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Cooking up a storm

I was undulating around the kitchen, getting all deep and intense and sensuous about a piece of lemon meringue pie left over from last night’s birthday party, when my sister asked me if I needed to visit the chiropractor again.
‘No, I’m fine,’ I said, puzzled.
‘Well, you’re walking with a limp.’
‘No I’m not.’ I advanced, waving a mug of tea. ‘Look. No limp.’
‘I know what I saw. Were you being Nigella again?’
‘Oh shut up.’

Lots of women are Nigellaing around their kitchens as I write; she has a lot to answer for. It gets confusing for the fellas, who are hard pressed to remember any of the food she cooks because all they notice is her ample bosom poking over the pots. When their womenfolk start wearing their hair over one eye and sloshing heavy cream onto everything, the men tend to get nervy and start at strange noises, fearing the bedroom performance message underlying all those oysters. Nigella says she’s about gastro porn, but to men that simply means a meat pie and Penthouse. Food means more than nourishment now: it’s one of the new religions, complete with sects and dogmas, Epicureanism become orthodox. Jamie Oliver is all about accessibility, and lately has become quite the social activist, campaigning for cheaper organic food and starting a non-profit restaurant in order to create employment opportunities for deprived teenagers. He could be a Uniting Church type; Nigella would be High Anglican, all bells and smells, unless she decided to go all Maharishi. Keith Floyd was more your whiskey priest type, while Graeme Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet who still turns up on cable, really did get religion, and changed all his recipes to godly ones that didn’t give too much pleasure but undoubtedly kept the bowels of compassion open.

At the moment there’s a rather boring one, The Best (the three cooks are rather like joyous rosy-cheeked young evangelists), on ABC at 8pm on Wednesdays where once Jamie Oliver and Nigella gloried and drank deep. Three clean-cut youngsters compete for points awarded by a group of food fogies who have developed the kind of bossiness that so affects focus groups. Becoming a judge is such a test of character: assume authority and feel your attitudes hardening. Anyway, the dialogue is all rather stilted and the competition is kinda phony, because they’re all professional cooks anyway. There are so many TV cooks out there that catering colleges will soon need to offer acting classes and publishing courses.

While it’s quite easy to entertain an idle minute with such musings, it’s not always so easy to see the programs that inspire them. Nigella has moved from the ABC to endless recycling on cable, but there are others. The very best of all TV cooking programs, the Rolls Royce to Delia Smith’s Volvo, is the Lifestyle Channel’s The Innchef. It’s just finished for a while but was fantastic while it lasted. New York born, but now based in Prince Edward Island (yes women, Anne of Green Gables land!), Michael Smith makes extraordinary food from scratch, using haute cuisine techniques and making them look easy, or at least possible. If he has a fault, it’s that the food is all very uncompromising, very luxurious and he tends to stack it all in towers. But if you did one of his potato-wrapped monkfish fillets with herbed oil on a leek tart for a dinner party, you’d be a legend. Of course you could be history too, because it does help to be actually familiar with a kitchen that consists of more than a microwave and a jaffle iron.

Its very quality means that we’re unlikely to see The Innchef in prime time on network telly here. Prime time is full of The Bill, The Best, The Bachelor and, God help us all, Big Brother is on its dreadful way again. In the meantime, you can watch Buffy and Angel on Seven on Tuesdays and Wednesdays—that is, if you haven’t a job to go to in the morning, because they’re buried at around the same time Nine used to inter Six Feet Under. We should be grateful Seven has kept them at all, I suppose, since they got rid of the very promising Chat Room after only three weeks. But then Seven has a problem with valuing its treasures: it let Neighbours go to Ten and Nicole Chvastek go to the ABC.

In the end the programmers aren’t there to entertain us: it’s their job to make us want stuff. They have to deliver us to their advertisers, who in turn try to reinvent their products to get into our processes, to find out where we really live so they can get all our money with our consent. One of their clients, Magnum ice cream, having dangled the seven deadly sins at us, has obviously discovered that its main customers are people who remember the ’60s and want a lot of chocolate with their memories: not young, not male, but needing some sort of three-dollar fix to deal with a world that contains Rikki Lake and the Shopping Channel, Burke’s Backyard and MTV, Compass and South Park. And Al-Jazeera and CNN. 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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