I don’t like Good Eats. It annoys me. I don’t like when people take classic recipes and re-engineer them no matter how similar the end results and Alton Brown’s on screen personality–which grates on me in a way few can-leaves me feeling almost physically uncomfortable.
Still, I’d heard he could be sort of crude off-air and that the humor of Good Eats I find so obnoxious has a tendency for swiftly turning colorful in person. And so, against what I was hoping would not turn out to be my better judgment, Ellie and I went to see Alton Brown speak at The Ethical Society Sunday.
Out of the gate he lambasted the audience about it being our fault for making it possible for food celebrities to have obnoxious catch phrases like “bamm” and “yummo.” And the Rachel Ray digs didn’t stop there as he told us, with such a snide tone that it would be surprising to find out he was joking, that every box of Triscuits we buy supports Ray. He wanted to make sure we knew.
Mostly though, apart from some brief words about his new book, he gave the people what they wanted and fielded questions from the audience.
There were of course the usual stupid ones like: What’s your favorite restaurant; how much do the Iron Chef’s know; and what’s your favorite thing to cook?
But there were also stupid questions with better than average answers:
What is your death row meal?
“That’s an easy one…duck confit because it takes three days!”
What is your favorite dessert?
Wedding cake-but it’s expensive. He’s had two.
Apparently he also tried to make cheese with his wife’s breast milk but only succeeded in making butter.
The most interesting answers of the night, however, were the ones that garnered more serious responses.
Asked how he feels about organic food his answer was possibly the best I’ve ever heard to similarly phrased inquiries.
As he laid into organic stating his belief that “it doesn’t mean anything” he overcame the audience’s initial shock with incredible fervor as he went on to explain that the only two words he knows mean something are local and sustainable. He didn’t so much say it though as he shouted it forcefully with conviction. It was obviously something he had considered before and he further spoke of a map on his refrigerator with a 100 mile radius drawn around his home.
That’s a pretty standard Slow Food/locavore thing these days and he strives to purchase a certain percentage of his family’s food from within this radius.
In response to a Junior High teacher asking what skills her students should learn before moving onto high school he felt strongly that we’re not doing enough to teach children how to cook at an even younger age and in effect, by failing to prepare them to feed themselves, have consequently contributed to the obesity epidemic.
Speaking of his own daughter he told us a story about inviting her into the kitchen when she was five, giving her a knife, and turning to his wife saying “there will be blood.”
While the latter portion probably isn’t true, his stance on our need to feed ourselves is accurate, and he spoke of the previous generations of Americans when poor people could continue to eat fairly well because they raised and grew their own food to supplement the things they could afford. By ceasing to do this he believes we have lost the ability to feed ourselves as a people and he himself plans to dig up a portion of his backyard, put in a large garden, and get some chickens no matter what the local authorities have to say about it.
What someone like he can do to encourage people to purchase locally and sustainably is unmatched by even the likes of a Michael Pollan because, apart from what I suspect is an incredibly swell bank account, Brown has a captivated audience that sees him as one of us. His some-is-better-than-none approach to sustainability rather than the all-or-nothing one that Pollan and his peers sometimes seem to be preaching is the surest way to make the largest possible impact and I can only assume that the large Good Eats viewer demographic is far more diverse than that of The Omnivore’s Dilemma readership.
So while I won’t be purchasing any of his books or becoming a loyal viewer of his show, in a way I guess you could say Alton Brown won me over Sunday. I now understand that he is just a guy that loves food and wants to teach people to feed themselves rather than depending on others, and that’s something I can definitely get behind.