Back in my day…oh crap, I’ve become my grandparents.
Okay, let me try that again. Back before Televised Shopping had more guests than a Holiday Inn Express, a void in the space time continuum would open up once or twice a month. While management and executive types referred to this void as a 4 hour cook shows, those of us who had to host them referred to them as “fun with frying pans.”
Hosts had to cook while selling various sets of cookware and other kitchen paraphernalia. It was up to the host to prepare a menu, write out a shopping list along with detailed prep instructions.
I did the majority of these cooking marathons on QVC, probably because my shows did extremely well. I have always liked to cook and, as a longtime bachelor, I had a slew of fast and easy recipes. Plus I was always mindful of the Beatles’ audiences in Germany who would yell “mach shau!” (make show) at the quartet, urging them to do more than just stand there and play. I always did more than just stand there and cook. I had fun! However, I don’t recall any dancing, happy or otherwise.
These marathons took a long time to prepare. Plus, in the true spirit of “mach shau,” I always tried to theme them. I did 4 hours of Indian cooking where I had to search Center City, Philadelphia to find an ethnic grocery store that carried Garam Masala, which is a mixture of various spices used in Northern India. Today you could order it from hundreds of online stores but back in the 1990’s it took a lot of shoe leather to find the right ingredients.
Regardless of the cuisine, I used loads of spices when I cooked and after 4 hours the whole on-air arena smelled like a cross between the town of Gilroy, California during the Garlic Festival and a Manhattan Dumpster.
Lots of things can go wrong when you’re doing a 4 hour solo live cook show and I was a magnet for most of them. I remember slicing off the top of my thumb on a defective mandolin slicer. The blood just gushed on air. And since there were no “emergency tapes” in those days, I had to finish the show holding a handful of paper towels on the wound while maintaining pressure so I didn’t bleed to death. It took over 4 hours of micro surgery to put my thumb back together. Good times!
When we had a set of really nice stainless steel cookware to demo, the vendor told me to cook on really high temperatures to differentiate the set from non-stick cookware that couldn’t accommodate the higher heat. I guess the vendor never heard of vapor lock. All of the pans I was using locked up tight so I couldn’t show what was inside. The set still sold very well as I used the vapor lock to show how tightly the lids fit the pans. I don’t know if that meant diddly as to their performance, but it sounded good.
Then there was the “Instant Whip Cream Maker.” Isn’t that one of the things a mixer and a blender do very well? But this modern marvel claimed to make whipped cream faster than any other method. Problem was that the heavy cream sat in the hot studio lights so long that God himself couldn’t have whipped it. In fine masturbatory style (lots of practice), I pumped the silly looking thing with a vengeance. Then I triumphantly pulled the top off. A half gallon of heavy cream splattered all over the set and me. Cats followed me home for weeks after that. They eventually got a guest for the product and he held it over my head after jerking it off. Same deal, I was covered in hot cream. I looked like Linda Lovelace on a bad day.
We also sold an electric chair for hot dogs. Seriously! You put the probes from this thing into opposite ends of the hot dog and it purportedly cooked them in a minute. It did 8 hot dogs at a time. First of all, most hot dogs are already cooked so all you have to do is heat them up. Pretty simple in a pan or a microwave.
This little beauty let you give the wieners the last rights before you sent them to Frankfurter Hell. Problem is that the hot dogs were completing a circuit for the voltage that was sent through them. If you weren’t wearing rubber soled shoes when you touched them, you would get a 110 volt surprise. I didn’t need hair gel for a month after presenting it. Oh yeah, the hot dogs tasted like something you’d see the zombies eating on The Walking Dead.
I have vivid memories of the “Miracle Lid.” The vendor said his device, a piece of 18’ round stainless steel would cut your cooking time in half because it reflected the heat back at your food. When I asked him if that was the same thing that the lid that came with most pans did, he espoused some nonsensical double talk. I always goofed on it on-air, singing a “Mr. Lid” jingle that I made up. But people thought it was cute and bought it anyway. I was always thankful for the 30 day return policy.
On one Mexican cooking show (4 hours of every type of taco and burrito you can imagine) we had a tortilla maker. It was a heavy round cast iron pan and really made great tortillas. Problem was you had to get it hot enough to melt lead for it to work properly. I still have some pretty cool looking burn scars. Now I know what it feels like to be branded.
One day I had to do a 6 hour live cook show by myself. And after the show, I had to jump in a limo and get to JFK airport to catch a plane to Germany for October Fest, which is held in September there. We were filming for future shows.
The live cook show was a 6 hour Italian (my favorite and arguably easiest cuisine to prepare) cooking special. They wanted to see if we could sustain sales of cook products for that amount of time. No guests, just me. I cooked with so much garlic for that I smelled like an Olive Garden if they really made Italian food. There was no time for a shower and I had to fly 11 hours smelling like the homeless version of Mario Batali. There must be a worse smell than sweat and garlic, but I’ve never smelled it. It was so bad that the person sitting next to me changed his seat. At least they rushed me through customs in Germany. I think that was after the drug sniffing dog died.
There’s nothing worse than a non-stick pan that has given up the ghost. It was during Desert Storm and I had just melted two plastic army men in the pan to show that nothing would stick. “Look, a couple of Iraqi soldiers!” I said. (Yeah, I think I’m still getting memos about that.) When I tried to wipe them out of the pan, they stuck like a cat that dug his claws into you rather than be placed in a carrier. No easy out of this faux pas. I just said, “Well, this isn’t a problem unless you’re going to be cooking plastic army guys.”
When I had to demo an 18 quart stock pot, I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants and stepped into it. I noted there was room for someone else but no one there took me up on the offer. I made an offhand comment about toe soup. I really did get a few email requests for the recipe. Either those people had wicked senses of humor or they weren’t the sharpest crayons in the box.
All the hosts received lots of recipe requests after they hosted a cook show. One host (no names, but I am tempted) always made Rice Krispie Treats. While they were very fastidious about sending people the recipe, I always wondered why she didn’t refer them to the damn cereal box.
I always tried to demo the products to the best of my ability. The exception would be those products like “Mr. Lid” and other really stupid wastes of money. Luckily, most products were pretty good with clunkers like “Mr. Lid” being the exception.
I remember one bakeware demo where the Today’s Special Value was a set of 5 large baking pans. The day they were going to be presented I was scheduled to teach a class in televised marketing at NYU in Manhattan. A good friend prepared 5 killer demos in the different pans. I just had time to get home on the new Acela Express service that had just been established between New York and Philadelphia.
I made it back to the studio about a half hour before airtime. The demos were ready to go. When the show started, I did 5 prefect releases, everything from pineapple upside-down cake to macaroni and cheese popped out of the pans perfectly. The phones went into hyper cue and the set almost sold out at midnight. The few remaining pieces easily sold out early that morning. The buyer was pissed as she wanted the set to last all day. Something about “not the sharpest crayon in the box” comes to mind again.
I have no knife skills. Well, I can throw the one I usually carry pretty accurately, but that’s a whole ‘nother bottle of whiskey. I hate demoing any type of cutlery. I look like a gangster dismembering a dead body. In the Ronco knife infomercial, notice that I didn’t do one single demo? That infomercial is still running after 14 years because Ron Popeil and his cousin Arnold did some great demos. They really are fine knives, I still use mine today. (Yeah, I’m always selling, occupational hazard.)
On QVC, I did come up with an interesting shtick of tossing a pineapple into the air and cutting it in half. I don’t know that it demonstrated anything relevant about the knife’s quality, but the technique sold a lot of cutlery on the Q.
Our 4 hour cook shows were very successful. Other hosts did them as well. Eventually, the host position on all the shopping networks evolved from chief cook and bottle washer to talking head. I’m sure having a guest for each product is the answer to some bean counter’s wet dream. But it surely isn’t as much fun.