by Kate Heyhoe
What people do in the privacy of their homes is no business of mine. But in Dallas, the things they do with food are getting just a wee bit wild. I dare say such behavior isn't happening elsewhere in this country, but with Dallas being my old hometown, a certain culinary cult there has got me mighty intrigued.
I first read about it in the Dallas Morning News, in an article by Kim Pierce. Some 50 or more upscale suburbanites, well heeled by day yet seriously costumed by night, participate. But this is no low-tech affair. With more action than a Paris Hilton video, what happens in the kitchen (on the counters, over the cooktop, and with the appliances) is captured on a live feed and viewable on big screen TV, by patrons who spill across couches and leather chairs in the expansive living room. Judges swoon with pleasure as they rate the skills of the kitchen "performers."
And it's completely legal. In fact, according to most faiths, it's not even immoral. I'm talking about "Suburban Iron Chef: the reality home game"—not it's actual name, but perhaps the most apt description—competitive cooking glossed with a fine spritz of play-acting. It appeals mostly to those with unfulfilled chef and thespian aspirations, for it requires a hefty dose of theatrics and culinary skills to compete, and more so, to win.
The key ingredients for an entertaining cook-off start with a lively microphone-clutching master of ceremonies, a kitchen large enough to accommodate a frantic pair of dueling chefs, and three pages of rules. Rule: Contestants and judges cannot know each other. (Bringing in new judges also increases the circle.) Rule: No perfume.
Contestants are given a budget ($100), a time limit, and a mystery ingredient, revealed only at the start of the event. Party participants also dress in wacky costumes, reinforcing the surreal atmosphere. (One cook sports a "Braveheart"-style kilt and faux-hide boots, face paint and ancestral plaid flag.) In addition to the kitchen "stadium" cook-off, secondary competitions are held simultaneously in other parts of the house, with awards for best appetizer, costume, or dessert. Put this all together and you end up with all the fervor and energy of the Gong Show.
I find these antics encouraging, for at the heart of these events is the idea that food is fun, and the act of creating food is as worthy of sharing as the meal itself. The cooks in competition take their tasks seriously, mimicking four-star restaurant plates, but the spirit is more camaraderie than backstabbing or bitter feuds too often seen in real restaurants. And unlike TV, this type of event, including cooks, judges, and audience, is truly interactive; it really is reality. Live and unscripted. What a concept! I can almost taste the spoils of victory now...crabmeat-stuffed mushrooms, seared lamb, or chocolate-raspberry mousse. Whatever these suburban Dallas cooks can dream up, I'm sure they'll be refreshingly spontaneous and entertaining, and all for the love of food and friends.
If you get tapped to compete in a home cook-off, consider some of the recipes below as part of your arsenal. Even without a challenge, they're absolute winners by themselves.
Cheers, ya'll, and a hearty bon appetit!
Kate's Global Kitchen for February 2004:
02/06/04 Candy is Dandy! But Is It Politically Correct?
02/13/04 Food Fights For Fun and Love
02/20/04 A N'awlins' Mardi Gras Meal
02/27/04 James Beard's Protégés
Copyright © 2004, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created February 2004
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