Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Better Late Than Never, The NY Times Honors Roanoke's Home-grown "Cookin' Cheap"

Back in the day, before I moved to the Roanoke area, I had a crappy little apartment in south Arlington, Va. with no amenities and couldn't afford cable. One of the programs I enjoyed was a little cooking show that also had no budget called "Cookin' Cheap", which aired on PBS every Saturday afternoon. Broadcast  from Roanoke, Va. and hosted by Larry Bly and Laban Johnson, the show featured recipes sent in by viewers that required a can of this, a box of that, a dash of down home banter and a very gay sensibility.

Little did I know at the time that I would eventually move to Roanoke, when the company I worked for relocated from Northern Virginia. Over the years I've had the pleasure of meeting Larry Bly socially on several occasions and found him to be as warm and friendly as he appeared to be on "Cookin' Cheap" all those years ago. I can't say that we're good friends, but we do run in the same circles and I can now brag that Larry now often remembers my face, if not always my name.

So what has prompted this little trip now memory lane? It seems that Lawrence Downes of the New York was also a fan of Cookin' Cheap and wrote an editorial in Sunday's edition where he called it, "the best cookin' show ever".

In explaining why he was so in love with the show, Downes writes:  
It isn’t the culinary skill. The hosts, Laban Johnson and Larry Bly, were amateurs. They struggle to open zip-lock bags and fumble in their oven mitts the way you or I would. Their kitchen gets messy and sometimes dangerous, as they juggle hot trays and gesture while chopping. They puzzle over pronunciations and employ questionable knife techniques. They spend a lot of time on boring prep work, because, as Larry confesses, if they didn’t, the show would be a lot shorter.

No, what makes this show so good is all of the above, plus the chemistry of Laban and Larry. They are tall (Laban) and short (Larry), chunky and skinny, and they bicker, josh and giggle (and sometimes dress) like a couple of old ladies. What they created is honest and funny, a surreal parody of a cooking show that is also a heartfelt display of genuine Southernness.
 Then there's the other aspect of the show which made me an instant fan. Downes takes great pains to describe that certain quality, that certain something, that kept him tuning in every week:
Laban and Larry are the real Virginia deal. When they get to their regular cross-dressing segment, dispensing advice as the Cook Sisters, there’s a strong suggestion that something here is not being discussed, but their matter-of-fact self-assurance feels candid anyway. Somebody once wrote an academic paper about the show. It said the men embodied the old Southern archetype of the gentle mama’s boy, an emblem of that region as traditional as that of the beer-swilling good ol’ boy, though far less celebrated.
 In other words, they were a couple of campy, sometimes bitchy old queens who knew they were not creating high art, they were just trying to have fun and fill a half hour of air time every week. They were the antithesis of Julia Child, but just as much fun to watch.

Most of the original tapes of the show have been lost, but enough survived to kick off the first broadcast season of the Bravo channel back in its infancy. That's right, the NBC-owned unofficial "gay channel" that brought you the original run of "Project Runway", "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy", "The Real Housewives" and its recap show, "Watch What Happens" (with uber-gay cutie Andy Cohen), was launched with the help of Laban and Larry.

 It pretty cool to know that a big city writer has fond memories of the same show many Roanokers grew up loving. Sadly, Laban has passed on, but Larry can still be heard doing commercial voice overs produced by his ad agency and the occasional radio host gig. And he may pop up at the odd pot luck dinner or holiday party when you least expect it.

For those of you who did not have the pleasure of watching "Cookin' Cheap" when it was on the air, here's a sample of what all the fuss is all about. For those of you who did, this will bring back some great memories.

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