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Tell Me What You Eat, and I'll Tell You What You Are: Notes on Iron Chef

TV Features Iron Chef Showdown
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Tell Me What You Eat, and I'll Tell You What You Are: Notes on <i>Iron Chef</i>

Battle Thanksgiving…. LEFTOVERS. Allez cuisine!

Yeah, I mean, it made a kind of sense. Iron Chef: Showdown is leftovers of leftovers of leftovers, and I say that as a fan of Iron Nerd Alton Brown, who charmed me into eternal loyalty years ago with a single rhapsodic utterance: “Raaaaaaamps!” Watching this month’s premiere was like looking at an elementary school diagram of the water cycle, circularity, the predictable design of it, the way ice became water became vapor, the way evaporation became precipitation became evaporation. Green bean casserole became waffles; sweet potatoes went from purée to soufflé. The Chairman did backflips. Bobby Flay had not become more likable. At all. Why do they keep thinking he might?

Thanksgiving. If memory serves me right, it would have been 1999, maybe 2000. We were sitting in my parents’ family room. Having eaten a stupor-inducing amount of food, we of course turned on the television and sat in a sort of entranced catatonia in front of Food Network. They were running a marathon of a strange Japanese show I’d never seen. Was it real or campy or both? Was it serious or comic, was it competition or exhibition? People were cooking. It was a contest, a game show. The dishes were, in this case, all based on game, too: French mallard ducks. They were plucked, but they still had their heads, with the iridescent blue-green plumage still on so you knew they were males. Males tasted different, and at this time of the year, better.

In Japan, Iron Chef was already past the end of its flamboyant run, but it was new to me. We watched the ducks get processed. We listened to the hilarious overdubbed banter between the commentators, Ohta and the man he politely interrupted with a mild-toned “Fukui-san?” to let everyone know what was happening on the floor in Kitchen Stadium. We watched the judges rhapsodize over the innovations, the flavor profiles, the cultural fusions. We watched the stone-faced Hiroyuki Sakai best the challenger. The Brillat-Savarin quotation in old-timey-looking white script on black card came up again: Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are. We got more coffee and settled in for another hour of culinary acrobatics, in that stylized, weird but enchanting combination of deadly seriousness and effete absurdity.

I loved it. I loved the lavish opening, with its dedication to decadent narrative and the playful invoking of Arthur Rimbaud that began each setup: “If memory serves me right…” How much of it was staged, how much was real? I couldn’t tell, and that was half the joy of it. Battle duck. Battle tilefish. Battle conger eel. Battle potato. I loved the way Sakai and Chen and Michiba and Morimoto rose out of the dry-ice pantheon in their priestly satin uniforms, ceremonially grasping a tomato, a pear. I giggled at the grinning Chairman Kaga in his absurd outfits, like a mad Roman emperor presiding over something half gladiator games and half orgy. The Imperial decadence of it, the vast amounts of incredibly exotic, expensive ingredients. Kitchen Stadium was nuts. Was it the weird combination of bad kung fu movie overdubbing and subtitling? Was it the voice actors? Fukui-san?

Go ahead, Ohta.

The American iteration (and I mean the Food Network one, not the two-episode flop helmed by William Shatner) of Iron Chef never had the secret sauce that the Japanese original had. Kitchen Stadium USA had the machines but not the magic; the Iron Chefs were pale imitations of their Japanese counterparts: I mean, Bobby Flay could never have the dignity or the absurdity of Sakai or Michiba in those shiny suits and stiff toques. We’d watch the show sometimes, but it just wasn’t that fun anymore. Alton Brown was probably as good a substitute Ohta as Food Network had in its stable. It wasn’t his fault. The show was…. How else can I say it but lost in translation? It had the ingredients but it didn’t come together in an interesting way.

Sometimes, something captures a moment. Sometimes, something makes the moment. Sometimes it’s both. I guess that’s what Zeitgeist really is, moment plus spirit, and it can go either way, the way you’re more likely to smile if you feel happy, but equally, more likely to feel happy if you smile. Whatever the case, the original Iron Chef delighted me, and the various reboots never did. That first night, Thanksgiving of whatever year that was, things had come together in a certain way and it was before the fighting, before I was butchered like one of those complicated fish in an emergency cesarean, before the weird stuff. The towers were still standing. It was before the lawsuit, before the psychiatrists. I was at home and I was with my family and my family was getting bigger in a way that seemed optimistic and fun and the show was optimistic and fun and the ambiguities didn’t matter. The competition didn’t matter. Iron Chef was about an esthetic of rigor and decadence in a perfect balance, agrodolce. Sour met sweet and melted together like the end of a 1940s rom-com. The tame met the wild. There was game and there was Game and there were plenty of both.

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.

He had a talent for food. He was a good cook. He had a talent for finding high-end stuff; oysters or lobster even if the bank account was overdrawn, a single black truffle enshrined in a glass jar from Dean and DeLuca, rare peat-smoked whiskeys and exotic cheese. But he was also famous for an incident in college when he’d stumbled out of a pub in Boston and found and devoured a discarded plate of sandwiches in the bushes. The very thought gave me chills. Wasn’t he afraid of getting sick, I asked. No. He was hungry. There were sandwiches. There was nothing he wouldn’t eat. There were times when he ate nothing but gallons of orange juice and boxes of Entenmann’s donuts. He said depression made him do that, or winter, or maybe it was both. If there were prawns, no one else could count on getting any. But he’d eat anything. Except shad roe. Long story.

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are. A pig. A chicken. A lemon. An eel. A crabapple, a turkey, a snake. A bottom-feeder. A force-fed fatty liver. A necrophytic fungus. A delicacy. Heart, brain, wing, thigh, breast.

Iron Chef: Showdown has gotten some amount of billing as a return to the root, to the original, which I expect referred to the fact that two “civilians” battled each other for the privilege of calling out an Iron Chef in the first few episodes of the Japanese version. That seems to be a case of making the same mistake twice, not going back to the source. They abandoned that format because it felt like wasted time; it got us invested in characters who would disappear in the first fifteen minutes; it felt extraneous. It got sleeker and more interesting when it was set up from the beginning as a kind of grudge match or a kind of worshipful entry into deep water by a single challenger. We have a funny habit of not learning from our mistakes. We go back to our mistakes the way we go back to certain old lovers, knowing there’s nothing there anymore but remembering what it was like when there was and burgeoning with stupid, stupid hope. If memory serves me right…. If memory serves me… if memory serves… if…

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are. Sweet. Fat. Aged. Worth Your Salt. Spicy. Hot. Cold. Unctuous. Dry. Bitter.

Bitter.

Oh, was this supposed to be a Review? Let’s review. The American Iron Chefs were bozos from out the gate. Pathetic, a transparent attempt to elevate the status of Food Network’s flagging core talent after they jettisoned Tony Bourdain and most of the other interesting chefs in favor of “tablescape” specialists with low-cut sweaters. I mean, Mario Batali is a chef you can take seriously, and maybe he was the last one they had, I can’t remember anymore, but the flair was gone, gone, gone. And the way they ruthlessly cross-pollinated the show with “Invincible Men of Culinary Skill” from various other competition style shows in their dwindling little twilight empire? Alton Brown couldn’t save them. Wolfgang Puck certainly couldn’t save them: He won one guest-star battle and bolted before his stats could be disturbed. Cat Cora? Were we really meant to take her seriously once we’d watched the original? She had no gravitas, no flair. Iron Chef America: It was a loveless marriage, is what it was. All pomp, no passion. You can taste that even over the airwaves. I could, anyway.

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.

Battle Duck. Battle Turkey. Battle Chicken. Battle Fowl. Battle root. Battle offal. Battle nuts. Battle Bun in the Oven. Battle Cut the Mustard. Battle Butter No Parsnips, Battle Humble Pie.

Battle Dark and Stormy. The only drink that got him kicked out of more bars was Jägermeister. The first time he accused me of Being A Drunk I poured out his entire collection of Caribbean rums and gave the Islay whiskey to the contractor who was fixing the bathroom. I wasn’t partisan; I dumped the reposado tequila I’d brought from Guanajuato along with the reeking cashew-apple moonshine our friend had smuggled from Goa. Battle Fenny. Battle Aquavit. Battle Bombay Sapphire. Battle Laphroaig. The liquor gurgled in the drains, bottles sang as they hit the recycling bin, they sang a high, glassy, percussive chantey. The therapist suggested what I’d done was perhaps justifiably characterized as “impulsive” and I couldn’t decide whether I agreed. I apologized, but I wasn’t sorry. One of us had lost entire days to puking, including the day of our wedding rehearsal. One of us had been known to black out. One of us had had to be bodily prevented from smothering the baby. He thought he could win Battle Drunk? And yet my own in-laws said if he only got like that once every couple of years it didn’t count as a “problem”; that I was being melodramatic; that he was reacting to being under too much “stress” with the implication that I was the ingredient responsible for that. It frightened me because the baby, in all seriousness, could have been killed that night if I hadn’t woken up. But it frightened me more when the family intervention team came for me instead. He was that good at cooking up projections.

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are. Trash. Waste. Junk.

Battle bubblegum. Battle saltwater. Battle Kool-Aid: Who would drink it and who would decline? I think I lost that one. I didn’t have the right knives. Battle Give a Man a Fish. Battle Bread. Battle Dough. Battle Bring Home the Bacon. Battle Watched Pot. Battle Peas in a Pod. Battle Keep the Doctor Away. Battle Salad Days. Battle Pie in the Sky, Battle Sour Grapes, Battle Pinch of Salt.

He loved restaurants. He loved dives and he loved the kinds of places where a two-top could easily cost a grand. When there was not really anything else there was still common ground around sushi or soup dumplings or whatever the local molecular gastro wunderkinds had popped out with. There was never a hot new place he didn’t know about. Even in cities he’d never set foot in before. He had a nose for the good stuff and he was always hungry. Once he brought home live Dungeness crabs, which was awesome. Then he made the kids watch him stage a footrace and bet on which crab would cross the kitchen first. That was less awesome, especially after he gave them names. When we first met he told me he planned to write a cookbook for homeless people. He seemed to think he knew better than they would what you could forage from the streets of San Francisco and what you could do with it. Maybe he did, I have no idea.

Who won Battle Thanksgiving Leftovers? Bobby Flay, of course, the dolt who jumped onto the cutting board and staged an incredibly tacky pissing contest with Morimoto and acted like a giant crybaby when he lost. I think it’s in his contract. I don’t know why we care any more about what’s real. We can’t taste what the judges are tasting and we don’t really know how much of the show is rigged, scripted or tilted to provide optimum drama. I haven’t tuned in again because Battle Drama ended for me years ago, especially the kind that only looks like a real-life drama but is actually all a setup. Recently, though, I asked my daughter, who has a recessive-gene fascination with Cupcake Wars, if she’d ever seen the “real” Iron Chef. She had not. We promptly powered through three randomly chosen episodes, saw Michiba and Sakai each butcher an opponent and then one where Sakai was bested and someone whose name I have forgotten won “the people’s ovation and fame forever.” If memory serves me right, the crafty challenger got Sakai out of his wheelhouse and challenged the French Superchef to an udon battle. But I’m not sure, these days, if memory serves me right, ever. The amount of stuff I forget is bad, but the amount I remember is what’s killing me.

“This is like Ancient Rome,” she said, reverently, as the gong sounded.

Yeah. It was. A game show fantasia where it wasn’t clear what was scripted and what was spontaneous. It was witty, it was creative, it was splendid, and it was slightly obscene. All those plucked birds. So much foie gras. It was about food, sure, but it was at least as much about showmanship and wit and grace under pressure and that’s why it was magical. Chairman Kaga bit into a bell pepper and smirked at the camera. We settled in for another episode.

Sometimes, something captures a moment. Sometimes, something creates a moment. Sometimes, the moment captures, or creates, you. Sometimes I guess it’s both. But moments pass and you cannot get them back no matter how many variations you greenlight. It’s like making stock from bones that have already been boiled, you end up with nothing but greasy water.

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are. Leftovers. A spoiled broth. A tough nut to crack. A dish best served cold.

If memory serves me right…

Hey, here’s the deal: Memory is no one’s servant. Memory is The Chairman and you work for him. And you do not have enough time to make what you would really like to make out of the secret ingredient, and everyone will judge you. That’s how the world works, folks. Whose cuisine reigns supreme? Who can make the most sublime delicacies out of the most difficult ingredients? Who prevails? Is it rigged? Is it staged? Is it random? Is it real? A concoction? A confection? A conflagration? Is it all in your head? Has memory ever served us right? Who’s left over? Who gives thanks? Allez: Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.

Tell me what I am and see if I swallow it.



Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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