What’s cooking? All of Greece, it seems, as the television chefs multiply

Were a housewife to have fallen into a coma before the advent of private television channels and open her eyes today, she would probably be amazed by the number of cookery programs on TV. The time when we would say that all Greece was on the move has gone. Financial reasons have caused journeys and summer holidays to shrink, and the smoking pot – or rather the stainless-steel saucepan – is wreaking revenge. Nowadays, it seems all Greece is a-cooking, or learning how to cook. Cooking is no longer exclusively an extra on morning programs, but has claimed its very own slot. On Mega channel, there are two independent programs on cooking daily, while every day at 3.30 p.m., ET-1 hosts the British show «Oliver’s Twist.» In October, Mega inaugurated two weekly cooking programs, both on Saturday: the morning «Vefa’s Secrets – Best Of» and the afternoon program «Naughty but Nice» by Ilias Mamalakis. At the same time, both professional and amateur cooks, male and female, continue to serve up recipes in the morning slots. International trend And this is just the beginning, say the experts, invoking well-established trends abroad. Cooking has blended with travel documentaries, folk tradition and even society journalism. Articles about Jamie Oliver, famous for the BBC’s «Naked Chef» series, adorn the social and economic pages of reputable broadsheets. Opinion polls even show that British women find the 27-year-old chef not merely delectable, but seriously dishy. Despite the small size of the Greek market, television could probably fit in yet more cookery programs, analysts say, while some go as far as to dream of a Greek food channel that will broadcast on matters of nutrition 24 hours a day. Since Mega, which managed to poach Vefa Alexiadou from Eleni Menegaki’s «Morning Coffee» on Antenna, is ahead in the field, it’s only reasonable to expect Antenna, and other channels as well, to launch a counterattack, with new cookery programs and new stars of the kitchen. In the publishing world, a similar phenomenon can be observed. Right up to the 1970s, Greek cookery books could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Today, cookery books fall into a wholly separate category, with many shining examples of inspired, insightful and elegant writing. As a result, specialist magazines are springing up everywhere, as are supplements on food in newspapers. From one point of view, the increased volume of books and proliferation of specialist programs meet present needs. In the past, the art of cooking was handed down orally, from generation to generation. Tradition did not allow us to keep the choice dish to ourselves, but to share it with our neighbor – and at the same time share the secret of how it was made. Since the all-knowing aunt or the Asia Minor neighbor have become a rare breed, their role has been taken up by the mass media. And let’s not forget that broadcasts and food programs are the ideal setting for advertising a cornucopia of products, not only from the food industry but also including everything, from cars to shampoo, that supposedly express our love for ourselves and others. The question is: Why is this all happening today? In Greek movies of the 1960s, heroes, poor and rich alike, would go to a family taverna for their entertainment. There would be a floor show with song, dance or conjuring tricks, even a mild strip tease. Sometimes, an insatiable character would order another giouvetsi, or another macaroni dish, but the emphasis was on the quantity, not the quality of the food. A way of life In contemporary series, the heroes, when not meeting at some bar, go out to eat at very chic, atmospheric restaurants (just like those in the eating guides). Food, both inside and outside the house, sheds its obvious function and becomes a symbol of a way of life. Nowadays, in this sated era, the question is not whether we will eat today, but where we will go, and what we will eat. The paradox is that this interest in food, whether the home-cooked variety or something that is a reminder or imitation of home-cooked food, is expressed in an age where free time is decreasing and where home delivery and fast-food outlets are proliferating at the speed of light. Simultaneously, the idea of «slow food» has taken on the dimensions of a distinct worldwide trend. The more chaotic and uncertain our daily existence becomes, the greater the safety, the sense of control that we discover within the four walls of a kitchen. Often, career women (and men) find that cooking becomes an activity that functions as an anti-depressant, with a beginning, middle and something tangible to show for it at the end. And the more we feel the family is threatened with breakdown, the greater our expectations of the daily or Sunday meal. Televisions chefs are familiar faces who not only supply recipes, but are the keys to marital and familial happiness. Endorphines are released as the onion sizzles. Almost all the ingredients and kitchen implements acquire diminutives – ending in -aki, -itsa, -oula – and the kitchen resembles a nursery school that is overflowing with tenderness. «Kalamata citizens get a warm embrace today,» Ms Alexiadou informs us on her program. «A new Vefa’s House is opening that not only supplies know-how, but love, support and advice.» The only reaction to such fulsome praise is caution. Molly O’Neil, who for 20 years has written a column on cooking in the New York Times’ magazine supplement, has observed that the more money people spend on cooking implements and pans, the less they cook! Correspondingly, the more we are forced to eat rushed, ready-made or improvised meals, the more highly we regard the wisdom of our mothers, topping and tailing string beans. Many people collect recipes, extracts, scribbled notebooks, or bestow or receive cookery books as gifts. But they seldom go from theory to practice. Recipes meet the same fate as the telephone numbers of friends or the unread books on our bookshelves: Each and every one of them contains the promise of a future meeting or moment of enjoyment, a perfect year for relationships or creativity. «See you,» «Let’s go out,» «Let’s not lose touch.» Talk of food, whether televised, printed or spoken, is a spinoff, not of the recreational industry exactly, but rather that of escapism. It’s a flight from the present, a flight back in time, into the orchards, the gardens, the smells and cozy world of childhood, into an idealized past that had neither TV nor security doors. But it’s also a flight into a rosy future, where the hearth – whether ceramic, fire-proof or sprouting artificial flames – and the laid table promise togetherness, a return to one’s roots and a whiff of cosmopolitanism, yet at the same time social cohesion restored.