In last week's New Yorker, Bill Buford boasted of an impressive feat: He spent three straight days watching the Food Network and didn't entirely lose his mind. Indeed, he emerged coherent enough to pinpoint the channel's ongoing identity crisis, calling it, "a good-hearted organization still fundamentally clueless about itself": Is its first allegiance to the values of the culinary institute or those of the control room? Are its viewers "cooks or kitchen idiots?" Certainly these are strange days at the Food Network; though its audience is growing, its hits are stalling, and the competition, like so many well-beaten egg whites, is getting stiff. But if the network's direction was unclear when Buford staged his vigil, two new shows— Nigella Feasts (Food Network, Sundays 1 p.m. ET) and Paula's Party (Food Network, Fridays 10 p.m. ET)—make things plain. Kitchen idiots, order a pizza and cozy into the couch.
In 2001, both E! and the Style Network began airing Nigella Bites, the first stateside TV outlet for the British sensualist Nigella Lawson. Nigella Feasts finds the hostess up to the same old tricks: She prepares hearty food without fuss; she alternates coy smiles with confidential grins; verbal and voluptuary, she reinvents the double-entendre. This sex bomb is aimed, I think, at housewives. Buford, explaining why the Food Network's offerings are called "food porn," insisted, "It's not erotic ... It's just unreal." He obviously hadn't seen Lawson make guacamole.
Or even heard her say "guacamole." In the first episode of Nigella Feasts, working on a side dish for her cornbread-topped chili con carne, she endowed the word with illicit implications, pronouncing it with the roundest O imaginable, as if the sound itself might ripen the fruit. O, avocados! Having scooped them into a bowl, Lawson first reflected on the succulence of their flesh, then got down to business "massacring the avocados with [her] masher." She mashed without pity. "Hmm—disturbingly satisfying!" she moaned. You want me to put my chips in that?
Grating a cheese that would form a "blistered carapace" on top of the cornbread topping, Lawson praised its spiciness and "vociferous tang": "I love it like that." Preparing a chocolate cherry trifle for dessert, our hostess was strongly tempted to taste her just-chopped chocolate bar: "I'm gonna muster every bit of restraint in my being—though you can imagine how much that is." She also finds nonverbal means of flirting with the home viewer: When she lifted a 3-pound hunk of ground beef, she grunted like a tennis starlet returning a serve. Squirting ketchup from a plastic bottle, she apologized in advance "should any sounds be emitted." And then, gentle reader, she squoze. The end of the show found Lawson, in her clinging bathrobe, sneaking back downstairs to the kitchen for a midnight snack. After a couple of unrestrained spoonfuls in the light of the fridge, she carried her big chili pot back to bed.
Somehow, Paula's Party is even more forthright about its interest in the pleasures of the flesh. "Hey, y'all!" cries the star, Paula Deen, introducing a forthcoming episode in her Peach State blare. "Today on Paula's Party, we're getting romantical!" Though Deen's husband appears in the episode, he never threatened to get physically romantical with her on-screen. But Deen did induce a young couple from her studio audience to climb into a bed she happened to have on-set. She later climbed in herself with a plate of praline French toast drenched in raspberry syrup, but not before saying, of the young man, "All that sugar's gonna make him so high for a girl!"
No coitus commenced, though for a few shattering moments it seemed entirely possible. Over the four years that Paula's Home Cooking has aired on the Food Network during the daytime, Deen has acquired a cultish fan base. The audience in the Paula's Party studio will clap for anything—good jokes, bad jokes, kitchen fires—and the camera spends as much time on their beaming faces as it does on the food. In August, the Wall Street Journal's Brooks Barnes reported that the Food Network had charged Deen—a wacky Southern grandmother to Lawson's domestic goddess—with reeling in more young viewers by emphasizing her shtick over her cooking in the new show: "The hourlong program will be more Romper Room than Cooking With Master Chefs."
In fact, Romper Room is a rather exalted reference. Didn't it have an educational component? Instead of actually telling you how to bake a cake, Deen, in keeping with the romantical theme, attempted to "reproduce" her wedding cake in three minutes. This involved 180 seconds of her frantic mugging and stirring while audience members rushed forth to dump, say, some almond extract into the mix. No way is that cooking—but, as entertainment, it may just tide you over for a little while.