Christopher Kimball, editor in chief of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchen had a cold. One of the horrible summer colds that lasts for a week and makes doing anything more complicated than lying on the couch drinking fluids the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. Unfortunately it also made cooking and reading impossible. Without his two favorite activities, Chris was utterly bored. And dangerous.
On the third day of his cold, the first of July, his wife Adrienne, unable to take it any longer, called and had the satellite service turned on at Two Pigs Farm.
She would later consider this one of the worst mistakes of her life.
Christopher Kimball spent the next three days watching the television system at his Vermont farm. By the time of his annual Fourth of July picnic he had been driven mad by it. One late night channel surfing session and he was hooked on the Food Network.
Terrible knife skills. Untested recopies. Horrific food and spicing choices. And the special hell for all foodies that is “Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee”. Other, lesser men would have gone on the internet and written a blog post. Or started a debate on one of the many foodie boards devoted to hating the chefs and hosts.
Chris Kimball just sat there for watching and absorbing. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen the Food Channel before, but it was only as research. Early on the America’s Test Kitchen had rejected a Food Network deal, preferring to keep to PBS. Never as an ordinary consumer. He’d started a food magazine once, in response to such things. He must take action again.
On the fifth of July his wife called and had the channel canceled. But the damage was done.
Back in the office, he called a meeting of all the editors. Jack was pulled from the tasting lab. Adam was called from the equipment corner. Becky, Julia, and Bridget each left their offices to assemble in the main conference room of the Cooks Illustrated offices.
Chris started the meeting, “I am declaring war on the Holidays. We are going to have a major publicity push. Every magazine will have our recipe featured. Every television show will have a segment demonstrating the dish. And every time it will be perfect.”
“Remind me again why we are doing this?” Jack was not certain why the faults of the Food Network were so important that he had to return from Cape Cod early for a staff meeting.
Five sets of eyes avoided looking at Jack, and fiddled with a pile of leftover gadgets strewn across the table. They had vibrating handles and little half sphere cups, and were utterly incomprehensible.
“Because the Food Network is a force of evil on this planet. They make bad food. And I refuse to allow them to do so again.” Chris was emphatic in his response.
Julia and Bridget were waving them about like little purple light sabers.
“Julia, Bridget. Pay attention. We are America’s foremost food tasters and scientists. We have a strategy to form here”. Chris snatched the toys away, and held them in one hand, as a pointer. “We need a new dish- something that will serve to meet the needs of as many households as possible. It needs to be vegetarian, preferably vegan. Complicated enough to serve as holiday food- but easy enough that every idiot can do it with no equipment: Suggestions?”
“Smashed Tomatoes? Isn’t that just tomato sauce?”
“What about rutabaga? Or brussels sprouts? Or green beans?”
“Who do you know who eats rutabaga?”
“Lots of people”
“Who do you know who is not a professional chef, food writer, or foodie of some sort who eats rutabaga?”
“You have 24 hours to bring me potato recopies! I want samples! I want plates! And I want the ingredients to cost lest that $20 for eight servings! Remember: If you don’t bring the perfect potato recipe the terrorists- er, the Food Network will have won!” And with that Chris stomped out of the conference room, gadget holding arm outstretched.
Twenty four hours later, the conference table was free of the menace of what had turned out to be a selection vibrating melon ballers left by this semester’s interns. But the table faced a new menace. 15 separate potato dishes. Each a fluffy white, a golden yellow, or a rich crispy brown. Warm. Steaming. Salted. Plain. Jalapeño’d and cheesed, buttered and bacon. Ready for the first tasting.
Bridget set the interns upon the pile. Eventually Jack and the Testing Lab would take over, and help with the final dish selection- their time was too valuable to waste on the first round tests what was meant to be the ultimate user friendly dish.
An hour later the interns were lying about the table, napping the sleep of individuals who had consumed their weight in potatoes. T-shirts in disarray, mouths open, snoring slightly- they looked like the end result of a raucous potato eating fetish video. Mashed potato on the ceiling. Gratin in the carpet.
“Where did we get these interns? I’ve never seen such destruction?” Becky Hayes had not been a supporter of the intern project, but had acquiesced. There were always dishes to wash, cabinets to scrub, and measuring cups to measure.
“You should have seen them yesterday with the vibrating melon baller thingies” was all Bridget had to say. “This is the last time we take interns from Harvard”.
What followed was an epic staff meeting, where the decision was made: Smashed Potatoes would serve as the tool for the Test Kitchen to win the Holidays.
Bookings were made for every TV show they could find. Regis & Kelly, Ellen- where the vegan angle meant she gave them 15 minutes and served the audience samples. Local Boston stations, Good Morning America, The Early Show on CBS. The Late Late Show on CBS. Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Fallon, George Lopez. The Today Show, in a Matt Lauer 8 a.m. segment, instead of a Hoda & Kathy Lee 10:30 segments.
Only Oprah wouldn’t take them- she had gone carb free again. And they refused to appear on Leno out of solidarity for Team Coco.
The problem with the smashed potato demo showed up in rehearsals. Standard plan: Fake kitchen set up. Three pans- one with the raw potatoes, one with them half cooked, one with them in perfect ready to plate goodness. A bottle of olive oil, a tiny container of kosher salt. A kettle full of “hot” water. Fluffy, golden, creamy, crispy, potato glory.
It was, to be blunt, a boring demonstration.
“I fail to see how good food is considered boring” was Chris’s response to the first focus group results.
“We don’t have a gimmick. Emeril has his ‘bam’, the action that sells it. We tell them to make sure the oven is set to 425 degrees”. Julia wasn’t happy with the results of her demo either.
“We could get a gimmick. Liven it up. Special guests. Michelle in PR might have some ideas. Something with SCIENCE”. After all, what had the Test Kitchen been built on, if not science?
Guest Co-Host, Audition One:
“Now Dr. Honeydew, I understand that you and your assistant Beaker have prepared a demonstration where you will use a ‘Carve o Matic’ to form the ideal smashed potato?”
“Yes. We will prove once and for all that nothing says holiday food like a potato with a face.” Honeydew was short and sort of green, wearing a tie under has lab coat. Luckily it was long- Chris Kimball considered bow ties his exclusive fashion choice at the Test Kitchen.
“I’m glad you agree we are ready Beaker. Now, if you will bring the Uranium fuel rods”.
Guest Co-Host, Audition Two:
“Now, I understand that you plan to ‘Scientifically prove how to make smashed potatoes more awesome’. We are big fans of science at the Test Kitchen.”
“Thank you. I’m Adam, and this is Jamie. We have ready for demonstration two different methods for smashing potatoes: First, we have a Trebuchet, which will smash the potatoes against a stone wall. Second, we will use this uranium fuel cell to power a mechanical potato smasher.”
“Uranium Fuel Cell?”
“Yes, we found that if we ran the mechanical smasher off the electric grid it would cause a temporary blackout of three city blocks.” Jamie was immensely proud of that blackout.
“Is the beret a requirement?”
“The beret is non-negotiable.”
Guest Co-Host, Audition Three:
“I’m Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and I’m an astronomer.”
“That won’t be needed. Thank you”
“But I haven’t even presented my demonstration, using the crispy parks of smashed potatoes to demonstrate the Big Bang!”
“The Test Kitchen does not hire Pluto killers Mr. Tyson. NEXT!”
Co-Host searching was a bust. Short on time, the Test Kitchen decided to go with the original plan: Talk about potatoes, show the fluffy interior, set off by the golden brown glaze of the crust, the light olive oil sheen, the cubes of kosher salt. Add in a couple of stories a how this was tested, with science. Smile. Was it boring? Sure. But it was tasty.
Every show was pretty much the same:
Take a potato. Bake it for an hour in a tray full of water. Take it out. Smash it open with any heavy item in the kitchen that was not powered by uranium fuel rods. Coat the potato with olive oil, carefully measured amount of salt, and an even more carefully measured amount of spice. Put on a dry pan, bake for another half hour. Serve.
The result was pure food pornography.
In the end, Christopher Kimball’s dream of the ultimate holiday food was a partial victory. The perfect smashed potato was quietly served by over a fourth of American households for their holiday meal. Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas, New Years, it fit every occasion. Over the next few years it became a staple food of holiday parties around the United States, Guam, Puerto Rico, parts of Canada, and oddly enough Lithuania. No one remembered it as a product of the Test Kitchen. Just complicated enough to be festive, delicious enough to be desired.
On television, the memorable clip of the holiday season was Paula Deen deep frying breaded balls of butter in bacon fat, served with a sausage and Velveeta dipping sauce. Sandra Lee, avoiding baked goods after the horror of Kwanza Kake, appeared on the Home Shopping Network, promoting the use of a battery powered vibrating melon baller to make holiday vodka drinks. She sold 100,000 of them on her first appearance, and earned three million dollars in a year for her promotional activities. Many of the melon ballers were not used according to the package directions.
And back home at the farm, the Kimball family never got satellite service again. Well, until the great blizzard of 2015. But that is another story.