The Taste of Disillusionment
September 18, 2011
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:
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!”
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?
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.
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.
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.
And when you’ve finished eating around the bun, you still have an entire sandwich to go.
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:
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.