Prominent in my brainmush viewing is the Food Network. I can't tolerate those tributes to commercial packaging that fill their prime time hours (mostly because of the bland self-loving hosts with the Ken doll sprayon hair). Like Anthony Bourdain, I find Emeril's show unwatchable. I can, however, lose myself for hours in the time-free universe of Ina and Giada and Alton and Nigella and I can even risk the disdain of my foodie friends by watching Rachel Ray eat random food in random cities in her $40/day show, which must surely be the most pointless television ever. (A muffin for breakfast! An omelet -- what a local speciality! A happy hour drink special -- bet you can't find that anyplace else! Broiled fish -- Yum-o!). Her cooking show, on the other hand, often makes me feel as if I'm watching somebody empty the garbage cans in preparation for trash day (put some of this here and put some of this here and cook this up in a pan without regard for flavor, texture, or quality -- Yum-o!). My guilty pleasure? I actually like Rachel Ray's onscreen persona.
My guiltiest Food Network pleasure, however, is Paula Deen, whom I find hypnotically compelling and crazy-lady disconcerting at the same time. I can't imagine getting any useful food or cooking information from her shows -- the first time I came across her she was making a coconut cake that involved about eight pounds of butter and two or three days preparation, and the second time I came across her she was adding cheese to butter to sour cream to an egg-rich macaroni and cheese recipe (and then you sprinkle more cheese on top). Anybody who can make food that is far, far too rich for even me deserves some sort of award, although definitely not a place in my kitchen (I kept imagining the oozing pools of fat that would result from baking that macaroni and cheese). No, watching Paula Deen is about something else. Probably voyeurism -- except that it's on television, which gives you implicit permission to watch things you really ought to turn away from.
Paula Deen conveys a warm affectionate cheery surface that cushions a cold interior. It's like layers of sugary marshmallow fluff covering knife-sharp steel. Sometimes, particularly in her new "Paula's Party" show where she doesn't always have complete control over how other people will behave, you can see this metallic edge shining clear and bright and vicious. This woman is clearly a tyrant. Listen to her aggressive compulsive laughter, which just dares you to defy her. The laughter gets louder and faster and creepier immediately after she has shown the ambitious coldness that underlies her success. (When she gets going on that laugh I find myself thinking, "Make it stop! Make it stop!" -- it is not what they call an "infectious" laugh.)
The Paula's Party show is far weirder than her cooking show. It's one bad idea after another (Let's have Hawaiian dancers! Let's cook bad foods from the 50s 60s 70s and 80s while I dress in period clothes!), and is often desperately surreal. You keep waiting for some sort of payoff, either in food or entertainment value or something, but it never comes not ever. One night she gave her recipe for quick pineapple upside-down cake to make in an emergency from ingredients on hand -- it was something like: Put maraschino cherries in muffin tins, put some canned pineapple on top, then put refrigerator biscuits on top of that and bake! (As Rachel Ray would say: Yum-o! As pretty much anybody else would say: Yuck! -- or maybe something that rhymes with "what the yuck".) Paula ate some maraschino cherries straight from the jar, while bubbling over with praise for how much she and her family love them! (My guess is they wash them down with Kool-Aid made with extra sugar, or maybe lighter fluid for that delicious homespun chemical taste she seems to crave and encourage.)
The creepiest thing about Paula Deen is her enforced sentimentality. She is continually talking about how much she LOOOVES her boys and she LOOOVES her grandchild and she LOOOVES her family and she LOOOVES her babies and oh yes did she say that she LOOVES her boys (tears well up at this point). These are Hallmark romanticizations, not actual emotions. These are the things people shout to themselves to convince themselves of their truth. This is the crazy bag lady in the bus station. I watch in rubbernecking fascination and horror, whenever I can, while I pour myself another glass of wine and renew my cable premium.
I'm thinking of switching my loyalty to the Travel Channel, though, if only to watch "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern". Tonight he's going to Britain, which he calls the "snout to tail society". After watching Paula's fat-drenched recipes, offal looks elegant indeed.