What I Can Tell You About The Taping I Attended of “Iron Chef America” Without Having To Pay The Food Network $1,000,000

The Food Network really doesn’t want me to tell you what I witnessed on Monday, January 23rd. Upon arriving at The Food Network studios in The Chelsea Market, they had my companions and I sign a piece of paper that made us swear we wouldn’t reveal any secrets from the episode we were about to see taped of Iron Chef America. Especially: which Iron Chef would do battle; the identity of the challenger and, most importantly, the secret ingredient. The penalty would be–according to the document–$1 million. Plus they’d send Mario Batali to walk on you in his orange clogs.

What follows, then, is a carefully guarded account of our experience there. Please don’t ask me any questions like “What was the secret ingredient?” because answering that [fennel!] might cost me my future livelihood. [Just kidding, it wasn’t fennel. Stop asking.]

News of the Iron Chef tickets reached my e-mail box a few weeks earlier. My wonderful agent, who plucked me from nowhere and placed me on the road to somewhere, informed me that she had two tickets: one for me and one for my editor at Bantam/Dell. The taping would be Monday at 2:30, we’d meet out front at 2:25. She also attached a letter from The Food Network that ended thusly:

“DRESS IS BUSINESS CASUAL. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WEARING JACKETS, AND TIES. NO LARGE LOGOS ARE PERMITTED. SOLID DARK COLORS ARE PREFERRED. NO CAMERAS OR RECORDING DEVISES OF ANY KIND PERMITTED

ALSO, YOU WILL BE REQUIRED TO SIGN A COFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT WHEN YOU CHECK IN FOR THE PRODUCTION. ALL GUESTS OF THIS PRODUCTION ARE REQUIRED TO DO THIS.”

As you can see, they are VERY serious about this confidentiality agreement. I don’t know why you keep bugging me to reveal things like who the Iron Chef was [Sakai!], they’re seriously going to sue me. [Just kidding, Sakai isn’t on Iron Chef America. You got so rocked.]

Tickets for “Iron Chef America” are invite only, which is why attending the taping is so special. We gathered in a room on the ground level of the Food Network studios in the very back of the market. Sandwiches and cookies from Amy’s Bread were available and of course I couldn’t refuse a cookie. On a TV screen they showed previous battles as Food Network employees collected the signed forms and began to herd people into an elevator.

Before we got on, we were asked to turn our cellphones and pagers off. “You’ll have a chance to turn them back on after the battle’s over, before the judging.”

The elevator took us up six flights and they led us into another waiting room. From here, you could kind of see into the Iron Chef studio. The feeling was similar to that of waiting for a Disney ride: fog from fog machines rolled in through cracks in the curtain, and you could see bright spotlights up ahead.

While we waited, we could watch what was going on in the studio on a TV monitor placed before us. We watched the challenger (who, I didn’t recognize and never learned the identity of anyway!) choose his Iron Chef for combat. We then watched him do it again. And again. These things, you see, require multiple takes.

Just then, some fanfare as a curtain parted to our left and the secret ingredient was wheeled in on a prop-like tray that looked like something from a poor man’s production of “Pirates of Penzance.”

“It looks like there’s a body in there,” said my agent.

“Maybe there is and that’s the secret ingredient!” I suggested. A woman to my right sneered.

Eventually they led us into the studio. The space was surprisingly small and fake-looking. Kitchen Stadium in Japan looks like a real stadium or at least a space that has some significance, even if the whole mythology is made up. Here: the room was a giant black box with a wheeled-on set. This is the same room, we later learned, where Emeril tapes “Emeril Live!” and (gag!) Rachel Ray shoots her show.

There are two sets of seats for audience members. The VIP seats, where we weren’t sitting, and the not VIP seats where we were sitting. These faced the Iron Chef directly; the Challenger’s side faced no audience.

To my right they pushed on Alton Brown’s set piece: the panel with computers where he does his color commentary during the show. And then out came Alton Brown, looking just like he does on TV only a tiny bit sweatier. What follows is a glowing paragraph in praise of Alton Brown.

Alton Brown is a genius. Or, to rephrase: he’s a genius at what he does. He’s a brilliant television personality. Whenever they shot a segment with him, he told them to turn off the teleprompters: he didn’t need them. And then he’d say something funny to make the director laugh or the crew laugh and each time he was a consummate professional–never fudging a word, always crisp and clear and smart. And then there’s the fact that for the entire one hour battle that ensues he speaks the ENTIRE time. It’s truly remarkable. The Iron Chefs are talented men and women, but for my money the show wouldn’t be watchable without Alton’s quick wit and intelligent observations of what’s going on. He’s the glue that holds Iron Chef America together.

[However, his earring is awful. Yes he has an earring. So does that useless sidekick Kevin. They both have the same earring. Are they in a cult? Or did they go through a joint midlife crisis?]

Alton aside, the experience of watching Iron Chef live is a bit like the experience of a child who believes with all his heart in tooth fairies catching his mother put money under the pillow. The whole thing’s a sham!

No, it really is. I’m sorry. When we sat down, both chefs had pots already boiling: sure it’s probably chicken stock or other kitchen essentials, but there was something very predetermined about what was going on. When they revealed the secret ingredient–ooh! ahh!–the chefs looked like they were being read the serial number from the side of a library book. There wasn’t a nerve in the air. And every action we observed felt the opposite of spontaneous. These people KNOW or at least have a very good idea of what the secret ingredient is going to be. And with all the stops and starts and editing and lack of music, a live performance of Iron Chef America is as tense as watching two 90 year olds play a game of hopscotch.

However, with that said, there is something wonderful about observing a brilliant chef in action. And in this case the Iron Chef was a pleasure to watch. The assistants too. Watching them buzz around the kitchen, grilling, sauteing, setting things on fire: it’s quite entertaining. That hour goes by very fast.

At the end, they have the five plates they’re required to finish by the time the buzzer sounds. Then they have an opportunity to plate the plates for the judging. Here’s where I was confused: the Iron Chef went first. Didn’t the Challenger’s food get cold? It takes 45 minutes to get through the judging. Doesn’t that put the Challenger at a huge disadvantage? Especially with foods that need to be served right away?

I don’t have an answer. I actually couldn’t stay for the Challenger’s judging, I was late for class. [My agent informed me who won over e-mail.]

The best part, though, came during the Iron Chef’s judging. Without revealing anything, the judges were ambivalent about a few dishes and then they raved over one particular dish. As they raved, one of the Iron Chef’s assistants came out to the audience with a plate of this particular dish. When it passed my way, I lifted a sample of this expertly prepared secret ingredient and placed it in my mouth. It was truly divine: a taste memory I’ll never forget. I can’t tell you more ’til the episode airs.

And that’s essentially what the Iron Chef taping experience is like. Oh, but there are smells too. I forgot to mention that: the smells that waft over you as you watch are really wonderful. If Smellovision is ever invented, Iron Chef America will be the show to watch. In the meantime, I can’t tell you anymore. I’m sorry. Unless you send me $1 million and a picture of you in a Speedo. Then I might consider. Otherwise, in the words of my uncle: Allez cuisine!

Critics

The theater world and the food world are not dissimilar. Both have their roots in ancient traditions, their devotees are somewhat eclectic, and both contain numerous schools of thought and theory. For every Thomas Keller there’s a Wylie Dufresne; for every John Patrick Shanley there’s a David Lindsay-Abaire. Behind the scenes of a Broadway show or a 4-star restaurant is a similar scramble of workers, producers (owners) and artists (chefs, playwrights) eager to please, cajole, challenge, inform, devastate, enlighten and feed a hard-to-please public.

Enter the critic.

This semester at NYU’s Tisch School of Dramatic Writing, which ends a week from tomorrow (when I leave for Paris) could be subtitled: “Adam Learns The Downside of Criticism When Two of His Favorite Teachers Get Torn Up in the Times.” (The main title, of course, would be “Sex and Cabbage: An Unhappy Marriage.”) We will now explore the complicated relationship between the artist and the critic in the theater world and apply it to the food world.

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Instant Pleasure

Rufus Wainwright has a song that’s featured in “Big Daddy” called “Instant Pleasure.” The lyrics start: “I don’t want somebody to love me / Just give me sex whenever I want it / ‘Cause all I ask for is instant pleasure / Instant pleasure, instant pleasure.”

This song came into my mind recently when talking to my mom. No, I don’t have an Oedipal Complex. We were at lunch a few weeks ago and at one point, talking about the website, she asked me in a hushed whisper: “Do you really like cooking?” As if beneath the surface of my enthusiasm was a crafty little schemer out to conquer the world by posing as a foodie.

I paused for a moment, pondered, and replied: “Yes, actually I do.”

“It’s so messy, though,” she said. “Is it really worth it?”

Though I couldn’t articulate it then, the lyrics to “Instant Pleasure” (or at least the tone) helps me to articulate it now. “Instant Pleasure” is the mantra of our era. At the push of a button you can instantly chat with friends, instantly read the news, instantly order a stereo from Amazon.com. Type a text message into your phone and it’s instantly delivered; take a picture on your camera and it’s instantly visible. There’s instant music (see iTunes, Napster, LimeWire); instant movies (HBO On Demand); and even instant sex, if you’re so inclined. We live in an instantaneous age and, consequently, most of us eat instantaneous food. Eating a quick burrito or slurping down a smoothie isn’t a crime once in a while, but it’s a shame when it becomes a lifestyle.

And that’s why I love to cook. It forces me to exercise my emotional intelligence, the part inside of me that can delay gratification. When I come home hungry, it’d be easy to nuke a frozen dinner or order a pizza. And sometimes I do, in fact, order a pizza. But more and more I make the effort to choose something that requires some effort; even if it’s boiling some pasta and coating it with butter, nutmeg and parmesan. That takes 20 minutes, at the most. And it’s pretty bad, nutrition-wise. But it’s completely gratifying because I took the time to make it.

Perhaps a good parallel might be reading. There are those who will see books as a chore for the rest of their lives, never escaping the threat of having to finish a novel the night before a class and scanning the internet for condensed summaries. It’s not that their lives will be bad or unhappy—hell, maybe they’ll be happier—but they won’t be as textured, they won’t be as rewarding.

Same with food. Once the passion ignites in you, it’s not a road to everlasting bliss. If you only knew how many hours I spend circling neighborhoods, settling on where (Jesus, make up your mind already) I’m finally going to settle down to lunch. Or the time I spend flipping through recipe books at 5 PM, desperate to find the perfect recipe to quench my particular desire for dinner. I’m embarrassed to say, I even spend time now tabbing my food magazines so I don’t lose a particular recipe that I’m destined to forget about later on.

My life isn’t happier because I cook, but it’s richer. I’m convinced that all the time I spend thinking about what I’m going to eat on a particular day, the time it takes to go food shopping and the time it takes to actually cook (and then clean) is time well spent. The rewards aren’t explicit, the rewards aren’t tangible, and the rewards certainly aren’t instant. And that’s what makes them wonderful.

Marthavision

I am a veteran Martha Stewart watcher. Back in the pre-prison days, I would obsessively watch Martha’s cooking show on The Food Network. I loved it for two reasons: (1) the information was great–in her matronly way she taught me about Silpat, how to arrange a cheese platter, the way to make a perfect omelet; and (2) the show bristled with under-the-surface tension between Martha and her guests. The highlight would always be when her mother was on. “Mother,” she would say (and how perfect was it that she addressed her mother as “mother”), “I think you’re stirring that too rapidly.” Martha was campy perfection.

Then, as you may well remember, Martha went to prison.

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Let’s bring in a Morgan Freeman voice over to set the transition:

“The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

All the time in the world… is that what allowed Martha Stewart to reinvent herself? For the Martha Stewart of the Food Network as desribed above is no longer in existence. She is now the cheery, friendly, salt-of-the-earth host of “Martha!” during the day and the stern but lovable CEO on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”

Let’s start with the first.

I need to disclose something here. What I am about to disclose has no bearing on my objectivity, it’s just a neat fact. My mom doesn’t like me telling you where I live, so let’s just say I live on X street. And when I go to Whole Foods I walk down X street to 7th Ave. Well on a walk to Whole Foods a few weeks ago I made a huge realization. It was promped by a giant turquoise and orange banner draped across a building right where I was standing. The banner said: “Martha!” The building was, I soon learned, Martha’s studio. Martha tapes her show ON MY BLOCK!

Over the shock yet? No? Take a deep breath. Ok. Let’s talk about “Martha.”

I’ve seen just a few episodes of “Martha.” I watched her make polenta with some Italian lady, I saw her interview Russell Simmons, and today I watched her cook with our foodblogging godmother Julie Powell of “The Julie/Julia Project.” In all three cases, Martha was virtually unrecognizable. Where was her mincing perfectionism? Ok, perhaps it shone through a bit when properly pronouncing the recipes (in French) from Julia Child’s cookbook, but only after Julie Powell did the same. But with Russell Simmons, the conversation was just eerie. They talked about leadership and Martha’s “inspirational” book. They decided that passion, in whatever form, is what leads to greatness.

I actually agree with that last sentiment but I don’t watch Marthavision for sentimentality—I watch it the way someone watches a volcano. When’s that lava gonna pop? Or has prison cooled her volcano to the core? [Please, no sexual innuendo. Let’s not talk of Martha’s volcano or her core.]

You’d think things would get juicier on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”

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And there are certain nuggets of laughability that make TA:MS slightly Martherrific. Like tonight on the salad dressing episode when, on her video message to the contestants she said: “This lettuce is from my very own garden here in Connecticut.” Martha’s entitlement and the pride she has in her possessions is certainly mocakble. But where’s the rage? Where’s the fire? Where’s the passion she and Russell Simmons were jamming about?

You’d think it would all spill out in the board room, but not so. Martha’s so contained it’s scary. Sure, she does things like switch the teams around or call in the players she thinks are really deserving of dismissal. But here it’s all about manufactured drama. You can virtually hear the producers whispering in her ear: “Do this… choose this one…”

Tonight’s episode was so agitating. This guy Jim is the most irritating person in the history of reality television. He so needed to be voted off it’s not even funny. He sold salad dressing by telling women “it’s good for bunions” and great “to massage your husband.” At one moment, I thought I saw him slap a teammate on the ass. He’s totally obnoxious and yet Martha didn’t fire him. She fired the cute Asian team leader because she couldn’t control Jim. “When you’re in charge,” she instructed, “you’ve got to be the boss. You can’t be bossed around.”

Then she wrote her signature farewell letter (which, as the weeks go on, gets shorter and shorter) to the “fired” contestant and the show was over. When a commercial came on immediately after for the Wishbone salad dressing created on the show (“Romemary Lime Vinaigrette”), I rolled my eyes and turned the TV off.

Martha Stewart became an icon because she was truly passionate about what she did: she wanted everyone to have the “best in class,” not just any spaghetti and meatballs but the best spaghetti and meatballs possible. And that passion, that zeal, made her unusual–she really cared about the things that for most people seemed arbitrary. In that way, she was a lot like her predecessor, Julia Child, who wanted to bring a deeper sense of living to middle class America.

In her quest for the largest reach possible, Martha had to be a very savvy business woman. And it’s that savviness that allowed her to build her billion dollar empire, to make herself a brand name with her visage on buckets of paint at K-Mart. It’s also what led her to jail. But beneath that savvy businesswoman was always a jubilant, curious, creative mind with a real thirst for knowledge and a genuine desire to share that knowledge with the world. It seems that prison has dulled that side of her persona. Maybe prison makes it so the perfect spaghetti and meatballs does, in fact, seem a bit arbitrary.

But then again. On today’s show with Julie Powell, Julie was making Boeuf Bourguignon. After the beef was browned and the pan deglazed with wine and stock, Julie added tomato paste and then some thyme.

“Is that fresh thyme?” asked Martha.

“No,” said Julie. “It’s dried.”

There was a silence. And in that silence, I believe, the old Martha–the one I know and love–blistered through. Come on, Old Martha, don’t be shy. We like your crass perfectionism. Tell Julie that fresh thyme’s the only way. C’mon, Old Martha, we really really miss you. Please, for the sake of the children: bring it on.

Breaking The Fast Early: A Rationalization

It is now 1:45 PM and the last morsel of food I put in my mouth went in last night at approximately 8:43 PM. The Jewish religion asks that I use this most serious holiday (Yom Kippur, for those not in the know) to reflect on the past year and to seek redemption for my sins by not eating food for a whole day. It is now 1:47 PM and my stomach let out a small growl. Perhaps if I itemized my sins I could figure out precisely how much time needs to be devoted to fasting in order to properly atone.

SIN: Gluttony. Specifically: late night churros and many many multi-course meals.

SEVERITY: Well it’s one of the 7 deadlys, but I did go to the gym at least a few times this year.

ATONEMENT TIME: 3 hours.

SIN:Sloppiness. Specifically: leaving messes in the sink to clean up several days later.

SEVERITY: Not very severe. Plus I’ve gotten better: I cleaned my churro mess up right away and also the chicken I made last night pre-fasting.

ATONEMENT TIME: 1 hour.

SIN:Breaking the fast early. Specifically: I am going to break the fast early.

SEVERITY: Well considering my other sins only add up to 4 hours and it’s been 17 hours since I last ate, surely breaking the fast early doesn’t amount to more than 13 hours!

ATONEMENT TIME: 13 hours and 30 minutes.

Nooooo! Well if I walk in this rainy weather to my intended lunch destination it may take 30 minutes. Therefore I will have atoned. Thank you for helping me rationalize breaking my fast early.

Magazine Positioning

Let’s study this magazine shelf at Barnes & Noble for a second, shall we?

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Is this 1950? Who put this together: Rick Santorum?

As you can see it flows from Women’s Interest [which, if one studies the magazines, reveals that women care much about Oprah, dieting, and fashion but not much, apparently, about world politics, sports, camping, literature] into “Family/Children” [naturally, because once a woman finishes browsing “Women’s Interest” she should get down to her real duties as wife and mother] and concludes with “Food/Wine.” If one looks at the Food/Wine shelf you’ll see that the Food/Wine magazines are on the 2nd shelf, the top shelf is reserved for magazines like “Pregnany” and, my personal favorite, “I’m Pregnant.”

I have no doubt marketing experts would say this is most effective. That women like to browse their magazines all at once and that more women than men buy food magazines. Fine. But this system of shelving reinforces stereotypes and gender roles that should be archaic in the 21st century. Food is a necessity and we all eat it. It’s not gendered: men and women need food to survive much the same way. The only thing that’s gendered is our notion that women should prepare the food. And as you all know by reading this website, I’m as manly as it gets (I stage musicals with eggs) and I therefore resent any implications that food and wine are womanly arts. Does anyone else find this offensive? Am I crazy? End rage here.

The Birthday Is Here: 25 Years of Eating

Oh, I remember it like it was yesterday: floating in my amniotic sac, sipping through my giant umbilical straw that delicious pre-natal slurpee. The rich glowing red ambiance and everything free.

And then poof! Birth!

The Early Years: Born To Eat

According to my mother, I used to cry when she stopped feeding me. I would sniffle and make a face like “is it really over?” and then burst into tears. My mother was convinced (and from my baby pictures, justifiably) that I would grow up to be very fat. Little did she know, I would instead become an internet food sensation. Heck, back when I was born there was no internet! We had to walk 40 miles to school every day…

The Late Early Years: Things I Hated / New York

Then, between my early years and my teens, I despised many foods including (but not limited to): tomatoes, olives, and cheese. I was a child of limited palate. My calling was unknown to me then. We lived in Oceanside, New York. Great meals consisted of lobsters at The Yankee Clipper, breakfast at the East Bay Diner, and trips into Manhattan where I would beg my parents to take us to Benihana’s. The height of high cuisine was anywhere that cooked its food on the table. (My brother still suscribes to this theory).

The Man Years: Bar Mitzvah Boy

Now we are in Florida. The food at my Bar Mitzvah was not particularly memorable. I remember the next day there was a “spread” at our house (that’s a very Jewish way of saying buffet with bagels) featuring lox, whitefish salad and other things to “shmere” on your bagel. I thought it strange that my grandfather put whitefish salad on one side of his bagel, nova spread on the other side and sandwiched them together. Turns out this tastes very good. The next day, interestingly enough, I was hospitalized for dehydration.

The Angry Teen Years: Boca

Teenage life in Boca consisted of collecting beepers at the Cheesecake Factory, driving back to my friend Marisa’s house and then returning three hours later. School lunches were packed and prepared by my mother in her idiosyncratic fashion. She would call TooJay’s, the local deli, and have them make three turkey sandwiches (one for me, one for my brother and one for my dad) and then go pick them up. Mine had mustard, tomato and onion. Michael’s had mayonaisse. Dad’s, I believe, were made dry.

The College Years: Freshman 15

Eating through college was less about cuisine, and more about sociability. No one went to the Atlanta Diner because it was good. But on my 20th birthday I armwrestled the waitress, Ebony, and won. My dish there was an omelet with American cheese and onions. Home fries. Cup of coffee. Otherwise, it was Chic-Fil-A at Cox Hall or strange concoctions at the DUC (Dobbs University Center). My senior year, I began my trek into the cooking world by making for my roommates, Alex and Rob, the very difficult to prepare Pilsbury Cinnamon rolls that came in a tube. Unwrapping that tube was difficult.

The Law Years: Present Day

And now it’s more adventure, more thought going into what I eat. Oral personalities, according to my Law and the Unconscious instructor, crave nurture and guidance and think of food like a giant breast for them to suckle on. Since my personality is primarily anal, I can only imagine that this newfound interest in food is a matter of control. Instead of feeling overwhelmed at fancy restaurants, dinner parties thrown by Martha Stewart and in the face of rich cultural experiences like EPCOT’s Moroccan dinner, I will now have the upper hand. Plus I really enjoy writing and thinking about food. Some day I will share my belief that eating (for the faithful) is an act of communion with God and his bounty. (Lowercase bounty, as opposed to the quicker picker upper).

In conclusion, my Pilgrim’s Progress has led me on a rich and exciting path. If you can track the quality of a life by the progression of meals consumed, then I am very excited for my future. Specifically tomorrow night’s 31 course dinner at Blais, report to follow.

Here’s to 25 years of gluttony!

The Corner Bakery: Model Fast Food?

Today I rode the laurels of my celebrity away from school and on to the mall, where I could revel in my splendor—absorbing the awe-struck gazes of passers-by who whispered to one another: “Is that the guy from TV?” “He’s so much cuter in person!”

I made my way up the escalator and turned left towards the warm, welcoming glow of The Corner Bakery.

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The Corner Bakery is nothing new. I remember my first few years in Atlanta, mustering up my friends and saying gleefully: “Let us journey off to the Corner Bakery!” “There’s a bakery on the corner?” “No you fools!” I’d admonish them. “The Corner Bakery! It’s a novel, fast-food concept located in the mall!”

And then this summer I worked at a law firm in Los Angeles. Our first day there, the interns decided to go for lunch to the Corner Bakery. “There’s a bakery on the corner?” I asked. “No you fool!” they admonished. I hung my head in shame.

Here’s why I think the Corner Bakery is a good thing. First of all, it is fast food. “Fast food” is a tainted concept. We think of greasy fries, bitter countergirls, and ketchup that you pump energetically into little paper cups. And yet the Corner Bakery conjures forth notions of authenticity, of fresh ingredients served in a charming atmosphere. No rank smell of grease; the Corner Bakery is clean, efficient, and impressively consistent. Their glass case offers interesting sandwich options—ham on a pretzel roll, chicken pesto, tuna on olive ciabatta—and the salads (ginger chicken, D.C. chicken salad) and soups (roasted tomato basil) are equally compelling.

Today, for example, I had the lunch soup / sandwich combo with a half a chicken pesto and a small cup of the tomato basil soup. Here’s a picture:

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Not only do you get the sandwich and the soup, but you get a generous portion of chips and a pickle. With a drink, the total came to $8. So I acknowledge that that’s expensive for fast food. But maybe there’s a happy medium between the dreck they serve you at McDonald’s and the quality food they serve you at The Corner Bakery. I suppose one answer is Panera bread; or Cafe Au Bon Pain. I’m not a big fan of the former, and I haven’t been to the latter enough to judge.

Surely, though, all these establishments are from the same school of thought: quality ingredients served quickly. I think that this is a good school (despite the principal’s drinking problem) and suggest that it serve as model for the future of fast food. With my vision fulfilled, there will be a Corner Bakery on every corner. I dream of a future where you can say “Let’s go to the Corner Bakery!” and your companions will respond in unison “Let’s!” as you frolic there hand in hand.

Unless your companions have no limbs.