“All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.”
– Dr. Carl Sagan, Scientist
Buenos Aires – For those of you not familiar with bit-torrents, don’t go searching to find out, they’re addictive little things. Really, they’re insidious and evil. Remember all the brouhaha (or was it a kerflufle?) over Napster? File sharing via the internet, pirated videos, court cases… like turning Napster into a pay to use service by court order was going to change anything. Meanwhile back at the ranch, people were gradually switching over to torrents anyway – it’s an easier way to share files in the background, and you get “bits” of them from anyone who’s signed on who happens to have any portion of the file, rather than having to connect to one person or a couple of people who happen to have the whole file. So, little by little, the files get shared around. For those of us in the hinterlands, it’s a way of getting to see things that simply aren’t broadcast here – like my weekly download of the current episode of Top Chef or something along those lines, or the “coming distractions” I posted about awhile back. Some people have massive collections of things they’ve downloaded this way, I tend to be more of a “catch and release” sort of fisherman in the waters of the internet – I watch and then delete the files… usually… a few things I save. The video police will be knocking at my door any moment now.
In Search of Perfection – I’d heard about this series, a half dozen episodes of British chef Heston Blumenthal tramping about the countryside looking for the perfect ingredients and then carting them back to his laboratory kitchen where he set about making things perfect. At least from his view. The show’s kind of fun, he’s a lively talker, and very engaging, it’s almost like watching Mr. Wizard, but in the kitchen. The aim of the show was to take staples of English cookery – like, say, fish and chips – and figure out the “perfect” way to make and serve them. It’s interesting to watch he and his cohorts snack their way through different batters or potatoes, or what have you, and try to come to a consensus (his view always, of course, overrides the rest of the team), and then figure out a pretty way to plate it, and throw in a few molecular gastronomy techniques whenever applicable, or at least techniques that require specialized equipment or major modifications of home appliances. In the end, he may come out with some truly great versions of these dishes, and eating at his restaurant you may get to try these (I’m not clear if he was then serving them up, or if this was just an exercise for television), but virtually nothing offered up in the show is do-able for the average or even above average home cook.
Hell’s Kitchen – Mixing the two sides of the pond, chef Gordon Ramsey, the self-proclaimed bad boy of the food world, announces that he can turn anyone… make that “ANYONE” into a master chef in just a few episodes of television. Many of you may have already seen this one, as I was watching Season 1, and they’re up to Season 3 – I have to admit, watching it was sort of like watching a train wreck, it was simply awful, yet I couldn’t stop myself. He takes a dozen people with dreams of opening their own restaurant (the supposed prize at the end of the show… we’ll get to that in a minute), most of whom have never worked in the food industry, and sets about training them to be “master chefs”, a phrase he repeats over and over again. The show itself only reveals the head to head battles out of weeks and weeks of training, which we never see. And, of course, the cameras spend at least half their time focused on Ramsey himself, spewing out invective and turning purple with rage through most of the early episodes, and gradually becoming the proud papa of his final proteges…wow, surprise, the two guys with the most restaurant cooking experience end up being the two final contestants… while the accountants and personnel recruiters all got eliminated one by one… gee that was hard work to train these two… not that he doesn’t get across good points about working in a restaurant kitchen, but being a bastard isn’t the only way to do it, as he seems to think. And oh, let’s get to that prize… Ramsey’s putting up the money and expertise and all to help the winner open his own restaurant… but no, Carol, what do we have behnd door number 2? How about instead of I put up all that money and time I just give you a job working for me in one of my restaurants where you’ll have to put up with more of my crap every day… except of course, I have multiple restaurants in the world now, tv shows to film, so you’ll probably only see me once every couple of months? Oh yes, please, Gordon, could I, could I…? Give me the check damnit.
Flavours of India – Madhur Jaffrey, the grand-dame of Indian cooking, brought this colorful, swirling, completely fascinating look at the regional cooking of India to British television some time ago I gather. It’s well worth getting your hands on, if for nothing else, just the visuals. But for those into food, it’s truly engaging, as in each episode she takes on local specialties in one part or another of the Indian sub-continent, not only touring and sampling, but demonstrating or having demonstrated various dishes, each one more mouthwatering than the last. She’s precise, giving details of each pinch of spice – measurements, history, what to look for, what to smell for, what to taste for. It’s really pretty brilliantly done. For her part, she’s easy to listen to and well spoken. She has a tendency at some moments to come across a bit as a “Lady”, not deigning to mix with the locals at certain moments where it’s clear that she’s not all that comfortable. I couldn’t tell if it was a caste thing or something else, it’s not an area I know enough about – it didn’t seem to be an economic thing, in some places she mixed with the poor, in others she clearly avoided contact, but the same was, if less obviously so, true with those who seemed to be well off. Maybe she was just having a bad day here and there.
No Resevations – Argentina – This one just aired last week, and has been making the expat rounds down here, as we all wanted to see what Tony Bourdain had to say about our adopted home and its food. I’ve only seen a few scattered episodes of this show, and I always had this vague, sneaking suspicion, that our man in the street was, well, being handled. While he always visits offbeat venues, and participates in weird activities, it always seemed like there was something… not quite right about it. I couldn’t have put my finger on it, because the few episodes I saw were filmed in locales I’ve never been to. Finally, though, a chance to see him in a place I know reasonably well – he’s being handled. He’s not seeing anything that whomever is arranging these visits doesn’t want him to, he’s not participating in anything that isn’t carefully orchestrated. Or if he is, they’re simply not including it in the final product. I mean… walking down the streets of Villa 20 with a camera crew, not a person in sight… this is a street that ought to be teeming with people, and he being mobbed by them (something he jokes about as he glances nervously about)… I’m sure what we can’t see is a team of federal police sweeping the area clear in front of he and his crew as they move through this devastatingly poor shantytown. He eats a little street food and festival food here and there, clearly getting no experience of what most of Argentine cuisine is really about (nor seeing much of it – a day or so in Buenos Aires and a couple in Patagonia seems to sum up the country for him), he jokes around with some gauchos (admittedly a couple of funny moments, especially when one of the gauchos declares that “all true chefs are either alcoholics or gay” and Tony grabs for a beer, announcing as quickly as he can “I drink, really”). His experience of the “real Argentine” had little to do with any reality that he, or his producers, didn’t bring to the party – still, it’s an interesting view, and we all come to the party with our past, no?