At my advanced age, cooking has become for me what baseball used to be a million years ago — something that I just love in spite of the fact that I seem to have no discernible aptitude for it. As a 12-year-old, I used to watch baseball voraciously — everything from actual games, broadcast in black and white, without instant replay or any of a thousand other enhancements that younger fans take for granted, to Home Run Derby. I will admit to having discovered an ancient edition of HRD on YouTube a couple of weeks ago, and sat spellbound as Mickey Mantle beat Ernie Banks 5-3, the low score indicative of the competition being fantastically boring, with only eight home runs, but a million revelations from the two stars along the lines of, “I sure hope I can do better my next time at bat.” I didn’t find it nearly as pleasurable viewing as my new favorite Food Network show, Chopped, on which chefs frenziedly cook a three-course meal with weird ingredients for a $10,000 prize.
And I do mean weird. Two nights ago, the competitors had to feature rattlesnake in their appetizer. A few weeks back, their main courses had to feature goat brains. They’ve had to work with emu eggs and grasshoppers, fruit leather, canned brown bread, and cheese puffs. Indeed, one of the most fun moments of every show is seeing the looks of horror on the chefs’ faces as they open the baskets they’re presented before each stage of the competition. And yet you almost never see anybody failing to spring into action the moment the moment the show’s MC, the very flavorless, if gay, Ted Allen, shouts, “Go!” Make an appetizer with baby octopus, bok choy, Dijon mustard, and gummi bears? What could be easier?
And I do mean springing. As the food writer Michael Pollan, to whom I have no allergy, has pointed out, many TV cooking shows are geared these days to fans of sports and action films. Something is forever bursting into flame. Watching some of these people julienne vegetables is like watching a point guard drive the lane in an NBA game. Their technique takes the breath away. As they race against the clock, always to the accompaniment of blood pressure-raising music, the veins in the chefs’ necks throb Springsteenishly. They almost invariably glisten with sweat. They are 21st century gladiators.
Naturally, the program shamelessly plays up every possible human interest angle. There’s almost invariably a much-tattooed dese-‘n’-dose sous chef who wants desperately to demonstrate to those who love him — ideally, an estranged child — that he’s really gotten his act together at last, is not only clean and sober, but a hell of a cook. There’s very often an immigrant, who can’t stop talking about how wonderful this country has been to him or her. Very often too, there’s a stuck-up young prodigy three years out of some top culinary school who clearly regards himself or herself as God’s gift to cooking. How we love it when he or she loses in the end to the self-taught former dishwasher from Palookaville whose technique’s a little iffy, but whose soulfulness is apparently evident in every forkful of his bok choy and gummi bear compote!
Very often, there are special editions of the show, in which, for instance, the four cooks are all under 12, or all stars of reality shows. To see four 11-year-olds cook with the imagination, confidence, and dexterity of Top Professionals is to believe that the world might survive for another generation.