Friday, January 21, 2005

Alléz Cuisine!

I wasn't remotely cool enough to take part in the hip underground club scene in my youth. Thus, I never had the experience of watching in horror as my favorite obscure indie band suddenly got discovered by the mainstream, becoming that most dreaded of all things . . . popular. In fact I used to think people who groused about this were the worst sort of posers. God forbid they should sip from the same mug of pop culture as the rest of us hoi polloi! Then last Sunday night the previews for Iron Chef America came on, and I realized that I know exactly how they feel.

At the risk of sounding like a poser myself, I was a fan of Iron Chef long before it became a Food Network staple, when it aired as Ryori No Tetsujin on Fuji TV, entirely in Japanese with English subtitles.

This was way back in 1996, when Chef and my brother Gooch and I were pretty much inseparable, newly repatriated from the so-called Humboldt Nation and clinging to each other as a life raft as we somewhat uneasily settled into our new lives as grown-up, responsible, suburban working drones. After each long week of delicately learning to negotiate such previously unheard of challenges as rush hour traffic, public transportation, and corporate politics, the weekend always came as an enormous relief. Every Friday night we all gathered for a lively, joyful Shabbat dinner at Mom and Dad's, then caravaned over to the funky third-floor apartment Chef and I shared to unwind, drink a few beers, maybe smoke a couple of joints, and laugh until our sides ached as we imitated people we worked with, gossiped about our friends from college, and decried the many indignities of moving back to our hometown - the unwelcome high school reunions every time we went out to buy groceries and the yentas who saw us around town and reported our every move to our parents.

On one of these evenings, we were idly flipping around the television dial when we stumbled upon the weirdest show any of us had ever seen. From what we could gather, it was a bizarre amalgamation of pro wrestling, Kabuki theater, and Julia Child's Kitchen, featuring flamboyant costumes, excitable color commentators, melodramatic battles of honor, and theme ingredients - from lettuce to live octopus - rising magnificently from the floor in a cloud of smoke. The subtitles were often the funniest part: as the narrator breathlessly announced the latest developments, the English translation would read "Chef Sakai is perspiring profusely!" or "Man alive - I believe he is going for the fermented bean curd!"

From that first night on, Iron Chef became must-see TV for the three of us. Nobody else we knew had ever heard of the show (it only aired in in very limited markets, Los Angeles and San Francisco). It became another one of our many inside jokes; the catchphrases and characters integrated into our daily language.

Many people look back longingly at certain times of their life through the rosy glow of nostalgia. Usually this happens with concretely defined stages like "high school," "childhood" or "college." For me, this brief, free-floating time that I shared with my husband and my brother as we tried to find our place in the world, was - looking back - one of the happiest times of my life. I wish I had appreciated it more when it was happening, but I think then we were more focused on the things that we didn't have, like jobs that paid well, money for a down payment on a house, or even well-defined career goals. The flip side of that, however, is that the three of us had so much time and freedom to laugh, commiserate, and bask in each other's company, before the inevitable encroachment of job transfers and kids and mortgages and adult reponsibilities assured that we would never again experience that same type of carefree closeness.

As it turned out we were not, indeed, the only people to have discovered the Iron Chef. The show was referenced in a couple of newspaper articles, and soon afterwards Jon Carroll used it as a subject in one of his columns. Around this time Chef and I finally joined the 20th century, purchasing a modem and connecting to the world wide web. One of the very first things I did upon logging on was to do a search on the show. To my surprise there was a whole website devoted to it, with detailed episode summaries and a message board where a small but passionate band of followers debated the chefs' strategies and the judges' rulings. I became an enthusiastic participant, and discovered that the show's fans were - like us - quirky, intelligent, interesting people with highly developed senses of humor and irony.

It is a cliche that all good things must end, and so before long, the intrepid members of the Iron Chef fan club were mourning the news that the show was being dropped by Fuji TV. Instead it would be broadcast by the Food TV Network, one of the fastest-growing cable channels in the nation. Predictably, the subtitles were being phased out in favor of tacky voice-overs, which of course would have nowhere near the subtle humor and charm. And the worst of it was, the fans of the show would no longer be a select community of kindred spirits, since it was being reformatted and sanitized for a typical middle American audience.

It was true - once the show aired in its new, cable-friendly form, the experience of watching it had irrevokably changed. Of course by then so many things had changed anyway. Gooch got a job promotion and moved several hours away, Chef and I bought a house and had a baby, and then another, and in time all of our lives became busier and more complicated. Gooch has his own family now, a lovely wife, two bright, spirited stepsons and one very active infant. It is wonderful to see both our families grow, and it is a true pleasure to see our kids all running and playing and roughhousing together, and to know that we are finally where we had hoped to be in life.

Still, I can't help but feel wistful when I realize that the days of staying up until all hours talking, of soaking in the apartment's hot tub under the palm trees after work, of discovering strange and wonderful surprises on late-night television together, have disappeared as completely as the Ryori No Tetsujin we knew and loved.


Blogger exute said...

I miss it too. I once did something I never thought I would- asked a host if I could turn it on when we were guests with seven other couples. Everyone wondered what was so important that I would do such an socially unacceptable act- but after all, it was the night of the unforgettable uctopus battle!

I have had that happen to me several times in my life- the first two being the acceptance of bowling when automatic pinsetters came into existence, taking bowling from smoky cellars to brightly lit emporia, with alleys now called lanes and gutters called channels. The second was the introduction of pink and cerese colored poll tables.

Suddenly feeling my age-again.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Gooch said...

Ahhh, I miss those days too. I remember we also discovered Emeril Lagasse years and years before he turned into the obnoxious, catchphrase-spewing cliche that he is today.

11:11 AM  

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