Science fiction’s addiction to food…stuff

Years ago old college friends of mine persuaded me to watch a few episodes of “Iron Chef” on the Food Network. I’m talking about the original show, not the current American version. Ever since then I’ve been tempted on occasion to break out into a rousing chorus of “That is a BOLD MOVE by so-and-so!”

People thought the original “Iron Chef” was campy by American standards even though it featured serious cooking. I must say I didn’t really get into the show even though I latched on to that expression.

A couple of years ago I was persuaded to take another look at Food Network. This time around my entry program was Alton Brown’s “Good Eats”. I was hooked. That should be expected from a guy who writes about SEO theory. Alton Brown is not so much about the theory as he is about the science. And his sense of humor appeals to me, too.

From “Good Eats” I moved on to “Dinner: Impossible”, starring Robert Irvine. The guy is amazing. Give him 2 candles, a ball of string, and 3 tattered old comic books and he’ll MacGyver a gourmet dinner for 300 people in 2 hours flat — or something like that. I’m also fond of Bobby Flay’s “Throwdown” show, and occasionally I watch the Food Network challenge shows (I especially love the Disney-inspired cakes and such).

While immersing myself in the mystiques of these shows, I have occasionally noticed that a lot of science fiction fans besides me seem to love them, too. And I think I know why (besides the fact you’re usually looking at good food). These shows all share one major characteristic with science fiction: WHAT IF.

What If a classic cake recipe were vanishing from the traditional Southern U.S. food culture? Would someone be able to recreate it if all they had to go on was just a sample slice? Alton Brown plays this kind of What If angle very often. He’s constantly trying to improve the food around him, seek out new techniques, new machines — to boldly cook where no scientist has ever cooked before!.

Robert Irvine ventures into the realm of the unknown with every episode. His show is a sort of “Twilight Zone” meets James Bond, usually at your neighbor’s backyard cookout. He shows no fear in any situation, although he is never apprised in advance of what he will be asked to do. He doesn’t always complete the challenge but he sure pulls off a heck of a lot of work in little to no time. Anyone who loves end of the world movies, militaristic science fiction, and Rod Serling will probably enjoy Irvine’s show.

Bobby Flay is more a Man’s Man-chef than a SciFi Fan-chefboy but his throwdowns tell such engaging stories — and he is always willing to look both humble and contrite on camera — that he comes across like a mix of Jean-Luc Picard negotiating a treaty and Admiral Adama taking on another Cylon Base Star with half his Viper crews on leave. Each throwdown is a new adventure for Bobby, except when he shows up for an occasional rematch. His good-natured approach to the idea of challenging every leader in the field of cooking keeps his show from becoming an egomaniacle nightmare on Elm street.

I even like the American-ized “Iron Chef”. I never saw the William Shatner special but the current series is done very professionally, the way good science fiction and fantasy should be. I’ve always maintained that when the film’s producers and cast treat their stories with respect they make good movies. It’s the same way with “Iron Chef”. They could so go over the top (and using Mark Dacascos as the Chairman is about as over the top as it gets) but instead approach each battle with the respect due to the chefs taking part. The audience is treated to some inside cooking tips but it’s just fun to listen to Alton Brown try to reverse engineer whatever is happening on the floor and anticipating the dreaded rollout of the ice cream machine.

You don’t really get much food in science fiction and fantasy stories and movies. I know a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien fans have tried to reverse engine the recipes for lembas (the Elven waybread) and the Beornings honeycakes, and various fan Klingon groups have devised some pretty bizarre-looking foods for their gatherings (you really don’t want to know what goes into bloodwine). But the closest you get to dealing with food in Star Wars is the scene where Luke Skywalker takes on the giant thingamajigee, or the scene where the Big Gooberfish almost gobbles Qui-Gon Jinn and Company before being crunched itself. And Aunt Beroo put some sort of blue or green thingees into a food processor or something.

I think we science fiction fans turn to the Food Network because it provides us with the symbolic sustenance that our actual fiction does not. You cannot really feel satisfied by seeing cheap monsters eat people on the SciFi Channel every Saturday night. Food is an important part of our lives and it should be an important part of our fiction, but it’s not (unless you consider “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Snow White” — but then apples seem to get most of the good roles).

Don’t get me wrong. I love apples. And I love science fiction and fantasy. But I love some of the Food Network shows, too.

There. I’ve gone and said it.

I love those shows. They’re better than monster flicks, some weeks.

Take that for what it’s worth.


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