Chopped

In Magic: The Gathering there is a card called Meekstone. It makes life difficult for anything large. It manipulates the rules to privilege the small, the creatures you wouldn't expect to make it or to do much of anything. An oddly negative card for the righteous (it's white, the color of piety), it does so by punishing the bold player who puts down something quite clearly intended to win. Winning must be done cryptically, through a guise of defense.

In this cutthroat world some of us morally-inclined goody-goodies might wish for a Meekstone, something to make effective our agonizing qualms. We think, by way of self-justification, that the concept of humility is not still at work in the wider moral culture.

Nowhere is this more apparent than "Chopped". The show, I am fairly sure, encourages its contestants to boast on camera. Then they get chopped. There are gradations and flavors of vocal hubris. The first episode I watched had a young Boston chef whose cold eyes glowered out from deep eye sockets. At every moment he told us how confident he was of his cooking. While one of his competitors--a French woman with an earthy aesthetic--flipped out, vocalized her every worry and mistake, and thought out loud in French-accented English, he excercised a rigid, aspirational control. He was constantly saying he was in control. It was such pleasure to watch him get chopped.

Not every boaster is so clearly straining. Some really seem to believe their self-aggrandizements. These are the sort who tell us in the mandatory post-exile interview that they disagree with the choice to chop them. They tell us that they're the better chef. Usually these are older men, curmudgeonly and arrogant. I love to dislike them, and the show gives ample opportunity to ridicule them. A worthy chef does not say how great he or she is. A worthy chef is humble.

I can't decide whether my favorite winner is the taciturn lawyer-turned-chef whose poise was immaculate, neither boasting nor caving under pressure, maintaining a calm poker face, or the Hannah Horvath of chefs, who moved to New York penniless with culinary dreams, and lives with her friend. Of course, Hannah wouldn't burst into tears at everything and anything. This contestant was not shy about describing how her anxiety felt. She said she felt like "throwing up" or "crying in a corner" or "I was having a nervous breakdown." She cried in interviews, she cried when critiqued, she cried when she won.

22 July 2012