Name Your Mania

Emeril at the mall, Smackdown at the Target Center: A hallucination in two acts

The holiday season is traditionally orchestrated in such a way that excitement and panic build slowly toward a December 24 climax. But some have little reverence for tradition. And so it was that on a single day Twin Citians confronted the harmonic convergence between the celebrity brawlers of the World Wrestling Federation and Food TV superchef Emeril Lagasse.

There is little demographic intersection between the gaggle of gourmands who pack the Mall of America's Sears rotunda on this Tuesday afternoon and the lot who are simultaneously preparing to bear witness at tonight's Smackdown at the Target Center. A vast majority of the Emeril fans are female, over 40, and (no doubt) proud owners of minivans and everything on Oprah's book-club list. WWF events, on the other hand, tend to lure young men partial to Kid Rock and breast implants. At least half of those in attendance at tonight's televised WWF event carry homemade posters bearing the names of their favorite wrestlers, or witticisms along the lines of "Mustache Rides 25 cents."

By contrast, among the 700 or 800 fans in line at the mall, I am unable to locate a single one who has brought a token of affection for Emeril Lagasse. Most fidget anxiously, impatient for the chance to bestow upon the Fall River, Massachusetts, icon their profoundest gratitude and best wishes. Kevin, a senior at Eden Prairie High, confesses quietly that it was actually his mother who showed up at noon to wait for the wristband that would guarantee him a place in a line filled with middle-aged women and a signature on his brand-new Emeril cookbook. "He's a neat guy, and he makes cooking interesting to watch," says Kevin of the guest of honor. ("He is the biggest Emeril fan ever!" reveals Kevin's girlfriend. "Go, on. Tell her how much you loooooove Emeril--he will not stop talking about how great Emeril is.")

PHOTO: TEDDY MAKI/MANIPULATION: THE PHANTOM
PHOTO: TEDDY MAKI/MANIPULATION: THE PHANTOM

Fanaticism means nothing until you've seen several thousand men, lumpy heads shaved in emulation of the Rock, howl and hoot after every passage of the national anthem. (Granted, it's being sung by one of the WWF Divas, a young woman who resembles a plastic surgeon's practice dummy with a bad weave.) When an earsplitting pyrotechnic display signals the commencement of the Smackdown taping, every Target Center seat is simultaneously vacated, as fans leap to their feet and let out a collective scream louder than the fireworks.

Pulled to my feet by one of those laws of physics I could never understand, I see actual tears in the eyes of grown men. My own tears are soon to follow--when I glimpse two businesswomen in power suits and fur coats rushing to their near-ringside seats, clutching greasy nachos and holding foam fingers aloft. When the popular "intergender" contender Lita enters the ring accompanied by tag-team faves the Hardy Boyz, my retinas are seared by the simultaneous flash of hundreds of point-and-shoots, capturing images of the fantasy woman for future use.

Meanwhile, back at the mall, security is remarkably light, especially considering the number of impatient skinflints who've forgone book purchases and lines in favor of leaning over a second-floor railing to catch a glimpse of their idol below. Them and one older woman, who arrived too late to get a wristband and show Emeril her homemade "Kick It Up a Notch" T-shirt, and now gazes down forlornly at her hero. When two girls in their early twenties wave frantically and holler, "Hey, Emeril! You rock!" the guest of honor smiles beneficently up from the book he's signing and waves politely. At this, some are emboldened to take advantage, taunting the patiently grinning chef and his attendant zydeco band.

The last lucky few at the end of the line bravely stave off boredom. Trish, a mom of two from the south suburbs, is willing to wait as long as it takes. "Before Emeril I hated cooking," she tells me. "It was Hamburger Helper all the way." Now Trish is enrolled in the culinary-arts program at a local technical college and ready to thank the man who turned her life around. "You know how Emeril says, 'This ain't rocket science'? That's the motto now in my kitchen," she imparts, beaming.

WWF commissioner Mick Foley calls upon the six superstars who will participate in the upcoming pay-per-view extravaganza Armageddon: Hell in a Cell--the Undertaker, Rikishi, Triple H, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, and, yes, the Rock. Each star works the crowd in turn, eliciting a barrage of screamed catchphrases. A mom with Martha Stewart hair and a Fair Isle cardigan dangles her young son out over the writhing mob, trembling at the sight of the Rock in the greased-up flesh. When Angle denies having cheated in a previous match ("I am not the Minnesota Timberwolves of the WWF!"), a spectator in Dockers throws a tantrum. "I hate you, Kurt Angle!" he yells tearfully. At this I am nearly run over by a group of swaggering preteens swathed in Stone Cold memorabilia, eyes glazed, breathing shallow.

The faux physical violence, coupled with the real-life emotional reaction, is a hypnotic combination. For thousands of Minnesotans--Edina epicures and New Prague Neanderthals alike--Christmas promises to be an anticlimax.

 
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