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In the past couple weeks, my family and I really got into The Great British Baking Show on Netflix (if you haven’t already checked it out, I heartily recommend it). We barreled through season after season. There’s something about watching all these amateur cooks and their stories. You really find yourself endeared to them and rooting for them to succeed (of course, we always had a favorite to succeed, and it’s heartbreaking when they don’t end up making the cut). Cooking shows are a main staple of television, especially cooking competitions, so I then got curious about the history of cooking competitions across the world.
One of the earliest recorded cooking competitions took place in medieval Baghdad. During the Islamic Golden Age, which took place from 800 - 1428 AD, cooking was a big part of the culture (Atlas Obscura). In fact, it was a great way of getting ahead socially. Because Baghdad was trading all over the world, wealthy citizens also had access to spices and foods from all over, allowing for plenty of opportunities to try new cooking innovations. According to historians, there also was evidence of culinary competitions, and some of the chronicles were recorded in ancient history books that included important information such as wars and successions, meaning that cooking competitions were considered extremely important social activities. There would not be any similar sorts of recorded competitions of note until the 1900s with the IKA Culinary Olympics, which takes place in Frankfurt, Germany (and still continues today) (ACF).
The rising popularity of culinary competitions is relatively new. In 2015, the four of the top five cooking shows on Food Network’s primetime slot were cooking competitions (The Atlantic). Over the past couple decades, audiences have come to prefer watching cooking competitions over general cooking shows. The network figured this out in the early 2000s when they brought the show Iron Chef from Japan, and it gained more viewers than Emeril. Over the next 9 years from 2005-2014, Food Network went from having 2 cooking shows (Iron Chef and Food Network’s own foray into the cooking competition format, The Next Food Network Star) to 16 competition shows airing at the same time. Audiences gravitated towards the theatrics and wild cooking challenges. Over time, Food Network has started to return a bit to the standard cooking show format, but the competition cooking show is no where near dead. Food Network still retains quite a few competition shows along with networks like Fox and ABC, and streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix have their own helpings of cooking competitions (The Hollywood Reporter).
Cooking is a common part of everyday life, but there’s something about cooking competitions, whether it’s a baking competition, a pro culinary competition, or a cooking competition where you have to run around a supermarket to grab your cooking ingredients beforehand. It turns out that while the modern cooking show has been going through a boom, this isn’t the first time people have become enamored with cooking challenges, reaching back to medieval Baghdad. Today, it’s a great way to learn about new cooking techniques and discover new ways to think about your food.