Cooking shows have tantalized American palates since the advent of television and they continue to affect how consumers perceive food and agriculture.
Noted chef and cookbook author James Beard was the first host of a national cooking show in the U.S. Borden and Elsie the Cow presented Beard on NBC’s “I Love to Eat,” in 1946, but its viewers weren’t drinking milk. Few post-war households had TVs; the show mostly played to taverns full of men waiting to watch televised boxing matches.
Today, as the Food Network celebrates its 20th anniversary, its shows are watched by more than a million viewers nightly.
Daytime shows often feature cooking techniques, but evening shows combine consumer fascination with sports, and their desire to connect with food. Evening contest shows -- “Chopped,” “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef,” “Food Network Star,” “Master Chef,” “Hell’s Kitchen” -- frequently place high in prime-time TV ratings.
A popular contest show, “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” helped pave the way to TV stardom for author, blogger, photographer and food writer Ree Drummond, who lives on a working ranch in Oklahoma. In a contest judged by country singer Trisha Yearwood—also host of “Trisha’s Southern Kitchen”—Drummond beat Flay in a Thanksgiving cook-off. Her “Pioneer Woman” show and blog may be all that millions of consumers ever see of animal agriculture and rural life. Her blog draws millions of page views annually, has won numerous awards and in 2009 was named by “Time Magazine” as one of the world’s 25 best blogs.
Barbeque is surging in popularity, in part fueled by coverage of contests and TV features about great barbeque restaurants. Barbeque contests are celebrations of meat -- chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder or butt, and beef brisket. Since its humble establishment in the mid-1980s, the Kansas City Barbeque Society has grown to be one of the largest contest organizations in the U.S. It sponsors about 450 events, with nearly 18,000 members and 13,000 certified judges. Many KCBS contests are closely tied to agriculture, with events at fairs, rodeos, beef and pork organization events, and the American Royal Horse and Livestock Show.
TV contest formats -- such as the “Chopped” mystery ingredient bag, “Iron Chef” secret ingredient and “Cupcake Wars” theme -- have helped bring new contestants and breathe new life into fairs and 4-H contests all over the country. Local contests have proven highly attractive to sponsors, particularly ag commodity groups.
Contest shows do little to teach cooking skills to viewers, but banter among the judges has helped educate consumers about ingredients, commodities and how dishes should look and taste. However, some of their biases also influence consumer perceptions about agriculture and production practices.
As experts such as “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert earlier predicted, celebrity farmers are starting to take their place alongside celebrity chefs. This shift provides farm and ranch families and commodity groups with more opportunities than ever to present perspectives and information to consumers through TV cooking shows, social media sites, events and contests, all building on the success of food TV trends.
Robert Giblin is an occasional contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series. He writes, speaks and consults about agricultural and food industry issues, policies and trends.