We take a quick, cautious look at what's going on with food TV. This week, Time Machine Chefs, a one-hour pilot on the black death in medieval Europe, on ABC.
Time Machine Chefs went to a lot of trouble to do one thing very well: show three chefs in a room in Tudor England with nothing but fire and stacks of dead animals and knives, cooking heads.
You can ignore everything else about it. The special effects were stolen from my computer in 1995. The three judges were as memorable as hamburger buns. The host still had the price tag protruding from her head to make returning her easier.
But once the chef-competitors arrived in a replica of carcase-filled Tudor England, redolent of butchery and death -- oh. It matters not how they got there. The show started then, whatever this show was, whatever it was trying to about, when our very own Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto, a man who rests his feet in a bucket of offal every night, and Chef Ilan Hall of the Gorbals, eager to follow Chris into Hell, were set loose into a room with animals stacked like cordwood next to a large fire with a 16th-century rotisserie powered by little dogs -- dogs, by my word. The show also set loose former Oprah chef Art Smith as foil and a jester, armed with a life worth of double entendres, mostly about the things his and other penises do.
"Merry Christmas," said the voice in Cosentino's head. "Go do something sick with a pig's head."
Their orders were to choose three of those animals each and make them into the abomination against God, against the crown, against nature herself, called a cockentrice. A cockentrice is something Henry VIII used to make his chefs cook because he was a dethlord. To make a cockentrice you take various parts three animals, arrange them into a succulent new unholy creature, roast it in blood, and cut off and eat your finger.
The competition was forgotten. The chefs eyes lit up. They lifted animals and dug through cavities and de-skinned and deboned and devolved and fat dripped and knives sang and bones cracked and Cosentino, shirtless and sweaty and bellowing at his bellows-boy (not really), raised up a pig's skull.
"I'm going to scoop out these brains to make a salsa," he said happily, as brains spilled out. Television!
Oh, they had a time. Chef Ilan danced around the room, trying to crack open a lamb's head with nothing but his hands and sotto voice; then he shoved the head onto a skewer, its teeth glistening, to roast in the fire, on the rotisserie turned by the dogs (I'm not kidding about this -- Jack Russells). Cosentino cradled his pig's head in the corner, tenderly pulling the skin from the bone, whispering and nibbling and sucking and sighing. With Talent and Dark Arts tried to make the misshapen lump of head-skin regain a head-like shape as he slid it onto a skewer, but it lacked a skull, that ship had sailed -- it was a gooey clot of unsupported evil, this pig's head was. So he threw it in a pot to make a soup (and lo the judges would love this soup).
Finally, exhausted, they arranged their unholy creations on platters to present them to the Darkness and be killed. Have you seen The Fly? This is Chef Ilan's cockentrice:
Have you seen a dog throw up a dragonfly? This is Art Smith's cockentrice:
Have you seen Steve Buscemi? This is Cosentino's cockentrice:
Alas, Time Machine Chefs is gone, likely never to be seen again. It was simply a pilot ABC threw to the dogs before the start of the fall season, like some rotten cheese it had to get rid of before a feast. Though perhaps the dark magic will one day return and cockentrice with brain salsa will appear on the battlefield somewhere like a red comet in the sky -- bloody, unholy, delicious.
Michael Leaverton has watched and made fun of a whole host of food TV shows. We used to list them all right here, but that list grew too goddamn long. Click here to check 'em out.