Food television has always been something of the visual equivalent of comfort food for me. I like getting a peek into other people's kitchens — whether they are cheerful Food Network sets or real home interiors. I like the variety of programming available, from your standard stand-and-stir to more recent competition television like "Fridge Wars." I love being introduced to food combinations that never would have occurred to me on my own.
And, when I'm not feeling particularly excited to spend time in my own kitchen, I have a selection of food TV that helps cut through the dread (and maybe — on a good day — even serve as a little inspiration?). To conclude "Burned Out," Salon's series for food lovers who are sick of cooking, I want to share my picks with you.
From disastrous "Bake Off" challenges to "The Barefoot Contessa," I'm recommending specific episodes that help shake off feelings of culinary fatigue.
"Great British Bake Off"
Episode: "Cake Week" (Collection 8, Episode 1)
Available to stream on Netflix
Do you remember how a few months ago, the internet seemingly erupted into one long montage of knives slicing into everyday objects — Crocs, Coca-Cola cans, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches — only for the camera to zoom in, showing they're actually constructed from flour, frosting and copious amounts of fondant? Well, the only thing I could think about during that trainwreck is this episode's "Showstopper Challenge" is just how refreshing it was to watch after the summer of those hyper-realistic "everything is cake" cakes.
In this episode — the first of the latest season currently available on Netflix — the bakers are challenged to create a totally edible bust of their favorite celebrity. It does not go well. Bob Marley doesn't have a mouth! Freddie Mercury's head exploded! The bakers' versions of David Attenborough and Jamaican poet "Miss Lou" look like creatures from a knock-off version of "The Dark Crystal," while Paul Hollywood is forced to cut through Marie Antoinette's cheek and a contestant's David Bowie is, as Prue puts it, "about as far away from David Bowie as you could get."
The thing is though, all of the bakers made a good show of it. They attack the challenge head-on (no pun intended), and there's something invigorating about watching cooks take on a dish that is outside their area of expertise and, well, fail at it. Give yourself the permission to do the same.
"Nadiya's Time to Eat"
Episode: "Easy End of Days" (Season 1, Episode 3)
Available to stream on Netflix
On the days that you don't necessarily feel like challenging yourself in the kitchen, take your tips from Nadiya Hussain, a food television host who gets it. "When life is chaotic, every meal can feel like a struggle," she says in her Netflix series.
Her mission is to show home cooks who feel spread too thin some ways to work around the struggle. Hussain, who is a beloved "Great British Bake Off" winner, is not above using tinned potatoes or powdered spices to get a delicious home-cooked meal on the table. She is the delightful embodiment of the Ina Garten (more on her latere) phrase, "store-bought is fine." Though when Hussain says it, you actually believe it.
The entire seven-episode season is worth watching, but if you want to jump in with an episode that gives you a good sense of the heart of "Time to Eat," try "Easy End of Days." In it, Hussain shares simple dinner recipes — a salmon poke bowl, chicken shawarma and chocolate mousse — that are easily adaptable in your home kitchen.
Episode: "Three Chips for Sister Marsha" (Season 3, Episode 6)
Available for purchase on YouTube
This 2000 episode of "Good Eats" was the first episode of food television that made me actually think about the science behind what was on my plate — or, uh, in my cookie jar. The premise is simple, Alton Brown's sister, Marsha, loses the cookies she was planning on taking to a Ladies Luncheon and "having mired herself in yet another socio-culinary quagmire . . . has turned to "Good Eats' for salvation."
But Brown doesn't just stop at one batch. Viewers watch as he rolls through three different variations of chocolate chip cookies: The Thin, The Puffy and The Chewy (which is still my go-to recipe, 20 years later). This isn't just an exercise in more is more, though more cookies are always preferable. It's a real lesson in how simple adjustments to a recipe — like increasing the amount of baking soda used or melting the butter before combining it with the other ingredients — can drastically change the final result.
Being armed with this kind of knowledge means that you can adapt most recipes to your personal tastes, which definitely makes spending time in the kitchen way more enjoyable.
"Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat"
Episode: "Fat" (Season 1, Episode 1)
Available to stream on Netflix
Speaking of food television that teaches you something, "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" is a gorgeous recent example. Hosted by Samin Nosrat — and named after her seminal cookbook of the same name — the series breaks down cooking into its essential parts, enabling viewers to apply what they learn to their own kitchen.
The "Fat" episode takes place in Italy because, as Nosrat puts it, "over the centuries, Italians have perfected the art of using fat to transform the simplest ingredients into a great meal."
This idea of being able to recognize the potential individual ingredients have with the appropriate preparation opens a lot culinary doors, and can lead to creating meals that are simple, satisfying and greater than the sum of their individual parts (kind of like the dips and toasts we talked about in week one of "Burned Out").
"At Home with Amy Sedaris"
Episode: "Confectionaries" (Season 2, Episode 9)
Available to stream on HBO Max
So, I'm cheating here a little bit because "At Home with Amy Sedaris" isn't so much a traditional food show as — as I wrote June — "an absurdist send-up of home entertaining programs, highlighting the fable of domestic perfection and gently ribbing those of us who buy into it."
To that end, one of the things that can impede our actual enjoyment of cooking is the pressure we put on ourselves to make sure everything is picture perfect. If you love food like I do, it's likely that you're surrounded, in a sense, by gorgeous food on a day-to-day basis. It's on your televisions, it's in your cookbook collection, it's on your best friend's Instagram feed.
But sometimes all you really want is to indulge in a plate of beige goodness — chicken tenders and fries, fettuccine alfredo, a waffle spread with peanut butter AND almond butter — and get on with your day, Instagram be damned.
The Season 2 episode "Confectionaries" speaks to the desire to just enjoy food for the comfort it can bring. We open on her grabbing a slice of layer cake with soft pink frosting. As she balances it gently on her palm, she expresses some recent relationship woes with a man who recently asked for "space."
"Then out of nowhere, he ends it so he can marry the woman you didn't know about, who is pregnant with his second child," she explains cheerfully, before stuffing the cake — icing-side first — into her mouth.
Cue to her murmuring "I'm fine, I'm fine," over and over again. It's . . . not a perfect moment (certainly not something, say, Martha Stewart would do), but it's hilariously relatable and offers an opportunity to laugh your way back into your own kitchen.
Episode: "Pooch Party" (Season 7, Episode 7)
Clips available on Food Network
There is something about Ina Garten, who is a literal domestic goddess, hosting a beach party for a dog named Theo (!) that just absolutely delights me to my core. "I love entertaining on the beach, so when my friends Joey and Maureen told me that it was their dog, Theo's birthday, I thought, 'What a great excuse for a party,'" she says to the camera in the tone of someone revealing a sly little secret.
If you were hoping to watch Ina make a gourmet meal for the dogs — like, I don't know, bone-shaped peanut butter treats and T-bone steaks — that's not happening, but she makes quite the festive spread for the dog owners: chicken sausages, homemade relish, potato salad and a gorgeous sheet cake with chocolate frosting.
This episode gets me thinking about what it's going to be like to be able to host random themed dinners when we have the chance again; I guarantee you that if we're able to have parties next summer, I'm hosting a "Sweet 16" for my dachshund, Stanley. But in the meantime, it reminds me that I can use food to make everyday events feel like an occasion.