Watching What We Eat: John Jay Librarian Kathleen Collins Book A Hit

June 29, 2009 | News

Kathleen Collins

By Irene Gashurov

The idea for “Watching What We Eat. The Evolution of Cooking Shows” (Continuum, 2009), a cultural history of food shows on TV, came to Kathleen Collins in a flash of inspiration. Getting the book to see the light of day took her nearly a decade.

For Collins, a librarian at John Jay College, the effort has paid off. “Watching What We Eat” has drawn attention and praise from the Library Journal, The New York Times and Time, with critics commending Collins for her wit, meticulous research and deft portrayal of cooking shows as a barometer of American culture. “Her thorough research is spiced with anecdotes and personal testimonials from chefs, historians and foodies around the world of TV cooking and the eccentric personalities that populate it,” says Time.

Collins is enjoying the limelight. She has appeared on NPR and is giving readings around town in New York. “It’s very fun to talk to people about this,” says Collins. She is especially proud of the recognition the book has earned from the Library of Congress, which has created a Cutter number to represent the new subject category the book covers: Television Cooking Shows “History and Criticism. “People wanted a book on this topic. And it did fill in a gap,” she says. “That makes me very proud.”

Success for Collins followed a career setback. As a weary fact-checker at Working Woman magazine in the late 1990s, Collins dreamed of working on a book of her own. Running through an inventory of favorite topics, she settled on the seemingly unrelated subjects of food and TV. When the magazine folded just before 9/11, Collins got her chance to pursue a book project in earnest. “I was given the gift of unemployment,” she says of those heady days she spent in the Performing Arts Library of the New York Public Library, scouring the archives of Variety.

When another job materialized, Collins continued researching her book after hours. She pored over scholarly works about food and watched hours of TV shows. She interviewed media scholars Toby Miller and Marsha Cassidy; celebrity chefs Graham Kerr, Jacques Pepin and Anthony Bourdain gave freely of their time, too”a testament of “how generous people are in the food world.” The insights she gleaned from her readings and conversations let Collins trace the arc of TV food and tie it to the changing mores in America. The pendulum has swung from broadcast compendiums of recipes for people on food rationing during the war to showcases for world-hopping chefs in search of exotic experiences in the 1990s. Looking ahead, Collins believes the cooking genre will withstand the recession. “As the American economy takes a beating,” she says, “our television”a forum that is so closely tied with consumer behavior”will continue to evolve.”

Celebrity has not changed how Collins thinks about herself. “There’s a different kind of writing that you do as a librarian. There’s a freedom to delve into different subject areas as this work attests to,” she says. “Writing is the way I communicate what I learn as a researcher. But I don’t identify myself as a writer.” Though admittedly that may change over time.