Photo by Stephanie Breijo
I woke up to an email from Alton Brown on Nov. 5.
“Subject: Richmond Recs.”
I rubbed my eyes and reached for my glasses, unsure of whether this was the real life or just fantasy. Why had Alton Brown, one of the world’s preeminent culinary authorities-cum-TV hosts-cum-authors, reached out to me on a Tuesday night? Had I unwittingly signed up for a Food Network mailing list? Was it digital spam from an Altonbot?
As I learned that morning, Alton Brown does exist, and that email was sent by a living, breathing, constantly eating human being. Brown’s live show — The Edible Inevitable Tour — was hitting Richmond that night and he was hungry for “the best coffee, lunch, snacks and after-show eats” in town, as he is wont to do in every city along the way.
At just past 11 a.m., we met at Lamplighter Roasting Co.’s Addison Street outpost, where the he was gracious enough to talk food literacy, seeking out the crazies and keeping curiosity alive.
RM: I wanted to talk to you today about food education and what consumers can do to educate themselves — and the importance of it.
You have multiple cookbooks and TV shows, and now a live show; a lot of these rely on science, and it’s about so much more than what goes into a dish. Can you speak about the importance of learning beyond the recipe?
Brown: To me, there’s no great significance to food if you’re just getting dinner on the table. I’m not saying that isn’t important; in all my work — certainly in 14 years of Good Eats and the other “educational” stuff that I’ve done — I always want to get good food on the table and I try to write recipes that are reliable. But I think that the real significance, the thing that people will talk about, is when you make things significant by adding those stories, whether it’s the science — which gives you real control over the food and allows you to understand what’s going on — or historical or cultural references. It adds dimension, it adds more importance to what you’re actually eating.
If you and I sit down and have a meal together, we can talk about, “Wow, this tastes great” or, “Wow, those radishes are good, aren’t they?” Or, “Jeepers, that steak sure is tasty,” and then what do we got? We’re going to talk about something else. We’re going to talk about who made your glasses or we’re going to talk about blah, blah, blah. But if we can say, “You know, back in blah, blah, blah, this was this, this, this, this”; you’ve got more stuff to actually talk about if you understand some science and you understand some culture and you understand what your connection to it might be. So to me, it’s a matter of adding dimensionality. It’s a three-dimensional, five-dimensional, 20-dimensional kind of thing and if we just talk about flavor or we just talk about ingredients, we’re missing a lot of the story that is actually more interesting.
RM: What can people do as diners, as consumers, to educate themselves?
Brown: Reading. Traveling. Talking to people. You know, food is the great switchboard. The reason that we even have something like a Food Network is because everybody’s interested in food and it’s something that connects us all together. So when people want to educate themselves more, number one, care. Do some research. If you like an ingredient, Google the gosh-darned thing. It’s interesting: We have more food at our fingertips and more information at our fingertips than ever before, but people tend to gloss it over.
People tend to skip right across these things instead of digging down deep. If you travel and you take some road trip and you encounter some funny-looking bottle of soda pop you’ve never seen before, ask about it! Drink it! Write down notes about it! Keeping journals is a great thing that people have forgotten how to do in this day and age; we’re all so busy Instagramming. If you’re interested in something, dig deeper. If you care about something, want to know more about it. Where’d the coffee come from? What’s the story behind the logo on this cup? But [these questions] require curiosity to be authentic. I guess in my work, I try to make people curious, first and foremost. Well, I try to entertain them, first and foremost, and then I try to make them curious. And then if I can answer questions, I guess that’s what I do.
RM: Do you think that there’s somewhat of a lack of curiosity in contemporary dining culture?
Brown: Yes. I think there’s a lack of curiosity, period. I think that that stems from the fact that we simply have so much trivial information around us that we get dulled to things and we don’t really dig deep anymore and we don’t really look for things. I deal with young people now coming out of colleges that can’t research. They don’t know anything about research, because they don’t know how to dig deep for something; they don’t have the attention span required to make connections between things. It’s very, very frustrating. And I think that it’s because we’re overloaded with trivia and meaningless lists, which don’t really generate a sense of mystery in anything anymore.
RM: If you’re saying to consumers, “Go out and read,” but it’s so hard with that attention span, how do they cut through the surface-level food reporting and surface-level information that one can gather? How do they dig deep now that there’s that abundance of information?
Brown: Now that there’s as much as there actually is? I think that first and foremost, [they should] talk to the people who are producing whatever it is. For instance, there’s a guy named George Schenk, who lives in Vermont, who makes pizza. I fell in love with his pizza. He uses earthenware ovens that he builds himself, and so instead of me going off and wandering through the Internet for wood-fired ovens, I went and talked to him. Got a few minutes of his time. Found out what he read. You know, using first-level experts, so to speak. And then he turned me on to this great little book I never would have found about the earthen ovens of Quebec. I never would have found that book in a thousand years, but he ended up giving me a copy and that opened up this whole world of understanding and appreciating that particular genre. So talking to the people that are already passionate about something; it’s one of the wonderful things about a local coffee shop.
If you own a local coffee shop or a local brew-house, these are the people that have become obsessed with something. These are people who care about something. The people who run [Lamplighter] probably are not here because they want to take over Starbucks. Now if I talk to someone over at Starbucks about coffee, they don’t know; it’s like talking to somebody at McDonald’s about hamburgers. It’s a manufacturing plant. When I’m here, I’m going to assume somebody is really crazy about it. You’ve gotta find the people who are crazy.
Crazy people are interesting. If you’re crazy, about frickin’ clams, whatever it is, I want to attach myself to you to get some of that. It’s almost like getting an infection, you know? If you’re obsessed with clams, and I get to you because I had this clam dish and your clams are great, you’ll talk to me. Then you can infect me with that and then I can take on some of what has made you authentic, rather than going off and Googling “clams,” which is never going to lead to anything.
RM: So it might not even be just attention span; it could be laziness as well: To sit and Google versus going to meet these people?
Brown: I don’t know if I want to say laziness. I mean, you may be right; an abundance always leads to laziness, but I think that we don’t make a lot of personal contact anymore because we don’t have to. So we miss out on that kind of editing process that comes from the fact that you’ve been into clams for 20 years or whatever and you know things that I could get from you; we go to the Internet, skim across the top; most of the information’s bad, and then we just replicate it. Whether that’s based on laziness or conditioning, it’s not very useful.
One of the reasons I think that local food movements are so potent is because by their very nature, they engender community of a different type, which is like you and me sitting here, talking. Of course we met by the Internet, but we quickly took it to another level.
RM: In terms of research and what you were saying about travel: It’s incredibly pertinent because local markets and crops and movements are things that make a travel destination so unique.
Brown: Well travel is an even bigger problem to me, or more of a challenge now, because people no longer wander. We don’t wander. We fixate on a destination and we go there. We don’t road trip, we don’t allow ourselves the time to wander into a town and walk around or get lost — which is still, to my mind, awesome. When I road trip, and people are going to think I’m insane, I like motorcycles because motorcycles really let you get into a place. But I travel on paper maps.
RM: Still to this day?
Brown: Well here’s the thing: You look at a map and it’s not being filtered by Google Earth or whatever; little pop-ups aren’t happening. There it is. It’s up to you to figure out where the hell you are, and I’ve got to tell you something: The art of just being able to figure out where you are? Once we’ve lost that, I really worry about us because when you rely on a computer to tell you where you are or a satellite to tell you where you are, you’re no longer having to think your way through a landscape. You’re no longer having to look at things.
It’s funny; I was a Boy Scout and learned topographical maps and things like that; I learned underwater navigation as a scuba diver; I’m a pilot, so I know how to read aviation charts, and back in August, I was taking some time off in the desert out in Joshua tree. I got — I don’t want to use the word lost —I took a wrong turn on a trail by myself out in the middle of the desert. And if I had not known how to read topographical information on a map to triangulate my location, I probably would have died because I was out in the middle of nowhere without enough water — I mean I was getting down to that “Do I drink my pee?” kind of decision making — but I knew how to read landscape topos and I knew how to triangulate on a compass, because I had no cell service and no satellite service. I had to figure out where I was and I think that when people travel, every now and then, you should travel that way because that forces you to look at where you are.
We just look at [cell phones] now and say, “OK, I’m going to Disney World” and I get there, but there’s all this [gesturing to his surroundings] between me and Disney World. In cooking, it’s greatly the same thing; we get so fixated on the dish. When I wrote my first book, I’m Just Here for the Food, I wanted to give people a landscape so that they could see, “Ah! Well if that’s how you make an omelet, oh gee, soufflé is right over here; the science is the same.” So you start to get a feel of where you are. But we don’t do that with travel anymore. We just have forgotten. Convenience, again — maybe it does make us lazy, maybe you’re right. But “lazy” is a nasty word. I don’t like to use it.
RM: Well, maybe it’s more like complacency or it’s done out of convenience. It’s also why you might go to a big-box grocery store: It’s convenient, as opposed to seeking out local farms.
Brown: And those stores depend on you placing a higher value on convenience than almost anything else.
RM: What about price?
Brown: I still get a little ruffled when people tell me it’s too expensive to eat well. I simply think it takes effort. I know there are people who don’t have a lot of money; I know there are people who don’t live in places where they can access good food — there are food deserts, I know that, I believe that — but I still think that if you prioritize your values, you can find a way to eat better. If you want to. If it matters to you.
RM: And that’s the importance of keeping that curiosity sparked in people.
Brown: There are people who are never going to be curious and are just trying to feed their families. They’re working three jobs, they don’t have enough money; I understand that. And in that case, then it is about putting good stuff in your mouth.
RM: Do you have a recommendation on food education for those in that situation? It’s tough but there has to be some way.
Brown: You know, I have tried to think of complicated answers to complicated questions and I think that the main thing is simply: Any food you cook yourself is better than anything you’re going to get. Cook your own food. I’ve been thinking about starting a program where I simply try to get people to cook a meal from scratch five times a week, because most people don’t cook a meal five times a week.
RM: It’s important.
Brown: It’s important for a lot of reasons. It’s important because it gives you control over your life — self-reliance is something that I think is still worth having in your life — but I think also that if people would just bother to cook five meals a week, that they would find that it is actually something that not only can be worked into your life but is rewarding in and of itself. I like cooking even if I don’t eat the food. I find a great deal of value in the act of converting food into a consumable for human beings.
RM: Right. It’s rewarding to cook for people.
Brown: Yes! It’s hospitality. To make food to give to other people is very enriching. But also, something that we forget in this country is to take that food and say thank you; that’s also very rewarding. We’re not big on gratitude anymore. We think, “Well I paid for this; I deserve it.” But cooking for somebody or taking that food and saying thank you and enjoying it — that’s kind of the big equation of human beings in a way.
RM: I wanted to jump back quickly and ask you about education in food deserts.
Brown: Yes ma’am.
RM: The James Beard Foundation just released its first Good Food Org Guide, naming the best food organizations across the country. There are many organizations, some here in Richmond, that pack a bus full of produce and drive out to food deserts, making fresh food readily available; is that the answer for food and produce awareness?
Brown: I think it’s a big one and that concept is not new; there are little towns in the South that people have forgotten about that have what’s called a Fruit Man, which is somebody that went to whatever the distant market was and came in with a van to some area and sold stuff. The bread man and the milkman used to deliver.
I think that’s a huge answer. It is going to require tremendous philanthropy because you’re not going to be able to price that. You’re not going to make money on it. Not for a long time.
RM: But it could potentially be subsidized, maybe through a federal program.
Brown: Oh God, I hope not. You know, I am so sick of everybody assuming that the government is going to take care of it because the government is not going to take care of it. I think we take care of it. I would look to people to fund that, not governments to fund that. As soon as the government gets involved, it usually turns to crap. That’s my opinion; I’m kind of anti-government that way, but I do think that if I could have an old school bus and fill it with produce every day and drive it into a food desert, there is no question that you would be doing good. Or going around gathering up the stuff that restaurants will give away; but you know, that is such a liability! We are such a litigious society that the personal risk of doing good is ridiculous.
When I was producing Good Eats, we gave away all the food we didn’t use on that show but we were told not to by lawyers. “What if somebody gets sick? You’re going to be liable for that.” And I thought, “You know what? I don’t care.” Sometimes you just have to do something because you want to do it and you’re going to take the personal risk for it. And I think the people who actually change things accept that.