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Did cooking shows create a generation of foodies?


Since her debut on Food Network in the early 2000s, Rachael Ray has starred in five different cooking shows and authored an astonishing 21 cookbooks. Not too shabby for someone who never had any professional culinary school training!
Since her debut on Food Network in the early 2000s, Rachael Ray has starred in five different cooking shows and authored an astonishing 21 cookbooks. Not too shabby for someone who never had any professional culinary school training!
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Not too long ago, foodies were rare birds. Maybe you knew one -- a friend who had a weekly date with "The Galloping Gourmet" on PBS, perhaps, or a coworker who once traveled an outrageous distance to procure a rare Russian caviar. Food writers Paul Levy and Ann Barr brought the term into the public consciousness in the mid-'80s with "The Official Foodie Handbook." Back then, "foodie" had definite snobby undertones -- most people like food, of course, but foodies weren't people who merely enjoyed eating out once in awhile at the local diner. Foodies were gourmet home chefs who cooked with hard-to-find ingredients. They spent astonishing amounts on seven-course meals at obscure restaurants. They read "Bon App├ętit" and "Cook's Illustrated" magazines. They were connoisseurs.

Then came the Food Network in 1993, which turned the somewhat-sparse cooking show scene into the equivalent of a 24/7, all-you-can-eat buffet. It started off slowly, but eventually a lot of viewers -- and competitors -- jumped on the bandwagon. Food Network was the 20th highest-rated cable network in 2005 and zoomed up to ninth place in the first quarter of 2010, reaching more than 100 million households. As of April 2011, there were 103 shows listed on the network's Web site. And Food Network certainly isn't the only player anymore; it spawned a spinoff, the Cooking Channel, in 2010, and TLC, Bravo, the Travel Channel and IFC (among many others) have all added food programming in the past few years [sources: Salkin, Pollan].

Thanks to cooking shows (and the Internet) there are millions of people who now identify themselves as foodies, but perhaps "food TV enthusiasts" would be a better description. A lot of the interest isn't so much in cooking as it is in the experience of eating -- and also watching reality show competitors complete tasks that are pretty much impossible to replicate at home. Food lovers can still learn how to cook a classic beef bourguignon, for example, but they can also watch Adam Richman trying to finish the world's biggest hamburger on "Man v. Food" or Anthony Bourdain of "No Reservations" chowing down on rattlesnake and alligator. To be fair, cooking shows have certainly created more interest in organic and locally produced ingredients, fine dining and homemade dishes, but today's audience is a far cry from the one Levy and Barr were writing for in 1984.

In a word, yes. The explosion of cooking shows has created a new generation of foodies -- and also redefined the word. So what does "foodie" mean today?


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