Puzzled Over

Jeffrey Steingarten vs. Food Network

There are some events in life that play out in front of you like a slow-motion trainwreck; where you feel pity and sorrow for some involved and white hot anger at others. Tonight was one of those nights.

Katie and I attended yet another seminar at the Museum of Television and Radio; tonight was The Edible Airwaves: Cooking for Television. On the slate to speak were celebrity chefs Alton Brown, Mario Batali, and Giada De Laurentiis, as well as Senior VP of Programming for Food Network, Bob Tuschman.

But there, like a cloud looming, was the fifth member and moderator of the panel: Jeffrey Steingarten. Arguably one of the most known food critics, I only knew that he could be a bit ascerbic.

Soon after the event started, it became immediately obvious that this was going to be different. Steingarten was, to put it nicely, off-topic. To put it poorly, he was a rude, obnoxious asshole. Some examples:

  • Implying, over and over, that Giada was only hired because she looks nice and not because she has cooking talent or is an accessible cook. Bob Tuschman defended her at least five times before someone in the audience shouted at Steingarten that she had talent, and he finally let it drop.
  • Repeatedly attacking the entire panel that they have an unfair advantage in selling cookbooks because they were on television. The panel protested that while their starting points may be a little higher than other cookbook authors, no one can sell a horrible cookbook and expect to continue their career.
  • He went off on frequent and needlessly long tangents, not at all helped by his very slow and shaky speaking style. At one point he actually caught himself and said “actually, this is irrelevant” – if only he had done that the other ten times. He even rambled out some non-sequitur about how Martha Stewart didn’t have time for her friends anymore and how she had changed.
  • Not asking any question that actually had much to do with the process of putting food onto television; if it wasn’t for audience questions at the end, I don’t think we would’ve gotten much insight at all.

I felt the most pure, unbridled pity I’ve felt in ages as I watched three expert cooks share baffled and slightly shocked glances as they were taken out of the conversation we all expected and had to defend their right to even have books. I felt minorly bad for Alton and Mario, but I cheered them on as Alton fired a number of shots back at Steingarten and Mario joined in occasionally. I felt horrible for Giada; she tried her damndest to sit there and smile that wonderful smile of hers and just take it, but by the end of the night she looked run down and a bit hurt over the repeated implication that she was just another pretty face.

The audience was largely in agreement; as the seminar went on, the mutters of “what the hell?” and “what a prick” grew louder in a slow but steady manner. By the end, a number of people felt ready to shout out whenever Steingarten made a bitter comment at any of the panel.

I kindly request that if anyone at the Museum of Television & Radio want to have another Food Network panel, that they keep Mr. Steingarten as far away from it as possible. I’m sure he’s a wonderful food critic, but it’s obvious from his actions at this event that he is not a big fan of the way food television has been evolving over the last ten years. This squarely puts him in opposition with much of what the Food Network has been doing since its inception.

Huge thanks to Alton, Giada, and Mario – all marvelous people, and were kind enough to stick around and talk to the fans afterwords – as well as Bob for putting up with all this nonsense.