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Chopped Countdown by Linda Petrucelli


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A still from the TV show 'Chopped'

Ten


The TV’s tuned to the Food Channel, one of those timed cooking duels, during the very last moments of the dessert round. My mouth floods, imagining the creamy aroma of melted chocolate and the hot oven my mother once commanded. Mother never taught me to cook like she did my sister. When it was time to make dinner, I always got a pass from kitchen duty and went off to read a book. I may lack Pillsbury memories with my mother, but as I shift in my chair, eager to see the episode’s climax, I can’t stop remembering her.


A dapper emcee with a boyish smile begins to countdown the competition’s final ten seconds as two chefs’ feverish final touches zest orange peel and spritz whipped cream. A panel of celebrity foodies will judge their dishes and critique their skill in surmounting the inevitable cookery catastrophes. I am rooting for the mid-life sous chef who couldn’t afford culinary school, her double-breasted white uniform spattered like a crime scene. The judges have termed her—a scrapper. It is a word my mother spoke with admiration.


Nine


Mother never liked to see me buckle under pressure. At six years old, plunking out “Claire de Lune” at my first organ recital, a flutter of butterflies inside my belly made my fingers stumble. Frozen with shame, unable to recover, I gulped air, drizzled tears. Mother got up from her folding chair and marched to my side. Her hazel eyes went green like the ocean, and flashed a warning. Keep your composure, she instructed and stood guard next to me. I had no choice but to get my fingers trilling and finish the piece.


Eight


The lone female judge known for her nouvelle cuisine shouts, “Get it done! Get it done!” My favorite contestant is in trouble. There’s something wrong with her stainless-steel dispenser. She’s shaking the cannister like a maraca possessed. And still the cream won’t come out. She groans and her body slumps in her stained uniform as the camera zooms in on her face, a roadmap of wrinkles and sweat.


Seven


At the end of the fifth inning, I walked off the field, dragging my feet in the dust. Mother shouted from the bleachers, enunciating each syllable precisely. Where Do You Think You’re Going? Two runs had just scored. I threw down my mask in disgust, kicked dirt, and began crying. When Mother suddenly appeared, she was smiling and nothing about her face was angry except her hazel eyes flecked with gold. She grabbed my arm and took me aside. I didn’t raise a quitter. She gave me a Kleenex still smelling of her musky perfume and despite my protests, pushed me back toward the dugout and made sure I finished the game.


Six


My favorite underdog sous chef sprints from the pantry to her cooking station, and slips on a slick of truffle oil from the entre round. Her heels skid, she slides to the floor and lands on her middle-aged backside, laughing. The judges stand and chant, “Get up! Get up!” the emcee’s tenor voice keeps counting.


Five


Dad called mother cool as a cucumber. She said she learned self-command in nursing school. The sight of blood was nothing to her, even that Saturday when my sled crashed into a tree. I was in shock, my body numb and toes frozen, with a bone sticking out of my arm. I’m bleeding! I screamed. She went white as a snowball when she examined my arm, but her voice remained low and even. Don’t make things worse than they are. Thank God you didn’t hit your head. Then her wide-fingered hands tied a dish cloth around my neck to make a sling and drove me to the hospital.


Four


The longshot chef, now at the ice cream maker, extrudes a crusty mass with trembling fingers. She relents and abandons the overspun semifreddo at the same time the female judge shouts, “Something’s burning!” The frazzled contestant, her uniform an abstract painting of stains, spins around and races back toward her stove where a pan of blackened caramel shoots fumes.


Three


For years I resented my mother’s frequent instruction that I should toughen up and told her so—until the first time I tried to ask for a raise and mystifyingly broke into tears. My mother had died a few years earlier, but I distinctly heard her New Jersey accent say in carefully pronounced words, Keep your composure. I was tempted to just excuse myself and flee my boss’s office, but it was the strangest thing—her voice came back to me in a hushed urging. I corralled my runaway emotions and made the case for why I deserved more pay.


Two


The middle-aged chef, her brain fried by the pressure, suddenly sees the screwball mandatory ingredient she’s forgotten to include—a package of tuna jerky. She tears open the cellophane using her teeth and with quivering hands, furiously crushes the umami strips into a garnish, which she crazily flings atop miniature cast-iron skillets bubbling with bread pudding. She steps back and raises her hands like a startled burglar just as the host announces


One


Every episode of Chopped ends in exactly the same way. The emcee uncovers a metal cloche with a magician’s flourish, and everybody sees whose dish is on the chopping block. Would it be the stylish entremet baked with phyllo and topped with bitter orange and chocolate? Or the homely bread pudding garnished with tuna?


In a cameo shot, the losing chef, the one I hoped would win, congratulated her technically superior opponent. But she also said something reminiscent of my mother. Sometimes, not giving up is more important than winning. If my mother were alive, she would have loved Chopped.


 

Linda Petrucelli’s essays have been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net. Her story, “Figure Eight on the Waves,” won first place in the WOW! Women on Writing Flash Fiction Contest. She’s lived and worked in Hawaii for the last twenty years. Read her at https://lindapetrucelli.com


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