Stick a Fork in Me – I’m Done

In retrospect, I realize I walked straight into a trap.

The gentle voice that mentioned “cooking show” and “you are so much fun” and “we’ll really enjoy you” in the same breath cleverly camouflaged the fact that slave labor was involved.

As my ego expanded like a blowfish, I shrugged, looked down at the floor, and agreed to help. Nothing like flattery to get a person to say yes to volunteering to help with a cooking show. Even if that person has never once watched a program on the Food Network, is a reluctant cook at best, and completely unacquainted with terms like “egg separator” and “nested” mixing bowls and “puff pastry” dough

The moment I set foot in the auditorium, I knew I had seriously violated my comfort zone. I should have gotten a clue when I was told to report at daybreak for an event that starts at 7 p.m.

Every square inch of the arena was filled with chairs for attendees, the focal point a large stage upon which squatted two new-fangled stoves, a huge refrigerator, and several work tables. Facing the audience was Cuisine Specialist’s (this was the title on his card) workspace which included an aerial camera focused on the dish-in-progress, a big video screen, assorted utensil crocks, a recipe stand, cutting mats, assorted spices, a remote to control music for his zippy food intros and outros, and an intimidating collection of huge, sharp knives.

My eyes widened at the tables behind the stage curtains groaning under cooking ingredients, stacks of storage plastic ware, and trunks waiting patiently to be unloaded by earnest and zealous volunteers.

Someone pushed paper towels and cleaning stuff into my hands. I stood there vacantly, each nerve ending desperately pleading for coffee. I scan the room covertly as I wipe down six long tables – no coffee.

An obscene amount of volunteers troop into the room – some decorating tables, some preparing their booths along the perimeter, a few stuffing sacks on the floor, others gazing at the stage with hands clasped, imagining the perfect creative dish they will mentally digest, tuck inside their heads and deliver to delighted families in just a few hours.

I continue to wipe down tables, thinking, “WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” I wonder briefly if they will miss me if I just slink away. I mentally castigate myself for self-absorbed tendencies and steel myself for what is developing into a rather labor-intensive work day.

Cuisine Specialist saunters over, sizing me up with his eyes, and asks what I like to cook. I think how absolutely hilarious that question is, but I do not want to appear disrespectful so I reach deep and come up with, “Gnocchi.” I like gnocchi. It’s easy to make. Just open the package and throw into boiling water. My idea of cooking.

He stares at me with thinly veiled impatience, and shoves a couple of recipes into my hand with precise instructions. I think he wanted me to blurt out something more mainstream, like “Hamburger Helper.”

He showed me my working area, gave me a time frame to complete the dishes, and told me he’d be back to supervise periodically.

I checked and re-checked my instructions frantically. I couldn’t even remember the last time I actually tried a new recipe. After my assigned dishes were finally completed and in the oven, I was told to start all over again, but this time put everything in numbered containers on trays. This was called “prep” work.

There are people that actually enjoy this?

I thought helping out with a cooking show would consist of peeling a kiwi or two and handing the Celebrity Chef utensils as needed, like a surgical assistant. Then, imagining myself as Vanna on “Wheel of Fortune,” I would drift across the stage with a smile and open an oven for him to slide in his latest culinary masterpiece.

Not even close.

The Cuisine Specialist has it made. He (or she, as the case may be) is surrounded by sweaty, smiling, harried volunteer cooking afficianados that slice and dice at his command. They produce beautifully prepared salads, casseroles and desserts before the show, then stand alertly behind him as he uses the prep containers to demonstrate how to throw the stuff together, in case he needs an elusive pastry brush or spatula. Afterwards, he thrusts the final dish the volunteers – not him – have prepared under the camera to enthusiastic applause.

I am thinking, who applauds a casserole?

All I know is this: I worked really hard to help someone I do not know do something I do not like, because someone asked me in a nice way. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

On the up side, I now can intelligently discuss how to scrape gunk off a mushroom and demonstrate how to lattice a pie crust.