Good Food, Good Meat, Good God, Good Eats
teevee: December 24, 1999
by Chris Rywalt
Cooking shows are not about food. They are not about cooking, or food
preparation, or kitchen appliances. Cooking shows, quite simply, are about personalities.
You can see this easily if you spend any time at all watching the TV Food Network. All of
their shows have no directors, no writers, no cameramen, no gaffers or best boys or grips
or producers or henchmen or minions. They have no credits at all. All they have, in fact,
are sponsors and names, and the names tell it all: Emeril Live, Taste with David
Rosengarten, East Meets West with Ming Tsai, Molto Mario, Michael's Place, Hot Off the Grill with
Raving Egotist Bobby Flay and His Rack-shaking Sidekick, and so on. You can tell who is
preparing the food, you can maybe tell what type of food they're preparing, you can tell if there
will be a co-host with bouncy funbags -- but no more.
It has always been thus. Cooking shows began with Julia Child striding across the living
rooms of the Midwest, spreading bountiful French dishes no one in America had the
equipment to make, much less the desire. The Galloping Gourmet cantered through millions
of homes making a mess and quite a few bon mots, but perhaps few actual meals. In the
years since then the guttering flame of culinary TV was kept alight by the stalwart and
frugal Jeff Smith, whose main flaw as a cook was a tendency to find the weirdest
ingredients imaginable and eat them. And, as the TV Food Network is tapping that vein of
the American public eager for more cooking shows, Emeril Lagasse has emerged as the
premier entertainer to wield a saute pan, kicking it up to notches inedible by man without
the aid of novocaine.
Very few people are inspired to cook by these shows. Perhaps they are inspired to eat,
but after drooling through half an hour of watching David Rosengarten make his own ketchup
at two in the morning, most people will be burrowing through a bag of Oreos, not pan
roasting cardamom seeds.
The strength of cooking shows, though, is also their main problem: they are about
personalities -- personalities who are trained to be chefs, not TelePrompTer readers, not
emotive talk show hosts, and not, it must be said with all respect, very interesting
people. While their shows can hypnotize, at the same time these cooks bring their shows low with
their flat voices, line muffing, stumbling, and occasional outright bafflement and
confusion at being in front of a camera.
They cannot be blamed. Not everyone can interact with the TV with the ease of a professional wrestler.
So far, Emeril has come the closest to being the ideal cooking show chef. Although
in more recent episodes it's clear he's getting tired of his audience's constant interruptions of
"Bam!" and "Happy Happy Happy!", at least Emeril has a rapport with them, and some of
that comes through to the viewer at home. Emeril is truly a personality, even if he loses his
place while reading from the prompter, and even if his tropes are getting slightly stale.
Which brings us in a roundabout way to Alton Brown, host and star of one of TVFN's newer shows, Good Eats.
Finally, here we have the man who has it all. He knows how to cook and -- more
importantly -- he knows how to tell us how to cook, even if we're not going to
bother. Alton can speak clearly, and make jokes, and even deal with the silliness of discussing
vegetables with a gesticulating man in an onion suit who talks by waving his arms
around. Alton is witty and glib and coherent -- yet not above slapstick. Name another cooking show
that would feature in its Thanksgiving episode: a crazy turkey truck driver who knows more
than anyone should about the difference between a frozen and a refrigerated turkey
("32 degrees Fahrenheit is freezing, but not in turkeys!"); an Elvis impersonator; a
transvestite; a spoof of "The Matrix" and "The Phantom Menace"; an Asian woman named
W instructing Alton in the use of a digital thermometer; and a Martha Stewart look-alike who breaks into
tears when Alton makes fun of her stuffing.
Good Eats features regular visits by a Mad Food Scientist to explain the chemistry of
cooking (expect words like "osmosis," but not anything that makes sense to an actual
chemist) and a culinary anthropologist who apparently studies and gets paid to discuss what people used
to eat but don't any more (the Pilgrims didn't eat peas on Thanksgiving -- bad crop that
year). Crazy chefs pop in and shout advice in French accents: "Do not cut zee lettuce! Tear
eet jentlee like zo!" as Alton gleefully takes his knife to the romaine. Bubble
wrap drops from the ceiling to stand in for lettuce leaf cells in Alton's discussion. Assistants chop
onions while wearing gas masks to ward off the fumes (incidentally, cut onions give off sulphurous
gases which, on contact with your eye moisture, become H2SO4 -- sulphuric
acid. Just in case you were wondering).
Through all of this Alton Brown is having a wonderful time. He was born to be in front of
the camera: He's comfortable, energetic, amusing, and he knows how to hit his marks. He is
infectious; he makes me want to cook. I made a turkey according to his recipe, and you know, it was the best turkey I've ever made.
Alton gives good advice in a fun way and you learn a little something about food, and not
just that there are people who eat chard. You learn about onions, and potatoes, and
turkeys and lettuces and giblets. And fruitcake -- don't forget the fruitcake. You might even find yourself applying this new knowledge.
Funny that a cooking show should finally get itself a real TV personality -- and is free thereby to be about cooking.
Chris Rywalt has lived his
entire life within sight of the World Trade Center in New York City. His
Web page looks
so 1995. But as a man of many talents -- he programs, he writes, he draws, he paints, he
sings -- okay, he doesn't sing well -- he can't always be updating one paltry file. He has written 20 TeeVee
articles and 9 Station Breaks.