Yer Outta Here!

One of the less-considered aspects of the baseball off-season is what one should do with all the extra time. During the season, you’ve got a minimum of eighteen hours a week committed to watching games–and that assumes you’re only following one team. Follow two or more, and you’re looking at a commitment that rivals your day job.

I read more. I write a little more, though not as much as you might guess*. But I can’t read while I’m exercising. During the season, I turn on a game, hop on my stationary bike, and pedal through a couple of innings.

* Most games are in the evening, so by the time they start, I’ve usually written my daily quota. Unless I’m on a roll, I generally knock off before seven, and if I am rolling well, I’ll keep writing, even if it means missing a game. So the presence or absence of baseball doesn’t affect the writing.

I’ve tried reading while I ride, and it sucks. The book and my head bob in slightly different speeds and directions, which makes it hard to focus on the page. Worse, I sweat on the pages (eew!). It’s even worse with e-books. I’ll let your imagination fill in the potential hazards…

So I generally fall back on TV. Every year, I wind up with a different off-season favorite; this year, I’ve got three. All on Food Network, and all similar. You’ve heard that there are no new ideas on TV? FN is very good at using that to their advantage, ringing changes on a single core idea. In this case, the core idea is head-to-head competition in multiple rounds. All three of these shows bring something different to the table. (Sorry.)

  • First up is the granddaddy of the multi-round culinary competition: Chopped, which has been around since 2009. Four chefs create an appetizer, entree, and dessert. After each course, the judges critique the dishes on presentation, taste, and creativity, and eliminate one chef. The specific twist is that in each round the chefs get a “mystery basket” of four ingredients that must be used in their dishes. The ingredients may or may not harmonize, so finding a way to make them work together makes the chef’s creative ability paramount. I strongly recommend you keep an eye out for a rerun of the “Bizzare Baskets” episode from January, both for its splendidly disturbing ingredients and unusually classy competitors.

    The format is timeless. There are endless combinations of taxing ingredients, and an eternal supply of chefs willing to take on the challenge for pride, professional development, and a shot at $10,000. Chopped seems likely to help me through many more off-seasons.

  • Next up, is Worst Cooks in America, now in its sixth season. WCiA’s gimmick is that the contestants aren’t chefs; they are, as the title implies, an assortment of common citizens who should be legally barred from preparing food. During the course of the show’s eight week season, the competitors are tutored by professional chefs, and each week, the two who show the least improvement are eliminated.

    The early episodes each season are the most entertaining for the viewer: the cooks’ mistakes come from ignorance and inexperience; the watcher can feel a comfortable sense of superiority (“I’d never do anything as dumb as that!”). Later, as they gain skill, the errors become less amusing–how much joy can you take in someone who fails to add enough salt or forgets to check the internal temperature of a roast? The draw that keeps viewers coming back is the contestants’ personalities and the development of rooting interests. I suspect WCiA is approaching the end of its run. Schadenfreude as a draw has a limited lifespan, and finding increasingly quirky competitors quickly degenerates into self-parody. I’ll enjoy the show while it’s here, but I won’t count on it for next winter’s lack of baseball.

  • Finally, we’ve got my favorite of the three shows: Cutthroat Kitchen. CT just concluded it’s sixth season since its start in 2013; Season Seven starts this week. The format is similar to Chopped: four chefs, three rounds, one chef eliminated each round. The differences are that, instead of being assigned ingredients, the chefs are required to make specific dishes, and in each round the chefs can bid on opportunities to sabotage the other chefs’ efforts. (The casual viewer might not think that cooking while wearing swim fins would be much of a handicap. The time limit on each round makes it much more intimidating.) Sabotages that force the chefs to use inferior ingredients or tools make it difficult to meet the judge’s primary criterion: does the final product resemble the canonical version of the assigned dish.

    Where Chopped puts a premium on creativity, Cutthroat Kitchen emphasizes mental flexibility and the ability to create contingency plans on the fly. Host Alton Brown* takes evil glee in introducing each new sabotage and mocking contestants who don’t handle the trials gracefully. The chefs bid money drawn from their potential winnings. In six seasons, one winner has taken home the full $25,000. I don’t believe any winner has spent all of their money during the course of the competition, but if not, it’s only a matter of time–money management doesn’t seem to be a skill many competitors retain under the pressure of the event.

    * Those of you who know me personally are aware that I’ve been a big fan of Alton for years. CK has done nothing to free me from my Alton addiction.

    As long as Alton and his crew can keep coming up with new variations on the sabotages, CK should stay fresh–the inclusion of a corporately-sponsored challenge in one episode of the latest season could signal bold new ground, or the first sign of shark jumping. Hopefully, Cutthroat Kitchen will brighten my off-seasons for many more years.

If you’re having trouble making through the last few weeks before the 2015 season, please try one of these shows to distract you from your pain–and let me know if it helps you as much as it does me.