WASHINGTON – Just how smart is Mo Rocca, the humorist who provides such a positive role model for geekdom at large?
He has been able to recite the capitals of the world since he was 8 or 9. Much of modern pop culture swirls in his head, and Rocca can dispense it with speed and precision. He is multilingual and a close student of U.S. presidential history – especially the quirky bits. He is on the radio, on television, onstage, online and in print.
The true measure, however, might pertain to the world of food. At 43, Rocca has embraced it with all his intellectual rigor – right up to the point of cooking it himself. He’s smart enough to get others to do that for him, on a TV show that has just been picked up for its second season on Cooking Channel.
The stomach is the portal to history, to science, to family, he says. I don’t open my oven. But I have become good at chopping.
Some adults maintain few vestiges of their childhood selves. In Rocca’s case, traits were established that delight his colleagues and cause his fans to gush on Twitter: He is driven by curiosity, a natural kibbitzer, a gentle prankster, unaffected by fame.
He is fascinated by things the average person wouldn’t even think about, says Vance DeGeneres, a friend and fellow Daily Show alum who is co-president of actor Steve Carell’s production company in Los Angeles. I can’t think of anyone else like Mo.
His unlikely career in food television began eight years ago, when a friendly acquaintance with Food Network Vice President Bob Tuchman led to 10 appearances as a guest judge on Iron Chef America, seated next to Jeffrey Steingarten. Where Rocca the rookie might have been chewed up and spat out like so much gristly Secret Ingredient, he and the famous food writer got along like pals. I was convinced there should be an animated version of him and me as Sherman and Peabody – a nod to the early ’60s Bullwinkle’ cartoon characters, he says. Unlike his fellow panelists, Rocca ate all of every dish placed before him. And he knew how to deliver a good line.
One thing I said that never got appropriate acknowledgement, I thought, was during Battle Opa, Rocca says. I think my comment was The only way this Opa would have been better was if it had been served with its best friend, Kale.’ Went right over everyone’s head.
Next came an offer to host the network’s Food(ography) series: 39 episodes over 1 1/2 years. Relating history, recognizing food’s significance, interviewing people on camera were all skills of Rocca’s that he put to good use. He got to know food celebrities but didn’t hang out with them.
Paula Deen follows me on Twitter, he says with conviction.
Rocca had previously pitched his idea for a show that featured older generations teaching the younger ones how to cook family dishes. With some Mo-mentum behind it, the second pitch got the green light when Cooking Channel began airing more original programming.
The Sundays of Rocca’s youth were spent at his grandmother’s apartment across from the National Cathedral, where great Italian meals came out of a tiny kitchen. Guilt, he claims, inspired My Grandmother’s Ravioli. He didn’t realize how good the gravy was until it was gone. But he has become savvy about what makes good television.
He is who he is, on camera and off, says Gideon Evans, the executive producer at Cooking Channel who first worked with Rocca on The Daily Show in 2000. A complete original. A good conversationalist. We have similar sensibilities in that MGR’ was supposed to be about bringing out characters, not a cooking show about ingredients.
In the first season’s 13 episodes, production was restricted to subjects who live in the New York tri-state area. Rocca has seen the audition footage but meets the cooks only when shooting gets under way. A crew of 10 is small compared with the team needed to produce Bravo’s Top Chef, but it can create cramped conditions in someone’s home over the course of two days and close to 24 hours of raw footage.
The end result has its charms, and its shtick: 20 minutes of Rocca engaging his host, making jokes at no one’s expense, taking instruction on how to extract the bite out of sliced onion, season jerk chicken or pronounce kreplach. It’s Master and Grasshopper – a reference to the mid-’70s TV show Kung Fu that Rocca gets immediately.
The day after our interview and dinner at Mintwood, Rocca heads to Potomac, where he has agreed to a Grandmother’s Ravioli-type session with a local senior citizen. Who knows? Maybe casting for next season’s episodes will start in his hometown. He meets Helene Mankowitz, a stylin’ 71-year-old retired makeup artist whose offspring are happy to let her do the cooking. Her grandchildren call her M. She greets Mo with her picture-perfect signature apple crumble pie and coffee.
The dish du jour is chicken and egg noodles. It is close to her heart. Simple, one-pot comfort food. Her late mother learned to make it as a young Romanian child transplanted to Reading, in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Mankowitz has committed the recipe to memory only, so she’s nervous about measuring this and that.
Within minutes, they have struck up a playfully antagonistic rapport. She teaches him how to chop celery. He looks for approval. A dialogue sampler:
She: You know, I’m a potter.
He: Did you love the movie Ghost?
She: It doesn’t work like that for me.
He (hands not on the just-poached chicken): I’ve never dealt with a chicken like this. It’s very cathartic.
She (dismantling the chicken, pointing to the flap of skin and bone at its tail end): My mother called this the pupik.
He: The badonkadonk!
She: That’s not Yiddish, is it?
About an hour later, the pair has tasted from the pot and adjusted the seasoning. Rocca would push for more black pepper, but this is not his show. He praises the tenderness of the meat and the texture of the noodles and carrot coins; Mankowitz needs to get off her feet.
The back-and-forthing has reached a more intimate, supportive level. It would warm the cockles of the toughest customer. It would make good television.
Chicken ‘Bot’ Pie
Helene Mankowitz likes to cook simple comfort food – especially this dish of chicken and Amish bot noodles, which is not really a potpie at all. Her late mother, Reba Hochberger, was fond of Amish ingredients because she spent the early years of her marriage in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Mankowitz watched her mother make the dish and committed the process to memory.
Make Ahead: The mixture tastes better after a day’s refrigeration. The noodles will thicken. It can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
One 3 1/2 -pound fryer chicken, giblet packet removed
About 8 cups water, or as needed
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
3 or 4 small carrots, cut crosswise into 1/4 -inch coins
2 large ribs celery, cut lengthwise into quarters, then into small dice
2 heaping tablespoons concentrated chicken soup base, such as Better Than Bouillon brand (optional)
12 to 16 ounces dried square egg noodles
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon (optional)
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)
Choose a pot that is deep, but not much wider than the chicken itself.
Wash the chicken and place it in the pot. Cover with the water by no more than 1 inch. Bring barely to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium. Skim off and discard any foam on the surface.
Add the onion, carrots and celery. Cook uncovered, keeping the liquid bubbling gently, for about 45 minutes; the chicken should be cooked through.
Transfer the chicken, shaking off any excess liquid, to a colander or bowl. (The vegetables continue to cook over medium heat.)
Meanwhile, taste the liquid in the pot. If it doesn’t have much chicken flavor, stir in the chicken soup base. Add the noodles and cook uncovered for about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice to make sure they don’t stick together. The noodles are done when they are tender but not mushy.
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, discard the skin and bones. Shred or cut the chicken into bite-size pieces. Add to the pot; reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir in the lemon juice and parsley, if using.
Serve hot, in wide, shallow bowls. Makes 6 servings.