Last week, we arrived back in town after a vacation just in time to catch our kids' favorite television personality browbeat an innkeeper and describe a meal placed before him at the inn in bleeped words that appeared to refer to dinosaur excrement.
I find Chef Gordon Ramsay's culinary boot-camp shtick as mesmerizing as my children do. But I'm also a little queasy about the fact that our 9- and 13-year-old kids are die-hard fans of this particular form of entertainment at a time when 1 in 4 American kids and nearly 50 million Americans of all ages live in what the government calls "food insecure households."
The rise of our cultural obsession with the behind-the-scenes intricacies of glamorized food preparation, and the ubiquity of perfectly plated dishes on television, seems to have coincided rather neatly with the national dive into economic disaster and mass hunger. Food pantries can barely keep up with demand, and hungry, down-on-their-luck families wait in dingy public service agency offices across America, filling out forms for unemployment, WIC and welfare, while the screen on the wall is more likely than not instructing them about "drizzling virgin olive oil" on "julienned" peppers.
Over the summer, Ramsay's shows, "Hell's Kitchen," "MasterChef" and "Hotel Hell" — the one we watched last week — all ranked in the Top 10 with the "key demographic": 18-to-49-year-olds.
Ramsay is only the most currently entertaining of a battalion of celebrity chefs, not only on television but also in publishing and cooking in actual restaurants. For every James Beard or Julia Child of the 1960s, there are now a dozen bold-faced-name cooks sitting on fortunes' worth of restaurant real estate, spinning truffled amuse-bouches into gold. "For most of history, nobody got rich being a chef," GQ food critic Alan Richman told the Huffington Post last year. "Then they figured out a way to get rich: It was TV and franchising."
The original so-called emperor chef, Wolfgang Puck, now has 92 restaurants, according to the Huffington Post. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who gave the world molten chocolate cake and foie gras creme brulee, has 27 eateries. Celeb chef Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago began selling tickets for reservations to tasting menu meals this summer. At up to $265 a pop, they sold out in hours.
Meanwhile, according to Feeding America's website, in 40 states and Washington, D.C., 20% or more of U.S. children are living in households without consistent access to food. The nation's capital (32.3%) and Oregon (29.2%) had the highest rates of hungry kids.
Much has been said about how our really bad recession was different from America's last capital "D" Depression, but I don't know if anyone has explored just how it was that my dad, who grew up in the 1930s, spent the rest of his life longing for the canned chipped beef and evaporated milk on toast that was his family's staple during the dark years, while today's kids are growing up knowing the difference between en croute and crouton and how to prepare sea bass with star anise, shallots and vermouth.
Ramsay et al provide the bread for our version of ancient Rome's reliably distracting bread and circuses. Except now there is no real bread involved, only the virtual, mouthwatering, food-porn sort that merely whets the appetite for "More, sir."
The term "food porn" is said to have been coined by the feminist critic Rosalind Coward, all the way back in 1984, when she wrote in her book "Female Desire" that "cooking food and presenting it beautifully is an act of servitude.... That we should aspire to produce perfectly finished and presented food is a symbol of a willing and enjoyable participation in servicing other needs." But in post-feminist, recessionary America, the metaphorical lust in glamorized food spectacles is a relic of a more luxurious era when banal, G-rated hunger was confined to the Sudan.
Monday night, my kids couldn't wait to see which of the three finalists on "Hell's Kitchen" would get to work at Gordon Ramsay Steak in Las Vegas (Christina Wilson got the nod, and a $250,000 salary to go with it). Meanwhile, a quarter of their fellow little Americans are like the Little Match Girl, gazing at the groaning board not through the window but the video screen.
Ramsay's spectacles of psychological abuse and opulent food preparation play out in front of millions of viewers. For too many of them the "dinosaur s—" on the loser plate looks pretty darn good.
Nina Burleigh's most recent book on the Amanda Knox case, "The Fatal Gift of Beauty," was just released in paperback. She writes the Bombshell column at the New York Observer.