There was a time when cooking shows actually pretended to teach us how to cook. These days, most hosts of cooking shows just want to entertain us.
"Isn't this fun?" they ask over and over. "Are you having a good time?"
Almost always implied is the eternal question: "Do you like me?" Or, more specifically, "Don't hate me because I dropped the fish."
When you consider that a good portion of the cooking-show audience has no intention of cooking the dishes presented on TV -- and that many cooking-show addicts hardly ever cook at all -- it makes sense that cooking shows have gotten goofier over the years, often intentionally. They've also become more numerous. Nov. 23 marked the official launch of a 24-hour cable channel devoted entirely to food. Both the Learning Channel and Discovery devote several hours a week to cooking programs, and the traditional home of the cooking show, public television, is still pumping out the programs.
What's worth watching? That's like asking, "What's your favorite food?" It depends on whom you ask. And so, what follows is an opinionated guide to a few current cooking shows.
* "Cooking With Master Chefs, Hosted by Julia Child"
Most of us grew up watching Julia Child putter around the stove, but in this series (which airs locally on Channels 22, 26 and 67) Julia Child stays in her chair. Like a female Alistair Cooke on "Masterpiece Kitchen," Ms. Child introduces each week's chef -- it's almost as if the chefs were given a cooking show for a day -- then returns between segments to explain any unsolved mysteries, such as how to make a proper chocolate-curl garnish. The show might also work as a talent-scouting report -- Los Angeles' Michel Richard of Citrus, for instance, did so well he might just get an offer for his own series . . . or even a slot on "Letterman."
* "The Frugal Gourmet"
Foodies watch Jeff Smith (Channels 22, 26 and 67, and Lifetime) with fascinated horror. He's the geeky American we're all a little afraid of becoming when we travel abroad. He often refers to citizens of other countries as "gentle people." Like Cliff Claven of "Cheers," he constantly shows off his book learning and constantly gets his facts a teeny bit (OK, maybe a lot) wrong. He's always excited to share his experiences; he narrates footage of himself and Boy Wonder assistant Craig -- say, touring a prosciutto factory -- as if he were showing home movies. And his recipes can be frightful. But no one can deny that the Frug loves food, and years of abuse in the press and apparently from a lot of his viewers ("Oh, your letters!" he cries) have not daunted his spirit.
* "Graham Kerr" -- Yes, he has been called the Galloping Buffoon, and he still tells bad jokes, though without the constant wine-sipping these days. The most surprising thing is that Mr. Kerr, whose show is on the Discover Channel as well as on Channels 22, 26 and 67, succeeds in showing low-fat recipes that actually seem edible. And he doesn't fall into the trap of so many other health advocates who disparage fat as evil and worthless. Mr. Kerr knows perfectly well that fat makes food taste good, and he isn't afraid to say so.
* "Madeleine Cooks"
If Madeleine Kamman came to your house for dinner, she'd sneer at your souffle and insult your mother's apple pie. But as a cooking-show host on the Learning Channel, her famous fastidiousness gives viewers solid lessons in French cuisine. Just think of her as the eccentric French aunt you never had.
* "Today's Gourmet"
Suave Jacques Pepin, who can be seen on Channels 22 and 67, gets his fish straight from fishermen, buys his produce from farmers and gathers his own mushrooms in the forest. Best of all, he knows what to do with these provisions; Pepin's recipes are consistently the best on television. You never worry that he'll make a mistake. And, even better, he never condescends to the viewer. A Frenchman without attitude!
TV FOOD SHOWS
Dates and times are subject to change
8:30 a.m., "The Frugal Gourmet," LIF; 10:30 a.m., "Great Chefs," DSC; 11 a.m., "World Class Cuisine," DSC; 11:30 a.m., "Graham Kerr's Kitchen," DSC; noon, "Low-Cholesterol Cooking," DSC; "The Frugal Gourmet," LIF; 12:30 p.m., "Nathalie Dupree's Matters of Taste/New Southern Cooking with Nathalie Dupree," TLC; "Justin Wilson's Louisiana Cookin'," TNN; "Patently Easy Cooking/Amish Cooking in Quilt Country," TLC; "Yan Can Cook," TLC; 2 p.m., "Cooking With the Urban Peasant," TLC; "Great Chefs," DSC; "Madeleine Cooks," TLC; 3 p.m., "World Class Cuisine," DSC; "Laurie Cooks Light and Easy," TLC; 3:30 p.m., "Graham Kerr's Kitchen," DSC; 4 p.m., "Low-Cholesterol Cooking," DSC; 5 p.m., "Cooking With the Urban Peasant," TLC; 6 p.m., "Nathalie Dupree's Matters of Taste/New Southern Cooking with Nathalie Dupree," TLC
1 p.m., "The Frugal Gourmet," Channel 26; 1:30 p.m., "Burt Wolf: Eating Well," Channel 26; 2 p.m., "Burt Wolf: Eating Well," Channels 22 and 67; 2:30 p.m., "The Frugal Gourmet," Channels 22 and 67