A few months ago, I wrote an article in my CSAcation column at AltDaily.com about the woeful state of women in the televised culinary world. My stepdad had introduced me to a new cooking show called “Bitchin’ Kitchen,” featuring the always awesome Nadia G, a host who is a fantastic chef, a great entertainer, and who finally steps up to the cutting board and restores my faith in the state of female chefs on TV.
I’m not naive. I realize that in order to be on television, and be successful, appearance factors in. Sex sells, it has for years, this is nothing new. But with the advent of reality television, we began to see real people: seven strangers living together in a house on MTV’s “Real World,” for instance. Or a rag tag group of contestants living in a remote location in hopes of winning a lot of money (Survivor), or in a house with the same goal (Big Brother). Dating shows, game shows, you name it: the average Joes and Josephines of America came out of the wood work. Sex appeal was still a big factor (cue hot tub scenes on the Real World, Road Rules, Big Brother, etc.), but we were no longer dealing with immaculately groomed formulas of sex appeal. They were, to some extent, real people.
But that formula of reality television can only go so far. So the next step: celebreality (thank you, VH1, for that incredible time suck) and vocational reality shows: Dirty Jobs, Project Runway, Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model, etc.
So where do television chefs fit in with all of this? After Julia Child spearheaded the art of cooking on television, televised cooking grew until it needed its own network: The Food Network.
Notice anything about that list? All the hosts are men. I didn’t fully claim my feminist card until I got to college, but even then, I could tell a startling disparity in the quality of the shows hosted by men and the ones by women (well, actually, one, at the time – Sara Moulton: her show was a little dry, but at least she brought her A-game and got into the boys’ club at Food Network). The men were exciting and fun. They were authorities on their field, and they actually taught me things I didn’t know before.
I am quick to jump on the Anthony Bourdain bandwagon. He has provided some of the most scathing (and unfortunately, most accurate) criticism of the Food Network in recent years. Of the network itself, he wrote for the the New York Times about the state of food from 2000 to 2010, “But 2007 was also the year that Food Network canceled ‘Emeril Live,’ and stopped ordering episodes of ‘Molto Mario,’ a calculated break with the idea of the celebrity chef as a seasoned professional and a move toward an entirely new definition: a personality with a sauté pan.”
It was true. It still is, to a certain extent. I’m not saying that all Food Network chefs are hacks. I’m just questioning the way we treat the boys vs the girls. Take a moment some time to Google images of Food Network chefs, both male and female. Female chefs, especially the younger ones, have usually done at least one photo shoot where they are scantily clad (or at the very least featured in surprisingly low-cut shirts/dresses and playing directly into some fantasy of domestic life where they lick spoons and forks and eat strawberries and give the camera “come hither” stares.
So what does this have to do with Paula Deen? Let me just say: I love Paula Deen. She starts talking, and I just know delicious things are going to happen. I’ll be in Savannah next weekend to be in one of my best friends’ weddings, and the reception will be at Paula Deen’s restaurant. I can’t even talk about how excited I am to eat there.
This week, Maxim magazine published a list of their five “hottest” female TV chefs, and lo and behold, Paula Deen beat out Giada and Padma. The four runners up are featured in mostly flattering photos with a little blurb about their contention with our Lady, Paula Deen. But scroll to the bottom. There is no photo of Paula Deen. There’s a photo of a stick of butter.
Really, Maxim? Seriously? The blogger who wrote the article says, “Just imagining the slippery, sloppy butter-sex we’d have with Paula makes us…hungry for a bacon-wrapped, beer batter-fried stick of butter, weirdly.”
For a moment, when I first read the headline, I was stoked. Maxim saw past age and traditional ideals of sexuality, and they picked someone they were actually into for her cooking abilities, her humor, her personality, something. And that’s what I get for believing Maxim magazine capable of something better and more highly evolved than just being a men’s magazine full of scantily clad women. In choosing not to use a photo of Paula Deen, and rather using a photo of a stick of butter, you take away that woman’s sex appeal and replace it with something you consume, you melt, you cook with. She’s an ingredient. She’s just a means to a slippery, buttery, decadent end.
But to play that same card, are we supposed to believe that men only find a female chef attractive if she’s topless and licking a spoon covered in chocolate (thank you, Rachel Ray)? Or Padma eating ribs in lingerie? Or buxom Cat Cora bending over to reach something on a low shelf of a grocery store in a oh-so-very low cut tank top?
Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive. I’ve worked in restaurant kitchens. It’s hard work. And so to say, hey, ladies, don’t worry about getting greasy and sweaty and working so hard: as long as you’ve got a hot body, you can be a Food Network star is already insulting enough. But then, Maxim, to take one of the chefs who doesn’t prance around half-naked and try to sell us semi-homemade crap in 30 minutes or less, and reduce her life’s work to slippery hot butter sex? And in fact, to suggest she’s just a stick of melty animal by-product for your consumption? Too much.