Are you “Italian” enough?

By Iris Bull

(note: the following video may not be suitable for all audiences—the title explicitly warns, “Cooking and Cursing with the Grandsons of Italy”)

Vulgarities aside, the cooking-and-cursing grandsons of Italy are appropriately questioning our notion of what “authentic,” “Italian” cuisine is, but they fall short of exploring the irony of their own cooking presentation—the “Italian” cooking show. Media conglomerates like Scripps Networks Interactive have comprehensively capitalized on what these notions are, and have pipped television programming such as Cake Boss, Everyday Italian, and David Rocco’s Dolce Vita into homes all over the world. These shows are both formulaic and normative—any deviation from the standard can wind up costing a chef his reputation, as Beppe Bigazzi learned:

These standards, while overt in the production of the show and the show’s content, are particularly noticeable when looking at a show’s host. Generally, cooking show hosts characteristically pander to their ethnic heritage to authenticate their reputation in a regional style—it’s weird if they don’t. In terms of Italian-themed cooking shows, books, and celebrities, you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone toting their Italian heritage.

I don’t mean to say that chefs shouldn’t be proud of their ethnic heritage, but would a chef be as attractive if that part of their biography was left out? Enter Exhibit “A,” Michael Chiarello of Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello.

The content of that webisode, and many others under his name, make absolutely no reference to anything “Italian” in nature. Which is perfectly fine.

My beef is with his biography on the show’s website:

Michael Chiarello is an award-winning chef and owner of critically acclaimed Bottega restaurant in the Napa Valley. He made his mark by combining his Southern Italian roots with the distinctive hallmarks of Napa Valley living. From his earliest childhood experiences – created around his mother’s California kitchen with his extended Italian family of butchers, cheese makers and ranchers – Michael dreamed of becoming a chef one day. Decades later, he has realized his dream – and much more.

What does his Italian heritage add to the show? His experiences as an Italian-American aren’t palpable at all in watching the previous clip. Actually, from the last clip, he just seems like any normal guy. If you have never seen his show he probably doesn’t come across as distinct or memorable—anyone could have read his script, and the show wouldn’t necessarily lost its function as a 101 guide to “easy entertaining.”

Chiarello isn’t special—he’s a part of a family of talented chefs that happen to be similarly featured on The Food Network. To sell the programming, The Food Network, as a media company, must carefully tailor its products in a diverse, yet consistent, way. The Food Network website can sell more cookbooks by distinguishing chefs by a style—this provides for a maximum number of slightly different cookware sets, knives, and sauces, among other eclectic kitchenwares. Like Mattel, The Food Network finds ways of repackaging the same concept—accessible, 101-level cooking demonstrations—through a consistently wholesome, canned distribution channel.

Cooking.com

The machine that drives this retail gravy train is Cooking.com, an online retailer of  cooking-related products and specialty foods. The company was founded in 1998 by former Disney executives David Hodess and Tracy Randall, and operates as a privately-held, venture-backed, e-commerce entity. In addition to serving several other cooking-themed websites such as StarbucksStore.com, KitchenEtc.com, PillsburyStore.com and BettyCrockerStore.com, Cooking.com works directly with The Food Network to pimp chef celebrities such as Rachael Ray and Paula Dean. Essentially, The Food Network creates celebrity chefs, and then Cooking.com sells the accessories.

Oh, wait—not those kinds of accessories!

Scripps Networks Interactive and Tribune Company

So, who ultimately decides the fate of wannabe celebrity chefs on The Food Network? That company is owned by two media companies; Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI) owns 70%, and Tribune Company (TC) owns 30%.

SNI claims to be a “developer of lifestyle-oriented content”—translated, that means it is a growing multimedia conglomerate with a hand in producing content for television, digital, mobile and print publishing. The company hopes to “be known for convergence” this year, as it moves to diversify its commodity portfolio.

Part of this diversification project includes partnering with other industry conglomerates, like General Mills:

Foodnetwork.com and HGTV.com were looking to address the needs for busy families to celebrate special moments that could otherwise be overlooked, Roman says.  This “Everyday Celebrations” idea resonated with General Mills, and it was developed with that client in mind, Roman says.  The project involved online content created both by Scripps and by General Mills.

Once the project got off the ground online, television was added to the mix, with 10-second tips that toss to the Everyday Celebrations content online.  When those run, Web traffic spikes, proving the value of convergent programs, Roman says.

Source: SNI

It’s not unreasonable to assume, then, that SNI actively takes advantage of cross-promotional opportunities; further, that SNI and TC might take advantage of the opportunity for any of SNI’s cuisine-themed properties to be featured via any of TC’s media outlets. TC is a large media conglomerate with properties in television, newspapers, radio, and service-based websites sites like CareerBuilder.com and Zap2it.com. Oddly enough, TC also owns South Park.

In November 2010, South Park aired the episode, “Creme Fraiche” (no longer available on YouTube, I recommend watching it on South Park’s website). If you’re able to watch this episode on DVD with commentary from Matt and Troy, you hear them describe this episode as a giant tribute to The Food Network—in essence, the show was a giant promotional plug for celebrity chefs. Although they claim that the focus reflected their love for the network, I suspect TCs relationship with SNI helped ensure the episode would air—TC has been known to censor critical content before.

How does this relate back to “The Italian Fantasy?”

Cooking shows are exemplary in demonstrating how a media company can commodify ethnic identity as an accessory to a media product. Cooking shows are not a public service. While a show can educate an audience—perhaps “better our lives”—it is a product to be sold, first and foremost. Just like the many commodities talked about previously on this blog, cooking shows use Italian ethnicity to color the palate of mainstream, internationally-distributed products. Italian-themed cooking shows are not intended to educate the populous on what people in Italy eat—they aim to validate what we already think about Italian cooking.

Try to imagine an Italian-American who didn’t have a close, wholesome family; who comes from an affluent background; and who doesn’t speak a word of the Italian. Would you still give her a cooking show? Does she need to have Italian heritage cook authentic Italian cuisine?

Of course, maybe Giada isn’t there to just sell her 101 know-how.

About ibull

Check me out on Twitter: twitter.com/ibull
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