Sugar, spice, and everything …

“Reality” television has not been kind to me. I suppose it’s not especially kind to anyone, really. But being told at age 7 by an official representative of Ed McMahon that you’re just not good enough to be on Star Search? That stings. MTV at least gave me the thrill of a callback, although I personally feel that season six of The Real World completely sucked without me. And don’t even ask about the numerous cattle calls I attended in LA – my only excuse is that I was unemployed, hungry and bored. At least I didn’t take to the pole.

Clearly, a snarky misanthrope who shudders at the thought of a group activity isn’t exactly reality show material. This is for the best, although it does make me wish I had a more demonstrative career. Being a writer means more staring than executing, more drinking than dancing. My biggest, most dramatic performances shine from a piece of paper that must be read to be appreciated.

It is not my intention to diminish the value in writing or the excitement in having written, but for as much of an internalizing, brooding, isolationist as I am, I also have a deep, dark craving for recognition. It’s every writer’s curse, I suppose.

My favorites have all tempered the desire with drink, some more than necessary, while others found alternative outlets for expression. Bukowski became a rock star of poets; Hemingway hunted. I lack the charm and the drive to do either. But there is one thing that I can do, and do extremely well: I can cook.

There is a distinct satisfaction in cooking, in the collaboration of hand, mind and taste to create something amazing, something that can be shared. Cooking offers similar results as writing, at least in that I take the same pleasure in sharing and consuming words. Both writing and cooking require me to be fearless. But where I cannot act out the drama in my head that creates a story, I can chop, dice, sauté, and flambé my every whim in the kitchen.

Reams of rejection letters – both from reality show producers and magazine editors – have taught me several lessons, not the least of which is to know my skills. I no longer send half-cocked pitches to Cat Fancy magazine or the NY Times, and I definitely did not apply to be on So You Think You Can Dance. But when the opportunity to apply to be on a special amateur version of Chopped, the greatest cooking challenge show ever made, came up? I was all over it.

Support from my friends and family has been overwhelming, although I do find it unnerving that more than one person felt the need to clarify that the show name is not literal, and that I cannot plunge a knife into anyone. This too I accept, however, should some freakish accident happen to that smug little judge Alex Guarnaschelli, just know I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Below I’m including a few of my more creative responses to the essay questions of my Food Network application. Here’s hoping they’re enough to maybe, just maybe, break my reality show rejection streak.

In a few sentences, please share your story: Tell us who you are and your current situation.

For starters, I am not a chef. But thanks in part to my mother’s advice – that the key to happiness is 1) to be a good person and 2) be an excellent cook – I am a newlywed, a stepmom, an author, and the best drinking buddy you could ask for.

Describe your background/history-where are you from?

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago that is best described as 90210-lite. At the time, I was a little too Tawny Kittean in a Whitesnake video to ever really fit in, so after graduating college in a similar suburb with a BA in communications, I sprinted across the country to try making it in Los Angeles. It took a few years, but once I realized I made a lousy PA and got tired of being unemployed, I moved back to Chicago and turned my LA mishaps into my first book.

List family members and note any that may be involved in the culinary industry.

My immediate family includes my husband and three amazing stepkids; my sister, her husband, and my niece; my mom and dad; and assorted extended family. Culinary industry experience?  My mother learned to cook by watching Julia Child on television. Does that count?

Why do you like to cook? Who do you cook for and how often?

That I am not a rock star or famous artist is unfortunate. And as a writer, I spend the majority of my day staring at a computer and willing words to happen. Cooking, however, is my art. It’s my creative outlet, my source of relaxation as well as excitement. It’s an adventure every day and a way to share tangible stories. I cook every day – for myself, my husband, my stepkids, and my friends and family. Truly, there is nothing I love more than sitting down with a great meal and talking. Food is, I hope, the one connection we have as people that will remain a constant.

Do you cook professionally? If so, where, and in what capacity?

The closest to “professional” cooking I’ve come is baking 200+ cookies (my killer brownie cookies, to be specific) for a friend’s wedding.

If you are not a professional chef, list any goals past or present regarding cooking professionally.

I once toyed with the idea of becoming a professional chef, and even went so far as to take a few courses in pastry making. But the truth is, I love cooking too much to make it my profession. I already immerse myself in words, my other passion, and it’s a constant love/hate battle. Cooking is my escape, and I’m happier keeping it that way.

What inspired you to start cooking? Where did your interest in food begin?

My mother is a wonderful cook, and since my childhood we have spent countless hours together baking, pouring over recipes, and trading tips. She always stressed how important food is: it brings people together for dinner, it makes bad days better, it’s something to be enjoyed and shared. When I was on my own after college, I took her advice to heart. Rather than giving in to the ease of ramen noodles, I sold my microwave and bought a sauté pan. Between what I knew from mom and what I learned from cookbooks and cooking shows, I taught myself to be the cook I am today.

Describe your cooking style, ingredients you love and any specialty dishes.

I love the nuances of flavor, and the way a single herb or spice can change the entire feel of a dish. My cooking style is deceptively simple: I take basic ingredients and create unexpected flavors. Cardamom is my spice of choice currently – I love it with orange in a poundcake, or with maple syrup and a touch of cayenne in a glaze. I also love to experiment with liquor – absinthe makes an excellent enhancement in mousse and chocolate tartes. I love pastry and sauce making equally because both offer so much room to develop flavors.

What are you like in the kitchen when you are cooking?

While cooking, I’m very organized, although if you were to ask my hubby, he’d suggest I am also slightly scary. I suppose this is true, because I do enjoy the chopping element of my prep work far too much and I have no problem setting things on fire (deliberately, of course). There is also a compulsive element to my time in the kitchen – and my entire family knows that the quickest way to freak me out is to rearrange my spice drawers.

How would your friends/family describe you?

I’m not entirely sure I want to know. I’m guessing the word “stabby” would be used quite a bit, and it wouldn’t be in reference to my cooking skills. However, were I to ply them with marinated mozzarella and bread baked from scratch, they’d be gently deluded into relating stories about how I volunteered for the Girl’s Best Friend Program, and would conveniently “forget” all my horrid attempts at karaoke, that one time I ditched a blind date who showed up with a bird on his shoulder, my obsession with horror movies, and the fact that to this day, I still believe The Muppets are real.

What is something that we wouldn’t know about you by looking at you?

I’m descended from a group lovingly documented as “The Red Bearded Terrors of Lithuania.”

What would you do with the $10,000 Chopped winnings?

Buy shoes. I wouldn’t just buy shoes for myself, of course. I’d buy them for my family, too. Seriously though, my husband and I love to travel, and are planning a trip to Europe. The money would enable us to expand our travels and experience the food and culture we dream about.

Describe any TV appearances.

Sigh. I knew this would come back to haunt me. In high school and college I self-produced and hosted a music video show for a cable access channel. Would you believe that all the recordings of that show were destroyed in a fire?

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