They've also become more numerous. Nov. 23 marked the official launch of the Television Food Network (TVFFN), a 24-hour cable channel devoted entirely to food. Both the Learning Channel and Discovery on cable devote several hours a week to cooking programs, and the traditional home of the cooking show, public television, is still pumping out the programs.
Julia Child doesn't make a habit of watching cooking shows. For one thing, she says she doesn't want to copy anyone else's style. For another, she's not impressed with a lot of the shows she has seen. Too many series for ''fluffies," as she says.
When Child first went on TV in 1961, cooking shows were called ''educational television." And she still considers herself more of a teacher than an entertainer.
So how does she explain the hundreds of people who turn up at her book signings to get her autograph, as if she were a movie star?
"Well," she tells a reporter, "I have been on the air 30 years, dearie."
For her newest show, Cooking With Master Chefs, Child, 81, went on the road all over the United States, coaching her mostly TV-naive guest chefs and writing up scripts on a portable computer.
Compared with some of her other series, she considers Master Chefs almost an advanced cooking show.
"This is for people who really want to cook," she says. "This is not a show for fluffies." So what shows are worth watching? That's like asking, ''What's your favorite food?" It depends on whom you ask. And so, what follows is an opinionated guide to some current cooking shows.
COOKING WITH MASTER CHEFS, HOSTED BY JULIA CHILD. Many of us grew up watching Julia Child putter around the stove, but in this series (aired on PBS Channels 23, 52 and 12) Julia Child stays in her chair. Like a female Alistair Cooke hosting Masterpiece Kitchen, Child introduces each week's chef - it's almost as if the chefs were given a cooking show for a day - then returns between segments to explain any unsolved mysteries, such as how to make a proper chocolate-curl garnish.
The show might also work as a talent-scouting report - Los Angeles' Michel Richard of Citrus, for instance, did so well that he might just get an offer for his own series . . . or even a slot on Letterman.
CUISINE RAPIDE. Pierre Franey, one of the fathers of haute cuisine in America, hosts this program generally aired on the Discovery Channel in this area (but not scheduled for the next several months). He may be the Huggy Bear of cook-show hosts: He plays the fool, even acting surprised when younger chefs demonstrate techniques that he probably learned and forgot by the time he was 13.
"Oooh, what are you cooking there?" he asks over and over on his visits to restaurant kitchens. But don't be deceived: This is one of the few shows you can actually cook from.
THE FRUGAL GOURMET. Foodies watch Jeff Smith (Channels 12, 23, 39 and 52) with fascinated horror. He's the geeky American we're all a little afraid of becoming when we travel abroad. He often refers to citizens of other countries as "gentle people."
Like Cliff Claven of Cheers, he constantly shows off his book learning and constantly gets his facts a teeny bit (OK, maybe a lot) wrong.
He's always excited to share his experiences; he narrates footage of
himself and Boy Wonder assistant, Craig - say, touring a prosciutto factory - as if he were showing home movies.
And his recipes can be frightful. But no one can deny that the Frug loves food, and years of abuse in the media and apparently from a lot of his viewers ("Oh, your letters!" he cries) have not daunted his spirit.
GRAHAM KERR. Yes, he has been called the Galloping Buffoon, and he still tells bad jokes, though without the constant wine-sipping these days. The most surprising thing is that Kerr - whose show is on the Discovery Channel and Channel 12) - succeeds in presenting low-fat recipes that actually seem edible.
And he doesn't fall into the trap of so many other health advocates who disparage fat as evil and worthless. Kerr knows perfectly well that fat makes food taste good, and he isn't afraid to say so.
MADELEINE COOKS. If Madeleine Kamman came to your house for dinner, she'd sneer at your souffle and insult your mother's apple pie. But as a cooking- show host on the Learning Channel, her famous fastidiousness gives viewers solid lessons in French cuisine.
Just think of her as the eccentric French aunt you never had.
TODAY'S GOURMET. Suave Jacques Pepin generally can be seen on Channel 12. His program is not currently aired, but is scheduled to return in the near future, because it is a very popular cooking show.
Pepin gets his fish straight from fishermen, buys his produce from farmers and gathers his own mushrooms in the forest.
Best of all, he knows what to do with these provisions; Pepin's recipes are consistently the best on television. You never worry that he'll make a mistake. And, even better, he never condescends to the viewer. A Frenchman without attitude!