Food Voyeurism: It’s More Fun to Watch

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Food porn: no, that doesn’t refer to provisions in promiscuous poses.

Decadent, almost sinful, descriptions and visuals of food have been permeating television and the Internet in recent years as our obsession with food grows. The cable television channel Food Network is available in 90 million households and is a staple in many of those, even in homes where no one really cooks or bakes.

Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, and Emeril Lagasse have become household names. Viewers voraciously tune in to shows that have made cooking a sport: Iron Chef AmericaUltimate Recipe Showdown, and Dinner: Impossible. But do all these viewers actually feel comfortable in a kitchen, or have we become food voyeurs as we sit on our couches ordering take-out and cheering on our favorite chefs?

The odds an adult will bake in a year are 1 in 4.66 and the odds an adult will cook for fun in a year are 1 in 4.95. And the percentage of households cooking, on average, “once a day,” declined from 44.3 percent in 1993 to 40.5 percent in 2001, according to a government study by the Energy Information Administration. That means there are probably a lot of dusty kitchens out there.

Food Network’s website, FoodNetwork.com, boasts a monthly average audience of 9.2 million people, 63% of whom prepared at least five meals at home in the last seven days, according to an audience profile on the network’s website designed to attract advertisers. In the general population, the odds an adult bakes at least twice a week are 1 in 25.16, and the odds an adult cooks for fun two or more times a week are 1 in 14.61. So even taking the Food Network’s numbers, which show its audience is more enthusiastic about cooking than the general population, there’s still that 33% that did not cook five meals this week. And among them lurk the food voyeurs, the ones who drool over culinary creations they will never make or eat.

“How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves?” questions author Michael Pollan in a July 2009 article in The New York Times Magazine.

“It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it—and watching it,” he writes. And the Food Network hardly discourages this. In the 1990s, Pollan explains, the network shifted its target audience “from people who love to cook to people who love to eat.”

Gone are the days of sweating and toiling over 20-step, 30-ingredient recipes with Julia Child and other celebrity chefs of yore (this despite the recent success of Child’s 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which topped the best-seller list this year thanks to the movie Julie & Julia). Now, viewers can convince themselves they are learning something useful by watching Rachael Ray mix five ingredients into a quick weeknight meal. The more complicated cooking is left to the experts and serves only to entertain, not inform. Why sweat in the kitchen when you can relax on the couch watching Iron Chef America contestants sweat in a fierce competition of culinary skills? In the past, food television targeted our brains and our stomachs simultaneously, giving us the tools to be gourmet chefs in our own homes, or at least to make a good effort. Now, the bulk of it is merely food porn, titillating our taste buds but leaving us starving for the real thing.

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