I Like to Watch

When you can't eat another bite this holiday, tune in for the perky perfection of "Giada at Home," the leisure-class delights of "Barefoot Contessa," or the down-home grub of "Big Daddy's House."


Heather Havrilesky
December 21, 2008 4:17PM (UTC)

The holidays are all about eating too much. When we're not stuffing our gullets with breads and pies and roast beasts, we're nibbling on gingerbread houses and sifting through cookie tins and scarfing down eggnog festooned with enormous whipped cream peaks, ideally while shuffling around the kitchen in socks and sweat pants, moving only as much as is necessary to secure the next crunchy, sugary snack.

Personally, I aim to gain 5-8 pounds over each holiday break. Without setting such ambitious goals for myself, I don't fully wallow in a piggishly festive state, which means I'll return to work in early January feeling slightly cheated. Besides, how can anyone sit down to write their New Year's resolutions without feeling disgustingly fat and unshowered and slightly queasy after a full two weeks of overindulging in greasy foods and boozy drinks and bad holiday TV?

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Even when you're eating around the clock, though, there's going to be that stray hour or so where you can't shove another sugar cookie in your mouth. That's when you'll need to turn your attention to the Food Network, where cheerful, good-looking people who would never pad around the house in dirty socks fix ambitious dishes like stuffed Cornish hens and anchovy and arugula pizzas and hazelnut chocolate pies while chatting amiably with the camera. Not only do cooking shows provide just enough distraction from the pesky, prattling family members around you, but all of that delicious food (that you'd never have the patience to cook for yourself) will warm you up for your next enormous meal. And besides, watching all of those clean, detail-oriented, energetic humans working so hard and talking so fast will make you feel absolutely sluggish and overheated and filthy and wormlike and revolting by comparison.

Which is the goal, after all.

Golly, Giada!

Of course, when it comes to making mortal humans feel ugly, sullen and incompetent, Giada De Laurentiis is the reigning queen.

Apparently, instead of learning to cook from big, hairy men, there's a hefty segment of the population that would prefer to take culinary instructions from one of the hot girls from "90210." In addition to her Food Network shows, "Everyday Italian," "Behind the Bash," "Giada's Weekend Getaways," "Giada in Paradise" and her appearances on the "Today" show, Giada has a new show, "Giada at Home" (1 p.m. Saturdays on the Food Network), which seems to consist mostly of close-ups of Giada's flawless face, her shiny brunet mane, her glossed lips and her shimmering white teeth, interspersed with close-ups of Giada's perfect hands, cutting up onions or shredding cheese. Why do those onions look so much better than onions have ever looked before? How do they shoot this show, and why does it make everything look so sexy?

No wonder Giada seems so incredibly happy all of the time -- she lives in some gorgeous alternate universe with her pretty baby and an alarmingly regular-looking husband named Todd. Giada must've inherited some serious cash from her grandfather, producer Dino De Laurentiis, too, because she appears to have one of those backyards that they feature in Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware catalogs: miles and miles of perfect green lawn and rolling hills in the background, an immaculate, sparkling blue swimming pool in the foreground. The opening credits show us Todd and Giada, holding their adorable baby and strolling along the Pacific Ocean in what looks like the Big Sur area but could also be Malibu -- either way it's a place where only beautiful, wealthy people live. But how did average, everyday Todd manage to marry such a stunning Italian babe, one who just la-la-loves to make him Gruyere and sausage omelets whenever his urge for eggs strikes? ("Todd loves eggs sooo much!" Giada confides to the camera, like she and the camera are dishing on their husbands while getting their perfect nails done.)

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Don't hate Giada because she's so beautiful, though. Hate her because she says annoyingly perky things as she's making her gourmet "breakfast for dinner," like, "That's the fun of cooking, is that you get to taste as you go along!" and (on grating cheese) "Good for your muscles, too, gives you a nice workout!" and "This is really good cheese!" and "Give it a quick little stir!" Basically, Giada is so abnormally thrilled about every step of the cooking process that it's tough not to dislike her and the photogenic red peppers and parsley bunches and eggy mixtures that she rode in on.

Next, throw in a few quick shots of Giada arranging the throw pillows on her pristine outdoor furniture from Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, then walking past a surfboard on her way inside and smiling warmly to her bestest friend, the camera, and saying, "It smells sooo good in here! Mmm, it's that Gruyere cheese!" and not only don't you want to get any more hints of Giada's unbearably perfect life, but you also don't want to cook pancetta and cinnamon waffles with her, either. You'd prefer to cook bacon waffles, which will make you fat, with a big, hairy fat guy who spends too much of his time shoving pasta into his big mouth to screw around with outdoor furniture. Christ, but that's not the end of it. Once Giada's done cooking, Todd arrives home and asks if there's time to surf before dinner, but there isn't time, Giada cheerfully informs him. Then she serves up the bacon waffles and the omelet and Todd slurps it up by his sparkling swimming pool like a pig in shit. (With so much shiny loveliness in the mix, I can't resist mentioning that Todd looks about 50 to Giada's 25. Unbelievably, though, he's just 45 and she's 38. See, a positive mental attitude does make you look prettier, just like that bitchy, wrinkled home economics teacher once told you.) Now Giada is lying and saying that she got sooo lucky because their baby, Jade, took a nap early, so she was able to cook all day "and even relax a little" -- at this point Giada flashes the camera a kooky "Can you believe that? Me, a busy working mom, relaxing a little?!" face, as if her baby wasn't screaming in the arms of some poorly paid production assistant all afternoon while she made chirpy but impeccable love to her best friend, the camera. Todd has nothing to say to this, really. He's just psyched that his wife has such a fine-looking rack and she made him an espresso topped with vanilla whipped cream to polish off their tasty breakfast-for-dinner meal.

Now that we all feel dirty inside from witnessing so much sugary perfection in such extreme close-up for 30 minutes, it's probably high time to escape Giada's purgatorial grasp. It's going to take a "Molto Mario" marathon to cleanse our palates of this one!

Molto bolto!

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Sadly, though, just as I'm longing for glorious, understated Mario Batali, with his big squishy face and his awkward red ponytail and his round little hands, expertly tucking and turning the pizza dough with confident caresses, I discover that not only haven't any new episodes of "Molto Mario" been filmed since 2004 (repeats air 10 a.m. Mondays on the Food Network), but Mario, who joined the Food Network back in 1996, was axed from its lineup last September! According to an article on ABCNews.com, the network has been steadily replacing its old standbys with some "fresh faces" (faces don't get much fresher than Giada's) and focusing more on reality programming. "This is a completely natural progression for the Food Network model," the always-outspoken Anthony Bourdain told ABC News. "A look at the lineup shows they're looking for new personalities and have contempt for professional chefs."

Well, that explains why I couldn't find any of my favorite big, hairy men in the lineup. Nope, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali seem to have been replaced by five shows hosted by Giada, three shows hosted by Paula Deen, and 50 --­ OK, four shows -- hosted by Rachael Ray. How did the world of televised chefs change so dramatically when I wasn't looking?

Not that the Food Network's original celebrity chefs are hurting for cash or attention at this point. Mario is working on a PBS series about Spanish cuisine, "Essence of Emeril" is supposedly still in production and a daily series called "Emeril Green" appears on the Discovery Channel's new "eco-lifestyle" network, Planet Green. And Bobby Flay is still all over the Food Network, but he's not nearly round enough for my taste.

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Don't messa with Contessa

I guessa I'll have to settle for "Barefoot Contessa," (1:30 p.m. Saturdays on the Food Network), another cooking show set in an irritatingly perfect yuppie home, this one owned by Ina Garten. At least Ina has a double chin instead of big boobs peeking out of a low-cut top, and her mannerisms are far less bubbly and girlish than Giada's. Ina also has a little bit of street cred -- that is, if you can possibly consider owning a high-end specialty food store in the Hamptons as street cred. On the Food Network, though, keeping it real means growing herbs in your manicured backyard that can be incorporated into the stuffed quail you spend your ample free time fixing in your enormous, tricked-out kitchen.

Once again, on "Barefoot Contessa" we've got the glossy super-close-ups of the food. Here's Ina's face, then an ultra-close-up shot of egg yolks as big as her face; Ina's face, then an ultra-close-up of nutmeg sprinkling on top of the egg yolks. Yes, those yolks look sexy, they really do, but I'm also getting a little dizzy. Can't we just take in the whole picture at once, Julia Child-style?

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Meanwhile, there's this upbeat porn music playing in the background --­ you know, the kind of fast-paced stand-up bass and brushed-snare jazz they play over those happy-go-lucky, rapid-humping scenes by the pool in the backyard? (Too bad the cameras didn't stick around for that part of the action at Giada's house --­ nothing like a little espresso-fueled, poolside, post-"breakfast-for-dinner" lovemaking to make those bacon waffles go down a little easier.) But Ina "The Contessa" Garten is far too dignified and aristocratic for such smut, so she drops two sticks of butter into her seafood au gratin and whips up a frothy pumpkin mousse to get us all hot and bothered. Next, Ina goes shopping for evergreen branches, which she calls fantastic in the familiar snooty tone of Martha Stewart. Mais bien sur, Ina and Martha are dear, old friends, just the sorts of perfectionist buddies that spend their free time assembling tasteful table centerpieces while tossing back spiked eggnog. There's so much to chat about --­ petunias that need winterizing, Christmas letters that need writing --­ when you haven't done anything but buy expensive ingredients, cook and entertain for the past two decades.

Oh, but now we're really talking about the upper-class fans of Martha and Giada and Ina, not the ladies themselves, who don't have a free second between multiple show tapings and "Today" show" appearances and cookbook signings and the like. Maybe that's why Ina seems so rushed as she picks up a pound of lobster, a pound of halibut and a pound of shrimp for her seafood gratin. Yes, she's five minutes into her dinner and she's already spent over $60.

Somehow being exposed to this level of leisure and blatant privilege gets me a little preoccupied with how the other half lives -- you know, the half that doesn't have a whisk to save its life and would never even mull mulling wine? It gets so bad that, by the time Ina closes her show by saying, "Good friends, great dinner. What more does anybody need?" all I can think is, "Well, some of us need health insurance, Ina -- especially considering we just spent half of our paycheck to ingest two sticks of butter for dinner.

My heart belongs to daddy

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After a brief layover with Rachael Ray, who only needed to layer pretzel chips, turkey dogs and pre-shredded cheddar cheese and then shove the whole mess in the oven to get me fleeing for my life, I finally landed on "Big Daddy's House" (1:30 p.m. Sundays on the Food Network).

Thank god for Big Daddy! Starring Aaron McCargo Jr., who won the fourth season of "The Next Food Network Star," and was awarded this show for his efforts, "Big Daddy's House" finally washed that sour, upper-crusty taste out of my mouth once and for all. Big Daddy didn't make goat cheese tartlets. He didn't make caviar blini tortes or campanelle pasta with parsley butter or mustard-fennel pork loin. Big Daddy made a standing rib roast, rubbed affectionately with freshly ground coriander, pepper, salt and other spices. Big Daddy made homemade horseradish sauce and cheesy garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli-cheese casserole that incorporated -- get this -- both Camembert and Velveeta. That's like inviting Martha Stewart to your wedding and seating her next to 50 Cent.

I'd just watched Emeril Lagasse cook a standing rib roast on "Essence of Emeril," too, and I have to say, I liked Big Daddy's method better. Instead of simply rubbing a little roasted garlic and rosemary (Boo, rosemary!) on top like Emeril, Big Daddy browned his spice-rubbed roast in a pan to lock in all the juices, then he put it in the oven. Something about the way it looked, all dripping and red, when he cut into it told me that it was far more succulent and tasty than Emeril's.

But I'm probably just favoring Big Daddy because he has an endearing habit of grabbing all of the spice jars and cartons of sour cream and cheeses that he wants, and throwing them all down on the counter at once. There aren't little ramekins of pre-prepared, pre-measured ingredients in Big Daddy's house, no. He just reaches for whatever he needs. He unscrews jars. He dumps stuff out of Ziploc bags. He squeezes lemons in his big hands. He says stuff like (on potatoes), "Let's put those bad boys in some water!" and "I know the big dogs gonna love this!"

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Finally, Big Daddy finished it all off by whipping up a drink called a "One and Done." Here's what's in it: Tequila, vodka, gin, Seagram's 7, Triple Sec, Coke and a squeeze of lemon. Hallelujah, Christmastime is finally here!

So, what do you think? Would you rather eat eggs for dinner with Giada and her dorky husband, or get wasted on a near-lethal booze bomb, then dig into a massive plate of ribeye steak and cheesy-garlic mashed potatoes with Big Daddy?

See, we're starting to peel away the layers of the Food Network's new strategy to reveal a dark fantasy world underneath. Clearly there's some deeper significance to whether you'd rather learn to cook from a huge, handsome black man who can drink you under the table, or a petite, giggling, big-breasted beauty who moans about the utter irresistibility of Gruyere cheese every few seconds. And as long as the Food Network has transformed itself from instructional cooking channel to full-service virtual-reality food orgy, I suppose replacing Mario and Emeril with high-energy cooking hotties and sultry, ultra-close-ups of sexy food makes all of the sense in the world.

Happy eating, everyone! Here's wishing you peace, prosperity and 5-8 pounds of weight gain this holiday season!

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Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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