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I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
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The Jerks of Cooking

(Science days are here again. Secondhand SCIENCE days, that is!

Check out the latest semi-scientific silliness, all about the lysosome. It’s not here to say please. Trust me.)

It’s possible I’m going soft in my old age.

(That’s emotionally soft, by the way. I don’t have any hard evidence (yet) that I’m going mentally soft. And there’s no way to refute the physical evidence, so we’re not even going there.

No, I said we’re not. Let it go.)

What I prefer to believe, though, is that I’m approximately as soft — or as hard, or firm, or steely, or weepy (or sneezy, or Doc, for that matter) — as I always was, and that the world is progressively hardening all around me. Or at least, the American bits of the world, where things seem to get a little grittier, a little angrier, and a little louder every day.

I have evidence for this, in an area that’s emerging as one of our nation’s most brutal and ruthless arenas, filling daily with more bile and greed and wanton ego.

Yes, that’s right: cooking shows.

As just one example, consider Alton Brown. Not so many years ago, he hosted a program called Good Eats. It ran for 14 seasons, and in addition to disseminating cooking tips and recipes, was also basically a variety show full of skits and entertainment. There were recurring characters — the grouchy neighbor, a prissy sister, a dungeon master, for crissakes. Blackboards saw liberal use for demonstrations. Heroes and villains and experts of dubious merit came and went — Lever Man, Waffle Man, Sergeant Pepper — next to actual authorities on nutrition and food history. It was, if not quite “delightful”, exactly — we’ll get back to that — certainly clever, informative, entertaining and heartfelt. I love Good Eats.

I even came up with a set (or three) of Alton Brown facts, in the style of Chuck Norris facts. I was basically suggesting that Alton Brown is the Chuck Norris of cooking shows.

And then Alton Brown began hosting Iron Chef America, a cooking contest pitting (typically) balloon-egoed pro chefs against each other, serving dishes to (mostly) haughty near-celebrity judges while a (cartoonishly) smug “chairman” looks on. There’s food in this “cooking show”, yeah — but it’s really more about clash and pressure and bravado than anything else.

“But how you get ball-grabbingly macho over, ‘my meatloaf can kick your meatloaf’s ass’ is beyond me.”

(That last bit is frankly a mystery. I appreciate a good chef as much as the next guy. But how you get ball-grabbingly macho over, “my meatloaf can kick your meatloaf’s ass” is beyond me.

I mean, yay, you cooked a thing. Bully for you. If you’re expecting a cookie for it, then get your ass back in the kitchen and bake one. That’s your gig, right?)

In his narrating role, Brown got snippier and cockier himself. Maybe to match the tone of the show. Maybe as another character to play, that just happened to share his name. Or maybe he felt his meatloaf was the Iron-iest of them all, and was pissed he didn’t get to prove it. But Iron Chef America played up conflict over cuisine — far more than the original Japanese show — and Alton Brown became a cog in that machine.

And so went a lot of new cooking shows around that time. Chopped began in 2009, for instance, pitting four smack-talking chefs against one another in front of a panel of judges, most of which would make the Queen of Hearts seem pleasant.

(Some of these judges went on to become Iron Chef (America)s!, which proves that they can apparently sneer and sous vide with comparable skill.)

By 2013, all the charm had seemingly been squeezed out of food TV, like icing from a piping bag. Alton Brown signed up for Cutthroat Kitchen, in which the contestants and the host now all actively mock, despise and sabotage one another, and incidentally, once in a while some food might get prepared. By a guy who’s only allowed to cook with an E-Z Bake oven and has to use his underpants to strain pasta. Because Alton Brown told him so, and nyah-ed at him the whole time. Because Alton Brown now evidently believes he’s the Chuck Norris of cooking shows.

Good Eats, we hardly knew ye.

I’ve been a big fan of cooking shows — even some of the competition shows — over the years. I look at people expertly preparing food in the same way I do a lumberjack or a human cannonball or Lindsey Lohan: certainly I could never do what they do, and I would grievously hurt myself trying. But it’s fascinating to watch, and to learn about, and to put bets on who’s losing a finger first.

That doesn’t mean I want to see them bitching at each other about who whips their souffles correctly. If that’s a thing chefs do. I don’t even souffle, apparently.

But that’s the landscape of food-ertainment these days — or so I thought. Because among all the Fight Club Sandwich and Mad Mixer: Beyond Frappedome nonsense being shoved (deliciously) down our throats, I recently found a BBC/PBS show called The Great British Baking Show. It’s not perfect. It can be uneven. Sometimes it’s a little slow.

But it’s also delightful.

I’d forgotten it was possible for people on a cooking show — much less a contest — to be nice to each other. But they are. In just one recent episode, the motherly sort of woman helps the nervous young girl. The builder — who is possibly also Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, I’m just saying — loans out the pencil tucked behind his ear. The crusty old Scottish guy recites Robert Burns, for crissakes — Robert honna’e-ta-Gae Burns! There’s no one on the show that’s anything but lovely.

And on top of that, all they do is bake pies and crumpets and petit-fours or petit-choux or pettycoat junctions — look, I don’t really know what they’re doing, exactly. They could be defusing bombs, for all I know, by wrapping them in dough and baking to golden brown. What I do know is they’re lovely and delightful and entertaining, and it is too still possible to do all those things and make food into a camera.

Do you hear me, Alton Brown and every-foody-body else? It is, still, too.

Permalink  |  3 Comments

3 Responses to “The Jerks of Cooking”

  1. Oh thank you for outlining the decline of Alton Brown. Though I was a contestant on Chopped – so I guess I played my part.
    I’m looking forward to watching the Great British Baking Show.

  2. Charlie says:

    One of my great televisional disappointments of the last few years is the gradual “snippy-ing” of Alton Brown. He was such a nice boy, before they got their forged-steel artisinal kebab skewers into him.

    And honestly, I still watch a lot of Chopped. It doesn’t really lose me until it’s clear that *everyone* in the room not named Ted believes they’re *obviously* better than everyone else in the room. Sometimes it’s a whole episode; sometimes it’s two minutes into the appetizer rounds. You never know.

  3. Amanda Zakarian says:

    Aaron Sanchez goes on to a contestant about all of the flaws with her dish and then goes on to say there isn’t enough on the plate to judge on. Clearly there was enough for him to make so many critical remarks. Prissy little girl, that Aaron

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