Let's just get this out of the way: America's Test Kitchen, the wonky PBS show hosted by the staff of Cooks Illustrated magazine, is far and away the best cooking program on television today. You will learn more about food—what's wrong with domestic feta, why you should buy frozen shrimp, that anchovies lend flavorful glutamates to your beef stew and powdered gelatin silky richness—in one 30-minute episode of Christopher Kimball's playful series than you will in the complete oeuvre of Giada Di Laurentiis. I have passed many idle yet edifying hours watching Bridget Lancaster show Kimball how to improve his minestrone with Parmesan rind and V-8, or assemble a deep-dish pizza at home. It is an aspiration of mine to one day watch all of these shows, the way it was a childhood aspiration to read the encyclopedia. They will make me so smart!
But one mustn't generalize about the pedagogic value of food TV from America's Test Kitchen—that's akin to generalizing about the state of vampire fiction from Bram Stoker. If you've ever turned on the Food Network or Cooking Channel, you know that cooking shows circa 2011 are as much circus acts as culinary tutorials. Just about every Food Network star has a shtick, often accompanied by a signature hair style. Paula Deen is the zany Georgia matron with the silver mane. Guy Fieri: frat boy with the Rod Stewart mop. Anne Burrell: saucy chef with the Phyllis Diller shag.
It can't be all shtick, though, can it? Might there be some cooking shows—other than ATK, of course—that could actually help me raise my game?
To find out, I set myself a rigorous viewing schedule. I was able to cross some shows off the list immediately. Sandra Lee, host of the self-explanatory Semi-Homemade Cooking, lost me when she scraped canned cranberry sauce into her margaritas. I also had no interest whatsoever in duplicating Rachael Ray's lasagna made with flour tortillas and pre-shredded cheese, or anything else from her 30-minute repertoire.
It took me longer to give up on the Barefoot Contessa. Although Ina Garten's recipes are models of clarity, and while she is a calm and stately presence behind the counter of her Hamptons kitchen, the scripts grated on me. "I'm going to surprise my husband Jeffrey with a new twist on our Friday chicken dinner," Ina might confide, in a hushed voice, at the beginning of a show. Meanwhile, affable Jeffrey is filmed going about his day oblivious to the grand surprise in store. It's a narrative with all the drama of a Geritol commercial. And sometimes, as my mind wandered from the "story," I would watch Ina cook and want to correct her: to show her how to measure flour without spilling quite so much, how to chop tomatoes less clumsily. However, my biggest problem was this: I never once wanted to go to the kitchen and make the potato salad with dill, or the pastitsio, or the banana muffins, or the sheet cake. It isn't really my kind of food. And if a TV show is going to help you become a better cook, you have to actually want to eat what is being cooked.
Just about every episode of Bobby Flay's many shows (Throwdown, Grill It!, Brunch @ Bobby's) made me hungry. I wanted to eat his open-faced Jack and flank steak barbecue sandwich. The New York strip steak pizza with blue cheese. The pizza with hummus. (He puts honey in his hummus!) The grilled peaches. Above all, I wanted to eat the potato chips with blue cheese dip that Bobby makes by scooping creamy Cabrales cheese out of an industrial-sized hunk. There is almost nothing Flay does on his show that doesn't look delicious to me and he does everything swiftly, with grace and confidence, tossing the flour on the board for stretching his pizza dough with a sidearm so it doesn't clump. Watching him, you pick up moves. He makes it look easy; he makes it look fun. And yet, for whatever reason, I never actually cooked anything from a Bobby Flay show, perhaps because appetite is fickle and almost all of his recipes involve trips to the supermarket—or a specialty cheese shop—and I never quite got around to compiling a list.
Paula Deen, on the other hand, frequently cooks foods simple enough that you will find the ingredients in your cupboard. When inspiration strikes, you can move quickly. My initial reaction to Deen: dislike rooted in a reflexive snobbishness of which I am not proud. I did not cotton to the cackling smoker's laugh, the mugging and double entendres, the way she drawls "y'all" so thickly that it sounds like "yowl." And yet whenever Paula's Home Cooking came on it was as if a mesmerist had entered the room and I would sit watching her, lulled and entranced. I cannot explain. Eventually, I came to tolerate, and then like, and then love Paula Deen so much that I checked her autobiography out of the library. It is unreadable. But I admire her still, for her openness and her joyful appreciation of unpretentious food. One day she made unbaked Low Country cookies, with layers of graham crackers and custard, and I went immediately to the kitchen and replicated them. They were rich and creamy and delicious and absurd, and we ate about half of them and eventually threw them out because no one in my family could metabolize all that sugar and fat, which is true, I suspect, of many of Deen's recipes. It discouraged me from trying more.
More successful: the plum cornbread demonstrated on Anne Burrell's Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. Although I find her personality abrasive, like Flay, Burrell cooks with ease and grace, and she makes real food, with primal cuts of meat and good ingredients. You know you're watching a pro—and a pro with some imagination. I craved plum cornbread after watching the show, but plums weren't yet in season. A few weeks later, when they were, I prepared Burrell's recipe on the spur of the moment. It was outstanding with vanilla ice cream for dessert, when the plums were still slightly warm and juicy. And it was outstanding plain and cold, for breakfast the next day. I don't know if I learned anything new about cooking, but I was cooking.
The biggest hit of all, though, came from the most unlikely of sources. One rainy weekend I turned on the Food Network and caught an episode of a show I'd never even heard about called Dessert First. It was hosted by a pretty, zaftig pastry chef named Anne Thornton, and I said to my son Owen, who was flopped on the sofa beside me: "She sure looks like she cooks a lot of desserts." And he said, "Mom, that's kind of mean." Which it was.
It is a show so remedial that Thornton actually explains what a double boiler is. I rolled my eyes, but Owen was pretty into it. As Thornton went about making bridge mix bark and hot chocolate (she throws chunks of milk chocolate into her cocoa), Owen said, "That is the coolest hot chocolate. I wish I lived next door to her."
Among the dishes Thornton demonstrated that day: s'mores bars, which consisted of nothing more than buttery, salty graham cracker crumbs layered with marshmallows and milk-chocolate chips. "You have to make those," said Owen.
I agreed. I had to make those. And since I had all the ingredients, almost as soon as the show ended, I went to the kitchen and did so. They were bars that a 13-year-old could make unassisted. And they were perfect, as perfect a recipe as I have ever cooked. People fell silent when they ate those s'mores bars. People took breaks from their diets. Within two days, there was not a crumb left in the house.
I printed out the recipe and put it in my permanent recipe binder, where, I confess, no recipe from America's Test Kitchen has ever made it. I still think America's Test Kitchen is the best food show on the air, but I would add a caveat: However simplistic it may seem, however unsophisticated the recipes, the show that teaches you how to cook is the show that gets you off the couch and into the kitchen.