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‘Feasting on Asphalt’: Alton Brown Hits the Road for Down-Home Grub on the Go
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: July 28, 2006
Maybe it’s time for a good, old-fashioned food show in which someone haughty and highly trained declares that there’s no dish anywhere in the United States that compares to the ethereal truffle with chestnut snow at La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France.
A position like that might carry shock value. For too long, American food personalities — especially the men — have been playing outlaws and flaunting their Johnny Lunchbucket tastes, claiming that cheeseburgers, pork rinds and home fries show every bit as much culinary prowess as haute cuisine. Maybe. They’re certainly grease-rich, and sometimes they taste all right.
But that pose: the near-hysterical enthusiasm for diners, drive-throughs, burger joints, pizza parlors, sandwich shops. Haven’t we had enough? Doesn’t anyone want to say that, sure, a grilled cheese can hit the spot, and cherry pie is great, but French food is still harder to make, better balanced, more beautiful and more delicious?
Nah, or at least not Alton Brown, the Food Network phenomenon and author of the beloved best seller “I’m Just Here for the Food.” This intermittently charming food guru has won too many friends with his everyman cookbooks and his everyman cooking show, “Good Eats.” And now he’s going really salt of the earth, with “Feasting on Asphalt,” which starts tomorrow after a “Good Eats” marathon: the new show is the cook’s chance to grab his motorcycle and an entourage and easy-rider it from South Carolina to Los Angeles, scarfing and overpraising roadside fare along the way.
In tomorrow’s episode, Mr. Brown starts at a hotdog place he knows in South Carolina, and runs down his checklist for good road food. He talks at his usual auctioneer’s tempo, throwing in little croutons of erudition and food science. What he likes in a road restaurant, he says, is outdoor seating, quirky décor, an owner who stays at the restaurant, a helpful staff, some special technique in the cooking and hand-cut fries. But what he also requires, he announces, is a place that “does not betray its DNA.” By this he means a restaurant that doesn’t put on airs, or serve rosemary chicken when it should stick to chicken fingers.
This is O.K., as far as it goes, and nobody likes those menus that feature milkshakes and sushi or whatever. But something in Mr. Brown’s DNA metaphor suggests that he wants his rundown, picturesque roadside places not to get ideas about their station. Because who would want someone to try to capitalize on the down-home food craze and create a franchise? And publish recipes for corn dogs, meatloaf, gravy and hash? And bill himself as just another workaday cook who loves some cracklin’? Not Alton Brown. Understandably.