Food Blogs are just blah blah blah

Yesterday, P. and I went to an Alton Brown book signing. And Alton was hot. But that’s a given, right? He was wearing a black mock turtleneck and matching black glasses with jeans. And I wouldn’t have mentioned that except that he always wears those wacky Hawaiian shirts on Good Eats but he said that he only wears them on the show. In real life, he only wears jeans and black t-shirts. Rayon makes for quiet rustling when microphones are attached to your body, apparently. And also, I wouldn’t have mentioned it except that he looked hot, way hotter than he does on TV.

Anyway, the reading was in this great bookstore downtown. The store has a cafe in the underground. (You might think this is my fancy way of saying the basement, and in a way, it is, but Seattle has this whole underground thing downtown. You can do a tour and everything. The gist is that back in the olden days, Seattle was built right by the water (you know, where it is now), and everything kept flooding until finally, the city built a new city up on top of the old one. I forget the details exactly, but everything that’s the basement now used to be the ground floor. I know, I should teach history or something.)

By the time we got there, the place was mobbed. So much for P.’s assertion that I would be the only one there and no one is as nerdy as me. Lots of people are as nerdy as me! I got the new book, I’m Just Here for More Food, and we headed downstairs. It’s not a small cafe, but all the chairs arranged around the stage in the very large reading area were taken, all the chairs in the actual cafe area were taken, and people were standing everywhere: lined up against the back walls, stuffed around the counter where the baristas were attempting to take people’s orders, by the time the reading started, people were crowded into the stairwell, all along the stairs you have to take to get to the cafe. We got there about a half hour early, so we ended up midway in the cafe, but directly behind a large brick pillar that blocked our view of the stage area completely. So, Alton was a disembodied voice booming out to us from the speakers.

He was funny, but with an edge. P. said he seemed to like the attention but wanted the crazies to stay away, and I think that’s probably true. As everyone was getting in line for the signing, he cautioned that he no longer would sign gerbils or ferrets, or any pets at all really. And it wasn’t really even a joke. He meant it. (He said that he had signed a gerbil at a signing once and it bit him.) He also didn’t want anyone to hand him a cell phone and ask him to talk to the person on the other end, and seriously, people do these things? He did welcome the beer someone brought him, although he seemed a little startled by her rush to the stage. I wondered if she threw her bra at him, but I couldn’t tell, what with the brick wall in my way.

The crowd was exactly like a Buffy crowd, and by that I mean, you could tell you were in a room full of FANS. Fans who wanted to be cool and everything, because they were all adults with families and jobs, but who really wanted to know what restaurants Alton would be dining at during his stay and would love it Alton would come over and help them cook a meal. These people hung on his every word. Not that I’m saying I didn’t. Just that I found it interesting how the fan energy was exactly the same as other fan crowds I’ve been in, where the fans are considered a little more, er, geeky.

His new book is about baking, more specifically the mixing part. He said that most baked goods have the same basic ingredients and it’s only in the mixing that things are really different. He recounted how he sent his mom and two of her friends copies of the recipe on the back of the Nestle chocolate chip bag and asked them all to make it and send him the results, and each person’s cookies were completely different. He then changed one verb and had them all make the cookies again, and everyone’s were identical. This was interesting to me not only as a cook, but as a technical writer. Instructions are tricky things. One word really can make all the difference.

But one thing he said made me kind of sad. He said that couples can’t cook together. He and his first wife cooked together, and now she’s the former Mrs. Brown. He and his current wife never cook together. Once, he came home and she was making spaghetti sauce. He tasted it and said it would good, maybe just needed a little more garlic and oregano. And she put down her spoon, walked out of the kitchen, and didn’t cook again for a year (and a week). So, when he found her making sauce again, a year (and a week) later, he tasted it and proclaimed it perfect.

I love it when P. and I cook together. And I love that it’s a collaborative process. We’ll taste and make suggestions: add a little of this, try that, what about this other? Cooking isn’t just this utilitarian thing we do to get to the food. It’s something we share, time we spend together. The other day, we were spiffing up a store-bought barbecue sauce. I added a little brown sugar, he added a little cumin. We create together.

So, Alton Brown is wrong. At least about that.

He just signed a new three-contract for Good Eats, so that’s not going away any time soon. He never tastes the dishes on Iron Chef America, because during that battle of the masters thing, he did taste everything, which meant that he got to taste Sakai’s trout ice cream. I got the impression he didn’t care for it much. That it nearly put him off all food of any kind forever. So now his policy is to taste nothing. I guess he feels it would be rude to only taste the dishes he thinks he might like. I don’t know if I would have that restraint. I think I’d gobble up, and when it came time for the trout ice cream, I’d frown and say, “all full up. Too bad, it looks delicious!” He also mentioned that there’s going to be a female Iron Chef, although he wouldn’t say who she was.

He also said that he knows that not everyone watches the Food Network for cooking inspiration and that half of Rachel Ray’s audience is not all that interested in making a 30-minute meal. You know, she’s cute, but I never think of her as being hot. She was hot in that Maxim spread she did, but generally, she just looks cute. Now, Giada De Laurentiis, she’s hot.

Anyway, the other interesting thing he said is that he’s going to make a movie about road food for Food Network. He’s going to drive his motorcycle (or one of his many, I should say) down Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. I’ve done a lot of that drive, and most of the road food comes from Stuckey’s, but I’m sure he’ll find something more interesting.

We thought we would be in line for the signing forever, but it wasn’t that bad. It took us just over 45 minutes. I’m sure he had at least a couple more hours of signing to go. P. had been teasing me for days about coming up with something brilliant and insightful to say to him. I wanted to ask him about the difference between broth and stock, but P. told me that he’d done a whole episode on that and what kind of fan was I that I didn’t remember? P. said that I should just walk up to him and say, “you’re number one on my laminated list. Where’s your hotel?”

But once in line, I had nothing. Nothing at all to say. Which maybe would be refreshing to him, because he chatted it up with everyone and that had to get a little tiring. Finally it was our turn, and he shook our hands and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Alton”, like we wouldn’t know. He said he hoped that we didn’t feel our afternoon was entirely wasted, coming out to see him, and we said no, it was wonderful, really great.

I asked him if he was going to have time this year to update his weblog more often. He said that the weblog had seemed like a good idea, but once it got started, he realized, what more could he really say in it, and does the Internet really need another food weblog anyway? There are so many food blogs out there, just going blah blah blah. And so he was thinking of just shutting it down entirely, but instead, he’s decided to hand it over to someone on his staff. And they’re redoing the entire Web site and it should be up in about two months. So, I told him that a lot of people read his weblog, and he said, “well, OK” like “yeah, a lot more people read my cookbooks and I get money for that, so whatever.” But in a nice way, you know.

So, first, I understand his point as it pertains to him. One person only has so much time and energy for any given subject. He spends a lot of time on the shows and the books, so rambling about food on the Internet probably feels superfluous to him.

But the larger point (which possibly he wasn’t even making), about there being so many food weblogs and it all just being “blah blah blah”? I don’t think that’s the case at all. Food weblogs are fantastic, because they are so immediate and interactive. They are like the Food Network but with real people, not experts, and the food isn’t all chopped up in nice little bowls, waiting to be added in a kitchen that has every appliance, pot, and utensil readily available. With food weblogs, you see what it’s really like to cook: when things went really well, when they didn’t, what substitutions made the dish and which ones made diner inedible. They are a kaleidoscope of flavors and experiences, of innovative techniques and cautionary tales. They are rarely “blah blah blah”.

So, Alton Brown was wrong twice yesterday. But did I mention how hot he looked?

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