During pandemic times, the Food Network’s Chopped has been making my reality much more palatable.

Image is a knife on a light brown wooden board pointing upwards toward the right.
Image by Iris Hamelmann from Pixabay

Friends, I’ve been chopped.

Allow me to explain. Something I didn’t anticipate during these quarantined times — besides, you know, the need to be quarantined because of a freakin’ pandemic in the first place — is my increased television consumption.

In my pre-COVID life, I watched very little TV. So embarrassingly little that I never knew what the hell my coworkers were talking about when they discussed the latest plot twist of whatever show they all watched. My entertainment was found in books and writing and blogging — “cerebral pursuits,” as noted by one of my former therapists.

That’s still true, but my television habits have changed in these strange times. I’ve been binge-watching old favorites from the early ’80s (St. Elsewhere) and discovering new ones from the millennium’s dawning (The West Wing). And now, I’ve gotten completely and hopelessly hooked on cooking competitions — specifically, Food Network’s Chopped.

I know. I know. What the hell took me so long, right? Apparently, Chopped has been on the air since January 2009 — that’s 11 years! — and here I am, just discovering this now. Better late than never, I suppose.

For those who aren’t familiar, Chopped is your typical reality TV competition schtick. There are three rounds (appetizer, entree, dessert) where four chefs must individually prepare each course within 30 minutes. (They get 20 minutes for the appetizer.) Each chef must use the four same mystery ingredients from a basket. One of the high drama moments is when they open their baskets simultaneously and we discover the contents with them. It’s always a wildly bizarre, often exotically mismatched culinary quartet, most of which even above-average everyday cooks have probably never heard of, much less used in our home kitchens.

The clock starts and as the chefs frantically begin chopping, dicing, sauteeing, stirring, deep-frying, pureeing, poaching, blanching, broiling and baking, they have access to additional ingredients in what appears to be a well-stocked pantry. Other preparations (e.g., boiling water, pre-heating ovens) are already well underway. When their time is up, the chefs present their dishes to a judging panel of three accomplished culinary professionals who taste and critique their concoctions. The chef with the least appealing dish is “chopped” — instantly eliminated! — from the competition and the last chef standing wins $10,000. (There’s an all-star celebrity chef edition of Chopped where they compete for charity.)

Suffice it to say that I am completely obsessed with this show. It has become my favorite way to unwind and forget about everything going on. I will be the first to admit that I never saw myself becoming this person but then again, who among us can say that we’re the same person we were pre-pandemic? I’ve started following all the judges and chefs on Instagram like we’re BFFs — hell, these days I see them more than my real-life BFFs — and watching them on other shows. (Did you know there’s a whole freakin’ menu of cooking competition deliciousness to be found in our screens, people? How is it that I am just discovering this?! I’ve also been watching and loving Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi but we’ll talk about that another time.)

Without sounding too sentimental, Chopped is bringing me back to myself during a difficult time. Many of us have endured a significant loss of some kind during this crisis. I’m no exception. In the past four months, our immediate family has experienced four deaths.

In February we lost our 12-year-old cat.

In April my father-in-law died from complications of dementia, which he battled for three years, and COVID.

In June the horribly insidious disease ALS stole our longtime friend of four decades; he was 50, vibrant, married, the father of twin girls and full of life up until his diagnosis not even two years ago.

And last night I wrote my aunt’s obituary; she died a week ago from COVID. Her husband is currently hospitalized — COVID, again.

Combine all of the above with a multitude of other concerns and my preferred coping mechanism of late has been to zone out whenever possible. I mean, there are days when I just hit a freakin’ wall. So I was searching through the Hulu offerings last week for some mindless entertainment when I clicked on the Cooking & Food category. I’d heard of Chopped, pressed play while intending to only consume one or two episodes, and became instantly hooked. Best of all, there are more than 600 episodes; I can drown my sorrows in vats of chimichurri for a good long time.

What I thought would be a temporary escape from the realities of the present has turned into something more substantial. Chopped has made me feel more creative in my own kitchen. I can more easily visualize a motley assortment of ingredients commingling together in an actual meal. I’m learning about new foods. I’m more apt to take chances and try something new rather than stick with the same old, same old (even though that’s what my family prefers). For example, the other day I had leftover garlic scape pesto as well as some spinach and beans from the previous night’s dinner. I smeared the pesto on a bagel, topped it with the spinach and beans mixture and called it lunch. Not half bad.

I’m usually the first person to criticize reality TV and competition shows but now I understand their appeal because Chopped is making my reality much more palatable. And that’s a pretty tall order these days.

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Writes about books, GenX, politics, life. Currently working on a memoir. www.melissafirman.com

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