Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Really, Really Good Eats.



The cooking show.  At one point in time, it was a standard of television alongside the game show, the soap opera and the sitcom.  It reached a sort of peak in popularity along with the rise of Food Network.   Though, with the advent of YouTube cooking demonstrations, the popularity of the television cooking show started to fade in favor of cooking competition shows. 

Though, of all the cooking shows on TV there was one that I thought stood out just on the virtue of being noticeably, enthusiastically different.  That show was Alton Brown’s Good Eats.

Picture originally from foodnetwork.com
The story of Good Eats’ creation goes that Alton Brown, then a cinematographer by trade, was in a motorcycle accident that left him laid up while he recovered.  During recovery he found himself watching a lot of cooking shows on daytime TV.  Finding himself dissatisfied with the cooking shows he was watching he started to formulate an idea for a different cooking show, even at one point writing down the names “Julia Child”, “Mr. Wizard” and “Monty Python” as examples of things to take inspiration from in his hypothetical new show.  A trip to cooking school and some hard work later, and Good Eats debuted.

But how do we describe what makes Good Eats good?  Well, let’s start with its efficacy as a cooking show.  Most cooking shows focus on a few different dishes arranged over some reasonably arbitrary theme.  Good Eats instead focused on one specific ingredient or dish and worked from there, approaching it with a sort of thoroughness that few other cooking shows managed.  Also, Good Eats tended to focus on certain well-known dishes.  Things like steak, chocolate chip cookies, Caesar salads, omelets, etc.  So, while it wasn’t exactly a simple show for beginners, it was a show that focused on everyday sort of cooking and eating.  In other words, if you wanted to take the most thorough, thoughtful approach to making something like meatloaf or mashed potatoes, Good Eats was a good place to look.  Maybe not every recipe was a winner or appealed to everyone’s tastes, but you had to admire the diligence with which they were presented.

Let’s step beyond the standard cooking show metrics, though.  Because a lot of what makes Good Eats so good and so memorable is about things beyond that.  I think we can break it down into three things: education, comedy and presentation.

The food science element is what a lot of people remember.  I actually find it a bit frustrating because that’s what people will often boil Good Eats or Alton Brown down to: “That food science show” or “that food science guy”.  But I can’t argue that it wasn’t a major part of the show.  It was on Good Eats that a lot of people found out what gluten was, or why popcorn popped or why meat needs a rest after cooking.  The scientific principles were always clearly stated and there were usually creative demonstrations to help viewers visualize them better.  Sometimes, he’d even have food scientist Shirley Corriher appear on the show.  The educational element didn’t end with science though.  Many of food’s historical and cultural elements would also be explored.  For those times, Alton had the help of nutritional anthropologist Debra Duchon.  Good Eats didn’t even like cutting to a commercial break without giving you some extra information, usually flashing some kind of factoid onto the screen right before the ads started.

Now, the part that I think really made Good Eats stand out was its comedy.  The show had a tendency to overflow with comical characters and situations.  What sort of characters and situations?  Well, in terms of characters there were Alton’s perfectionist TV sister Marsha, his evil twin BA, his neighbor Chuck, the Dungeon Master who shows him some of the more brutal cooking equipment he might need, his other equipment specialist “W” (a riff on Q from the James Bond series), Southern cooking specialist Colonel Bob Boathouse, the Mad French Chef, his own real life grandmother Ma Mae and my personal favorites the belching yeast sock puppets (see video below).

As for situations, there’s the time he tried to teach Dracula how to cook with garlic.  Or maybe the green bean casserole episode where he played an ancillary character in Chuck’s reenactment of “Jack and the Beanstalk”.  Or the various movie parodies like Jaws (scallops), Mission: Impossible (poaching techniques) or Sweeney Todd (meat pies).  He even had his own Dickensian A Christmas Carol situation where he learned to make some less common holiday fare.

Then there’s just the way the show is presented.  Sure, the combination of comedy and cooking is unique enough.  However, the show was just shot in a different way.  The show employed cameras in cupboards, ovens, refrigerators and all sorts of unconventional places.  I chalk the idea up to Brown’s past in cinematography.  But Good Eats never felt like the typical cooking show where a host on a kitchen set was largely just shot from the same couple of angles.

The end result is what I can only describe as perhaps the geekiest cooking show to ever come on TV.
I’m not sure Alton Brown would appreciate my calling his show “geeky”.  The word hasn’t always been taken in as much stride as it is now.  However, I mean it as a compliment.  It’s reflective of the show’s unabashed willingness to be different.  Also, between the science information and Monty Python-esque gags, I wouldn’t be surprised if Good Eats appealed to a certain stripe of viewer.  And it’s a type of viewer that’s not necessarily known for possessing a lot of everyday, real world skills.  So, if Good Eats stopped someone from surviving on Doritos and pizza delivery, that’s definitely a win.

Now, the show’s been off the air for years, having gone on for about fourteen seasons and winning a few awards in the process.  Alton Brown has hardly been resting on his laurels since then, acting as host for Cutthroat Kitchen, writing a couple of books, creating some online video and headlining a few touring stage shows.  So, why am I writing all this about Good Eats now?  I mean, other than the fact that it’s my favorite cooking show?

Well, fans have been asking him if there’s some way he could bring back Good Eats for years.  Then, one day on his youtube channel he posts this:

Naturally, the fans went wild.  Later, he made a more official announcement at DragonCon:
Only Alton Brown could announce a new cooking show at a sci-fi convention and get a big crowd.
So, yes, Good Eats is getting a sequel series.  Kind of like how Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its Netflix comeback (actually, that’s an oddly fitting show to compare Good Eats too, if for no reason other than the presence of puppets).  From what we know, it’s called Return of the Eats and that’s about it.  But personally, I’ll be glad to see it make a comeback even if it doesn’t last all that long.  It’ll definitely be a nice change from all the cooking competition shows.  I never really cared for cooking competitions (Well, unless they’re in anime or manga form, but that’s another post) .
So, here’s hoping for some sound science, some good ingredients, a few laughs and that old Good Eats magic.  Fingers crossed.

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