Years ago, my younger brother returned home from a college class and heard someone, in one of the many rooms upstairs, enthusiastically repeating a word: “More! More!”

This is something you get now and then in college, and often the best course of action is to leave things alone. He decided, instead, to investigate, moving up stairs, along hall, around corner—all the while hearing repeated that same word: “More! More!”

Finally he arrived at an open doorway—where he found a friend stretched out on his back on the bed, arms crossed behind his head, watching Emeril on the Food Network with the sort of fixation you’d expect to find in someone watching the last lap of a hotly-contested Nascar event.

On the television, Emeril, as is his way, was asking the television audience if he should give the pans before him a little more bam. A little more gahlic, a little more pork fat. And the guy on the bed responded:

“More, more…”

I identify. Because for years I was that guy, stretched out on my back before the television, hands crossed behind my head—at the time, tragically single, filling my lonely evenings with the preparation of elaborate dinners, as often as not decently buzzed on this or that, watching the Food Network long after dark, often after cooking for myself (sometimes watching FN while I cooked) and asking for more, more.

What the Food Network has done, instead, is give us less—less of what are uncharitably known as the dump-and-stir shows, in which an experienced chef actually stands at the stove and, you know, cooks. They still broadcast these dump-and-stir shows, but few feature actual chefs, and nearly all are broadcast during daytime hours—nighttime programming focuses, instead, on eating (“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Unwrapped”), or on competition (“Cupcake Wars,” “Chopped”). We’re not there, in other words, to see an experienced chef make the osso bucco over polenta, the mapo dofu—we’re there to bask in the nimbus of a television personality, or to see someone cut himself, or to see someone lose.

The success of this tactic is irrefutable—ratings have exploded. The executives who put these changes in place have built an empire out of a once-foundering network. Yet more than a few of us remain who miss the old FN, with Mario at the stove, Emeril at the stove, Jamie at the stove. I suppose it’s not fair to get overly nostalgic. After all, it’s called The Food Network, not The Cooking Network, which means that food, in all its modern manifestations, both cooked and eaten, is fair game. One can’t help but note, though, that the network made its bones on people like Mario, Emeril, Ming, and that it forged a loyal viewership who tuned in day and night to learn to cook with the help of these chefs. It was Ming who taught me to use chopsticks to turn ingredients in the pan (they tear meat less than tongs); it was Mario who taught me that wine will suffice as the only cooking liquid you add to a stew; it was Emeril who taught me not to be ashamed of my love of pork fat.

It’s telling that the most mundane of these eating-oriented shows, Unwrapped, often introduces its subject with a pun—this is the time-slot you visit to get the inside scoop on gelato, to hear the host describe himself as being fired up about spicy foods. We all know that the pun is the lowest form of humor (Coleridge nailed it when he said that a pun “never excites envy”)—experience tells us that it’s likely to keep company with other modest ambitions. I shall surely request Unwrapped on my deathbed, because it will send me to oblivion without a single identifiable emotion, as it does now.

Watching even a single episode makes me ache for the day I heard Mario, standing before a trio of guests about to dig in, describe broccoli rabe as “the colon’s broom.” The remark wasn’t tactful, but it was two things that Unwrapped decidedly is not—it was knowing rather than clever, and it was memorable. That was what made it great television.

Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe

½ pound dried orecchiette

1 bunch broccoli rabe—larger, tougher leaves separated from stalks and discarded, bottom two inches of every stalk chopped off and discarded.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling at end

¾ cup thinly sliced onion

2 tablespoons sliced garlic

¼ cup cubed pancetta

½ cup dry white wine

3 packed tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

½ cup freshly-grated parmesan cheese

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Chop the broccoli rabe into 2-inch lengths and set aside. Add the orecchiette to the boiling water. Cook according to the directions on the package—when the orecchiette has exactly 4 minutes left to cook, add the broccoli rabe.

2. While the pasta and broccoli rabe are cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onion, garlic and pancetta and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and gently simmer until the orecchiette and broccoli rabe are ready.

3. When the pasta and broccoli rabe are ready, reserve ¼ cup of the pasta water, drain the pasta and broccoli rabe together in a colander, then pour into the sauce. Add the reserved pasta water and the parsley. Cook the pasta an additional minute in the sauce, stirring to combine well, then divide into bowls. There should be a fair amount of liquid sauce in the bottom of the pan you used to make the pasta sauce—spoon that over the pasta in the bowls. Top with a splash of olive oil, dust the plates with grated parmesan, and serve immediately.

Yield: 2 servings.

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KEITH DIXON is the author of two novels, Ghostfires and The Art of Losing. In May 2011, Crown will publish his memoir-cookbook Cooking for Gracie, based on food-writing first published in The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica, and his daughters Grace and Margot, and spends much of his free time wishing he had more free time.

You can learn more about Keith's books, and read excerpts of his writing, at readkeithdixon.com.

32 responses to “The Food Network Broke My Heart”

  1. nancy Dixon says:

    1. Remember from Dorothy Nichols: “a pun and its recognitory laugh should be coinstantaneous”.
    2. You need to do a cooking show from your little kitchen.

  2. My mother was an early devotee of Julia Child and her cooking show. I don’t remember what Ms. Child made — but I do remember afternoons spent on a nubby couch curled next to my mom as she lazily smoked a cigarette and laughed as Julia dropped her ingredients, gulped down wine meant for the recipe and occasionally forgot to measure her ingredients or set the proper temperature. There’s always going to be something about watching someone else cook with such abandon….

    • Keith says:

      sounds like a great afternoon, robin! i’ve always admired how julia was, at every step, looking out for enthusiastic home cooks — case in point, how she’d use vermouth in places where nowadays we use unfortified white wine, because the consistency and quality of the white wines to be found in America in her day were so spotty. she knew that vermouth, which cooks could easily find (and many already had), would give better results.

  3. Ben Loory says:

    i’ve started watching cooking videos on youtube (though almost exclusively ones about kale (i’m obsessed with kale recently, for some reason (i think i just like the name))). the other day i was in chinatown for a reading and there was this huge crowd of people seated outside in the square watching some guy chop up and cook a live crab the size of my head (plus lots of scary long pointy arms). it was really weird and didn’t make me hungry. i went home and watched more kale videos. none of this has anything to do with your post except in the most glancing way. but it’s nice to see you here. do you have any kale recipes? preferably ones an idiot could follow?

  4. Keith says:

    ben, in the spirit of the post, here’s a link to a FN kale recipe by a chef whose dump-and-stir shows i’ve always greatly enjoyed:

    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/sauteed-kale-recipe/index.html

  5. Melissa Macomber says:

    I am relieved to know that I am not the only one with a broken heart! While I arrived rather late in the game to the FN (I quickly realized that I could nurse a baby and learn something about cooking at the same time), I pine for the days when Ina cooked with ingredients that I had look up in a dictionary. Now she is even doing the back to basics thing. Alas! I’m hoping that I can find inspiration somewhere in Costa Rica and learn how to cook Tico style.

    • Keith says:

      melissa, always exciting to see someone weighing in from another hemisphere! i hope you’ll let us know the moment you land an authentic empanada recipe. great to hear from you…

  6. Onco says:

    I wish, just once that guy on” Dives etc” would say ” this is the worst stuff I have ever eaten”

    • Keith says:

      i know, props to gordon ramsey for hacking up a bad scallop now and then. it’s nice to see him keeping people honest.

  7. Joe Daly says:

    It’s impossible to keep up with all the new shows. Just when you think they can’t come up with a show dedicated to a more restrictive niche, they bust out a series devoted to cupcakes. What’s next- a mustard-based reality show? I shudder to think.

    Fun read. Well done!

    • Keith says:

      imagine what they’d ask the contestants to do with that mustard! now that makes me really shudder…thanks for have a read, joe!

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    http://www.spam-musubi.org

    I don’t think I should say anything.

  9. jonathan evison says:

    . . .keith, so great to be hearing your voice in these parts!

  10. Kerry says:

    I’m not a cook, but my boyfriend is and he used to watch Malto Mario on the Food Network religiously and I reaped the rewards as he experimented at home with Batali’s recipes and styles of cooking delicious Italian foods. It’s a shame that other budding home cooks can no longer learn at the hands of these masters.

  11. Adena says:

    Thank you love this – now vote for my Anthony Bourdain Medium Raw Challenge essay? 😉 http://bourdainmediumraw.com/essays/view/1485

    Ha ha ha, but really, I do feel you.

  12. Sara says:

    Sara Moulton taught me how to chop an onion, back when I could still screw up boxed mac and cheese. Being pregnant, hungry and watching old FN taught me to cook and I can hardly stand to watch it now, outside of the occasional Iron Chef America.

  13. Helen Gocher says:

    I, too, miss Mario Batali and despise Unwrapped, but I cannot look away from Chopped! Like an addict who needs her fix, I *need* to know what’s in those baskets. In like fashion, my husband’s and my insides were completely in knots every week as we rooted for Aarti to win The Next Food Network Star. You would swear she was our best friend the way we cheered when she won the competition.

    I think your worries are over, though, Keith. Have you heard about The Cooking Channel? Brought to you by none other than the FN itself, it’s a return to the old-school cooking show. The way I look at it, the Cooking Channel will be to The Food Network what VH-1 (or maybe MTV2) was to MTV — a way to keep the purists happy.

  14. Keith says:

    helen, yes i have seen adverts for the cooking channel, and i’m **very** optimistic. the tv schedule is promising — jamie again, everyday exotic…do i see molto mario? so perhaps they’ve got religion, and have realized there is an entire viewership out there (like us) who miss those shows…

  15. Simon Smithson says:

    Over here, MasterChef is a ratings juggernaut. It cannot be stopped. It is rampaging across the TV landscape, snatching up the children of other reality TV shows, and stuffing them down its maw, laughing all the while. It’s incredible.

    I’ve never actually yelled at the TV, and now, I really want to try it. Maybe I’ll unlock some inner emotions that need unlocking.

    Welcome to TNB, Keith!

    • Keith says:

      simon, i have to laugh when i note that this is yet another show we’ve stolen from the UK — the office, little britain, coupling, etc.

  16. Marni Grossman says:

    I cannot watch cooking shows. It reminds me of my own inadequacy (cooking for me consists of melting cheese on things) and also it makes me hungry. The latter is exacerbated by the former and, all in all, it’s just not worth it.

    I think, though, that the way you feel about the Food Network may be the way I feel about TV reruns. The quality just isn’t there anymore.

    • Keith says:

      marni, some of the greatest foods in the world are made by melting cheese on things (focaccia al formaggio, croque monsieur, etc.) — so you’re in good company!

  17. Mindy Macready says:

    I love EggPlant, not to eat but to just look at.

    And I tended to watch the babe cooking shows…yeah , even the barefoot Contessa.

    One of my fav foto of all time.

    http://mydisgruntledlife.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/press_lamag_pic.jpg?w=417&h=600

    cooking shows are such a positive thing in my life.

  18. Dana says:

    Loved this Keith! I grew up watching Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet with my mom (an excellent cook).

    The Food Network lost me when I saw Sandra Lee (is that her name?) “make a birthday cake” by going to the store, purchasing cupcakes and placing them on tiers (in the shape of a cake). She then placed some purchased flowers in between to fill in the gaps where the tiers showed through, and VOILA – CAKE! Which is not to say I don’t still watch — I can’t help myself. Why on earth would a vegetarian spend an hour of her life watching the hamburger episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”? No clue, but I certainly did just that within the last few weeks.

    Right now I’m kind of addicted to re-runs of Kitchen Nightmares on the BBC. Gordon Ramsay kills me! He retains his passion for food, and it’s quite infectious.

    But The Cooking Channel? I’m in! I saw a couple of great shows a few weeks ago. Must remember to browse through and see all their offerings.

    And I’ll continue to search FoodNetwork.com for recipes – the spicy slaw recipe I caught one Saturday morning at the beginning of one of the hottest summers on record has been a life saver this year and and become a favorite shared with several friends. (Packin’ a Punch Broccoli Slaw – Aaron McCargo, Jr.) And when I wanted an update to an old favorite, I found several excellent recipes for Beef Stroganoff from their archives. My husband said it was awesome.

    The next time I go to the grocery, I’m picking up some Colon’s Broom. It sounds delicious!

    • Keith says:

      cannot recommend broccoli rabe enough — dana, the CC will win me over when they start airing those old “iron chef” episodes (NOT iron chef america) — those were the best…my wife is a beef stroganoff fan, so i’ll have to have a look at the FN recipes…

  19. italian foods are very tasty and most of their recipes are heart friendly too :-*

  20. Recipes says:

    Recipes…

    […]Keith Dixon | The Food Network Broke My Heart | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

  21. food photography…

    […]Keith Dixon | The Food Network Broke My Heart | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

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