Unlike other predetermined sports like football or tennis, professional wrestling lives and dies on a performer’s ability to talk well and deliver memorable catchphrases all while wearing spandex and trying to avoid serious life changing injuries. Perhaps the most often repeated catchphrase of wrestling’s last great golden age was Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s rhetorical “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?”.
As far as catchphrases go it makes about as much sense as “Make America Great Again” or “Build a Wall” which is apt as they’re all the products of WWE Hall of Famers. How fitting it is in 2017 that Donald Trump, the steak and ketchup kingpin, once ‘wrestled’ on the grandest stage of them all – Wrestlemania. Trump is a man who in many ways embodies the American sideshow tradition – the ultimate carny, the huckster, the heel who stuffs his face with KFC among other treats and relies on ‘cheap heat’ to get crowds to ‘pop’. Politics has always been pantomime and in a country plagued by fast food racism and violence it’s depressingly inevitable that a man that thrives on all three would somehow wind up in power.
But you can relax, this isn’t really about Donald Trump.
It’s about wrestling.
“Wrestling is an immediate pantomime, infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the wrestler’s gesture needs no anecdote, no décor, in short no transference in order to appear true.” – Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Wrestling is to so-called ‘real’ sport as fast food is to ‘fine’ dining – they each offer near instant and reliable pleasures and are secretly far more enjoyable than their sophisticated counterparts. Like high fashion’s simultaneous celebration and appropriation of junk food aesthetics an appreciation of wrestling can work on several levels – it’s an extremely undemanding form of entertainment that can tell us a lot about society. Both the fast food industry and the major wrestling organisations rely heavily on steroid enhanced meat and the marginalisation of trade unions. Both traditionally find their largest and most devoted audience in the working class – and suffer a certain degree of patrician scorn from the bourgeois.
It’s no wonder then that the McDonalds of wrestling the WWE has a a long and storied relationship with fast food – beyond simple sponsorship and product placement the WWE has acted as an in-house media agency of sorts for a plethora of fast food giants producing short skits, and even matches, that synergise their own muscle-bound talent with their client’s double bacon cheeseburgers and tangy barbecue drumsticks. A young Kurt Russell lookalike with a porn actor’s name Dolph Ziggler even took to dressing as America’s favourite civil war criminal and fried chicken spokesperson Colonel Sanders while wrestling with arch rival The Miz (who wore a chicken costume with an applaudable level of dignity). Sadly, he wasn’t even the first wrestler to dress up as the Colonel…
Yes, only in America would audiences choose to boo the plucky (soon to be plucked) underdog that is the battery chicken in favour of a man who devoted his life to the mass slaughter of poultry and the hoarding of essential spices.
As you may gather from the southern fried nature of it all professional wrestling has strong roots in the American South – but to consider it purely provincial would be to ignore its rich history throughout the United States and across the world. Historically wrestling around New York and the east coast saw the biggest stars reflect the ethnic make-up of that region’s audience – Italian, Greek, and Hispanic. Italian born Bruno Sammartino was the top name for many years – alongside Latino superstars such as Pedro Morales he reflected the hard-working blue collar audience who flocked to what was then the WWWF (eventually the WWE).
In the northern promotions southerners and foreigners tended to be bad guys or ‘heels’. In the early 1980s Hawaiian ‘beach bum’ and comedically slobby villain Don Muraco was responsible for one of wrestling’s greatest culinary moments – the meatball hero incident. In a massively one-sided fight against a much smaller jobber (or jabroni, an ‘enhancement’ talent whose job it is to make the big guys look even bigger and stronger) Muraco takes leisurely breaks to eat a sloppy submarine sandwich and slurp away at a soda. It’s an iconic moment that incensed the audience while simultaneously paying homage to a local delicacy that inspires intense devotion. The meatball hero (pork meatballs, tomato sauce, and mozzarella on a thick submarine roll) was so named because it was considered so substantial that only a real ‘hero’ could finish one. A sandwich that flatters you for finishing it – how could a wrestler not appreciate something that plays so well to the audience?
A wrestler who matched Muraco for villainy was the Japanese-American Mr Fuji who carried ceremonial salt (nowadays he’d be more likely to be a hipster clutching Pink Himalyan) to the ring which he would proceed to throw into the eyes of his opponents. Many tales exist of Fuji’s sadistic real life pranks (some of which were straight-up criminal) including allegedly feeding one of his enemies their own beloved pet in a spaghetti sauce. However. like the Samoan Headshrinkers who ate live fish on television to denote their ‘savagery’ Fuji perpetually played the role of villain in order to play on anti-Japanese xenophobia and racism that was prevalent during the era.Japan has long had two distinct strains of the sport – their ‘strong-style’ of professional wrestling known as Puroresu and its more culturally recognised antecedent Sumo. The rigorous hierarchical world of Sumo and its strict dojo system greatly influenced its more stage managed successor – which still maintains a reputation for far greater physicality than its western counterpart.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Sumo culture is the accompanying cuisine consumed by its practitioners. Sumo wrestlers require an enormous amount of food – around 10,000 calories a day during peak training. Traditionally their dish of choice is Chankonabe – a one pot dish of pork or chicken devoured in enormous portions and served up alongside copious amounts of beer and sticky rice. There’s a very good reason sumo wrestlers tend to die an average of ten years earlier than their fellow countrymen.
Although – at an average age of sixty – they’re practically old timers in comparison to their American counterparts who have a much higher incidence of heart failure due to their love of steroids (despite what Hulk Hogan preached they weren’t eating vitamins). Thankfully steroid consumption has greatly declined, although no way near soon enough for those of who grew up idolizing figures like Rick Rude, Eddie Guerrero, and Curt Hennig. As the legacy of Elizabeth David lives on in her Book of Mediterranean Food so too do our dead wrestling heroes – in fact, some even had their own unique recipes forever immortalised in print. Although the tie-in cookbook goes all the way back to the 1940s the birth of the boom we’re still seeing today in titles like Baking Bad and The Unofficial Hobbit Cookbook began in the late nineties. The giants of 90s television Twin Peaks, Friends, The Sopranos, had solid selling spin-offs all of which were fairly forgettable – with the exception of the fantastic Sopranos Family Cookbook which stayed true to the spirit of the show and served as an excellent primer on Italian American cooking.
Showing the same innovation that they’d shown a decade earlier in pioneering pay-per-view programming the WWE (then operating as the WWF) released their own seminal cookbook in 2000. Divided into wrestling pun related chapters (entrées are the ‘Main Event’ while desserts become ‘Finishing Manoeuvres’) Can you take the heat? offered some truly mind bending recipes purportedly devised by the wrestlers themselves.
A favourite was future local Libertarian Party candidate and erstwhile demon Kane’s Red Velvet Cake. Kane had a fairly unique origin story – he was the badly burned brother of the legendary Undertaker who hid his scarred face under a leather mask Phantom of the Opera style. A tortured, psychotic, and tragic figure Kane nonetheless was an early champion of Red Velvet – the spiritual predecessor to Pumpkin Spice. It’s unknown if Kane ever wore uggs or worshipped at the throne of Uber – but it’s clear he’s easily the most unlikely example of the ‘basic bitch’ phenomenon you’re ever likely to encounter. Kane may have flirted with mass appeal with his cupcakes – but only a select few wrestlers ever crossover into mainstream consciousness.
The really big names – Hulk Hogan, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Randy Savage – all incorporated some variety of food or beverage endorsement into their gargantuan merchandise offerings. Occasional wife-beater and camouflage enthusiast Steve Austin put his name to a surprisingly drinkable craft beer called Broken Skull IPA. Velvet voiced domestic abuser Randy Savage had one of the best paid and highest profile gigs as the face of Slim Jim, a kind of heavily processed kabanos you can eat in between workouts, or in your underwear watching Homes Under the Hammer. The big daddy of them all (not to be confused with the British Big Daddy, who flogged Thatcherism and Daddies sauce ketchup) was Hulk Hogan, now best known for his unique combination of racist outbursts and sex tapes, who once upon a time was in the running to be the face of what is now known as the George Foreman Grill. Hulk claimed to have foolishly turned down the endorsement and vowing never to miss a golden opportunity like the Foreman Grill again ended up hawking a deeply inferior food processor known as the ‘Thunder Mixer’. The blenders (which had a tendency to break around the third or fourth time they were used) failed to capture the public’s imagination in quite the same way as the lean mean fat reducing grilling machine, never making it to the iconic #banter status of being used in a university lecture for Facebook likes.
Surprisingly, this was not Hulk Hogan’s first unsuccessful foray into food. Pastamania was a play on Hogan’s own riff on Beatlemania – Hulkamania and the name of his poorly received restaurant. Pastamania was built on the premise that a blonde skullet wearing man of ambiguously Italian American background (Hogan’s only real credential for schilling pasta was having the vaguely Italian sounding real life surname of ‘Bollea’) tan the shade of cooked hot-dogs could inspire middle America to pay mid-range restaurant prices for tinned spaghetti. Sadly, unlike Hogan’s 2016 lawsuit against Gawker, Pastamania failed to run wild and ignominiously went bust at it’s only location at the Mall of America, Minnesota. Getting the right catchphrase is one thing, but more than this embodying the right ‘gimmick’ in wrestling is everything – without the right combination of look, attitude, and charisma you’re just another jabroni.
Over time tastes have shifted and what got over in the past no longer works today – it’s worth viewing the celebrity chef through the same prism as the professional wrestler. Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, Guy Fieri. All of these men inhabit exaggerated personas which have demonstrably worked in wrestling – playing up to their worst national stereotypes (Ramsay) affecting a ‘cool’ attitude by wearing a leather jacket/smoking/chewing on a toothpick (Bourdain in just about every interview circa 2003) or just being a weird little nu-metal troll man (Guy Fieri).
Can any chef maintain the same level of incredulous sneering of Gordon Ramsay day in day out, or is it as the wrestlers would say in fact kayfabe? Is it any wonder that in August 2017 television cooking’s very own Bad Boy™ Anthony Bourdain made the ultimate heel turn and joined a wrestling stable? Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri resembles a late 90s wrestler so much there exists a whole community of wrestling fans on YouTube devoted to creating likenesses of him in WWE games – Guy Fieri takes Sin Cara to Flavor Town being the Citizen Kane of the genre.
WWE mastermind Vince McMahon has described the best wrestling gimmicks as a performer’s real personality exaggerated, pushed up to eleven. TV food personalities have taken this approach – arguably, they are the professional wrestlers of the food industry. Some, like Man Versus Food‘s Adam Richman have no discernible cooking ability but rather an unnatural capacity to eat life endangering quantities of hot wings.
Food as carnival sideshow – the same primordial soup that wrestling was birthed from.