Poets Watching TV: Binging with Babish's Andrew Rea Knows Imitation Is Not the Sincerest Form of Flattery
The star of the popular YouTube cooking show recreates dishes found on film, in video games, and on TV. But once his experiment in imitation is over, he moves on to something much more artful.
We really love the old adage which tells us that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But don’t forget the critical, biting back end of that same quote, bequeathed to us by the great Oscar Wilde:
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”
It seems that Andrew Rea of YouTube fame senses this, and has broken free from the confines of his infinitely watchable recipe recreation gimmick to brand cookware, lifestyle content, and lift up other food media types. But his movement from imitation to innovation even within the space of a brief 5-to-10-minute video can teach us all something about the benefits and limitations of imitation when it comes to creative work.
Recreation & Imitation
I admire the hell out of Rea. Otherwise known as “Oliver Babish” of the as-of-now 9-million-subscriber-strong Binging with Babish series (part of what’s known as the Babish Culinary Universe) is a chef and YouTuber who finds dishes prepared on TV, in film, and in video games and attempts to make them in real life.
Most videos start with a brief clip from the piece of pop culture in question: a snippet from 30 Rock, a clip from Big Night, or a screengrabbed video from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The clip shows the on-screen food in its natural habitat. Then, Babish (yeah, I’m gonna keep calling him that throughout) gets to work preparing and cooking the dish in question to the best of his ability while filming himself from the torso down. All the while he narrates the choices he decided to make, the techniques he’s using, and how well he thinks he’s doing in a likable baritone filled with jokes and self-deprecation.
Sometimes Babish tries things multiple times in pursuit of his ideal or to correct mistakes. He also often displays unsuccessful or store-bought versions of food items to highlight where they fall short. Rather than editing out his missteps or focusing solely on positive examples of the items he’s making, he gives us the whole, messy enchilada of creativity tied together with crisp 4K video, light background music, and calming narration that lets you know you’re in good hands.
These principles are all very, very good, and very worth emulating when we think about creativity and writing:
Try things. Experiment. Play.
Don’t be afraid to re-do the same thing multiple times.
Sometimes bad examples are as helpful as good ones.
Babish loves a challenge but does have some rules for himself. Seinfeld and other live-action shows and films are more straightforward, and their dishes tend to be some variation of already-understood food items. But when Babish turns his eye to animated shows and movies, things get even more interesting, as in his Meat-ghetti and Spag-balls episode based on the gross dish from the adult animated series American Dad.
Babish has a “no fantasy” rule: he won’t attempt to make food that has no real-life counterpart whatsoever (think lembas bread, a Lord of the Rings invention that fills your stomach with a single bite) that he’s discussed in the videos and in AMAs. But his commitment to creativity runs deep, and he sometimes breaks this rule to bring even the most ludicrous creations to life, like the Broodwich from Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Overall, the look of his pop culture recreations is excellent. Though viewers are left to imagine what it’s like to eat them, Babish tastes each dish at some point during the episode and isn’t afraid to let you know when his dish turned out gross. After the taste test, sometimes things get even more interesting.
Moving Beyond Imitation
Often, the mere recreation of a food item found in pop culture isn’t enough for Babish. In these cases, his curiosity, creativity, and pursuit of deliciousness push him to try the dish in a new way, improve it, or simply make something that he’d personally prefer to eat.
If anything, it’s these improved or inspired dishes that pay homage to their pop-culture counterparts the best.
The infamous Orange Mocha Frappuccino from Zoolander gets this treatment. Around 2:38 in the video below, Babish moves from disappointment to inspiration by improving the component parts of the bizarre concoction. Kind of makes me want to listen to George Michael…
If anything, it’s these improved or inspired dishes that pay homage to their pop-culture counterparts the best. When creative people move from mere imitation into something inspired by another creative work, they fuse the sensibilities of multiple minds and aesthetics in unexpected and brilliant ways.
This is the good stuff. Turns out, the sincerest form of flattery is to admit the source of your inspiration then run with it in your own unique way.
Even the Ancient Greeks knew the value of imitation as a learning tool, but we sometimes rely too heavily upon it in modern learning contexts. I know I’m a broken record about how incredible this book is, but read what Felicia Rose Chavez had to say about the dangers of pure imitation in her paradigm-altering The Antiracist Writing Workshop:
The best way to learn how to write is through imitation. Workshop leaders love to repeat this refrain. And I get it—reading is essential to a writer’s sensibility—but when imitation is applied as a workshop strategy, it’s uninspired busywork at best; at worst, it morphs into a problematic power play.
Wielding absolute authority, traditional workshop leaders select and assign white authors for student study… Read this text, absorb it—the topic, structure, style, voice—and then copy it. Prove your literacy by climbing inside the master’s mouth and parroting whiteness.
Watching Babish break out of his imitative mode and move into innovation is powerful and pleasurable.
One surefire way to prevent the potential evils of imitation is to make sure that you’re asking yourself and young creatives that you might be teaching or in charge of what kind of art they want to make rather than offering them endless examples to imitate.
How can poets, writers, and other non-chef creative types make use of Babish’s techniques for themselves? I thought you’d never ask.
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Writing Prompts: Get Creative Like Babish
These writing prompts will help you interact with a piece of writing that you admire using different shades of homage and imitation.
Make a copy. Find a piece of writing that inspires you and rewrite the piece in your own handwriting in order to understand it better. Trust me on this: there’s something to be said for retracing the steps of someone you admire. And the science of handwriting has proven that it lights up our brains like Christmas trees in ways that typing simply doesn’t.
Imitate. A step up from mere copying, imitation injects a bit of your own sensibility into a piece that’s based on something you admire. Take a poem (or any piece of writing) and study it. What is its tone? The length of its lines and sentences? What about its images and overall mood? Try to write something very similar to the piece you’re working with without copying its actual language. What happens?
Get inspired. Try to write something reminiscent of the piece you’ve studied without actually copying its language. You might even borrow the first word or sentence or any word or sentence in the original piece. Ease those training wheels off slowly. As I often say to my students, try to write “away” from your subject, away from where you started. But feel free to start there, even momentarily.
Innovate. While you’re still under the spell of the piece of writing you’ve been working with, try to write something new. Write whatever the hell you want. Instead of borrowing actual text, try to think about the core of what you admire in the piece of writing you began with and write obliquely about that. Go anywhere.
A Note on the P-Word
When you’re dealing with imitation, the black-hearted among us may be tempted to try to pass off the work of others as our own work. This might take the form of plagiarism, incomplete citation of sources, or just a generally crappy failure to admit when something’s inspired you or when you’ve adapted something.
In brief: don’t do this. Don’t be a jerk.
Babish always tells us the source of his inspiration, and writers do this in epigraphs, endnotes, and more. Covering up the things that have informed your aesthetic to make it seem like you’re a self-made genius is lame.
Real creativity and real freedom is a mutually informing process that should involve lifting up the work of those who inspire you rather than attempting to pass it off as your own.
The late great Michael K. Williams had a soft spot for poetry.
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Have a favorite show or web series that stokes your creative fire? Drop it in the comments and you might just see it pop up on a future installment of Poets Watching TV.