THE BLOG
03/12/2013 06:06 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013

Is Food Entertainment?

In a recent interview reported in the Miami Herald, Paula Deen was asked if her new, moderate way of eating would be reflected in her cooking shows. Her answer was that she doesn't expect people to eat fried chicken and biscuits every day, but if she were to prepare only salads, who would watch? She characterized her cooking shows as entertainment.

Julia Child, don't roll over in your grave.

I thought cooking shows were about cooking, but I guess that I'm wrong. Presumably the lip-smacking and oohing and ahhing over a finished product that oozes butter, cream, egg yolks and/or bacon or chocolate seen by viewers of her show is just for show. Yet while Deen may take a tiny bite (does she spit it out off-camera?), characterizing the show as entertainment implies that the viewer should not run to their kitchen to reproduce the dish.

If we are to believe Paula Deen, and others like her, people are not really intending to eat those luscious foods that she swoons over when she tastes them on air. That is only entertainment.
It begs the question: Is food entertainment?

Yes, otherwise we would not have endless varieties of restaurants, or magazines that seduce us with their cover pictures of multilayered cakes and lasagnas bubbling with melted cheese. Buffets would not exist, and cruises would get away with serving one menu item at every meal rather than tempting the passenger with multiple dishes and restaurants. Food is the basic ingredient in festivities and celebrations, and as an inducement to get people to come to meetings or lectures, is definitely entertainment.

Is there any risk to preferring or rejecting foods based on their entertainment value? A few weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran an article on how food chemists manipulate the tastes of foods to increase their hedonic-pleasurable qualities. Thousands of people join focus groups that taste and test combinations of ingredients and textures of products ranging from soft drinks to snack foods. Their responses are analyzed using complicated computer-driven programs to generate the perfect foods for various age groups and gender. Unfortunately, this tweaking of ingredients to alter taste and texture is rarely applied to foods that we should be eating but don't, at least not in sufficient quantities. Would we all fall in love with steamed kale or stir-fried tofu or brown rice if care and attention were made to making these foods excessively palatable?

Most of us do not know what it is like to be hungry and not have enough to eat. When we eat, the palatability of our food is not associated with our relief at finally being able to remedy our excessive hunger. Unfortunately, this is not the case in too many parts of the world.

Have we forgotten, or perhaps never learned, why we eat? An infant crying for milk wants to be fed. His or her contentment while being fed is not affected by the fact that the milk tastes the same at each feeding, day after day, week after week. Mothers don't have to produce flavored milk to satisfy the hunger needs of an infant.

Yet by the time the child is on solid food, taste and texture are already factors in acceptance and rejection. It is hard to resist the temptation to offer rewards if the toddler will just try one spoonful of strained glop. And what about the child who is given a plastic tub of Cheerios to keep him still? We all learn young that food is more than nourishment, and can become entertainment. As an adult, I witnessed this behavior last evening at a fundraising dinner, for every time a speaker became repetitious and dull, people at our table pulled their dessert plates closer to them and finished the cake they had probably resolved to leave only partially eaten. The cake was certainly more entertaining than the speakers. (Dinner speakers beware: If you hear forks clanging on plates, wind up your talk.)

Posing the concept of food as entertainment leaves one to ponder, would food programs that focused on sensible rather than extravagant dishes (poached pears or baked apples for dessert rather than fat and sugar-filled pastries) be unpopular? If so, is that because people are only entertained by watching someone make foods on TV that they, the viewer, have no intention of ever making or eating? Or is the need to eat as entertainment the reason that so many people fail to reach their weight-loss goals, or revert back to a pre-dieting weight?

Perhaps so. The other night we were guests at the home of a dieting hostess, and her meal was not entertaining; indeed it tasted (it actually had no taste) like diet food. Despite that, the company was splendid, but even the most dedicated dieter and accommodating guest might wish for more entertainment value in a dinner party meal.

Maybe it will take a truly innovative chef to bring us healthy foods that allow us to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, yet still feel entertained by what we are eating. Watching the foods made by this mythical chef on television could be as compelling as following the series Downton Abbey. When we then re-enact preparing such recipes ourselves, we will be entertained, excited and enthusiastic about what we are eating. It's a dietary win-win.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

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