It began, as some many of these addictions do, ever so innocently. When I was in high school and my mother had fallen into the mad grips of redecorating, our family's television was almost exclusively tuned to the Home and Garden Network aka HGTV. My mother, during her summer breaks from teaching, found countless hours of programming that let her vicariously live through the people who filtered through the various programs on the show. And at the time with just one television to the house, I was held hostage by these programs.
There were the endless crafting shows in the morning that told you all about how to make your own stained glass or how to turn that leftover hat box, which do people still have leftover hat boxes, into something to store dishes or cookies or secret stash of booze. That gave way into the "low rent" decorating shows like Room By Room, hosted by a pair of designers that to this day my mother and I don't know if they were married to each other or not, where no window was spared the embarrassment of having some tacky valance placed upon it. And there was Decorating Cents where, like most of the decorating programs, if the room had colorful walls, they had to be painted in more natural colors and vice versa. HGTV is a network of "Why leave it when you can merely do the opposite." The evening gave way to the upscale, wish fulfillment type of decorating shows as well as the endless parades of Antique Roadshow knock-offs, generations of families heirlooms all being hocked so people could afford granite countertops.
It was about the time I went off to college, when the real estate market hadn't completely been vanquished, that HGTV made the transition to be all about house buying and selling, almost all day long with House Hunters and its illegitimate off-spring clogging the airways. It was then my mother moved her allegiance from HGTV to its sister station the Food Network, which in its own culinary way, offered the same sort of escapism, namely in the form of Ina Garten and her program The Barefoot Contessa.
I watched the program with my mother a few times and sort of became fascinated with the plump Ina, a mass of contradictions. She's gleefully elitist and snobby in her own way with her East Hamptons home, her band of mini-Oscar Wildes including a silver fox known simply as "TR," and her repeated insistence on using "good" vanilla in her distinctly East Coast posh accent. Yet beneath the veneer upper-crusty distance, Ina is infinitely approachable in her food and style and doesn't suffer from the same sort of "Who in God's name would go out of their way to do that" that Martha Stewart, the touchstone of "Nobody in real life has the time for that" way of being as a program.
The truly refreshing thing about Ina Garten is her lack of presence on the Food Network. Undoubtedly she's a popular figure but you wouldn't necessarily know that because her appearances outside of the program are very limited unlike some of her counterparts. In truth, the Food Network is absolutely littered with alleged chefs and cooks with multiple programs, stretching themselves thin. Rachael Ray became the poster girl of ubiquitous with 30 Minute Meals, 40 Dollars a Day, and Rachael Ray's Vacations all airing plus holiday specials AND the launching of her own syndicated talk shows. She was everywhere from the shelves in the housewares department to Dunkin' Donuts. And Ina also lacked the "food porn" label repeatedly slapped on Everyday Italian hostess Giada De Laurentiis whose cleavage was just, if not more, important than the meals she made. And while I have a deep fascination with Sandra Lee, Ina makes food I'd actually eat in a non-"I have to try it to see how screwy the flavor combination actually is" sort of way.
So approachable if occasionally highbrow hostess with beyond delicious food delivered in a calm and relaxing manner? In the words often utter by Ms. Garten, how bad can that be?
Below, a clip from Barefoot Contessa: