now is the podcast of our discontent

I was excited when Alton Brown, former host of “Good Eats” and current host of half of Food Network’s repetetive, overblown food-competition shows, started his own podcast. I even wrote a glowing story about it that was included in our Times-Gazette cookbook, a story about which I was reminded day before yesterday when I was looking at one of the cookbooks we’d set aside as a contest entry.

But I think I’m now officially disenchanted.

To backtrack a bit: “Good Eats” started on the Food Network in 1999 and ran for 11 years. Reruns still air regularly on Cooking Channel (a sister channel to Food Network). It remains one of my favorite things ever on television. It was a half-hour cooking show which combined recipes, science, sketch comedy and jury-rigged cooking contraptions. It won a Peabody Award, and Alton won a James Beard award for his work as creator and host.

During the run of “Good Eats,” Alton also had several outstanding food travelogues presented in miniseries format: two runs of “Feasting on Asphalt” (Alton and his crew traveled by motorcycle), and one of “Feasting on Waves” (because it’s hard to travel the Carribbean by motorcycle).

When Food Network, which had run and rerun episodes of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” created its own version, “Iron Chef America,” Alton was signed as host – and that was fine with me at the time; I had been a big fan of the original Japanese show, and Alton brought a lot of his wit and knowledge to his “play-by-play” commentary. But, over time, Food Network became all about the competition shows. “Iron Chef America” doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore, nor do any of the other shows, all of which seem to blend together: “The Next Iron Chef,” “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Food Network Star,” all of them involving Alton in some way or another, plus others like “Chopped,” “The Worst Cooks In America,” and on and on and on. (And on and on.) Someone is apparently watching them, but I have long since gotten sick and tired of them.

When “Good Eats” wrapped up, I figured Alton would be back with some different but equally-imaginative project in a year or two, and that all of these reality shows he was hosting were just helping pay the bills (which I completely understand).

Then, Alton launched his podcast, on the well-established Nerdist podcast network, and I was thrilled. The podcast originally had sort of a magazine format, including cooking tips that would have been at home on “Good Eats” as well as listener questions, along with an interview segment.

Over time, however, all of the other segments have been de-emphasized and the interview segment is now pretty much the whole podcast. That would be OK if the interview subjects were great – and a few of them are, such as the fellow from Nashville’s Olive & Sinclair Chocolates a few episodes back. But too many of them are either tied in with Alton’s competition shows and/or chances to reminisce about the behind-the-scenes production of “Good Eats.” Alton apparently does not share my feelings about the competition shows; based on the interviews, he’s still excited to host as many of them as they’ll throw his way. As a huge fan of “Good Eats,” I enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, but there’s been an over-reliance on it. I’m not as interested in “Good Eats” as I am in the next “Good Eats,” whatever that turns out to be.

This week’s episode is an interview with the production manager for Alton’s live tour – again, not a bad idea in and of itself, but in the context of where the show has been headed it just means another episode without any real food content, since the interview is the entire show.

I don’t guess I have much room to complain about a free, and advertising-free, podcast. It’s just that the podcast, when it first started, seemed like it might be appointment listening in the same way “Good Eats” was appointment viewing. And it’s not. Alton, you need to be doing something more worthy of your talent.

Alton and Giada

I was thrilled, and blogged about it, a few months back when Alton Brown started his podcast, The Alton Browncast. One of the reasons I was so excited about it was that I thought it would be more like Alton’s long-running show “Good Eats” and his wonderful limited series “Feasting on Asphalt” and “Feasting on Waves,” and an alternative to what seems now to be his day job as the Ryan Seacrest of food competition shows.

I have, as regular readers of this blog know, become sick and tired of food competition shows. Food Network ruined itself by moving almost entirely into competition shows, and now its sister channel,  Cooking Channel, is starting to catch the disease as well. I used to enjoy the competition shows; I was a huge fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and I was originally a big fan of “Iron Chef America,” which Alton hosts. But they’ve been done to death – and that means they’ve had to become more and more gimmicky, and with more and more phony, hyped-up dramatic content. I’m sick of them.

I had hoped that “The Alton Browncast” would be Alton’s way of returning to his roots, and maybe represented a way of feeding his passion even as he paid the bills by hosting competition shows.

But Alton apparently considers the competition shows more than just a paycheck. The interview segment is the largest single part of “The Alton Browncast,” and except for ice cream mogul Keith Schroder every single guest he’s had has either been a competition show host, contestant or executive. Alton apparently still loves the form and is excited about hosting 43 different food competition shows.

That doesn’t mean the podcast isn’t worth listening to, though. Thankfully, the interviews aren’t exclusively about food competition shows. The latest episode, featuring Giada De Laurentis as the interview guest, gets into everything from gender roles to the nature of beauty. You also get a soap-opera-like tale of the six months when Giada refused to speak to Bobby Flay.  There’s also  news that Giada, Alton and Ina “Barefoot Contessa” Garten will be doing a live Thanksgiving dinner special together – and while Giada knows both Ina and Alton, the latter two have never met and each is intimidated about meeting the other.

The episode also, during Alton’s opening food talk segment, drops a bombshell about cooking pasta. When Alton was making “Good Eats,” he repeated the conventional wisdom that to make pasta, you need a huge volume of water, which you bring to a full rolling boil before adding the pasta. But Alton admitted that he’s now changed his mind on that – for shaped pasta, he now starts the pasta in cold water – and the pasta is done by the time the water reaches a simmer! That method may not be as practical for spaghetti, fettuccine and the like; long noodles sometimes stick out of the top of the pan until they’ve softened enough to slouch down into the water, but Alton said it would work for spaghetti too if you have a large enough pot.

In Giada’s honor, after the interview Alton talks about meatballs.

Listen to the episode here.

Allez cuisine

I’ve been a huge fan of Alton Brown ever since I first got Food Network and started watching “Good Eats,” within a year or two after its premiere in 1999. The show, now out of production but still in reruns on Cooking Channel, combines food, science and comedy. An episode about potatoes was a parody of “Misery.” An episode on stuffing / dressing used a “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” metaphor as a formula for helping you combine ingredients and flavors. There were various recurring characters, and sometimes Alton himself appeared in character (my favorite being a gracious Southern colonel).

I’ve cooked more Alton Brown recipes than every other TV chef put together. My normal recipes for whole muscle beef jerky, quiche, and other dishes are the ones Alton used on “Good Eats.”

In addition to the Peabody Award-winning “Good Eats,” Alton also hosted two miniseries of “Feasting on Asphalt” and one of “Feasting on Waves,” some of the most informative, intelligent and fun food travelogue shows ever done.

I used to be a big fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and when Food Network began producing “Iron Chef America,” I thought Alton, with his wit and knowledge, was the perfect choice as host.

But there are a couple of problems. Food Network stopped being about cooking and became more and more about competition shows, and the competition shows became more and more repetitive, which meant they had to rely more and more on personal drama, hyped up by producers and editors, to sustain interest. And Alton seems to be one of the go-to guys for hosting such shows – “The Next Iron Chef,” “[The Next] Food Network Star,” and now – worst of all – “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a show which actively encourages the contestants to try to win by sabotaging each other rather than on their own merits.

How can one of the smartest guys in food television get caught hosting this dreck? I realize he’s got a family to support, and I figured his thinking was that having a job was preferable to not having a job.

But in the latest installment of his excellent podcast, Alton has a conversation with Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. I like Alex Guarnaschelli but hadn’t kept up with “Iron Chef America” in so long I didn’t realize she was now an Iron Chef. She, like Alton, brings an intelligence and perceptiveness to her food-related programming.

Judging from their conversation, however, they don’t share my misgivings about competitive cooking shows. From the tone of this conversation, Alex Guarnaschelli is as thrilled to be a competitor as Alton Brown is to be a host. I just don’t get it. I think Alton is wasted as the Food Network’s answer to Jeff Probst. I want him to make the next “Good Eats” or “Feasting on Asphalt,” whatever that happens to be. The podcast is a great start, and has already become regular weekly listening for me, but I want more – and I suspect I won’t get more as long as he’s pre-occupied with the competition shows.

It’s a shame.

An open letter to Alton Brown

Dear Alton,

“Good Eats,” which recently wrapped production after 14 seasons, was one of the most inventive things ever seen on American television – funny, informative, and accessible. It was good for food, it was good for science, and it was just plain fun to watch. The show was, as far as I can tell, your own creation.

I knew that all good things must come to an end, and even though I was sorry to see “Good Eats” go, I looked forward eagerly to whatever your next project would be. I knew that you could do other formats. Your miniseries “Feasting on Asphalt” and “Feasting on Waves” were travelogues that, while different from “Good Eats,” were just as good.

You may still be planning something great. I hope so. But it worries me that you seem to be ramping up your participation in Food Network’s competitive cooking shows.

I will admit it – I was a fan of the original, Japanese “Iron Chef,” and I loved the first few seasons of “Iron Chef America.” They were goofy fun, and you were a perfect choice for “Iron Chef America,” bringing your wit and knowledge to a play-by-play role.

But food competition shows have become redundant, repetitive, and overblown. They’re part of the reason I rarely watch Food Network anymore, having sought refuge in Cooking Channel, which is what Food Network used to be. (It even airs “Good Eats” reruns.) And in a crowded marketplace of food competition, the only way to stand out is to try to hype and overhype the soap-opera, professional-wrestling aspects of the competition. I felt like “The Next Iron Chef” was a waste of your talents, and now you’re barging headlong into the long-standing “Food Network Star” (formerly known as “The Next Food Network Star”) franchise.

Alton, I realize you have to earn a living, but this crap is beneath you. It’s so far beneath you it’s not even funny. The promos refer to you, Bobby Flay and Giada DeLaurentis as “food icons.” Well, you didn’t become a food icon by hosting crappy “reality” shows, and if crappy “reality” shows are the future of your career, you won’t be a food icon for long.

Please figure out some way to move in another direction. We’re not waiting for the next Food Network star, prancing around the kitchen spouting Guy Fieri-style catch phrases. We’re waiting for the next “Good Eats” or “Feasting on Asphalt.”

Please, I beg you, move on – even if it means switching networks.

Hello Mr. Chips

I went to our local tortilleria this morning for a story – you’ll be able to read it next week – and returned to the newspaper with a big stack of hot, freshly-made corn tortillas. If you’ve never had freshly made corn tortillas, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I shared with co-workers, but even so there were some left over at the end of the day. This particular tortilleria uses preservative-free masa for his hot-and-fresh tortillas, so I tried to figure out how I might be able to use up the remaining tortillas. I recalled Alton Brown’s recipe for homemade tortilla chips. I did not have any limes or lime juice, so I seasoned the tortilla wedges in a mix of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and Tapatio hot sauce. Instead of letting them air-dry for an hour, as in Alton’s recipe, I used my dehydrator to speed up the process. Then I deep-fried them as per Alton’s recipe.

Pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Good Eats and the Good News

I am home sick. I’m supposed to be lying down – and I will be again, in a few minutes – but I had to check my e-mail.

My e-mail contained a notice of a new Twitter follower. I’m still not exactly sure who he is, but we have some Twitter contacts in common, so I went to check out his profile page.

I’m glad I did; he had a link to this article about Alton Brown. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I’m a huge fan of Alton’s – but apparently, I wasn’t a huge enough fan to know that Alton is a Christian:

When I go to New York and I tell people I am going to church tomorrow, people take a couple of steps back from me. What I’ve learned to do is go ahead and take two steps forward. But yeah, it’s tough, and there have been times when I’ve broken out in a sweat a little. I still feel a funny little tinge in my stomach when I’m out to dinner with my wife and daughter in New York. We’ll go to dinner and we’ll be sitting around the table and we’ll say Grace. You know what? People are going to stare at you. I used to feel really self-conscious. But I’ve gotten to a point where I think, nah, I’m not going to feel bad about that. I’m not going to apologize about that.

It’s a nice article, and a pleasant surprise. One thing that struck me: So many people think – falsely – that science and religion have to be at odds. I think one of the interesting things about Alton is that “Good Eats” is, in large part, a show which popularizes science.

One of the earlier episodes of “Good Eats,” the one about casseroles, took place at a little white country church – a United Methodist church, which they took pains to identify by name through an on-screen graphic. The church reminded me of a lot of the churches my father used to pastor. Of course, all that proved was that Alton had been exposed to religion, and (given that he grew up in Georgia) that wasn’t too unexpected.

So, good for Alton. Although, I have to say, I’ve gotten a little tired of “The Next Iron Chef.” Why are they doing another one so soon? Is one of the existing Iron Chefs leaving? How many Iron Chefs does one network need? I didn’t watch the last “Next Iron Chef” except for the last couple of episodes, and I really didn’t like the arrogant Jose Garces, who ended up winning the thing.

Now I’m suddenly even sadder that “The Wittenburg Door” is in limbo. At this point, I would certainly have been calling Bob Darden to try to pitch him an interview with Alton, who would have fit the magazine to a T.

First time is not the charm

Well, the caramels taste great, but they are unacceptably gooey, to the point of being shapeless, and sticky. I did something wrong.

To try to salvage the situation, I’ve wrapped them individually in wax paper (and was that a chore) and I’ve put them in the freezer overnight. I’ll keep them in the fridge tomorrow at work and serve them cold.

The candy man can

Well, I’m here … at home. We will have a pickup rehearsal on Thursday; I have a county meeting to cover tomorrow night, and dinner at church on Wednesday, but tonight … I’m home. Feels strange, after the intense schedule of the past two weeks, and the three-or-four-nights-a-week schedule before that.

I decided to try something fun tonight. I love to cook, as regular readers know, but one thing I’ve never tried is candy. But Alton Brown had a recipe for dark salty caramels that sounded so good I just had to try it. I broke my last deep fry/candy thermometer, so I had to buy one at the grocery store; I forgot about the cream of tartar in the recipe, but fortunately I found some way, way back in my cupboard. (I hope cream of tartar doesn’t go bad, because it’s past the date on the bottom of the tin.)

From Drop Box

The recipe seems to have gone well. It’s cooling now; I’ll cut it into pieces just before going to bed tonight. The little taste I scraped from the sides of the saucepan is delicious. It has just a tiny hint of bitterness, but Alton said on “Good Eats” that it was supposed to be there — the soy sauce in the recipe, and the kosher salt which I will sprinkle on top of the candies in about a half an hour, is supposed to overcome the bitterness. (Alton actually called for sea salt, but I don’t have any.)

Something fishy going on here

All right, Alton Brown, this is the craziest thing you’ve ever inspired me to do. By far.

I just had a late lunch involving sardines.

It was not exactly according to Alton’s recipe for sherried sardine toast. I didn’t have sherry vinegar, so I just used the juice from the lemon I was zesting anyway. I also added some onion and diced jalapeno to the avocado, and I used fresh hot bread out of my bread machine rather than toasting it.

But I ate … sardines. And enjoyed it, sort of.

On the episode of “Good Eats” on which Alton presented this recipe, he got around most of our reactions to sardines by referring to them as “brisling,” the actual name of the fish in question. The gag was that at one point, the paper label fell off his can of brisling to reveal the real “sardines” label underneath. Then, the POV camera bolted for the door and Alton had to try to talk the viewer down.

The recipe called for brisling sardines packed in olive oil, more expensive than some types of sardines. You drain off some of the oil and mix it with lemon zest, parsley and sherry vinegar (or in my case, lemon juice) to make a dressing, which the sardines marinate in for a little while. In Alton’s original recipe, a little more of the sardine oil is brushed on slices of bread before toasting them.

The toast is slathered with mashed avocado, then a few of the sardines are placed on top, topped with a little bit of the marinade and a sprinkle of salt. (I didn’t have sea salt either, another part of the original recipe.)

It frankly wasn’t that bad. I love avocado, and it actually offset some of the fishy taste of the sardines.

Alton is the only TV chef I trust enough to get me to eat sardines.

Real men do eat quiche, after all

I have quiche, prepared according to Alton Brown’s recipe, in the oven. It has leftover roast chicken, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, plus (even though Alton didn’t call for this) a little minced garlic.

Unfortunately, they didn’t have the dry, vacuum-sealed sun-dried tomatoes at the store today, only the oil-packed. But I spent the extra money.

Alton’s recipe is terrific, by the way, and I’ve made it numerous times over the years. Bet you didn’t figure I was the kind who’d quiche and tell, but apparently I am.

I skipped lunch because I had plenty to eat at men’s club breakfast this morning. By the time this quiche finishes cooking and cools down, it will be a very early supper, but our internal clocks are all off today anyway.

ADDENDUM: Looking back over this, I realize I failed to clarify something. Alton has a basic quiche custard recipe — which is what I meant when I said I’d made his recipe many times — followed by a long list of suggested filling combinations. This is actually the first time I’ve ever made the chicken / goat cheese / sun-dried tomato quiche before. In fact, I think it’s the first time I’ve ever bought goat cheese.