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Cooking: Try this at home

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Oh the melodrama. Tune into prime-time television after dinner these days and you'll find yourself right back in the kitchen with reality-show contestants competing mercilessly to be the best cook.

There's MasterChef Canada, with Dora the plumber squaring off against Danny the construction worker and Mike Green, a journalist from Winnipeg conspiring to create a dust-up between Kaila the realtor and Eric the chemical engineer, while Pino the stay-at-home dad smirks over his risotto.

There are chills and spills, tears, jeers and yes, even blood flowing as some of them work hurriedly with knives that are quite possibly a little sharper than the ones at home.

Change the channel and you might find yourself in Hell's Kitchen, where the bleeped-out parts suggest both contestants and host have a rather limited vocabulary. Or Recipes to Riches, where winners can win $250,000 with a boffo "cheescake" even though they can't spell worth a darn.

You have to admit, cooking is an odd premise for television drama. Unlike the bikini-clad efforts of the first reality-television shows, these contestants wear aprons and come in all shapes and sizes. They are in a kitchen, not on some exotic island or racing around the globe on a treasure hunt.

Nope, these are very ordinary people. But they are doing extraordinary things with something that is quietly becoming a bit sexy in our society: food.

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And whether these shows are reflecting a fad or a trend, there are some very real implications for the people who grow and process the ingredients in their larder.

True, few of us would be inspired to do something creative with a cow's tongue or make dim sum from scratch, even after watching it done on TV.

But there is some evidence of a renewed interest in home cooking, or at the very least, more interest in food as it relates to our sense of health and well-being.

Scan the various listings of top food trends and you'll find the pundits agreeing on concepts such as local and wellness. There is a gradual shift away from fast, supersized and cheap to exotic flavours, ancient grains and the pursuit of food as a leisure-time activity.

Does this shift in attitude occupy the dominant market share? Not even close. A recent Reuters report said health and wellness brands currently account for about 10 per cent of packaged-food sales.

But it's enough that the processors of traditional brands are starting to feel the pinch.

For example, the dominant market share held for generations by the iconic mac and cheese Kraft Dinner is now being eroded by competitors that offer a shorter, more pronounceable list of ingredients.

"Consumers (are) seeking more fresh, real foods that are made with simple ingredient lines, and we have to think that this is more than just a premium trend," Kraft chief executive Tony Vernon is quoted by Reuters as saying. "We are democratizing health and wellness, we are not marketing to the one per cent."

Another report released last week on the beverage industry shows sales of pop in the U.S. have fallen to their lowest levels since 1995.

"The beverage industry is getting more and more challenging in the U.S. The obesity and health and wellness headwinds are not letting up," Beverage Digest editor John Sicher told Reuters.

Closer to home, the Manitoba potato industry is feeling the effects of a 3.5 per cent decline in consumer demand for french fries since the peak in 2006. Two of the three processors contracting with Manitoba growers this year have already announced reductions of between 10 and 50 per cent in the volume of potatoes they are willing to purchase this year.

That's pretty hard to swallow for farmers who invested in land, specialized equipment and temperature-controlled storage when the french fry business was at its peak.

The food business is ever-changing. But one truism remains -- the fewer steps food travels between producer and consumer, the better it is for both.

Getting back to reality -- go for it, Mike from Winnipeg!

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 B10

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