Brown's Eats

On March 27, 2008, in Food and Drink, by psu

I’m probably the only food dork who hasn’t been watching Alton Brown for the last 9 years or so. He became a fixture on the Food Network just about the time that I felt that I had learned everything I needed to learn, for the moment, about the whole food and cooking hobby. So it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when we were filling the Tivo at random while the flu rampaged through the house that I happened to watch Good Eats for the first time.

And I like it. It’s not so much the content or the recipes themselves I like. After all, he has at least one show where he tells me that brown rice tastes good (bah!). No. What I like is the visual and narrative style. Narrative style in a cooking show? Well, yeah.

It took a few shows for me to figure out what it was that I found refreshing and enjoyable in this series. The first thing I realized was that the man never uses that ANSI standard boring straight on or three quarter shot of the cook standing behind his stove. He also never uses the standard above the pan mirror shot. In fact, he hardly ever uses a regular shot at all. There are goofy wide angle shots, off kilter tilted shots that dance back and forth as he talks, point of view shots looking out from the oven or up from the bottom of a pot of boiling water and on and on.

I also like how this show has characters, rather than just the personality of the host alone. The food police show up from time to time. There is the “nutritional anthropologist” and the “culinary scientist”, both of whom are light-hearted caricatures rather than dry academics types with a tendency to drone. Finally, there is the “hand” that is always taking stuff off the set or bringing stuff on the set.

The hand is also one of many ways the show manipulates time during the presentation. Most cooking shows just present the execution of a recipe as if the cameras were rolling on the cook working live. Good Eats is produced so that some important techniques in real time for illustrative purposes, but the progress of the cooking is accelerated via judicious editing. This allows Brown to concentrate on teaching you techniques or general principles rather than the particulars of a specific recipe. Being an engineering dork, I like the way he abstracts away the details to tell you about what is more generally applicable.

Since he skips the boring parts, he can fill the rest of the show with his unending patter about the trivia surrounding various ingredients and techniques. This often takes the form of Alton Brown talking into the camera, usually with some sort of outlandish prop that looks like something he stole from a preschool. But just as often it is fed to you in what can only be called a series of scenes, with “actors” playing characters. Each show comes off more like a short film with a little narrative centered around food. This is a refreshing change from the literal style in the rest of food television.

There was the show where he repeatedly takes different kinds of cookies to his sister, only to be rejected over and over again. There was the show where he works on getting okra a TV deal. There was the show where a giant monster made up of green leafy vegetables invades his kitchen. There was the show where he gets busted by the church ladies for stealing casserole. And so on and so forth.

After collecting about half a dozen episodes of the show, I found myself curious as to where this production style came from. It surprised me that a food guy would do something so different from all of the other drek on the Food Network. It turns out that the style of the show makes perfect sense when you find out that Alton Brown got his start in the film industry and not the food industry. For me, this approach serves to keep my interest in the show even if I am pretty familiar with the food ideas that he is discussing.

So, I say, do not fear the fact that he populates the Food Network. Put this stuff in your Tivo. It’s good TV and as a bonus, will lead you to good eats too.

But, he is lying about the brown rice thing. You can’t trust anyone who gets long grain white rice from his chinese takeout joint.


11 Responses to “Brown's Eats”

  1. There is a behind-the-scenes episode where he details how and why they use the techniques they use. Fun to see how the in-oven and in-fridge shots are done, and to hear the various things they tried in getting to their current solution. Also fun to learn which recurring characters are actors (“trained thespians” as he calls them) and which are actually nutritional anthropologists and culinary scientists.

  2. Andrew Plotkin says:

    Not only does Brown play with time and space and so forth in his editing — he plays with them *exultantly*. It’s not something he tries to make invisible. He cracks jokes about folding time, he makes pan swaps look blatantly impossible. He puts something in the fridge and then shows up in his pajamas to announce it’s the next morning.

    He’s all about process, and the process of TV-making comes up almost as much as the process of food-making.

  3. What I like about Alton’s program is his explanations of process (like putting cookie dough in the refrigerator, so that it doesn’t melt and flatten out before the crust starts to form for thicker cookies.) This insight into why you do things, helps you learn from mistakes and adjust recipes and technique to achieve the desired results.

  4. meesha.v says:

    the only problem with Good Eats is lack of more new episodes, but I will stop and watch an old one if it’s on.

  5. Elle says:

    meesha, new episodes air Mondays at 8 EST though right now is a slow period. the last new episode was 2 weeks ago.

  6. Mike Collins says:


    What you should really do is go grab a copy of Cookwise by Shirley Corriher, the food scientist who usually shows up in the episodes. Cookwise is the graduate course version of Good Eats, and I can’t express just how excellent a book it is.

  7. psu says:

    I am not really into food “science”. I want it distilled down to technique. My feeling is that you can learn most of what you need to about cooking by watching someone’s mom. But lacking that the food science angle is a somewhat inferior substitute.

    I think Brown strikes the right balance here, for the most part. Sometimes he’s a bit too uber-dorky.

  8. vlee says:

    I read your archived post about yogurt and could use advice when the milk after boiling and coolingand having a starter added will NOT curdle, not even when twelve hours have passed.

    help, please?

  9. Mike Collins says:

    Corriher’s book is primarily about technique — it is a cookbook, and when you read it you get a very good idea of what informed Alton Brown in making his show (well, minus the cinematic parts of it). That said, her technique is formed by an extensive understanding of how the science impacts things.

  10. peterb says:

    vlee: did you make sure it cooled to no more than around 115 degrees? Much higher than that and you’ll kill the culture. Use a probe thermomenter (should be about $15 at target) to be sure.

    My 12 hours your yogurt should absolutely be done, so that’s an indication of one of three things:

    (1) Culture not strong enough (use Stonyfield or Brown Cow plain yogurt, a tablespoon should be fine)
    (2) The milk was too hot when you put the culture in (should be no more than 115 degrees F, use a probe thermometer to be sure.
    (3) The milk is getting too cold so the culture doesn’t get a chance to grow.

    Good luck figuring out which of these it is.

  11. Sean says:

    I discovered Alton rather recently myself. My excuse is that I live in the Czech Republic so it takes me a while to hear about what’s hep. The upside is that when I do belatedly discover something cool like Good Eats, there is a huge backlog of episodes to illegally download. (Then there was the time I discovered Curb Your Enthusiasm)