5 Ways Cooking Shows Help Stress
If you have tragically never seen The Great British Bake Off (or Great British Baking Show, depending on the region), it's a cooking competition in which a gaggle of the most pleasant British people imaginable are assembled in a picturesque field, where they will bake things like Black Forest meringue and mishti. It's so simple and wholesome that it's like televised Xanax. I absolutely mean that in a good way. In fact, you could make a strong case that cooking shows in general are legitimately therapeutic. Or maybe I'll make that case!
It's The Lowest-Stakes Drama Imaginable
Entertainment, they keep telling us, requires drama, and drama requires stakes. The heroes must be fighting for their lives, or freedom, or true love. But in an era in which the news says utter societal collapse is always 30 seconds away, you know what's a breath of fresh air? A bunch of people quietly risking nothing. That is the beauty of cooking shows.
And I'm not talking about the dramatic competition shows that turn up on American TV, or anything that involves Gordon Ramsay debasing grown adults like he's running a Victorian orphanage. I'm talking about the ones in which when you win, the prize is knowing you made the best ham. The Great British Baking Show (or Bake Off) is the standard for this right now.
A proper cooking show soothes the soul in the way that the act of fine cooking itself does -- probably, at least until it's time to scrub all eight pots you just got dirty. Even shows like Guy's Grocery Games, Top Chef, Worst Cook In America, and Nailed It all ultimately wrap some mild pseudo-drama around a person trying to make one dish that wouldn't gag a maggot. And that's what makes them perfect for a stress-free hour of letting your anxiety melt away, like a slug on a day trip to the ooze factory.
It requires no emotional investment at all, and that's kind of exciting, in its own unexciting way. Sure, you can let yourself feel tension when the icing won't go on the buns quite right, but nobody on the screen is screaming or watching their dreams die; the icing is just a little uneven. Nothing matters here, not really, and sometimes you need that in life. A little break from things mattering.
There's The Illusion Of Learning And Value
It's almost like you're learning something watching a cooking show, but you're really not. It's like when you used to get really drunk before geography class and spent most of it singing Wilson Phillips songs in your head when you were supposed to be learning whatever the hell the capital of Wyoming is. Is it Cashew? Wyomingtown? I ain't Googling it.
Maybe a cooking show inspires your dinner tomorrow, but you'd still need to look up a recipe. The reality is that you're watching a demonstration of a skill you probably don't have, and probably won't learn by watching it. There's the feeling like you've made yourself smarter, but without the part where you actually have to memorize or practice anything.
This matters, because one of the most insidious parts about being overwhelmed by stress is that feeling that you're not accomplishing anything in that particular moment (because you're not). And of course everyone else will be happy to tell you the 101 things you should be doing. Go for a walk. Exercise. Smile more. Eat better. But maybe that shit is all really hard to do sometimes, or even makes you feel worse. And maybe just sitting and watching four chefs open a basket on Chopped to see what they can make out of artichokes, canned ham, gummy bears, and foot-flavored schnapps inspires you to at least think about what you'd make.
But let's be frank, what we're getting is the unburdened joy of watching someone else get good at something. It's just enough possible benefit to remove the guilt, to quiet the "Isn't there something else you could be doing?" voice that pipes up whenever you spend too long watching housewives getting into a screaming fight at a restaurant.
The Best Cooking Shows Have No Lies, Machinations, Or Backstabbing
Most TV shows, be they scripted dramas, sitcoms, or reality shows, are about people being awful to each other. They're comforting in the sense that at the end of the average episode of Law & Order: This One Is Entirely About Gruesome Sex Crimes, the rapist goes to jail and order is restored. But you'll also see plenty of "ripped from the headlines" plots and reminders that the real world is awful and terrifying. Even cartoons will throw in the occasional episode that's an allegory for economic inequality or environmental ruin.
The cast and contestants of cooking shows -- the ones that are actually about cooking and not carefully arranged screaming matches and sabotage -- are supportive. They compliment each other and exchange tips. On The Great British Baking Show, the drama comes from trying to figure out if a custard is going to properly set or plop like a bird turd on a plate for Paul Hollywood to maybe frown at.
It's not like Survivor, where people are slyly stabbing each other in the back within a system built to reward that exact behavior with a million dollars. I don't even need to turn on my TV to see a world that operates by those rules.
It's Scientifically Proven Stress Reduction
This is the point in most of my articles where people become sure I'm blowing smoke up their ass or assorted other orifices. But look! I didn't make this stuff up at all. The idea that The Great British Baking Show is effective stress relief has a lot of support out in literature. Alton Brown, Food Network wizard, also points out that 9/11 had a massive effect on the Food Network's ratings. A tragedy caused people to move en masse toward shows about food. In all times and places, food equals comfort.
There's a reason we give sick people chicken soup. There's a reason eating a pint of ice cream when you're depressed is so popular that it's become a cliche. Food is the most basic of joys, primal simplicity you can't replicate with anything else. Food makes you feel warm and alive, literally and figuratively. Who hasn't had that experience of feeling comforted and loved by a meal made by grandma or a free bag of alley donuts?
No, you don't get to eat the food they're making on these shows, but half of the joy of eating isn't in what goes into your digestive tract. It's the ritual, the love and care and presentation. This is why "atmosphere" matters in restaurants, and why the canned soup Mom served you as a kid somehow tasted better than the exact same can heated in the exact same way on the hot plate on your floor.
It's About Spending Time With Talented, Inoffensive Human Beings
Casting is everything when it comes to a life-affirming cooking show. The hosts don't have to be sexy, or funny, or clever; they just have to make you feel at ease. The most popular Food Network show after 9/11, the one that dragged the channel out of the toilet, was 30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray. Have you ever tried to watch that show? She says shit like "yummo" while somehow being an adult, and staunchly refuses to call olive oil by its actual name, opting instead for "evoo" like some kind of culinary dorkbot. And by god, people loved it.
Rachael Ray is like one of those flappy-arm inflatable tube guys outside of a used car dealership pumped full of wholesome culinary knowledge. That may sound like an insult, but it's not. Well, not totally. She doesn't challenge or demean anyone, and she's vibrant and active. When people across the land were terrified of what might come next, Ray was a beacon of hope because she made dinners in under 30 minutes that never once ended in any deaths. That's insane and delightful at the same time.
Cooking is love, goes the old cliche. If so, cooking shows are like a handjob for your soul. They make you feel like everything is alright, at least for a while. And that ain't bad.
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