Thursday, November 13, 2014

Alton Brown's Edible Inevitable Tour

How do you judge something done by one of your all-time heroes?

Do you just gush and crow about how (undeniably) awesome he is and simply repeat the stories and describe the activities you saw, thus denying anybody else the enjoyment of seeing it all for the first time?

Do you have to point an extra-critical eye to it, determined to pick it apart so you don't simply come across as too much of a fan that you can't keep a fair, balanced look at something?

Do you read five hundred other reviews and then simply parrot the primary points each one seems to make?

I was torn between all of these, but instead I think I'll break it down to the things I'm happy I saw/took part in and the things I was disappointed I didn't see/take part in.

Positive Item #1:  The Meet And Greet

Yes, I spent the extra money on the opportunity to meet Alton Brown.  I don't regret a single penny of that.  Here's what stuck out most for me.

Alton is just as personable and charismatic in real life as he appears in camera.  He took the time to chit-chat with each person who came up to have their picture taken and have various pictures/books/kitchen utensils/building masonry/body parts autographed.  For the record, only one of those items didn't happen.

I was toward the end of the line, and I'll freely admit I was freaking out the entire time the line scooted closer.  I was essentially trying to un-psyche myself out.  "Don't say anything stupid," my brain was repeating over and over again.  "Don't say your name and only your name fifteen times.  Don't say anything political.  Don't say anything racially insensitive.  I know you don't say that sort of thing, but don't let your brain latch onto some random phrase and blurt it out.  Oh god, he's getting closer.  Is it hot in here?  It feels hot in here.  Don't say how hot it is when it's your turn.  Don't stutter.  Oh god, you thought about stuttering, so now you're going to stutter.  Don't say "Oh god" when you get up there.  Focus. Focus. Focus.  Don't say anything he's probably heard seven thousand times since the tour started.  Be original.  Be clever.  Don't say anything dumb, though, or anything that you'll say out loud and immediately regret.  Okay, you're next, GO GET HIM, CHAMP!"

Finally, it was my turn, and I started walking up, and I realized that what I really wanted to do was thank him.  Not for just creating the show Good Eats, but for the effect he and his program had on me.

When I set my book and photo on the table for him to sign and he took hold of the lanyard around my neck to sign that, as well, here's what I said:

"Um, I'm sure you've heard this before, but, well, I just wanted to thank you for making the show Good Eats.  I wasn't really in a good place for a long time when it came to getting outside my own head and not letting things overwhelm me, but then I found your show and it really pulled me out of that and got me interested in science and cooking again.  I'm pretty sure things would have been a lot worse for me if not for Good Eats."

And it's true.  Before I found that show, my diet consisted mostly of Hungry Man-brand TV dinners and ramen noodles at home, and fast food everywhere else.  I was lethargic, I didn't go out, I spent all day in chat rooms online when I wasn't working, and while I enjoyed my job, I wasn't really getting much enjoyment out of life outside of work.

Once I started watching Good Eats, though, it all changed.  I started taking notes in a tiny little notebook (I would record episodes and play them over and over to make sure I didn't miss anything in my notes) which filled up pretty quickly.  I would binge-watch episodes and get really excited over trying something new.  It's what allowed me to take over cooking the turkey for my family every Thanksgiving, and from his program I found other programs that got me excited about different cuisines, which got me excited about travelling again.

Alton didn't really say much as he signed the picture and the book, but when he moved for us to put our arms around each other's shoulders, he paused and said "Thank you.  It really means a lot to hear that.  I'm glad it helped."

The photo was taken, I scooped up my treasures, and was on cloud nine.  I'm pretty sure I would've floated out of there on a cloud cartoon-style if not for two things.  One, I had to stop and pick up my coat, because it was cold outside.  Two, as he was turning to greet the next people and I was starting to walk away, he turned and called out.  "Hey," he said, and I paused and blinked a few times before I turned back.  He smiled and said "I really hope you enjoy the show."

"I'm sure I will, sir," I replied.

Not Negative But Not A Let Down But Well You Know #1

I didn't really learn as much as I was expecting to from the show.  I knew it wasn't just another cooking program or demonstration.  Alton played his guitar for a few songs (and rapped for one, I was tempted to shout out "Don't worry, you're in Maine!" when he apologized for how "white" his rap was going to be), told stories about experiences on shows like Iron Chef and Good Eats and Cutthroat Kitchen.  He broke down his theories on man's paranoia about salt and how it hurts cooking.  He described the various types of yeasts used in everything from bread to beer and even gave the scientific names (using puppets on a screen, since sock puppets don't work well from the bleachers).

But I was hoping he'd touch on a few items he never touched on during Good Eats, or visit topics that were always "for another show" but never got their own show.  I wanted a list of the top ten foods we should be using in recipes, or the ten gadgets he loves that are multitaskers.

While I enjoyed most everything else happening in the show, my brain was left a little hungry afterwards.

Positive #2:  The Gadgets We Did See

Ever see a gallon of ice cream (carbonated, nonetheless) be made in ten seconds using a fire extinguisher?  Ever see a pizza roast in three minutes under 50+ stage lights all clustered together creating an oven effect reaching 700 degrees?  I have.

Granted, these are things that you probably don't want to attempt to do at home, but Alton made it clear from the start of the show that these were things he wasn't allowed to do on TV, but had no restrictions holding him back any more (for our viewing benefit).  To see simple Good Eats style design and cleverness be built up to the next level was a blast.

Not Negative But Not A Let Down But Well You Know #2

It felt like there was a little bit of padding during the show.  This was mostly during the gadget/cooking demonstrations, where it sometimes felt like he was using the person helping him on stage (yes, he took volunteers) to fill up time.  Taking fresh balls of dough and kneading them out and adding toppings and everything else is all part of the cooking, but there were enough pauses to chit-chat with the volunteer that I silently found myself going "okay, okay, okay, get on with it."

It wasn't all bad.  Seeing Alton tease a young pastry chef baker (she hasn't been certified yet) was fun at times, but even those moments felt a little long.

To be honest, I'm not sure whether or not the volunteers were pre-arranged plants.  They seemed a little too comfortable up there and seemed ready for the twists before Alton revealed them.

Granted, I don't think that means he takes those two people around the country with him, but it might mean that he met them before the show and prepped them ahead of time.

Positive #3: Different Sides Of Alton

Anybody who's watched Alton Brown on TV has seen different sides of him.  He's calm and educational.  He's strict and authoritative.  He's a bit manic sometimes.  He's stern and even a little cruel.  He's considerate and kind.

All of these sides of him were in play during the program.  When talking about his daughter, he would get extremely soft in his tones before jutting back to being sharp and clever to insert some humor.  When giving directions to a volunteer, he could be anything from basically informative to diabolical like he just stepped off of Cutthroat Kitchen.

I've seen a few other presenters on stage for long presentations, and they can all be incredibly one-note.  Slightly optimistic while trying to sound like they know what they're talking about.  A few of them even had on headsets even though I'm not sure they were plugged in to anything.

Being able to see all the Alton Browns we've seen on television really helped ground the show and make it into more of a presentation than just a series of speeches.

Not Negative But Not A Let Down But Well You Know #3

I was rather hoping a bit more detail about Alton's culinary experiences in Maine.  Considering I live a block away from one place he went to (Holy Donut!), it was great to catch a few places I knew, but  a few things felt almost scripted.

I'm pretty sure that in every state these days you can say "I had some of the locally brewed beers, and they were pretty great."  It's a low hanging fruit, to stick with culinary metaphors.  Name some brands, Alton!  Say what made things good or not good!  When the audience started to moan a bit at Alton's idea of putting clams on pizza, I did appreciate it when he chastised everybody because "these came from your native waters!"  It's a good reminder of the industries here and how high the quality of the seafood is.  You won't get that recognition in, say, Vermont.  Or Oklahoma.

Having now lived in Maine during the times that its food industry is really just starting to reach a peak, I would have loved to have him break down what makes the food from the state he's in so unique and appealing, from an outsider culinarian's point of view.

Positive #4:  It's One Of The Few Times I Haven't Hated My Fellow Fans

I used to be pretty huge in Japanese animation.  However, the more fans I met, the more I distanced myself from the hobby because a lot of what seemed "socially acceptable" by fans just rubbed me the wrong way.  Plus, I met fans who did things that weren't socially acceptable by other fans.  The Neon Genesis Evangeleon fan I knew in particular punted me back several hundred yards on the scale of "how big a fan are you?"

The only other thing I've ever truly been a die hard fan of that I wasn't turned away by the fans of was Star Wars.  Sure, there's some bizarre fans out there, but for the most part the people I knew were in it to respect and admire what someone else had created.  Not break it apart with their own, often twisted, takes on things, like how Character One must be secretly "gay" for Character 2 despite there being no proof of it anywhere.  At all.

Why am I talking about this in an Alton Brown Tour post?  Because surrounded by people who loved all the programs Alton Brown did, I felt the same sense of respect emanating from each person in that crowd.  Call-outs from audience members to obscure references from the show (the fact that Alton's pizza peel was named "Emma" on the show, for instance) was met with cheers by those familiar with the reference.  People loved the programs for what they were, not for what they wanted to twist them into being.

Also, I didn't see anybody whose fandom verged on the "borderline creepy," though that doesn't mean there wasn't someone there who was.  These were people who loved a program or programs that had a big influence on their lives, but they still had lives outside of it.  Maybe it shaped their career path, but they were still their own people.  They weren't just defined by their fandom.  I felt connected to the people around me by this common thread, even as I realized through nearby conversations just how different everybody was.  It was really uplifting.

So, was the program worth it?

Are you nuts?  Of course it was!  It's Alton Brown!


But in all seriousness, the program is a little rough for brief moments, but this is usually always followed by something big that pushes it out of your mind (unless you find yourself taking mental notes for a blog post later).  I had a smile on my face through the whole thing, and while I was never selected as a volunteer, I had my hand raised, which for me is a pretty big step.

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