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Posts Tagged ‘Alton Brown’

We get our television programming from DirecTV, and our channel lineup doesn’t contain any of the standard movie channels (HBO, Cinemax, etc.), but it does have two channels wholly devoted to food – the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.  The Food Network used to show primarily cooking shows, where people demonstrated how to actually make something.  Nowadays, it’s slipped into more of a “lifestyles” channel, which means a little bit of cooking, and a bunch of advertising of local one-off restaurants.  The Cooking Channel seems to be more the place to go if you actually want to learn how to cook.  At least that’s the way it appears to me.

I’m sure some will argue that I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is probably true.  But outside of Alton Brown and Jamie Oliver, there’s not a ton of cooking shows I really enjoy, so I’m basing my opinions on a rather small sample size.  Anyways, arguing over channel content wasn’t the point of my typing.  Both channels, regardless of what they show you, owe a world of thanks to Julia Child.

It was her culinary skills, her humor, and her bravery that gave rise to the popularity of cooking shows in the first place, and made “channels specializing in food” possible.

In case you didn’t know, one of the first cooking demonstration shows ever was Child’s The French Chef.  It was filmed in black and white in a rather modest kitchen.  And from my perspective, the editing floor was remarkably clean, because it doesn’t appear that anything was cut from the show.  It resulted in what was truly a “reality” show, not the trash we pass off as reality today.

The French Chef, which was first broadcast on February 11, 1963, was full of real-life kitchen goof-ups.  Julia would sometimes forget her place in the recipe she was demonstrating.  She would sometimes mix ingredients in the wrong sequence.  Pans and utensils would, on occasion, be so elusive as to be invisible.  The end product would sometimes look a little strange and, on rare occasions, wound up being tossed in the trash.

And that’s what made the show so incredibly popular.  Through all the real-life “drama” in Julia’s kitchen, viewers learned the basic (and the not-so-basic) techniques to cooking food once thought only achievable by a master chef.  Of course, Julia herself was classically trained in the art of French cooking, but she worked hard to make difficult processes accessible to cooks of all levels.  And we learned that even great chefs get it wrong sometimes, which made us more likely to give it a go ourselves.

Julia herself became a celebrity.  Her lilting voice, that touch of comedian in her, and her adaptability to the changing conditions of the kitchen and a show that was filmed live without editing brought forth a charm that was addicting.  She brandished a cleaver and a mallet, and she talked about “courage of your convictions” as she flipped half a potato pancake on to the stove.  I don’t have a clue what she was like when the camera wasn’t rolling, but she was lovable when it was.

There have been hundred of cooks on television since, some of them really good.  I think of Justin Wilson (the cajun cook that I always thought was hilarious).  That guy Yan who did the show Yan Can Cook.  Of course, Emeril Lagasse.  The Galloping Gourmet and Mary Ann Esposito.  The list goes on and on.  Julia stands alone.

Recently, our local Public Television station dug into the archives and, for a few weeks at least, showed some of those original episodes.  My wife and I watched them, fascinated by how much television cooking has changed.  Yes, there are far fewer gaffes now.  The stars of the shows don’t make very many mistakes because those are edited out.  They don’t look off-set and they don’t drop their dishes.  But they’re not The French Chef, either.

A while back, when I talked about the movie Die Hard, I said that movie sequels aren’t usually as good as the original.  All those cooking shows we watch now?…they’re the sequels to Julia’s masterful original.

Bon Appetit!!

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When the U.S. military buys aircraft, they sort of subscribe to the “Alton Brown” philosophy of “no uni-taskers in the kitchen”.  Our armed services tend to favor multi-role aircraft that can do lots of missions well rather than simply excelling at one thing.  It keeps the runways uncluttered.

It’s why aircraft like Lockheed’s F-16 Fighting Falcon remain such a strong presence in flight lines on U.S. bases…it does a very good job at a lot of things.  It’s why the F-15 Eagle, even with the F-22’s arrival, will continue to be in front-line service when it approaches 50 years old.  It’s still a formidable fighter and, in its Strike Eagle configuration, poses a serious threat to enemy ground forces.  And it’s the reason the F-18E/F Super Hornets now serve on carrier decks and the F-14 Tomcats don’t…Hornets were more versatile (well, that’s not exactly the reason the Hornet replaced the Tomcat, and maybe someday we’ll talk about it).

Anyways, in general, versatility is better.  But the military, again like Alton Brown, understands the need for single-purpose devices.  Alton’s is a fire extinguisher.  For years, the military’s “uni-tasker” has been its spy planes.  They don’t bomb, they don’t strafe, they don’t fire missiles, they don’t suppress enemy defenses, and they don’t offer close air support.  They do one thing:  take pictures.

All kinds of pictures.  Standard, telephoto, super-close-up, infrared, wide-angle, oblique, read-the-label-on-the-cigarette-pack-from-100-miles-away photos.

For 35 years, the SR-71 Blackbird was America’s primary airborne uni-tasker, and it was exceptional.  All of its missions were flown under the strongest shroud of secrecy.  Faster than a bullet and able to outrun the Earth’s rotation, it spent a good percentage of its flying life at more than 2,000 miles per hour in the rarefied air above 80,000 feet.

But fire extinguishers for your home are relatively cheap, bullet-planes are not.  On more than one occasion, funding for the Blackbirds was eliminated.  But political pressures and world events always conspired to bring it back into service.

Until the 1990’s.

The technology to remotely pilot small unmanned drone aircraft gave the military a site-specific reconnaissance ability without the need for Mach-3+ speed, special fuel, and space-suited pilots.  And funding the pride of Lockheed’s Skunks Works had finally become too expensive (and maybe they weren’t Y2K-compliant…remember that?!?).  So the SR-71 was retired and, on October 9, 1999, the Blackbird lifted off for the very last time.

The reconnaissance side of the military is still largely handled by uni-taskers.  Survellience satellites, UAV’s, and probably other top-secret equipment still get the data needed to keep U.S. assets (whatever or wherever they are) safe.  But none of them does it with the same combination of beauty and ramjet-powered brute-force speed as the SR-71 Blackbird.

Sometimes, uni-taskers rock!

Recommended Reading: SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story

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We have satellite TV at the house, which means we’ve got a gob of channels with nothing to watch…probably a lot like you.  So we find ourselves at the Food Network all the time.  And most of the time, I’m ok with it.  I like food.  My wife’s a great cook.  So watching people cook food is sort of entertaining.

Don’t get me wrong…not all of the shows are fun to watch.  Some of the hosts are ultra-annoying…just impossible for me to watch without yelling back at the TV.  I won’t mention any names because, if you know me personally, you know who they are.

But several of the shows are really interesting.  Dinner Impossible is a really fun show, where a chef (Robert Irvine) has to cook these massive meals for 500 people using only an Easy-Bake oven,  5 loaves, and 2 fishes.  Back when the original Iron Chef (the Japanese version) was on, we watched it religiously.  Even though I wouldn’t eat 90% of the dishes, it was a great show, mainly because it was so fast-paced, the Chefs had great names (Chen Kenichi, Hiroyuki Sakai, etc.), and there was that goofy female judge that was there all the time.  And I simply can’t not watch Jamie at Home.  That show is completely captivating…absolutely terrific.  We’d get up, any time day or night, to watch it.

But my favorite “Foodie” is Alton Brown.  His main show, Good Eats, is a triumph.  It’s the perfect blend of humor, fun, science, gadgetry, and good food.  It’s like a 30-minute variety show.  Sometimes he’s at the frying pan store, trading barbs with W while teaching us about the proper saute pan.  Other times he’s been kidnapped by a more-than-slightly “eccentric” woman and has to cook for her.  There are the goofy props, the nutritional anthropologist, the hysterical oversized Swiss Miss lady with the yellow braided hair, the Catholic nun that slapped his hand with the ruler (hilarious!), the lawyer types that make him state the obvious food safety stuff, and his nephew.

And his cheesecake recipe rules!!

And then a couple years back, Alton got the idea to go on the road.  There were two years of Feasting on Asphalt, where he took to his motorcycle with a film crew and traveled across the country, stopping and eating at various places.  Both series were masterful.  Alton Brown, who was born on July 30, 1962, is a trained chef, but he cut his teeth in TV production and cinematography, so he knows how to work the camera as well as the burner.  Of all the “specialty” productions I’ve seen, those two series just might be my favorites.

There are a good number of shows on Food Network that I couldn’t care less about.  Alton Brown’s are not among them.

Oh, and kitchens should only have one uni-tasker.

Happy Birthday, Alton Brown!!

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