When I’m somewhere with television, I like to watch cooking shows, even if not for typical reasons. And I don’t mean the traditional cooking shows, where a lady stands behind a countertop with 300 ingredients and seventy-eight bowls, with three different batches of the same dish in different stages of readiness. And she’s always smiling, and having some sort of mouth-gasm every time she takes a bite of the thing that she, or her staff, made. Talk about narcissistic. And awkward.
No, I mean the competition shows. They’re a train wreck on several levels: the premise, the contestants, and the judges. Oh, and the food. Let’s take our time working through them.
The premise of these shows is absurd. I’m thinking of one show in particular, which will remain nameless, where contestants are chopped from the competition, with the oh-so-ominous phrase “You’ve been chopped,” and whose logo has a cleaver stuck in a chopping block. The dialogue and editing are choppy, and I want to karate-chop most of the people on the show. But it will remain nameless.
Anyway, I think the premise of this show, where people get a basket of seemingly random ingredients, could be cool. In particular, it would be cool if I had heard of any of the ingredients. Or if anyone watching actually had any of them. Or could even buy them outside of a specialty market in about nine cities in the US. No, I don’t really care how to prepare clownfish ovary, or whatever is the special ingredient this week. Similarly, I have never wondered how I could use, say, peanut brittle in an appetizer. It’s peanut brittle. It’s hard, and to make, too. You’re ruining it. Leave it alone.
But that’s not the only problem. The show suffers from a common ailment of such shows: taking itself too seriously. The over-the-top formality of the show is laughable. I get it: every professional culture takes itself seriously, and seems odd to outsiders. That being said, the uber-stoic, ultra-serious discussions seem incongruous on a cooking show. You, my friend, are judging how well contestants included cotton candy in an entree.
No. Just, just no.
The misplaced earnestness manifests in several curious ways, but here’s one of the most obvious: using the word “Chef” as a formal title. As in, “Chef Robert, please tell us what you prepared today.” It’s spoken with so much pomp, it feels like there should be a reference to place as part of the title, like “Chef Robert of Wilksbury,” or something. There should be long trumpets. Someone should be wearing a cape.
And when did “Chef” become a title? Typically, few professionals are addressed by their job title. “Engineer Beth, please tell us what you prepared today.” Or, “Human Resources Director Larry, please lead us through your presentation.” Ick.
It seems that job titles and professional titles merge in cases of respect, or traditionally warranted respect. “Doctor” comes to mind. “Reverend.” “Professor,” though that seems to have been diluted in today’s higher education soup. Near the top of the list are “Mom” and “Dad,” where your “job” becomes not just your title, but your name in its entirety. “Coach,” too. These people are mentors. You trust them with important things, like your life or spiritual path or worldview.
“Chef?” No. Sure, maybe they’re highly trained, but so are engineers, and in the former case, there wasn’t even any calculus or a licensing exam. Sure, maybe chefs nourish you, but so did my grandmother, and so does the “sandwich artist” at Subway. So again, no.
And the judges. My word. Ultra-serious people falsely concluding that if you can taste a difference, the difference matters. Further, if the difference matters, there becomes a hierarchy of tastes, and therefore “wrong” ways to do it. Sure, the human tongue recoils at some flavors–natural selection made a point of that, like liking sweet or disliking feces. Everything beyond that is a hobby, not a job. Nourish the people you love, do it in ways that stimulate you if you like, but don’t pretend that it’s insulting to serve merely edible food to someone. Worry more about whether that food will kill you–whether via obesity or poisoning–but don’t pretend the flavors really matter that much. That–not inedible food–is sickening.
But I watch, nonetheless. I learn about how to use utensils, and how to prepare foods in general. After all, these people do know things, and they have to reach far outside of the box to make the pinecone sauce, or whatever, edible. So, there’s education, I guess.
But then I think about all of the cultural assumptions on the cooking show. The profuse nodding from contestants while judges pontificate nonsensically about this dish or that. “I feel like you really put your heart into this dish, Chef Jack.” Profuse nodding from Jack. Similarly profuse vomiting from me. No, Your Dishonor, this dish had rhinoceros heart, not his heart. If I may please the Court.
“I don’t get a good feeling from this dish, Chef Cleo. It makes my mouth feel empty, like it wanted something more.” Well, Your Highness, I’ll put a different feeling into your mouth, and it will feel empty, ‘cuz I’ll knock your teeth out.
But I digress. When I think about the cultural uniformity of a bunch of culinary-school dropouts, all clamoring and nodding for a few thousand dollars because they’re all broke (“But I have to live in New York! I’m a chef!), I think about how that would play back home. I wonder how a cooking show, Rural America style, would look.
First, the logo would have an axe.
So imagine we’re in the “Dessert Round” of ‘Axed,’ Season 1. Imagine there are two contestants left. Imagine we join the oh-so-serious, cosmopolitan host, in progress, and he’s summarizing the first two rounds: appetizer and entree…
Host: “We’re here in the dessert round, featuring Chef Linda McMotherly and Chef Butch A-Roni (of Brainerd). It’s been a fierce battle, and both chefs have made serious missteps in the first two rounds. If you recall, the loser of the appetizer round was disqualified because she insisted that the judges eat “family style” instead of plating her dish on our lovely, modern, delightfully predictably obsolescent white, oversized plates, which she said wouldn’t fit in her dishwasher, anyway.
“Let’s look back at that appetizer round for our two remaining contestants:
Judge/Chef/Queen Chef Laura Cosmo-stein (Owner/Executive Narcissist of several restaurants in Manhattan, mainly for super-rich people, but one in the Bronx for merely rich people, which means she’s a totally, totally real person): “Chef Linda, I think you misinterpreted this dish. You will advance because one of your competitors brought us only a bag of chips and a tub of sour cream with some dried parsley, but still, this isn’t a salad.”
McMotherly: “Sure it’s a salad.”
Cosmo-stein: “It most certainly is not. It’s sickeningly sweet. It’s mostly marshmallow.”
McMotherly: “Right. Snicker salad.”
Enter Judge/Chef/King Boris HighRise (Owner/Chief Navel-Gazer at a Norwegian-Antarctic fusion steakhouse in LA): “But why the Mandarin oranges, Linda? Why?”
McMotherly: “For color. And so it’s not too sweet.”
Back to the host: “More of the same from Chef Butch A-Roni:”
A-Roni: “I have prepared for you today my famous Slim Jim Foy Grass.”
HighRise: “Do you mean ‘foie gras?'”
A-Roni: “Dunno. But you’re lucky, though, ‘cuz I didn’t see any jerky back there in that pantry of yours, but I had some in my truck. It’s not as cold as it is back home, but that means it mixed easier.”
Cosmo-stein: “But what are these chips? They’re very firm.”
A-Roni: “Oh, those were in my truck, too. Might be a bit stale. But I’m pretty sure I shook all the mouse shit off ’em.”
Cosmo-stein: (silence) “That’s a lovely camo apron, Chef Butch.”
A-Roni: “Thanks! I had to wear my blaze-orange one for de-boning this year, so it’s in the wash.”
Back to the host: “So this is it, the Dessert Round. First up, again, is Chef Linda.”
McMotherly: “I have prepared for you my homemade ‘stachio salad.”
Cosmo-stein: “Chef Linda, we talked about this. This is the Dessert Round. Is this a dessert salad, or a real salad?”
McMotherly: “Oh, this one’s more of a dessert salad, ‘cuz-a the ‘stachios.”
HighRise: “Wait, the what?”
McMotherly: “The ‘stachios. Nuts.”
HighRise: “There are pistachios in here? This is homemade? Where’d you get the pistachios?”
McMotherly: “They’re in the pudding packet, I think. Pretty sure, anyway.”
Cosmo-stein: “Why is it gray, then? I thought pistachios would be green.”
McMotherly: “That’s the Oreos. But I think you just had generic in the pantry, so I think it made the whole thing gray in the mixer.”
HighRise: “What is in this, exactly, besides the pistachio pudding and the Oreos?”
McMotherly: “Sweetened condensed milk.”
Cosmostein: (silence) “You call this ‘Pistach’–I mean, ‘Stachio Salad.”
McMotherly: “Yes.” (beaming)
Back to the host: “Thank you, Chef Linda. Chef Butch, it’s your turn.”
A-Roni: “Well, I don’ really eat dessert, so I prepared something sweet for you. Enjoy.”
HighRise: “It’s in this pitcher? And we’re supposed to pour it into these Solo cups?”
A-Roni: “Yup. I call ’em ‘beer-ritas.'”
Cosmo-stein: “Like ‘margaritas?’ There’s alcohol in this?”
A-Roni: “Uh-huh. Had it all in my truck. Coors and Cuervo. Can’t tell a difference. Just like triple sex.”
HighRise: “Did you just–nevermind.” (Drinks whole Solo cup.) “Winner. I’m going home.”
Axed. Listen up, Food Network: I’d watch that.
P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.
He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.