Tag Archives: cooking competitions

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

Love, Hate, and Food Fights

I don’t watch much sports. Except on the Food Network. Those competitions are the sports I both love and hate.

I love them because they are eerily involving. Even my husband, not a big fan of cooking shows, gets caught up in the action. “Chop the woman!” he’ll yell. “She left off the Japanese eggplant! Aw, I thought the old hippie was going to win!” (1)

I love them because people actually have to do something real to win, unlike many “reality” shows. There’s no prize for snagging a millionaire or pressuring small girls to dress like floozies and perform.(2)

I love them because people get the chance to try again. Many of the shows have “Redemption” episodes, or let eliminated contestants return as surprise competitors or sous-chefs. And many of the chefs appear on more than one of the shows. I’m sure I saw the Ukrainian woman from Beat Bobby Flay on Chopped and the uppity blonde with a posh accent from Chopped on Next Food Network Star.

But I hate the food competitions for the same reasons I hate most sports.(3)

The bragging, for one. Over-inflated self-confidence is so unappealing. And you hear the same inane platitudes from food competitors that you do from professional athletes. It makes me contrary.(4)

Just once I want someone to be realistic or unexpected or at least modest:

I brought my B- game today!

I’m going to give 75 percent!

I came to prove to my family I’m mediocre!

I’m not going to settle for anything less than 4th place!

I came to lose!

The war and violence metaphors. Most of these are clearly borrowed from the vocabulary of professional sports, and most of them just sound silly. Cupcake Wars – now there’s an oxymoron! Chopped. Cutthroat Kitchen.(5) Can we please have food without blood and mayhem? At least Guy has Grocery Games, and the violence is limited to (mostly) accidental ramming of shopping carts.

The snot factor. Settle down, now. Not in the food – in the contestants. One Top Chef contestant was so bad we took to calling him Snothead the Sommelier for his incessant unwelcome lectures on wine, whether the dish called for it or not.(6) One Next Food Network Star contestant got bounced because he smirked when he was pronounced safe. A judge changed her vote and we all cheered.

Sabotage. We’ll leave Cutthroat Kitchen out of this, since sabotage is its whole raison d’être. But honestly, there’s a lot of throwing people under the bus, especially when the chefs are supposed to work in teams.(7)  Then there’s plain pettiness – keeping all of an ingredient, refusing to clean the ice cream machine, pointing out that your dish doesn’t have the flaw the judges just dinged someone for.

One last general gripe: Food Network used to show you how to cook things.(8) Now such actually useful shows are relegated to daytime hours, while prime time is filled with competitions, road shows, and “Please Save My Business” shows.(9)

Still, with all their flaws, I can’t stop watching food sports. They’re addictive, like potato chips or cookies. Mmmm, cookies. ::drools::

 

(1) Unless my husband isn’t watching because they have to prepare live seafood. Then he goes all Buddhist until the crustaceans are cooked, when he’ll dig right in. (He still calls Emeril Lagasse “The Evil Cook” and refuses to watch him since he threw live crayfish into a hot pan and laughed about it.)

(2) Think Jon-Benet Ramsey. (What narcissist father names his daughter after him like that anyway, without adding “ette,” “ine,” or “le”?) And don’t tell me that pageants build self-esteem. Only for the winners.

(3) Except the Olympics. I don’t usually hate the Olympics. Just the media coverage of them. And the bikinis they make the women beach volleyball players wear while the men wear baggy shorts. At least on the Food Network, everyone wears chef jackets and aprons.

(4) Okay. Contrarier. (I like the sound of that word. Trademark!)

(5) I actually like Cutthroat Kitchen. Goofy and evil at the same time, like most of my friends. Although the Camp Cutthroat episodes were just over-the-top WRONG! I could barely watch them.

(6) Marcel Vigneron was a close second for sheer annoyance factor – so much so that the other Top Chef contestants tried to shave his head – but he improved with a little perspective and less extreme hair styling. Now he’s engagingly weird without pissing everyone off. Still has ego issues, but for chefs, TV personalities, and sports figures, that’s practically a requirement.

(7) Hosts make this worse when they set up the contestants by asking “Who do you think should go home?” or “Why do you deserve to win?”

(8) Not that I actually ever made any of the recipes from them. Except once I tried to make The Barefoot Contessa’s triple ginger cookies. I actually learned something from that experience, too: When she says, “jumbo eggs,” she really means jumbo eggs. Medium ones don’t work at all.

(9) Here again, there’s one I like – Restaurant Impossible. Part cooking, part decorating, part group (or family) therapy. Not to mention the theatrical sledgehammer scenes, which may be a metaphor for the whole show.