How you goin’, mates?  Let’s all head over the moon and under the pump to talk about…

Masterchef Australia
Fremantle Media Australia, 2009

Last November I found it difficult to do much more than listlessly watch Youtube videos, partly because my bad kidney was flaring up pretty severely and partly because on Election Day the winning ballots looked like this:

Before the election I had once pulled up a Gordon Ramsay video recipe—​gnocchi with peas and parmesan, if you’re keeping score—​and Youtube therefore decided that I might be interested in an episode of a cooking competition called Masterchef, which Ramsay hosts.  I watched it, but I didn’t much care for it.  There were three judges, which according to the American Idol formula means that one of them will be the nice one, one will be the asshole, and one will be the level‐headed one maintaining the balance between the other two.  The problem is that Gordon Ramsay’s schtick is to taste a plate of food and shout, “What the fuck is this shit, you fucking donkey?”—​but since he’s the primary host, he was slotted as the center guy.  The producers brought in someone even more assholish to be the asshole judge, a dour bald guy with a penchant for sneering at the dishes and scraping them into the trash before the teary eyes of the contestants.  I was going so say that it made the show joyless, but it’s more than that: it seemed like the premise was “Cook food in an abusive household! Win $250,000, all of which you will have to spend on therapy!”  As it turned out, though, even had I been inclined to watch the next episode, I couldn’t: copyright issues meant that only a handful of Masterchef episodes were up on Youtube.  What were available, and what Youtube served me up next, were the most recent two seasons of Masterchef Canada.  So I watched a couple of episodes of that.  The judges were much more polite.  (Well, there were two polite judges and one loud, flamboyant judge with blue hair and a thick Hong Kong accent.  But even he was friendly enough.)  I also took a liking to one of the third‐season contestants, Mary: she was cheerful and winsome, with big green glasses and a Molly Mockery haircut, and on top of all that was a vegetarian — ​and now that I’ve seen several hundred Australian and Canadian Masterchef contestants come and go, she remains the only vegetarian I’ve seen make it out of the qualifying rounds.  I figured I would stick with Masterchef Canada until Mary got the boot, and then switch to cat videos or something.  But Mary won the damn thing!  I wound up watching the entire season!  Then I watched season two.  At which point I could post this to Facebook:

But then for some reason instead of jumping back again and watching season one, I thought I’d try a different country.  Pretty much on a whim I typed in “masterchef australia” to see whether there was such a thing.  It turned out that there was.  The first result to come up was the season three premiere, and since season three of Masterchef Canada had treated me pretty well, I decided to start there on the Australian version.  It soon became clear that this show was a bigger deal than its Canadian counterpart: fifty contestants instead of twelve, cooking in a UNESCO World Heritage Site instead of in a little TV studio, with helicopters dropping off ingredients… and yet somehow it wasn’t until several episodes in that I did some poking around and discovered that the format of the show was equally gargantuan.  Each season of Masterchef Canada was 15 episodes long, and I plowed through two seasons in five days.  The season of Masterchef Australia I had just embarked upon consisted of 86 installments.  Eighty‐six!  Many of them running for well over an hour!  And then it wasn’t until several episodes after that discovery that I did some more poking around and learned that the American version, the Canadian version, and 48 other editions of the program owe their existence to Masterchef Australia.  The British version came first, and has done well enough to run off and on, mostly on, since 1990.  But what spawned the dozens of copycats was when Australia’s Network Ten launched its local adaptation in 2009 and struck gold.  The show was a massive success.  One of the prizes offered in the first season was a cookbook publishing deal; that prize went to winner Julie Goodwin, who became the bestselling Australian author of 2010.  Season two was an even bigger phenomenon than season one: when contestants lost unexpectedly it was headline news, and the finale became the single most watched program other than sporting events in the history of Australian television.  Some contestants landed their own cooking shows.  Others became tabloid fodder, their love lives dissected by millions of strangers for weeks on end.  Ratings are no longer quite so high now that eight seasons have aired; it looks like last year Masterchef Australia came in fourth (again, excluding sporting events), and the network has scaled the show back accordingly.  But that means that the most recent season consisted of a mere sixty‐three episodes.  (The upcoming season of Masterchef Canada?  Twelve.)

I have way too many notes to be able to shape them into a coherent article in a reasonable amount of time, so I’m just going to bang this out minutiae‐style and we’ll see how it goes.  My time starts now!

  • Again, I watched Masterchef Canada before I switched over to the Australian version, so let me start by describing the format of the Canadian version.  People send in audition tapes, and forty of them are selected to come audition in person.  Each of these forty contestants cooks her signature dish for the judges, and fourteen are selected to advance to the main competition.  There are four phases to the competition.  The first phase is the mystery box.  Mystery boxes usually contain an odd assortment of ingredients; one box contained ground beef, arctic char, pickerel, littleneck clams, red potatoes, brussels sprouts, summer squash, carrots, tomatoes, blueberries, wild rice, green lentils, wine, and rum.  Using at least one of those ingredients, plus a pantry of staples (flour, milk, eggs, that sort of thing), contestants compete to see who can create the most delicious dish.  The winner gets to select the core ingredient for the second phase of the competition: the invention test.  Say it’s pork.  Contestants have to come up with a dish that not only includes that ingredient but makes it the “hero of the dish”, with the help of a much more expansive pantry.  Various restrictions might be imposed: contestants might be required to cook Mexican food, or the pantry might only contain foods whose names begin with vowels.  Time limits are always quite tight—​an hour, perhaps.  The cook whose dish is judged to be the worst is sent home.  End of episode!

    The next episode consists of phases three and four.  Phase three is an off‐site team challenge.  The two winners of the invention test are the captains, and after each one has chosen the members of her team, the two teams might each be given a stall at a farmers’ market and $500 to spend buying ingredients from the vendors to turn into complete dishes, with victory awarded to the team that makes the most profit.  Or perhaps they have to make hors d’oeuvres at a fashion show, and the guests cast ballots to determine the winning team.  The losers then enter phase four, the pressure test.  No creativity required, for once: in the pressure test, contestants must do the best rendition they can of the dish presented to them.  Once again, the worst dish sends its maker home.  Put it all together, and here’s the arithmetic: two episodes winnowing the contestants down to fourteen, plus thirteen episodes in which one person goes home at the end, equals the fifteen episodes I mentioned above.  The math for the Australian version is rather different.

    One of the things that most fascinated me about Masterchef Australia was the way the producers constantly tinkered with the format, trying out new types of segments to add interest, and ditching old segments that weren’t working.  It was a sort of optimization puzzle playing out at the same time as the cooking competitions.  In the early seasons, about which I’ll have a lot more to say in a bit, you never really had any earthly idea what you might get in a given episode.  But things have settled down in the past three seasons, so while there’s still a fair bit of variation from week to week, a typical sequence goes something like this.  Again, it starts with a mystery box: contestants make the best dish they can out of an odd assortment of ingredients, and the judges taste a few they like the looks of.  (The fact that the judges only sample three or five dishes means that the cutaways are basically a cavalcade of attractive women breathlessly exclaiming about how much they want to be tasted.  “I’ve only been tasted twice, so I’m dying to be tasted again!  It’s not fair—​Sarah gets tasted every week!”)  The judges then declare a winner, who gets to set the parameters of the invention test.  But at the end of the invention test, no one is sent home.  The three contestants judged to have made the best dishes are selected as winners; the three (or, often, four) whose dishes are tactfully deemed the “least impressive” are sent to a pressure test.  The pressure test is an episode unto itself, and at the end of it, someone is sent home.  Episode three of the week is the immunity challenge, in which the three winners compete to have the chance to square off against a professional chef.  The prize for victory, which is rare, is an immunity pin, which allows the recipient to save herself from the elimination round of her choice.  The fourth episode of the week is a team challenge, which also gobbles up the entire hour (or more!).  The fifth episode sees the members of the losing team compete in an elimination, often in multiple rounds, at the end of which someone goes home.  And then there’s a sixth episode, the master class, in which the contestants can finally relax and learn new cooking techniques from the judges and a variety of guest chefs.  So, with a number of episodes at the beginning of the season to set the year’s cast of 24 competitors, followed by nine weeks as a daily rather than weekly show just to whittle that group down to six finalists, plus various twists like eliminated contestants cooking their way back in and theme weeks with only one elimination, you can see how the Australian version of the show looks like the Mahabharata compared to the other national editions, which are more like haikus.

  • Because commuting back and forth between Perth and Sydney six days a week would be a bit of an ask, contestants are sequestered for the duration of their stay in the competition: no phone, no Internet, no going for a walk.  From what I’ve read, not every country’s version of the show does this, and those that do tend to sequester contestants in a hotel.  But Masterchef Australia puts the contestants up in a sprawling vacation home.  When all 24 are still in the running, they’re crammed in there Tetris‐style, but by the end it’s just a handful of souls rattling around.  In the Canadian edition we never see any of this, but on Masterchef Australia it’s part of the show: we see the contestants wake up and put on their makeup and work out in the home gym and make some breakfast before being chauffeured to the studio.  I love the bits at the house—​I wish there were more.  In interviews contestants have said that, being in a competition against a bunch of amazing cooks and with a quarter of a million dollars on the line, they spend all their time studying: the house is packed with cookbooks, and prerecorded cooking shows are constantly playing on the TV (except for the one hour a week when they watch Game of Thrones).  There have been references to contestants messing up an element of a dish (e.g., choux pastry) during a televised segment and then practicing it at home, off camera, eight or ten or twelve times until they get it right.  That might be interesting to see!

  • Some contestants can’t handle the sequester.  In season one, one dropped out saying that he missed his wife too much, and in season two, two dropped out saying that they couldn’t stand to be away from their kids.  In the most recent season, another mother of young children had a minor breakdown and spent a whole day “cooking for her kids”—​and you know those moms whose idea of cooking for kids involves “hiding vegetables” in other foods and adorning them with silly faces made out of sauce?  She was one of those.  It turns out that chefs with three Michelin stars don’t like that.

  • As noted, the first season of Masterchef Australia I watched was season three, after the most egregious errors in the original concept had been corrected.  So it was very interesting to go back to season one and discover just how misconceived some of the original parameters were.  For starters: in season one, after a team challenge, everyone on the losing team voted someone off.  The host—​for in the first season, and only in the first season, there was an actual host in addition to the three judges—​even suggested that contestants might want to vote off the strongest cooks, to clear the field for themselves.  This is obviously inimical to the goal of identifying the best amateur cook in Australia.  That the show was originally intended to revolve around a combination of cooking and social engineering was clear from the way the editors built storylines around conflict within the house.  The friendship among three contestants in their early twenties was cast as an in‐game “alliance” called “the kiddie mafia”, and other contestants were filmed grumbling about how annoying those kids were.  It was clear that “these people are all living on top of each other and getting on each other’s nerves” was intended to be a running theme, and a big part of the reason the house was made part of the show.  The producers also tried to jumpstart some rivalries during the cooking segments, having the judges ask contestants to weigh in on the appearance of each other’s dishes and suchlike.  But this all turned out to be an exercise in tugging the program in a direction it just didn’t want to go.  The contestants didn’t turn on each other out of claustrophobia—​in most seasons, they became a surrogate family.  Even in the first season, as the weeks went on, the contestants complained more and more vociferously about how much it sucked to have to vote out someone they cared for.  So from season two on, the producers have been increasingly committed to the principle that Masterchef Australia is a cooking show, not a social engineering show, and when you are eliminated it’s because you cooked the worst, not because you made the wrong friends.

  • I say “increasingly” because this shift didn’t happen all at once.  Even after voting each other off the show was, thankfully, a thing of the past, for a few additional seasons contestants could be eliminated from the competition without making a bad dish: they might fail to identify enough ingredients in a particular cake, for instance, or give the wrong name of an herb (or, as the Australians say, “a herb”).  And the social engineering aspect of the show persisted for a while in an attenuated form, as for at least a couple of additional seasons the members of a losing team were sometimes asked to deliberate amongst themselves and decide which two of of their number would go into a head‐to‐head elimination.  But both of those elements are now completely gone.  In fact, I would argue that these days the elimination of the social aspect of the competition may have gone too far!  Contestants never pick their own teams anymore: one of the judges will either divide the crowd of contestants in half, or go “one‐two‐one‐two”, or have them draw lots.  I guess someone decided that selecting captains and having them choose up sides was cruel to the people who got chosen last, and that could no longer be borne.  (The judges were never remotely as cruel as the judges on the American Masterchef, but in the first few seasons, the woman who cooked the calamitous preschool dish would have been scolded or snarked at.  In season eight?  It was a lot of gentle talk that “we love how much your heart is with your kids, but you need to decide whether you want to be here…”)  And I certainly can’t fault the producers for trying to minimize cruelty!  But seeing who would choose whom for a team challenge was always interesting.  I miss it.

  • Another huge mistake in season one: defeating a celebrity chef automatically advanced a contestant to the final week.  Sounds good, right?  But think about it.  Here you’ve got these people who’ve given up their jobs, left their families, in multiple cases even put their honeymoons on hold for the chance to be on this TV show.  When they lose an elimination round, their punishment is that they are removed from the TV show.  And in season one, two of the contestants did outscore a celebrity chef, and their reward was… to be removed from the TV show!  While waiting for finals week to roll around, they missed the exposure of being on TV, missed all the exciting field trips to cook in exotic locales, missed most of the master classes to learn new techniques, and missed the daily competitions to keep their Masterchef‐specific skills sharp.  So it’s no surprise that when the final week began, the two people who’d skipped ahead to that point were the first two eliminated.  It was interesting to see that it took a disaster of that magnitude for the producers to come up with the idea of awarding an immunity pin instead.

  • The immunity challenges are where the producers’ constant tweaking of the show has been most on display.  Initially the rules were simple: whoever won the invention test got to face off against a celebrity chef.  The chef brought in one of her signature dishes, had the contestant taste it, gave the contestant a recipe, and the judges retired to the back room while the contestant and the chef each made a rendition of the dish.  The judges then allocated up to ten points apiece for each dish, not knowing who made which.  On the rare occasions that the chef failed to outscore the contestant, the contestant won an immunity pin.  But in season four, the winner of the invention test faced off against a trio of chefs, and was able to call two fellow contestants down from the balcony to help out—​thus putting the spotlight in the immunity episodes on more than one contestant.  It went to show how far the show had come from season one’s abortive attempts to encourage skullduggery: even though the helpers were actually hurting their own cause by giving a competitor an advantage, there was no thought of deliberately cooking a bad dish to keep the immunity pin out of play.  They helped because they’d become close friends.  Each team made three courses of their own devising using a core ingredient of the guest chef’s choice, and instead of giving a score, the judges declared a victor of each course; if the contestants won more courses, the captain received a pin.  In season five—​the bad season, as future items will illustrate further—​there weren’t many immunity challenges and they were all in hinky formats (e.g., select ingredients in the dark).  Then in season six came the new format: three winners of the invention test were declared each cycle, and all three advanced to the first round of the immunity challenge, at which point they would compete in a mini‐challenge before the winner of the mini‐challenge faced the celebrity chef.  Rather than choosing a single core ingredient and having access to a full pantry, in this new format the chef chose between two copious but limited benches of ingredients, and it was back to points scored on a single dish.  In season seven, the contestant who won the first round picked which set of ingredients to share with the celebrity chef.  In season eight, the celebrity chef had to hide in a closet while the first‐round winner got a head start on the second round.  So much tinkering!  And I haven’t even mentioned all the season‐long mentors and guest judges and whatnot who’ve been shuttled in and out as the producers have played around with the format.

  • Not only did letting three contestants rather than just one into the immunity challenge keep an entire episode’s spotlight off one person, it also meant that the chance at immunity no longer came down to a single judgment call in the invention test.  Which brings me to another twist in the first season that looks like a crazy error of judgment in retrospect: once the field had been narrowed down to seven, the three judges just decided of their own volition to bring three eliminated contestants of their choice back into the competition—​one of whom came very close to winning the whole thing at the end.  I understand the panic that let to this decision: a lot of the strongest contestants had been sent home, some for reasons such as “misidentified farro as barley”, and it therefore looked like the big prize might go to someone who the producers, the judges, and the audience all knew was far from the best amateur cook in Australia.  At the same time, to retroactively turn three arbitrarily selected contestants’ eliminations into prizes—​after all, in season one skipping weeks of competition was the reward for winning the celebrity chef challenges!—​was not particularly fair to those who had survived into the top seven.  In season two, the eliminated contestants at least had to cook their way back in, but the contestants who thought they’d made the top seven were understandably irked when three people they’d defeated were let back in.  This move was so unpopular that in seasons three and four, this element of the show was scrapped.  Single elimination, no do‐overs (except in the case when one contestant was discovered to have cheated).  In seasons five through eight, however, the producers have settled on a compromise: around the time the field has been whittled down to the top ten or so, the eliminated contestants cook off against each other for a chance to return, and one is let back in.  In seasons six and eight, I was very happy to see a couple of my favorite contestants return, so I’m not going to complain.  But it does seem like it might be fairer to just make this a double elimination competition.

  • Of course, that raises the question of whether fairness is the point.  I’ve written in the past about how sports leagues tend to put a thumb on the scale to prevent the trophies from going to the best teams.  Consider the NCAA basketball tournament.  Teams play for several months to demonstrate how good they are over a sample size of 30+ games… and then whether they advance in the tournament is determined by a sample size of one game.  The whole point of playoffs is to lower that sample size, let volatility play a bigger role in determining the results, and increase the likelihood of upsets.  And yes, it’s exciting when George Mason knocks off UConn or Northern Iowa shocks Kansas.  But it does mean that you frequently have something like the 20th‐best team in the country cutting down the nets at the end.  And on Masterchef Australia, there have been seasons when the frontrunner was knocked out before her time.  In season four, Mindy was a heavy favorite, but a single slip near the end, when the safety nets had been removed, left her in fourth.  Even more shockingly, in season two, Marion was pretty much universally considered the best cook, but she ended up in an elimination due to her teammates’ missteps, and a close judgment call about a satay sauce sent her home in ninth place.  Reported nine.com.au, “the country lit up with cries of horrified disbelief”.  Of course, the real prize in Masterchef is the career opportunities it provides, and Marion is now a big TV star in Australia and makes millions from her line of Asian food kits.  So there have been worse injustices.

  • Among those worse injustices would be “pretty much anything involving real life rather than a TV show”.  I spent a lot of the previous item talking about sports.  I do not currently follow sports.  Every so often I make an effort to give them up, and at the moment it has been the better part of a year since the last time I went to the ESPN web site.  Watching sports is a mechanism to elicit feelings of elation and despondency in response to competitions that, unlike wars or elections, have no practical effect on the lives of the spectators.  Not liking to be upset over something that doesn’t matter is one of the reasons I keep giving up sports.  And yet many times while watching Masterchef Australia I found myself thinking that, yeah, this is just a sports substitute.  When one of my favorite contestants would squeak out an unlikely victory, I would cheer and applaud alone in my apartment like an idiot.  When one of my favorite contestants lost, I would mope about it.  I.e., I would mope about an episode of a TV show, that had first aired years earlier, on a continent on the other side of the largest ocean in the world.

  • Another reason I keep giving up sports is that I hate the extent to which the outcome of a game is in the hands of the referees.  One of the magic tricks that Masterchef Australia pulls off is the way the judges somehow make their decisions come off as fairly objective even in cases when they couldn’t ever really be.  Things like “this pork is raw” are indisputable, but the judges have a knack for making arbitrary decisions sound like the inevitable results of a formula:

    • “Bruce, your sauce was too salty, and Sheila, your dish just didn’t have enough sauce, but Matilda, even though your sauce tasted the best, it had no discernible orange flavor, and this was supposed to be duck à l’orange, so we’re sorry, but you’re going home.”

    • “Sheila, your sauce was decent, but there wasn’t enough of it.  Matilda, your sauce was delicious, but it didn’t showcase the orange the way it was supposed to.  But at the end of the day, flavor is the most important thing, so you two are safe; Bruce, your sauce was too salty, and it ruined the dish, so you’re going home.”

    • “Matilda, your sauce could have used a lot more orange, and Bruce, your sauce could have used a lot less salt.  But at least you both offered us something to tie the dish together.  Sheila, your sauce was almost nonexistent, and for that reason, we’re sorry to say you’re going home.”

  • And speaking of the judges, I suppose that I should finally actually talk about them—​the three constants on the show as contestants have come and gone and rules have done the same.  So constant are they that eight years have passed and they even stand in the same places most of the time.  On the left is chef Gary Mehigan.  He’s the dad.  Usually he’s the friendly dad, sometimes he’s the stern dad, but that’s his role.  On the right is food critic Matt Preston, an affably pretentious dandy.  He’s this big guy who bears a striking resemblance to Fred Flintstone and invariably wears a cravat with matching pocket square, usually in tandem with an equally garish suit.  In the middle is George Calombaris, another chef—​and the one native Australian in the group, as Matt and Gary are both from Britain.  George is a little bald fireplug of a guy who’s the bloke of the group, with his broad accent and clichéd tough‐love speeches, and simultaneously its leading exponent of froufrou modern cuisine, delivering paeans to the value of “negative space” and carefully moving microherbs around the plate with tweezers.  I can’t say that I ever fired up an episode in order to watch the judges, but they’re a jovial crew with a chemistry that the North American judging panels lacked, and they made the Australian show feel like home to me.

  • Of course, Australia is not home to me.  Though, as Pattern 23 points out, it’s not too far off compared to a country like Britain.  Consider this climate analogy map of Australia I found:

    There’s a whole lot of California on there, especially in the places where people live.  I remember that when an Australian friend came to visit back in the ifMUD days, he remarked that his fifteen‐hour plane ride had taken him from a place that was warm and dry and full of gum trees to a place that was warm and dry and full of gum trees.  Which isn’t to say that there are no differences.  For instance, looking at the map above it’s kind of hard to miss that the climatic belts are upside down.  In season eight, when one team had to cook using only ingredients from “the north”, that meant the tropics—​they were given bananas and dragonfruit and coconuts and things.  Whereas the table of ingredients from “the south” included pears and blackberries and kale and other cool‐weather produce from Australia’s lone cool‐weather state, Tasmania.  I was surprised to find that it didn’t take me any time to internalize this.  But I guess it makes sense.  I don’t do well with narrative driving directions—​I need a map.  Like, I actually need to be able to visualize where I am on the earth’s surface in order to get from Point A to Point B, and while in transit I use the sun to orient myself.  So, watching this show, I sort of mentally placed myself where the camera was, and so it was only natural for north to be the hot direction, because I could feel that that was where the sun was!

  • On the other hand, the way the seasons are flipped around was something I never got used to.  I think the fact that this is a food show made it particularly hard, because a lot of what I eat carries a date stamp.  The last week of May means Earliglo nectarines; the second week of June is when the Index cherries run out; dry‐farmed Early Girl tomatoes show up in mid‐August; there are still a few last plums left in the third week of October, even though I don’t like plums; and who cares about December and January and February?  That’s when you go to Trader Joe’s because all you can get at the farmers’ markets are parsnips.  For a long time the Romans didn’t even bother to divide winter into months, because from an agricultural standpoint there was no difference between one winter day and the next.  So it’s weird to hear the months named after goddesses and emperors dismissed as the unimportant months when you might as well stay in and make a chocolate dessert because nothing’s growing, and to see the afterthought months be the ones with a bunch of dates circled in foodies’ calendars.  (And apparently I’m not the only one who finds this a difficult adjustment—​I had to shake my head when I played Europa Universalis IV and discovered that it had the Southern Hemisphere suffering from snowstorms in Februrary.)

  • One of the weirdest effects of the seasons being flipped around is that when contestants have to cook to a Christmas theme, as has happened in multiple seasons, they’ve been pulled in two very different directions.  Like the U.S., Australia began as a British colony, but the first fleetload of prisoners didn’t arrive at Botany Bay until the U.S. was already independent.  Australia remained a dependency of Britain into the 20th century, and in some respects it still isn’t fully independent: it has the Union Jack on its flag and the Queen of England on its money.  It also has a huge population of British ex‐pats (Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston among them).  So embedded in Australia’s cultural DNA is the idea that Christmas means dried fruits and peppermint and warming spices.  But geography says that it’s scorching hot out—​my one trip to Australia lasted from a December 20 to a December 26, and you could basically jump up and high‐five the sun.  “You don’t want a hot dessert at Christmas—​you want something nice and cold!” one competitor explained.  And so they ended up making things like ice cream and pavlovas with fresh berries and kiwi fruit, and got dinged for omitting the brandy and eggnog.

  • I didn’t know what a pavlova was before I watched Masterchef Australia, but I learned very quickly—​apparently in Australia it is the archetypal dessert, like chocolate chip cookies in the U.S.  (A pavlova turns out to be a sort of cake made of two textures of meringue, topped with fruit.)  Which raises the question of what constitutes Australian food.  Actually, it was always oddly uncanny for me when a team on Masterchef Australia would be tasked with cooking “American food”—​a label I tend to use to mean “it isn’t anything in particular”.  What would the contestants find distinctive about it?  Apparently in Australia “American food” signifies what those of us who live here would call “Southern food”: grits, cornbread, fried everything, desserts explicitly designed to be served to Elvis Presley in 1977.  Whereas to me eating in the U.S. is an exercise not in regionalism but in globalism.  Eating a pizza margherita on Monday, a honey‐curry burrito on Tuesday, avocado tempura sushi on Wednesday, navratan korma on Thursday, and a veggie burger with zucchini fries on Friday is what defines “American food” to me.  And much the same seems to be true down under: Masterchef Australia is about cooking a wide variety of cuisines in cities where Yelp’s lists of different types of restaurants run into the triple digits.

  • That said, I did find that Australian cuisine had a few quirks such that from the food alone I could tell that I was not watching the American version.  We can start with the shared British heritage I mentioned above.  While it’s irrelevant to my life, I recognize that in Middle America it remains the case for a lot of people that a standard meal consists of “meat and potatoes”, whether that’s a fast‐food hamburger and fries, or a pot roast and mashed potatoes at home.  The Australian version is “meat and three veg”—​all the dads of the rural contestants claimed that was their standard fare.  The difference is not in the two extra vegetables, but in the meat.  As the examples that I tossed out above without too much thought suggest, to me the default meat in America is beef.  I guess chicken is actually eaten slightly more these days, and I suppose pork is up there too, strange as it seems to me—​even before I became a vegetarian, I never dug on swine.  In Australia, though, it’s all about the lamb.  Per capita lamb consumption is well over twenty times higher in Australia than in the U.S.  And if it is not the default meat among the general populace, it certainly seemed to be on this show.

  • Perhaps even more distinctive?  If lamb is Masterchef Australia’s answer to beef, then its answer to chicken is… prawns.  Remember on Buffy when Anya talked about a world of nothing but shrimp?  Masterchef Australia was basically beamed in from there.  And on those rare occasions that the contestants take a break from cooking up a mess of prawns, they switch to lobster.  Or crabs.  Or marron, a type of crustacean found in Western Australia.  Or yabbies, a type of crustacean found in eastern Australia.  Or scampi, which sounds like a preparation of shrimp but which in Australia refers to yet another type of crustacean.  Or Balmain bugs, which are not insects but, you guessed it, crustaceans.  Go to Australia and your crustacean needs will be met is I guess what I am saying here.  Spiky underwater monsters with big pinchy claws: they’re what’s for dinner.

  • For the first five seasons of Masterchef Australia, the last half dozen or so contestants were sent on an overseas trip.  In season one it was to Hong Kong; in season two, London and Paris; in season three, New York City; in season four, Italy; in season five, Dubai.  In seasons six and seven, there were no overseas trips, which to me was a huge bummer—​I always thought it was nice that while only one contestant could win, those who made the top five or the top eight or whatever the threshold was that season could at least say they went on a memorable trip.  The overseas trip was finally brought back in season eight, when the contestants went to… California!  There they were, the Masterchef Australia class of 2016, cooking in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, while I was probably tutoring a few blocks away.  And what did they cook, having come all this way to sample the bounty of a whole different continent?  Lamb and prawns.

  • So where does Vegemite figure in?  It makes a handful of appearances, but the contestants seem to acknowledge it as “our national weird thing” rather than “a perfectly normal and delicious food”.  The judges frequently refer to dishes contestants have cooked as “Vegemitey”, but it is never a compliment.  Similarly, kangaroo is part of the show’s rotation of meats, but generally in the context of spotlighting native ingredients alongside saltbush and macadamia nuts, not in the sense of something one would eat on a regular basis.  Apparently it’s extremely low in fat and therefore quite hard to cook well.

  • Otherwise, yeah, Australian food seems to be marked by diversity much as the “American food” I described above.  I guess I could tweak that to say “coastal, urban American food”, but as over sixty percent of Australians live in one of five coastal cities, the difference is academic.  That said, Australia is in a completely different part of the world and therefore has a different mix from the U.S., and some of those differences were striking.  Probably the biggest one that jumped out at me: Australia doesn’t border Mexico.  Most of the contestants were familiar with Mexican food, and one or two even specialized in it, but taquerias are a “one or two per neighborhood” thing, not “one or two per street corner” the way I’m used to.  Australians also don’t pick up a familiarity with the Spanish language the way Americans do.  So while they could cook food from Spanish‐speaking countries, what they could not do is pronounce any of it.  For a Spanish challenge they were likely to try to make “pay‐ELL‐uh”; when Argentina was the country of the day, that meant “em‐puh‐NYAH‐duhz”; and asked to make Mexican food, they might whip up some “TACK‐ohz” by wrapping a few “chip‐POLE‐teez” and “JAL‐uh‐PENN‐nohz” in some “tore‐TILL‐uhz”.  Nor was Spanish the only language to get this kind of treatment—​you don’t want to know what the contestants did to the phrase “Grand Marnier”.

  • So Australia doesn’t border Mexico.  Its land mass doesn’t border anything, but its territorial waters do abut those of Indonesia, a country with over ten times Australia’s population and three‐quarters of its GDP.  A couple of Masterchef Australia’s most famous alumni can claim at least some Indonesian ancestry, but many, many more contestants have hailed from Malaysia—​specifically, they’ve been Orang Cina, the Chinese Malaysians who make up most of the Malaysian diaspora.  I guess it’s because Malaysia and Australia are both in the Commonwealth?  Does that make migration easier?  Seeing all these Malaysian‐Australians made an exclamation point appear above my head, because while my father was born in India, he grew up in Malaysia and, apparently, lived in Australia for a few months before deciding to move to the U.S. instead.

  • Moving northward lands us in Thailand and Vietnam, and these countries seem to be the ones that most fill the role of Australia’s culinary neighbor.  There were a lot of white contestants who specialized in Southeast Asian food, and even more who talked about having spent weeks or months bumming around Southeast Asia after college.  And everyone was expected to be familiar with how to make a massaman curry or a spring roll.

  • One group of contestants generally have not had this familiarity, and have had a limited repertoire overall: those of Indian extraction.  The Indian‐Australian contestants have pretty much only cooked Indian food.  Give them an apple, a parsnip, and a lobster, and you’re getting apple‐parsnip‐lobster curry.  And apparently these curries have been phenomenal!  In season four George said that Dalvinder’s cashew lamb curry was “the best curry I’ve ever eaten in my life”, and in season eight Marco Pierre White fell all over himself praising Nidhi’s pepper chicken with parathas.  But Dalvinder came in 19th, and Nidhi came in 20th.  Because eventually you have to make something like a Greek salad.  (Rishikesh from season five was the exception that proves the rule.)

  • The contestants of East Asian extraction have not shared this limitation; while they’ve tended to make East Asian food more often than the white contestants, most of them have shown equal facility with Western cooking.  What nearly all the East Asian contestants have had in common has been the same reason for coming on the show: “I just want my parents to be proud of me!  They think I’m a disgrace to the family because I want to be a chef instead of an engineer, and maybe if I win this competition they will despise me some tiny fraction less!”  This also made an exclamation point appear above my head, because the message that no matter how much you accomplish, you will always be a crushing disappointment?  I thought that was just my dad!  Like, I was familiar with the “Why only A? Why not A‐plus?” stereotype of the Asian parent, but I was never actually pushed to do better (possibly because I actually did always have the A‐plus), so I never thought of my father as falling into that category.  What I didn’t realize until listening to these contestants give their interviews was that a recurring theme of my own upbringing (that my interests were contemptible and my achievements were worthless) seems to span a whole continent. 

  • I’ve referred to “white” Australians a few times now, but that word can be used to indicate very different commixtures of European ancestry.  A white Canadian is ten times as likely to be of French ancestry as a white American is, and twelve times as likely to be of Ukrainian ancestry.  Australia’s population is drawn much more heavily from the British Isles than that of the U.S., and a white Australian is about 2.4 times as likely to be of “Anglo‐Celtic” origin as a white American is—​and 0.2 times as likely to be of German extraction.  The most common European ancestry in Australia outside the British Isles is Italian, followed by Greek—​and while white Australians are barely over half as likely to be of Italian ancestry as white Americans are, they are three times as likely to be Greek.  There have been lots of Greek contestants on Masterchef Australia, particularly Greek Cypriots—​again, perhaps because Cyprus and Australia are both part of the Commonwealth.  George Calombaris is of Greek Cypriot ancestry himself.  English, Italian, and Greek are the three most commonly spoken languages in Australia—​yes, Greek is still ahead of both Cantonese and Mandarin.  In season five, when contestants were supposed to make fast food, the three archetypal items they were tasked to create were a hamburger, fried chicken… and souvlaki, whatever that is.

  • So how about “black” Australians?  That term is used to refer to two very different groups: people from sub‐Saharan Africa, who tend to be very recent arrivals, and members of Aboriginal groups, who are more distantly related to Africans than Europeans are.  Only one indigenous Australian has made it into the show, a Torres Strait Islander in season one; no one indigenous to the mainland has made it past the qualifying rounds.  Africa has been represented on the show by one white South African and one half‐Egyptian, half‐Korean contestant.  So I guess that would actually be the thing that would jump out at most American viewers of Masterchef Australia—​no black people—​but how many American Masterchef cohorts include Somali immigrants or Navajos?  And of course how unusual the absence of black people seems depends on where you’re from; I’m from California, and as mentioned, it was the lack of Latino influence that was most conspicuous to me.  Maybe someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would be struck by the paucity of Finns.

  • Which brings us to another difference between the U.S. and Australia: the U.S. is very much a collection of regions.  Long Island City, New York, is basically in a different country from Grand Island, Nebraska.  Huntington, West Virginia, is basically in a different country from Huntington Beach, California.  The mix of people is different, the culture is different, the politics are different… and people certainly speak differently: the girl who kicked off my first New York City SAT class by announcing that “Beefaw we stawt Oy needa make a cawwwl so’s Oy kin foin out when chee‐uh‐leeding practice is duh‐maa‐ruh” made it very clear that I wasn’t in Washington state anymore.  Obviously Australia is not entirely monolithic—​life in Fitzroy, Australia’s Williamsburg, stuffed to the gills with preposterously bearded hipsters, is very different from life in the 80% indigenous town of Fitzroy Crossing, a 3000‐mile drive away in the Kimberley, where temperatures reach 118°F.  But from what I’ve read, there’s no such thing as an “Adelaide accent” or a “Brisbane accent” or a “Canberra accent”, and watching Masterchef Australia, I couldn’t tell where people were from based on the way they spoke.  With one exception.  Before watching this show, I couldn’t really tell the difference between an Australian and a New Zealand accent, but by the time I got to season six, the one Kiwi in the group sounded like a space alien to me.  “If we put feush in this deush it’ll be reutch and deleucious”?  The hell?

  • Australia isn’t the only country where accents remain virtually indistinguishable over a wide geographical area.  People from Seattle sound nothing like people from Texarkana, but neither do they sound like people from Vancouver… while people from Vancouver do sound like people from Toronto.  I was always struck by that: the way that up in the Northwest the voices on the radio sound totally different depending on whether they’re broadcasting from ten miles north of the border or ten miles south of it, while the 2000+ miles between Vancouver and Toronto make no effective difference.  At least, not within the same class stratum.  I once went on a road trip with a Canadian from an affluent background, and was struck by how, when some working‐class folks struck up a conversation with him, his voice automatically became a lot more sing‐songy and he reflexively ended every sentence with the stereotypical “eh?”—​even though they were working‐class Americans he was talking to.  And from what I’ve read, the same sort of thing is true for Australia: that the chief distinctions are among broad, general, and cultivated accents, such that socioeconomics play a much more important role than geography.  And that observation seems borne out by the show.  I couldn’t tell who was from Sydney and who was from Perth just from the diphthongs they used, but I sure could tell who worked at a law firm and who worked at a fish market.

  • What all Australian accents have in common is that they’re non‐rhotic.  Take the word “labor”—​in a broad Australian accent that might come out as “LIE‐bah”, and in a cultivated one as “LAY‐buh”, but nowhere on the continent will it come out as “LAY‐burr”.  I have to say, listening to hundreds of hours of non‐rhotic speech was kind of a stressor!  Not as much of a stressor as having to listen to a Great Lakes accent—​I recently had to shut off a video I was watching for work because if I had to hear the speaker explain how to approach a reading comp “p‐yeah‐ssage” one more time I was going to start biting myself—​but enough of one that in season seven I glommed onto Scottish Fiona as one of my favorite contestants just because her accent, while nothing remotely like what I was used to, was at the very least chock full of R’s.  Ditto for Canadian Theresa in season eight.

  • Of course, non‐rhotic though it may be, the Australian accent is not without its charms.  I could listen to Australian women recite adverbs all day.  Something about that “‐ly” at the end, how the L comes from way back in the throat instead of up at the alveolar ridge, and so the sound of the Y rolls like an ocean wave from the soft palate forward to where the bright vowels live.  Rowr.

  • But there’s more to a speech pattern than diphthongs and rhoticity.  Here are some words and phrases that I heard hundreds of times on Masterchef Australia that I did not know were characteristic of Australian speech before watching this show:

    • How you going?
      The equivalent to the American “How’s it going?”—​because in Australia it doesn’t go, you do.  There is a slightly more elaborate version of this—​and this wasn’t a one‐off, I heard it a lot—​which is “How are you traveling?”.  I don’t want to read too much into what is almost certainly an instance of language meandering fairly randomly, but it is kind of interesting how the American phrasing suggests that life is something that happens to you while the Australian one suggests that you make your own journey through life.

    • over the moon
      I’ve heard this phrase outside of Australian television, but only 0.1% as often as I’ve heard it on Australian television.  If Australians are happy about something, it appears they have only two choices in expressing it: they can say that they are over the moon, or they can say that they are—

    • rapt
      …and that’s it.  An Australian is never happy, never pleased, never satisfied, never delighted or ecstatic or joyful.  Only rapt.  Always, always rapt.  (Or over the moon, as noted.)  Now, excitement is slightly different from happiness, and so it gets another adjective.  Excited Australians are—

    • stoked
      …which I have to admit I thought of as California slang.  But if it ever was, then boy howdy have the Australians ever made it their own.

      Now, sometimes things don’t work out.  Sometimes you’re so un‐rapt and un‐stoked that you feel like you’ll never be over the moon again.  In which case you can fairly be said to be—​

    • gutted
      …another one of those words I’ve heard outside of Australian television, but less often in my entire pre‐Masterchef life than in one season of the show. 

    • under the pump
      Australian for “under pressure”.  Apparently authorities do not agree on what “the pump” is that stressed Australians are under, but the Australians themselves certainly seem to find the presence of that overhead pump weighing heavily upon them, given the frequency with which they mention it.

    • stuff up
      You might be under the pump because you stuffed something up.  I don’t think you’re allowed to say you fucked something up on Masterchef Australia, but I’m pretty sure you can say you screwed something up or messed something up, and no one ever does.  So it does seem like “stuffing up” is what people actually say and not just a family‐friendly euphemism.

    • head down bum up
      The stance you must assume when under the pump.  I think the idea is that in this stance you are focused solely on the task at hand and are shutting out all outside distractions.  This was by far the most common formulation of this phrase, but once or twice a cruder contestant would say “head down arse up”, while those who steered clear of any sort of profanity preferred the formulation “head down tail up”.

    • get a wriggle on
      Australian for “get a move on”, another thing you must do to get out from under the pump.  It’s interesting how someone can come up with a more colorful version of a set phrase and then watch it completely supplant the original phrase and become a cliché in its own right.

    • a red hot go
      In the U.S. we do talk about “giving it a go”, though we much more frequently talk about “giving it a shot”, as I supposed is to be expected in a country with eleven times Australia’s rate of gun deaths per capita.  In any case, Australians never give it a cold go, or even a lukewarm go—​the go is always red hot. 

    • outside the square
      Australian for “outside the box”, suggesting that down under, people do their thinking in two dimensions instead of three.  Edwin Abbott sheds a happy tear.

    • back myself
      To redouble one’s efforts to proceed with a plan, even in the face of doubts and criticism from others.  Those critics just don’t understand that I’m thinking outside the square!

    • in with a chance
      Pretty straightforward: this one just means to have a chance.  Gary thought that I would stuff up my dish and that I should come up with a new idea, and I was gutted, but I decided to back myself, and it turned out so well I’m over the moon.  This is for an immunity pin, and I think I’m in with a chance!

    • get stuck in
      To begin a task and very quickly get immersed in it.  Sometimes said of cooking—​you can’t spend twenty minutes reading the recipe, you’ve got to get stuck in—​but said more often of eating.  Enough talking, boys!  This looks delicious—​let’s get stuck in!

    • pointy end of the competition
      The way virtually every goddamn one of these people referred to the phase when few contestants are left.

    • good on ya, mate
      Australian for good job, congrats, nice work, etc.  Though that last American equivalent brings us to this:

    • nice
      Tasty.  In Australia, or at least on Masterchef Australia, the word “nice” is used to praise, not to damn with faint praise.  And as long as we’re here, a few more items specific to food:

    • claggy
      Unpleasantly thick, though I guess I would find a lot of “claggy” dishes pleasantly thick.  Risotto is Masterchef Australia’s notorious “death dish”—​people who make risotto very frequently find themselves off the show in short order—​and in large part this is because the contestants’ risotto is deemed “claggy”.  But when Marco Pierre White gave a master class in how to make risotto, I used his technique, discovered that it worked perfectly and my risotto had exactly the texture he described, and… I didn’t like it!  It was too thin and I hated how the grains of rice were all separate.  Gimme a nice claggy bowl of risotto so I can get stuck in!

    • blitz
      To use a blender on.  My blender whips, chops, mixes, and purees; all Australian blenders blitz.

    • entrée
      Appetizer.  I am generally pretty loyal to the usage I imprinted on, but I will cheerfully concede that, etymologically, of course the entrée should be the first course, and the fact that in the U.S. it has somehow come to mean the main course is an abomination.

    • chook
      Chicken.  I read that “chook” means specifically a chicken that has been prepared for cooking, but that doesn’t seem to be accurate; on the show people used “chook” to refer to living chickens as well.

    • noo‐GAH
      Nougat.  All right, I guess we’re getting back into pronunciation, since I assume the Australians spell noo‐GAH as “nougat”.  But they don’t say “nougat”.  They say “noo‐GAH”.

    • mock‐uh
      Mocha.

    • fillitt
      Filet.

    • dim sim
      Not dim sum!  In Australia drunk driving is called “drink‐driving”, so when I heard “dim sim” I somehow assumed the same process was at work and it was just the Australian rendering of “dim sum”.  But it’s totally different: a dim sim is a Chinese‐inspired dumpling developed in Australia.

    • saucep’n
      Saucepan.  This reminds me of Chandler explaining to Phoebe that “Spider‐Man” isn’t like Goldman or Silverman because he’s not, like, Phil Spiderman—​he’s a Spider‐…MAN.  C’mon, Australians, it’s not, like, Phil Saucep’n—​it’s a sauce…PAN.

    • shuh‐LOTT
      Shallot.  Or scallion.  You might be thinking, “Wait, what?  Shallots and scallions are two completely different foods!  That’s like saying that the word ‘lemon’ could also mean a tangerine!”  That is because you are more sensible than whoever decided the Australian names for alliums.

    • swede
      Rutabaga.  Calling a rutabaga a “swede” initially seemed bizarre to me, but on second thought I guess I’ve eaten my fair share of danishes.

    • capsicum
      Bell pepper.  But the Australian word for eggplant is “eggplant”, not “aubergine”, and the Australian word for zucchini is “zucchini”, not “courgette”!

    • coriander
      Cilantro.  People keep asking me whether watching so much Australian TV has influenced my own accent at all.  When I was in Australia, I did automatically end up speaking halfway between my normal accent and an Australian one—​I think that’s a pretty common reflex.  But Masterchef Australia had no effect, because I didn’t talk back to the screen.  Or, rather, it had almost no effect.  I have to admit that I actually do think of cilantro as “coriander” now.

      Here are some random ones:

    • spruiking
      Drumming up business.  That looks like Afrikaans to me but apparently its origin is unknown.

    • sparkies
      Electricians.  Reasonable enough, I guess.

    • cuddle
      A hug.  Yeah, in Australia “cuddle” can be a noun.  And it does seem to just be a regular hug.  To me cuddling is very different from hugging.  There are different kinds of hugs, from the awkward “okay, we’re doing this now I guess” lean forward and back tap before going into the restaurant, to the much more meaningful wrapping of arms around each other and squeezing tight.  But those are both vertical.  Cuddling is not.  Cuddling is a sharing of life force through full‐scale body contact over an extended period of time.  It’s not necessarily sexual at all—​it can be clothed, it can be with your kids—​but it is intimate.  Except in Australia, where apparently a cuddle is just a hug.

    • third time lucky, lucky last
      Maybe these superstitions are common outside Australia, but I’d never heard them before.  (Not in those words, at least; as one reader pointed out, in the U.S. we do of course have “third time’s the charm”.)

    • [adjective] as
      I can think of quite a few similes that have become clichés: blind as a bat, clear as a bell, mad as a hatter, high as a kite, etc., etc.  And then a few words have come to function as all‐purpose simile vehicles.  “Hell” is one of them: he’s rich as hell, she’s funny as hell, and the ever‐popular “it’s cold as hell out here!”.  “Fuck” has come to be used in this manner so often—​that movie is scary as fuck, I’m tired as fuck right now—​that the Tumblr kiddies abbreviate it down to “af”: “that selfie is cute af and i’m serious af about that”.  (I had to go back and edit that to take out the capital letters so it would look more authentically Tumblr‐y.)  Anyway, the Australians have gone another way—​they just leave the vehicle out of the simile altogether.  I know, that seems crazy as!  But it makes coming up with similes easy as!

      There is one complete simile the contestants used all the time, and while it doesn’t strike me as particularly Australian, I heard it so many times that I have to mention it:

    • watching it like a hawk
      They never watched anything carefully, or kept a close eye on anything—​they always, always watched it “like a hawk”.  And here are some other phrases that I have now heard from Australians more often than from Americans:

    • comfort zone
      Inside your own personal square.

    • I’m freaking out!
      Some people can’t handle being under the pump.

    • Generation Y
      In the U.S. we stopped using this term shortly after it was coined, when it was replaced by “Millennials” (the same way “Generation X” replaced “Baby Busters”).  This seems not to have happened in Australia.  I don’t remember even hearing the word “Millennials” on Masterchef Australia.  It was always “Generation Y”.

  • In the U.S. and Canada, small children are boys and girls, and then in their tweens the boys start to be called “guys” while the girls stay girls well into legal adulthood.  And so Elizabeth and I had many exchanges that went like this:

    “I saw a cute girl today!”
    “As in six and adorable, or as in twenty‐two and hot?”

    Then at some unspecified point “girl” is abruptly considered demeaning and even in informal contexts you have to use “woman”, while a guy remains a guy forever.  Suboptimal.  But Australia has come up with a solution to this lack of parity!  Unless the way people talk on Masterchef Australia is totally unrepresentative, the solution is this: boys remain boys forever.  Girls remain girls forever.  It seems like cutesy schtick—​because, yes, in the U.S., an eighty‐year‐old might meet up with “the girls” for bridge or with “the boys” for poker, and that is cutesy schtick—​but I eventually gathered that in Australia it is not schtick.  They actually do just use “girl” to mean “female human of any age” and “boy” to mean “male human of any age”.  And “guy” seems to mean “human of any sex”!  It was completely commonplace for a female team captain to turn to her two female lieutenants and ask, “Okay, guys, what should our entrée be?” I also noticed that it was quite rare for someone to use a gender‐specific word like “wife” or “husband” or “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”—​it was pretty much always “partner”.  I’ve never liked that term.  To me it defaults to “business partner”, not “romantic partner”.  But I guess Nicholson Baker has already covered this territory, so I’ll move on.

  • And what we’ll move on to is names.  I talked about this in a minutiae article a while back, but here it is again.  The winner of season two was a guy named Adam Liaw, whose food did not look like my sort of thing, but who is smart and funny and seems like a swell guy, and who was therefore one of my favorite contestants that season.  We have the same first name.  One thing about the name Adam is that it does not lend itself to diminutives.  It’s not just that it’s short—​a lot of names with standard diminutives are also just a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, yet people still feel compelled to chop off the latter or replace it with an ee sound: Daniel→Dan/Danny, Thomas→Tom/Tommy, etc.  But I can attest, based on years of interest in onomastics and decades of being named Adam, that when your name is Adam, people call you Adam.  However!  It turns out that the British and Australians have latched onto a fad of abbreviating everyone's name with a zz sound—​Gary becomes “Gazz”, Harry becomes “Hazz”, etc.—​and to my astonishment, there was a contestant who took to referring to Adam Liaw as “Azz”.  Crikey.

  • As for Laura, the eighteen‐year‐old Italian cooking prodigy who made it all the way to the grand finale in season six?  Well, the fad above dictated that she would come to be “Lozz”, but apparently that wasn’t considered diminutive enough for a giggly youngling like Laura.  So “Lozz” became “Lozzle”.  And then “Flozzle”.  And, on at least one occasion, “Lozzledog”.

  • The very first change the producers ever made couldn’t wait until season two—​it was instituted a few episodes into the first season.  To wit: they stopped using the contestants’ full names, and the captions never revealed them again.  After that, if a season had multiple contestants with the same name, it was time to break out the nicknames.  Season four had two Julias; one was presented to the audience as “Jules”.  Season five had three Daniels; one was dubbed “Dan”, one “Daniel”, and one “Kelty”—​ his surname, but in this case the “Daniel” part was never revealed.  Until I read the Wikipedia article on that season, I figured his name was Kelty Anderson or something.

  • One of the things I most like about Masterchef Australia, which does not seem to be part of other national editions, is that each season starts with a sea of anonymous faces, which start to become slightly recognizable as the field of 24 takes shape—​oh, she’s the one who cut the french fries the fastest, and he’s the one who nearly cut another finger off every five minutes—​and then one day the episode arrives that premieres the opening credits.  Twenty‐four names accompanied by little representative vignettes to give a hint of each contestant’s personality and cooking specialty, scored to the Masterchef Australia theme song by Katy Perry.  Here’s season four:

  • One of the reasons season five was the bad season is that it was the one season they didn’t do this—​they went straight to the final 22 without letting us see any of the winnowing.  The opening credits were a sort of skit rather than a montage, which wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it was a skit full of people we’d never seen before.

  • Apparently Katy Perry’s Masterchef Australia theme song was quite popular, such that I found all sorts of bands and solo musicians doing cover versions of it, or at least of parts of it.  My favorite by a wide margin was a drum cover by a Venezuelan musician named Karla Soto—​these fills elevate the song by orders of magnitude.  Check it out:

  • The music during the show is not particularly varied—​it’s the exact same score, episode after episode, year after year.  It is also extremely heavy‐handed at times—​it’s kind of ridiculous how one of the judges will say, “Your plating was a disaster—” (horror‐movie sting!) “—but your balance of flavors was the best of the round!” (abrupt transition to happy tinkly piano music).  But repetitive as it may get, the music is fairly good.  Like, the “only three minutes left until time runs out, isn’t it stirring” theme actually is pretty stirring.

  • But back to something I mentioned a couple of items ago: that season five was the bad season in part because all the winnowing took place off screen.  It looks to me like part of the reason for that was that ratings had been falling—​it turns out that when you’re the most popular television program in the history of your country, your ratings do tend to come back to earth a bit after a couple of years—​and the producers decided that a more volatile mix of personalities was called for.  Since the winnowing process selected for cooking talent rather than for the potential to cause reality‐show drama, out it went, and the 22 people who were selected included a much greater proportion of abrasive and annoying personalities than usual.  I didn’t really like anyone that season, and lots of the contestants were hard to take:

    • Clarissa: So inconsiderate that I have to assume she has some sort of clinically diagnosable psychological deficit.  Stole Faiza’s bench just because she felt it suited her better than her own.  Sang loudly and annoyingly while other competitors were trying to concentrate.  Demanded that everyone talk her through all her attempts to cook something, step by step by excruciating step.

    • Samira: Cited Barbie as her role model; said that while she liked cooking, her real passions were shoes and handbags.

    • Nicky: Decided that being captain of a team meant standing around awkwardly shouting supposedly motivational slogans at people but not doing any actual cooking himself.  It’s not the sloth that irked me.  It was the motivational slogans. 

    • Noelene: Grouchy, stubborn, specialized in offal

    • Michael: His role in the skit sums him up—​he steals another person’s lamb chop and then makes a hideous chortling troll face to celebrate his triumph

  • Other seasons featured the occasional bad apple, but for the most part they showcased the extent to which season five was the felt beard version of Masterchef Australia.  The closest in tone to season five was season one, back when the reality show tropes hadn’t been pared back yet.  There was no small amount of contrived conflict, but of the season’s “villains”, the only actual bad guy was Aaron, who was the first season’s molecular gastronomy zealot and went on to make headlines for embezzling millions of dollars from the mining finance company he founded and spending the money on breast implants and jewelry for his sexual partners.  (I’ve seen some of the breast implants on Instagram and it’s safe to say that Aaron’s penchant for unnaturally perfect spheres went beyond molecular gastronomy.  Grody.) 

    Another of the season’s “villains” was Kate, a.k.a. Kittykat, a law student with roots in Goa who brought a lot of juvenile drama to the show: she was the girl in the “kiddie mafia” I mentioned above, and became unpopular because of that, and when she unexpectedly survived an elimination and the other contestants seemed chagrined that she had returned to the house, she had a breakdown.  “Nobody wants me here! People I thought were my friends didn’t even get up—​like, people I thought were my friends are actually disappointed that I haven’t been eliminated. I want my mom!”  The crying did not make her more popular in the house.  But my heart went out to her!  Poor Kittykat!  (It has been pointed out to me many times by many people that I am an extraordinarily easy mark for crying girls.)  This eventually led to one of the most remarkable twists in all eight seasons of the show: remember, in season one contestants voted each other off, and when one vote came down to a 3-3 tie between Kate and a rather annoying contestant named Sandra who was largely responsible for the team’s loss, Kate held the tiebreaker—​and, sobbing, she voted to eliminate herself.  OO, as the kids say.

    Justine was initially pretty anonymous and was, if anything, framed as an anti‐Kate—​she was another early twentysomething, though not a member of the “kiddie mafia”, and seemed embarrassed that Kittykat’s drama was making “Generation Y” look bad.  But she survived long enough to carve out an identity for herself as competent and mature beyond her years, a specialist in French cuisine who the visiting chefs tabbed as the only contestant in her group likely to become a serious chef after the show was over.  She didn’t; instead she became a successful TV personality with her own long‐running cooking show, Everyday Gourmet.

    If I had to pick one more favorite from the first season’s qualifiers, I guess I’d go with Tom; I don’t recall his food being the sort of thing I would seek out to eat, but I liked his cerebral demeanor.  Who I’d really want to pick, though, is Sarah; she didn’t make it out of the top 50, but was the only vegetarian to make it even that far in eight seasons.  Mary on Masterchef Canada had to cook meat, but didn’t have to taste it; Sarah, by contrast, found herself in a taste test, staring into a gigantic pot of bolognese sauce, and cried and cried.  But based on sight and knowledge alone, she filled out her list, and wound up becoming the very last contestant to make it to the next round!  It was awesome to see her beaming as she ran over to join the winners.  But this was season one, and the judges chose the qualifiers at their own discretion, and Sarah didn’t make that cut—​largely, I suspect, to prevent another episode full of tears over mandatory meat.

  • Season two:  I’ve already talked about Marion, whose food was so good that when she was eliminated it was front‐page news all over Australia, and about eventual winner Adam, whose tweets are so good that Buzzfeed regularly compiles them; I also kind of liked Claire, the buttoned‐down lawyer who never raised her voice above a murmur that made all of her interview segments seems like ASMR videos.  Seriously, she was such a low talker that I was surprised that she never talked Gary into wearing a puffy shirt.  Apparently she had a nightmare experience, as the tabloids tore into her private life, a bizarre thing for me to learn—​bizarre to think that ASMR Claire somehow caused a furor, but equally bizarre to think that apparently a lot of people watched this show primarily as an adjunct to the gossip columns.

    My other favorite from this season was Non‐Scottish Fiona, an elementary school teacher who went on the show in the hopes that it would strengthen her application to be certified as a Kitchen Garden Foundation instructor.  She appeared on the show, won a couple of contests (including the pizza challenge!), lost on a misjudged wine pairing of all things, did indeed land the job she wanted teaching little kids how to grow vegetables and make tasty meals out of them, and turned down the opportunity to return to the competition since she’d already achieved her goal.  I always rooted for the teachers, and I thought that the fact that Fiona was satisfied with her achievement was great.  She also was one of the few contestants whose food looked like the sort of thing I would like to eat—​I have quite a few of her recipes bookmarked for future reference.  And that is why I cheered for Non‐Scottish Fiona.

  • Season three:  Even though this was the first season I watched, this group didn’t actually do much for me.  Initially I rooted for Kumar, a gentle, diminutive, elderly fellow from Sri Lanka who turned out to be a very talented artist, and then once Kumar was eliminated, I switched my allegiance to Ellie, a smiley lass whose real name was Elspeth.  This was the season they went really big—​flying to New York to cater a function for the United Nations, then jetting back to Australia to cook for the Dalai Lama—​and the first season when they brought in all the finalists’ family members.  It was also Exhibit A in how much outside knowledge or the lack thereof colors the experience of the show.  It wasn’t until long after I had cheered for Non‐Kittykat Kate over Michael in the final that I learned that, whoops, Kate was a fundamentalist Christian who had raised some eyebrows in the Australian press for grumbling that people shouldn’t call the Dalai Lama “Your Holiness” because “Jesus is the only one that is holy”.  I retroactively uncheer.

  • Season four:  The last season in Sydney—​too bad, because while I would probably prefer to live in Melbourne than in Sydney, I did like the Sydney setting more somehow—​and lots of likeable contestants this time around.  Pint‐sized, middle‐aged Asian mom Audra, normally so serious, taking a running leap at über‐competent Mindy and wrapping her arms and legs around her after Mindy won her immunity pin; the dueling dessert queens, cheerleadery Kylie and Viking princess Julia; from the top 50, Dom; and I bet you thought I was going to say lisping youngling Emma, right, because of all the crying?  Nah, Emma cried too much even for me.  Every episode, the crying.  But holy shit, the way she bonded with Ben, with just bottomless hero‐worship of her anointed “big brother”, only to be pitted against him in a one‐on‐one elimination after they both failed a cake identification challenge… and Kylie crying, and big bald Wade crying, and Ben trying to give a noble speech about deciding to quit with Amina shouting “don’t do it!” and Emma wailing and sobbing, and normally breezy jokester Beau earnestly volunteering to take Emma’s place, and Tregan muttering about “jumpers left right and center here”—​that is some gripping tele‐o‐vision!

    Season four also featured my favorite contestant of the show’s entire run to date: ALICE, the grinning goofball of a schoolteacher with the giant glasses and all‐world people skills.  Her cooking was hit‐or‐miss, but whenever there was a team challenge with a front‐of‐house role, Alice’s team would win by a landslide because she would charm the daylights out of every customer (so it wasn’t just me!).  Need someone to go spruiking?  Send Alice, and she would not only round up more customers but would recruit some over from the other side.  It got to the point that Matt Preston could praise the members of the opposing team at length, and then still send them into an elimination, explaining, “There was really one big negative for the blue team, and that was simply that you had no Alice.”  It also got to the point that whenever it looked like Alice was on the verge of being eliminated herself I would start to get weepy.

    And she found herself in that position pretty often, since, as noted, she wasn’t the best cook.  She was the best cook on one particular day, though, beating Mindy (!) after deliberately giving up her first‐round advantage (!!) and securing an immunity pin.  Now, I have frequently been annoyed by the way contestants have deployed their immunity pins during the seven seasons that they have been in play.  I am the furthest thing from a risk‐taker, but if you’re in a one‐in‐twelve elimination, isn’t it better to play the percentages and save your pin until a one‐in‐three elimination later on?  Yet every contestant with a pin has played it at the first opportunity—​every contestant, that is, except Alice.  But Alice kept refusing to play the pin even in those small, risky eliminations when she “should” have turned it in!  She said she wanted to show her students that winning isn’t worth it if it means stepping on other people to do it, and insisted that she would hold on to the pin until a round when playing it wouldn’t put another contestant at risk.  I was sure this would backfire one of these times, but Alice kept squeaking through by the barest margins, finally turning in her pin at an everybody‐in elimination at (all together now) “the pointy end of the competition”.  She didn’t win—​she and Viking Princess Julia were robbed when the judges were somehow insufficiently impressed by their awesome sugar box to send them through to finals week, meaning that Alice had to cook on family day, and lost.  (Sniff.)  But, again, there’s more to the show than just the prize, and Alice has done well for herself.  She became a children’s show host!

  • After season five was panned as the bad season, the producers went back to basics in season six: fewer episodes, no overseas trip, no family day, and an renewed focus on good cooking in place of season five’s emphasis on disasters.  The judges kept marveling at how much better the season six gang was than any previous group of contestants, saying that they were cooking food in week two that the other cohorts couldn’t manage until finals week.  It was a good group!  The early favorite was Sarah, a model—​not, like, someone with four pictures on Model Mayhem, but who was actually signed to an agency and walked runways for Gucci and looked like a beautiful alien cat.  She initially seemed like she might have made the cut because, “Ooh, a model! That’ll boost ratings!”, but she kept winning challenges and seemed to be season six’s answer to Marion.  But, like Marion, she made a couple of mistakes at the wrong time and ended up finishing ninth.  I also came to like Emelia, the only Masterchef alumna with a Girl Geek Academy profile.  She held a one‐year reign as creator of the best desserts in Masterchef history until Reynold came along.  She also had the sort of backstory that you see on NBC’s Olympic coverage, in that when she was fourteen she was hit by a damn car that shattered pretty much every large bone in her body.  Apparently a lot of viewers hissed her for being smug, but what seemed to them like overconfidence turned out to be the sort of “fake it till you make it” bravado that she had had to summon the last time she had a monumental task ahead of her, when she learned that it would take her a year to learn to walk again.

    But ultimately the contestant I found myself pulling for above the others in season six was Laura, a.k.a. Lozzledog.  I did so in part for the same reason I cheered for Sarah—​just as it was unexpected and fun that the fashion model would turn out to have serious cooking talent, it was unexpected and fun that the 18‐year‐old who said “Oh my gawd!” and “Eeee!” every five seconds would turn out to be one of the most acclaimed cooks in the show’s entire run.  She beat Donovan Cooke in an immunity challenge!  And the kind of food she made is right up my alley.  Rustic Italian?  That’s already what I cook for myself like 75% of the time, and I was intensely curious what Lozzledog’s was like after watching Marco Pierre White and Matt Preston and the others fawn all over it.  I plan to work my way through the Lozzledog cookbook as soon as it arrives on my doorstep, though I might have to make some adjustments given that the Toolangi Delight potatoes she recommends for gnocchi are only available in Australia.  But even though I doubt I could have a conversation with her—​I would awkwardly say hello and then go talk to Emelia—​I did like Lozzledog as a person as well as for her delicious‐looking pasta and vegetables.  I liked how she bonded with everyone: how she and fellow 18‐year‐old Georgia were holding hands within minutes after they met at auditions; how Tracy used the power apron she had won to save her from an elimination: “Right from the start I always had my personal agenda of keeping the ones that I really love safe,” Tracy said, and “I think my maternal instincts kicked in, and it’s no reflection of how I see you as cooks, but I’m going to choose Laura,” hugging her the whole way up to the balcony; and how after she and Brent advanced to the grand finale, I thought the episode was over, but then came a cut to a hidden camera outside the studio and joyous shrieks from Laura as Brent hoisted her up and spun her around and around.  Very happiness.  Many heartwarming.  (On the other hand, as much as Laura seemed to enjoy the ride, I have to think that Emelia enjoyed her present from Brent a little more: $50,000.)

  • Incidentally, one change made for season five that wasn’t corrected for season six: one of the big moments in every elimination episode for the first four seasons had been when the contestants not involved in the elimination sat around back at the house, waiting to see who would be coming home, and then they’d hear the elevator start to move, and they’d all perk up and wait for the door to slide open, and then cut to the big entrance of the survivor(s) and then back to the other contestants’ shock, relief, delight, etc.  In the Melbourne seasons this got tossed, and I guess I can see why—​it was pretty much always the same.  And the same goes for following the eliminated contestant home to be greeted by a huge gathering of friends and family—​not only were those scenes pretty much always the same, but I imagine that sending camera crews out to Cairns and Hobart got expensive after a while.  But I do miss them—​especially the revelations of who got eliminated.  Now the other contestants learn right away and it’s less dramatic.

  • Season seven:  There were lots of contestants I would have been happy to see win.  Early on I leaned towards Anna just because she has five degrees from three universities and that is just mental, no pun intended.  Eventually I pulled for Billie because she clearly deserved to win—​her food was consistently judged to be among the strongest, and under pressure she was probably the calmest contestant in any season.  But I would have been happy to see Ashleigh win, or Sara, or even Matthew or Non‐Teenage Georgia.  Really, just about anyone other than John would do.  Ugh, John!  He was the worst.  Legendarily so.  He was already the worst before the fateful relay challenge, but that really put him in the Masterchef annals.  So the idea is that the team members cook one at a time, fifteen minutes each, unable to see what the ones before them have done, with each newly arrived team member receiving 45 seconds of verbal instructions.  So Jarrod, a.k.a. Captain Caveman, opts for a mussel and coconut stew.  He hands it over to Scottish Fiona, who delights me by saying things like “perrrrson” and “forrrrty‐five”, but proves her allegiance to her new homeland by declaring herself “happy as” with Captain Caveman’s choice of dish.  The Captain, watching on closed‐circuit TV, is stoked about how well Scottish Fiona is executing the next steps of the cook, and all seems right in the world.  Enter John.  Scottish Fiona gives him the instructions, then is ushered into the back room where she is swept up into a Captain Cave‐Cuddle.  And John… decides to transform the dish into a fuckin’ “white chocolate velouté” with five hundred ingredients.  And puts on his “DEAL WITH IT” sunglasses on when Marco Pierre White tries to intervene.  And then explains the dish to Amy by sputtering random nouns at her for forrrrty‐five seconds, so that poor Amy has to spend her fifteen minutes as an ambulatory shrug emoticon.  And Non‐Teenage Georgia, holding down the anchor position, hyperventilates for ten minutes over the fact that the other competitors have nearly complete restaurant‐quality dishes waiting for them and she has a couple of pans of unidentifiable shit—​and then, murmuring “Oh my God, swear words, so many swear words”, makes a decent scallop ceviche with prawns in five minutes while crying.  John did that!  John made her cry!  And then John wasn’t even the one who got eliminated after the relay—​Captain Caveman was!  Feh.  I mean, Aaron from season one is a criminal, and Mat from season three was kicked off for cheating, so I guess John is not actually the worst, but that said, John is the worst.

    Before moving on, I should mention that Reynold, despite coming in fourth, was the breakout star of this season, receiving a score of 30 out of 30 for one of his desserts, receiving even greater praise for some unscored ones, and going on to open one of the hottest restaurants in Sydney.  That meant that while Kylie had once come back as an assistant to Darren Purchese, Reynold became the first alumnus to return as a celebrity chef in his own right.

  • That happened in season eight, another season in which I had no strong preferences.  At least, I didn’t until there was about half an hour left in the season.  The finale pitted underdog Elena against the clear favorite, Matt with the Weird Earrings.  Matt was ahead by three points after the first two rounds.  Then, out came Heston Blumenthal.

    I’ve seen people complain that the season came down to a Heston Blumenthal dish.  They have a point.  I mean, it always annoyed me when the judges slammed a contestant’s dish for being “dated”—​like, oh, that symmetrical plating is so ’80s, and that “stack” is so ’90s.  Like, what, food somehow stops being delicious when it’s no longer “on trend”?  Fuck that.  And especially fuck it given the way that, as much as the judges scoff at yesterday’s ephemeral trends, they lap up today’s.  Like Heston Blumenthal’s “deceptive food” isn’t going to be risibly dated in about five minutes?  “It looks like a banana, but it’s actually a veal cutlet!”  Insert golf clap here.  So, yeah, to set aside the “cook tasty food” element of the competition and switch to a “follow this 91‐step recipe to make a fake egg out of mandarin fluid, coconut panna cotta, and a chocolate shell” format may not be the best way to settle on a winner.  But as the cook unfolded over the final hour, Matt repeatedly found himself in trouble.  And Elena kept helping him.  Like, when the spray bottle for Matt’s chocolate molds malfunctioned, Elena ran over and gave him hers.  More crucially, when Matt needed to apply liquid nitrogen to his finished dessert, Elena abandoned her own dessert with the final seconds ticking down in order to run over to Matt and walk him through the liquid nitrogen process step by step.  Reminder: $250,000 prize at stake!  Ten seconds left!  And Elena is helping her competitor instead of putting the finishing touches on her own dish!  And yes, I know that the producers cut the sequence specifically so that I would be pleading, “Come on, time and space!  Elena is a goddamn hero!  She has to have won!  Let there be some shred of fairness to the universe!”  But, still, the fact remains that Elena did do that.  Unless it comes out that this show is secretly scripted, Elena actually is the goddamn hero she was portrayed as.  62.8 episodes of not caring who won, and then suddenly Elena winning was very important to me.

    And then Matt’s egg spontaneously split apart because he had skipped one of the sealing steps, and on the one hand, hooray for justice, but on the other, oh no, that poor dude.

    Anyway, Elena did win after that, and announced that she might try getting a restaurant job in San Francisco.  Of course, that was before the lizard people got elected and Donald Trump had a tantrum at Malcolm Turnbull.  So who knows, there may be a travel ban in the works.

  • All right, looks like I’m well past 15,000 words at this point.  Time to wrap up, and like a class, we’ll finish with some evals.

  • What don’t I like about Masterchef Australia?  Well, for one thing, the injuries!  Seriously, people—​please, please stop using mandolines without the guards!  I got so freaked out about all the mandoline injuries that I bought a pair of those poly‐silica protective gloves—​I don’t even have a mandoline, but I did once put a vegetable peeler all the way through a fingernail and I don't want to do that again.

  • For another, it is disappointing that so few contestants exhibit any ability to do simple math (or, in Australia, “maths”).  A lot of team challenges went kablooey for one team or another because no one on the team could figure out how many panna cottas to make or potatoes to peel.  “Seventy guests and five scallops per plate, so I’ll make, uh, a hundred and fifty scallops!” “Two hundred grams times a hundred people… that’s two kilos, right?”

  • I also don’t like the way the judges constantly announce “I’m salivating!”.  George in particular seems weirdly insistent on keeping the audience abreast of his mouth’s saliva quotient.  I was reminded of the first SAT training I ran after I moved back to California—​I was struck by how every woman in that group, rather than saying something like “Back in a few minutes” or “Time for a restroom break” or some such would instead announce to all and sundry, “I’m going to go pee now!”  I don’t want to hear that! 

  • One of the most impressive things about the show is how it manages to wring real suspense out of the most minor details of cooking a meal: “Great Scott! Was that too much lemon? What will the judges say about all the lemon?”  “Look, look! The door of the blast chiller ISN’T FULLY CLOSED! Will the sorbet set in time?”  But a lot of the time the drama doesn’t arise organically, but instead comes from one of the judges telling a contestant that he doesn’t like the way a dish is turning out.  Either it rattles the cook, which is kind of unfair—​or it gives the cook a chance to fix a major mistake, which is kind of unfair to the contestants who didn’t make major mistakes in the first place.  I get, and like, the fact that the Australian version of the show is the one that focuses on fostering good cooking rather than poking fun at bad cooking, and that George, Matt, and Gary are mentors every bit as much as they are judges, but still, it does sometimes feel like a basketball referee telling a player, “Hey, wait!  Are you sure you want to inbound to that guy?” 

  • But obviously these negatives can’t have been all that bad considering that I did watch 562 episodes of the show.  So, on to the positives.  First of all, the show is interesting.  There’s been enough variety in the challenges that I’ve always been eager to see what might be thrown at the contestants next.  And things keep happening that I haven’t seen before!  Which is something I heard the KNBR announcers say a lot back when I used to listen to a lot of Giants baseball on the radio while driving hither and yon—​on the one hand, baseball is very samey, but on the other, on any given day at the ballpark there’s a good chance you’ll see something that has never happened in a century‐plus of professional play.  So, for instance, in season six, after Tracy won the power apron and assigned core ingredients to all the other contestants, she assigned a giant eel to Renae—​who turned out to be phobic about eels and had a full‐on panic attack the moment she saw it.  She was shivering and crying and whimpering “I’m so scared” until Papa Cole came over and prepped the eel for her.  Which brings me to a more important reason:

  • When people have asked me what I liked about Masterchef Australia, my cheeky standard answer has been, “I like the camaraderie and the crying.”  And that does pretty much sum it up!  I mean, look at all the anecdotes I’ve recounted, and count up how many focus on hugs and sisterhood and altruism and how many focus on tears.  Just look at that last one with the eel!  Crying?  Check, as Renae had terrified tears streaming down her face.  Camaraderie?  Check again, as Papa Cole jumped in to help without a thought about how it might affect his own cook (and in fact he wound up in the next day’s elimination while Renae wound up making one of the dishes of the day).  So what does it say about me that I spent my winter watching Australians sobbing over chicken roulades?  Was I displacing my own feelings about having the country I live in taken over by lizard people?  Maybe.  Or maybe it’s more general than that.  Back when I was living in a single‐serving dystopia rather than a nationwide one, my therapist speculated that my emotionally impoverished upbringing had left me drawn to strong feelings but too inhibited to seek out experiences that would produce them, so once my personal life got too comfortable, I sabotaged it in order to stir up a bunch of horrible drama that would allow me to feel something, anything.  I don’t know how much I buy that theory, but I have to admit that getting hooked on Masterchef Australia does seem to be a data point in its favor.  I got really annoyed when contestants would fake‐emote, like acting overly surprised upon opening a mystery box—​“Gasp! My goodness, everything in this box is purple! You scamps, you’ve done it again!”  But the unfeigned displays of glee, of despair, of compassion, of relief, of heartbreak, were indeed the main thing I tuned in for.  That is, while I really enjoy cooking, and don’t think I could watch a reality show about people seeking venture capital or singing in styles I don’t like, what most appealed to me about Masterchef Australia was not the cooking but the reality‐show trappings.  I remember that Jennifer was a faithful viewer of Survivor when it first came out, and when I asked why, her reply was, “I like watching yuppies genuinely suffering.”  I kind of get that now!  The only thing I’d add is that, while I did like the crying, I think what made it internally acceptable for me to like the crying was that all those big emotions were over small stakes.  Watching a real person cry because her kid has just been run over by a bus is ghoulish, but watching someone cry because his soufflé collapsed?  That’s entertainment!  And yes, there is the $250,000 to consider, but failing to win something isn’t the same as losing anything.  No one in the audience won $250,000 either, but none of us were crying!  Well, I was.  But never mind me.

And I think I’ll end the minutiae list there and conclude with this thought.  We are said to be living in a golden age of TV, as movie theaters have become dominated by special‐effects franchises and serious artists have moved to the small screen, where they have orders of magnitude more running time to develop characters and spin out story arcs.  But most TV is still prolefeed like this.  And while as of this writing the Obamacare repeal effort seems to be sputtering, I have been expecting and still do expect the ACA to be hobbled in some way, meaning that I will have to pay a lot more for health insurance.  I also recently had to replace my car (yeah, the Aluminum Lung finally gave up the aluminum ghost) so I’ve got a whole new set of payments to make.  Put it all together, and I’ve had to take on a lot more hours at work.  And when I get home from teaching my classes at 11 p.m., I am not really capable of too much more in the way of intellectual exertion.  Putting on Masterchef Australia and watching it while I make my own dinner has been my way to wind down and enjoy a simulacrum of companionship.  Which is pretty much the idea behind post‐WWII American capitalism, right?  Keep most people working long enough hours that they’re too exhausted to resist the system that keeps them working those sorts of hours.  I remember that after George W. Bush won the 2004 election, Laura Kipnis wrote this:

The United States ranks 14th out of 15 industrialized countries in per capita education spending.  If we have an electorate incapable of thinking rationally about its own interests, who confuse politicians with old movie heroes, don’t know much about history, and lap up […] lies […] even after they’ve been repeatedly exposed as lies by the media, this might have something to do with never having been educated in the fundamental skills of critical thinking.  (Note that Bush’s much touted No Child Left Behind initiative, favoring rote learning and standardized testing, is the formula for an even more intellectually pacified and credulous electorate.)

But corporate America doesn’t require an educated or critical citizenry.  Quite the contrary.  What it requires is a passive work force narrowly trained to perform specific occupations for decreasing wages, who will then overconsume lavishly in their leisure hours.  It all works out rather well:  Job dissatisfaction is placated by an endless succession of consumer crap (creating new jobs—​though probably overseas—​making more crap); intellectual boredom is assuaged by a steady diet of media crap (thanks to media deregulation); and any remaining critical stirrings are mollified by supersize portions of tasteless crappy food (thanks to an unregulated food industry).  The result: a stupefied, overstuffed citizenry glued to pricey entertainment centers, whose national hobby is ridiculing Europeans for wanting shorter work weeks […]

My “pricey entertainment center” is a decade‐old computer monitor, but I certainly recognized the “stupefied” part.  The overstuffed part?  Well, I do my best to avoid tasteless crappy food, but once I get hold of Lozzledog’s cookbook I imagine I'll be making supersize portions of tasty Italo‐Australian cuisine.  But, like, in writing this article I have rewatched a lot of Masterchef Australia episodes, and just a moment ago I heard Jules from season four tell George and Gary the same thing that almost every contestant says: “This reason I’m here is ’cause I want to change my life—​I want to do something that I’m passionate about and that I really want to do.” And I certainly recognize that part too.  Which is why I’ve finally started taking some steps to move into a different kind of teaching.  It would be nice to spend less time demonstrating how to find the areas of triangles and more time doing some tiny part to foster an educated, critical citizenry that won’t vote for lizard people.

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