Tag Archives: Alton Brown

Dear Alton Brown, Thank You.

I’ve never been one to become so passionate about television shows, books, music, films, or people that I considered myself a “fan”. There are things I like and enjoy, and will gladly recommend to others, but that’s about the extent of my passion. I appreciate, I don’t obsess.

All of this is my way of laying the groundwork for the news that Alton Brown is wrapping up Good Eats, a food show that did for nerds and geeks over the past ten plus years what The French Chef did for housewives in the 60′s and 70′s.

Yes, I just compared Alton Brown with Julia Child. In fact, I would say that Alton Brown was the next logical progression after Julia Child. For if Julia took the mystique out of good food , and showed us the joy behind it (using the medium of French cuisine) , it was Alton Brown who deconstructed the act of cooking even further, and showed us the science behind it. What both Julia and Alton have in common is that they deconstructed the myths behind the food. Meals aren’t rare and exotic when put in context, and both Child and Brown worked at teaching us exactly this fact.

While the past fifteen years or so of food shows have been hell-bent on selling us a lifestyle, what Alton Brown’s show did was teach. The result of this tactic was tacit understanding that cooking works best with an understanding of some basic scientific principles, and you didn’t need special equipment or make above a certain salary in order to get it. You didn’t need to be a housewife from Connecticut or a grizzled chef with an attitude in order to make good food. Good Eats showed us that if you could understand ninth grade science, you could make a great meal.

The show was more than that, however, for the genius of the show was delivering this message with goofy, juvenile humor. Yes, he approached food like a ninth grade science teacher with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, silly puns, outlandish and exaggerated characters, and even puppets. That was the show’s charm, strength, and, admittedly at times, weakness. But as any good teacher will tell you, if you want to deliver your message effectively, you have to be part entertainer. By choosing the goofy approach, the subtext was this: Cooking is so simple, so non-serious, that a pre-teenager could appreciate it. As a teaching and marketing device, it was devious and effective, as evidenced by the thirteen year run of the show. How successful was Good Eats? Consider this: Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, and Sara Moulton all have had their shows canceled by the Food Network. Alton Brown ended his show on his own terms. That is a rare event, and one that should be recognized.

Alton? As a fan, let me say the following: Thank you. Thank you for inspiring me, thank you for making cooking accessible, and thank you for keeping us entertained. You’ve done something special and rare in food media. You’ve influenced others by making the kitchen understandable to millions of people.

You deserve both recognition for this, and a long, overdue, break.

The Food Network and its True Purpose

Meeting new people is a chore for me. It’s not that I don’t wish to create new friendships and develop social networks; it’s that I’m so bad at it.

I make this admission, not only to provide you a bit of insight into my own psyche, but to explain why I don’t talk about the Food Network all that much on this site.

At the times when I do find myself at social events, I’ve found myself introduced as a “food blogger”, which is only interesting to about 1 tenth of one percent of the people to whom I’ve been introduced . In discussing food blogging, most people gravitate to the word “food” and inevitably ask the following question:

“So, do you watch the Food Network?”

I answer honestly – I don’t.

Cue awkward silence, as the only knot that tied together our conversation has been slowly unraveled. I then imagine my talking partner thinking “what kind of food expert doesn’t watch the Food Network” whilst at the same time my thought go something along the lines of  ”Doesn’t this person know that the Food Network is more about promoting an unattainable lifestyle than it is about promoting food?”

The conversation then dies a lonely death and each of us goes our separate way.

I blame the Food Network for all of this.

It’s not that I dislike the network. Truth be told, I rarely put forth any time even thinking about the channel. I like Alton Brown well enough, and I had a healthy respect for Sara Moulton, David Rosengarten and even Mario Batali. It wasn’t that they were necessarily entertaining (although most were). Rather, it was because after watching them, I felt as if I learned something. Whether it was learning the molecular composition of honey, or that it’s okay to serve beer with an alarming amount of “gourmet” dishes, I often felt enriched at the end of each respective program..

Once that feeling started going away, the less interested I became in the Food Network. If you followed the history of the network, you can probably figure out when that happened. Bill Buford knows about the Food Network, and spells it out quite plainly in his most recent New Yorker article about the Food Network:

(Judy) Girard became president in 2001. When I met her, the following year, she was fifty-six, with blond hair, a slight build, an easy manner, and nothing to hide; frank but not theatrical, calm to the point of seeming tranquillized, no flash or fast-talking speech about “a vision thing,” which I now suspect was because her job had been so simply defined: make the bottom line work. She wasn’t interested in James Beard Awards or good reviews; the only press that mattered was in the financial pages, because her allegiance was unwaveringly to “her community” -the investors.

It was roughly that time that I started to notice changes in the shows I saw. I was no longer being talked to, I was being talked at. Soft lighting started showing up, as well bagged vegetables and pre-made sauces. The food became sanitized, and the Martha Stewart lifestyle became the focus. The network was no longer about making good food and understanding it, it became about using food to impress other people. Whether it was getting a meal out in 30 minutes, or making the perfect thanksgiving feast, the shows seemed to sell the idea of “having” food knowledge, without actually having any.

Even Buford noted the sanitization:

I found myself taking stock not of what I’d seen during the preceding seventy-two hours but of what I hadn’t. I couldn’t recall very many potatoes with dirt on them, or beets with ragged greens, or carrots with soil in their creases, or pieces of meat remotely reminiscent of the animals they were butchered from – hardly anything, it seemed, from the planet Earth. There were hamburgers and bacon, but scarcely any other red animal tissue except skirt steak, probably, it occurs to me now, because of its two unique qualities: its texture and its name.

Food is not sanitized. Food can be dirty and bloody.

And more to the point, unsanitized, dirty and bloody food does not make for good television.

Let’s get straight to the issue here – the majority of American television networks are not designed with entertaining, education, or providing news reports. They are designed to make money. If the Food Network couldn’t make money through providing “food education” they had to find another way to do so. There’s nothing wrong with that. My own preference was for the former and when they moved away from it, I moved away from them.

I do give the Food Network kudos for at least keeping food in the national discourse. But just as one cannot understand the intricacies and nuances television or movies by reading Entertainment Weekly, one cannot understand the intricacies and nuances of food by watching the Food Network.

Technorati Tags: Bill Buford, Food Network

Jeffrey Steingarten

Full disclosure: I like Jeffrey Steingarten‘s writing a great amount. I think his approaches for articles and essays should be the envy of the food writing community. I think it’s also safe to say that he has a very clean palate. The man taste tested water for cryin’ out loud (and was the inspiration behind this post).

However, apparently he is also a bit of an ass. According to blogger Dan Dickinson, Steingarten went off on Alton Brown, Mario Batali, and especially Giada De Laurentiis at a recent panel discussion called “How to Cook for Television” (a panel discussion which included, oddly enough, Alton Brown, Mario Batali, and Giada De Laurentiis). As Dan noted:

Soon after the event started, it became immediately obvious that this was going to be different. Steingarten was, to put it nicely, off-topic. To put it poorly, he was a rude, obnoxious asshole.

Harsh words.

From the sounds of it, Steigarten doesn’t like the path Food Network is going down. While I share some of that opinion, there’s a time and place to address it. When your moderating a panel discussion celebrating the core function of the Food Network, it’s probably not the best time.

Alton Brown and Food Blogs

Alice of margaritas and mad hatters went off to the Elliot Bay Book Company on Sunday in order to see Alton Brown (of Good Eats Fame). He’s been on a national tour to tout his new book I’m Just Here for More Food. If you’ve never been part of a book tour, especially Cook Book book Tours, there’s a book signing which gives you a chance to ask a question or two.

Alice took advantage of that:

I asked him if he was going to have time this year to update his weblog more often.

His response?

He said that the weblog had seemed like a good idea, but once it got started, he realized, what more could he really say in it, and does the Internet really need another food weblog anyway? There are so many food blogs out there, just going blah blah blah.

Okay, I admit I’m going to get a bit defensive here, but truth be told, Alton’s weblog was never really a food blog per se. I would say that it was more of celebrity blog of a person who has Television show about food.

The “blah blah blah” comment? I actually agree with him on that point. There are some pretty horrid food blogs out there, just as there are some pretty horrid political blogs, personal blogs, movie blogs, etc, etc. Conversely, there are a fair amount of wonderful food blogs out there. As with any medium, quality can be judged almost on a bell curve. The amount of exceptional usually equals the amount of horrid, with everyone else sort of falling in between.

However, I think Alton misses the point just exactly what food blogs can do. You can give links on the current news of food industry. You can write essays about how food affected your life. You can create a repository of recipes for others to refer to in the future. Alton’s site rarely, if ever, did any of those.

Is all of this “blah, blah, blah”? *shrug*. I don’t think so. I do know that I’ll miss Alton’s voice in the blog-universe, whether or not his site is a food blog or not.

Tomatoes: Corporate Farming Victim?

If ever you want to see what happens to food when corporate entities take over its mass production for mass consumption, one need not look further than the red fruit that most people mistake for a vegetable.

Those in the food industry generally know that tomatoes are a questionable lot. What we’re purchasing now in the produce section of our (American) grocery stores is a far, far cry from the tomatoes of our youth. I can recall tomatoes sitting on our window-sills, green in color. We waited patiently over the course of one to three days until my mother deemed them ripe. And then we’d make sauce, or have tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, or simply sliced them up and eat them with a spoonful of sugar on top.

I remember my neighbor, Mr. Ghiaccartti, paying me in tomatoes from his garden for the simple task of walking his dog.

These tomatoes had taste. It didn’t matter if they were perfectly round, or carried an almost cartoonish red color. They were fresh, they were sometimes ugly, they were sometimes yellow or orange, and they were far better than the stuff that we’re forced to swallow today.

So what went wrong?

It seems that I wasn’t the only one who liked tomatoes. There was a huge demand for the fruit, not only in season, but in off season as well. So the corporate farms and scientists looked for ways to make the tomato available year round. Ethylene ripening certainly played a part. Commercial food growers, immediately after picking, stack the tomatoes on pallets in a large room, and for the next three days, ethylene is piped in. The ethylene triggers the creation of enzymes, which break down cell walls and turn starches into sugar. The tomatoes begin softening and turning red. The problem with all for this is that unripe tomatoes are often structurally unstable internally. When one cuts into a tomato and all the viscous juice falls out, this viscous juice was taste potential – parts of the tomato that, if left on the vine, would have become solid and added more sugar to the fruit.

Other problems?

- Growers pick tomatoes, not based on taste, but on structural stability during packing and shipping. And often those tomatoes which ship easier, don’t have the same taste as those which bruise easily.

- They are packed chilled, often below 55 degrees F. A tomato produces a flavor enzyme as it ripens. As soon as the temperature goes below 55 degrees, the enzyme stops producing flavor — permanently. And yet tomatoes are often shipped at 37 degrees.

So what the major problem with tomatoes is that they are picked, packaged and shipped before the tomato has been given the opportunity to reach it’s full taste potential.

Think this isn’t a problem? Consider the fact that in an episode of “Good Eats”, Alton Brown recommended using canned tomatoes when making tomato sauce. Why? Because the tomatoes picked for canning *have* been allowed to reach their full taste potential.

How silly has this looks vs taste argument gotten? Procacci, Gargiulo, Santa Sweets have combined to develop what they call an “UglyRipe”â„¢ tomato. This tomato is open-pollinated and has been preserved and kept true to its purest form. They’re not hybrid tomatoes which are grown for commercial purposes ( which tend to lose both flavor and color after several generations of breeding).

From all reports, the tomatoes taste marvelous. And over the past few years, it has been exempt from various Florida Marketing rules as they were an experimental crop (They are grown in Florida). But then the committee cracked down. Two winters ago, the Florida Tomato Committee ordered UglyRipe to comply with their rules, forcing the Uglyripe producers to discard 40,000 pounds a day. The reason the Florida Tomato Committee demanded that they stop producing these tomatoes?

The Uglyripe tomatoes are too ugly.

The Florida Tomato Committee panel made up of major growers in the state’s $500 million tomato industry, ruled that the UglyRipe could not be sold outside Florida because it did not meet the standards of perfection the marketing rule required.

And this is where we are today. We have arrived to a point where a tomato has been created with taste in mind, can be quelled by an over zealous marketing board. All evidence indicates that the marketplace would have supported this tomato, but because it didn’t look perfect, its future is in doubt. Do we really want to have a marketplace where regulatory agencies discourage innovation in taste?

Many thanks to Metafilter for the inspiration for this post.

Alton Brown’s Hot Cocoa

I researched and made this for Tara. I’ve made this before and it’s quite good. It’s directly from Alton Brown’s Good Eats program. As he recommended, and I wholeheartedly agree, cayenne pepper makes this recipe hum.

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup cocoa (Dutch-process preferred)
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper, or more to taste
  • Hot water

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and incorporate evenly. In a small pot, heat 4 to 6 cups of water. Fill your mug half full with the mixture and pour in hot water. Stir to combine. Seal the rest in an airtight container, keeps indefinitely in the pantry. This also works great with warm milk.