Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thoughts on Cooking, Sports and Michael Pollan

From True/Slant on August 2, 2009:

Why Lidia Bastianich Is More Like Candace Parker Than She Knows

Damn you, Michael Pollan. Just damn you for your New York Times Sunday magazine piece on food, cooking shows and how much, or how little, we all cook. In short, the essence of Pollan’s argument is that we cook less, watch more, and have essentially turned cooking into a spectator sport. What I found most interesting was Pollan’s take on the way competitive food shows are presented because I’ve been thinking about it for months. I watch a ridiculous amounts of sports programming, which I rationalize as being work. But I’m a cooking show junkie. I admit it, shows like Bravo’s “Top Chef” and the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” which bring together cooking and competition have me hooked. And Pollan knows why: they’re like crack for my sports jonesing heart and I am Iron Chef Mario Batali’s bitch.

It’s like Pollan crawled inside my brain when he wrote:

"Whether in the Kitchen Stadium or on “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star” or, over on Bravo, “Top Chef,” cooking in prime time is a form of athletic competition, drawing its visual and even aural vocabulary from “Monday Night Football.” On “Iron Chef America,” one of the Food Network’s biggest hits, the cookingcaster Alton Brown delivers a breathless (though always gently tongue-in-cheek) play by play and color commentary, as the iron chefs and their team of iron sous-chefs race the clock to peel, chop, slice, dice, mince, Cuisinart, mandoline, boil, double-boil, pan-sear, sauté, sous vide, deep-fry, pressure-cook, grill, deglaze, reduce and plate — this last a word I’m old enough to remember when it was a mere noun. A particularly dazzling display of chefly “knife skills” — a term bandied as freely on the Food Network as “passing game” or “slugging percentage” is on ESPN — will earn an instant replay: an onion minced in slo-mo. Can we get a camera on this, Alton Brown will ask in a hushed, this-must-be-golf tone of voice. It looks like Chef Flay’s going to try for a last-minute garnish grab before the clock runs out! Will he make it? [The buzzer sounds.] Yes!"

Oh yes, Michael, oh yes. I love it. I love the skill of the competitors. I love seeing creative and inventive chefs like Batali thrive under severe time constraints or given odd ingredients. I love examining the implicit strategies of each Iron Chef, worthy of the most complex NFL offensive gameplans. I love watching Top Chef contestants improvise like a great hockey winger taking advantage of a breakdown or flukey bounce. I love watching chefs and sous chefs work in tandem the way a great offensive line does. And just as much, I love watching a single chef banging it out of the park like Roger Maris. Clearly, these producers have learned how to package food shows by watching CBS’ March Madness coverage and Fox’s NFL coverage.

But it’s not just the structure and the competition. As much as those shows appeal to me, I grew up watching Julia Child teach American women how to cook. It was stripped down, elemental, educational cooking. I loved it. Even today, there remain a few chefs who work along Child’s model, with no bells and whistles. To me, Lidia Bastianich is a first ballot, unanimous Hall of Famer in the cooking world and her PBS cooking show, “Lidia’s Italy” is about as bare bones, old school, educational as you can get. So it’s not just about the flash and dash and ESPN-like production values. It’s about the food.

But why watch Lidia cook when I could actually, you know, be cooking? I watch her for the same reason I watch the Duke-UNC basketball games, and the same reason that I sit breathlessly rapt through wall to wall NFL coverage on Sundays from noon until midnight. You could kill every announcer on the planet, disappear every sports producer in North America, set up two cameras and a mike courtside and I’d still tune in to watch the UConn-Rutgers women’s basketball game. I’d tune in because those players and those teams can do things I can’t do. Yeah, I can play football or basketball and there’s nothing wrong with a rec league game of hoops or a three on three game of backyard football. And while I can run a fade route, I can’t run one like Larry Fitzgerald. I can play a game of one on one basketball, but I sure can’t ball like Candace Parker.

I watch Larry Fitz and Parker, not only for the competition, but for their excellence. The same is true for cooking greats.

I’m a good cook and I like to cook. I grew up making homeade ravioli and gnocchi and having spent decades up to my armpits in flour, eggs and cheese, I’ve even mastered them. But gnocchi and ravs are special occasion foods and I’m a regular, everyday cook. I’d like to think I have some skill in that arena; maybe even some panache and soul. But I’m still no Lidia.

I’m backyard superstar tossing a football around on a late summer evening. Lidia Bastianich is Joe Montana.

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