Several years ago, I was teaching a cooking class for which I read a number of excellent books I enjoyed very much. It was like an appetizer and inspired me to seek out and consume more books: books on cooking, food manufacturing, chefs and bakers, etc.
As I read, I noticed something: These were my people. I am a foodie, but not the kind who turns my nose up at much of anything. I am someone who appreciates (sometimes on a ridiculously giddy level) food that is lovingly prepared or surprisingly concocted or presented with artisanship or even horrifically terrible. There are quite a few of us out there, and a lot of them write books!
Steve Almond, author of “Candyfreak,” waxes eloquent about the chocolate-to-candy ratio of various nostalgia products. He goes into a trance whenever in the presence of an enrober. His fascination with the production of and obsession with the obtaining and indulging in sweet confections makes him a kindred spirit.
Julia Child, via her nephew Alex Prud’homme, in “My Life in France,” remembers food with the same loving adjectives one would employ when describing a lover. She has had meals that have changed her life, and she recalls every detail of them vividly. I can relate.
Gael Green, who is a New York food critic, lays out her storied history in “Insatiable.” Much of her early professional life involved sumptuous late dinners, worked off by dancing in clubs and after-clubs into the wee hours of the morning. Dinner and dancing? And getting paid to write about it? Hello!
The list goes on. These are people who really live, who find meaning in the seemingly tiniest of moments. You know what else I noticed? They were all pretty much heathens. Good people. Impressive people. Driven, energetic, smart, amazing people. But largely godless. Why is that?
One thing I’d noticed about Julia Child is that she genuinely adored and relished other people. Even the annoying ones. She seemed as fascinated by difficult people as she was in her dearest friends. Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do? Julia and Paul had a marriage that would put most believers to shame. One he realized he’d fallen for her, that man loved, guided, supported, and valued his wife. They both brought creativity and fun into their relationship. They weren’t perfect, but they were a team. And neither of them had any need for God.
Steve Almond is culturally a Jew, but lives a secular existence. He is concerned for the underdog, for small businessmen, and for social justice. He thinks people who work hard and are passionate about what they do deserve to make it. He is bothered by the unfair. He, too, is an enthusiastic observer of people in general.
Gael Green, bless her, lived a virtual porn flick. But she started Citymeals on Wheels with friend and cook James Beard when she realized that the city food program only operated on weekdays. She saw the need of widows (to whom we, as followers of Jesus, are especially called to attend), and she did something about it. She continues to work, raising awareness and funds, to impact her community for the better.
These are people who live large, who love life, and who haven’t wasted their time on this planet. True that they’re not motivated by holiness like Jesus was, but this sounds a lot like him. The Bible doesn’t say specifically that Jesus loved food, but he was accused of being a glutton and drunk because of the time he spent celebrating with people. He hung out with society’s rejects. He surrounded himself with messed up people. He made a difference; the ultimate difference.
But it almost seemed like there was a necessary disconnect between following the Lord and really, really appreciating food. In frustration, I posted to my Facebook wall the query, “Isn’t there anyone who loves both Jesus AND food?!” A homeschool mom friend of mine gave me a welcome answer: Alton Brown.
THE Alton Brown (AB, to the uber-fans)? Could it be?! A bit of research revealed that, indeed, she was correct. An Atlanta Magazine article explains that AB “found God” in 1992, that his journey of “blunder”ing through faith continued with his baptism in 2006, and presumably continues to this day. (Writer/editor side note: Anyone else find that walking with God involves an embarrassing amount of screwing up and then clinging gratefully to grace and forgiveness?)
What I’ve grown to love about Alton Brown is that his faith informs his life, and it shapes who he is, but that he doesn’t feel the need to change his career trajectory into a “What Would Jesus Eat?” type enterprise. He is himself, he says he is messed up, he doesn’t claim to be a spiritual authority, and he’s living a “typical” walk. Which sort of makes him the anti-Kirk Cameron. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Kirk’s boldness in proclaiming God’s word. But he’s mostly a believer darling, because he’s sort of made himself a fuzzy Jesus poster child, and this tends to alienate nonbelievers. This might be because Kirk is so squeaky-clean adorable, it’s likely difficult for some strung-out thug to take him seriously. Or because Kirk’s very vocal stands for things the world doesn’t understand make him seem “holier than thou” (which I do not believe he is; but I am aware of how “we” seem to others). Or maybe because, let’s face it, Kirk is not the world’s most gifted actor. So, while dyed-in-the-wool worshipers are going to line up for whatever Biblical apocalyptic flick happens to make its way into mainstream theaters, odds are that not a lot of strictly-entertainment-seeking movie-goers will be purchasing tickets to sit through the well-intentioned cheese.
But if you like good food, or science, or – drool – FOOD SCIENCE, or laughing at food geekery, AB is your man. “Good Eats” was consistently good. It was quirky, informative, and accessible. The Bible says to work at everything as though working for God. I think that commitment to excellence ultimately honors the Creator, even if you never have an altar call after the credits roll.
Here are a couple of my favorite questions/responses from an interview AB did with Eater.com:
“I know you are a born-again Christian, though I don’t know if that is a term you use.
“Yeah, “born-again” is kind of an odd term because that’s like saying a see-through window. But yes, I am a Christian.
“How does your faith and religion play into your professional life?
“I hope everything. One of the things I pray for on a daily basis is that whatever God wants me to be doing, it’s reflected through my actions, how I deal with other people, the way I do my job. And I hope I do it in a way that pleases Him. Like today, I’m in an eleven-hour shoot-day where I’m the writer, the executive producer, the host, and the director. It’s a lot of stress. Tempers can flare. Words can be said. So there’s one whole level on a day-to-day basis of just trying to act the best one can.
“As far as other decisions, my wife runs the company. We try not to make any big decisions about the direction of this company or my career without praying about it. We try to listen to what God says to us pretty hard and we say no to a lot of things because of that. We’re not rich and that’s because if we don’t get a clear feeling for what we ought to be doing, we don’t do it. We turn down endorsements. We say no to things. You know, none of this is mine. For some reason I am being trusted with it and I take the stewardship of it really, really seriously.”
When I found out from my employers that AB was going to be nearby for a book-signing, I wanted to be there, even though that meant purchasing his most recent book at full retail, which violates one of my basic tenets in life. Barnes and Noble was both organized (though perhaps they did not realize how attentive and patient AB would be, thus grossly underestimated how long the event would take) and opportunistic. They insisted that anyone wishing to get something signed purchase specifically “Good Eats 3” from their outlet. Once that was accomplished, fans could bring other things they wanted signed. There was no limit to the number of items, just that the things conformed with AB’s enlightening and humorous “Fanifesto;” namely: “Yes I’ll sign things besides books. Spoons, cutting boards, mixers, you name it I’ll sign it. But I won’t sign living things. Not you, not your hamster, not your ferret. I’ll sign your cast but not your arm. This is because hamsters often bite and most permanent markers are somewhat toxic.”
The signing event was to begin at 7:00. I arrived at the store at 5:15, purchased the book, and got my armband. I was in “Group K.” Only groups A and B were guaranteed seating for the talk portion of the evening. The rest of us were SRO wherever we could find a spot without violating fire code. Groups I, J, K, and L were “scheduled” (and asked to be patient, as this was an estimate) to begin lining up at 8:30. I wanted to hear AB speak, so I ran down the road a few miles to grab some dinner (see my previous post), and was able to return in time to have a front-standing-row view of the action.
Rumor was that he was somewhere in the store, and Brown quietly made his way through the waiting crowd about eight minutes early. “They tell me that I’m supposed to wait until 7:00,” he said, gesturing to the two empty seats in the front row. “Someone can fill those people in later.” He thanked us for coming out, explained how things would go, and then spoke a little bit before opening the floor for a Q&A session.
Here are a few clips from the evening:
Speaking of the Nobel Prize for turkey preparation: he later referenced it again, certain that his turkey-frying derrick had saved from raging fires homes and probably even orphanages. While I’ve never attempted to fry an entire turkey, ever since I saw AB’s turkey-brining method, I have prepared my family’s Thanksgiving bird in that fashion, then grilled it. The brine keeps the bird juicy, and the fruit and brown sugar lend it a bit of sweetness that is absolutely magical in contrast with the smoky flavor that develops on the skin and sinks into the outer layers of the meat.
But I digress… (Besides, if I really CAN cook a turkey in under an hour, I’m going to try that one this year!)
Someone asked Brown whether he had any ideas for a new show, and he indicated that he did, but that his ideas would have to be put on hold for a bit. He mentioned having appeared on a single episode of “Next Food Network Star” and that he apparently came off as extremely mean. He made people cry. Consequently, he has been asked to do the entire next season of “Next Food Network Star.” He admitted that his goal was to upset everyone so much that NO ONE was left. He said he was even going to make Giada De Laurentiis and the other judges weep. He said he wanted to destroy the show because “I’m so sick of all that crap.”
He was asked about whether “Good Eats” would ever be on Netflix streaming. He would like that, but Food Network isn’t interested. He encouraged people to contact Food Network to encourage them to make the episodes available. However, the entire series is supposed to be shown in chronological order on The Cooking Channel. Which is good since, AB said, the Food Network doesn’t have cooking shows anymore. “It’s all Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives; Cupcake Wars; Cupcake Fighting; the Cupcake Apocolypse…” All cupcakes, all the time.
Is he ever going to make a children’s cookbook? “It’s just difficult to talk people into giving their children over to be cooked.” But then he said that he is developing one, and that it is comic-book style. He kind of laughed and said, “It’s pretty dark.” All about the horrible things that can befall children in the kitchen if they don’t follow AB’s instructions.
A dietician asked about gluten-free recipes, and his reaction was funny. He said it irritates him when people who are avoiding gluten say that they want French bread. He said, “You can’t have it!” He said that he has trouble believing that everyone on the planet suddenly developed gluten allergies, and differentiated between “gluten intolerant” and “gluten special.” He said it’s the same way when vegetarians ask for a meat-ish recipe. “Eat a steak!” All of that said, he did indicate that he’d cut down on gluten a lot as part of his healthier eating regime. But, he said, “We’re not out of shape because of the food we cook at home. We’re out of shape because of what we eat out.” However, he has learned that no one will watch television shows about healthy food. “How else do you explain the popularity of Paula Deen?” he posited. His theory? That we like to watch stuff like fat people eating fat things like butter-covered butter cake because we KNOW it’s wrong, and we love it.
One of the funniest moments of the night was his impression of Masaharu Morimoto, with whom he works on “Iron Chef America.” He said that one time, he went up to ask him about something and Morimoto was on the phone, discussing details of his soon-to-open restaurant. He told the person on the other end of the line, “No, the napkins need to match the wallpaper… Then send them back. They can do them over.” The second he’d hung up and turned to AB, he began to chat completely in Japanese. “His English is perfect!” Brown mused, after doing a dead-on impression of the Iron Chef.
When asked about his favorite recipe in “Good Eats 3,” (the person had obviously not read through much of the book, because he does answer this within its pages) AB said that there were two: Dry-Aged Chimney Porterhouse and Slow Cooker Lasagna. The lasagna is the first main dish I intend to attempt from this volume. He described it as “Combination lasagna, dip, and… ticket to hell, probably.” Come on, folks; who wouldn’t want a piece of that action?
A lady asked if he was aware that he had achieved heartthrob status, to which he replied doubtfully, “Heartthrob? Only to the blind population… ‘Oh, he sounds pretty hot.'”
When a man asked, “How’s the family?” AB said, “They’re good, thanks. How’s yours?” He is very protective of his wife and daughter, and joked about the one disconcerting part of one of his favorite “Good Eats” episodes,”The Once and Future Fish.” In this installment, he plays himself in 2048 and his daughter, Zoey, plays his granddaughter. His costuming required him to age significantly, while hers involves a platinum white bouffant wig and go-go boots. He teased that there were crew members hitting on her, and he had to keep reminding them that she was only eleven years old.
One of my favorite things, too, is how prominently his wedding ring is featured on the cover of his book. Whether one finds him a feast for the eyes or not, I have to say that this particular woman finds fidelity and familial chivalry (read the note about purposeful photographing of his girls in the Fanifesto, or look up why he is no longer on Twitter) absolutely worthy of “heartthrob status.”
During the session, there was a fussy toddler in the front of the room. AB looked down at the kid and said, “Silence, child, or I will eat you.” Later, she was fussing again, and he reprimanded her. Finally, after the third time, Brown told the parents, “If you didn’t have her in a fifteen-point restraint… She needs some freedom! Let her get out and walk around.” I guess the parents expressed concern that the baby would bug him, because AB assured them, “It wouldn’t be the first time I’d had a girl climbing all over me.”
The one chef/cook living or dead with whom he would like to cook? James Beard. Why did he steal Matt Smith’s wardrobe? He didn’t; he stole Dr. Who’s wardrobe. Did he always want to be a cook? No, he wanted to be an astronaut. “In fact, I still kind of want to be an astronaut.” He said he got into cooking to get girls, because that was something he thought he could do for and to impress the ladies. “As it turns out, though, I just ended up with another hobby I could do by myself.”
At 7:30, the Q&A ended, and the book signing began. It was after 8 before the bookstore staff called Group C, which did not bode well for the 8:30 queueing up of Group K. Barnes and Noble was hot, packed, and people were waiting a LONG time. However, everyone was unfailingly patient and gracious. Accidental run-ins happened; at one point, I was trying to pull my wristband off and accidentally launched my camera into a lady’s leg, waking her up. If she had any temper, it did not present itself at all.
Occasionally, AB would call out things to people who were waiting, once yelling for parents to come get a kid (technically young adult) who was “interrupting my book signing.” But he did so with humor. By the time I finally reached the front of the line, he had been in the book store for just under five hours. He was still smiling, convivial, and grateful that we were there. The people in front of me had brought numerous items for him to sign, and were also toting a Central Market foam cooler packed with a cherry chocolate sauce. When I expressed my underachieverhood, AB insisted that I “probably” had my “own particular charm.” I was able to get a picture with him from his very patient attorney, who had spent nearly four hours as a paparazzo.
When I left the store, long after Barnes and Noble was supposed to have closed, there were a good two hundred people left that I could see. I had noticed people wearing “S” wristbands, and while I’m sure some gave up and went home, I know many continued to wait. AB promised that he would not leave until everyone else was gone. He was a class act, and every bit as funny in person as you would hope he would be.
Now, it’s time to hit the grocery store for some nonfat dry milk and color gel so I can make homemade candy corn… Thanks, AB!