Beauty queens crackle but lack spice

Tonight West Australian mother-daughter dark-haired purple-shirt-wearing hard-partying beauty queens Lisa and Candice kick off the second dinner party of the second round with a promise to be quirky, funky, different. I'm guessing they're thinking James Brown funky, but let's just take a moment to ponder another definition of the word. “Funky: having a moldy or musty smell.” Hmm. Let's see if that comes back to haunt them, shall we?

Things sure get off to a cracking start when Manu tastes their entree, tells them that's not how he learnt to cook a scallop but, ooh la la and sacre bleu, it's bloody good anyway.

As the words are leaving his lips, Manu's face suddenly freezes. It has perhaps just dawned on him that he must now contemplate for the first time in his life that it is perhaps not inconceivable that ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING he has ever learnt about anything was, just possibly, a complete load of old bollocks.

But then he blinks and it all goes away. Pffft. Just like that.

The beauty queens (who are, in fact, teachers, but why let the mundane things like facts get in the way of a catchy subtitle?) are clearly faced with a serious dilemma now: do they thank their lucky stars they got away with that piece of Manu-defying anti-technique and start playing it a bit more by the rules or do they go for broke, and chase that quirky, funky, different rabbit into whatever hole it runs down? Now let's see…

Having cleared away the molluscs the girls reach for the maracas. They're doing a spot of flamenco. Did someone say Sevilla? Well, it's a little harsh on the ears, perhaps, but let's see if anyone else comes up with the whole dinner-and-a-show package before we judge them.

“Tonight we're taking some big risks,” says the one in purple - no not her, the other one - and apparently she's not reflecting upon the momento el loco we've just witnessed. “Our main is a risk.” Manu's world almost collapses in on itself again.

They're using five different cooking techniques, Candice says, and I don't think she's talking about the five I favour: taking the meal from freezer, peeling back the wrapper, punching “two minutes” into the keypad, hitting “start”, and removing the dish from the microwave with the help of a tea towel to avoid burns. Now that's technique.

It looks like they've chosen a recipe from the Heart Foundation cookbook: they're doing pork crackling wrapped in pancetta, grilled. And served with pork.

The one in purple - no, not her, the other one - tells us she's “reducing some beef stock for a jus”. Someone really should tell her she's wasting her time as Jews don't really like pork.

The excitement in the competition at this halfway mark is almost. Never before has the bench been set so high. Who will cast the cuttingest comment of this round? Jessie and Biswa may be gone, but their evil spirit lives on.

Samuel, the big bloke from Tasmania (it's compulsory to have at least one of those), thinks the beauty queens have got too many elements, and he hasn't even seen their oven; Sam, the little bloke from Victoria, thinks Samuel sounds like a food genius. Dan, the bald bloke from Queensland whose ears are buttoned to the side of his head, notes admiringly that Samuel is “really up with his words and stuff”.

There must be a ventilation shaft carrying this conversation to the kitchen because Lisa belatedly realises they've got too many elements on the dish. Luckily she has a ready solution: burn some of them. But there's a hitch: even though the beet is rooted, Candice is convinced a medley means three so they are numerically obliged to use it.

Candice brings out the meal with a “hey dudes”. Button-ears is horrified, and not only because he's just realised he has buttons in his ears. Candice explains that the cider jelly shot on the side could be interpreted as a sauce or a drink or a smear. Domestic goddess Joanna takes that as an invitation to lay on the snark. The dish is a “big mess of leaves”, she says, and she doesn't much like that “babyfood-like” onion puree either. Spice. Spice. Spice.

Manu tucks in to his crackling and it pushes back at his big Frenchy teeth like a fresh Ruskit under the gummy bite of a toddler. There is no way that sucker is going to break. Pete says the meal is unfolding like an opera - the first act was all love song, but this is the tragedy part. At this rate one of the beauty queens will surely be dead of consumption by the end of the night.

Now it's the guests' turn to tuck into the crackling and it's so sticky and stretchy and chewy that if you could cover it in chocolate and put a shiny wrapper on it the schoolkids would be begging to squander their lunch money it at the tuck shop.

One of the personal trainers almost loses a tooth; Steph, wife of Button-ear, catapults hers across the table, to the great snobby disgust of Jenna, dressed all in pink and pretty judgemental with it.

“I'm not used to having it so pink,” Jenna says, and we think she's talking about the pork but by this stage of the opera everyone has gone a little mad so who knows.

Back in the kitchen, there's been a pastry disaster. It's been in the fridge so long a woolly mammoth left over from the last ice age has started to nibble at it. The microwave saves them (ha - technique, didn't I tell ya?) but the guests may still be waiting for dessert when the next ice age hits.

A couple of hours after the main has been served there's still no dessert. But at least one of the guests has worked out how to solve a Rubik's cube and Joanna has established her credentials as a real contender to fill the obligatory, and now vacant, role of lightning rod of viewer loathing. The bowl of cream is “tacky”, she says, the banana looks like “something I'd serve to my kids”, the crackling tasted like “a thong” (does she mean a flip-flop or a G-string? Either way, how does she even know what a thong tastes like?) Admittedly she's no Spice Girl, but she's trying.

The guest/competitors score their dishes a total of 27. Pete and Manu start with the love song, giving it nine and eight. The tragedy gets a three from both Manu and Pete, who says the crackle was “basically rubberish”, which is a word he's just invented for food that is both rubbish and tastes like rubber. A four from Manu and a three from Pete for dessert gives them a total of 57 out of 110 - not good, but they're in second place right now. OK, that's out of just two dinner parties so far but in group one it would have been good enough to have them finishing third bottom. Or, for the optimists, fourth top.

Such are the margins between tragedy and farce in this soap opera, but there's a long way to go yet. It ain't over 'til the fat lady singes.

kquinn@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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