Food TV's Good Eats Guy Hits the Road
by Matt Webb Mitovich

Alton Brown courtesy Food Network
Alton Brown, Feasting on Asphalt

If you find Food Network's Alton Brown to be a fascinating fountain of information as the host of Good Eats, you won't want to miss what he's serving next. The four-part series Feasting on Asphalt (premiering Saturday, July 29 at 9 pm/ET) seats Brown and his buds on motorcycles as they travel cross-country for what has to be the most impressive progressive dinner on record, sampling regional cuisine all along their way from Savannah, Georgia, to the California coast. Brown paid a visit to recount his travels. As a guy who has a peanut-butter sandwich in the fridge down the hall on this particular day, I feel a tad inadequate interviewing you.
Alton Brown: There's nothing wrong with a peanut-butter sandwich, but let me ask you a question: If it's just a peanut-butter sandwich, why did you put it in the fridge? Um... I like it to be cool?
Brown: You like it to be cool, OK. See, I'm a room-temperature peanut-butter guy. Feasting on Asphalt is a perfect title. Did it come to you right away?
Brown: Actually, it did. It's one of those things where the name of the song came before the song. The series has a neat cinematic, road-movie feel to it....
Brown: We worked hard for that. There's this big movement, certainly in 16:9 letterboxing, to do everything hi-def. But I don't really like hi-def; I find it too clean, too perky. What I've found is if you shoot on 24-frame standard video, but framed at 16:9, and spend a lot of time in color correction, you end up with something that looks a lot like film, though it isn't. Was it a concern at all that as you, say, recount the origins of the diner, you might overlap material that's been covered by Food Network's Unwrapped?
Brown: No, I never take that into consideration. Other people have asked me if I've watched Ewan McGregor's Bravo series, Long Way Round, where he did a motorcycle trip across Asia. I didn't, because I was afraid I'd either steal pieces or sacrifice pieces in an attempt to avoid it. I watched old road movies for inspiration, but nothing current. Was your trip as freewheeling and spontaneous as it's portrayed?
Brown: Yes. Utterly. On a day-to-day basis we did not know where we were going, what we were eating, or what we were going to see — which made for extremely stressful going. I had to get to Las Vegas for a work commitment by a certain date, but that was the only [deadline]. From there it was to the Pacific Ocean. What again is "cracklin' cornbread," which we see in the first episode?
Brown: Cracklin' is basically cooked-down pig skin, and kind of like bacon, in a way, but saltier. It gives the cornbread a different crunchy flavor, but it's also, like, "pork perfume." That's the only way I know how to put it! People often think that bacon is the ultimate expression of pork, but you taste the curing process and the smoking process. Cracklin' is pig, nothing but pig, boiled down into its pure essence. The perfume version of pig. You obviously met a lot of people who are passionate about keeping their food real and ...
Brown: Simple, yeah. Here's the thing: In this country, we tend to objectify food too much. "Is this the best brownie? The ultimate macaroni-and-cheese?" We forget that food's real meaning is taken in the context of a much larger picture. The time I had my best hamburger, was it the best hamburger? I don't believe in a best hamburger, because you can't separate food from place or people or time. And you shouldn't. People will say things like, and this is especially true with road food, "Oh, I had this apple pie...," but they'll always tell you where they were. They marry it to a place, and that gives meaning to it. That's what I wanted to do — give food meaning. You do an interesting bit on how the advent of cup holders in cars led to the disappearance of drive-ins. Was there anything you were surprised to learn or discover while doing this?
Brown: The things that were truly revelatory were actually larger concepts. For instance, a big part of true hospitality comes not from giving but from graciously accepting. That's something Middle Eastern cultures understand far better than we do, the value of breaking bread with strangers. As far as revelations about food, there is more regional food out there than I had thought — and what's funny is it's protected by tasting bad. Our national palate has been so conditioned towards sweet/salty/fatty that we no longer have an ability to acquire or appreciate new flavors, so there are these pockets across the country where there are regional foods that are beloved by a certain population, and they taste like crap to the rest of us. You have to acquire a taste for it and Americans don't like to do that anymore. I've told people, "If you had never had a good single-malt Scotch before in your entire life and I put one in front of you, you would think I'd given you paint thinner." Coffee? If it wasn't now in our national palate, it wouldn't taste good. It's bitter. One of the great things about traveling across this country in the '50s and '60s, before the interstate system and corporate fast food took over, is you tasted the difference of the country as the landscape and the food changed. The first episode covers diners, drive-ins, biscuits, soul food.... What's on the menu for the following weeks?
Brown: As we go up through Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina, we're going to be dealing with barbecue. As we get to places like Evansville, Indiana, we'll be pondering such things as burgoo — which is a stew, usually made in a communal atmosphere and which used to have squirrel in it — and brain sandwiches. As we head across the heartland into Kansas and places like that, there's a lot of pie, and we do some investigation into the lunch-counter phenomenon. We get out to Colorado and encounter Native American foods, like fried bread, that have been adapted into a fast-food atmosphere. And then across the desert we investigate the history of the chuck wagon and we make coffee on Pike's Peak — extremely difficult at 14,000 feet. From Vegas on, I was in a car because I had an accident. I broke my collarbone. You'll see that in Episode 4! I was going to ask if you took any spills on the bike.
Brown: We were on a gravel track about 20 miles outside of Vegas in the desert. I was on a BMW 1200 RT, a sport-tour bike, and I thought, "I've got no business being here. I've got the wrong piece of equipment for this [terrain]." As I went past the [camera] truck, I [told them], "You might want to roll because I'm probably going to die." Not five minutes later I was on the ground. If Feasting on Asphalt goes over well, is there material for another round?
Brown: I've been thinking that not only could there be more Feasting on Asphalts, there could be Feasting on Waves, Feasting on Clouds, Feasting on Hooves.... You could take this in a lot of different directions. But it's very labor-intensive. In the same amount of time that I could shoot eight episodes of Good Eats, I made this. But Good Eats is continuing on strong?
Brown: We start again in two weeks. Two more sets this year, and one more season of Iron Chef America. I'm a busy boy!