Allez cuisine!

I have been a fan of “Iron Chef” ever since my cable TV system began carrying Food Network. I was highly skeptical several years ago when UPN tried to do an American version, which they called “Iron Chef USA.” It was awful. But last spring, Food Network tried out its version, “Iron Chef America,” and it was light-years improved.

Tonight, “Iron Chef America,” which was a miniseries event last spring, becomes a regular weekly series. I’m watching the first episode — challenger Rick Bayless versus Iron Chef Bobby Flay, with buffalo as the theme ingredient — and I am not disappointed.

For the uninitiated, the original “Iron Chef” was a weekly program on Japanese television through most of the 1990s. It can be described as a cross between professional wrestling, Pokemon and Julia Child. The culinary competition is real, but there’s a sort of fictional premise in which a mysterious wealthy Japanese nobleman, “Chairman Kaga,” creates “Kitchen Stadium,” an arena for culinary competition, and recruits several “Iron Chefs” — “the invincible men of culinary skill,” according to the opening of the Japanese version. Each week, a challenger arrives in Kitchen Stadium to take on one of the Iron Chefs. A theme ingredient is announced, and the chefs get 60 minutes to prepare various dishes, each of which must feature the theme ingredient. In the Japanese version, each chef may prepare as many or as few dishes as he or she likes; in both “Iron Chef USA” and “Iron Chef America,” they must prepare a minimum of five dishes. After the cooking is over, a panel of judges samples the challenger’s dishes and then the Iron Chef’s dishes and votes on a winner.

There is no prize money, and a victorious challenger does not somehow become an Iron Chef. It’s merely a battle for bragging rights.

Part of the appeal of the original “Iron Chef,” for American viewers, was its exoticness (is that a word?). The voice talents who translated the original Japanese episodes for their Food Network airings did a masterful job. It is obviously a loose translation, preserving some uniquely Japanese attitudes and cultural references while at the same time adopting the cadence and enthusiasm of American sportscasting. The ingredients in the Japanese version are sometimes strange to our American tastes, and in the case of seafood, they would often be live at the time the theme ingredient was unveiled. One of the first episodes of the show I ever saw had octopus as a theme ingredient; one of the Iron Chefs dropped a still live octopus into a bowl of breading, and the octopus flailed about for a few seconds before being dispatched! In another episode, an eel escaped and slithered across the floor.

Then there was the episode with natto as the theme ingredient. Natto is apparently a Japanese specialty made from fermented beans. The beans are covered with a stringy slime that hangs off the spoon like mozzerella cheese from a hot pizza. It looked positively disgusting. Later, after having seen the Iron Chef episode, I heard a Nashville radio talk show host say that the Japanese sometimes use natto as a sort of good-natured test. He claimed that many of the Japanese don’t even like it, but that they will sometimes serve it to a Westerner just to watch the reaction.

Any American version of Iron Chef is going to lose some of that exotic appeal. So it must make up for it with energy, excitement and other factors.

“Iron Chef USA,” which aired as two specials on UPN (and has been rerun a few times on Food Network) fumbled the ball completely. For starters, it alienated viewers of the original Japanese version by completely ignoring its existence. William Shatner appeared as “The Chairman.” That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds — Takeshi Kaga was apparently already well-known to Japanese viewers as a stage actor when he first took the role of “The Chairman” in the Japanese version. But Shatner just carried too much baggage — Star Trek, Priceline and what have you. He couldn’t pull off the mysterious image that would have made the show possible. (Anyway, he’s much better off on “Boston Legal,” in a role where his hamminess is not only tolerated but essential.) The announcers on the UPN version were Michael Burger — an affable but bland pseudo-celebrity whose resume includes a daytime talk show and a remake of “Match Game” — and culinary expert Anthony Dias Blue, with Sissy Biggers as floor reporter. None of them did anything terribly wrong, but none of them provided any sort of spark. The American Iron Chefs (we only got to see two of the three in actual competition) were not bad, but again, no spark. (One of them, Kerry Simon, later turned up as a judge on the “Iron Chef America” miniseries last spring.)

“Iron Chef America” has taken a quite different approach. First off, it’s presented as a spinoff of the original Japanese show — the “Chairman,” played by martial-arts expert Mark Dascassos, presents himself as a nephew of Chairman Kaga who has been commissioned to start a new Kitchen Stadium here in the States. The “Iron Chefs” are already well-known to Food Network viewers. Bobby Flay was a challenger on the Japanese “Iron Chef” and has hosted a variety of Food Network shows. Mario Batali has also hosted a variety of shows on Food Network. Masaharu Morimoto actually was one of the Japanese Iron Chefs, even though he was working in America at the time, and so he has transferred nicely from the Japanese program to the American version. (Last spring, Wolfgang Puck was an Iron Chef, but he apparently decided not to participate in the regular series.)

But my favorite part of the new show is that the play-by-play announcer is my favorite Food Network personality — in fact, he’s one of my favorite people on television period. Alton Brown, the quirky, hilarious host of “Good Eats,” handles the play-by-play and color commentator roles by himself, assisted by a sideline reporter, Kevin Brauch. I am a huge Alton Brown fan, and he manages to take the cooking seriously while winking at the pageantry.

As far as I’m concerned, this show is a home run.

Blogger Idol: Why Journalists Should Blog

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This week’s “Blogger Idol” theme is “Why [insert occupation here] should blog.”

I’m a journalist, although I’m currently going through some serious questioning about what my next career should be. Since I haven’t answered that question, I’m stuck in journalism. Journalism and blogging are uneasy partners; journalists, being writers, would seem to take naturally to blogging, but some of them have gotten into serious trouble by second-guessing their employers or compromising their integrity in this type of alternate forum. For example, a journalist might have a story spiked, heavily edited or delayed, and might disagree with his editors about the reasons for doing this. The journalist then vents his frustration by blogging about the story in his own private forum, and that causes embarrassment to everyone involved. Or a journalist who tries hard to be objective and fair in print betrays his private political leanings in his private blog, and compromises the editorial integrity of the newspaper.

It’s for reasons like these that I generally avoid posting about work-related topics in this forum, except in a few isolated and non-controversial cases.

The Blogger Idol web site, in the post setting up this week’s topic, has links to several posts about occupational blogging, including a terrific blog entry by Tim Porter in defense of journalists being allowed to blog. Porter steals some of the points I might have otherwise made in this post. Here’s a terrific quote from Porter:

Newspapers need more creativity, not less; they need their reporters and editors to be more expressive, not less. Newspapers should do all they can to encourage their staff members to as creative as possible outside the office with the hope that this energy returns to the newsroom.

Blogging is writing. Blogging is photography. Blogging is communicating. These are all good things for newspapers.

Amen. I can certainly understand how specific instances of work-related blogging could cause problems for journalists, but I think it’s important that journalism organizations not react to these problems with a ham-handed prohibition of blogging in general.

It would be hard to prove it from my actual blog entries, which are sometimes rushed and sloppy, but I believe blogging helps make me a better writer. And writing is an important part of journalism. (It’s the part I love, which is part of my vocational hand-wringing.) I try not to make this a “dear diary” sort of blog, but it does include personal experience. That’s cathartic, especially for someone who’s single and doesn’t have a life partner to talk to. At the same time, I don’t have to feel as if I’m imposing on anyone; you can read if you’re interested and walk away (or skip to the next entry) if you’re not, and I’m none the wiser. I do worry that I might drive people off if the blog becomes too much about the minutiae of my life.

Anyway, I seem to have wandered afield. I think blogging can be beneficial to journalists for many of the same reasons it’s beneficial to non-journalists. It’s a way to communicate with the world, to start a conversation, to share ideas, to blow off a little steam. With some discretion and common sense, it can be productive and enjoyable.

Red Cross

For a few months in late 2003 and early 2004, I was a board member of the local Red Cross chapter. “Local” is a bit of a misnomer — the chapter is based in much-larger Rutherford County but also serves Bedford County. I went to the board meetings, but the board business seemed to be mostly Murfreesboro-centric and/or about fund-raising (at which I’m awful). There were also opportunities to volunteer for the various service areas, of course, such as disaster relief, blood drives or assistance to military families. But with everything else on my plate, I felt that I really didn’t have time to do justice to one of those. So I quietly resigned from the board.

I do, however, strongly support the work and mission of the Red Cross. The organization is held to a high standard — as it should be — and took a lot of criticism for some misunderstandings about the plans for some of its post-9/11 fund-raising. But consider the miracle of what this organization does, day in and day out, through hurricane, war, tsunami and through more individual disasters such as fires and major surgery.

I am sitting here watching NBC Universal’s excellent (and highly commendable) “Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope,” which is raising money for the American Red Cross for its tsunami relief efforts. Commentator Bill O’Reilly made some skeptical noises about how the proceeds from the telethon would be allocated, but (after some back-and-forth public sniping between O’Reilly and telethon organizer George Clooney) O’Reilly was won over, and he actually appeared on the special tonight.

Soon after the tsunami, I had an Amazon-managed Red Cross donation link up on this blog as part of a blog entry. I eventually replaced it with a United Methodist Committee on Relief link, in the fixed right-hand column, after hearing my pastor talk about the UMCOR effort. That change was not meant as any reflection on the Red Cross; in fact, I made my own personal tsunami contribution through the Red Cross link before I had the UMCOR information.

I used to give blood on a regular basis. I was one pint short of my five-gallon pin when I had to stop. For some reason (probably cholesterol medication) I had a false positive test for hepatitis. Even though it turned out to be a false positive — the Red Cross did a second, more reliable test before they even told me about the first one — they told me that I was to stop donating, permanently. Just think about the blood donation network operated in many places by the Red Cross; if that were the only thing the organization did, it would still be a miracle.

One thing I learned during my brief board tenure was the stress that military relief has placed on local Red Cross chapters. The Red Cross is there in the middle of the night to help military families get word to their loved ones in case of family emergencies, and to provide other forms of support. It was actually the military aspect that led to the founding of the Red Cross; the same Geneva Conventions you hear about in connection to prisoners of war created the International Red Cross.

Please support your local Red Cross chapter, and please stop and think about what this remarkable organization does for so many of us around the world.

My 15 minutes of fame

I was so proud of my Mike Yaconelli tribute in the name-change issue of The Wittenburg Door that I wrote a little piece about it in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette. I sent a clipping to the Door, and they asked for my permission to put it up on their web site.

Little did I know that I would become the star, of sorts, of the latest “Wittenburg Door Insider” e-newsletter. They included links to the Yaconelli piece, to my self-serving T-G piece, and even, on a whim, to a humor piece I wrote for the magazine back in 1991!

I have no idea what prompted this, but I’d like to thank the members of the Academy and all the little people who made it possible.

Cingular

Well, I have my new Cingular phone and service and I’m very happy with both so far. But I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop as far as the phone. I don’t think I’ll really be convinced until I get my final, pro-rated bill for this month from AT&T Wireless.

I’ve downloaded a useless game for the phone (the only game it came with was a demo, and I didn’t care for it). I haven’t downloaded any ringtones yet; the phone plays real-sounding MP3 ringtones, but I like one of the factory-installed tones (a Motorola tune which features the voice from the commercials saying “Hello, Moto”).

The phone is capable of international roaming. In theory, I could take it to Kenya. I may or may not. Roaming would be expensive, only good for a rushed “Hello, I made it here safely” call. And it’s one more thing that could get lost or stolen. It would be fun, and a kind of security blanket, but then again missions trips shouldn’t be all about security.

Sermon un-prep

Less than 10 minutes after my last post, my father called. For reasons that I can’t go into, his travel plans have changed and I won’t need to speak this weekend after all.

Sermon prep

My parents will be traveling to California this weekend for a funeral, and my father asked me to fill the pulpit for him (I am a certified United Methodist layspeaker). I always like to go by the Revised Common Lectionary, even though some of the small rural churches where I tend to preach don’t necessarily use it. I think it’s good discipline to write about an assigned passage rather than just always going to my favorite passage.

Anyway, the lectionary passages for this Sunday are Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, I Corinthians 1:1-9 and John 1:29-42. I’m going to focus on Psalms and bring in the passage from John, emphasizing the need for us to share our faith and testify to what God has done for us.

In some ways, I’m preaching to myself (most of my best sermons have been directed at myself). It’s really stressful at work right now; I feel the need to change careers but have no idea where to go. I’m worried about finances, a little lonely, and just generally in a funk. The idea of standing up on a soapbox this week and shouting about what God has done for me seems a little incongruous — until I think about it. God has blessed me in so many ways, ways that I can count and recognize even when I’m wallowing in self-pity.

In the sermon, I talk about the fact that we’ve all seen people boldly sharing their faith in ways that are arrogant, rude or inappropriate. Sometimes, we use those stereotypes as excuses not to share our own faith. After all, it might be (gasp!) embarassing. But sharing our faith with others is not optional; it’s mandatory. We may not all be called to stand on the street corner with a bullhorn, but most of us are called to be bolder than we are currently being. I know I am.

Blogathon

Aussie Darren Rowse, creator of the Blogger Idol program in which I’ve been participating, and of the excellent Living Room emergent church web site, will be holding a “blogathon” Jan. 20 to raise money for tsunami relief. Darren will post something every 15 minutes for 24 hours straight, and will donate all of that day’s revenue from the various ads and links on the blog to tsunami relief (he also has a button allowing people to just donate directly).\

Please check it out.

Raising the bar?

Just a few months ago — late September or early October — I re-upped with my cellular telephone carrier, AT&T Wireless, for two years. As an incentive, I received a new cellphone. AT&T had sent out a mass mailing encouraging me to re-up by promoting a nice free phone deal, and I bit.

A month or two later, the acquisition of AT&T Wireless by Cingular Wireless was consummated. It had been in the works for months, certainly long before AT&T Wireless induced me to re-up by offering me a new phone. Since the acquisition, all of us AT&T customers have been assured that we have the option of staying with our current AT&T rate plan or switching to one of Cingular’s rate plans.

This weekend, on a whim, I decided to peruse Cingular’s rate plans. They had one that was very similar to my current rate plan. Cingular is partly owned by BellSouth, my local telephone company, and I hoped that if I switched over to the Cingular rate plan, I might be able to combine my Cingular service with my local telephone service, and get both of them on the same bill, a service I know they offer to new subscribers in this area.

So I started (on the AT&T Wireless web site) the process for switching from a AT&T rate plan to a Cingular rate plan. Imagine my surprise when, at the next stage, they asked me to pick out my free phone. Free phone? I just got a free phone four months ago! Surely this could not be right. I logged off of the web site and called customer service just to make sure I was reading this offer correctly.

Turns out that I was. Cingular is willing to cancel my old AT&T contract, with no termination fees, after just four months and give me a new phone, just for signing up for a new two-year contract with Cingular. The rate plans are very close — I don’t see what the benefit to them is, other than moving my name out of the AT&T computer and into the Cingular computer. And I was already on a “Next Generation” GSM plan with AT&T, so it can’t be that Cingular wants me to upgrade to GSM technology.

Does this seem odd to you?