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Book Review, Allen Salkin, From Scratch: Inside the Food Network

February 7, 2014

As with Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves, I received an ARC of Allen Salkin’s From Scratch: Inside the Food Network via a message I received on Goodreads from G.P. Putnam’s Sons offering me a copy. Life being life, it hasn’t been until now that I have read the book, which was released in October of last year.

Salkin’s book details the rise of the Food Network from its fairly humble beginnings as a small cable network (and, since I didn’t really watch the channel until the 2000s, I found the accounts of the low budget early shows pretty amusing) and the behind the scenes deals and controversies that led to the network’s eventually becoming the juggernaut that made Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri, and Paula Deen famous. While the book’s marketing (and the cover) appear to present Salkin’s book as a tell-all focusing on the network’s celebrities, it is actually an account of the politics of cable networks and marketing television shows. While Salkin does describe how the network’s stars gained (and lost) their shows, the book tells the story of a business model. In almost too much detail, Salkin tells you everything you need to know, and a lot of things you didn’t, about the founding of the network, almost every show it has ever aired, and the personal lives of its executives, production staff, and on-air talent (a list of who’s who would have made the book far easier to navigate, especially for the first half of the book).

The hero of the book, if any, is Emeril Lagasse, as Salkin details how he rose to become the network’s signature star (“Bam!”), and how his inability to adapt to the changing market led to great tragedy: cancellation (by contrast, he singles out Bobby Flay and Marc Summers as masters of adaptation). If there is a takeaway message to the book, it is that the business of television and foodie culture don’t necessarily mix. And while the Food Network certainly has capitalized upon (and frankly, helped create) America’s foodie obsessions over the last twenty years, ultimately it is there to make money for its owners and advertisers. Salkin is critical of the network’s failure to embrace foodie culture, chefs, and the restaurant world, noting that they lost ground to other cable networks because of this (the success of Bravo’s “Top Chef” is given as the primary example).

While I’ve only ever watched Food Network as comfort TV, or something to have on in the background while I’m cleaning the house, I have to admit that what the network does, it does very well: I knew the name of the seven people featured on the front cover before I read the book. Salkin’s book rightfully points out that food culture in America continues to remain big business. (Also, Julia Child is the undisputed Queen of All Things Food in America. But we knew that.)

Source: ARC from the publisher

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