JIM DODSON: On Real Men And TV Food
I was sitting in the barber chair last Saturday afternoon, minding my own business and reading in a magazine about the collapsing American economy, when I noticed something really strange going on.
The Food Network was playing on the barbershop tube. Even weirder than that, half the barbers and most of the guys in their chairs were watching it. Some lady who looked like Sophia Loren's kid sister was making festive spring paella, with lots of zesty red peppers and cleavage.
"What gives?" I casually asked my barber. "You guys have an aversion to college basketball?" At that very moment, after all, Duke was playing Clemson in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Maybe these guys' definition of March Madness involved a pomegranate duck reduction sauce.
"Nope," the barber replied, eyeing the attractive cook on the tube. "We absolutely dig The Food Network."
"Why is that?' I asked, wondering if perhaps this was an isolated phenomenon or possibly part of a broader shift in male consciousness that nobody has noticed.
"Our wives don't cook. We like to eat," volunteered a fellow two barber chairs down. "It's that simple. "
"Some of us had mothers who were great cooks," suggested the older barber directly across from me. "We grew up eating wonderful food. This sort of takes us back to then. It's a nostalgia thing for me."
"My mother never cooked -- or looked -- like that," some other customer said with a chortle.
"Well, for what it's worth, I never miss Emeril," provided a silver-haired gent getting a quick back-and-sides trim. "That guy is more entertaining than anything on reality TV."
"Did you hear?" someone else said. "Martha Stewart just bought Emeril's show. He's leaving The Food Network."
"No way!" shot back the Silver Fox. "I thought that was only a rumor."
"Nope. True. Martha owns Emeril now -- lock, stock, and TV show. I guess she's going to do his cookbooks and restaurants, too. Forget Wall Street's problems. Major shakeup in the food world."
"You gotta give Martha her due," said the older guy. "She sure knows what people want. Even us guys."
'All That Chopping'
I decided this needed deeper investigation, so my next stop was the grocery store, where I stopped a guy in the produce section and asked him if he ever watched The Food Network.
He was wearing a Pine Needles golf shirt and fingering Chilean red grapes. I told him I was from the National Institute of Important Guy Related Stuff, conducting interviews on a subject of vital interest to men.
"No, you're not," he said with a laugh. "You work for The Pilot. I've seen your picture in the paper."
"OK," I conceded, "but at least answer my question. Do you ever watch The Food Network? And if so, why?"
"Sure I watch it," he replied without the slightest trace of embarrassment. "Everybody I know does. I love The Food Network. My wife and I even tape shows. She likes that crazy chef with the white, spiky hair, whatshisname? I like Paula Dean. What a great story she is. Started out poor and, like, homeless or something, selling her cooking skills door-to-door to support her family. But then she caught on and -- bang -- look at her. She owns food TV, in my book."
"Do you cook?"
"Not really. We eat out a lot. I just like to watch people doing it, all that chopping and mixing up stuff. Always gives me a big appetite."
He saw me scribbling something important on my reporter's pad.
"So what are you writing?"
"My shopping list," I admitted. "I'm trying to remember what my wife told me to pick up at the store."
"I might suggest Chilean grapes," he said. "Paula says the reds have the best flavor by far."
Over the next few days, as Wall Street reeled and presidential candidates bickered, I checked out places where guys go to see how deep this Food Network thing went. I checked out golf clubs, fire houses, and bars.
Capt. Chuck Younger of the Southern Pines Fire Department seemed surprised by my inquiry, but then he thought about it. "Now that you mention it, gosh, the guys do have food shows on a lot around here," he said. "You'd better call Capt. Patterson, though. He can give you the real story."
So I called Capt. Robert Patterson, a 40-year veteran of the department, half expecting him to laugh out loud at such a silly notion of firemen sitting around watching The Food Network all day long. There are, presumably, fires to put out and cats to rescue from treetops.
"Oh, yeah. I watch it all the time," Patterson said with enthusiasm. "I love The Food Network, probably my favorite thing on TV. I get some great recipes off it, see, and like to try them out. I also learned a neat technique for slicing onions.
"My favorite is Bobby Flay's show. Bobby's big into barbecue, and I do a lot of barbecuing -- in fact, I'm coaching a young fella from Pinecrest who's learning to cook for his senior project. Paula Dean's 'Down Home Cooking' is also one of my favorites. She reminds me of my grandma down in Rockingham. The young guys down at the department started watching it, and now I guess they're kind of hooked, too."
At the Country Club of Whispering Pines, I found a couple of fellows named Cal and Fred sitting in a golf cart near the putting green. They claimed they watched The Food Network only because their wives had it on at home most of the day.
"That Sandra Lee is one perky little number," said Fred. "She color-coordinates her dishes with her appliances, you know."
"I like the Italian babe in the afternoons," confided Cal.
"Do you mean the one who looks like Sophia Loren's kid sister?" I asked.
"That's the one," he said. "You should see her Osso Buco."
Finally, late Tuesday afternoon, my important field research took me down the steps into Neville's Bar, where I discovered eight guys and one woman sitting along the bar. The TV was on. So was The Food Network. They were all watching it.
Luckily, my friend Stephen Smith, the Sandhills wordsmith and sage, was standing mere feet from the TV screen, enjoying a martini while watching a vivacious blonde dressed in canary yellow decorate an equally bright yellow cake. He was just the guy to give me some helpful perspective on this phenomenon.
"You're just in time for Giada," he said, greeting me warmly.
I ordered a beer and pointed to the blonde in proto-yellow.
"So is that Giada?"
"Oh, no. That's Sandra Lee. She's making some kind of special Easter cake or something."
"The perky one," I said, noticing how Sandra Lee perfectly matched the bouquet of yellow flowers and a pitcher of some spring libation, suddenly recalling the fierce admiration of Fred from Whispering Pines.
"She's perky, all right," rumbled a fellow who identified himself only as "George," perhaps because he didn't wish his wife to know he was spending his afternoons in a dimly lit bar.
Erica the bartender explained that The Food Channel is on most afternoons at Neville's. "They love it," she said. "They won't watch anything else."
And suddenly, over Steve Smith's left shoulder, there she was -- Sophia Loren's kid sister, real name Giada de Laurentis, making cous-cous and Tuscan chicken breasts, showing just enough healthy Italian passion and cleavage to keep a bar full of blokes -- not to mention this humble correspondent -- paying close attention.
"What's the matter, boys?" drawled the only woman at the bar, "haven't you see all seen a lady's cous-cous before?"
"What is it about The Food Network that fascinates you guys?" I put to the gathering, pen hovering but already beginning to reach my own conclusions about the network's timeless appeal.
"They remind a man of his two most basic needs," confirmed a philosopher named Chuck, halfway down the bar. "Food and sex. What else does man really need or want in life?"
The next day, I spent an entire afternoon watching The Food Network. I began with Rachel Ray making some kind of vegetable stew, moved on to the Barefoot Contessa's easy turkey lasagne, watched Paula Dean fashion Cajun gumbo (she said "y'all" 11 times) and finished up my Food Network marathon with lovely Giada's "Everyday Italian." She was making butternut squash tortellini. But, hey, who actually gave a Tuscan fig?
I was just about to switch off the tube when Emeril the chef came on -- proving, I guess, that the boys at the barbershop were wrong. Maybe Martha Stewart didn't own Emeril just yet. Emeril was making chorizo burgers with green chili sauce.
"You really seem to be getting hooked on this," my wife said as she snapped off the TV set. We were late for my father-in-law's 73rd birthday dinner party.
"I'm only investigating the timeless appeal of butternut squash tortellini to men," I pointed out to her.
Truthfully, it was a bit of a relief to discover Bill watching an NCAA basketball game. It was kind of nice to get back to ordinary sports March Madness. A man can only take so much food on TV before he starts to lose all perspective about the real world.
"So what have you been doing this week?" Bill casually wanted to know.
"Watching The Food Network," I said, hoping he didn't laugh.
"No kidding?" he said delightedly. "I love The Food Network. Have you checked out 'Ultimate Recipe Showdown' yet? It's like a sports show, only with food "
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, the Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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