Chef Boyardee enters the kitchen with his signature white toque perched atop his crown. The tension in the air is as thick as cauliflower bisque. Pride and bragging rights are on the line for this Italian immigrant turned culinary sensation. His tightly pursed lips and stern expression reveal a man who has no intention of losing this battle.
"I knowa my mama - she is-a watching," Boyardee boasts, as he removes an opener from his apron pocket and begins twisting an imaginary can.
Boyardee has every right to be cocky. Cans bearing his likeness sit in cupboards from Boston to Boise. It would be a daunting task to find a person in the Free World who has not sampled one of his signature dishes.
The point is not lost on his opponent, Mrs. Paul. Standing across the aisle, feet planted squarely like tomato stakes, she is not to be underestimated. Enjoying a virtual monopoly over frozen seafood, the no-nonsense "First Lady of Fillets" cemented her legacy by creating fish that does not taste "fishy." Winning over the palate of a persnickety generation is no small feat.
Not that Mrs. Paul is free from demons. The accusation by culinary professionals that frozen cod is inferior to fresh has hounded her reputation for years. She hopes a win today will lay the accusation to rest.
"My fish speak for themselves," she exclaims prior to show time.
Silence befalls the kitchen as the secret ingredient is revealed. The contestants lock eyes. For an instant, you can hear a corn holder drop.
"We've all eaten it, we all love it. It's in a shaker less than an arm's length away. The secret ingredient is … SALT!"
Mrs. Paul reaches over and nonchalantly pre-heats the oven to 475 degrees.
"One of the few minerals commonly eaten by humans … a primary cause of high blood pressure andheart disease … but no matter, it must appear in today's dishes."
Mrs. Paul, wasting no time, seizes the cookie sheet, loudly clanging the aluminum on the counter. Efficiency, not style, takes center stage. Glancing at the clock, she tears a three-foot piece of tin foil and begins crimping the edges. The salt mill is whisked into play, as she sprinkles the crystals onto the foil.
Chef Boyardee, on the other hand, is off to a rocky start as he drops the Dinosaurs with Mini Meatballs, seriously denting the can's metal rim.
"Uh-Oh Spaghetti-Os!" Mrs. Paul chides, aware of her opponent's mishap.
Boyaradee awkwardly fiddles with the mechanical opener. The can twists methodically until encountering the crenel. Frantic and harried, he attempts to re-form the metal with the blunt edge of a serrated knife, a dangerous move in any kitchen. Perspiration forms on his brow.
Mrs. Paul unwraps her signature dish. No surprise here: fish sticks.
Knowing when not to fiddle with a classic entree, Mrs. Paul places the battered logs two inches apart on the salted foil. The oven door squeaks slightly. The cookie sheet glides onto the middle rack. The door is closed. The oven light is turned on. The timer is set for 12 minutes.
The audience squirms nervously as Chef Boyardee continues to struggle. "Give me-a strength momma," he mumbles into his sleeve. The clock ticks unforgivingly. The tapping of the rim continues. The crowd senses the Chef has no "Plan B" if the pasta is not set free.
A sigh of horror emits from the crowd as Boyardee's sous-chef, Vito de Vito, reaches across for a loaf of garlic bread.
"Careful Vito, I almost cut-a your hand!" Boyardee warns as he continues to pound the can, "You are-a not a cooking in-a Applebee's no more - watch what you are-a doing!"
Mrs. Paul seizes a bowl to concoct the tartar. Keeping it simple, she scoops in one and a half cups of mayonnaise followed by minced white onion, kosher dill pickle, celery, pimiento and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. To no one's surprise the ingredients are stirred by hand. You would sooner find a tutu clad brown bear performing a soft shoe than find an electric mixer.
A bead of sweat slides down Boyardee's brow like rain dripping off a beefsteak tomato. Time is slipping away.
The water for the macaroni and cheese boils atop Mrs. Paul's stove. She pinches three tablespoons of sea salt into the brew and then pours the noodles into the bubbling water. "Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble," she laughs.
Relief! Chef Boyardee opens the can of Dinosaur pasta, gaining access to the main entrée. Wasting no time, he scoops T-Rex and friends into a pot, methodically verifying that no mini meatball is left behind. To catch his nemesis, a mountain must expeditiously be climbed.
Mrs. Paul rips open a bag of frozen peas, side stepping the technical difficulties encountered by her opponent. The rock-like mass is anchored at the bottom of a pot.
"Should we microwave the vegetable?" whispers Wendell Scupner, Mrs. Pauls' sous-chef.
"Vulgarian," Mrs. Paul snaps, "bring the peas to a low simmer and stir occasionally."Vito places a slice of thick Italian bread on the cutting board and carefully trims the edges. "Does removing the crust enhance the flavor?"
"Not-a really," Boyardee replies, "but tha children, they don't-a like-a tha crust."
Boyardee hovers above the pot, knowing full well if the shape and form of the dinosaurs are compromised, points will be deducted. "The Stegosaurus must look-a like a Stegosaurus."
Draining the macaroni into the colander causes a billow of hot steam to rise into Mrs. Paul's face. She towels off like a prizefighter in the corner between rounds.
Focused and unnerved, she grabs two cheese pouches. Gripping the tops, she shakes the powder to the bottom.
"Never use just one packet," she says to her sous-chef, "it's not creamy enough."
Mrs. Paul tears open both pouches in one sweeping motion. The audience applauds the showmanship. The orangey dust falls upon noodles.
"Do we need any side dishes other than the garlic bread?" Vito asks Chef Boyardee.
"We're not-a running a restaurant," Boyardee belts, "garlic bread and-a-tha pasta - that's all we-a need!"
Boyardee smashes a garlic clove and begins mincing. The knife hits the cutting board with the machine-like staccato of a woodpecker.
"Mr. Parsley, you-a are next." Boyardee says, talking to his ingredients.
Mrs. Paul folds the cheese into the macaroni with a wooden spoon and glances at Boyardee. "Doth that man be genius or lunatic?" she wonders silently about her opponent.
Boyardee scoops soft butter and parsley into a bowl with the garlic, then stirs with the urgency of an ER doctor losing a patient.
"Watch-a me and learn Vito, this is how you-a make tha garlic bread."
Boyardee spreads the butter on the crust-less bread, taking extreme care to cover the entire surface. "Make-a sure, Vito, you spread tha butter to tha edges - then you-a get a little bit of Italy in every-a bite."
The bread is placed on a baking pan and escorted into the oven.
Ding! The fish sticks are done.
Mrs. Paul removes the cookie sheet and places it on the stovetop. The macaroni and cheese has reached a pinnacle consistency. The peas are as joyous as Christmas morning. Everything is coming together.
Boyardee dips his spoon into the pot, scoops out a pterodactyl and blows on the noodle. "Don't a-try this at home Vito, tha pasta - she can get-a very hot."
Boyardee smacks his lips. "Now that-a tastes delicious." Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, the chef lowers the burner.
Mrs. Paul grabs a stack of paper plates - the kind with three dividers that allot space for separate food items. Into the biggest divider, she sets two golden brown fish sticks. Placement is perpendicular. Symmetry is perfect. A scoop of tarter sauce completes the compartment.
The second and third cubicles host the macaroni and peas respectively. Mrs. Paul sprinkles salt across her plate like Fairy Dust.
"Quick Vito! We must-a begin plating!" Boyardee barks.
"Careful Vito! You are-a not serving a line of prisoners. Watch-a what you are-a doing!"
Chef Boyardee removes the garlic bread from the oven. "Do not-a forget the baked roll, Vito, or our dish, it is a worthless.
The chefs beam over their dishes. Both are perfect.
Applause echoes inside the studio as the audience salutes two classic geniuses. The winner will be determined by the three judges - and by the look on Boyardee, he is not happy to see an all female panel.
The plates are placed in front of Betty Crocker, Little Debbie and Marie Callender.
If these culinary sorority sisters hang together - it could be a long night for Mr. Boyardee.