Opinion: The bad, the worse and the ugly

A painfully unappealing, unemployed woman in her late 30s with sumo wrestler thighs who wears 10-inch heels and a micro skirt to push around a pink stroller in which she carries her pair of Chihuahuas; a less unattractive, also unemployed woman in her late 30s who wears 10-inch heels and sequined tops to (I’m not kidding) target practice; a short, fat,  bald real-estate developer who builds cheap houses and expects to sell them in the instant for millions of dollars; a gay real-estate broker with a thick black mustache who touts the extraordinary vigor of his “Persian” male organ; a (we presume) heterosexual (what else?) real estate broker with gelled hair, swollen biceps and a nose job badly in need of a nose job.

The sumo girl insists in every scene that she “refuses” to get married, though evidence of any prospects is entirely absent; the gunslinger shares with the camera her hatred of “ants and ugly people,” and HGH (human growth hormone) man sprays cologne inside his shorts and tells tall tales about how he used to be a millionaire.

That, ladies and gentlemen, about sums up the first episode of the much-dreaded “Shahs of Sunset,” purportedly about Los Angeles’ Iranian-American community, due to premiere March 11 on Bravo. To say that it’s “Bad” would be a redundancy, given that it’s a so-called “reality show.” These days, even the most trusting television viewer knows there’s nothing “real” about reality TV. As Time magazine put it six years ago, “Quotes are manufactured, crushes and feuds constructed out of whole cloth, episodes planned in multi-act ‘storyboards’ before taping, scenes stitched together out of footage shot days apart.”

Everything — from the characters’ wardrobes, to their speech, to their relationships, and even their homes and cars and purported millions — is dreamed up by “story editors” (read underpaid, non-unionized writers) and show producers. Reality television is just a more cheaply made, hastily manufactured and badly acted soap opera. It’s meant to appeal to the audience’s basest instincts — racism, voyeurism, willingness to suspend intelligent thinking — and to remind its critics that viewers get what they deserve. If it’s possible to lower that bar, this show surely does it.

The “Worse,” in the case of “The Shahs,” is that the producers have gone out of their way to put together a cast of unattractive, unsophisticated, unproductive and — you’re going to have to believe me on this — most unrepresentative-of-the original characters possible. It’s true that this is one program, and therefore just one creator’s point of view, and that no single creation can be fairly expected to reflect the entirety of a community that, like any other, is varied and complex and multidimensional. But it’s also true that this is the first mainstream production about Iranians in Los Angeles; for it to succeed, viewers would have to believe that it’s a close-enough rendition of the lives of average Iranians. And it consists entirely of every negative stereotype floating around this city about the community. All the women here are vain, stupid and spoiled; all the men are vain, stupid and spoiled. To see these characters, one would never imagine that an Iranian could engage in any profession other than selling real estate, or speak about anything other than looks, money and sex. We all go around wearing a floor-length, black and gold lamé dress with long sleeves and ruffles on a Saturday morning when we’re just kicking back in our tiny apartment; we travel to a friend’s pool party with our wardrobe consultant, hair dresser and makeup artist in tow; we gouge the eyes out of anyone who dares suggest that we shop at H&M; and when our mother calls us at work, we interrupt a meeting, put her on speaker phone and let everyone in the room listen in on our conversation about Shabbat dinner.

As for the “Ugly”…

I’ve thought long and hard about this — whether I’m so reproving of the show because it displays a truth I do not like to see, or because it makes our younger generation feel embarrassed about their parents’ community and cultural background. Our children know, as well as anyone, that there’s a great deal of antipathy on the part of non-Iranians in Los Angeles toward the rest of us, that the entire community is often blamed for the mistakes of one, that our accomplishments and contributions are frequently overlooked and our shortcomings amplified and exaggerated. Portrayals such as the one in this show will only exacerbate such tensions.

But what offends me so much about “The Shahs” is not that it reflects a reality that may be difficult to acknowledge; it’s that it makes such an obvious effort to cast its characters in the worst possible light. Granted, these actors might not have needed much persuading; we all know that some people will do anything, even humiliate themselves, just to be on television. Then again, this may be understandable, or at least forgivable, in someone with little education and no other means of making a living or finding self-worth. In people who have been given every kind of opportunity, including, as all these characters assert, a Beverly Hills High School education, a warm and supportive community, and parents and grandparents who have moved mountains, escaped war and disease and revolution, given up their ancestral home and reinvented themselves and their lives so that children can make something worthwhile of themselves — in these people, such abdication of grace and elegance is, I’m afraid, plain old ugly.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Abel Salgado Keeps the Challah Coming

Forty years after he first put on a white apron, Abel Salgado remains an anomaly in the Jewish bakery world, but not for reasons one might expect. Sure, when he joined Local 453 of the Hebrew Master Bakers and Confectioners Union in 1963, the Chihuahua native was maybe the second or third Latino ever to join the union, then 2,000 strong. And even today, Salgado is one of the few non-Jews involved in the Jewish bakery business, a profession that occupies a particularly sacred — not to mention delicious — place in the religion. But, Salgado noted, ethnicity and theology were the least controversial issues when he originally applied to join the union.

"Most of the other members couldn’t stand that I was so young," reminisces the Mexican Mormon, with a cement-mixer laugh that jiggles his friendly jowls. "Most of the bakers in the union were older men from the mother countries — Germany, Russia, Poland — and would give me the cold treatment at meetings, since you had to be 18 at the time to join the union, and I joined at 17."

He quickly won over skeptics the same way he persuaded the union president to let a young Latino join the big-fisted union — baking the best damn challah bread in the Southland, loaves so wondrously plump no one could deny him acceptance.

"After a couple of years," Salgado boasted, "I was considered one of the tribe."

But the baker nevertheless remains a curiosity in his job, now for more disturbing reasons. Salgado is one of the Southland’s last makers of Jewish pastries, a quickly disappearing craft that Salgado freely admits will probably perish within the next generation or two. The AFL-CIO swallowed HMBC No. 453 years ago, and union bakers are as rare as communists.

Salgado is a large, tubby gentleman who keeps his ink-black mustache impeccably groomed and possesses gnarled hands marked with ancient burns — the man looks as if he emerged from the womb wearing a flour-dusted apron. He moved to Irvine in 1987, retiring after two decades of owning and operating Jewish bakeries around Los Angeles’ Fairfax district. But the allure of dough — and a community of 60,000 Orange County Jews forced to visit Los Angeles for their weekly bread needs — convinced Salgado to come out of retirement and open Abel’s Bakery in 1997.

Although he hadn’t baked anything in almost a decade, Salgado began preparing the meticulously presented Jewish baked goods again as if he’d been away for the weekend.

"If you’re a master baker, it’s not something you forget," said Salgado, who pronounces words like mandelbrot and challah with the Yiddish comfort of a rabbi. "You just pick up where you started. And I know everything there is to know about Jewish pastries."

He’s not kidding — in addition to loyal and walk-in customers, Salgado maintains lucrative ties with local synagogues and Jewish organizations for their unleavened needs.

The doors of Abel’s Bakery are always swung open, the better to allow the shop’s sweet scents to entice gourmands. A large tray holds made-every-morning plain, pumpernickel and seeded rye bread, their slightly dull crusts encasing soft but firm loaves. Trays buckle with rugala, small cookies moist with chocolate chips and the holy hamantashen, a fruity triangle-shaped turnover sold by the thousands during the festival of Purim and by the hundreds the rest of the year. Abel’s even sells pan dulces the size of footballs — Salgado originally hired other Mexican bakers to bake them since he didn’t know how.

But the biggest seller — and Salgado’s finest creation — remains that beautiful challah, prominently displayed behind the main counter and as imposing as a toolbox. Jewish families line up en masse outside Abel’s every Friday to order their challah loaves in preparation for Shabbat dinner, in which challah plays the lead role. The challah possesses a full, thick body and the slightest hint of egg. It’s best for French toast, but it’s good for sandwiches, too.

Salgado is so proud of his challah that he frequently puts on the following show: he’ll get a slice of challah, suddenly crush it as if it were worthless paper and place it on the counter. Rather than remain a crumbled bread ball, the challah slowly springs back to life like a flower blooming on high speed, with nary a crumb to suggest any abuse.

"See that?" Salgado said. "Let’s see Weber’s do that."

Abel’s Bakery, located at 24601 Raymond Way, No. 7, Lake Forest, is open Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call (949) 699-0930.