The Butterfly Effect
Part 5: A food "personality"
I’ve always had a thing for foreign television. I love the glimmerings of insight into other cultures, as expressed through the lens of the glowing box. Television is in many ways simultaneously the zenith and nadir of modern culture, a place where anything can happen, for better or worse.
Our first major foreign TV obsession, in the early-mid-nineties, was a game show on Univision called El Gran Juego de la Oca. This was played on a large game board, like the game of Life, in an expansive studio. Contestants would roll "dice" (using a remote control; the dice would just appear digitally on-screen). They would progress the number of spaces rolled, at which point the host would inflict torture upon them for money.
The forms of torment were varied and arcane. In one case, a woman had to dive into a pool of water and navigate through a maze of netting. Along the way there were occasional barriers of netting that had to be cut through … because the oxygen was on the other side. In another case, a woman (they were mostly women) had to adorn a big, puffy suit and enter a cage full of snarling German shepards to pull sticks of "dynamite" off the walls, extract herself mostly intact, and use the "dynamite" to blow open a box which contained one of the svelte, scantily-clad assistants that just lounged around the board like Christmas tree ornaments.
Some of the Herculean tasks were more benign. Another (yes, female) contestant had to wear a suit covered in bird seed, lay on the floor and be pecked by chickens — while they asked her to do math problems in her head. (Martha claims this is the cruelest one of all…) Another time one had to visually assess three of the hunky, gold-Speedoed ornamental men, then tell which was which by fondling their chests while blindfolded.
Of course all of this was in rapid-fire Madrileño Spanish, which we didn’t understan a word of. As each stunt was being assembled, the announcer would be rattling away like a machine gun. Our blood pressure would rise, hoping he was explaining how safe each of these stunts were, or at least how well insured the show was. True to form for many Spanish-language shows, Oca ran for something like three and a half hours. It was a grand way to blow a Sunday afternoon.
Oca stopped running around 1995 or ’96, and we were left without a new source of quirky, incomprehensible entertainment. But it wasn’t long before our other friends who were fans of international esoterica alerted us to something else. A ground-breaking show that had everyone scratching their heads yet unable to tear themselves away. A cooking show from Japan — but not just a cooking show. It was also like a game show. No, more like sports. Well, if you consider professional wrestling a sport. If my memory serves me correctly, this show was of course Iron Chef.
At the time, Iron Chef was being aired on a local public access channel during a several-hour block of all-Japanese programming. The show was immediately lovable for so very many reasons: The highly melodramatic presentation, the intriguing premise; the over-the-top campiness of Chairman Kaga, the master of ceremonies. (Guilty confession: I both scoffed and and coveted his fabulous beaded jackets.)
And then there were the fabulously quirky advertisements. The show was subtitled, but the lack thereof made the ads all the more surreal. There were the lusciously abstract beer commercials, far more artistic and feminine than their American counterparts; the myriad commercials for soy sauce and other condiments (Sosu-desu!); heck, we even purchased the toaster that emblazoned little pandas on the façade of your bread. (Pan-da! Pan-da! I’m told this is a play on words meaning, It’s bread!)
I don’t need to explain Iron Chef’s premise to you, I’m sure. But at the time it was a major revelation! Cooking as a battle, employing one (supposedly) unexpected ingredient in as many dishes as possible to form a coherent meal. How could all of us who worshipped at the twin altars of the cathode ray tube and the gas range not embrace this new religion within our own homes and hearts?
The course of action was obvious: Viewing parties where everyone had to bring dishes centered around one secret ingredient, to be announced by the host. We drew inspiration from the Iron Chefs themselves, delving into exotic ingredients and bizarre preparations. Fish roe ice cream? Why not? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
It was the grown-up way to play with our food. Culinary creativity was sparked even among those who had no cooking experience nor previous desire. We expanded our horizons both in the kitchen and on the table.
And who could forget the battles on the show? To this day we reminisce about the frogfish battle, its gory, slimy guts spilling out its already unattractive body. Or the tragedy of battle potato, where the dishes were so disappointing as to merit a runoff rematch. And of course, there was battle homard — lobster. San Francisco chef Ron Siegel, then of Charles Nob Hill, became the first American to beat the nearly unbeatable French Chef Sakai. It was a proud moment for all us budding San Francisco foodies.
Suddenly, without forewarning, the subtitles were pulled. Evidently there was a dispute with the production company about them, and from one week to the next we suddenly became aphasic. The hosts’ and judges’ witty banter was rendered incomprehensible. The ingredients (more) foreign and bizarre than ever. Panic set in. What do we do? The already active Internet community (remember, this was relatively early in the days of Web community — Iron Chef was a serious online phenomenon.) conspired to share as much information as it could. Those that spoke Japanese conveyed helpful translations. Others attempted to learn Japanese just to stay abreast of the show. Many of us just kicked back and watched, letting the surreal imagery wash over us, surmising what we could about it.
Of course, all good things come to an end, and Iron Chef went out in a blaze of glory, a series of finale battles. By then it was being aired on the fledgling Food Network. Subtitles had been replaced with dubbing — except for the ever-quirky Chairman Kaga, who for some reason remained subtitled. Food Network of course went on to try to repackage this phenomenon, first with an Iron Chef America mini-series hosted by William Shatner, and eventually settling into a groove with Alton Brown as host and the usual suspects as chefs. (Shatner was a particularly brilliant piece of casting, in my mind, yet somehow the equation didn’t work.) But the new show was derivative, uninspired, recherché. It wasn’t Japanese enough.
Our old Iron Chef viewing parties have long since ceased, but the spirit lives on. Pandora’s box has been opened. We’ve learned our lesson: Play with your food. Allez cuisine!
Next: Part 6 >>