The Taste of Disillusionment

September 18, 2011

or
An advanced lecture in alienating your audience.

I’m in Iowa. I won’t be by the time I post this, but, for now, as I write this, I’m in Iowa. Cedar Rapids, to be precise – the second-largest city in the state. It’s about four hours west of Chicago, and my cousin Beth invited me out to stay with her and her husband Matt, so that she and I could go see Alton Brown give a lecture at Theatre Cedar Rapids, which is a gorgeous theatre.

A little background: Alton was there for a program called Inside-Out, which the Cedar Rapids Public Library has inaugurated to draw more patrons to the library and its services. See, the library was pretty much annihilated in the 2008 flood, and the collection, too, was destroyed. The city’s plans to rebuild a fabulous new library and make it enormous and wonderful are inspiring, although Beth says their choice of location was a little suspect, and perhaps overexpensive. So this was a library benefit event. That’s background factoid number one.

Background factoid number two: I have always loved and idolized Alton Brown.  (As of this writing) I am twenty-three years old.  I’ve been watching Good Eats since I was a pre-teen – the show, now in its fourteenth and final season, has aired for the last twelve years.  Half my life.  For the duration of that period, Alton was one of my great food heroes – always explaining, illustrating, and above all, democratizing food in such a way that I could understand it.  I hold only Jacques Pépin in higher esteem, and that was because my father owned signed copies (!) of Pépin’s La Technique and La Méthode, magnificent instructional tomes which my parents bought for me in a consolidated edition shortly after I left for college.

Beth and I were pumped to see Alton, needless to say.  Hell, I drove 234 miles so we could see him together.  I’m not going to say I drove the entire time with his book in my lap, bouncing in my seat as I sped down I-88, because I didn’t.  But I’d like you to imagine that I did, so that the next sentence hits you in the gut like a sack of bricks.

Alton Brown is a jerk.

That’s the highest level of excoriation I can bring myself to type right now, as more than a decade’s worth of adulation, self-effacing Midwestern modesty, and the feeling of holy-crap-I’m-putting-my-name-to-this-I’d-better-not-invite-room-for-Brown’s-attorneys prevent me from saying anything harsher.  But let me elucidate.  There were a few things that happened during Brown’s chat that began to sour me on the guy – Beth, too.  Let’s get to ‘em:

The Setup

1. Alton began the chat with a gift of books to the library, which we cheered wildly!  The reason he’d been asked to come to Inside-Out was because many patrons of the Cedar Rapids library had checked out cookbooks – particularly his.  So he began with a gift of a complete set of his cookbooks, which he pulled out of a box with appealing fake surprise.  “Oh, what’s this?  Another one?”

But when he was finished with his own books, I had sort of expected him to stop with the jokes and give some other books to the library – essential cookbooks that had guided him to the place of knowledge where he is now.  But, nah – he gave the library The Story of Vinegar and White Trash Cooking – which, okay, looks pretty interesting.   But he held up one of the books and said, “So, okay – this book’s from the South, where I’m from, and it’s got a few things in it that might be kind of foreign and exotic to you Iowans.”  He turned the page.  “Look!  A real live Negro!”

Silence.

He muttered, “Okay.  Remind me not to make African-American  jokes in Iowa.”*

It’s totally within reason to make fun of the near-complete racial homogeneity of Iowa, which is upwards of 95% white, as of 2005.  I mean, it pretty much invites it.  But there was just something about the way he said the word negro, or even that he said it at all, that elicited a sudden lump in my throat.  “Really?” I mouthed at Beth.  At best, let us say it was a joke made in very poor taste.

2.  Alton had come to give a talk, of course, and he had a big ol’ Powerpoint up on the projector behind him: Ten Things I’m Pretty Sure I’m Sure About Food.  He won me back as  he began his talk by going on about how chickens don’t have fingers, and if children continue to ask for chicken fingers, they should be given chicken feet (which I have enjoyed on occasion, but never successfully cooked myself).  And as for the matter of children refusing to eat what is given them, Alton said, “Never negotiate with terrorists.”  Children ought to eat what their parents make for dinner, and parents ought not to make special, separate meals for their children (barring any allergies or sensitivities, but in that case why not make the whole meal child-safe anyhow?)

He then proceeded to look around the audience for kids, to ask them whether or not their parents were feeding them properly.   He singled out an 8-year-old girl in the audience, who was given a microphone.

“Do you eat well?” he asked her.

“I think so!” she said.

“I don’t trust you,” Alton said, to laughter.  “Where’s your dad?”

The girl passed her microphone to the man next to her.  “Sure, she eats well!” he said.

Alton nodded.  Then he said, “No, I don’t trust you either, Dad.  Where’s the girl’s mother?”  Again, laughter.

Alton couldn’t find the girl’s mom.  About ten awkward forever-seconds went by.

“Man,” said Alton to the girl, “If that guy next to you is your other daddy, I’m in the wrong state.”

Again the crowd went really quiet, but up in the balcony, I’m pretty sure Beth and I gasped.

Gay marriage is legal in Iowa, Mr. Brown.  Did you think that joke would work here?  Did you think that joke would work in Iowa’s second-largest city?  In a congressional district with a comfortably-reelected Democratic representative?

It was then that I realized he thought this was Ames, not Cedar Rapids – that we were an Iowa Republican Straw Poll state fair crowd, in Representative Bachmann’s tent, that we weren’t at a benefit for a library.  Do you think the sort of people that are going to come out for a library benefit, conservative, liberal or otherwise, are going to respond well to a joke about gay marriage?

Again, it was a joke in really poor taste.  The book I’d brought sat across my lap and started to feel a little heavier.  “I’m not sure I want him to sign this now,” I said.

3.  At some point during the talk, Alton said, “Restaurants aren’t churches.”  When you go into a restaurant, you, the consumer, are in charge.  You should be able to order off the menu.  You should be able to order anything off the menu.  I think this is true, up to a point: if they sell omelettes and fried eggs at a breakfast joint, you should be able to order scrambled eggs.  If they make grilled cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs, you should be able to order a grilled cheese sandwich with a scrambled egg in it.  Fine.  That’s fair.

But Alton went on to tell a story about how he and his wife were in North Carolina, and they were at a seaside restaurant that had recently revamped its menu such that it no longer included hush puppies.  “And my baby wanted hush puppies,” Alton said.  So he ordered some.

“I’m sorry, sir; those aren’t on the menu,” said the server.

”They are so on the menu,” Alton (said that he) said.  “Your catfish, here, is rolled in cornmeal.  Your fried chicken is soaked in buttermilk.  Your french fries are made in a deep-fat fryer.  Combine the cornmeal and the buttermilk, make them in to balls, fry them, and serve them to my wife.”

“I’ll have to go speak to the manager,” said the waiter.

Alton said he didn’t get what he wanted until he scrawled “I’m comin’ back there!”  on a coaster and had it delivered to the cook.  And he recommended that we all give this a try.

“Oh, sure, because we all have name recognition and contracts with the Food Network,” I muttered to my cousin.

“And there’s no way that restaurant would kick us out,” she said.

Here’s the thing.  I knew Alton was a Republican, and that never bothered me in the slightest.  It still doesn’t bother me.  I understand and respect his desire for individualism and self-determination.  What bothers me is that he didn’t think this out fully, and I had conceived of him as being a deep thinker.  Individual freedom also means that a business owner has rights, too: if a patron’s being an asshole, I have the right to eject him from my restaurant.  It’s not some kind of snootified us-versus-those-fancy-restaurateur scenario – it’s “you don’t get to treat my waitstaff that way and expect to get served”.

The rest of the evening proceeded to illuminate his I’ve Got Mine, I Don’t Care If You’ve Got Yours philosophy.

4.  He had just finished inveighing against the USDA and the FDA.  “They’ll never be able to catch any of those diseases with more regulation – that’s BS.  It just makes things more expensive for the producers of American food.  Government should get out of the marketplace!  Leave my lettuce alone and go back to making missiles!”

And then he went on to inveigh against Walmart, for destroying small businesses as well as its own suppliers, just so that the American public can enjoy a can of Chinese-made chili for 39 cents.  He displayed an image of the can’s contents, which was a gelatinous goo full of pale beans and a few dried chiles.

“Is this what you want, America?” Alton said.  “Is this worth 39 cents to you?  Chili doesn’t come from China!  It comes from Texas!  We shouldn’t be trusting the Chinese to make us cut-rate chili!  Who knows what they put in it?” 

Now.  Maybe I’m misinterpreting the protectionist sentiment, here, but what’s wrong with Chinese canned goods?  Is it just that they’re making chili incorrectly?  Or is it because it’s marginally unsafe to eat food from mainland China?

I mean, China, after all, is the land of plastic-infused baby formula, scavenged oil, and phosphorescent pork.  A land of very little industrial regulation.

You can’t have it both ways, Mr. Brown, and perhaps I’ve cross-wired your America Firstism with my own worries about imported Chinese goods, but if I’m right, you’re a hypocrite.

The Heist

Beth and I left without getting my copy of I’m Just Here For The Food signed.  I was intensely disappointed.  In the parlance of our times, we “hugged it out” on the walk to her car, and I let my shoulders slump.

I don’t want this to be a “I’m a liberal and my hero’s a conservative; ergo he is no longer my hero” entry.  Please, God no – don’t let that be the takeaway.  It was more that my hero turned out to be a jackass, a bit of a bigot, and a hypocrite, and I wanted to share my disapprobation.  Hell – some of my favorite thinkers are conservatives.

It’s that I’m just disillusioned.  I told Dave, my old roomie, about it, and he said, “There’s a simple lesson here: never meet your heroes.”

I think he might be right.

What I failed to do here, and what I’ll be doing in the future with Alton, is separate the televised persona from the man himself – I had expected Real Life Alton to be as genial and friendly as Television Alton.  He’s not – he’s a good deal more cynical and curmudgeonly.

I don’t know what I should have expected – it’s like I expected Stephen Colbert to actually be the Bill O’Reilly caricature he inhabits on the air.  I blame myself, really.  But when I was in Cedar Rapids, I bought Jacques Pépin’s memoir, The Apprentice.  It’s excellent so far, but if he turns out to have been a collaborator under Maréchal Pétain, I’ll be fresh out of heroes.  Probably that won’t be the case, since he was a little kid during WWII – but if he turns out to be an asshole, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.  I’m resolved to never find out, because I think I’d like never to meet Pepin now – not because of any ill will I bear him, but for the opposite reason: the real man might not bear up against the narrative I’ve constructed for him.

Well, that was depressing.  You know what’s awesome?  MEAT.

I’d heard on The Splendid Table (okay, there’s another hero!  Lynn Rosetto Kasper.  Ha! I’ve already forgotten you, AB.) that Iowa and Indiana hosted a particularly American delicacy – the pork tenderloin sandwich.  Now, I’ve eaten pork tenderloin, and I think I had a completely different image in my head when I first heard about these things.  I was imagining slices of pork tenderloin laid on a bun – this is a false image.

In Iowa, a pork tenderloin sandwich is made by taking a piece of tenderloin, pounding it to an absurd thinness (1/8th of an inch or so), then breading it as one would a piece of wiener schnitzel.  And then deep-frying it.  And then serving it on a comically-tiny bun.  We’re talking hilariously teensy, here.  The bun may take up as little as 1/3 of the area of the fried slab of pork.  Although the sandwich is dressed with pickles, onions, and maybe mayo and mustard, the predominant flavor isn’t pork, but fried.

When you look up Pork Tenderloin Sandwich in the encyclopedia, the image that comes up is from Joensy’s, an Iowa restaurant that’s famous for serving the “Biggest and best” pork tenderloin sandwiches in the state.  I got a sandwich at the original Joensy’s in Solon, Iowa, on my way back to Chicago.  I don’t know about best – it was pretty crispy on the outside and tender on the inside – but it certainly was friggin’ enormous.

There she blows to our leeward side, Starbuck!  The great white whale himself!  Seriously that thing is huge.

If I may utter some out-of-state blasphemy, I think the sandwich is ill-served by being pounded so thin, and therefore so large.  More than an immense plane of fried, I think I wanted to taste the meat itself.  I think I would have been satisfied by a slightly thicker patty of similar weight.  I know it’s kinda fun to have the pork exceed the bounds of the sandwich, but by god does it make it difficult to eat.

They put some onions on the sandwich, but I think it's mostly to taunt you.

And when you’ve finished eating around the bun, you still have an entire sandwich to go.

As well as another 300 miles to drive.  Urp.

I wish they’d given me more cole slaw.  That stuff was excellent, and I got maybe a quarter-cup of it.  You’d think that a restaurant that gave me a square foot of deep-fried pig would have been less stinting on the slaw.

My takeaway: it’s legendary for a reason, but I think it falls into the sort of state fair food that I only need to eat once every five years.  For now, it’s zucchini and kale until the meat sweats stop.

Speaking of better living through veggibles, here’s a little stalk of tomato vine, with some of my 5-Star Grapes maturin’ on it:

Summer came late, so the growing period continues apace.  I expect to get another five pounds at least out of my plants before first frost.

So.  Everything grows; everything progresses.  I’ll not abjure my love of Good Eats, but I won’t be in a hurry to see Alton’s next program, I’ll tell you that much.

 

* changed to reflect the account of Chad, AKA lilzaphod, and his wife.

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79 Responses to “The Taste of Disillusionment”

  1. Damn, that’s heart-breaking. Good thing my other food hero Tony Bourdain is in fact a jerk and damn proud of it.

    • David R said

      No kidding, Z. Bourdain looks at the beating cobra heart of public disdain and eats it whole.

    • RS said

      I always liked Anthony Bourdain because unlike the other personalities that try their super best to be nice and likeable, Bourdain just puts his honest personality out there. I think he is a bit of a jerk, but I trust his opinion more than a lot of the foodnetwork personalities.

      • Frankly said

        Sadly he pretty much has given up on the honest review stuff in favor of his pet things. He only has bad meals at places he didn’t like before he got there & has never had a bad meal at any Chinese, Indian or or Vietnamese place. Not once. If you took his word for it there is no mediocre food there.

        Its all about Tony & his ego now it seems.

      • MG said

        Yeah but thats the thing about Tony, he is constructing an illusion of a personality as well. I’m willing to bet you’ve never met him. If my assumption is correct, how can you be so sure what he’s truly like? He plays a part on TV of a badass, and a “tell-it-like-it-is, take-it-or-leave-it” jerk; one that people, for whatever reason, most often mistake as being “real,” and eat it up whole.

  2. I feel for you with that experience with Alton, though I’m not terribly surprised, really. He struck me that way more & more in recent years. But I am surprised that he didn’t take more time to understand his audience.

    Btw, is there a link to the library trying to replace its collection, by any chance?

  3. Ted said

    Dude, I should come find you and smack what’s left of the taste out of your mouth.

    I’m a transplanted Hoosier living in Seattle and I’d sell my kids for a good pork tenderloin right now.

    Yeah, too bad about Alton being a knob. I’d heard it before, so it’s not a huge surprise. There were hints in the Dining on Asphalt series.

    • David R said

      So I’m a blasphemer! Okay, I’ll bite – what makes a good tenderloin sammich? I know Joensy’s isn’t supposed to be the greatest in Iowa (despite their claims), so I’d be open to an education. What part of Indiana are you from? I go up to NW Indiana all the time – are there some good places in Porter and LaPorte Counties I should know about?

      • Ted said

        > what makes a good tenderloin sammich?

        Ummm… A state fair .

        Seriously, though a good pork tenderloin sandwich is kinda like good fried chicken. The meat has to be well done and the breading has to be right. You can only mess up the meat.

        For a pork tenderloin, the meat done right means that it should be thin but not overly so or it will dry out. It has to be pounded out on site (no shipped in frozen) and the breading has to be flavorful.

        You also need to eat it with the sandwich in one have and a bottle of yellow mustard in the other.

        No doubt, I’ve had bad pork tenderloin but a good one is sublime.

        I’m from Lafayette and I’ve been gone for so long, I have to rely on relatives when I’m there.

      • David R said

        A friend of mine just told me that it’d be acceptable to fold the tenderloin if it’s too enormous to fit into the sandwich. What’s your take on that?

    • Oh. My. God. I’m a transplanted Hoosier living in Salem, OR and I feel EXACTLY the same way. Used to go to this little bar way out in the middle of BFE in Park County, IN called Tex Terry’s, and they had tenderloins so big they served them with two buns, and half the sandwich was STILL outside the bun. CRAZY BIG and crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside… The memories are torture. Your words ring so true even a few years later. :)

  4. Unfortunately, I see more and more stories like this about Alton Brown as the years have gone by. A lot of tales of people meeting him and finding him brusque, dismissive, rude, unfriendly, or otherwise not the friendly and charming person you see on TV. Even on twitter, people have been taken aback at how he’s acted and I’m one of them. I don’t know if the persona on TV has always been an act or if something has happened to turn him this way, but I decided a couple of years ago that I didn’t think I’d want to meet AB if he ever actually came to my neck of the woods.

  5. How sad! Good cook, lousy human being.

  6. Bilbo said

    You need to lighten up, IMO. The jokes weren’t funny but neither were they racist or bigoted. Negro is often used as a funny or ironic way by many people from the South who aren’t racist.

    From what you’ve described, it seems his politics do actually bother you and you projected your own bigoted view of them onto him. That’s how it looks to me from an outsider.

    • Alpha said

      Agreed. As much as you say, oh its not his politics, yet you commented many times on how he didn’t agree with yours. I don’t want Good Eats for his political commentary.

    • Uh, I’m from the South (going back umpteen generations on my mom’s side, even) and I would NEVER make a joke like that. Nor would any of my Southern friends.

    • Eric said

      Seriously. This was NOT that offensive, you are just looking for something to bitch about…

      • The reason you dorks don’t find the jokes offensive is because you agree with where they’re coming from and/or the content. To the rest of us rational human beings, however, “LOL N*GGERS AND F*GGOTS AM I RIGHT FOLKS” jokes – which are the gist of his punchlines – aren’t very funny at all because we don’t find the concept of someone being black or gay inherently amusing or mockery-worthy.

    • zeroshade said

      Uh……the jokes were explicitly racist and bigoted. Negro is never used in a funny or ironic way by anyone who isn’t racist. That joke about “your other daddy” was immensely homophobic.

      • Kastnna said

        “Negro” is most certainly used in a comical and ironic way. No respectable southerner uses that term. But many Northerners thinks of us as backwoods hicks still living in the 1800 that use terms like that on a daily basis. That northern misconception WAS the joke. It’s not that it was bigoted, it’s that you missed the joke and then projected your (mis)interpretation onto him.

        Lighten up.

      • beanocook said

        Wow, I knew white liberals were sensitive but I never knew they were this sensitive. I suppose living in a white utopia makes it near impossible for the white liberal to feel comfortable when race is brought up. Alton was lighthearted and clearly telling playful jokes, if you weren’t uptight enough to notice. You calling Alton a bigot is precious. Dems like you used to use the N word on their opponents, now it’s the B word. Always gotta insult those you look down on. Wrong side of history again.

  7. Alton must have some really good handlers to keep his obvious racism and bigotry hidden for so long.

    How do you folks feel about Chef Ramsey in Hell’s Kitchen? I think he needs to tone down the jerk factor — waaaay down — and maybe let us learn how to cook some food. The show’s pointless.

    • Frankly said

      I have worked in kitchens and occasionally have run into assholes like Ramsey. I never stay in a place like that. They don’t make good food. It is one thing to be a tough chef, I’ve no problem with them but abusive assholes turn out poor product.

      I assume he is over acting because it plays well on TV but there is not way to tell since he is no longer a chef but a TV personality. They could do better with R. Lee Ermy

    • aadmike27 said

      See here’s the thing about Hell’s Kitchen (US), and Kitchen Nightmares (US). Its the editing, and the fact that Americans enjoy that type of loud obnoxious garbage. Watch the UK version of KN and you will see an entire different side of Ramsay. Or, you could watch the F Word, his other show, and see how genuinely nice of a man he is. Its just American television portrays him as an asshole.

      • Agreed. He’s actually really helpful and funny and genuinely nice on the British versions. He still says “fuck” every other word, but that’s just the way he talks I guess!

  8. Chad said

    I have a few comments after reading your blog entry.
    First – I was there that night, and from your description, I think I was sitting behind you up in the balcony. Not many people made the drive from Chicago, and I remember hearing the couple sitting close to us talking to their neighbors about the drive.
    Second – I agree with your take on the ‘negro’ joke and the audience’s reaction, but you misquoted him on the follow up. It was “Okay. Remind me not to make African-American jokes in Iowa.” Doesn’t make it right, doesn’t change the outcome, but it does show that he knows the difference in nomenclature. In my opinion, it was a ham-fisted attempt at poking fun of the whiteness of Iowa.
    Third- I absolutely agree with you on the ‘Gay Marriage’ barb. It was in poor taste and tone deaf to the location, the audience, and general sensitivity on the subject. That said, he didn’t belabor the point, and I think it is ok that expressed his actual opinion on the subject. If anything, I’d rather gain some insight on the speaker instead of listening to some regurgitated and homogenized schlock. If he turned the session into an hour of politics (which I was afraid of at that point), I would have just been as pissed as you seem to be. Instead, he took the audience’s cue and moved ahead in his lecture.
    Fourth- You left out an important part of the Hush Puppy story. He specifically said “This is the one and only time I have done this”. You make it sound like it is a habit for Alton to go demanding that the staff cater to his every whim. His request is no more demanding than your take on ordering off menu with the examples he gave. If anything, his expanded point of view on the restaurant industry runs contrary to your take on his ‘cult of me’ persona. It is also quite possible that he was exaggerating the tale to make it fit his point of the communal expectations of owning a restaurant as a chef. My takeaway was that the restaurant should be about the food first, customer service second, and all pretensions should be left at the door for both staff and clientele alike.
    Fifth- Wal-Mart. Man, you got this one WRONG. Alton was slamming Wal-Mart and was talking about how he could tell when a Wal-Mart was close on his ‘Feasting’ trips because the small towns around the area were dying. He also told the story about how predatory Wal-Mart was to the farmer producing the crops that were picked up late, shipped too far, and how they cut the prices paid based on their own logistical issues. At this point, it really feels like point 2 and 3 above colored your take on him so bad that you weren’t able to listen to what he was actually saying. I also think you took his point on the USDA wrong as well, but I’m already running long.
    I was lucky enough to have pre-show tickets to the cocktail hour and actually got to observe Alton before he went on stage. He was incredibly personable to each and everyone he talked with. When I had the opportunity to talk with him, he was very congenial, answered my question with some thought, and was gracious enough to pose for a picture with my wife and myself separately. Even better, I had forgotten to get my book signed during my first encounter, and I went back 30 minutes later. He remembered that we had already spoken and was very nice about signing my book.

    All in all, I came away from this event happy to have had the opportunity to hear him speak. I feel that while I may keep very different politics from the man, we have a lot of common ground where it comes to food. To me, it feels like your near hero worship of the TV idol fell flat when the actuality of the man was revealed. While you don’t want this to be an anti-conservative hit piece, it does feel a little bit like you took the long knives out for him once his personality diverged from his persona. He’s not the Wizard of Oz, he’s just the man who’s behind the Alton Brown curtain.
    Also- Joensy’s tenderloins aren’t that great. If you’re in the area again, drive a few mines further on I-80 to Exit 230 to Oxford, IA. There is a restaurant there (Augusta) that won the Pork Producer Council’s Tenderloin contest a couple years back. They don’t pound them as flat as Joensy’s, they brine the meat, and use a season Panko crust. Best damn tenderloin you can find.

    • David R said

      Chad –

      Thank you for your measured and considerate response! You very well may have been behind me and my cousin, because we were in the balcony, near the back.
      Second, I think you’re right, and I’ll change the quote.

      I suppose, had I been feeling more charitable, I could have interpreted the “Restaurants are Not Churches” section to be “Consumers have more control in the restaurant than they think they do,” but you’re right – I was already primed to find fault with him for revealing his hidden apprehensions about gay marriage. It sounds like you don’t agree with him on the restaurant front either, though – doesn’t a restaurant, within reason, have the right to choose what goes on its menu?

      I recognize what Alton meant about what Walmart does to small businesses and their suppliers, but it really seemed to me that he was hammering them, at that point, for selling Chinese goods. I thought I detected hypocrisy in that because he inveighed so heavily against federal inspection agencies. I recognize that he’s being a conservative realist – that it is, in fact, impossible for an agent to inspect every single jar of peanut butter that comes through a processing facility – but I have to believe that the FDA is good for something, or it never would have been formed in the first place as a response to the expose-journalism of the early 1900s.

      I’m glad you and your wife had a nice time with the man; I suppose if I’d managed to swallow my pride and get my book signed, maybe I’d be feeling differently, too.

      You’ve got it completely right: I don’t want to eviscerate the man, but I did want to open up a conversation about his actual personality, where it diverged from his constructed persona – I don’t tend to support public figures who reveal themselves to be homophobes, and I want others to inspect my account and, if they find it sufficient, to vote with their dollars in another direction. Does that make it seem a bit more necessary?

      Also: You, everyone else, and their mothers have been telling me I was mistaken in going to Joensy’s, and that kind of civic pride fills me with a joy I falter to explain. I should be happy to eat a sandwich at Augusta’s. And I’ll buy you one.

      Thank you again for your comment – I appreciate your opinion and insight.
      -David

      • Chad said

        The problem with the USDA/FDA is that they have things like “standards for the amount of rodent feces you are allowed to have in your food” (paraphrase). My standard is ZERO, but it’s not realistic when you put the human factor in it. People (read inspectors) can be bought. Factory farming and mass production of the food supply makes it nearly impossible to keep decent tabs on the food chain with the scale we have in America.
        Hell, I’ve worked in kitchens for a large portion of my life. I’ve seen some really crappy things happen when the bosses weren’t looking and the line was having a really crappy day. Ever see a cook rim a plate and then send out an entrée on it? Unfortunately, I can say that I have.
        As Americans, we have several food scares per year where people become very sick due to the poor sanitation methods used in the production of the food we consume. I just don’t trust that the government has the ability to keep the food line clear and really what we have is “protection theatre” along with the ability to respond after the fact to large incidents. The government is really good at finding out the causes of what happened, but lacks in the prevention methods. We can’t employ enough people to keep the food chain secure. It’s just too massive.
        If anything, I took his “USDA can’t protect you” and the “wal-mart” rants along with his “know your farmer” sentences as a plea for people to wake up to the industrialization of the food chain. To me, it felt like he was pushing for smaller farms and CSA-type agreements where you know the people where you were getting your food. It definitely had a small business feel to me than the traditional Republican “Big Business is Grand” and “Outsource, Outsource, Outsource” rah-rah fest that comes from the right side of the political scale. And I happen to agree with this idea. But maybe this was a case where I was reading into what he said and applying my own filters too tight.
        I respect your desire to not support those whose personal agenda runs counter to you own, and I have several causes like that myself. I need to stew on this one a little bit. I won’t read Orson Scott Card for his involvement in the anti-gay crusades put on by the Mormon Church, but he’s way out in front with his propaganda against gay marriage. I didn’t get that vibe from Alton where he’s actively pushing against the rights of gays (but I haven’t been looking, either). If I find his actions are more in line with Card’s active campaigning for discrimination, I’ll quickly change my tune.
        If you’re buying the Tenderloins, I’ll buy the beer. Augusta keeps several local microbrews on tap.

      • David R said

        Ew – d’you mean “rim a plate” with his tongue? I mean, I’ve seen a chef clean a plate with a towel after plating a dish. Oh god, that’d be the worst.

        I’m all for localism, too, and I applauded Alton for advocating it – but I don’t think that the only way to respond to our industrialized food scares is to give up on regulation entirely. Although the use of the phrase “protection theatre” brings to mind that Atlantic Monthly article where Jeffrey Goldberg sneaks dozens of illicit items onto a plane (here). And I can’t argue with Bruce Schneier’s position in that article, and by extension, since airport terrorism and an e. coli outbreak are essentially the same thing (a failure of adequate screening), I suppose that weakens my own position.

        The day I found out Orscon Scott Card was so prominently anti-gay was a bleak and unhappy one. I don’t mean for this to be a polemic post, necessarily – but I do appreciate that you’re stewing about its ramifications. A couple of jokes in poor taste needn’t be enough for everyone to disavow Alton – it was simply enough for me.

      • Chad makes a good point about how to read Alton’s bashing of Wal-mart as more of a “know-thy-farmer” thing than anything else. Yet, to confuse the matters, I came across this tweet from Alton this morning:

        “You need to buy the straightforward Lodge or Lodge Logic (pre-cured) to be assured American product.”

        Not that there is anything bad with it, but there definitely IS a sentiment of “buy American” here. Boy, is this hard to read… But I am willing to concur with Chad: the stage persona is obviously devoid of human flaws, the man not necessarily so; but this does not necessarily make a COMPLETE jerk of the man, he may just have some weak spot like everyone else.

  9. michael said

    I’m going to skip over the Alton stuff and get straight to the point. The best pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa is found at the Sutliff Bridge Roadhouse. Its hard to find, but it is worth it.

    Alton :(

    • David R said

      Is Sutliff near Lisbon and Mt Vernon? The next time I’m near Cedar Rapids, I’m resolved to go to the Sutliff Cider brewery; I see no point in passing up the Roadhouse if that’s the case.

      (God, look at me now – promising to eat every pork tenderloin sandwich I see the next time I enter the state. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is breaded and crispy.)

      • Dan said

        Yes, here’s a google map http://goo.gl/mTPU2 If you really want to try and eat the best pork tenderloins in the state, the Iowa Pork Producers has awarded a “Best in State” title every year since 2003. The list of winners:

        2003 – Darrell’s Place, Hamlin
        2004 – Suburban Restaurant, Ames (grilled)
        2005 – Dairy Sweet, Dunlap
        2006 – The Town House Supper Club, Wellsburg
        2007 – Larsen’s Pub, Elk Horn
        2008 – Augusta Restaurant, Oxford
        2009 – Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe, Prairie City
        2010 – Uncle Buck’s Bar & Grill, Mitchellville

      • David R said

        Holy cow. Thank you!

  10. David–

    Have no worries about Jaques Pepin. You forgot, I took 2 master classes with him way back in time (1980 and 1981), and he was as charming and helpful as he appears to be on TV. As you know, he is my number one food hero–someone who came up in the ranks of French cooking with all the stages–apprentice, line cook, sous chef, chef de cuisine, Chef at the Elysee Palace, cookbook author and authority on classic French cooking. TV personality, etc. All you have to do is see how he interacts with his daughter Claudine on the few times she has on “Fast Cooking My Way” to know he is real and warm and kind.

    His cookbooks are as informative as he is in person, and teach not just recipes but construction of dishes and techniques.

    Alton Brown as always come across as somewhat of a prig and “my way is the best not matter what.” It did not surprise me to hear all the other negatives about him. If I was the owner of the restaurant of the “hush puppy incident,” I would have asked him to take his custom elsewhere.

    • David R said

      Thanks, Dad.

      I did forget you took classes with Pépin. He is a pretty sweet dude. ALLEGEDLY.

      • melinda said

        I got a chance in March to see Jacques Pepin cook with his daughter in Houston and actually eat the food (there were tix under some of the chairs). He was modest and kind and I got to shake his hand. He gave the teenager in front of me his apron and, in the face of his clear goodness, I did not fight her for it. So go see him if you can.

  11. It sounds like he may just be extremely socially awkward.

  12. todd razor said

    Hi Dave.

    Local blogger Timothy Johnson turned me on to your site today via Facebook. Glad he did. Thanks for visiting Iowa; sorry you had a lousy experience with your ex-hero in Cedar Rapids.

    There are quite a few good tenderloin shops here in Des Moines. Smitty’s, Mr. Bibbs and others that serve over-sized breaded and fried tenderloins. Hand-pounded beyond recognition? Yes. And delicious. When I’m in the mood for one, I often go with the junior size if it’s available, which cuts out the not-enough-bun problem.

    Later.

    • David R said

      Thanks, Todd!

      I may have been disappointed with Alton, but Cedar Rapids was pretty excellent overall – my cousin took me to Zin’s, as well as The Red Avocado in Iowa City, and I was suitably charmed.

      Is it sad that it didn’t even occur to me that they’d make a Junior Size?

  13. I’ve met a few of my celebrity crushes over the years, and it is really, truly disappointing when that one you thought was a sweetheart turns out to be a sourpuss dickhead.

    But I will tell you that I’ve met Tony Bourdain on a couple of occasions (I know, name dropping!), and he is true and pure…what you see is what you get. Actually, maybe to the other extreme…he is really a sweetheart.

    • David R said

      If Anthony Bourdain is secretly a nice man, then the moral poles of my food-celebrity universe have reversed, and I’m now living in the Southern Hemisphere. (Ooh. I wonder if I can see different constellations from here!)

      Who else has disappointed you in the past?

      • Ohhh…I’d hate to go there, regarding the disappointments. One mustn’t burn bridges.

        But really, Tony Bourdain doesn’t pretend…at least not that I could tell. He is everything he portrays to be, with a bit of creamy filling on the inside….but not too much, mind you. Must keep that stuff in check.

  14. Your mention of Michelle Bachman was kinda prophetic, seeing as she is making the exact point of the food industry being over-regulated:

    http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jg5tiOHkRC284VGUcA6v7WjX0Rwg?docId=04ccaabb47324824a4c81bb21f9cc3bd

    Creepy, to see Alton on the same page

    • David R said

      I can understand a desire to reduce or consolidate regulations, such that producers only have to perform one consolidated series of checks on their product, but I find it almost impossible to see why cutbacks in regulations are necessary in the face of a contamination outbreak. Y’know?

      I’m always skeptical of the industry perspective, but I’m persuadable – I just don’t see how you could come out of a recall scandal and turn about and say, “This is why we need fewer regulations in our meat industry.”

      -D

  15. Amy Gurley said

    I am a bit shocked by Alton’s comments, but I do agree with Chad. I’ve met Alton 4 times, and each time he’s been brash, yet considerate. He’s listened to my comments, answered my questions, and has been nice. If his jokes are offensive or fall flat, it may be his fault, but it’s not like he’s a stand up comedian. Everybody has said something that they thought was funny and have gotten crickets. Even real comedians have said things on radio or live TV that has been less than stellar. Stuff happens, and it sucks, and I’m sure he regretted it. I went and saw him at Monterrey Bay for the Seafood Watch talk, and he was very funny. Same goes for my Q&A of him in Seattle this past October (both are on youtube). I’ve watched him in numerous Q&As on youtube and he’s been hilarious. Sometimes jokes don’t work as you intended, and maybe where he lives in Atlanta, “Negro” is a more acceptable term, I don’t know. I think the way he is on Twitter is sarcastic humor, which I find entertaining and not offensive in the slightest, but that’s just me, I guess. I knew about his stance against foreign products a long time ago, back when he explained that he discontinued making his salt cellar because he couldn’t make it cheaply enough in America and didn’t want to outsource to China. He’s said before that what you see on Good Eats is him – but he’s obviously not going to be talking about “Negros” and wal-mart on a food show. Maybe I’m a bit biased because I really like the man so much. Even this whole retweeting haters things on twitter that he did recently didn’t stop me from following him. In fact, he’s even following me. So, I don’t know. Your bubble popped. I can understand that. But I wouldn’t give up on him completely.

    • David R said

      Thanks, Amy –

      I’ve been over this in my head again and again, and I can’t completely disavow Alton. Obviously, he says really sensible things most of the time. But I wanted to detail my sudden break with the persona and the man himself – as you saw from my discussion with Chad, I was really hurt that the persona I’d constructed around Brown wasn’t the fellow he actually is. And I can’t blame him for not being what I want him to be.

      In truth, I just reread “I’m Just Here For The Food” for the first time since I went to Iowa, and it’s still the same book; it’s just as useful. It still lives on my cookbook shelf. So never fear!

      I haven’t given up on the persona – I just won’t go out of my way to see Alton Brown outside of a TV set in the future.

      I am, however, glad that you have enjoyed the times you met him!

      -David

  16. slacker101 said

    Sorry to hear Alton was a kind of a disappointment. But that’s the risk you run when you meet people you like on the moving picture box ;-) No more scripts or teleprompters or “lesser tv personalities” to make fun of.

    I met Jon Stewart once and he was a very nice and gracious man. He put up with some nerdy/geeky questions from my fiance. The “real” Colbert is a sweetheart as well :-)

  17. Vince Castillo said

    I understand your emotions about Alton, although a bit hypersensitive. I am more bummed about the new Alton on his health kick. The fact that he trashed Adam Richman really bothers me. Should we both admit that we are upset with him because we love him so much?

    ,Vince

    • David R said

      I could buy that, Vince – although, as I think I’ve worked out, I love the persona, and that’s why the man disappointed me.

      I watch Man vs. Food occasionally, and I have to admit I find it a little gross, if not fascinating. He makes all that food disappear, and then suffers from what my friend Brian calls “the meat sweats”. And let me tell you, I do not envy Richman that feeling. Watching competitive eating has always left me with a weird feeling, but Adam Richman is definitely a charming dude. I don’t think Alton was hating on Richman specifically – I think he’d probably feel the same way about Takeru Kobayashi (the hot-dog eatin’ guy).

      That said, Alton doesn’t have the best history when it comes to making comments about fat people.

      Thanks for dropping by, Vince! I hope you stick around!

  18. Ginger said

    Alton Brown said I was “not quite an oompa loompa”… in front of a couple hundred people. I was completely embarrassed; not to mention mortified. Was it my weight or my height? I still have yet to recover from that emotional drop-kick…

  19. Quora said

    Would Jonas M Luster give up his job now to be one of the TV chefs/cooks?…

    Aside from being a MASSIVE jerk in real life[1] he’s also, yes, a funding member of “the Cure”. I once spent a day around him being an asshole to everyone, making disparaging remarks about anyone from feminists to gays to African-Americans (some of …

  20. Travelducky said

    I don’t have much to add to the conversational content that hasn’t already been written, I’d just like to say that it’s totally refreshing and joyful to read a civilized, intelligent, discussion on the internet. Thank you all.

  21. Blackjack said

    I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed that nobody confronted him. You ought to have, I think. You outlined all of these things and yet it’s all pretty much useless if the one person who *has* to hear it doesn’t. Please tell me you’ll at least write to him/his handlers about this.

  22. Damn, Alton! Dude needs a learning experience…maybe this post is it. It’s clear you’ve been fair to him, but the truth of the event was quite ugly.

  23. Stacy said

    Here’s my take on it. What is wrong with Negro? It’s not a racist word. Now if he said, n^^^^r, then I’d worry. I love Chinese food but I’m an American and try to buy things made in MY country. No, I wouldn’t buy gelatinous chili made in China because that’s not what they’re known for. If I lived in China, I’d buy China made products. I would just rather support my country, not theirs. I love ‘Good Eats’. It’s a smart show. People always seem to make a mistake in thinking the characters are like this in real life. I’ve never met Alton but I’ll continue to watch his shows. He’s a Food Network star. His politics should not be what’s the most important. He works in food.

    • Because “negro” is the polite way of saying “n****r” to 90% of the people who use the word. If this had taken place 30+ years ago, he’d have just the REAL n-word. The only reason he didn’t is because societal attitudes have changed.

      His “joke” works just as well if you say “this is what a black person looks like”. It’s still kinda a risque joke at that point, but at least you aren’t using a barely veiled racial epithet at that point. Plus, if he was trying to make a joke about how white Iowa was, why not just say black to use it as a contrast? Why the needlessly inflammatory word?

  24. holly said

    Alton is going to do a show on stage in GAY VILLAGE, at the COSTRO THEATRE in OCTOBER. Id give worlds to be their. I wonder if he knows? Boy, is he in the wrong part of town. Gay, lesbians, Drag Queens, Transexuals, you know just regular folks.

  25. James Thompson said

    David,

    I think you really let your political leanings get in the way of your opinion of AB. He made a joke about same sex marriage, and in your words he’s a homophobe. He said nothing that was anti-gay. He used the word “negro”, and you make him out to be a racist. Are you really that sensitive that just the mention of gay marriage or non-white people makes the speaker a hater or a racist?

    I agree that his attempts at humor were ill-conceived – regardless of the geography. Since his show ended, AB has been on a non-stop tour of the country, and perhaps he, or one of his advisers, thought it was a good idea to spice things up a bit. If so, I think he learned his lesson.

    I saw him two months later (Nov, 2011) in Panama City, Florida. He did about an hour-long show of cooking demonstrations laced with humor and not a single off-color joke was heard. Afterwards, he very graciously signed books and posed for pictures for what was probably around two hours. I waited for about 45 minutes, and there were a lot of people in line behind me.

    I learned a long time ago – when I was about your age – not to be too quick to judge and always give people the benefit of the doubt. Is AB a bigot and a jerk? Perhaps. But I need more evidence than one poor performance in Iowa.

    Sincerely,

    James

    • Uh, he was pretty clearly making fun of gay people. Overtly so. Did you even read what he said?

      As far as saying negro, why would he do that? The “joke” “works” just as well with “black person”, so why the thinly veiled “I-want-to-say-n****r-but-I-can’t” word?

  26. John Dryzga said

    My only real life meeting of Alton was also a disappointment, but not as bad as yours. I would like you to know that Jaques Pepin is exactly the same in real life as he is on TV. At one event I attended, he went through the entire audience and thanked them for coming. He is truly one great chef and gentleman. I hope you get to meet him soon to ease some of Alton’s sting.

  27. bonju said

    I’m glad to know that my suspensions about Brown is true. He’s a closeted bitter queen. I am not surprised he is a jerk. I’m not surprised he is anything but anti-humanity. He is pro money and he sounds intelligent but if I were in a room with him. I’d spit into his food and then throw it in his face. But, heyyy, that’s me! – Bonju

  28. Kelley said

    The solution: don’t have heroes. Recognize that every human is a complex soup of beauty, humor, ugliness, and scars, and none of us are “heroes.”

  29. chris said

    get a life you useless waste of space. lighten up. the country is tired of you bleeding heart liberal, politacally correct aholes. get a grip on your own life and shut the heck up.

  30. You didn’t want Brown to be all “political”, but you chided him based on political reasons. So he’s socially inept? Who cares??

    I.e. :you’re not following the status quo- so you must be banned. Ugh.. come on guys. Does *everything* need to go online? Give the guy a break. Give EVERYONE a break…

    • Uh, yeah, I don’t think I’ll give the dude who thinks making anti-gay jokes and using the word “negro” to describe black people in 2014 a break, but thanks anyway.

  31. Jay Bee said

    This is very well written. I agree with much…not all, but I really respect the neutrality you come very close to striking. You manage to pull of what seems to be a modern miracle. You state your opinion confidently & with objective back-up, and you also leave what seems to be a genuine opening for others to disagree as long as they have an intelligent disagreement. Very well written.

  32. Jay Bee said

    And to be clear. I don’t have feelings about Alton Brown one way or the other. I happened to stumble across this while looking up information about the Cooking Network and followed an internet wormhole of links. I just think it’s well written.

  33. mickrussom said

    Alton Brown is a jerk , but not for any of the reasons above. In fact I think this is agent provocateur garbage – you were paid to make an anti Libertarian/right of center screed that would place high on Google, another police state loving backer of the freedom stealing regime in place. And since 2011, 5-6 trillion in debt has been racked up, there are almost 90 million people out of work in the USA, the highest percentage out of work in 30 years, and now with more population. Of course you might still read those numbers that don’t include the disaffected, but that’s just made up numbers, Try U6 unemployment of labor force participation. On top of it all the mentally disabled liberals are looking to disaffect 90 million or more people off of their existing insurance plans. You liberals are not liberal, you are police state crazy nuts destroying this country from within. You probably have split your family eructating this liberal balderdash at the dinner table on holidays. You people are sick and could use some time reading articles of faith.

  34. Claire said

    As someone who was born and raised in Georgia, I just want to be clear that the bigotry and racism he exhibited is not okay. People like Alton give the Southern United States a bad name. I do not know a single person would find what he said acceptable, it was completely ignorant, including his comments about same sex couples. Over the years his television persona has become cruel and rude so I am not surprised to hear that he was such a jerk in real life. The south is a diverse place with so many wonderful people from all ethnic backgrounds, it makes me so sad that he is being such a poor ambassador for an entire region.

  35. Tara said

    That’s an overly sensitive reaction to a few bad jokes. Why do you take his shtick so personally? Jokes are offensive by nature and are appropriate for the touring media crowd. Sounds like you missed the mark in enjoying an entertainment show.
    Maybe his jokes ARE better delivered through your rant, he sounded on the money to me

  36. kklein said

    I have suspected that Alton Brown was a dick from the time of the Feasting on Asphalt series. There were a few comments he made that were really, really rude… And that was an edited show. On Feasting on Waves, I caught little whiffs of racism, too.

    When I finally stopped paying attention to him was when he went on his idiotic diet, which he espoused in one episode, and it was comprised of EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE EXOTIC INGREDIENTS that were far out of reach for most of his fans. He followed that episode up, though—if I recall correctly—with one on BREAD PUDDING, which is exactly the kind of food he had just told his audience would send them to an early grave. He also started to NEVER TAKE A BITE ON THE SHOW, because whatever he was telling people was great food was not actually good enough or healthy enough to pass his lips.

    He’s an ass.

    Also, his Iron Chef reboot is guilty of a lot of racist tropes. Luckily, here in Japan, we have our own Iron Chef reboot and don’t have to see Alton’s cadaverous, mugging mug and the show’s kung-fu host.

  37. Cranstonisagod said

    I just saw him on a local Atlanta station promoting his Fox Theater show, which I am going to skip

  38. Brendan Small said

    “What I failed to do here, and what I’ll be doing in the future with Alton, is separate the televised persona from the man himself – I had expected Real Life Alton to be as genial and friendly as Television Alton. He’s not – he’s a good deal more cynical and curmudgeonly.

    I don’t know what I should have expected – it’s like I expected Stephen Colbert to actually be the Bill O’Reilly caricature he inhabits on the air. I blame myself, really. ”

    Late to the party, but just want to say that I’m sad that this is your takeaway from the whole thing. I don’t think you should consider it to be your problem that you expected a TV personality to behave like a decent human being!

    I’m sure this was a very unpleasant experience, but I hope that in the long run you are glad to have learned learned that someone you took to be thoughtful and serious is, in fact, neither.

  39. Oh noes… got to your post by searching Google for “Alton Brown gay” — I had just assumed he was and wanted to see if he was married, etc. Yours is the 1st hit and I thank you for sharing your experience. I just unfollowed him on Twitter.

  40. Laurie said

    Dear David, acknowledging the joyful & infectious food blogger that you are, I want to also make note of your exceptional take on the Alton Brown visit to the library in Cedar Rapids IA. I’d been getting an uncomfortable feeling from him over the years, and was so sadly disappointed when that was confirmed – not only by your blog of 9/18/11 – but also by many of the follow-up replies from others. Yes, I know, we mustn’t put our “heroes” on pedestals, but by pronouncing himself a Christian and bible devotee (ad nauseam), he reeks of hypocrisy. You were disappointed in him, and I was, too (still am, as he hasn’t changed). Your blog wasn’t unkind, and neither were your replies to others – well done! Thank you for the intelligent, honest & diplomatic discourse.

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