I used to be a cooking show addict. “Used to be” the operative phrase here. These days the shows rely on gimmicks. Folks are either racing and running through grocery store aisles or they’re opening secretive boxes full of strange mounds of geoduck and fermented calf brains trying to create dinner. Don’t even get me started on that chubby, platinum-spiky-haired douche or that pseudo punk rock chick on Cooking Channel whose voice makes my skin crawl. Someone online compared her to Amy Sedaris and if I was Amy, I’d haul off and hit her. You could say I’m not a fan.
I like my cooking shows straightforward. Someone announces they’re going to cook and then they do. Sara Moulton of Gourmet Live, or Jeff Smith from the Frugal Gourmet. Remember how he bossed around poor assistant Craig? Then he got into all that trouble and disappeared off the face of the earth. I adore Ina. And I miss Mario Batali’s old show, where celebrities like Issac Mizrahi and Ileana Douglas sipped wine while he whipped up sumptuous homemade pasta.
But the show I miss most aired weekends on PBS. Cookin’ Cheap will always and forever amen be my favorite cooking show. Why? Not only did they have a straightforward format of we’re going to cook something, then cook something, then talk about how they cooked something, then sit down to eat it, but they were funny as hell. Pee your pants then have to go change funny. There will never be another show like it, which is sad.
Cookin’ Cheap was a low-rent affair syndicated out of Roanoke, Virginia, and their eventual popularity was such if you mentioned the show most people up and down the Eastern Seaboard with PBS had at least heard of it. Even The Hubby born and raised in Buffalo had watched once or twice and thought, “What the fuck?”
What made the show special was the chemistry between hosts Laban Johnson and Larry Bly, two Southern gentlemen who liked to cook and throw barbs at one another while doing it. Larry might be sautéing onions and Laban would bark, “Ain’t you done yet?!? I need to add this cream of mushroom soup!” and Larry would shoot back, “Hold your horses Grumpy, I’m going as fast as I can!” Insert ugly laugh here. Their kitchen looked like my Momma’s, full of 1970’s Autumn Gold appliances. They talked like my relatives, saying things like, “Y’all” and “Afta-while.” Their measurements weren’t all that exact, they had no professional chopping skills, and mise en place was a concept they might have considered briefly, then discarded as just too much damn work. Just like in my Momma’s kitchen.
And the food wasn’t fancy, oh no. Cans were opened, Bisquick was used, and items like Miracle Whip and Velveeta were popular ingredients. There were copious amounts of *gasp* MARGARINE of all things. I remember chocolate cakes made with mayonnaise, cans of fruit cocktail, and casseroles. Lots and lots of casseroles, usually with Ritz crackers crumbled on the top. Often they’d implement leftover ingredients used in previous episodes, and mention over and over again how to save money, for example using canned sweet potatoes instead of fresh because they were cheaper. Just like in my family kitchen.
And every episode about midway through, they’d trot out The Cook Sisters, Laban and Larry in bad drag, dressed as old Southern grandmas, dispensing advice. And let’s not forget Doris, their adorable assistant who looked liked she was four feet high and was always reduced to giggle fits every time she was asked to come help. Towards the end of the program their very own kitchen witch, one of those wooden ones you get at “Arts and Crap Shows”, would fly in on a string with a question from a viewer. Usually hitting Laban right in the head. Like Hee Haw with food!
My favorite part was the viewer recipes. Faithful fans sent in their most treasured family heirlooms, Laban and Larry would whip them up, and render a verdict. The stank face they’d make when a recipe didn’t quite work out was priceless! I’ll never forget Laban crinkling up his nose at one particularly awful casserole and declaring, “Well, I might serve this to the kids on a desperate Monday night, but it’s certainly not good enuf fa-cumpny!” Blam! Pow! Take that Aunt Edith!
The puns were a favorite part as well. There were more awful puns in this show than in a century of knock-knock jokes. On my deathbed I’ll remember the chitlin’ episode. Yes, chitterlings. Laban carefully removed the chitterlings from the package and was in the process of cleaning them. With a totally straight face, he looked right into the camera and declared, “Takes a lot of GUTS to make this here recipe!” I spewed my coffee across the room and guffawed for 10 minutes straight.
And I was usually drinking coffee while watching Cookin’ Cheap, which aired Saturday afternoons in my Richmond, Virginia hometown. In the early 90’s I had no life. Between going to college full-time and working two jobs, any down time was spent eating in front of the TV or sleeping. I kept Friday nights open for partying, and usually closed the Willow Lawn Benetton store on Saturday nights, or maybe it was the Mrs. Fields store where I was manager. I’ll admit that whole decade remains ever so foggy. But I have vivid, fond memories of sitting in front of my tiny black and white TV in my shitty apartment, hung over, watching Cookin’ Cheap before catching the Number 6 bus up West Broad Street to Willow Lawn.
Laban and Larry got me through a lot of long weekends with their friendship and their laughter. I don’t remember a lot of the recipes, and I’m not sure I really learned any cooking techniques from them either, but who cares? They’re still my favorite cooking show. Because you could tell they enjoyed cooking, loved food, and were very dear friends. At a time when all I did was study, dance, drink, and work, I envied that kind of camaraderie and friendship.
You can still view episodes of Cookin’ Cheap on YouTube, and buy a cookbook from the show. There’s not a whole lot going on at the website (Larry promises aprons with logos and personal appearances “soon”), but a great “Memorable Moments” video is posted below. Be forewarned. You will do the ugly laugh. Loudly and often.
Cookin’ Cheap was also profiled in the New York Times in 2010 under the headline, “Best Cookin’ Show Ever”, and someone even wrote an academic paper about their cross-dressing ways. There’s a fan group on Facebook, but they don’t post an awful lot. Laban Johnson died in 1999 from a bad heart. He was only 57. According to Wikipedia, “Before his death, Johnson left instructions for Larry Bly to write and deliver his eulogy at his funeral, which he did. Johnson was replaced by Doug Patterson, his hand picked successor, for the remainder of the show’s run.”
And although Larry continued the show with new host Doug, it just wasn’t the same for me. The new guy was nice, but the whole reason I adored the show was the love/hate “old married couple” friendship aspect of Laban and Larry. That and the puns. And the Velveeta. To me Cookin’ Cheap will always be the best cooking show there ever was. Period. Amen. Rest in peace Laban. Making a casserole tonight in your honor buddy.
MEMORABLE MOMENTS VIDEO. WATCH IT NOW. YOU NEED TO LAUGH TODAY :)