Look at that! Oh damn, look at that!”
I’m sitting on the couch with Stephen Lassonde, and we’re watching TV. He sounds as if a wide receiver just made a one-handed catch in the end zone, but the image on the screen is of a blender containing almonds. The camera zooms in, and a woman lifts a sizzling sauté pan filled with tomatoes and peppers, dumps the contents in the blender, and turns it on. “Look at that!” exclaims Lassonde. “Can you believe that?”
The dean of Calhoun College, Lassonde has a confession to make. He’s obsessed with the Food Network. Hounies know the signs of his passion: his guacamole study breaks, the “Calhoun Iron Chef” competition he sponsored last year, his regular column in the Calhoun newsletter, which is entitled “Video Smorgasbord: The Food Network.” In the year’s first edition, he wrote, “These days it seems whenever I tell somebody that I’m addicted to the Food Network, everyone around me confesses their mutual craving. In the crawl space between shopping period and midterms, should you find yourself escaping your homework in front of the TV, you should punch in channel 49.”
Lassonde’s encounters with channel 49 began innocently enough when he discovered it while channel surfing during the Tour de France. “I came across this low-cal show while watching TV in the Morse guest suite three years ago,” he recalls fondly. “They showed you how to make something that seems high-cal but is really healthy.” He’s come a long way since that discovery — when I dropped by, he had taped the morning’s shows in case there wasn’t anything good on when I arrived. During a commercial break, he nearly scribbled down the date of an upcoming tag-team cranberry battle on Iron Chef America. It’s one of his favorite shows. He loves the commentary, which he likens to a parody of sports broadcasting, while at the same time noting that it “adds credibility to what they’re doing.”
And of course he loves the host, Alton Brown. “To the casual viewer,” reads the fourth installment of “Video Smorgasbord,” “he is better known as the play-by-play man on Iron Chef America. But to the more adventurous watchers of the Food Network, he is the host of ‘Good Eats.’”
Lassonde is no casual viewer. He knows it all: Ina Garten’s verbal tics on The Barefoot Contessa; Dave Lieberman, Tyler Florence, and Bobby Flay who assert their masculinity by referring to whatever they’re cooking as “these guys”; Rachael Ray, who “sounds like your friend’s older sister.” He even knows favorite ingredients. Ina loves chocolate. Paula Deen goes crazy for butter. Emeril — garlic. Guy Fieri — Dijon mustard. Giada De Laurentis, whom he describes as having “a smile that would dissolve Parmesan cheese,” swoons for Meyer lemon olive oil.
“I really think the appeal is this,” said Lassonde. “They’re trying to demystify cooking on all levels. The idea is that anyone can cook. That’s why Rachael Ray is such a phenomenon. She’s like everywoman. The basic appeal is that anyone can do this stuff.”
Lassonde is modest about his cooking talent. “It’s not like I’m particularly skilled or anything,” he said, “but I think I have a good idea of what kinds of flavors go together.” He likes spicy foods. “You’ve got to try this mustard,” he told me, taking a jar out of the fridge and giving me a spoonful. It was delicious — smoky, with lightly crushed mustard seeds and chiles.
This kind of sharing is habitual. Whether he’s inviting students into his suite for guacamole or sharing his daily pot of French roast coffee with Calhoun master’s assistant Joanna Gorman, Lassonde likes to enjoy food with the people around him. He recalls something a grad school professor once told him: “As you get older, all that matters to you is good food and good friends.”
“I’m not a connoisseur or anything,” said Lassonde. “But I think he’s right.”