When Cooking Got Tricky: A Brief History of the Cooking Contest

I have something to admit: There are times—especially since my pantry and refrigerator seem a little bare (and infinitely less inspired) on the weekend—when the only way I can motivate myself to make dinner instead of ordering delivery is to turn cooking into a game.

In fact, it is more of a competition than a game. It’s inevitable that I start the one-woman version of the Food Network contest show “Chopped” that has been dominating the network since it first aired in 2009.

If, for some reason, you haven’t found yourself watching cable TV in an anxiety-driven fugue from 8 p.m. to midnight sometime in the past few years, here’s an introduction to the show. The basket is offered “cut up” for four enthusiastic chefs or home cooks of a certain background – ranging from a subset of the restaurant world to professions such as cafeteria workers and fire cooks.

Inside are a host of disparate ingredients that the competing chefs are asked to create a cohesive dish from. This lasts for three 20-30 minute rounds, which are usually divided into appetizers, appetizers, and dessert categories. Contestants are judged based on attributes such as flavor, presentation, and how they make use of the “mysterious ingredients”. At the end of each round, someone is eliminated. Cue Ted Allen’s signature line, “You’ve been chopped up!”

When I played at home, there were some successes, including a play on Italian pork braised in milk served with rice. I put it together using a big chunk of frozen pork, cilantro, and coconut milk. There were also some dishes I would probably have done Not make again – like Unbelievably A thick soup made with leftover dried beans and pico de gallo – but all of that was more beneficial than eating out.

I’ll admit it’s a little silly to have the threat of an imaginary competition for me to get dinner on the table, but I’ve recently realized why it makes sense. After all, cooking competitions are a constant mainstay in our culture, but what are the origins of cooking as a sport?

It turns out that one of the first recorded instances of a cooking competition took place in medieval Baghdad, more than 1,000 years before the first episode of “Minced” was broadcast.

In Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen, a 10th-century cookbook (originally titled “Kitab al-Sabikh”) translated by Iraqi food historian and researcher Nawal Nasrallah, there is a story of a culinary confrontation between the Caliph Al Khalifa. Mamoon and his brother al-Mu’tasim. Each of them had a series of comrades helping them. Rafiq Al-Mamoun was a cook called Annihilation, who was known for having a “delightful and deceptive sense of humour”.

Nasrallah wrote, “The story goes that Al-Mamoun was in the mood for a cooking competition.” “He ordered that meat and vegetables and the like be brought… I noticed that al-Mu’tasim’s utensil was emitting good smells that overwhelmed others, which made him feel jealous of it.”

So, in a classic case of kitchen vandalism, Extermination offered some “professional advice,” noting that the rhombus would add some fermented sauce to his pot. “Al-Mu’tasim did that, and soon some foul odors came out of his vessel, so Al-Mu’tasim rebuked him by saying: Don’t you know that adding a corpse to a living being spoils it?”

Talk about a cutthroat kitchen.

Years passed before al-Mu’tasim became caliph, and the sting of that lost competition remained. In the end he denied the cult, saying it was not worth killing him. The next Caliph re-ovulated as a royal chef for a period of time, before also banishing him for some mischief (who lost his exact type in history), only to make a comeback. He must have been a quiet cook.

Our collective hunger to see culinary excellence through a competitive lens is clearly a constant mainstay, from old Baghdad to modern cable television, with no sign of satiety any time soon.

Over time, there have been other notable culinary competitions, but these competitions have already solidified as a global entertainment phenomenon in the late 21st century. In 1983, the Bocuse d’Or, a biennial World Chefs Championship, was established in Lyon, France. In 1991, the first James Beard Foundation Awards – often called the “Oscars of the Food World” were awarded; Among the early winners were Rick Bayliss, Emeril Lagasse and Nancy Silverton.

Two years later, in the same year that Food Network debuted in the United States, Japan launched “Iron Chef,” which would forever change the television food landscape. In the decades that followed, Food Network’s programming has steadily shifted toward a competition-dominated schedule. As reported by The Atlantic, the prime-time shows with the most viewers on the network in 2000 were “Iron Chef,” “Emeril Live,” “FoodNation with Bobby Flay,” “Food Finds,” and “Good Eats.”

In 2014, these were “Food Network Star”, “Worst Cooks in America”, “Chopped Tournament”, “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Guy’s Grocery Games”. As of today, “Chopped” has shown 635 episodes, as well as 39 specials.


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This cultural shift is mirrored off-screen. For example, earlier this week, the story of a Virginia woman who swept cooking classes at her county fair went viral online. NPR’s Ailsa Chang reported that Linda Skeens “won first, second, and third place for Best Cookies. It also won the three awards for Dessert and Delicious Bread. In fact, it won the Blue Ribbon for Cake, Pie, Brownie, Sweet Bread, and Best Quality Baked Overall. That was a strawberry dessert.” ”

On the same day, I found a company called Culinary Fight Club, which is a “national organization that hosts live cooking competitions in 29 states” and uses the hashtag # Foodsport in its ads.

Our collective hunger to see culinary excellence through a competitive lens is clearly a constant mainstay, from old Baghdad to modern cable television, with no sign of satiety any time soon.

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At the intersection of food and television

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