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Lessons Learned from Cooking Shows (and Swat)

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Like any good French-Californian girl, I was taught to look at cooking shows with a vaguely pitying disdain. Until a week ago, if you brought one up I would either A) Blink confusedly and ask if that’s like one of those hot dog eating contests, or B) Snort inelegantly and mutter something about it being typical of Americans to need reality TV to learn how to make pasta. (Yes, I am aware that I’m a snob.)

Until, of course, I actually started watching cooking shows. I am now officially hooked. At first, I thought I was just willing to do anything to procrastinate. That is when I realized the horrible truth.

My life is a cooking show.

Or, to be somewhat fairer, I found parallels between the lives of participants in cooking contests and the lives of Swatties. Or perhaps I’m just sleep deprived and think the entire world revolves around Swarthmore. To recap my profound connections:

“The Great British Bake Off:” Multiple British people bake elaborate cakes and pastries (such as a 20-layer German cake, and yes, the judges count the layers) in a random outdoor area with freakishly green lawns. Profiles are pretty diverse, ranging from teenagers to grandparents. This show forced me to realize that certain British people have mastered cooking beyond fish and chips, lukewarm beer, and sticking everything in mint jelly. Much in the same way, Swat has made me realize that Americans outside of the California/San Francisco/San Franciscan French community bubbles are actually pretty great. We may have close to nothing in common, but we are all passionate about something (labor organizing, or Latin, or nature and rare plants, or linguistics). Also, contestants in TGBBO are almost suspiciously nice. They compliment each other and exchange hugs and are generally supportive of one another, like any Swatties I have encountered.

“Chopped:” One of the most famous cooking shows out there. Four chefs compete over three rounds (appetizer, entrée, dessert), with one chef eliminated each turn. So, not really like Swarthmore, which is somewhat harder to be expelled from. It is worth noting that the first episode I ever saw of Chopped was on the theme of noodles, and I had just had an argument over whether college students were actually able to cook anything other than noodles (considering that my hall’s bathroom sink has had ramen in it for the past three days, I would say some of us can’t even manage those). The show (like Swarthmore) is also very White, although there is almost always one Asian chef per episode. What struck me the most was the chefs’ obsession with each other’s dishes. For all that we are a cooperative school where (allegedly) grades don’t matter and you should only compete with yourself, I have overheard many desperate conversations about a classmate’s paper being longer, smarter, or generally better. There’s not much of a step from “chef X’s dish looks so much neater than mine!” to “everyone else in that class is so much smarter!” It doesn’t matter whether you are writing a political science essay or crafting the perfect Halloween meal; the other person’s plate/paper will look better.

“Cutthroat Kitchen:” Four youngish and photogenic chefs — at least one of which will rant about being from Brooklyn — compete in three rounds — appetizer, entree, and dessert. They are given $25,000 to buy “sabotages”  such as making all the other chefs hold hands as they cook. Whoever wins keeps the money they have not spent, so this show reminded me of my parents’ lectures on budgeting and necessary expenses. The title, I will admit, does not scream “Cooperative Quaker school.” But, let’s face it: Swatties have a dark side. As far as I know, none of us are actually willing to pay to make our classmates suffer (though think of all the choices, should such an opportunity come up. Limiting their course selections to 8:30 classes? Robbing them of Swat Points and making them eat at Sharples for every meal? Forcing them to wear a Donald Trump shirt?), but haven’t any of us ever fantasized about doing something very unpleasant to the one know-it-all in your seminar, who talks over the professor and starts every sentence with “actually?” How about causing something terrible to happen to that rude and unpleasant former hookup? Of the three shows that I have discussed, Cutthroat Kitchen is by far the trashiest and most bloodthirsty. Peace-loving Swatties would blanch at the thought of being compared to these culinary sharks, who discuss intimidation tactics and have such brilliant lines as “smiling is not my thing.” But that vicious monster does come out full force, at one time or another. Why do you think we have Primal Scream? I will admit this show is a guilty pleasure; but then, so is concocting wild revenge plots aimed at your assholesque hallmate/classmate/ex. Embrace the darkness in you, Swatties! At least it’s not being broadcasted to millions of people.

To recap: cooking shows are not bored housewives reading out Betty Crocker recipes (forgive my past assumptions). Stress, anxiety, and worrying about others being “better” is a universal experience alive both on college campuses and TV kitchens. Anyone can be a jerk. And British food is marginally less terrible than we are led to believe. At this rate, I have no doubt that we will soon see our own beloved(?) Sharples on national television soon.

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