Guest Post: Do Food Shows Have Ethical Obligations?

My supremely cool fan Josh O’Connor, who interacts often on my blog posts, got to thinking about the issues of food waste, and the treatment of reality TV contestants with dietary restrictions, after one of my recent MasterChef recaps where many dozens of eggs were thrown in the trash, as well as shattering the plates they were on.

Josh churned out a most thought-provoking blog about whether or not TV shows have an obligation to maintain any kind of ethical standard when it comes to food and the people who are on the shows.  And I wanted to share it with my audience, because you wonderful people are ALL about these kinds of subjects.

It begins:

One of my guilty pleasures in life is cooking shows… particularly highly dramatic, reality TV-style cooking competitions.  I’m talking shows like Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen, and Masterchef.  While I don’t have the luxury of cable, I must admit that Food network is a family favorite on vacations.  In watching these programs, one of the elements that seems to be remiss is the ethics of food (although I’ll let Chopped off the hook on this point for their very well-done “Lunch Lady” episode).  The question that these shows generate for me revolves around the entire concept of food morality and food ethics and the responsibility of high profile chefs to make people more food-aware.  Here are some examples that highlight my concerns.

Bri this season of Masterchef’s token vegetarian is the subject of a slew of vegetarian-related epithets throughout the individual interviews.  Moreover, the show’s “judges” question her ability to cook (and at times seem to question her ability to function as a human being) based on her dietary choices.  Perhaps most importantly, Bri is not given the opportunity to showcase her talents without having to engage the show’s many meat-based dishes.  Although Anthony Bourdain would certainly disagree, vegetarianism has become a pretty mainstream dietary concept for a variety of ethical positions (from environmentalism to animal rights).  Dealing with Bri’s choices in such a lackadaisical (and often cruel) manner sends the message that informed and conscious consumption of food is somehow inferior to eating anything that’s placed in front of you.  How would the format handle a contestant observing a Halal diet?   Would the producers feel as comfortable flagrantly mocking a contestant with food allergies or a health restricted diet?


17 Responses to Guest Post: Do Food Shows Have Ethical Obligations?

  1. Hi Ben, Josh’s post was quite insightful. I confess to being a food show addict. I love seeing something and trying to make it at home. I always figured the food that was cooked on the show was eaten by staff or even the contestants after judging but never really thought about the pantries. I would have assumed that anything not used on the show was either taken taken home or donated before. after reading this,I wonder what really happens.

    I do have to disagree on one point he brings up however. When I met my now ex wife she was receiving $500 a month from snap for herself and three children. It was more than she knew what to do with. They are better than I did having a job bringing home good money. They were eating ribeyes at least once a week. After we split up, I ended up losing my job and for the first time needed some assistance. I was given $200 a month from snap, I typically had about $50 a month left and that with snacks most wouldn’t think people should be able to buy on food stamps. I really can’t imagine what groceries he is buying that run $720 a month. I’m not saying that people don’t struggle to eat but I typically spend less than than $150 a month on myself and eat quite well and that includes my potato chip vice. And add to that I’m the worst grocery shopper in the world.

  2. Hey Ben,

    I thought your comments about why chefs have a disdain for vegetarians and vegans to be very insightful. I am basically Vegan because I have a rare condition that makes me allergic to gluten, soy, corn, dairy, fish, shell fish, peanuts and tree nuts, among other foods. However, I do have to eat meat to try and balance my diet out to get proper nutrients. When dining out (which I don’t do too often, as I have had some really dangerous experiences), I have definitely seen the scorn that the waiters/ chefs give me, but it now makes sense that this is not the first time that they are asked to make something that they are not used to, and they feel like I might be turning my nose up at their cooking.

    I can totally understand a chef’s frustration at having to accommodate multiple dietary needs, especially if they are cooking foods that their palate is not used to tasting. There are definitely days when I feel like throwing up my hands in frustration because I have to make a lot of substitutions to a regular recipe, just so I can make something that won’t make me sick, and the taste won’t make me gag. However, I have to admit, because of my dietary limitations, I have been forced to cook almost all of my own food, so I rarely eat any processed food, and I have learned how to get really creative with cooking, to the point where the people that I cook for wouldn’t be able to tell that what I made is gluten free.

  3. This article brings up a lot of really good points. Not to diminish the importance of anything else, but one point that stood out to me was the question of a “halal diet.” As a Muslim, I do have certain dietary restrictions, the most obvious being that I cannot eat pork or drink alcohol.

    I can cook with pork. In any cooking competition I would be at an obvious disadvantage because I wouldn’t be able to taste my product (and, to be honest, I don’t really want to touch it either, but I could muscle through it). And what about when the contestants had to taste that Vietnamese soup Gordon made? I would have been more or less unable to participate because it’s a pork broth – everything in the soup is contaminated.

    And what about alcohol? Not only can I not drink it, I can cook with it, I can’t serve it, pretty much all I can do is smell it. So if a required ingredient were alcohol? I would be out completely. Literally all I could do with it is open the bottle and smell it, then not add it to my food at all.

    I would like to believe that religious restrictions would be considered for contestants in such shows, but I recall on MasterChef season one (I think it was season one, maybe season two) where one of the contestants (I can’t remember her name…) had a religious background due to which she had never cooked meat or even eggs before. She seemed to have no problem cooking it, so that was okay, but in one episode she had to kill a live animal, which went against her beliefs. Gordon took her aside and offered to do it for her, which I was so happy to see, but in the end she did it herself and was applauded for going against her beliefs. To me, a person with strong religious convictions, that isn’t something to be applauded. I don’t, of course, judge or scorn her for it, rather I feel sad that she felt so pressured to go contrary to what she believed in for the sake of a TV show.

    The whole article was very thought-provoking and insightful. Thanks for posting it, Ben.

  4. I so agree with Josh! We went through some though times and ended up on food stamps. We used to toss things if they had turned a little. Now, I was having to cut off those brown spots and stretch the money for a month. It made us plan everything we bought. We have since gotten back on our feet but we still shop like that. I get so upset when I see people just toss things in their cart. I want to shake them and say “Here, look at all the yummy things you can get for little money! YOU CAN COOK!!!” My husband has to stop me sometimes from telling people this. I see all the food on these shows being tossed and I think “I would use that! I can make a dish with that! NO!!!! That’s still good” It’s sad. And now, Congress wants to cut the Food Stamp Program. People need that to eat, I heard on the news an idiot brag about getting lobster. They use that as that’s what all people on food stamps buy. No, most of us are trying to feed our family with less then 200 dollars per month. I need to now get off my soapbox.

    • In my last marriage, we were incredibly poor and I planned out each and every meal so I knew that we would waste nothing or at least as little as possible. I am now remarried (I swear I didn’t remarry for money, even though this post is going to make it sound that way) and though we aren’t rich, we are able to afford to eat well. But I still insist on creating a grocery list for each trip so I know I won’t be creating any waste. It’s changed a lot about the way my husband has shopped.

      I have to say, though, he has also taught me a lot. The scraps at the bottom of the pan that I would have thrown out without a second thought, he carefully scoops into the serving dish. Literally every single grain of rice (I am using the word “literally” correctly, here) makes it out of the cooking pot and subsequently off of our dishes.

      The way people shop here where I live in the Middle East is incredible. The carts are LOADED down with a bunch of food. I just know a lot of it is going to waste. But people here are generally very wealthy and they don’t always have such things on the forefront of their minds.

  5. I really enjoy seeing these different perspectives. I would say that my main favorite cooking show (which I watched pre Masterchef and will continue to watch now when I probably won’t pick up the next season of Masterchef) is Top Chef. I still think there’s room to expand the ideas in this post, but I’ve seen them do many of these things over the years. And they focus less on the dram and more on the cooking. Top Chef actually has inspired my family’s cooking.

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