Culinary three-legged race

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The Independent Culture
I was very struck this week by the news report about a man who had had a red-hot iron rod plunged into his brain. His lawyer apparently told the compensation hearing that he had "formerly been a hard-working and ambitious man but was now reduced to watching television". Scalding words for a television reviewer to read, but perhaps we're on to something here. I don't want to sound unfeeling about the poor man's plight, but watching some programmes you feel it would be a positive advantage to have your central cortex cauterised before settling back to watch.

Can't Cook, Won't Cook (BBC1), for example, in which, according to the Radio Times, "two cooks are challenged by chef Kevin Woodford". Two kooks, actually, if you follow Kevin's Liverpudlian pronunciation. "Let's get kooking," he yells, to the accompaniment of a moronic gameshow fanfare - a passable musical equivalent, it occurs to you after the fourth or fifth repetition, of a red-hot iron rod through the brain.

The programme itself is a sort of culinary three-legged race in which two hapless beginners are harried through the preparation of a modestly ambitious dish. Yesterday both contestants were women, apparently offered up for humiliation by their gormless partners and lending the programme a somewhat period feel, at least in terms of its sexual politics. "She's useless, she just doesn't want to cook," complained one chuckling sidekick, to manly commiserations from Kevin. Perhaps she should learn some extra uses for a rolling pin - it's amazing what you can achieve if you get your backswing right.

Woodford's manner during the cooking is unusually charmless, even for daytime television, with its greed for artificially enhanced character (contains Emulsifying agent, E666, Sincerose and Jocular Agitate). His predominant tone is weary sarcasm, the bitter wit of a physics master passed over for Head of Department one too many times. "Pick up the salt," he flustered at one point, "the white stuff." Angela and Andy won in the end, and were presented with an espresso machine. "Which means plenty of coffee while she cooks in the kitchen," Kevin informed Andy cheerfully.

Unfortunately, all cooks on daytime television seem to come from the same mould. A few minutes later on the doomed Good Morning (BBC1) - shortly to be retitled Goodbye - Ainsley Harriott did his stuff with mangoes and cranberries. Ainsley's recipe included turkey, which seemed less than tactful given the programme's general standing at the moment, but he clearly knows how to pitch his patter at the right intellectual level: "Let's have a go with Percy Peppermill," he burbled. "What do you want for Christmas, Percy? Some fresh peppercorns? Now, what about you, Suzy Salt?" Who says there's no evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans?

Talking of which, I had secretly hoped that the Sophie's Meat Course (C4) programme on beef would coincide with Buttercup's Revenge - a week in which the most popular way of preparing anything remotely bovine has been to take it out and burn it at the stake. In fact, the beef programme will appear next week, and is probably being hastily retrimmed in a dubbing studio. This week Sophie was on safer ground, cooking what Ainsley would probably call Larry Lamb and Melanie Mutton. The programme is mercifully straightforward, instructive about buying and preparing meat, and devoid, apart from one detail, of the conventional tics of broadcast cuisine. The exception is the Chef's Mumble, a virtually obligatory scene in which the presenter stuffs a spoonful of whatever's on the menu into his or her mouth and then utters moans of muffled approbation. "Momf. Umm. Mahh. At's lovely," said Sophie, cheeks bulging with Moroccan Lamb Stew. It isn't a particularly appealing sight, but then I suppose she's only obeying the television cook's most important piece of etiquette - always speak with your mouth full.

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