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The cooking shows I watch to escape from cooking

Pre-9/11 cooking shows from the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson portray the type of comfort cooking we all need in these anxious times under house arrest.
(Martina Ibanez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

Right now, there’s nothing much more calming than watching someone else prepare a delicious meal in front of you, especially when it seems like cooking and washing dishes are all any of us ever do anymore.

It’s this exhaustion from cooking 24/7 that has drawn me not to the reality TV shows and horror movies I watched before the quarantine but to pre-9/11 cooking shows.

These shows — specifically Nigella Lawson’s “Nigella Bites,” which ran for two seasons in 2000 and 2001, and Jamie Oliver’s “The Naked Chef,” which ran from 1999 through 2001 — were, at their time, cutting-edge.

Shaky cameras zoomed in and out, catching the hosts at odd angles meant to, I assume, evoke the vantage of a guest they were teaching. Both talents — young and energetic, zipping around their kitchens grabbing ingredients and pans — had infectious personalities, untarnished and uninhibited by what they should be making or the camera or how they should be acting.

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Watching their videos, which once felt like an occasional respite, has for me turned into a necessary drug to get through each day, Lawson’s voice sends me into a Vicodin-like stupor, her calm inflection immediately shutting off the valve of anxiety that seems to perpetually pump into my chest — and the twitch above my right eye.

Of course, one can’t mention British cooking shows without honoring probably the best there ever was, “Two Fat Ladies.” The ladies — Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson — hosted a cooking series for BBC2 that ran for four seasons, from 1996 until Paterson’s death in 1999. The show chronicled them making extremely British fare larded with butter and cream, its appeal heightened by the fact that two women who seemed like the most fun aunts anyone could hope for were making it while they smoked and drank brown liquor on the rocks.

On our side of the pond, the only show that held a candle to what the Brits were putting out was Ina Garten on her Food Network show “Barefoot Contessa.” The first season premiered in late 2002.

Garten had a warming, energetic approach similar to Lawson’s — tossing eggshells from across the kitchen into her sink and measuring ingredients in a slap-dash way that made a mess of her countertop. She treated cooking as if it were an interpretive dance to be done with abandon. It’s no mistake that the look of her show had that energy — “Barefoot Contessa” was and still is produced by Pacific, the same production company that shot Lawson’s first seasons of “Nigella Bites” (and “Pioneer Woman,” Ree Drummond’s life-on-the-range cooking show).

Watching these shows cuts the panicked nerves — not like a painful blade but with the exhaling relief of an acupuncturist’s needle — better than anything else right now. It’s a welcome sensation.


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