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:
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.