Allen Salkin has a cold. The author, standing at a podium at the Indy JCC to speak about his new book, From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network, coughs and cracks wise.
"Don't worry. It's only walking Ebola."
For the next hour, Salkin walks us through the history of one of cable-TV's biggest taste-makers. The entertaining Salkin, who's written for the New York Times and many other publications, got into food when he was a kid — with no instruction from his parents. "My mother was a terrible cook," he relates. "Don't worry, she's fine with me saying that ..." Salkin reconsiders. "Actually, she's just gotten used to me saying that." Sometimes, Salkin's dad would cook for the family, but Pop's only weapon of choice was an ancient wok. "All of Dad's dinners tasted the same: burnt bok choy and soy sauce." Eventually, the Salkins allowed young Allen access to the stove, and Salkin immediately gravitated toward the work of James Beard.
Salkin's fascination with food led him to dive into the history of the network that started its life as an awkward CNN knockoff before evolving into must-see TV for millions. In fact, the first "TV Food Network" boss, Reese Schonfeld, had come from the cable news giant. Documenting the culinary arts in a manner he called "CNN with stoves," Schonfeld put talking heads behind desks when the channel rolled out in 1993 — he even aired an awful food-based version of Crossfire called Rhubarb. (Salkin's even got clips from these shows to prove his point. They're bad. Really, really bad.)
The original studios for the Food Network were situated just outside the Manhattan entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel, where prostitutes and pimps (including one gent whose distinctive silver hat earned him the nickname "Jiffy Pop") would offer their services to any guest visiting the sets — including Julia Child. Child, who's described by Salkin as the channel's "fairy godmother," always hit the closest restaurant to the studio when she'd visit — McDonald's. Salkin relates the tale of an aging Child, nodding off in the makeup chair before an appearance, yet somehow never releasing a bag of Mickey D's fries from her grasp. The woman was a fan — so much so that she was publicly perturbed by McDonald's ending the practice of cooking their potatoes in beef tallow.
The early misses — including casting a wildly overqualified Emeril in a kitchen-101 program called How to Boil Water — soon gave way to a series of hits (not long after Erica Gruen had replaced Schonfeld). Salkin likens modern American cooking to rock 'n' roll, and he equates Emeril's catch phrases like "Bam!" to the swinging hips of Elvis as a cultural moment of impact. It's Salkin's contention that beyond salt and pepper, the average U.S. kitchen was a pretty dull place in the '90s, and the notion's borne out with a clip of Emeril's studio audience cheering wildly over the copious use of garlic.
The network's early stars all had one thing in common: every chef drafted to cook on television managed to cut themselves as rookie TV hosts. Talking to a camera while chopping onions is the Food Network's leading occupational hazard. Salkin shares tremendous stories of how show producers coaxed the best from their hosts: Bobby Flay's talent coach encouraged Flay to talk to the camera as if it were a woman he was trying to seduce. Other shows — notably the import of Japan's Iron Chef complete with what Salkin calls its "Godzilla-like dubbing," — helped the cable outlet begin to see some impressive profits.
But the event that cemented the Food Network as a TV institution was, in Salkin's estimation, the debut of Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals mere months after Sept. 11, 2001. America's newfound desire to cocoon, coupled with Ray's endless smile, made the Food Network bigger than it had ever been. Ray was simply comfort food for all the senses. And while the American economy stumbled, the Food Network began merchandising.
One of the hosts who wouldn't play the merch game with the network, though, was Paula Deen. Deen's manager, an absolute shark of an agent named Barry Weiner, had cut the Network out of the profits from Paula's accessories when he'd negotiated her contract — and ironically, this made the network's decision to axe Deen in the wake of a race-based controversy that much easier, according to Salkin.
It's Salkin's take that the heyday of Food Network's popularity is waning in 2014. Cooking stars like Giada (two syllables, please) to the Barefoot Contessa are ever being pushed out of prime-time by competition shows, and the Scripps company, which owns 70 percent of the channel, may have gotten too conservative. Will there ever be another moment similar to Alton Brown drawing in chalk on the side of a steer, outlining cuts of beef? Sometimes, Salkin contends, it's the dumbest idea that works best.