The Boyfriend of the Week

Alton Brown

January 25, 2011 [comment on this write-up]

A hundred or so years ago (give or take 91), I got really into cooking for a time. Nothing made me happier than coming home from a long day at work and spending a few hours in the kitchen chopping, mixing, basting, stirring, roasting, whatevering. I loved the shopping, I loved the prep, I loved eating whatever I made. I liked to experiment, even though I was rarely successful with it, and I read cookbooks like they were novels (except for the part where I liked them best with lots of pictures).

I was totally and completely infected with the foodie bug (which is kind of like salmonella, only not as barfy).

Then a couple of years in, things changed. I went on a medication that made me lose my appetite, for one thing, and stopped finding food all that interesting. It became a chore to eat, instead of a pleasure. I remember once telling a friend I wished Soylent Green were real, because eating a green tablet a few times a day seemed vastly more appealing than having to pay attention to nutritional needs.

That's pretty pathetic really. That was a low point. Not the least because SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE. My god, I'm a terrible person.

Over the following decade or so, I got my appetite back, lost it again, got it back, lost it, up and down, in and out, change and flux. But I never got back into cooking. Lucky for me, right about the time I was throwing in the (kitchen) towel, my husband was picking it up. It quickly became evident not only that he loved to cook, but that he was also infinitely more talented at it than I was.

Though I could follow recipes and all that jazz, I never really became what I'd consider "a good cook." I've always been a great baker, on the other hand, a difference I attribute to my theory that cooking is an art and baking is a science. I understand the science of baking, which involves pH, organic chemistry, math, and physics. But I've never been good at playing food by ear (tongue), which is what, in my opinion, truly makes for an artful cook. My husband uses recipes as guides, and invariably improves them by relying on his own sense of flavors and textures. I use recipes as lab books: the goal is to repeat the experiment over and over without a change in result. Measure twice, bake once (unless making biscotti, that is, in which case: measure twice, bake twice).

Because I'm not generally all that interested in food, I rarely sit down and watch the Food Network. Sure, I've seen an episode here and there of Emeril (BAM!) and Iron Chef (Bat-tle SQUID!), and I've enjoyed them, more for the theatrics than the cuisine. But I've never watched anything on TFN regularly.

Until about three months ago, when I noticed my husband had started DVRing a series called Good Eats. Intrigued (and bored -- mostly bored), I clicked on an episode one night and began to watch. I wasn't expecting much; cooking shows tend to be roughly all the same to me. And so you can but imagine my surprise, followed shortly by my swoony glee, when I realized what I was watching was a show about the science of cooking, hosted by this week's Boyfriend Alton Brown, a total nerd who even looks like a total nerd: glasses, pale, balding, and absolutely GIDDY about the chemistry and physics of the kitchen.

I was completely head-over-heels by the first commercial break.

In the twelve or so weeks since that initiation into the world of kitchen geekery, I've become no more interested in cooking that before. But damn, have I ever learned a lot of really interesting stuff. And what's more, Alton Brown makes me laugh. All the time! He's such an adorable goofus, I can hardly stand it!

Good Eats is fun to watch not just because of the edumacational elements, though. I also love the kooky way it's put together, using canted angles and cameras that put you right inside Alton's (extremely tidy) cupboards, fridge, and oven. He often dresses up in dorky costumes, completely shamelessly (I love the G-Men that show up whenever he talks about the FDA, for example), and how can you not love a man who, when trying to press the point that peas are delicious, dresses up like Father Merrin and makes an Exorcist joke? (Even better, the episode I caught a few weeks back in which Alton asked his staff, "You know what floats?" and they answered, "Very small rocks?" and "Witches?" Oh, hallelujah, they're Monty Python fans! I'd like to marry them all. Immediately.)

But, of course, the educational parts are tops. I love to learn, especially about the origins of things I find weird (cheese, for example -- cheese is really, really weird), and I love to think about the ways things work. This show is absolutely made for people like that. Like me. And like, I already know, a whole lot of you.

Here are just a few of the fascinating things I have learned from Good Eats in my short time as a viewer:

1. Salt makes food taste sweeter because salt ions block the channels in the tongue that detect bitterness. So, if you find grapefruit bitter, Alton says, don't put sugar on it, put salt on it instead. Being me, I quickly extrapolated this to solve another age-old and far more pertinent question: why do people always lick salt off their wrists before downing a shot of tequila? Oh! THAT'S why. *lick, slurp* Mmmm! Alton's even got a whole web site about salt, which he says is his favorite spice: Salt 101. This, I dig.

2. There are really a LOT of kinds of ham, and all of them look equally disgusting to me in their natural states, but none more so than the dehydrated-in-salt variety, which Alton calls "Country Ham" and I call, "Oh My God, People EAT That? That Can't Be Right. That IS NOT RIGHT," um, ham. Any recipe where step one is, "Soak this horrible thing in a cooler full of water you leave sitting out in your backyard for an entire day," is not a recipe I am likely to make.

3. How to make a turkey derrick. Wait, let me start over: what a turkey derrick IS and how to make a turkey derrick. You can do it too! All you need is a beacon light, an 8-foot ladder, a tank of propane, aluminum foil, cotton cord, knot-tying skills, a pulley and a link quick, a cooker, a carpenter, faith in a higher power, a PhD in physics, AND A TURKEY. (Or, you could just go to Mom's for Thanksgiving, which is what I do).

4. Cheese was first "discovered" by a Bedouin who set out one day to sell his chickens and, packing for his trek, decided to fill a freshly tanned calf's stomach with milk to drink later. Several hours into his ride through the desert, he stopped to take a sip and found the contents had solidified -- the combination of the shaking of the camel, the heat of the sun, and the rennet in the stomach lining had converted that milk into curds and whey. Now, here's the part I always marvel over when it comes to stories like this one: The guy, seeing his liquid milk had turned into drippy chunks, was all, "Eh, what the heck!" and ATE IT! Oh my god!! That's wonderful! I'd like to meet this guy, and also the guy who first looked at an artichoke and thought, "Looks like food to me!" because, seriously, these have got to be some truly interesting dudes.

5. How to "temper" eggs. And also, how to make them really, really mad. (Ha ha! I have no idea what I'm talking about.)

Weirdly, though his staggering knowledge of food origins and technique makes it seem like he's been in the kitchen his entire life, Alton Crawford Brown, born July 30, 1962, actually started out as a cinematographer and actor. In the mid-1990s, he got interested in cooking and, finding the quality of cooking shows on American TV a bit lackluster, decided to produce his own series. To prepare, he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute, graduating in 1997. Though he wasn't a great science student in high school or college, he was fascinated by the science of cooking while in culinary school and decided that would make a cool subject for his show.

Good Eats first aired in July 1998 on PBS in Chicago. It was so successful the Food Network picked it up a year later. By 2000, it had won the James Beard Foundation award for Best TV Food Journalism, and several years later, in 2006, it landed a Peabody Award as well.

See? It's not just me who thinks dork + food + science = yum!

Brown has two other shows on the Food Network as well -- he's the host of Iron Chef America, for one thing, serving as its goofy play-by-play announcer, and he's also done two rounds of a miniseries called Feasting on Asphalt. The first one "explored the history of eating on the move," as Brown and his crew rode across the US on motorcycles, sampling food all the way. The second series, Feasting on Asphalt 2: The River Run, traced roadside delicacies down the length of the Mississippi. I haven't seen either of these, but they both sound great. Kind of like ex-Boyfriend Ewan McGregor's Long Way Round but more delectable (and, theoretically, less hairy).

Alton also has nine -- NINE! -- books, including the second volume in his Good Eats series, out last year, and a book version of Feasting on Asphalt 2 I aim to look for at the library ASAP.

Up next for zee chef is more Good Eats and Iron Chef, plus possibly a third round of Feasting on Asphalt, this time set on a boat tooling around the Caribbean and renamed, for obvious lack-of-asphalt reasons, Feasting on Waves.

Up next for ME, coincidentally, is ALSO more Good Eats and Iron Chef, if only because I've already forgotten how to temper eggs. Or, more specifically, what I even mean by that.

MacGyver Factor Score: 99.742%.

Points off for going just a LITTLE overboard sometimes. For example: homemade crackers? Really? That's just, you know, kinda crackers. And I'm not just saying that because Wheat Thins are my heroin. (Note: not my heroine.)

Points back, though, for accepting without embarrassment or comb-over the continuous loss of his hair. I have nothing against men who just shave their entire heads at the first sign of a receding widow's peak, but I do appreciate a man so confident in his appearance he feels no need to hide. That is sexy, sir. And BALDING IS BEAUTIFUL.

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Boyfriend-Related Links

Alton's IMDb page
Alton's Wikipedia page
Alton's official site
Official Food Network Good Eats site
All About Alton Brown (fan site)
Good Eats Wiki (features transcripts of every show!)

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