My Summer Affair with Alton Brown or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Food Network

Most television is terrible. Great shows exist, but are few and far between. While exploring the vast, muddy mediocrity that comprises the majority of the medium, philistine Nick Martens stumbles upon the Food Network. Impressed by its mindless practicality, he ponders its place among America’s most degenerative cultural format.

TV has become a noise to me. It’s something to divert my attention during lulls while surfing the web from my couch. Most of this noise is blaring, insipid, and purposeless. From CNN’s Hilton hysteria to MTV’s youth exploitation, almost every channel only serves to rattle my skull. Rarely can shows ascend above the realm of noise and become what we might call “signal.” Signal demands I shut my MacBook’s lid and pay some goddamn attention. Heroes, Arrested Development and old Simpsons episodes all qualify as signal, focused rays of pure culture that might rightly be classified as art. As AT&T has taught us, though, signal is unreliable. Most times I flip on the tube, I find only noise.

The trick, then, is to find pleasant noise. A noise that alternatively soothes and enlivens the spirit, perking up when you lend it your ear and fading gracefully when you turn away. Shows such as Pardon the Interruption and Mythbusters fit the bill. If they’re on, I can drop in and out of focus at will. When I’m in, I’m effortlessly entertained. It’s a lively, reliable kind of entertainment that asks refreshingly little of my listless mind. When I’m out, reading Digg or editing Bureau articles, the show backs respectfully away, making no demands on my coveted attention.

I wholeheartedly endorse this pleasant variety of noise as a legitimate form of entertainment. I am an enthusiastic fan of PTI, even though I generally find sports uninteresting. The hosts clearly understand television’s proper role, never devoting more than two minutes to their unavoidably superficial sports analysis. TV can provide a cursory glance at more complex topics, but falls apart when it attempts a more penetrating investigation.

Although it sounds like a simple concept, pleasant noise proves to be remarkably elusive. After an episode of PTI, I often find myself shutting off the TV entirely rather than attempting to concentrate in the presence of harsh noise. That’s why I was delighted this summer to find a wellspring of pleasant noise on DirecTV channel 231, the Food Network. And, while I was immediately impressed by the pretensionless charm of Good Eats and Everyday Italian, I would gradually come to realize that these humble cooking programs provide a unique viewing experience unduplicated elsewhere on the broadcast spectrum.

Alton Brown of Good Eats

Alton Brown of Food Network’s Good Eats; courtesy of National Geographic

Good Eats is a basic home cooking show, vitalized by its eccentric host, Alton Brown. The heart of the show is, predictably, cooking instruction, but Brown freshens the formula with a profusion of culinary insight. Given the simple task of teaching viewers how to make their own tortillas, Brown wanders into the realms of pre-Columbian history, vegetable chemistry, and local manufacturing, while still advancing his recipe. All of this is grounded by his charismatic goofiness. At the end of an episode, I’m convinced that Brown’s food has lived up to his show’s title, my nutritional knowledge is bolstered, and I feel that I, too, could concoct good eats.

Wait. That last bit is unusual. Watching TV generally retards initiative, pushing me deeper and deeper into the couch with each banal flicker. Good Eats, though, actively combated my laziness, and it has actually had an appreciable impact on my lifestyle.

The revolution began with an episode called “Toast Modern.” As an English major and longtime proponent of subtlety, this title tickled me in just the right way. I was also amused by the notion of devoting an entire episode to toast. More importantly, though, it was the first episode that compelled me to actually cook something. It was a simple recipe for bruscetta (Brown instructs: “brew-skett-uh”). It seemed like such a simple and delicious way to enhance something I always have around the house. I made a batch, it was excellent, and I’ve reprised the dish many times since.

Understand that I don’t cook. The college cliché fits me like a glove: I can only make ramen. That is, until I started watching Good Eats this summer. Now, I’ve fried hamburgers and chicken, mashed potatoes, and even (somewhat unsuccessfully) attempted potstickers. I’m by no means a gourmet, but I’m gradually acquiring the ability to sustain myself on my own cooking, and, unbelievably, I owe it to TV.

Earlier I alluded to my belief that television is unable to offer a thorough analysis of complex topics. Even an artificial subject like sports is convoluted enough to elude television’s shallow grasp. Cooking, though, is simple. Unlike news coverage, an easy recipe simply fits into 22-minutes. Alton Brown can tell me everything that needs telling about cheesecake in one episode. I’m not left wondering about the deeper nuances of cheese-based confectioning because those nuances are irrelevant to me. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been sufficiently edified on the topic.

This is why the Food Network is able to consistently produce such pleasant noise. Its subject matter is inherently light enough to thrive in television’s intellectually bankrupt landscape. Unlike CNN, which debases what should be a serious endeavor, or reality shows that reduce the subject of life to a laughingstock, cooking is no big deal. Perky, family-friendly hosts are perfectly acceptable because their shows are meant to be breezy and fun. This is not to say that I enjoy every Food Network program, but rather that I find it to be an institution that admirably plays to television’s limitations. TV is at once our worst and most popular medium; the least it can do is show us how to make some toast.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.