Alton and Me

November 13, 2009

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When it’s time to prepare the family Thanksgiving meal this year, I’ll start by thawing the frozen bird in cold running water the morning before. I’ll let the turkey sit in a big cooler full of a spiced brine and ice overnight before roasting it unstuffed. I’ll make a cornbread pudding and cranberry-orange-ginger dipping sauce to serve along with the usual mashed potatoes and gravy. I’ve cooked the meal this way for the last ten years or so.

Why? Because Alton Brown told me to.

Alton Brown is the host and creator of Good Eats, the second-greatest cooking show ever to appear on television. (The first? The French Chef, of course.) He took a basic idea: Julia Child + Mr. Wizard + Monty Python and turned it into an Awesome Cooking Show that’s equal parts cooking, science, and humor. This year marks his tenth season on the Food Network — a remarkable feat, considering FTV’s usual treatment of anyone with a large vocabulary and no catch phrase. To commemorate the occasion they published Good Eats: The Early Years, a compilation of recipes, photos, and facts from the first eighty episodes (six broadcast seasons). If you’ve never seen the show (and if not, how did you come to be reading this?), you can watch episodes here. (Thanks, FTV, for your non-embedding policy.)

As I read through the book I realized that I had absorbed many of his suggestions into my cooking style, and had tried techniques I thought difficult because he made them seem easy. I brine turkeys, sear steaks in a cast-iron skillet before finishing them in an oven, make pickles, put up jam, and always season with kosher salt dispensed from a salt cellar.  He Who Will Not Be Ignored deigns to eat Brown’s stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese recipe because it tastes better than the boxed stuff.

He also taught me to look skeptically at new kitchen gadgets, firmly ingraining in me a distrust of “unitaskers.” He has famously declared that the only unitasker in his kitchen is his fire extinguisher. At least it was until about a month ago:

I though I had busted him on his electric waffle iron — what else can you do with it? — until he used it to cook bacon. What else should I have expected from the man who smoked a whole salmon using a cardboard box, a hot plate, sawdust, and a cheap battery-powered fan?

I don’t want this to degenerate any further into a fanboy rave about a major influence on my cooking. Just watch the shows, and get the book. As Brown describes it:

So this Good Eats book is like a retospective double album in a sense.

Actually it’s more like four hundred pages of liner notes, but really good liner notes.

I’m so relieved he didn’t call it his Tales from Topographic Oceans.

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