Masterchef and Poverty

My latest bizarre television obsession is food reality shows. I can’t really explain it to you because I’m not sure what the logic is, but I’ve somehow become deeply invested in this world where people compete for fame, money, their own cookbooks, restaurants, and shiny trophies conferring some kind of food honour on them. You know the ilk of the kinds of shows I’m talking about: Masterchef, Iron Chef, Top Chef, and so forth. Celebrity chefs and other culinary stars appear on screen to judge the efforts of the lowly contestants, who try to cash in on their chance at fifteen minutes of fame and a break in the culinary world.

One thing that strikes me about all of this programming is how much money is spent on it, both individually and collectively. Masterchef, for example, has an incredible kitchen outfitted for the competitors, including an array of very fancy restaurant equipment, a stunning pantry, and some of the most amazing fresh ingredients you can get your hands on. It must be a seriously expensive production to run from week to week, between off-camera training and on-camera competition, especially when the cooks are working with luxury ingredients, which they often are. This is a show where people regularly work with lobster, caviar, and other things that are seriously spendy.

And it’s not the only one. As a form of class signaling, food has tremendous power. Which means that, naturally, programmes like this one very much use the performance of cooking luxury foods as part of the glamour. They wouldn’t be as interesting if cooks were working with ordinary ingredients or the kind of restrictions people face in the real world, except when they’re doing so as a specific challenge: when, for example, chefs are asked to work with canned mushrooms or cheap baking supplies they can get at a corner store.

In this case, it’s an intriguing experiment and a test of a chef’s limits, though, rather than an acknowledgement of a reality. And the kind of glittering world set in these competitions isn’t about what happens in everyday kitchens, but about haute cuisine, about fancy food, about foodies, about how elegant and beautiful and expensive and thrilling you can make your food. Like other reality television, it exists in a kind of dreamworld, which is why one has things like branded yachts, planes, and more to transport contestants around, while they stay in lavish apartments and dorms and criss-cross the country and sometimes the world in search of inspiration, ingredients, and more.

The amount money invested in reality cooking shows across the networks that carry them is, quite simply, immense. In the millions annually at least, and such shows also bring in huge revenues, thanks to advertising and viewer dollars, branded equipment, product placement (Wal*mart, for example, plays a prominent role on Masterchef), and more. For networks, this type of programming is a win-win, allowing them to tap into a huge market of people who are apparently very interested in watching other people cook, be abused by famous chefs, and eventually come out on top.

But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder what that money would do if it was invested in the food system. Normally I am wary of direct comparisons like these, because the world is more complicated than simple this-for-that logic, and it’s not always possible to neatly map spending on one thing over to spending on another. But this provides a kind of interesting case study, in a way: what if the money invested in providing everything contestants could possibly imagine so they could suitably entertain the public was spent in underwriting better food policy? Conducting outreach programmes to communities that lack access to fresh food? Providing cooking classes and nutritional education to people who want to learn more about their options?

The rise of such programmes shows that people are clearly interested in food, and the people watching these shows include people who are undoubtedly struggling to access fresh, good ingredients in their own lives. When they tune in to see people crafting beautiful dishes and throwing food away when it’s not perfect, it sends a stark message about class, food, access, and value; the kind of people who can sit down to eat at Hell’s Kitchen obviously don’t put a lot of thought into the waste that goes into restaurant management and the production of a cooking show that revolves around the restaurant.

Which is reflective of a larger cultural issue, the huge class gap that alters the way we look at and talk about food. For some of us, food is something beloved, delightful, accessible, and wonderful, something we can eat in myriad ways, share with loved ones, and prepare without restraints. For others, it’s a scrabble to get food on the table and the choices are limited. There are, naturally, gradations and lines between, but much of food culture in the US is deeply stratified. At the same time that people are learning how to handle langoustines on television, the people watching are facing down a television dinner because it’s the only thing they have time to make, and the only thing they can access in their neighborhood.

Networks are not under any legal or particular social obligation to sink the money they currently spend on cooking shows into improving the food system. But it would be interesting to see what would happen if matching funds and equivalent amounts were used to explore ways to improve the food system, challenging the idea that some of us are doomed to being entertained with bread and circuses on the ground level while others are high in the stands eating luxury foods and watching the drama play out in the ring.