As I pounded on the treadmill, I watched with intensity the different shows on the Food Network. I was struck at how little actual cooking I watched; instead the shows were either variations on reality TV or contests. Television schedules are now filled with cooking contests – Chopped, Master Chef, Food Network Star, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Iron Chef, Ready…Set…Cook!
But the root of all these shows lie in the old-fashioned cook-off. Popular clichés of the cook-off include big blue ribbons and blue-haired ladies carefully carrying trays of baked goods. But in Amy Sutherland’s excellent Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America, stereotypes and clichés are upturned by the diverse cast of characters that populate the interesting read. Though, to be honest, the happy homemaker does come up a few times during the book, but even the middle America moms who join the competitions are given much more shading and complexity, because Sutherland remains committed to letting the women tell their stories without resorting to easy two-dimensional personae.
Even though Sutherland’s work is akin to investigative journalism, the book is also a work of anthropology. Despite being drawn into the lives of her subjects, she remains somewhat detached, letting the men and women speak for themselves. And she uncovers some interesting sides of the traditional cook-off, far away from the image of the hausfrau with a killer recipe for pound cake.
Because of the stakes for some of these contests – some can run up to a million bucks – the participants can be pretty competitive – and though, there aren’t any tales of throat-cutting, tempers flare when competitors start to let their desire to win consume them. One competitor in particular, Priscilla Yee, is an intriguing woman – a talented cook, but one doesn’t seem interested in endearing herself to her fellow competitors, which is misconstrued by some as aloofness.
What’s interesting about most of the contests and the recipes that are included is that the food sounds awful, pretty much across the board. Because most of these cook-offs are sponsored by conglomerates – like Pillsbury – and are geared toward quick, family friendly, easy cooking, the recipes are laden with prepackaged, processed foods. Also, a lot of these dishes often betray some of the contestants’ sheltered existence – especially when they try to get “ethnic” by dumping Mexican seasonings to their goop.
But none of this matters, because Sutherland cares about the people she’s following and readers will get caught up in the drama. She writes of the contestants’ joy, but she also writes about how devastating a loss can be (one loser fought back tears as she dumped her vanquished dish into a trash can). And though I expected a tiny bit of schaudenfreude when reading about the cooks who failed, I was pulled into these people’s stories – there are tales full of poignant details – failed marriages, cancer, a sad childhood of bullying, career instability. These sad notes make the contestants likable underdogs you root for, despite the oft-disgusting dishes they are hoping will win them a prize.
When reading Sutherland’s book, her audience will have to set aside any condescending preconceived notions, and instead treat the subject with the same amount of respect one would give to athletes training for the Olympics. And while it would be too easy and pat to claim that the book is about more than just cook-offs, that it’s about America – and some of that is true, but it’s also a piercing sociological look at commerce, the popularity of competition (and the gender roles we hang on rules of competitiveness), as well as, what’s happening with food and family cooking. Michael Pollan famously looked at the American family’s dinner table – and he wasn’t pleased with the over-reliance on processed, packaged products. I imagine if Pollan was an attendant at one of these cook-offs – especially the Pillsbury contestant – he’d be so disgusted, he’d reenact the story in the bible where Jesus angrily throws the usurers, vendors and money lenders from the temple. But even gourmet foodies will enjoy Sutherland’s sympathetic, honest look at everyday people reaching for their version of the American dream.