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Okay, I’ll admit it. I watch Chopped. (Along with Mythbusters, My Little Pony, occasional random cartoons on Boomerang, and whatever nature shows are on at any given time, plus the Daily Show if I have summoned any political give-a-shit that day. This forms the majority of my TV viewing since Survivorman went off the air. The TV comes on maybe one day in three. But Chopped I like.)

T’other day they had an episode where four lunch ladies competed against each other.

Now, the standard format of this show is pretty straightforward—four chefs compete in three elimination rounds, clips of interviews are run, and you get The One Asshole Who Thinks He’s Better Than Everybody, the One Who Keeps Mentioning Their Dead Father, who you rapidly start to suspect is milking it, The One Who’s Just Happy To Be Here and the One With Low Self-Esteem Who Has Something To Prove. (There are variations, but this is the basic line-up.)

You root against the asshole and for one of the others. This is just how it works. (Obviously the clips they show are probably not representative, some of them are probably terribly nice people, but they’re asking leading questions and all. Doesn’t matter. It’s fun TV. With cooking!)

So, the lunch lady episode.

It is really hard to get into a show like this when they run four women eligible for sainthood against each other. Seriously.

Kevin and I laid in bed watching four women say “Well, we’re here for the kids,” and occasionally timidly mention that nobody takes them seriously as cooks because they’re just cafeteria workers, and how honored they are to compete somewhere where they’re being treated like real chefs and how they have to make meals for kids who sometimes are only getting the school lunch to live on, all on a budget of approximately $1.75 per child.

The sincerity oozed from the screen. The judges practically cried every time they eliminated one of these competitors. There was hugging. And it wasn’t the milking-my-personal-tragedy types that you get sometimes—they were acting so damn nice. By twenty minutes in, I was willing to rate lunch ladies as the greatest unsung heroes of our time.

“I have wasted my life,” I told Kevin, as one explained how she always did a pasta meal on Monday because she lives in such a poor area that some of these kids weren’t eating on the weekends, and pasta provides the biggest caloric bang for the buck.

“Compared to these women, we are horrible human beings,” said Kevin grimly, while she went on to explain that she had started a backpack program to provide food for those kids to take home on weekends.

The show went on. There was more crying and more sincerity. Every time one of them said something nice, we would clutch our heads and whimper. The human soul can only take so much awesomenss.

“Smother me with a pillow,” I begged Kevin. “I am NOT FIT TO LIVE.”

“Only if you smother me at the same time!”

Our pillow suicide pact fell down on the point where we would no longer be able to watch the show through the pillows, so we resigned ourselves to living. You couldn’t root for any of them, because they were ALL so damn kind. You couldn’t even suspect them of hamming it up. Your heart was going to be warmed if they had to crack your ribs open and shove a space heater into your chest cavity.

“We’re usually not allowed in the teacher’s lounge because we’re just cafeteria staff…” I fell off the bed and vowed to make the plight of the lunch lady my personal crusade, once I had finished with native plant restoration and taught the universe about endangered farm animal breeds.

It ended. The judges were crying openly at this point. Kevin and I were carefully not looking at each other because you lose serious macho points if you have to admit that you got a little choked up over an episode of Chopped.*

“Right,” muttered Kevin. “I have to go take the dog out. And then write a letter of resignation so I can go take a job that pays $2oK a year as a lunch….guy.”

“Is there a save-the-lunch-ladies fund we can donate to? Somewhere? Dear god…”

And this, boys and girls, is why I watch so little TV.  Dear lord.

NaNoFiMo: 31159

*Unless it was the one with the priest who gave the money to the other competitor so she could go visit her dying grandmother in France. I mean, c’mon, nobody’s made of stone.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

Oh my god, I was openly crying about half way through the episode! I know exactly what you mean.

Even better? My friend's middle school age daughter has decided to start a campaign at her school for better lunches, directly inspired by that episode. Awesome :D

“We’re usually not allowed in the teacher’s lounge because we’re just cafeteria staff…” I fell off the bed and vowed to make the plight of the lunch lady my personal crusade, once I had finished with native plant restoration and taught the universe about endangered farm animal breeds.

This is the funniest thing I have read in *months*. Thank you for the Monday morning cheer.

Now I wish I got... whatever channel it is you watch Chopped on. };) (I don't even have a TV right now, let alone cable) That sounds pretty darn awesome!

I have to ask though, what did they cook and did it look better than the standard cafeteria fare? (shifty sideways look)

I spent this entire episode feeling worse and worse about myself as no-one could EVER live up to the 4 saints they were showcasing. Amazing women but oh man, the emotional wringing.

I definitely missed the usual format where I can rely on there being at least 1, if not 2, chefs I'm determined to root against.

Back when I was in high school we had the most amazing Lunch Lady. She was called Miss Nancy and she knew all of us by name. She would ask us about our parents/siblings (many of whom she had been lunch Lady for as well) and I had the great fortune to interview her once for the school newspaper. She was kind, hilarious and adored her kids. She also made much of the food from scratch to make certain she knew what was going in our meals. My father (the principal) kept pushing for her to get a raise and his last year there he finally got her one.

I'll never forget my Lunch Lady.

I come from a long line of lunch ladies...

When I was in elementary school, the lunch lady was my great-aunt Ola. She's long gone now, but my aunt Marsha is currently a Florida lunch lady.

we were best friends with the Lunch Lady in our elementary school, since she lived a few houses down from us. We always invited her to our house for Thanksgiving, figuring a day of NOT cooking was a vacation for her, and she would always bring her legendary Cafeteria Lady Rolls. Shortly before she died, she finally parted with the recipe. Once we scaled it down from "50 lbs flour, 15 packets yeast", etc, we can now make our own cafeteria Lady Rolls in her honor.

"Once we scaled it down from..." Hah, that would be the trick with a lunch lady recipe wouldn't it...

“We’re usually not allowed in the teacher’s lounge because we’re just cafeteria staff…”

Heh. Sounds like Library staff too...

When I was playtesting for a video game company, that's what they felt about us QA guys. No lounge, no cafeteria access.. we were dirty, filthy trained monkeys who came in off the streets so we could play video games all day long.

We finally managed to convince them that hey, we were the final step in quality, and we'd like very much to eat something other than vending machine sandwiches, please...

Those programs sound amazing! We didn't have anything formal or informal like that- all we had was the free or 40c lunch programs, and one of the lunch ladies would make damned sure that everyone in line knew who was on it or not. And when my friend had to be moved from the 40c to the free lunches, she shouted very loudly about how maybe if her mom would get a real job and stop being such a slut, maybe she could afford to fill my friend's gaping maw, etc., etc. It was horrible, but the principal wouldn't do anything about it.

I really enjoyed this episode! I also loved the episode where the dude gave up his money so his competitor could go to France.

Actually, I just love Chopped.

Are you watching the Next Iron Chef? That one's got me all over the TV as well!

I've been drawn into Next Iron Chef each time they run it. I think this current run is their best since the first (shoestring-budget) affair. I do sort of wonder who's "retiring" this time to make room for Yet Another Freakin' Iron Chef, though... it's like the NextIC series is more interesting to them than the actual Iron Chef show itself.

Where to watch...

I shall have to look for this episode. I know Hulu carries episodes, but I'm not up-to-date on their policy for this series.

Very happy to hear that you're a pony fan.

I'll have to finish up my MLP - Star Trek crossover, see if it can compare to the Watership Down - Star Trek crossover you wrote as a kid...

I see almost no way it cannot compare favorably, seeing as you can obviously punctuate and spell.

I saw that episode and it was really wonderful and sweet... and then, at the end... they brought the kids in. ALL the kids, and all the competitors and they all got to be there and be hugged and loved, and.... oh man, it just broke my heart. Yay for lunch ladies! And hazzah for Chopped for bringing them to the forefront.

The teachers' lounge where I work was turned into yet another new principal's new office. But before it was, we were happy to share with our cafeteria staff, I promise!

I did not see this episode, but the one where the winner gave his winnings to his competitor so she could go visit her grandmother had me weeping like a baby.
I quite love Chopped...if it wasn't for the Food Network, I'd hardly have anything to watch on TV.