My daughter is on a Mr. Rogers-watching kick again, thanks be to God.
We have an Amazon Prime membership, which means we can stream nearly every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood made after 1979 for free. Rosie likes to watch a whole week of episodes at once, skipping ahead to the Neighborhood of Make Believe segments, which I told her was cheating. When I was her age, I had to sit patiently through an entire episode of Mr. Rogers to get five lousy minutes of Make Believe, and she ought to learn patience by the same method.
Besides, the very weirdest and most endearing parts of the show take place outside the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. When a placid, gentle and saintly man like Fred Rogers attempts to teach children about the wonders, joys and traumas of day-to-day life, there are going to be silly antics. Obvious prop telephones are going to ring with the wrong number. Prop toilets are going to need plumbing. Pleasant neighbors are going to drop by and give demonstrations of breakdancing or playing the spoons. We are going to go on field trips to vegetable soup canneries, and we’re going to be fascinated by every step of the soup-making process.
And, of course, we are. Mr. Rogers’s love of learning is completely contagious. To this day, I like to stop what I’m doing and watch Mr. Rogers visit factories and applaud breakdancing demonstrations. The man was a brilliant educator.
I have always loved Mr. Rogers, and I love the cast and characters of Mr. Rogers as well… but I never quite trusted Chef Brockett. Not from the time I was a little girl. When I was in preschool, I was scared of his growly voice, and there was something else about him I just couldn’t put my finger on. Now that I’m grown, I understand what I was noticing.
The man played a chef on television for nearly thirty years, yet he couldn’t cook a thing.
Every time Mr. Rogers went to visit Chef Brockett, the bakery set would be decorated with beautiful pastries and cakes that the set dressers probably bought at the grocery store that morning. Then Mr. Rogers would follow him into the kitchen, and Chef Brockett would cook something unbelievably lame.
Once, he made “tapioca.” He didn’t call it “tapioca pudding,” just “tapioca.” I remember watching this eagerly in the bad old eighties, when I only ever ate prepackaged chocolate and vanilla pudding and didn’t know what tapioca was. I was in suspense to learn what such a silly, musical-sounding food was like, and what it was made of. I half suspected that Mr. Rogers had made it up, except that Mr. Rogers never lied. I was glad that I was about to find out what tapioca was.
Chef Brockett stood in front of his counter with that ridiculous deflated balloon of a hat on, gripping a paper sack. “To make tapioca,” he said, opening the sack, “You start by putting in some tapioca.”
That was the only explanation he gave.
Making tapioca out of tapioca was the most complicated dish Chef Brockett ever attempted, in my memory. At least he turned on the stove for that one. He usually kept it off. Once, the chef showed Mr. Rogers how to make a “banana boat” by spreading a banana with peanut butter and wrapping the whole thing in whole wheat bread. Once, he showed Mr. Rogers how to make a special sandwich by arranging bananas in the shape of a face on a slice of whole wheat bread, with peanut butter. Once, he mailed Mr. Rogers a package containing a banana, a slice of processed American cheese, and a note reading “wrap cheese around peeled banana.” An alarming number of Chef Brockett’s creations involved peanut butter and bananas; most of the rest involved standing up pieces of broccoli in a brick of cream cheese to make them look like trees.
Today, Rosie wanted to watch an episode from 1984, the year I was born. In this episode, Mr. Rogers is summoned urgently to Brockett’s Bakery, because Chef Brockett has invented a brand new nutritional snack.
“You ready to see this nutritional snack?” growled Chef Brockett, a little too eagerly, when Mr. Rogers arrived at the bakery. I wouldn’t have followed that man into the back of a bakery for anything if Mr. Rogers hadn’t been there to protect me.
After exchanging Spanish pleasantries with Chef Brockett’s bilingual assistant, Mr. Rogers followed the chef into the kitchen area. Chef Brockett hemmed and hawed about the excellent nutritional quality of his invented dish for several minutes before he demonstrated how to mix discount hydrogenated peanut butter, margarine, raisins, nonfat dry milk, nuts and graham cracker crumbs into a joyless little truffle.
“The people at the health department told me that everything in this is good to eat,” said Chef Brockett.
This is what sticks in my mind, about the character of Chef Brockett. Chef Brockett is a professional baker who had to ask the local health department if his new invention was good to eat. Lord knows what he would have done without their guidance.
Mr. Rogers, of course, loved it. When he got back to the Television House, he demonstrated how to innovate the truffle by adding a banana.
I casually looked up the actor, Don Brockett, on IMDB to see what else he’d been in. That was when I discovered that the growly-voiced chef had also played roles in Day of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead and Silence of the Lambs.
When he wasn’t on Mr. Rogers, Don Brockett had played brain-eating zombies and had a cameo in a film about a sadistic cannibal.
Suddenly, peanut butter and bananas sound just fine.
(image via Pixabay)