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"I don't believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history. There are no accidents." – Pablo Picasso

  • D.T.

The Cooking Show

When I mention to people that I was a student of anthropology, and I was doing my thesis toward a doctoral degree, their response was that I would eventually tramp through the remote Amazonian jungle to search for some lost tribes.  I would end up telling the tribal people that they had about 10 years before the multinational oil company would wipe them out.  With some luck, the last remaining member of the tribe might be preserved in some museum. 


Far from it.  I’m actually a Media Anthropologist.  I study the media, in this case television programmes and their effect on the community as a whole.  Then the answer was predictable: “Oh, very interesting.”  No, it was not interesting; it was a very serious matter.  I was then at the beginning stage of my dissertation.  The research proposal had been submitted some months earlier to three different committees in the university. 


The campus was located in an affluent area, with housing that was way above what I could afford.  I didn’t have to go to the campus too often, and my advisor worked at home, so I decided to stay in a small apartment in a nearby community that was cheaper. 


My research involved an examination of TV cooking shows and their effect on the behaviour of people in the community.  Did they change their cooking habits or the selection of what they ate?  I planned to start by collecting data from the studios. 


I went to see my advisor to discuss my approach, and she was very supportive.  Dr. Nancy Hodgson, it turned out, was actually a devotee of cook shows. 


In May I earnestly started my research by making contact with the show organisers.  It was a total disaster.  Not only did I not even get a foot into any cook show establishment, they refused to talk to me at all.  The only conversations I had were limited to one question: Did I do ratings?  When I said no I didn’t, they hung up.  I was very depressed.  Then a fellow graduate student mentioned that in the next county a local community station produced a half-hour cook show once a week.  It was popular among the surrounding areas.  I thought I would give it a last try before having to tramp through the Amazonian jungle. 


The next day I called the studio and was passed to someone named Carlos.  Apparently, he was the producer of the cook show.  Carlos came to the phone and sounded very friendly.  He immediately invited me to their Friday planning meeting. Live production was on the following Monday at noon.  Carlos gave me detailed directions to their production office.


In the meantime, I tried to find some information about the show, but I could find very little.  Friday morning I drove to the production office, following Carlos’s directions, and I had no problem finding it: a three-story concrete block building located in an industrial area.  Other than a huge painted building number, no other feature appeared in the building.  There was a door and a small bell button.  I rang the bell and a few seconds later the door opened.  A man in his 50s introduced himself as Carlos, and urged me to follow him.  Carlos reminded me of my high school custodian, Mr. Henderson: similar manner, casual and friendly, identical clothes—jeans and a sweatshirt.  We walked down a corridor between concrete block walls with overhead naked, glaring, fluorescent-tube lighting.  When we reached the end, he opened a door to a large room.  Inside was a wooden table, a white board, and six or seven unmatched chairs.  Three people sat around the table.  One was a very thin young man, one man was built like a boxer, and a small, petite woman of indeterminate age.  They politely waited, smiling, for Carlos to introduce me.   The thin young man, Jim, took care of all things technical, according to Carlos.  The boxer, Bert, was in his late 60s, and was the chef for the cooking show.  He gave me a warm smile.  A large golden retriever was sitting beside him, and he looked at me and sniffed.  His name was also Bert. 


The last person was the star of the cooking show, a small woman called Maggie with a huge hairdo that sat on her head and formed a large, cotton-candy, upside-down U.  Her hair was red, deep red.  The rest of her small body was clothed in a jumble of colour and costume jewellery: beads, spangles, rings, and earrings.  She gave me a smile and indicated I could kiss her on the cheek. 


I felt I had fallen down the rabbit hole.  Carlos, the producer and sometime camera man, gave me a short history of the show.  It was produced as a community service, demonstrating how to produce a simple breakfast.  At the same time, the show gave out nutrition information and announcements of community activities.  The show aimed to be light and entertaining as well as informative.  They said the best way for me to understand the show would be to attend the forthcoming live broadcast on Monday.


Carlos also mentioned that management at the TV headquarters had some other ideas for the programme.  The show strongly emphasised viewer input and encouraged people to write in by any means, to express views about it.  That information was channelled to a section Carlos referred to as “the Moles”.  Carlos was not too clear about what they actually did with the views they received, but he suggested I should really contact them for data.  He picked up his phone and called the Moles and made an appointment for me.  The production planning meeting seemed to me an occasion for four people and a dog to get together, drink coffee and eat French pastry.  In the end, Carlos gave me specific details about how to get to the live show, and he advised me to arrive early. 


Monday I followed his instructions, and I arrived at a new mega-mansion, a hybrid of Tuscany and Southern California.  It was a huge pile of pink stucco walls and red roof tile, situated in a large ground.  As I was driving up the long driveway, I imagined the show’s set would be in the mansion, maybe in a cathedral-like kitchen.  A man came out and directed me toward the garage wing.  Then I saw Carlos and the rest of the crew congregated in front of a three-car garage with all three doors open.   The crew, that is Jim, Bert, and Maggie, were moving sets.  I got out of my car and was greeted warmly by Bert…the dog.  I joined the crew and helped to join up the set, which consisted of a kitchen bench about a meter long, covered with white formica of a certain age that had turned it a bit yellow.  I also helped move a peculiar carved plywood screen that was freestanding, vaguely oriental, and a copper gong was hanging in the middle of the screen.  To the left of the gong, hanging on a hook, was a short stick which pierced an old tennis ball at its end.  The last piece was a metal bar stool. 


Carlos was busy arranging the lights and a stationary camera over the cooking area.  Meanwhile Bert the Cook was sorting his equipment.  He had a portable stove of the kind used on camping trips, a veteran aluminium frying pan, a wooden box that held bottles and jars, and a cloth bundle with pockets for all his tools.  Maggie was putting on her makeup in a small powder room.


Just then, a truck arrived.  Lettering was painted on its side in bright red three-dimensional style.  It read “Chairman Mao.”   The driver and his assistant carried about 30 folding chairs out of the back of the truck, and three special chairs formed the front row.  They were classroom chairs that each had an attached flip-up writing desk.  Maggie appeared and placed “VIP Reserved” signs on all three.  The Chairman Mao truck departed, and Jim disappeared into a black van that had been parked near the garage.  Black cables came out of the van and snaked through the garage.  In the van, he monitored and transmitted the live show and also controlled lighting, sound, and the stationary overhead camera that was attached to a small projector that beamed an image onto the white wall.   Carlos was busy with his hand-held camera.    


By quarter to 12, the chairs were filled with a mixed audience: some retirees, some mothers with children, a few construction workers eating their lunches, and office workers who spent lunch break there.  The VIP section was occupied by a homeless couple and a rather distinguished-looking man.  I was sitting at the back with Bert the Dog, who had taken a liking to me.


At precisely 12 noon Maggie appeared resplendent, in her hairdo, jewellery, red lips and high heels.  She picked up the stick with the old tennis ball and struck the gong three times.  It reminded me of the old English movie credit for Rank Studios.  That was the opening of the show. 


Then Maggie perched on the bar stool and told a story about an adventure involving Bert and Bert.  It was a long and involved story, hilariously rendered by Maggie who performed in the role of ditsy female.  It was hard to tell which Bert did what, but the audience enjoyed it and applauded enthusiastically.  Then the projection on the wall, controlled by Jim, showed Bert beginning to cook while Maggie told an Irish joke.  Bert picked up eggs and cracked them into the frying pan. 


It seemed some shows ago a few soccer fans had been in the audience and they had shouted “Goal!” as Bert cracked eggs.  It had become a tradition.  The trick was to time the shout precisely with the cracking of the eggs.  This created some tension among the audience. 



Bert’s fried eggs were his own creation.  He didn’t just crack eggs and leave them to fry; far from it.  He cracked the first egg, then he tilted the pan so the egg white spread all over the frying pan and at the same time moved the egg yolk to one side of the pan.  Then the second egg yolk landed right next to the first one, and the white of the second egg spread again all over the surface of the pan.  When the whites had become solid and crisp on the edges, Bert carefully flipped it over the two yolks, blanketing them entirely.  Bert stood back and looked at his work, satisfied, and placed the cooked eggs on a white cutting board.  He then repeated the feat twice.  When the eggs were all cooked, he put three white plastic plates on the counter.  Maggie announced, “In the trade, this is called ‘plating’.”  It was an important moment of the cook show.


Bert the Cook extracted from his tool bag a small brown paintbrush, the end of which was trimmed in a 45-degree angle.  He took a jar of ketchup and with the brush he made a decisive stroke on each of the three plates, running down the centre of the plate. 


If you were a student of calligraphy, you would appreciate Bert’s strokes.  He started with a solid dot of ketchup, then widened it into a flat surface, and ended with a feathery finish.  It had good bones, force and spirit, and the audience applauded.  Bert carefully placed two pre-cooked sausages on each plate.  He slid the blanketed eggs next to the sausages.  


That wasn’t the end.  The audience held their breath.  Bert the Dog sat up with his ears pricked.  Bert the Cook selected a long tweezer from his toolbag, opened a jar of frozen peas, and carefully tweezed three peas on the lumpy white eggs.  The audience applauded. 


Maggie came over and served the three VIPs.  Then she went back to her stool and proceeded to give the vitally important nutritional information.  That day it was about iron, supplied by the County Health Unit.  It was dry and dull, but in Maggie’s delivery it came alive, and was even delightful.  When she finished, the VIPs had also finished their sausages and eggs.  Then Maggie introduced the tall gentleman sitting at the front.  He was Stuart, and his role was to critique the food just prepared by Bert.


Stuart stood up and faced the audience, giving his comments slowly and deliberately.  I found it very strange; all his comments seemed to refer to wine.  He said the sausage had a cherry aroma with a hint of tropical fruit, lean, clear and chalky.  The eggs had a vein of earthiness.  The whole dish was a stunning exercise in restraint.  I have never forgotten his final statement: the sausage had lost its baby fat. 


The audience applauded, Bert the Cook made a small bow and Maggie made a large  one.  Back at her stool, Maggie thanked Stuart and the audience, and she especially encouraged the unseen audience to send in their thoughts.


I helped to pack the equipment into Jim’s van while the audience dispersed.  We went to the nearby taco truck and had lunch.    


In the coming months I worked closely with the Moles on their data, and I faithfully attended the shows.  The show pretty well followed the same format as the one I first saw, but from time to time she would sing a song to end the show.  She had a large repertoire of Piaff songs. 


********************


The four people I got to know came from different places and different backgrounds.


Maggie came from Tennessee.  She was a professional film extra for several studios.  Occasionally she played piano and in various local clubs and lounges She had a Piaff-like voice and a great sense of humour, but she realised early that she was unlikely to have a music career in Nashville.  She was single when I met her, but had had several husbands.


Bert lived with his dog Bert.  It was rumoured that he had been an engineer, part of the team that built the Rover for the Mars mission for JPL.  He didn’t really like cooking, but he told me once he thought cracking eggs helped to maintain his fine motor skills.  He had come from Oregon many years earlier.  He’d never married. 


Jim was a technical nut and a tinkerer.  His world was full of electronic components, not people.  He wasn’t talkative, but he was quite accommodating.  He would fix anything for you.  He had spent most of his life in Boston and had come only recently to California when I met him.  He was 30 and looked set to be on his own. 


Carlos was a self-made man.  He was from Mexico.  All his life, he had worked in TV production.  He knew everything about it.  He was married with two children, and he invited me to his home numerous times to share a meal with his family.  He was always gracious and kind to me. 

 

How people get together, form cooperation.  No amount of data can explain or enable analysis to take place.

 

Comments


Encountering

#1 

“It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us”

- Arthur Schopenhauer

 

#2

“Chance encounters are what keep us going.”

– Haruki Murakami

 

#3

"If there is no fate and our interactions depend on such a complex system of chance encounters, what potentially important connections do we fail to make? What life changing relations or passionate and lasting love affairs are lost to chance?"

– Simon Pegg

#4

"Sweet Serendipity...that unexpected meeting that changes your life"

–Alexia

 

#5

"Ironically, the people you meet by accident are often the ones who become an important part of your life." 

Solitary Reaper

 

#6

“Important encouners are planned by the souls before the bodies see each other.”    

Paulo Coelho

 

#7

"I am thankful for the serendipitous moments in my life, when things could've gone the other way"

Rick Springfield

 

#8

"Synchronicity: ideas, thoughts,

occurrences that seem related, but defy conventional explanation."

unknownmami.com

 

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