Monday, January 16, 2012

Batoks and Stuffed Calimari

I watch a lot of cooking reality shows. Love 'em. "Hell's Kitchen, "Master Chef", "Top Chef", and "America's Worst Cooks" are all regulars on my Hulu list. But I'm often pulled up short by issues that come up on the show with contestants whose religious backgrounds conflict with the foods expected to be eaten on the show.

One of the contestants on a past season of "Master Chef" was Hindu, and had never eaten, much less cooked with, the incessant meats that feature on the show. Sheetal finally had to kill a Dungeness crab on the show, describing her decision to do so (and forgoing Chef Ramsay's offer to do it for her) as 'growing up a little'. Joe Bastianich even reassured her that the crab was happy to give up its life for her dish. I was, to be honest, a little aghast at everyone except Ramsay, who offered what he, at least, thought was a good solution. Killing the Buddha has a good commentary on the episode here, by Jessica Miller.

This season, "Worst Cooks In America" has Joshy, a young Jewish guy who was raised frum, and appears to have gone off the derech. His confusion about different cuts of pork seems to baffle his fellow contestants (how can you not recognize bacon instantly?), and his disgust over trayf seafood is apparent. He eats it, but he grabs a bite and swallows as quickly as possible. On the most recent episode, he has to stuff calimari.

I suppose that everyone who signs up for one of these things knows what they are in for, and the subsequent bafflement about people who don't know from bacon and have qualms about killing animals is par for the course, but it does rather annoy me. "No food is off limits to a CHEF!" Chef Ann announced in a recent episode of "America's Worst Cooks", and in the calimari episode, people were pushed to cook with foods they don't care for, or find challenging. Here's the thing though: the food on these shows never challenges the cultural assumptions of the assumed 'mainstream' participants. I have yet to see a show in which these aspiring chefs are encouraged to create or eat a batok, to do anything with insects, to cook with dog (for which I am, personally, profoundly grateful), or horse (ditto) That would be gross, disturbing, and (since mainstream food taboos are upheld by law as well as custom, making them even more invisible), probably illegal. (Mind you, I'm not complaining about this.) Food like this is saved for others shows, "Man Eats World", or "Fear Factor".

 I don't know why they don't do a vegetarian version of one of these shows. In the meantime, at least a little awareness would be charming. Chef Ann comments several times that Joshy is agitated during the calimari episode. Well, honey, it's pretty obvious why. Would it kill you to say, at least, "Joshy is working with food he has strong religious/cultural taboos against, and he's doing pretty good?"

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