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A meal is only as good as the people who make it

Food for Thought

By Alton Brown
Atlanta, Georgia

I think a lot about food. maybe that’s because I’ve been thinking about it for so long, ever since I was a kid, really, and I took a journey. In fact, the journey has never ended. It’s been a culinary journey for sure, and also a spiritual one all wrapped up in one.

I grew up in southern California, but my parents hailed from Georgia, where they favored cornbread, grits and greens—food that reflected their Appalachian sharecropper roots (food was a big deal in our house). In Los Angeles we gorged on tacos, enchiladas and guacamole. But when I was seven years old, we moved back to Georgia.

Weekly FeatureMy parents were adventurous and decided we’d drive. Not straight interstate either. No, they wanted us to see the country and to taste it. We didn’t take the thick red lines on the map or even the thin ones. We were following the black.

We drove and drove and when we got hungry we stopped—never at a chain restaurant but at one of those roadside places with a hand-painted sign in the window and homemade pies under glass. Or maybe a chrome-and-tile luncheonette attached to a gas station with a real Mom and Pop running it. And everywhere we went folks bent over backward to make sure we were treated well—real hospitality, as inviting as the delicious food that they were so eager and proud to serve us.

I ate blue cheese for the first time—wild stuff, I loved it!—and somewhere in Oklahoma my first bite of barbecue. How could something taste so good and be so messy? We shoveled in grits and greens like I’d never had before. I’ll never forget a remarkable sandwich with avocado in it (and I thought you could only eat that in guacamole).

I saw scenery that I thought only existed on jigsaw puzzles. Snow-topped mountains, brilliant desert sunsets, flat prairies with huge white clouds rolling above like tumbleweeds. When we came closer to Georgia the world seemed so green I couldn’t believe there weren’t sprinklers out there making everything grow. I was a visual kid and those sights are probably what influenced me toward my original career path. After we settled back in Georgia I finished up school and became a cinematographer. But food was always on my mind, as was that magical cross-country journey my family took.

Most of my work was shooting music videos or TV commercials—not food ones—but in between shoots, I’d watch the cooking shows on TV. I couldn’t get enough! My wife, DeAnna, would have to pry me away from them.

“Maybe you should shoot one,” she said to me one day.

The thought had occurred to me. After all, I loved to cook. But it was more than that. I was curious about every aspect of food and cooking…the science of it, actually. Could I create a cooking show of my own? All at once I could see it from behind the lens, could picture it, but I didn’t just want to shoot it. I wanted to be in it. I wanted to find a way to communicate the excitement, the passion, the pleasure I first experienced with food on that childhood journey. The yearning to know more was as deep as the desire that sparks any quest.

I left behind cinematography and we moved to Vermont where I attended the New England Culinary Institute. I polished my cooking skills and made a demo of a show I would call Good Eats.

I was ready to show America what it had shown me: Good food is an endless adventure.

Problem was, no one wanted to look at my demo. But why would they? I was nobody, just some guy with a crazy idea for a cooking show. At the Food Network, they wouldn’t even look at a demo tape (a policy they have since changed) and I didn’t begin to have the credentials for a live audition. Had I taken a huge risk for nothing?

I continued my work as a cinematographer. And the only thing that happened to the demo is that Kodak decided to pick it up for a one-minute segment to run on their web site. They just didn’t care about the food. They liked the process I used, and wanted to show off what the particular Kodak film I used could do. It seemed so ironic. But I was proud of my work and glad that at least one minute of it could be seen.

Then one day I got a call out of the blue from a young executive from, of all places, the Food Network. “You’ve got a very interesting idea for a show and I’d like to set up a meeting,” he said.

I was dumbfounded. “How did you even hear about me?” I asked.

“Surfing the net,” he said. “I happened to see your clip on the Kodak web site.…” A one-minute loop caught by a young exec. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe these things happen for a reason, as part of the journey, you might say.

Good Eats launched seven years ago and I’ve had more success—and more fun —than I ever dreamed. Cooking up a storm on TV and talking about it. But there have been moments when I’ve said to myself, We need to get out of the studio. Leave the set behind. We need to be with the people behind the food. Because, as I saw on that first trip, a good meal is only as good as those who make it.

This summer I hit the road to film my Food Network special, Feasting on Asphalt, which premiered July 29. I took my motorcycle with me—another passion—and turned off the big red roads, heading for the byways. To tell you the truth, I was worried that I wouldn’t find the small family-run roadside places of my memory. I feared that down-home hospitality had gone the way of hand-shelled peas and homemade pastry dough. Maybe I was taking my film crew on a nostalgic ride to nowhere.

Then one night, only three days into our trip, checking into a motel in the itty-bitty town of Estill, South Carolina, I was pulling out my credit card when I caught an unmistakable, irresistible whiff of curry. “Smells good,” I said to the man at the desk, a middle-aged Indian man.

“My wife’s soup,” Mr. Patel said. “Would you care to try some?” He invited us into his small apartment behind the office.

What soup! a yogurt-based curry concoction subtly spiced, fragrant with fresh herbs Mrs. Patel had snipped from her garden, it was one of the top-10 most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. And there was that one blessed ingredient: the Patels’ graciousness. Their willingness to share. Their extraordinary hospitality. In a tiny motel in Estill, I had a meal I’ll never forget, and made friends I’ll remember forever.

I was to discover this powerful ingredient everywhere we went in America. In diners, luncheonettes, roadside cafés. Once, in an American Legion hall in Florence, Kansas (a town I never knew existed), they were shorthanded. I was thrilled to get into the kitchen and help out, prepping vegetables. I got to dish out ice cream on the service line too. It felt good to be able to give some hospitality, as well as to receive it.

I told you this has also been a spiritual journey for me. I’m always talking about the physics of cooking, but I’m also into the metaphysics of it. A good meal should offer both physical and spiritual nourishment. That’s why I believe the Last Supper is at the heart of Christianity, perhaps its central moment. When Christ broke bread with his disciples and reminded them to do it in remembrance of him, he was showing them the way to both earthly and heavenly sustenance. The simplest moment can be the most profound. Christ unites with his disciples through food that is both sacred and real.

In the end, all journeys are spiritual. So go off the main road. Be givers of hospitality and gracious takers of it too. Accept the serendipitous moments of life because, when all is said and done, you may find out that they were not serendipitous at all. And know that faith is as real as bread broken among friends. What you believe will take you far on your journey. If you search carefully, you will find good food all along the way.

Editor’s Note: Alton’s new show, Feasting on Asphalt, his cross-country search for the nation’s best road food premieres on the Food Network, July 29th at 9 pm EST. For more info, go to http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/show_ab/