Being revisited by a pernicious and bizarre ailment that makes day and night irrelevant concepts in relation to sleep, I have again found myself watching QVC and HSN rather more than a person of my my delicate constitution should do. I watch the curiously irradiated gems and the miraculously efficient floor cleaners, but my real fascination is with the pitches by celebrity chefs. I narrowly missed seeing Todd English flog his Green Pans, but I have seen a full presentation of Wolfgang Puck’s wares, and most of what Emeril has to offer. Like a car accident, it’s really tough to look away even when I know I could be doing something better with my time (like trying to whistle all of Beethoven’s symphonies or mounting a campaign to ban chewing gum from public places).
I noticed two interesting phenoma during these viewings. The first was that, during Puck’s appearance on whichever channel it was, he was cooking constantly, or at least cutting and plating, and I wanted to hear what he said. He may have sold out in every possible way, but he is still one of the great chefs of the century, one of the first “celebrity” chefs, and a man who has interesting ideas about cooking and eating. He was blocked from saying more than two words at a time by the hostess, who was apparently obligated to remind viewers of the incredible deal on the knife set in the middle of Puck’s explanation of how to carve a turkey or lay out a plate of meat and vegetables as an appetizer. The price was, at all times, written in substantial letters on the left side of the screen, and often running across the bottom as well (with a reminder that “limited quantities remained”) and still the woman interrupted him mid-explanation.
Puck: “…you see, you cut this joint here and you have the-”
Hostess: “We just can’t believe Wolfgang has let us go this low on the knives – you could give them as gifts, keep them for yourself, but I’d buy at least two at this price!”
Never mind the fact that it would be strange to give someone a single paring knife for Christmas (unless it was your spouse who had been dying for one, in which case you might be sharing a kitchen and could share the set) or that the knife set came with a knife block and cutting board which would never be quite right once you gave away one, two or three of the knives. I wanted to hear Wolfgang Puck explain how he cut up a turkey, I wanted to hear his thoughts about garnishing an hors d’oeuvres plate, I wanted to hear him speak. Mr. Annie reminded me that it was not a cooking show; they were selling knives and bread machines. I said “hmph,” feeling that if they really just needed his name, they needn’t have dragged him away from his 500 restaurants, airport concessions and canned soup factories to appear on a home shopping channel.
My other issue had to do with the nature of the stuff being sold. About the “fabulous” set of three knives being sold for $32.90 complete with knife block and cutting board, Puck said they were duplicates of “the three knives he reaches for all the time in his kitchen.” The knives were a paring knife, an 8 or 10 inch chef’s knife, and some curious intermediate knife (described as a “5 inch santoku”) for which I could see no particular use. (Note: the hostess repeatedly referred to “santuko knives. ‘Nuff said). I do have three knives that I reach for all of the time: a paring knife, a chef’s knife and a long serrated knife which is essential for cutting bread, tomatoes, delicate cake, and other things that tend to crumble easily. I do not believe that Wolfgang Puck doesn’t need a serrated knife. I do not believe that he does need a santoku with a 5″ blade. I believe that the blades on those knives are sharp enough, at the moment he appears on camera, to slice a tomato beautifully, but that in 6 months the average knife user who does not have regular access to a knife sharpener person (no matter how many articles she reads telling her that she has to have her knives sharpened regularly and no matter how much she really means to do that but never seems to get it done) and who is using knives purchased in a $32.90 set from HSN will not be able to cut a tomato with that knife without creating an incredible mess.
As for Emeril, he was selling (in addition to a deep fryer and some sort of multi-chambered steamer) a chili pot and a cornbread pan. I am not as negative about “unitaskers” as Alton Brown (although I don’t have many), but buying and storing a pot or pan specifically for the making of chili or cornbread seems excessive. When I’m in a hurry I put the ingredients for chili in the crock pot, and when I have more time I use my beautiful, heavy weight soup pot. I always make cornbread in my Lodge cast iron frying pan. In the old days, before I had my soup pot (a gift from Mr. Annie) I cooked in two pots I bought at a garage sale when we were first married. They are Calphalon, and I call them Big Pot and Little Pot. Big Pot lacks the capacity for a huge batch of chili, but did just fine for us. If I was entertaining and serving chili, I used the Pasta Pot, a multi-gallon stainless affair with strainer insert and a steamer basket that I stole from my parents when I set up housekeeping. It is still my pasta pot, my corn-boiling pot, my blanching pot, and my vegetable and dumpling steamer. It is probably more things I can’t even remember. I’m sure that Emeril’s Chili pot could be pressed into service to cook soup, or stew, or sauce, and that the Cornbread Pan could hold brownies or Tuna Noodle Casserole, but specialization, not versatility was the driving force behind the pitch.
I’ll go back to worrying about more important things now. It is unlikely that any very serious cooks are either buying or using kitchen gifts from home shopping channels (although one never knows) and I will go on blithely assuming that anyone who receives Wolfgang’s knife set will be delighted to use it for his or her annual slicing of cheese chunks for a New Year’s Eve party just as the recipient of the Chili Pot and Cornbread Pan will whip up delicious batches of both dishes for viewing the Super Bowl. I will repeat my mantra “it’s none of my business, it’s none of my business” until I find out a way to reach those people and let them know what else they could whip up with their haul, if they were so inclined….