A Chopped State of Mind

Curator's Note

I watch Food Network at the gym. It’s perverse, I know—a rabbit running after its carrot (or cupcake). I don't have a TV and I'm a food writer, which means not only that the gym provides a mindless visual and physical break from mindful writing about food, but also that I'm there at odd hours. Say, 3 p.m.—just in time for the Chopped contestants to open their mystery baskets.

Four up-and-coming chefs open their baskets to reveal … duck confit, red cherry peppers, frozen naan, and vanilla beans. Appetizer round: 20 minutes. If your dish doesn’t cut it, you get chopped. The celebrities of the show are the judges, a panel of three famous chefs who taste and critique each plate. They cluck and fret during the cooking—“He’s going to burn that sauce”—and then mull and squint at each round of plates, until finally—“I’m sorry, Tim. You’ve been chopped.”

Will Larry get his salad on the plate in time for judging? Will the naan crostinis get soggy—and will the black licorice reduction taste good? As the courses progress—entrée to dessert—the contestants get fewer and the survivors get sweatier. It doesn't really matter when we're watching, but when we're at home, enacting, a Chopped-state-of-mind raises the stakes. Instead of opening a basket of mystery ingredients selected by some committee at the Food Network—ground beef, wonton wrappers, cream of mushroom soup, bananas—I peer into my fridge to see what remains. Almond butter and eggplant, eggs and onions, yogurt and parmesan cheese. Are there any potatoes? Frittata it shall be.

Chopped is improv cooking at its best, and maybe that’s the key to the addiction—in the chaos. We are not watching perfectly-coifed Giada follow her grandmother’s lasagna recipe to a T—never rushed, never harried. No, in the Chopped kitchen, just like our own, we are sweating and rushing and while it’s true that we will not be disqualified from the dinner table lest we fail to plate our food before the time is up, we are rushed for other reasons and our kitchens cabinets might well be mystery baskets. With characteristic Food Network flourish and drama, Chopped offers up the notion that we can make do with what we have—and with creativity, make it into something good.


Thank you, Megan, for bringing a relevance to this (type of) show which had been lacking for me before. I always thought, "This is so unrealistic! When do professional chefs ever have to be forced to combine odd ingredients on the job?!" How did I not get this before - that's me! Improvising every day with random, inharmonious ingredients. So, I can actually learn a thing or to from entertainment reality TV. I knew it. One comment about what I find to be a strange production element. Larry, the eventual loser here, is narrating in the present tense while sitting calmly. Presumably he's instructed to relive his stressful thoughts for the viewer after the fact. I'm not that familiar with this show so I don't know if that happens for all the contestants, but it just exacerbates the artificiality of it for me. Still hard to for me to stomach all these glitzy aspects of cooking shows.

Megan, like Kathleen, I am pleasantly surprised by considering a perspective which I hadn't before, namely that shows like these are *more* rather than less realistic because of their in-built chaos. I think that's a really interesting way to think about them. That said, perhaps it's the element of time, coupled with the (usually) at least one left-field ingredient (vanilla with duck confit?) that most of us who figure stuff out with what we have in our kitchens don't have to contend with. I've been watching the show slightly reluctantly (I have a nephew who is a big fan), and must agree that I find it quite entertaining, and closer to the "what would I do" mindset than an episode of Iron Chef has ever inspired (great entertainment there, but too far removed from any reality that I would ever inhabit).

"Improvise," rooted in the Latin for "not provided, not prepared for." I also love the idea that the show is modeling for us a useable skill, demonstrating the possibilities of cooking off the cuff. This vision of the mystery box, a challenge that also springs up in Ramsay's Master Chef, where home chefs face surprise ingredients, seems something like the cookbook equivalent of Dornenburg's Culinary Artistry, in which the aim is to educate the reader in the flavors and combinations of ingredients, rather than to offer up a slew of recipes. I'm not that familiar with the show, but I'm assuming there's a moment in which the chefs explain why they've made the choices they've made—choices that are no doubt judged as successful or chop-able—and that's when viewers learn a little of how to improve like a chef. To Megan's great portrait of why this kind of cooking show mirrors our hectic lives, I'd add that recipe-making, too, now lends itself to a mystery-box mindset: I'm thinking of how we can now Google "recipe" along with any ingredients we happen to have in the house and find some recipe that makes use of them, often a tasty one. CSA baskets might be another such occasion: what do I do with a bag of garlic scapes, a quart of beets, and a chicken? (That's the current mystery box challenge in the LeMay kitchen.)

I admire Megan. Not content that she has run a mile on the treadmill in penance for watching television, she channels the competitive energy of the show into making dinner. Although I rarely watch food t.v. (probably should not admit that), when I do, it is probably from the couch while eating take out. Still, I think competive food shows are justified, even if they are not always very good, by the way that the engage even the couch potato in food criticism. The bedrock of our modern culinary culture is choice. We live in a nation of abundance and even in the small, Mississippi city I live in there is a plethora of dinner choices from ethnic restaurants to whatever-they-have-this-week at the farmers' market. Unlike our calorie-starved predecessors, who chased after wild turkey or tilled the fields, all we have to do is choose. (This is not to say that we all have the same resources and can make the same choices, but most Americans have some control over what they eat.) "Chopped" turns that daily choice into a game for both the contestants and the viewers. We root for our favorites. We criticize and critique. We think about food and taste and creativity. Yet, it is a strange game we are playing. We would never presume to judge a concert after watching it on t.v. with the sound off. No one would write a review of a play after seeing nothing but the sets. Yet that is exactly what we do when we watch, and judge, a cooking show on television. Perhaps this speaks to the sophistication of our culinary imagination. Or perhaps we are just lazier than Megan and should get off the couch and into the kitchen (Forgive me if I am a little out of sync with the conversation. I am traveling and posting when I can.)

Andrew, I think you're completely in sync, and it's me now who may be veering off the topic at hand.I'd like to ask you, and others, a question that's plagued me for some time. I'm not asking in a devil's advocate way at all, I just want to be able to articulate a response for myself. Why is it important that more people engage in food criticism? Why is that a good thing? Alison referred to something similar in her response to Signe's post. She mentioned (paraphrasing here) the celeb chefs who imply that we are better people if we cook, and these chefs send that message to promote and protect their domains. But in all my research and interviewing on this topic, there is a lot of this "good! more people will cook/know about food!" Personally, I know that my life is enriched by loving and learning about food, and I think we *might* hope for a more enlightened and healthy citizenry if more people did, but is it really something that everyone needs to engage with and to what end? Is it like fine art or travel? Is it an elitist wish?

“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living - that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.” Plato, Apology It is a great question Kathleen, but I don’t know that I have a great answer. Life can be a series of repetitive tasks or it can be a rich conversation leading to a better understanding of who we are and our relationship to the world. I think most people prefer the later and not just elites. Admittedly, I am not sure that discovering a preference for white versus black truffles, or Coke versus Pepsi, will lead to enlightenment. But it can make dinnertime more interesting and, I believe, it is an essential way in which we exercise our personhood. What we consume and the meaning we assign to what we consume is how we stake a claim to an identity. I eat stuffed grape leaves, love bibimbap, and wish I could find decent rhubarb in the South. I hate peanut butter cookies. Like the clothes I wear, the music I listen to, the books I read (from trashy mysteries to Plato), the movies I watch, and art on my walls, the food I eat is not only an integral part of who I am, but also who I want to be (cosmopolitan, healthy, man of the people, etc.). I think that exercising those choices is, no less than voting, the essence of freedom, that knowledge is a prerequisite of choice, and that debate is how we refine our understanding of those choices and test them out before we eat them.

(...To steal the title of an infamous author's new book.) Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments and great conversation! Eric, I don't know why I didn't include the "CSA mystery box" idea in my original post! It's a nice analogy, though perhaps I'm pushing it too far. I often get ingredients I've never heard of, and for me, that's part of the fun---tasting and figuring them out. But of course, as Andrew points out, I'm a bit of an energetic oddball. In response to Kathleen's question, I'd actually again point to the CSA box. I think you started out asking if we need food/cooking criticism and shifted towards asking if "cooking" itself is of import. I like the impulse, to push the assumption that it's good that more people know how to cook, and I'd answer it by saying cooking engenders not only independence but also choice. Salads, as it turns out, don't always have to have lettuce and tomatoes---good thing, because lettuce and tomatoes don't grow in the winter. By encouraging creativity, I think cooking allows us to live within our means (both financially and ecologically). Of course, Michael Pollan has already made this point, and much better than I will here. In "Cooked," he writes about how, in spite of the proliferation of celebrity chefs and cooking shows, watching elegant/healthful/interesting food being prepared on TV does not, in fact, mean that you get to eat it. My biggest concern with cooking shows in general, and especially celebrity chefs, is: Do they motivate people to try "it"---whatever it may be---themselves? To totally contradict myself, cooking shows like Chopped sometimes make me fearful that by injecting so much flourish and drama into food, we make it seem as thought food MUST be prepared with flourish and drama. Say you'd never heard of cooking before---no one had taught you, you'd never watched friends in their homes---and you sat down and watched the Food Network for an afternoon. You might think that to cook you need elaborate, multi-step recipes with many ingredients. Tonight, I'm cooking CSA-leftover quesadilla---any veggies that remain from last week's pickup, diced with a bit of cheese between two whole-wheat tortillas. Not Chopped worthy, but healthy, inexpensive, and quick. And... cooked!

Agreeing with everyone that Kathleen raises an important and interesting question. I'm personally inclined to the slightly cynical answer, which is no, we don't need everyone to become a food critic - or to fancy themselves as such: (at the risk of opening another can of wholefood, hipster worms) some may just call them foodies. There's certainly also been a current of this cynicism with various "backlashes" at foodie-ism over the last couple of years, which I think is really a reaction to an over-attention, or over-zealous attention to food (which manifests variously as snobbery, elistist and/or plain irritating). On the other hand - and sorry to be the one to keep turning the conversation to poorer rather than better health through food - there is an argument to be made that one factor behind the obesity crisis is precisely a lack of critical engagement with what we're eating. It always risks becoming an uncomfortable moral grandstanding, but in this version (to which I think there is some truth), if more people ate more mindfully, or less absentmindedly, then maybe that could contribute to better health? But I'm not convinced that eating mindfully could or should only happen in our own kitchens, or that we need to become better cooks to do so. I think there is a place for industrially produced, even (gasp!) processed food at the table.

Megan I just wanted to drop in here, months later, and let you know that I'm still thinking about this line from your comment: "cooking engenders not only independence but also choice. ... By encouraging creativity, I think cooking allows us to live within our means (both financially and ecologically)." I just love that point. And your quesadilla sounds like it could be chopped-worthy ... (Or at least could be a contender if you sprinkled on some of those wholefood, hipster worms Signe mentions?) And while everyone needn't be a food critic, I'm in the camp that thinks we would all be better off if we all thought more critically about our food (system) and the way we interact with it.

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