Wednesday, September 16, 2009

31. Good Eats

When the Food Network began its programming in 1993, I thought that the idea was terrible and doomed to failure. Who would watch cooking shows for 24 hours a day, seven days a week? And isn't the best part of food, the actual tasting of the morsels—not watching someone make it? It seemed to be a very narrow market of people that would watch people eat things that they couldn't eat.

My younger self thought that they should have called it the anorexic channel. As you can tell, I was quite the cut up as a youth.

Like a lot of things, I was dead wrong. The Food Network isn't just about the same sort of cooking shows; they're all different. Even if there is a preponderance amount of cooking shows on the channel showing Americans how to eat healthier without all of the work, they are mostly unique. Rachel Ray caters to the mid-aged wives, Giada de Laurentiis caters to the young urban professional and horney teen age boys, while Bobby Flay caters to douche bags. The most unique Food Network personality of them l is Alton Brown who hosts a show called “Good Eats”.

Brown is unlike anyone else on the channel because he mixes a very strange, almost Conan O'Brien-style of humor with cooking and science. This hodgepodge of different ingredients form a wonderful television stew—see what I did there? Pretty impressive, don't you think? He is obviously very intelligent, but doesn't bludgeon you over the head trying to impress you with how smart he is. Brown seems to be quick witted and genuinely (read: not TV) funny but doesn't forget that he isn't at the Des Moines Laff Factory.

The show is a humorously serious look at food, if that makes sense. And that is why I like the show. When I was in high school and college, the teachers that I learned the most from weren't the monotone, I'm-going-to-write-on-the-chalkboard-for-50-minutes-and-you're-going-to-listen types, it was the ones that had a bit of personality. The educators that realized that being in front of a classroom is a bit like being on stage. You need to grab your audience's attention by the throat and don't let go until the class is over.

Much like my former geometry teacher, Ms. Leary I like Brown because I learn every time I watch the show*.

* I hated math when I was a kid and I hate math now. I've spent my entire life avoiding any sort of course or career that had even a hint of mathematics in it. But, I loved my geometry class and I'm sure it had something to do with my teacher. All other math teachers I had were very black and white (which to be fair, is what math is; you're either right or you're wrong) and they taught their classes that way. Ms. Leary was different, she made the class enjoyable for folks like me.

I get why more teachers aren't like Ms. Leary, but what I don't get is why they don't even bother to try. I think that there are things wrong with our public school system and while I won't even heap 50% of the problem on the teachers, I believe it starts there. Interacting and getting to the students is 90% of an educator's job. Unfortunately, it's hard to quantify that so teachers have to teach to standardized tests and benchmarks. And that's a shame.

Through the course of his show Brown won't just show the viewer how to make a meal, he'll show you the best way to make it and using science he'll explain to you why his way is the correct way. To belabor a point, Brown doesn't sit in front of screen and lectures as to why certain foods cook quicker than others nor does he dryly talk about proteins, fatty acids, etc. He interacts with the viewer using skits, characters and other eye-grabbing props. It may sound hacky, but trust me, it's not.

These explanations really bring home the point of why its important that one must pay attention to every detail in the preparation process when cooking a meal. Why does he spend a bunch of time washing down the cutting board with really good soap? Because of the bacteria that can stick to food that can cause illness, or even worse, bad tasting food. Sure, it seems like common sense but none of these cooking shows ever really get into the theory of the process.

In the same regard, Brown also spends a lot of time dealing with cooking myths. Do they work or have these myths been passed down over so many generations that they are now taken as gospel? Most of the time these myths do turn out to be fact. This is nice, but Brown will go a step further and explain the science behind why these myths are fact. For me, this sort of subconscious genius of our ancestors is more interesting and shows that we can understand things that we don't quite understand—if you catch my drift.

The other thing that I like about the show is the way its filmed. Wikipedia calls this filming a Dutch Angle, which is a term “used for a cinematic tactic often used to portray the psychological uneasiness or tension in the subject being filmed. A Dutch angle is achieved by tilting the camera off to the side so that the shot is composed with the horizon at an angle to the bottom of the frame. Many Dutch angles are static shots at an obscure angle, but in a moving Dutch angle shot the camera can pivot, pan or track along the director or cinematographer's established diagonal axis for the shot.”

To me, it's an interesting way of shooting the show and is far different from its ilk. Most cooking shows are shot straight on and the result is very tedious and boring. Aside from using the Dutch Angles, Brown also has tricks such as setting up a camera in an oven or refrigerator, again is a great change of pace.

This isn't going to be a super-long entry, because there isn't a hell of a lot to say about the show.

There aren't any characters that annoy me because it's pretty much Brown for 30 minutes. There aren't any plot twists that bug me, because it's a cooking show. There aren't any cliff hangers, hot chicks or other gimmicks that traditional shows need in order for their audience to come back. It's a cooking show hosted by a pretty cool guy that explains why food tastes good. I like “Good Eats” because I like to eat, I like Alton Brown and I like to learn.

I will say this, my initial theory about this show and Alton Brown proved to be 100% incorrect. I thought that Brown was an engineer or scientist who dabbled in cooking. He eventually became dissatisfied with his work and enrolled into a cooking school. I assumed that while his meals at the school were technically proficient, he was lacking in imagination (because most of his stuff that he makes on “Good Eats” is pretty standard faire).

Due to his lack of creativity he could not get a job at any restaurants,but still wanted to stay in the food industry, so he came up with “Good Eats”. He pitched the show to the Food Network as one that portrayed him as a chef's version of Mr. Wizard and combined his old love with his new.

This is all fiction.*

* To be honest, I'm not sure if this is the Internet's first version of a “Good Eats” Fan Fiction. If it is, at least no one ends up naked.

In reality, Brown majored in drama at the University of Georgia and was a cinematographer on music videos and some movies. He noticed that most cooking shows sucked, and since he didn't know much about cooking, he went to the New England Culinary Institute, graduated in 1997. “Good Eats” began on a PBS station in Chicago in 1998 and was picked up by the Food Network in 1999. He said that he was a terrible student in high school and college, but wanted to “focus on the subject (food) to understand the underlying processes of cooking.”

Pretty boring. I like my story better.

No comments: