From Scratch: Inside the Food Network

by Allen Salkin

(Penguin, $27.95, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Allen Salkin is a New York City-based  journalist who has New York magazine, The Village Voice and Details on his resume, along with the years he spent as a reporter for The New York Times, where he specialized in writing about culture, the media and of course, food. Add to that his stints as a wholesaler of rubber duckies in Las Vegas, an orange-picker on the island of Crete and a door-to-door oil painting salesman in Australia, and you can see he has an eye for the quirky. And oh yeah, he went to the same high school as the Kardashians, albeit before they attended. His first book was “Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us”, which, we can assume, taught him something about  the airing of grievances that came in handy in writing ‘From Scratch.”

What is this book about?

The Food Network is a mainstay of cable TV, and would you believe it is now 20 years old?  “From Scratch” has all the ingredients for a celebratory feast –bushels of solid research and tasty details spiced up with saucy gossip about the food world ,served up to a public hungry for information about food and the chefs who create it. (OK, I have run out of food clichés.) The network has revenues of close to $1 billion and its stars are so well known they only need first names: Julia, Rachael, Emeril, Alton, Mario, Bobby, Tyler, Nigella, Ina, Paula, Anthony, Guy, Cat and more.

Why you’ll like it:

This is both a business book and a personality parade, and while you may skim the business details, no doubt you will devour the dishy backstories of the Food Network stars. (Um, I guess my appetite for food clichés is insatiable.) From it we learn that bluff and hearty Emeril is actually kind of shy and was devastated when his expensive-to- produce show was dropped. While the facts and statistics Salkin painstakingly collected and put in context gives the book a solid base, it’s that kind of personal tale that keeps the reader asking for more helpings.

What others are saying:

From Publishers Weekly: “The Food Network has risen from obscurity and ridicule in the early ’90s to become a powerhouse of cable television, transforming chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Paula Deen into celebrities and changing food culture forever. With a light wit and balanced perspective, Salkin, a former food and media reporter for the New York Times, presents the definitive history of the network from inception to the present day. Food Network devotees will delight at the inside knowledge of internal scandals, the intriguing biographies of their favorite star chefs, and an exclusive look at the ever-shifting lineup of executives and parent companies. The first act, detailing how the network was conceived, funded, and staffed, is tremendously dry and provides little entertainment, making it almost impenetrable for all but the network’s most devoted fans. Once the stage is set, however, Salkin moves deftly between periods in the channel’s development, garnishing the narrative with frequent quotes from influential personalities to add depth. Referring to nearly everyone by his or her first name makes for inevitable confusion, but patient readers will eventually uncover a nuanced and rich tale of an empire that no one expected to survive.”

“A detailed look at the network from start-up phase to the present, with a generous lump of juicy stories about the network’s most polarizing figures—Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, Anthony Bourdain and, of course, Paula Deen y’all—heaped on top,” says The Atlantic Wire.

The Connecticut Post says: “You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy Allen Salkin’s new book — “From Scratch” — about the creation of The Food Network 20 years ago, and its turbulent but highly successful history since then. Salkin researched and writes the story so well that it has the energy of a great show business novel . . . It’s a TV business story, it’s a tale of the rise of the food and restaurant cultures over the past two decades, and it’s a look at a wide array of fascinating personalities who flourished (and fell) after the creation of a cable channel devoted to food . . . The result is a rare non-fiction book with the narrative pace of the juiciest fiction.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Fact-packed insider dish on the unlikely rise to prominence of the Food Network. . . . former New York Times food reporter Salkin serves up a heaping portion of cable TV history on the Food Network: from its humble beginnings in 1993, broadcasting from murky, rat-infested studios, to the culinary-themed reality TV behemoth it is today. The author introduces us to all the major personalities that helped further the popularity of the network over the years: Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali, among many other foodie luminaries. Salkin’s writing is more nuts-and-bolts reportage-oriented and research-heavy, and he is not always meticulous about separating the wheat from the chaff regarding indispensable facts and anecdotes. Nevertheless, the author gives a reasonably vivid sense of the machinations that took the Food Network from their original blueprint of traditional, by-the-numbers cooking shows to ownership under corporate giant Scripps and their innovative new wave of sexy culinary melodrama in the vein of Iron Chef. Salkin also charts how, not surprisingly, the Food Network went from a loose, anything-goes business model to a more conservative, risk-averse operation by the 2000s, when executives began to turn more toward focus-group surveying and statistics rather than rely on their own gut feelings or instincts for what kinds of shows would appeal to the public. As it turns out, only a few of the network’s mainstays, such as Bobby Flay, for instance, have what it takes to change with the times and tastes of viewers over the years. Obsessively detailed, but often too exhaustive for its own good.”

When is it available?

It’s now being served at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany branch.

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