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Like “Chopped”? How about “Cropped”? January 29, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I love interacting with cooking competitions like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America” on the rare occasions when our friend Ben and I are on the road and able to stay in a hotel. (We don’t get any of the cable channels at home.) I say “interacting” because I carry on a vivid commentary throughout the shows, critiquing the judges’ bad calls and the competitors’ bad choices, cheering them on when they get something right. As someone who loves cooking, it’s a great interactive experience for me, and I totally understand why these cooking shows are so popular.

But as a passionate gardener, I also lament the absence of comparable gardening shows. There was a time when programmers assumed gardening shows would be as popular as cooking shows, but they were wrong. Why? For the same reason how-to cooking shows, in the mode of Julia Child’s iconic “The French Chef,” have disappeared: The internet made sure that there were tons of other ways to find out how to cook things. Shows like Emeril Lagasse’s, immortalized in the movie “Last Holiday,” gave way to competitions.

Cooking shows adapted, but gardening shows didn’t, and so gardening shows died while cooking shows flourished. If, like me, you love gardening, imagine how a gardening competition would go:

First, you have a panel of snooty judges who want to hate everything in the worst way. Then, you get
landscapers and garden designers who are eager to win. But how do you reduce the size of the playing field to that of the display kitchens on “Chopped” or “Iron Chef America”? Yes, they’re big studios, but hardly acres of ground.

Easy: Just take a look at a flower show like the Philadelphia Flower Show. There, competitors build “garden” displays in small, room-sized areas. They add plants, from lawn to flower beds to trees, water features, paths, seating areas, sculpture and other lawn ornaments, lighting, and the like. From sustainable organic vegetable gardens to native bog gardens to wildly imaginative gardens dominated by bizarre sculptures, you can see it all.

So imagine this: A “Chopped”-style competition where the chosen contestants were given the equivalent of the basket of horrific ingredients that the poor “Chopped” chefs must deal with (grotesque combinations such as live sea urchins, cotton candy, peanut butter, and wheat grass), then given an hour to create a stunning garden in, say, a 6-by-12-foot plot. All have the same horrific combination of plants and accessories to work with; all have an assortment of good garden tools and willing assistants; and all have just an hour.

Your landscapers and designers rush around, trying their best to impress the judges by how they put their area together. Some can manage to put the clashing plants and other landscape features together more imaginatively than others. When the hour is up, the judges light into every attempt, then decide on whose effort beat the others. The worst among them would be roundly ridiculed and sent home; the others would face more weeks of challenges.

If you were a passionate gardener, would you watch this show? I think I would, simply because of the way I react to the cooking competitions on the very rare occasions when I can see them. The judges’ verdicts and contestants’ choices draw me in, making me comment, making the show a truly interactive experience. I’d love to enjoy that in a gardening competition as well. You?

‘Til next time,



Could I win a cooking competition? November 28, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I don’t get television reception out here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. So when we happen to travel and find ourselves spending the night in a hotel, TV reception is a valued commodity. OFB would love to tune in to a football, baseball, or basketball game. But he knows he has no chance against one of the food channels and their cooking competitions.

Actually, he’s been really good about it, thanks to my gift for TV-focused performance art. When I see a show like “Chopped,” I scream volubly about the outrageous so-called food combinations that the poor competitors have to incorporate into each course. (Live sea urchins, cotton candy, rutabagas, and durians, anyone?) I scream at the unfortunate competitors who make grotesque errors attempting to combine the hateful, bizarre ingredients. I scream at the judges who say such precious, pretentious, plain old nasty things about the time-pressured chefs’ attempts to make edible concotions out of these atrocious combinations of ingredients.

OFB notes, probably with good reason, that watching me is far more entertaining than watching any TV show. For me, certainly, food television is an interactive experience. I can’t sit passively instead of participating in the inevitable debacle.

This might lead fans of these TV cooking competitions to ask, if I’m so great, how would I fare in one of these competitions? They have a point. Actually, two. As far as I can tell, these shows are judged on four criteria: speed/efficiency, taste, creativity, and presentation (“plating”).

All of these ultimately reflect on the fact that the competitors are professional chefs who head restaurants or catering companies and are working on a clock. And, as is true across the board with business, unless you’re willing to plow money in, you can’t have all four.

Time is the luxury typically required for taste, creativity, and presentation. This goes flat against speed/efficiency, the ticking clock that defines all these TV competitions. “Chopped” allows its competing chefs 20 minutes to create and plate an appetizer from its bizarre ingredients, 35 minutes to create a main dish, and 20 minutes to create a dessert. Good luck. Yet this is the challenge chefs face every day in restaurants around the world, minus the horror of bizarrely combined ingredients. And in real life, I’d hate to see the reaction if a diner were kept waiting 20 minutes for an appetizer or dessert!

Fortunately for the competing chefs, the show does plow money in for them in the form of every high-end professional time-saving gadget and piece of equipment known to man, plus a kitchen full of ingredients provided for their use, from a fully-stocked bar to a loaded fridge and spice rack. This also mimics the conditions in a professional kitchen, where time is of the essence, yet quality can’t be sacrificed. 

So, how about it, Silence? Yes, I can look at any insane combination of ingredients and, Sherlock Holmes-like, fit the puzzle pieces together to make actual food. Yes, I can draw on a pretty extensive knowledge of international foods and ingredients. Yes, I could dance around the kitchen (I sadly assume nobody would permit me to listen to loud music and sing while I’m cooking as I usually do), combine the ingredients, create something astonishing, and even, hopefully, astonishingly good.

Would I horrify my fellow competitors and judges? Undoubtedly, since they’d wonder why I didn’t seem stressed—in fact, actually seemed happy, as I in fact always am in the kitchen—and wonder again why I didn’t seem chained to the ever-ticking competition clock. Why wasn’t I using the food processor and other equipment? Surely I couldn’t expect to win with a paring knife, mortar and pestle?! 

Easy, I’d say. I’m a home cook. I don’t have to get endless and varied meals on restaurant tables according to a timetable coupled with diners’ eccentric requests and a sharp eye on the bottom line. I never have to conform my ideas of delicious food to those of diners who are paying for it. I cook exactly what I want, when I want, for whom I want. There’s no question of competition, in our home much less on television. 

Could I win a cooking competition? Almost certainly not, though I wouldn’t be averse to trying. As OFB would be the first to point out, my forthright and irreverent comments to the judges would make good television if nothing else. I’m not an aspiring restaurateur, I’m not a professional chef, I’m just someone who loves to cook and create innovative recipes. I have no interest in making money from my food, or I wouldn’t have spent all this time sharing my recipes with all of you on our blog. 

I love food. I love cooking, and creating my own recipes. I love sharing those recipes and cooking tips with all of you and getting your feedback. I also love watching cooking shows, which I find highly entertaining. But I think I’ll leave those cooking competitions to the realm of entertainment and watch them with enthusiasm when I get the chance.

After all, what would I gain from competing in one of these shows? Absolutely nothing. Instead, I’d deprive someone who dreamed of going into professional cooking of a chance to compete. Shame on me! Not to mention that I’d deprive myself of the opportunity to rant and rave at the TV show every time it was aired and I had the chance to see it.

To me, cooking is fun. Cooking should be fun. Watching cooking shows should be fun. And all of it is. I love to cook, I love to create new dishes, I love to watch those cooking competitions and put myself in there, opening yet another basket of outrageously combined ingredients and thinking through to what I could do with them to make a delicious combination.

But my working life as a business executive has taught me that there are factors you can combine to get certain outcomes, and no shortchange is possible. Those tend to reduce to time, talent, and money, and two of the three must be present for a successful transaction. Yes, you can get work done quickly and cheaply, but the quality will suffer; you can get work done slowly and cheaply, but your deadline will suffer. To get good work done in a timely manner takes money; to get good work done on a budget means sacrificing any idea of a deadline, and working within the creator’s own timeline. 

Chefs are among the hardest-working professionals in the world. I’m very happy to wish them well, urge them on, and comment on their mistakes as a member of the TV audience. If they’ve managed to make it onto national TV, I’m sure their careers will be very bright, however they fare on a cooking show.

             ‘Til next time,