Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 10, 2021

Been there, done that

Husband Art recently closed his laptop, plopped on the couch and began watching a cooking show. While this was not the first time and he does cook a variety of things, I have never once been presented with a duck a l'orange or beef bourguignon - the sort of things featured on such shows.

And I am much the same. I watch. I enjoy. But my culinary skills don't include anything I witnessed on a cooking show. Oh, I have picked up a tip here and there, but compared to the hours spent watching, those shows seem little different than entertainment.

I should be cautious here because there is quite a range of food-related shows. Some, such as "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" featuring chef Gordon Ramsay, aren't about cooking at all, but about people having trouble running a business that just happens to be about food. Others are competitions that involve food preparation. "The Great British Baking Show" is a prime example. Another type involves visiting restaurants, talking with customers and cooks, and then having the host experience nirvana by tasting some of the fare. I'm not talking about any of those, but rather shows that actually show cooks making something.

But even within this much smaller slice of the cooking-show pie, there is a range. In 1963, Julia Child - a gangly, not-too-photogenic unusually-tall woman with a not-quite-TV-quality voice - began it all with "The French Chef" on what was then called the National Education Network. It was a live how-to for viewers to make top-quality meals.

In contrast, Erica Gruen, the Food Network guru, has been quoted by several as saying, "people don't watch television to learn things." So the network shifted the focus from those who cook to those who eat - a somewhat larger and so more lucrative demographic. While Julia could regularly be seen breaking into a sweat and spilling things, as most real cooks do, today's presenters rarely do either.

But even after watching a show that involves the nitty gritty of ingredient amounts and cooking time and doesn't have items pre-measured into little bowls, I don't carry it over to my own kitchen. Why?

A Huffington Post article - "I Never Cook, So Why Am I Hooked On Cooking Shows?" - offered an answer. Ashwini Nadkarni, an instructor in the Harvard Medical School of Psychiatry, was quoted as saying that viewers "believe in the possibility of what could be. Known as vicarious consumption, the process of watching a cooking show can be more satisfying to the anti-cook than the process of cooking and eating in real life - because even if you hate cooking, chances are, you like food."

That answer feels incomplete to me.

While there has been an increase in home cooking during the pandemic, the long-term trend has been less time spent in food preparation at home and there are tons of articles offering reasons: availability of fast food, availability of prepackaged meals and moms moving into the workplace. Food providers have also targeted attitudes about cooking. While moms were once praised for making family meals, food purveyors have sold the notion that cooking is a drag.

But this still doesn't go to the heart of my question. Advertising has long relied on the fact that if we encounter attractive things ... clothes, cars, vacations, homes, and so on ... it creates a desire to have those things. So why does watching a cooking show appear to have no effect on our desire to actually cook? For that matter, why does watching golf not correlate with playing more golf. I recall reading somewhere that watching travel shows reduces the likelihood a viewer will travel to those places. Whatever the reason, it might also explain why people who play video games that involve violence are found to be no more violent than others when they are away from the screen.

An intriguing possible answer involves what have been called "mirroring" neurons. They may also explain why we plunk down in front of the screen to take in sports, watch romance shows, or cheer on game show contestants.

It was long believed that when we observe anything, we merely passively record what we experience. But about 30 years ago, neurophysiologists at the University of Parma in Italy discovered that the same parts of a monkey's brain was active when it ate a peanut as when it merely watched another monkey eat one. Additional research revealed that monkeys had quite a collection of what they named mirroring neurons. Might humans have these as well and what purpose do they serve if we do?

Recent brain studies appears to say we do have them and they play a major role in such activities as learning by example - we watch someone do something and then try to duplicate a similar reaction to that created when we watched it being done.

Other studies support the idea that it works in reverse as well. When we see someone fall, be sad or laugh, we "mirror" the feelings experienced by that other person. These neurons appear to be the source of what we refer to as empathy.

But neurons that fire when another person falls, stay silent when instead a tree falls. For mirroring to occur, it is necessary for the brain to, in essence, say "That's like me!"

That could explain why, when daughter Katie showed me photos and videos of a trip to Hawaii, I felt almost as if I had been along on the trip!

So, in a sense, that previous "vicarious consumption" comment may have been spot on. Much the way we tend to become happier when we see someone who is happy, watching someone prepare food, play golf or take a vacation may create some of the same responses we would have as if we were actually doing those things. It's sort of a "been there, done that," without ever actually having done it!

Top-left: Julia Child in her kitchen in the south of France. I was struck by how her surroundings seem less like a modern kitchen than a workshop; bottom-left: screen shot from a recent Mr. Food show which features quick recipes for home meals; right: daughter Katie sharing a photo from her and hubby Matt's recent trip to Hawaii. (First photo from AP)

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from this year may be found at: Current year Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home