Food Network seems so obvious now, 20 years to the week after it debuted.
But if you rewatched the first few days of programming that were aired to roughly 6.5 million households in America starting on Nov. 23, 1993 — Robin Leach making inappropriate jokes on a show called “Talking Food” and a young Emeril Lagasse miscast as the first host of “How to Boil Water” — you’d see just how haphazardly the network was assembled and how hard it was at the beginning to fill 24 hours a day with engaging food content.
In his new book, “From Scratch: Inside The Food Network,” Allen Salkin takes us through the evolution of the cable network, from creator Joe Langhan’s hair-brained idea to a monolithic mega-channel that brings in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue and an audience of more than 100 million.
It’s no hyperbole to say that the Food Network transformed the American food landscape, but as viewers start to pivot away from traditional cable, will the network adapt?
The book reads like an unauthorized biography of any well-known celebrity, juicy and even embarrassing in parts, overly obsessed with minutiae in others. Salkin interviewed hundreds of people involved with the network over the past two decades, from the big stars (only Alton Brown and Ina Garten declined to talk) to the make-up artists and prop stylists, and they share the good, the bad, the ugly and downright tasteless stories that deserve documenting.
We get to read about the network’s tenuous relationship with Julia Child in the first years, why a network that is by all counts successful would fire someone like the affable Lagasse, without whose popularity the channel might not have made it out of the 1990s, and how under Brooke Johnson’s either inspired or villainous leadership, Food Network capitalized on the sex, “bro” and domestic appeals of its leading hosts and America’s lust for any kind of show with winners and losers to create one of the most powerful brands in the food space. (The book came out Oct. 1, and Salkin was able to squeeze in the Paula Deen controversy in its final pages.)
All this thinking about the Food Network has me pondering how an organization so rooted in cable culture will make it another 20 years in a media landscape where hundreds of thousands of cable customers cut the cord every year in favor of online streaming through services like Netflix and Hulu. (You can watch countless clips on FoodNetwork.com, and they do offer a handful of full episodes for viewing, but the shows aren’t easy to access if you’re watching TV through a device like an Xbox, which is what we use.)
Building on a foundation laid by Child and the Galloping Gourmet, Food Network created a game that they might still be winning but that has inspired some tough competition (Anthony Bourdain on CNN, “Top Chef” on Bravo, Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel), but can Rachael and Ree, Giada and Guy carry Food Network into the next generation? MTV fans never thought they’d see a day when music television stopped being about music, so will there ever be a day when Food Network becomes more focused on competing over food than cooking it?
From the beginning, Salkin writes, the network founders “really did see food as something that could be serious, funny, beautiful, and culturally and economically important.” Let’s hope that over the next 20 years, the channel can stick with that mission.
Rachael Ray is the keynote speaker at next week’s Texas Conference for Women, but she’s also in the middle of a tour for her latest cookbook, “Week in a Day,” which includes make-ahead-friendly recipes like this mushroom and spinach “bread-zagna.”
The day before the women’s conference, where I’ll interview her on stage, Ray will sign copies of “Week in a Day” at 6 p.m. Monday at BookPeople. You can buy the book now either in store or online, which will automatically assign you a “ticket” for the free signing. For details, go to bookpeople.com.
Mushroom & Spinach Bread-zagna
Lasagna may be the favorite comfort food of all time, but once you make bread-zagna, and you figure out how much easier your lasagna life can be, you might never look back. This will make enough to serve six grown-ups unless I’m there, then it will probably feed two — John and I could eat the whole bread-zagna by ourselves.
— Rachael Ray
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. cremini or mixed mushrooms, sliced
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 shallot, finely chopped
salt and pepper
1/3 cup Marsala or dry white wine
1/3 cup chicken stock
1 lb. farm spinach, stemmed, washed, dried and chopped
2 cups half-and-half
6 large eggs
Freshly grated nutmeg
2 Tbsp. butter cut into small pieces, plus softened butter for the baking dish
8 slices (1-inch thick) peasant-style white bread
3/4 lb. Fontina Val d’Aosta or Gruyère cheese, shredded or thinly sliced
1 1/2 to 2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook until tender and dark. Stir in thyme, garlic, shallot, and salt and pepper and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with Marsala and stir until almost completely evaporated. Pour in stock, wilt in the spinach, and turn off the heat.
In a large bowl, whisk half-and-half with eggs, a few grates of nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Soak the bread, turning occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed.
Butter a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Lay 4 slices of bread on the bottom and top with mushrooms and spinach and half of the cheeses, followed by the remaining bread and cheese. Dot the top with butter and bake until golden, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
To make this dish ahead of time, bake for 45 minutes and then let cool before covering with aluminum foil or other lid and refrigerating. On the day you’d like to serve it, bring the bread-zagna to room temperature while you preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Bake until heated through, about 30 minutes. Serves 6.
— From “Week in a Day” by Rachael Ray (Atria Books, $24.99)