I have a guilty pleasure. A very guilty pleasure. I think you know what I’m talking about. It started out innocently enough — I would watch once every couple weeks last year, if that. But this school year has been stressful at times for me, and I’ve come to rely on it as a crutch. It’s come to the point where sometimes I prefer the company of the screen to real people.
Because, I hate to say it, but nobody can make me feel as good as the Food Network.
And who is anybody to judge me for that? In college — a world of dining halls, cups of noodles and reheated leftovers — just watching the careful preparation of a beautiful meal can be a comforting experience. Moving away from home means leaving any sort of domesticity, and watching Ina Garten of “Barefoot Contessa” make potato salad and peach tarts became a replacement for helping my dad make spaghetti or tacos.
The Food Network became popular by showing hosts in their kitchens cooking meals of varying skill level and taste. But viewers like me tune in as much for the witticisms and encouragements the chefs serve up as for the food — it’s both virtual sensory satisfaction and emotionally soothing.
When Ina says at the end of every task, “How easy is that?” she’s talking about cooking, but I know she’s also transmitting a life philosophy that I can get behind. Despite all our problems, life is ultimately easy, as long as you don’t try to complicate it too much. Just put faith and integrity into what you do, and you’ll yield perfect cupcakes every time. Ina isn’t just a celebrity chef for me. She’s a second mother.
And now the television industry is trying to ruin that for me. Case in point: “Last Cake Standing.” Here’s how the Food Network’s website describes its new show:
“Eight talented pastry chefs face off in a cake competition unlike any other. With crazy twists and eliminations looming each week, only one will prevail and take home $100,000.”
Competition unlike any other? Crazy twists? Eliminations? Only one prevails? When did my beloved Food Network become so apocalyptic? I’m pretty sure Ina wouldn’t approve of a world where anything “looms,” except maybe the scent of freshly baked lemon squares.
Seriously, I’m upset that such chaos and ferocity is coming to the Food Network, my one oasis of peace while flipping channels. Guy Fieri’s enthusiasm over every single cheesesteak he eats is enough excitement for me, thank you very much. I can’t bear the thought that reruns of “Last Cake Standing” might cut into my time with the Neelys or Paula Deen. But although I’m saddened, I can’t say I’m surprised.
After all, competition shows like “Cupcake Wars” and “Iron Chef” are already popular on the Food Network, and TLC’s “Cake Boss” takes the proverbial cake when it comes to high-octane baking. And there’s a reason all these shows are happening right now.
“Last Cake Standing” and shows like it are the perfect recession entertainment for a couple of reasons. It’s senseless escapism for sure — watching people have to walk their eight-layer cakes through swamps isn’t going to trigger real-world worries for anyone. But at the same time, the competitions to make money and earn jobs are plot lines people can understand and relate to now more than ever. It’s their lives unfolding onscreen, except fun an
The shows are also putting a new spin on luxury. They’re taking cake, something so banal and familiar to people of all classes, and making it the star of the show. But this ain’t your grandma’s cake, unless your grandma routinely takes Adderall. The whole point of baking in these shows is to create something so mammoth, so unusual and so stunning that it can serve as both a dessert and a conversation piece at a party. It takes cake decoration way beyond frosting and into the realm of construction. If you can dream it, there’s a way to make a cake that looks like it.
Just about everyone has had the experience of baking a cake, so the shows are accessible in that way. By combining the common task of baking with the exciting new design elements, “Last Cake Standing” and “Cake Boss” can be exotic without being arrogant, unpredictable but not condescending. In these tough times, nothing beats entertainment that is both glamorous and universal.
So although I prefer the comfortable Hamptons home on “Barefoot Contessa” to the crazy competition of “Last Cake Standing,” I understand the latter’s necessity at this time.
We’re a nation of consumers, and TV is where people go to both see their own lives and live out their fantasies. We’ll have our cake, and we’ll watch it, too.