I'd never really understood the appeal of cooking shows — until recently. Now, I find myself fascinated by them, and watch whenever I can, drawn by a mixture of education, entertainment and simple, vicarious pleasure.
Cooking shows are also a portal into my past, a connection that triumphs over geography and distance, and a link to my family across the generations.
My initiation into cooking television came at my Italian grandfather's house several years ago. He was already retired at that point, well into his eighties, living alone in a big echoing house after my grandmother's passing a few years before.
When I'd go visit him, odds were the Food Channel (or a baseball game) would be on. In the afternoon, with the shades drawn, or late at night, trying to find sleep, he'd watch and talk. Emeril Lagasse was his personal favorite. I'd sit there sometimes to keep him company, enjoying watching him watching the cooking shows.
I'm convinced my grandfather could have had his own show.
He'd spent his life immersed in food, running his own butcher shop for more than 50 years in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. A gentle, kind man, with big, work-scarred hands and strong shoulders, he had a magical way with people and knew as much about meat and how to cook it as anyone.
His shop was a bastion of civility and gentility — a harkening back to an earlier, simpler time — and a natural extension of his home and his kitchen. He and my grandmother were always cooking in the store; they perpetually had something bubbling in the back room on the stove for lunch or a piece of meat in the oven, just waiting for family and grandchildren to drop by.
At my grandfather's funeral a few years ago I stood amazed while a stream of loyal customers kept coming up to my mother and her sisters, thanking them and telling them how much of an impact my grandfather had on their lives and their families across the decades. His warmth and kindness had followed them home in neatly paper-wrapped packages tied in string, into their kitchens and dining rooms, with the best cuts of meat set especially aside, and instructions scribbled out on paper on how to cook them.
My grandfather brought families together — his own and others — around the table at Thanksgiving, around picnic tables with thickly sliced cold cuts, around the Sunday dinner table with the perfect roast ... anytime people gathered to share a meal.
After his retirement, I know that watching cooking shows gave my grandpa an outlet, a way to keep connected with his life's work and all the joy it brought him.
Now, when I have a minute, I enjoy tuning into the cooking shows, too, especially Emeril. It transports me back in time to my grandfather's house late at night, bathed in the blue light of the television, watching and talking and laughing, connecting over a lifetime of food.
CONTACT CRAIG BIDA: cbida(at)citybeat.com