Thursday, March 03, 2011

Unorthodox Cooking: Ex-Hasidic Jew Heralds Shift in Food TV 

From the moment Joshie Berger, a former Hasidic Jew, appeared on screen wearing a white tank top and holding a Tupperware container full of burnt chulent, a Jewish Sabbath stew, it was clear that Worst Cooks in America would be unlike most reality cooking shows. Or any show on the Food Network, for that matter.

Worst Cooks in America, having just finished its second season, has managed to straddle the line between startlingly conventional, family-friendly reality entertainment and groundbreaking television. A campy and competitive contest first and foremost, the show also implicitly—and unexpectedly—broaches major cultural themes from food taboos, to ethics and values in eating choices, to the shame of the Western diet. The success of Joshie, an ebullient 36-year-old from Borough Park in Brooklyn, who overcomes his aversion to treyf (non-kosher) foods, was a highpoint of this past season.

Here is the premise of Worst Cooks in America: take 16 awful home cooks, train them through a culinary boot camp with chefs Anne Burrell and Robert Irvine, then pit them against one another in a series of contests to see who improves the most. It is a clever, unglamorous spin on popular shows such as Chopped on the Food Network or Top Chef on Bravo. The chef-instructors provide lessons to the contestants on what it means to julienne, chiffonade, pan-sear, or braise. Worst Cooks successfully introduces advanced cooking concepts to the average viewer since its contestants are indeed average viewers.

Many of the show's stars seemed to have food aversions, whether a juvenile rejection of all things green, a dislike of the texture of okra, or a fear of the unknown. ("Does anyone know what veal is made from?" one contestant asked. Nobody else could answer.)

However, two food aversions stood out all season-long. Kelly Gray's vegetarianism was challenged by the meat-centric menu offerings. And Joshie's erstwhile kosher eating habits, a holdover from his former religious life, led to interesting exchanges and squeamish movements. Shellfish in particular challenged Joshie, who "used to not kiss girlfriends after they ate it."

Nearly 10 years off the path of an Orthodox Jewish life and now a tireless critic of Orthodoxy, Joshie still displays a characteristic Jewishness, not just through his fear of squid but also through cadence of speaking and storytelling style. "He uses humor to tell stories, and then he can be unexpectedly profound," explained Jay Novella, co-host of the radio show The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and supporter of Joshie's newfound atheism, who saw Joshie's ability to craft his own narrative as the key to his success.


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