What We Can Learn
From “Worst Cooks in America”
If you have read The Blast since its inception you know that the Lovely Carol Marie and I probably watch The Food Network more than we should --- particularly since I’ve been on a high-protein, low-carb, gluten-free regimen since February. But old habits die hard and, having been a dedicated Food Network viewer since the late 1990’s (the network was originally owned by the Providence Journal so I may have heard/seen more about it in its early years because I lived in Providence), and because I do love food (and eating), we still tune in more than most people. So, it may be no surprise that Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. we never miss an episode of Worst Cooks in America --- a show featuring people who don’t know their ass from a frying pan and whose challenge is to become a competent home cook by the end of the “season.” In the new world of streaming television, of course, a “season” can be any show that runs for 6 or 8 or 10 episodes and, while “Worst” is in its 14th season it actually started in 2010 and has been interspersed with short “Celebrity Worst Cooks” seasons after the amateurs complete their challenge.
The one constant since the show’s inception has been Ann Burrell, the tough as nails chef who has become a Food Network superstar, easily recognizable due to her better-than-Guy Fieri shock of blonde styled hair. Ann has had a variety of co-hosts on “Worst Cooks,” ranging from Beau MacMillan to Bobby Flay to Rachel Ray to Tyler Florence and Robert Irvine (doing his second “tour” this season). The “worst cooks”(usually a dozen to begin with) are divided into “red” and “blue” teams and run through “culinary boot camp” with each celebrity chef guiding their progress and, starting with the second week, eliminating one red and one blue team member until they are down to two. If you are someone who cooks --- and particularly if you are somehow who loves to cook and knows his/her way around a spice rack --- the show is shocking and hilarious. The contestants are stunningly ignorant about cooking, about basic kitchen utensils, about food in general. It is perversely entertaining.
After watching the most recent episode this past Sunday I realized that the show has a genuinely useful subtext, though, and one that’s worth noting as we struggle through this difficult political time. In the early episodes of each season of “Worst Cook” one of the most striking characteristics the contestants share (whether “celebrities” or “civilians”) is their total lack of knowledge, familiarity, or awareness of a vast array of foods, many of which seem commonplace to your basic omnivore. So we watch as the contestants are afraid to touch a fish or don’t have any idea how to cut up a chicken (god forbid its head and feet are still present!). That the contestants have no idea of what squid ink is, how pasta is made, or what an avocado tastes like is par for the course. Contestants actually try cutting with the wrong side of the knife, include raw garlic in a recipe and, often, have no idea how salt can enrich or destroy a dish. The scent of a cucumber throws one contestant into paroxysms of repulsion while another doesn’t understand the basic concept of separating yolks from the whites of an egg. A consistent theme, and this will come as no surprise, is that there is a general fear and revulsion associated with food and basic kitchen experiences --- particularly those that the contestants have little or no familiarity with!
That’s a short step away from Trump World, isn’t it? As we watched this week’s episode (we’re more than halfway through the “season”), and saw some of the contestants moving about the kitchen with greater ease, handling ingredients without second thoughts, and generally becoming more competent in their environment, it struck me that this is really a grand metaphor for the Red and Blue polarization which is rampant in our national “conversation” these days. Having grown up in the “liberal” northeast, where my life (from Day One) was filled with “others” who were black and yellow, and brown, listening to a wide variety of accents (regional and immigrant), and playing team sports where your success totally depended on other people, no matter what race or religion they subscribed to, created a worldview that is very expansive --- not unlike an omnivore in a grocery store.
What we clearly observe, particularly as the “Chief Executive” harps on “difference” and intentionally promotes one group (race) over all others, is that the folks who respond positively to his message are those who find “others” threatening, those who don’t have real contact with those “others” and are susceptible to believing the shopworn mythologies of white supremacist thinking. I say this from the personal experience of my own extended family --- where I was derided for "incorrectly" promoting civil/equal rights --- because “you don’t live with them” (not that my family members, did --- but they believed their proximity --- Canarsie next to Brownsville --- made them more “expert” about the subject of “race”). As the first college graduate in my family I was told, at a family graduation party: “You! You went to Yale and learned to love N#gg#rs and hate money.” That’s when it became clear to me that there were people I knew and loved who simply found it easier to fear and hate than dig deeper into the issue to understand what circumstances created the mythology (and the attendant hatred) they subscribed to.
No, like the “worst cooks” they simply believed certain fruits or vegetables were “disgusting” and to be avoided --- even though they really never went deeper than an eyeball test or word of mouth from someone else. The amateurs who ultimately make it to the last few episodes of Worst Cooks in America are those who overcome their fears and prejudices and broaden their palate, discovering, in fact, that clams or oysters or squid are actually quite delectable, or that some herb they thought was a “weed” actually adds a delicious spice to their dish. As one who loves to cook and eat --- and as someone who attempted to teach young people to broaden their worldview and open up to new, and sometimes contrary, ideas --- Worst Cooks in America seems, indeed, a show that reflects our current politics in a vivid and visceral way.