Real Cooking

I saw something on television the other day that at the time I found amusing. But now, a week or so later, the images that I watched that day have somehow manifested themselves into something deeper.

It seems kind of dumb, really, that a 30-minute television show-a cooking show, of all things-could make such an impact on the thoughts running through my head.

We have a small television located in the kitchen that, depending on the time of day, is tuned mostly to the Weather Channel (I’m married to a farmer, you know…), Bloomberg Television (…a farmer who needs to check the stock market to see how his retirement fund is doing), and The Travel Channel (…a farmer who, on cold, muddy days like today, wants to retire now.)

Ah…the warm, sandy beaches of Tahiti. Tropical nights, the sound of the surf….

Sorry. Where were we…? Oh yes. I was working in the kitchen one evening and I turned on the television as a distraction. I came upon a show on the Food Channel called “The Iron Chef.” Maybe you’re familiar with this program, but for me it was a first.

I didn’t see the start of the show, but what I did see was basically a cook-off between two professional chefs.

One man, called the “Iron Chef,” was dressed in a silvery satin kimono-type-wrap-around-thingy. Sorry, I don’t know the correct term for his attire. His challenger wore what looked to be a plain white cottony-wrap-around-thingy.

Oh. Did I mention that this show originates from Japan?

Besides the chefs, the other participants include a host, who dressed like a 17th-century dandy, a panel of four “celebrity tasters,” a bevy of geisha girls and a bank of men looking like lounging Samurai.

Did I tell you that everything is dubbed in English like an old Godzilla movie?

After everyone was introduced, the host, with a great amount of fanfare, introduced the prime ingredient that each chef must utilize to create seven dishes. The night I watched, the ingredient was live eel.

The geishas, the samurai, the panel of tasters were intrigued. What would the chefs produce? What culinary masterpieces would be born this night?

The tasting came soon enough. One by one, each chef faced the panel of tasters and offered a sample of his creation. Meanwhile, the host kept a running interview going with each celebrity. What did they think of the curried eel liver? Were they enjoying the soup? How was the fried eel?

Now, pay attention. This is the part that has really stuck with me and made me think.

These guest tasters-these actors and singers and directors-used such poetic language to describe what they were tasting, were so discerning in what they were experiencing that it blew my socks off.

“This curried eel reminds me of the gentle summers in Kyoto,” said one. “You have captured the true essence of Japan.”

“The subtlety of the soup is delightful,” said another. “Does that come from the roe of the eel? Yes, I thought so. You honor us with this dish.”

“I didn’t know if I would like the fried eel; I thought it might be too heavy,” said a third.” But its lightness surprised me and I find the texture very pleasing.”

“How delicate a blend of tastes, how fine a flavor,” said another.

Now, I don’t think the guests on the panel were trained in the culinary arts. I just think they like good food and their celebrity status brought them to be guests of the show.

But the way each person described every nuance of whatever dish they were tasting made me marvel. These people were so aware, so attuned to what they tasted. And they were so articulate in describing their experience. It was a thing of beauty.

It was just a cook-off.

The panel could have said, “This one tastes good,” or, “I like this better.” I think that’s how most of us might respond. Don’t give it any thought; don’t try too much-after all, that’s just too hard.

But for some reason-and I really wonder if this is a cultural thing-the panel’s responses were well thought out, intelligent and brilliantly descriptive.

This has set me to thinking. Am I paying enough attention to the minuscule? Am I taking the time to enjoy the blessings received from the gifts of taste, touch and smell? Am I “dumbing down” my use of language and am I accepting the “dumbing down” of society as a whole?

I know it’s easier to live from day to day without thinking. It’s easier to watch mindless chatter on a television than to read a book. It’s easier to wolf down another hamburger rather than sit down with a nice piece of beef (or chicken or zucchini) and really savor every bite and taste it’s richness and true flavor. It’s easier to sing a simple chorus than trying to understand the poetic language and the four-part harmony of a traditional hymn.

It’s easier, but is it better? In the long run, I don’t think so. And yes, I like television, hamburgers and praise choruses. But I find a steady diet of the “easy” makes me hunger for the difficult.

As for the television show, after the votes were tallied, the challenger pulled ahead and beat the “Iron Chef.” The host seemed a little surprised because the challenger was from the “old school” of cooking.


* * *

Maybe it’s the eel or maybe it’s because it’s the beginning of the Lenten season, but I feel like having some fish. Hope you enjoy this recipe.

Honey Fried Fish

1 egg

1 tsp. honey

1/2 cup milk

1 cup crushed saltines (about 22; might take more)

1/3 cup flour

1/4 tsp. each salt and pepper

About 11/2 lb. firm fish fillets

Vegetable oil for frying

Honey, lemon or lime slices

In one bowl, combine the beaten egg and honey; in another, the flour salt and pepper; in a third bowl the crushed crackers. First dip the fish in milk and then dredge in flour. Then dip the fish in egg batter, then roll it in cracker crumbs. In a large skillet, heat oil (about 1/2-inch deep) over medium high heat and fry fish on both sides until golden brown. Remove from pan and drizzle with honey. Serve with lemon or lime.

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