promised a "monster post about the downfall of Paula Deen." This was easier said than done, however, because what is a blogger to do when watching Paula Deen becomes downright painful? I had five Paula's Home Cooking shows stored up on my TiVo and could only watch a few minutes of each before getting annoyed or depressed.

Paula used to be like a favorite great aunt1, the one whose recipes you secretly like more than your own mother's. You knew she had some hard times in her past but she was too private and dignified to broadcast her troubles to the world. She's the one you planned your wedding around, knowing that if she couldn't be there, the day wouldn't be complete.

But what happens when that aunt, for whatever reason, becomes a shell of her former self? You steel yourself before a visit and tell yourself that it won't be as bad this time, that maybe she's better now. When you get there her sad eyes and desperate loneliness make you want to cry, but instead you put on a brave face and a warm smile and try to enjoy her company. No one wants to be pitied, but sometimes when she's in the midst of yet another socially inappropriate remark you just wonder what happened to the old her, the one you still love.

And so it is with Paula Deen.

I love Paula and have no way of knowing what is going on with her, but the way she looks, acts and even cooks this season is downright disturbing. She looks puffy, tired, and all-around haggard. I now get more traffic to my site via "what is wrong with paula deen" queries than "sandra lee naked" queries (and that's saying something). Paula seems uncomfortable in front of the camera at times and the delivery of her Southern-isms is forced.

Predictably, her recipes have begun to decline. Paula has always turned out food that looked really good, even if it was unhealthy. Lately though, she's been venturing into Sandra Lee territory with some really awful looking dishes. I was afraid this would happen. There are limits to Southern cousine, as evidenced by Paula's five fried chicken recipes.

Sadly, we've seen all this before with Rachael Ray. Like Rachael, Paula has a a magazine and a new talk show debuting next month. Like Rachael, Paula has gone from being friendly and folksy to being over-the-top, loud, and obnoxious. If this quote about Paula's new talk show is any indication, it will be unwatchable:

Hosted by Paula Deen, 59, the hourlong program will be more “Romper Room” than “Cooking with Master Chefs.” At the taping of an early episode, Deen spent time trying on a young audience member’s stilettos, telling jokes and staging a live crab race. She named her entry “Cocaine Connie.”

“I’m keepin’ the hair high and the expectations low, and that way I can’t lose,” Deen drawled afterward.

Strangely, the Food Network is pinning its hopes on Paula's Party to attract younger viewers:

Aside from airing at night, Deen’s new show will feature a studio audience and less cooking instruction. Food Network thinks her biting sense of humor and somewhat unruly behavior will help attract a younger audience.

“We consider it Paula unplugged,” Tuschman says. “You never know what is going to come out of her mouth.”

So I find myself in a familiar place, lamenting the state of the Food Network. Sara Moulton left the network and is headed for PBS. Molto Mario was cancelled. Tony Bourdain moved over to the Travel Channel and now has one of the most interesting shows on television2. Food Network is losing (pushing away?) all of its heavy hitters, and pretty soon all that will be left are the amped-up versions of Rachael Ray, Paula Deen and Sandra Lee. Watch your backs, Ina and Giada!

At least I'm not the only one who thinks this is ridiculous. This blatant MTV-ization of the Food Network worries me. Sheesh, maybe if things don't work out with Paula and Michael they can give her a dating show, a la Flavor of Love. For old times' sake, maybe they could call it Butter Flavor of Love.

Call me when you get back, Paula. I'll be waiting for you.

1As opposed to your black sheep, drunken aunt.
2Really, Bourdain in Beirut is one of the better things I've seen on TV all year. Set your TiVos.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Food Network Summer Programs: Hot, Hotter and Hottest

Three new Food Network shows have premiered in the last couple of weeks.

Hot: Road Tasted

Featuring the spawn of Paula Deen, Road Tasted consists of Jamie and Bobby Dean traveling around the country to taste different kinds of food. They visit locally owned, small restaurants, a la Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels or $40 a Day. What with the travel aspect and the let's-turn-the-Southern-charm-up-to-eleven aspect, I fully expected to hate this show. Surprisingly, I've grown to like the Deen boys and this light little show. Jamie and Bobby truly are charming and personable - sort of like the Paula Deen of yesteryear*. I enjoy the banter between the brothers ("Brother!"), and they are kind and easygoing with the guests. It's not the best thing I've ever seen on the Food Network, but it's nice, light summer fare.

Hotter: Feasting on Asphalt

When I heard that Alton Brown was doing a cross-country road trip on his motorcycle, I was excited. Good Eats is one of the best shows on the Food Network and I couldn't wait to see how Alton would put his spin on the traveling food show genre. Plus, "Feasting on Asphalt" is so poetic, so Alton, that I had high expectations. The scenery is great, Alton busts out his knowledge at every turn, and the food choices have been predictably quirky (brains - ew!). However, the show is somewhat of a letdown due to poor pacing and the realization that Alton is human, after all. Look, the show is pretty darn good, but when you're talking about Alton Brown you expect great things. There are only a few episodes left and I will continue to watch them, but I wish I had lowered my expectations before viewing this show.

Hottest: Throwdown with Bobby Flay

I can't believe it either! How is Bobby Flay, my nemesis, most arrogant cook on the planet, hosting my favorite Food Network show of the summer season? I couldn't wait to watch Flay bust out his smarm on the common man so I could bust out the snark on Flay, but instead he's been humble, funny, and sincere. The ultra-competitive Iron Chef Flay is nowhere to be found, and instead he seems like he enjoys meeting the amateurs and is genuinely having a good time. I started to like Flay during the last Next Food Network Star season because he gave the contestants solid advice and criticism, but this show has cemented it for me: I am now a (mild) fan of Bobby Flay.

The challenger cooks have been good-natured and up to the challenge; indeed, most of them have whupped on Flay. I was concerned that Food Network would play these amateurs for laughs or that it would seem like they were being duped, but all of the cooks seem eager to challenge Bobby Flay. The contestants believe that they are taping a profile for Food Network, and that's essentially what they do for much of the show, before Flay enters the picture. However, I'm not totally convinced that the bait-and-switch is necessary, because I think plenty of cooks would want the challenge (and exposure) of going mano y mano with Flay. At any rate, this show is more of a showcase for the amateur's talent than a show about Flay or even the competition itself.

Still, Flay's good, the contestants are good, the food's good, but the key to this show is Flay's two soux chefs, Miriam and Stephanie. They keep him in line and aren't afraid to let him know when he's screwing up a recipe, running out of time, or just generally being a chump. I could see a Three's Company remake starring Flay and those two women. But who would play Mr. Furley?

*I'm currently trying to compose my thoughts for a monster post about the downfall of Paula Deen. It's been painful to watch, as my favorite Food Network host has turned into a cariacture of herself, alternating between amped-up bawdiness and sedated melancholy. It's truly terrifying.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Food Network or...Something Else?

There's been a lot of discussion about the sensual and sexual nature of the Food Network. Via BoingBoing, I bring you Food Network or porn - can you tell the difference*?

I recognized all of the Food Network stars (and none of the porn stars), so the quiz was rather easy. They included some great Giada-in-ecstacy shots and even a scary Rachael Ray shot, but where the heck was Sandra Lee? Perhaps her food doesn't taste good enough to warrant eye-rolling and moaning, just scary drunken staredowns:

*somewhat not safe for work