By Beatrice Tridimas
Whether it had been binged, or was being carefully, momentously dragged out, the BBC adaption of Normal People saw many people through their mid-lockdown blues. For one friend, however, the Tuscan planes and cobbled Dublin streets weren’t doing it. She settled on the sophisticated sights of Southern France and the stomach-churning Restaurant du Fromage instead. Rick Stein’s Secret France had her gripped and it wasn’t letting up. She’d even just made a fresh pesto from the leftover salad leaves in her fridge to enjoy alongside the next episode.
She wanted to be part of the Normal People hype but, the thing was, Rick Stein offered something Sally Rooney didn’t – and not just a tarte flambé. He offered an escape that no fiction ever could.
Be it Anthony Bourdain or Buzzfeed’s 30-second ‘Tasty’ videos, there is a certain magic to seeing taste-bud tingling food whipped up on a plate right in front of your eyes. We all know food porn when we see it, but often it is more than visual pleasure we seek to indulge in. There is an attainability to Nigel Slater’s Simple Cooking or ‘the fudgiest brownies ever’, but one that exists separately from the possibility of actually baking the batter or sautéing the leeks. Let’s be honest, how often do you track down rose harissa to recreate the most iconic Ottolenghi?
No doubt, whilst we are resigned to never cooking this food, many of us harbour the hope of someday eating it. Or the luckiest of us remember the very distinct taste combinations from once trying it. Psychologists suggest that the pleasure in watching cooking shows comes from our complex function of multimodal mental imagery. A phenomenon that triggers in us the most vicarious of experiences: the ability to taste and indulge from the mere sight of scrumptious food
As we see and hear knife hitting chopping board, onion sizzling in pan, as we salivate in anticipation, we mentally recognise the tastes that are taking shape on the screen, and come as sensorially close to experiencing these flavors as possible without tasting them.
We don’t even need to have tried that particular food to have some illusory sensation of how it tastes; to gain some idea of its crunch, its crumble, its crisp. The experiences of eating are so recognisable, so common to us, that viewing them on the screen is an attainable pleasure, even if we never plan on cooking the dish or trying the wine.
And what’s a good meal without the setting? The company? Maybe, even, the crockery? In the same way that indulging in the sights and sounds of cooking enables us to enjoy the food mentally, culinary television taps into the very culture of cooking and eating in which many of us take so much pleasure. It offers us experiences we recognise or seek to emulate: the pleasure of coming together over your favourite food or the wonder of discovering a new place through its flavours. Often, what we’re finally served at the end of an episode of Ugly Delicious or Secret France is not just a mouth-watering plate of edible heaven. We’re served the cosy feeling of a country kitchen, the nostalgia of your favourite childhood dish, the entire history of the pizza.
Binding these flavours, comforts and sensations is the equally delicious aesthetic of the cooking show. The best example is David Chang’s Ugly Delicious. Chang ignores the constructed hominess of Delia Smith and actually takes us into the kitchen where his mother cooks. Messily eaten street food substitutes delicately plated delicacies. And in all its unaffected imperfection, is an addictive, sensual aesthetic: the seductive sound of sizzling onions, the soft crunch of a taco shell, the oily residue in a pot of gumbo. The camera work in itself is a feast for the senses. It is no wonder our mind has such an easy time of conjuring up the flavours on the screen.
Ultimately, the cooking show divulges an atmosphere we desire just as much as the food served. Mouth-watering aesthetics, comforting settings, familiar sensations – we hardly need to imagine the pleasure we seek. It exists in all of us somewhere, in some taste, experience, indulgence from the past or present and Rick Stein is just reminding us that it is there.
So, what of Sally Rooney? Doesn’t she promise us something utterly relatable too? Connell and Marianne are heroically normal, after all. And what is more relatable than that?
I can’t deny that Sally Rooney has done a very good job of capturing the luscious awkwardness and honest intimacy of one’s first encounter with a lover’s naked torso. Nor that she’s depicted very real complexities in the lives of two very real and very normal people. But at the core of this normalness, is fiction.
In choosing to read or watch fiction, we enter into a contract where we agree to forego reality in place of fantasy for a limited time. We remain aware, whilst we experience the love, sadness or anger of our favourite characters, that we are taking part in fiction. And we consent to a return from that world. Even those emotions which most overtly resonate with us, we purge through our imaginations with no expectation to emulate them in reality. One study even suggests that we welcomingly live certain experiences through fiction in order to avoid the actuality of the pain or danger. We choose fiction, but always with an eye to our return.
Without fiction, the unique and simple pleasure of the cooking show offers us a well-needed escape, an indulgence in something real, the pleasure of something that is possible.