Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date: October 1st 2013
Genres: Business, Food, Non-fiction
A bit of backstory: in the early 2000s when my husband was traveling a great deal for work, we would talk at the end of the day. Several trips in a row, when we spoke, he said he had either grabbed something to eat on the way to the hotel or had room service (which he hates). I noticed that every time the television was on in the background so I finally asked, “What is so good that you’re racing back to your room and not getting dinner?” He laughed and said, “It’s the craziest thing—it’s a channel with nothing but food shows and I’m obsessed.” The Food Network was my husband’s porn—something he watched only when he was away from home because we did not have access. It took another year before I was able to tell him that finally (finally!) Comcast was bringing the Food Network to Utah. It was a big day for us, which is either funny or kind of depressing. This is the kind of story you might find in Allen Salkin’s new book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network.
Like the best junk food, From Scratch is addictive and difficult to put down. Salkin chronicles the network from its inception in 1993 with no real kitchens, offices or profit to the multi-million dollar business with state-of-the-art sets it is today. From obscurity to fame he follows the careers of people who are now famous enough to be known by one name: Mario, Emeril, Bobby, Rachael, and Giada. Just as interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at how the channel came into being and the struggle it had to stay on-air and reach viewers.
One of the messages that become clear in From Scratch is that at the bottom line Food Network is a business and profit is the main goal. Initially, the line-up of shows used professional chefs and focused on technique and how-to. When it was determined that greater ratings growth was contingent on homier, simpler fare and more entertainment, the line-up was revamped to include telegenic personalities with little or no professional cooking experience ala Rachael Ray, Giada de Laurentiis, and Guy Fieri. One of the most egregious of these was Sandra Lee in Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee (her Kwanzaa cake episode—a store-bought angel food cake filled with canned apple pie filling, frosted with chocolate frosting and sprinkled with Corn Nuts is one of the most gag-inducing food debacles I’ve ever seen).
Salkin does an outstanding job reporting the history of the Food Network without editorial. Even in some of the highly charged days of change, as when Emeril’s show was cancelled, he points out that what was needed was change and Emeril was not open to it. The book is peppered with individual stories and personal reminiscences amongst the financial information. Every chapter has gossipy bits amongst the meatier details, such as: Ina Garten has never watched herself on television, Iron Chef competitors are given a list of three possibilities for the secret ingredient a full day ahead of filming, and Alton Brown was a drama major in college. Whether you are a fan of the new Food Network or still long for the old days of more exotic shows, From Scratch is a delicious meal that fills and satisfies. And that is my last food metaphor, I promise.