I’ve been spending the last few evenings binge-watching old Barefoot Contessa episodes, which has been delightful. I used to love Ina Garten’s show as a teenager, and rewatching after some years has been an experience filled with nostalgia and deeper understanding. Back in high school, I viewed the show without the lenses of branding, class, or even really any attention to her character as the Barefoot Contessa. All I was interested in was the recipes, and I found it funny that she always seemed to sneak some sort of liquor into her meal. I made a couple of her recipes, and they were good, which won her my buy-in as a viewer. (Try her plum cake tatin with peaches this summer–one of my favorite desserts ever.) I trusted her to make good recipes, as she seemed knowledgable, cosmopolitan, and self-assured. It’s only now that I’m finding these words to describe her, though.
My rewatching exercise has only built off these initial feelings. I still enjoy the show, and I still trust her to make good recipes (although maybe not her vegetable sushi). I can, however, now see the work that Garten’s character and her show’s branding do to contribute to the overall feeling of security that the show creates and the trust that viewers are encouraged to have in her as an authority on cooking. I’m not saying that she isn’t an authority, or that the character she portrays on the show is necessarily false (although it’s likely embellished–this is entertainment television, after all). Real or not, Garten’s character is that of a woman who has her life figured out: she knows who she is, what she wants, and how to get it; she has tons of friends and a hunger for a fun-filled and wonderful life. She is wealthy, has a big, beautiful New England house with a lush garden and beach access, and everything she does is tastefully appointed in a classic style.
The viewer trusts her because she represents an ideal: she not only has money but also knows how to use that money to have a great time and show appreciation for her loved ones. The lobster paella is worth the cost because it’s for her friends. Wealth, within the world of the show, serves only the purpose of funding celebration–this is a world without poverty or insecurity. In this way, the lifestyle that Barefoot Contessa portrays is a variation of the American Dream and therefore serves as a goal for viewers who don’t have Garten’s wealth. This only adds to her authority: sure, she can cook great meals efficiently, granting her authority on cooking–but she also has that combination of financial success and generosity to be an authority on lifestyle, too. She’s got that non-threatening kind of wealth; instead of making her a hoarder of accumulated capital and therefore an evil capitalist, she makes large displays of redistribution through the gifting of her dinner parties. Garten is a benevolent capitalist, she does things “the right way” by displaying nonselfish behavior and caring for her network of friends. Her wealth seems to benefit a community, minimizing the critique one can make of her excessive lifestyle. A seafood course and a meat course? A commercial-sized plastic wrap dispenser? An entire leg of lamb for two people?? It’s all fine because it’s for others. Lavishness like this is a regular occurrence on the show–in fact, it’s built into its very structure.
Each episode, the viewer is greeted by Garten as she plans to cook for a cozy dinner date with her sweet husband, cater a friend’s party, or thank someone for doing something for her. She spends the day cooking, really thinking about what the event warrants meal-wise and specifying the ingredients to the tastes of her guests. The guests start trickling in, everything comes together at the right time, she enjoys herself with her friends, and they all gush over the meal. A couple witty remarks, lots of laughs, and the camera pans away–the show has all the footage it needs, and she’s left to continue the party in privacy. (Speaking of characterization, that pan-away lends a really genuine feeling to the whole event, as if the viewer has been invited along for the preparation for a party that exists independently of the show.) This structure’s revolving around important events creates a justification for the lavishness of each meal–after all, it is a celebration! Further, the events are almost always for a friend, revealing the false distinction between capitalist types. In reality, the show’s portrayal of Garten’s wealth is no different from the wealth of the evil capitalist: it remains within her family and only touches a relatively small network of friends and acquaintances. Garten’s generosity does not render her lifestyle free of excess and waste, environmental degradation, or exploitation.
This isn’t intended to be a scathing critique of Ina Garten herself but rather a reading of an example that points to a broader issue with how Americans* are trained to view success. We’re taught that success means having a lot of money so that any desired thing is obtainable as soon as possible. To live “comfortably” is to live with enough disposable income to always have more than enough, just in case. Each person must have a stockpile of excess wealth in attempt to safeguard against possible future hardship, and the belief in a particular brand of “personal responsibility” demonizes those who cannot amass such a stockpile, even though capitalism as a system necessitates that the majority is kept from accumulating wealth–not everyone can be a nuclear budget analyst turned celebrity chef. Changing such an inequitable system requires intervention at both the systemic and individual levels. For the systemic stuff, there’s tax reforms so that they don’t benefit the wealthy, investing in government safety nets, etc.–things other people can tell you about with much more depth and eloquence than I could. Without an overhaul of our system built on exploitation, inequalities will persist, but equally important is changing the way we conceptualize success. Success doesn’t need to mean money and can be tied to self-satisfaction with a job well done, a completion of something important to you, or even that warm feeling of taking the first step toward a goal. Success can be finding happiness in a new hobby or maintaining strong connections with loved ones. A mindset-change like this won’t alter the need for economic security–that’s where systemic changes come in–but it will tackle the cultural backing of the system: if more people move away from conflating their self-worth with how well they can accumulate wealth and instead conceptualize success as a more personal feeling of satisfaction, we could see less greed, hoarding, and waste.
Anyways, I still love Ina Garten’s show, especially now that I’ve realized how many fabulous gay friends she has.
*I write Americans here because the show is American, and, being American myself, I can speak from experience as to how the capitalist mindset is culturally ingrained in American daily life. This does not mean that capitalism is uniquely American or that other countries do not promote a similar view of success.