The accidental cooking-show fan

For years now, many viewers have carped about the arid terrain that is cable TV - land of the endless sales pitch and whining pundit. "Five hundred channels and nothing to watch" has been their fitting mantra.

Then there are those of us who have stumbled upon the Food Network and become accidental fans. We're not the typical Emeril-loving, recipe-swapping viewers that are their bread and butter. Nor can we be sliced and diced into neat demographics that sell ads. Fact is, we're viewers by default, channel surfers in search of some video confection.

Could there be a sweeter place to go?

For me, it may be family tradition. My father had a penchant for Julia Child's shows, long before her antic style became legendary. He would watch, transfixed by every detail, as if his reenactment of her recipes depended upon it. Truth be told, my father never met a recipe he wanted to make - cooking was best left to others. Still, something held his attention, week after week, for years. He was as loyal a fan as any, despite his complete lack of culinary inclination.

That's the same spirit that drives many people to the Food Network today. Neither cooks nor gourmets, we watch for the visionary, voyeuristic pleasures that lead others to cook.

For us, this is decidedly not "must-see TV." Instead, we happen upon a cooking show like a surprising taste in a stew of ordinary programming. There we are, prowling around the dial, when we land on a vineyard in Burgundy, green and gorgeous, with the requisite castle down the road. Next a chef gesticulates proudly at the frogs' legs he's just cooked ("Incroyable!") and exclaims that food is love.

With its dashes of travel and landscape, philosophy and drama, these shows serve up a gumbo of life's tastier entrees, shaped into 30- and 60-minute portions. Here, no one gets jilted, blackballed, or left behind. Why would one ever want to change channels?

While few of us will ever compose an opera or sculpt a monument, watching the Food Network gives most of us hope in the kitchen. There the possibilities are endless for creatIng feasts for eyes and palate alike. Beyond Emeril and Wolfgang, entire shows are devoted to ordinary folks making extraordinary meals. This is art for the common man and proof that cooking can be done artfully by the novice, in theory, at least.

Actually, choosing to cook is beside the point. Why bother when celebrity chefs cater a menu of theater, sport, and fun? Nothing more so than the bizarre cult hit, "Iron Chef," an Asian import that takes the cake for sheer spectacle. There, dueling chefs battle it out in a stadium, their efforts themed (suckling pig, for instance), clocked, and rated by a panel of tasters.

Cinnamon, shallots, shad - no topic is too narrow to take center stage. It may not be for everyone, but cooking shows are hardly reserved for cooks.

You may balk at the subject of beets, or fish on a budget. But give yourself 30 minutes. The vibrant colors, the composition of a plate, or the blending of ingredients you've never imagined may just be enough to whet your appetite.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer.

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