Tag Archives: Food network

Magic in the Kitchen

It’s amazing what you can find in a kitchen. I admire people who have matching containers for flour, sugar, and mixing spoons. They usually also have kitchen gadgets that I can’t even name, let alone operate. Then there’s the ubiquitous kitchen junk drawer, which as a friend of mine noted, contains “rabies vaccination tags for cats that ran away” and “a dozen mangled twistie ties from last year’s Wonder Bread.” (He also called it “The Mother of All Clutter” and “Perfection’s Perfect Safety Valve.”)

But the most amazing thing you can find in the kitchen is a new life. A new start. A new purpose. Redemption.

I first realized this when my husband and I were watching the TV show Chopped. We couldn’t remember the names of the contestants, so we gave them nicknames: Who’s getting chopped this round? Red-beard guy! No, kerchief lady! Pickles everything dude! (We do the same with Forged in Fire. Santa Claus guy! Teenage upstart! Tattoo-neck! But I digress.)

One night there was a man on Chopped we took to calling “The Old Drunk,” because he was, well, old-looking and called himself a drunk when the judges asked him to tell a little bit about himself. He told how he had spent years as a hopeless alcoholic and how, after he got sober, cooking had saved him. I don’t remember whether he won Chopped, but now, I understand, he has cooking videos on YouTube and has appeared on other Food Network shows like Beat Bobby Flay. He seems to have done pretty well for himself on his journey up from rock bottom.

Then I started noticing other contestants with equally compelling stories. There have been more than a few who have credited cooking with saving their lives or giving them a way out of alcoholism or other addictions. Men have said that their lives started in gangs or ended in jail until they discovered cooking. One woman said it helped her escape from domestic abuse. Any number have said that cooking helped them feel pride in themselves when their families disapproved of their lifestyle or career choices. And quite a few competitors have said they used cooking to help overcome challenges such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other physical and mental difficulties.

This is not something that occurs only on TV, either. My husband used to work in community-based corrections. (And no, that’s not where we met.) As he counseled prisoners (inmates? clients?), he routinely heard that there were two professions that they wanted to explore when they were back on the streets: hairdressing and cooking.

(I don’t think there are any competitive hairdressing TV shows, but as soon as I say that, someone is bound to prove me wrong.)

What makes cooking such a redemptive pursuit? I think there are several answers. Cooking takes time, attention, and creativity when it’s done well. Even non-professional (or non-competitive) cooks can take pride in the idea that they are nourishing someone else – or even themselves.

I’m not saying that cooking will solve all a person’s problems or replace AA. But I do think that cooking, whether it’s at the level of professional or amateur, art or craft, hobby or necessity, speaks to something vital inside us. Food is necessary for life, after all, and making that into something expressive and loving and creative is transformative, of both the food and the self. It feeds not just bodies, but sometimes the soul.

I’m not sure about Forged in Fire. I don’t know whether bladesmithing is a redemptive act, too, though I imagine if done with sufficient commitment, pride, and artistry it could be. The same is likely true of many of the other competition-type shows. (Except Cupcake Wars. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone redeemed by cupcakes.)

One of the best-selling cookbooks of all time is The Joy of Cooking. I think it’s the joy as well as the struggle, the stumbles and disappointments, the cuts and burns, the standing rib roasts and the fallen soufflés, that give cooking its power to feed us all, and especially those who practice it with passion.

And those people I really admire, whether they’ve got their canisters in a row or not.

 

 

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.