I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
To many, Coolio is the rapper with Pippi Longstocking–esque braids, known for the 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.” To me, however, he will always be the guy who cheated on the Food Network show Chopped.
Chopped is a televised cooking competition in which four professional chefs make appetizers, entrees, and desserts using ingredients from three distinct “mystery baskets,” each designed to throw the chefs off course. Pickled pig’s lips, canned chicken, leftover pizza, and geoduck (no relation to duck) are among the most notorious ingredients.
It’s a competition for type A overachievers, the kind of people who believe they can braise meat in 30 minutes, when most chefs will tell you such speedy meat braising is physically impossible. Special episodes featuring celebrity non-chefs are even more agonizingly impressive: When did two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brandi Chastain learn to cook so well?
Coolio, however, is one of us: the cooking commoners. Lacking the scrupulousness of his fellow competitors, Coolio is relatable, the type of guy who might bring store-bought cookies to a party, claim they’re homemade — and, hell, gluten-free. Coolio is the kind of renegade hero who, when not able to handle the heat, opts to remain in the kitchen and cheat.
The incident takes place in season 19, episode 3, in a celebrity showdown between Coolio, hairy magician Penn Jillette, Wilson Phillips’ Carnie Wilson, and (???) Lou Diamond Phillips.
For the appetizer round, Coolio — donning the official Chopped red chef smock and a baseball cap with two little holes from which his braids are shooting out — decides to use basket ingredients beef tongue, Chinese broccoli, candied citron, and microwaveable chocolate cake to make a funky beef and broccoli. In the final ten seconds of the round, Coolio spots his competitor Wilson squeeze a dash of lemon onto her dish, injecting it with a refreshing spritz of acid. A realization washes over him: He wants in on that shit.
“Three, two, one, zero! Please step away from your dishes,” the host, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy vet Ted Allen, announces. The other competitors celebrate at the finish line, slapping fives and taking swigs of whiskey. Coolio, however, is eyeing a rogue lemon wedge with a mad intensity. In a horny trance, he scans the lemon’s voluptuous curvature up and down, eyes bulging.
“So time’s up,” Coolio narrates in a retrospective voice-over as we watch him consider the slice and give into its lemony wiles. We’re about to see Coolio cheat, and he’s about to walk us through it happening.
“I’m thinking, maybe, they’re not really paying attention,” Coolio explains, referring to the judges. Camera pans to judges, who are definitely paying attention.
“I see a piece of lemon on Carnie’s plate,” he continues. “And I grab it. I kind of put it under my arm, and I start squeezing.”
As the other competitors look on, aghast, Coolio reaches over Carnie to grab her lemon and cradles the citrus wedge in his armpit. He then shifts his weight so his pit hovers directly above his plates of beefy broccoli. A small spurt of yellow liquid emerges from the crevasse. Delicious. Eventually Coolio gives up the ruse, brings the lemon out of hiding, and gives it a few final pumps. After tossing the evidence, he rewards himself with a quick lick of his palm. The tart taste of deception.
“And effectively, I am now cheating,” Coolio concludes. The judges agree. After being narced on by Jillette, Coolio is sent home. The cheating isn’t Coolio’s only blunder; his beef and broccoli also tastes way too much like peanut butter, the judges say.
As he exits the building, Coolio slides on his sunglasses and warns viewers: “Don’t cheat, kids. Cheaters never prosper.” With five years of hindsight, however, Coolio is clearly the winner here. I have no idea who ended up winning the competition that fateful 2014 night, but I will never forget the grotesque yet oddly touching way Coolio manhandled that poor lemon wedge.
By breaking Chopped law, Coolio shed light on the absurdity of its self-serious ethics, as well as of the gravity with which so many of us approach domestic dexterity. For every “domestic goddess” or “kitchen witch,” there is a drooling caveman whose inner monologue screams “ME WANT FOOD!” — someone willing to cut corners, lie, and cheat to get the plate with the infinitesimally bigger portion.
I first felt an affinity with Coolio the morning after watching his act of defiance, while cooking frozen breakfast sausages, suddenly overcome with ravenous impatience. I forked a sizzling torpedo of chicken and sage from the pan and took a bite — hot on the outside, frozen meatsicle on the inside. Not ideal, but also not bad. After checking to ensure the sausages were precooked, I hunched over the stove to pop the remaining culinary experiments into my mouth. Cook for eight to ten minutes, turning regularly, my ass.
Today, as someone who regularly churns out dinners so unappealing Instagram would censor the content, I embrace my inner Coolio. I try to accept my limitations in the kitchen — a space strongly associated with femininity, domesticity, health, discipline, and creativity. And I’ve become living proof you can eat as many semi-frozen sausages as you want and be totally fine.
I think of Coolio often, while scrolling through impossibly enticing meals with one hand and squeezing Trader Joe’s umami paste à la carte into my mouth with the other. I think of him when I serve my unwitting dinner guests a light sprinkling of finger skin, sliced off while mincing garlic and lost somewhere in the mad dash to get food to table. I think of Coolio every time I tell the party I made the pie and its bespoke lattice-woven crust myself, which of course I always do.