We were sitting in a neighborhood restaurant, gazing up at the TVs while we waited for our dinner to arrive. And I was feeling more mystified by the minute.
On one screen, there was something that appeared to be football without the football gear. There was a football, and there was a lot of sweating and chasing by young men wearing what looked like soccer shirts.
The only explanation, at the bottom of the screen, said it was “7On Football.” The caption was so vague, I wasn’t sure if it said “70 N Football” or “7on Football.” I had to head to the Internet to get a translation: “7 On 7 Football” apparently involves high school players who are trying to get college scholarships.
Now, it’s true that my full dose of sports-watching mostly occurs in neighborhood restaurants with TVs. Generally, my main emotion is confusion. No idea what’s happening, where it’s happening or why the other people watching it are yelling.
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This time, as I gazed up at the screen and tried to puzzle out action I had never seen, I realized something:
This is what food TV must look like to people who don’t cook.
There’s very little translation, only an assumption that you know who Ina Garten is and why she’s using something that looks a wood-sanding tool on a lemon. If you’re a casual watcher, you might not know chicken piccata from Pecorino Romano.
In the writing world, we do studies of who reads what and how involved they get. Sports readers and food readers have a lot in common, I’ve always been told: If you’re not interested in sports or food, you don’t read it at all. If you are interested, you’re passionately interested, and you’ll read almost everything about it.
Even though I don’t watch sports, except for the occasional Knights game or a Sunday afternoon when the Panthers haven’t been knocked out of the running, I do read sports. I read it because certain writers, like Scott Fowler or Tom Sorensen, are good writers. They’re such good writers, they could probably write about grain futures and they’d do it in a way that grabs me.
Still, I’m always flapping a paper at the sports editors and complaining that too many sports stories are written for insiders. If you don’t follow sports on a daily or hourly basis, you could use a line or two of context.
I understand their dilemma, though: Rabid sports fan don’t need context. It wastes their time. And, yes, there is an insider feel that comes from already knowing the context.
Food writing can be like that, too: How much do I need to tell you to pull you in if you aren’t someone who already reads food stories? Where’s the sweet spot between giving enough explanation for someone who’s never cooked and annoying the person who’s cooked for so long that they already know Ina is using a Microplane grater to get lemon zest, and that lemon is a primary flavor in a classic Italian dish called piccata?
Maybe what sports TV and food TV both need is closed-captioning for the knowledge-impaired. Then again, maybe Ina’s ratings would go up if she included more young guys in soccer shirts.