By: Anne T. Donahue
I have the Food Network schedule committed to memory. I watch The Great British Bake Off (and its Canadian contemporary) before bed, usually falling asleep to descriptions of breads and various pie doughs. Should I be invited to participate in Chopped, I have my strategy ready in hopes of securing my unequivocal win (see: using the basket ingredients to spell out “I cannot cook, please help”). And when I watch MasterChef, I hold my favourites close while roasting the judges with abandon, knowing that should our paths cross, Gordon Ramsey and I could be actual friends.
Of course, it didn’t used to be this way. Yes, I’d dabbled in baking and have long subscribed to the magic of The Baking Tent™. And sure, I’d leave Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on if I needed a little background noise. But as the pandemic descended upon us with the commitment of, well, a pandemic, I needed a reprieve from good-slash-scripted TV, and wanted only to live in a world where eating is an absolute joy.
Which was also new for me. Like most people my age (and older and younger), my relationship with food has been chronically terrible. Food has been a source of guilt. It was a way of showing off my willpower (read: hiding my eating disorder in plain sight) or seeing how much I could get away with not finishing. It was a reward if I’d been “good” (hungry) throughout the course of the day enough to “justify” (woof) the calories. I told my therapist once that I wished there was a pill I could take every day that gave me enough nutrients to live and didn’t necessitate me eating. I considered food to be my barrier between myself and success. And I know now that I will be working to dismantle this way of thinking every day for as long as I’m alive. Which I’ll accept in exchange for the joy of ordering poutine. Which I’ll likely eat in front of the Food Network. A source of happiness and of calm.
And that’s what my mom and I needed, especially after last year’s grief marathon. Neither of us could be bothered to follow seasonal plots or catch up on storylines, so once we’d made it through our days, we’d hunker down in front of any number of food shows at night. First, because they were on. And also, because they were happy. And not in the way of the Hallmark movie commercials we’d be spammed with (a world in which there is no sorrow or deep-seeded resentment, the cowards), but as a testament to friendship and enthusiasm and nourishment. Food was about sharing and enjoying and diving into because it was good. Food was “dynamite.” It was a ticket to Flavortown. It was the root of faux rivalries between chef friends and the reason I started buying real butter. Calories could go fuck themselves. Real life problems could go to hell. In this world, all we had to do with eat and enjoy – I finally began to remember that food didn’t need to be my enemy anymore.
Not to say the Food Network is a cure or a solution. MasterChef will not undo years of damage. When the TV turns off, I’m still faced with exactly whatever demons I’ve been battling all along. But that’s not the point: my food shows have been an escape hatch. They’ve assured me that a world exists in which you can make something and it can be there and then somebody (you, me, the guy across the street) can enjoy it. It’s simple, despite recipe complications. It is a microcosm I drop in on to acquaint myself with the radical notion that food or joy or sharing a plate isn’t some big evil that’s out to get me. Instead, I’m lucky to have it.
And I’m sure that at some point, I won’t cling to food-centric series in the same way I am now. Though also: maybe I will, and maybe I’ll even learn to cook myself. (LOL no.) But until then, I’ll maintain my close relationship with the TV cooks who do not know me, but have distracted me with the revelation that food is good, and I’m allowed to eat it. I’ll wrap myself up in series that show me that joy still exists, and it might even come in the form of a very big burrito. I’ll cheer for people doing their best, while learning that my best is choosing this very small, insulated realm of happiness where an hour of barbequing heeds gargantuan results. (But it’s fine either way because everybody’s a blast.) I’ll let the balm of pies, pastries, and homemade pasta bring some necessary comfort, much like the items themselves. And above all, I’ll tell myself that I could absolutely beat Bobby Flay.
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