More than a decade ago, when Food Network still showed people cooking rather than filling the airwaves with travel shows and other silliness, a quirky little show run by a former commercial director, which had made its debut on Chicago public television the year before, joined the FN lineup.
The world would never be the same, or at least the foodie portion of the world.
"Good Eats," hosted by Alton Brown, didn't just show us recipes and how to make them, it delved into the science behind the cooking, using everything from papier-mache chickens to sock puppets to illustrate complex chemical processes and cooking techniques. Brown's skill at commercial direction showed, with slick, well-timed segments that conveyed maximum information with enough fluff to keep it watchable.
The legion of fans built quickly. Calling themselves "Briners," a term that will be explained below, fans formed web communities, followed each episode obsessively, got together for marathon cooking sessions and, of course, haunted every public appearance by their guru.
I will never forget the first time I met Alton, at a book signing in Dallas after his first book, "I'm Just Here For The Food," was released. The bookstore had set out 50 or 60 chairs, and nearly 300 people showed up. When he came out from the back, Brown saw the assembled crowd and had a brief deer-in-headlights moment before recovering and spending far longer than originally planned signing books, chatting and taking pictures with fans.
Remember: This was the Era of Emeril, when TV chefs were thought to be largely untouchable, or at the very least unapproachable. To have a show host come down from the mountain and hobnob with the hoi polloi was unheard-of. We (yes, I'm a Briner) were sold.
With a loathing for "unitaskers" but a love for quality gadgetry, Alton was responsible for some considerable purchases in my household when the show began. It became a running joke that Bed, Bath and Beyond always just happened to have on sale whatever gadgets had been featured in that week's show. I learned that paying more for truly good quality wasn't a bad thing, but also that sometimes TV show hosts can afford things I can't.
"Good Eats" made stars out of its guests, as well. Merrilyn Crouch, who played Alton's clueless sister Marsha in several episodes, and even more notably Vickie Eng, who played gadget expert and master of snark "W" many times, both had their own legions of fans. Culinary anthropologist Deb Duchon and master baker Shirley Corriher provided necessary bits of book learnin', but also were woven into the plots of episodes, rather than simply appearing to dispense wisdom.
Like most great shows, every fan has his or her favorite episode. With the help of my friends at one of the longest-running and largest of the "Good Eats" communities, the Good Eats Fan Page, I've assembled a list of the 10 foods that Alton Brown either taught us most about or made just flat hilarious episodes about.
10: Haggis. In "Oat Cuisine," Brown takes on the character of a Scottish peasant to tell us how to make our very own haggis at home. While I don't know anyone who actually tried it, the bit is hilarious and worth watching.
9: Oatmeal. From the same episode came the recipe for Overnight Oatmeal, using steel-cut oats and dried fruit to create one of the great breakfast dishes of all time. Both my sons were raised on the stuff, and it's become a family favorite.
8: Squid. "Squid Pro Quo" is one of the greatest episode titles in the series' run. Brown has a flair for puns and cultural references in his titles. The show itself, based upon the pursuit of a mythical sea monster, is hilarious, and the Squid Vicious recipe makes calamari accessible to even the most inexperienced cook.
7: Coffee. Here's an episode that, to me, is emblematic of the show's highest purpose: taking things we've all made for years and showing a better way, with plenty of tasty science to back it up. Tired of bitter coffee? You're not using enough grounds. I buy a lot more coffee now than I did before this show, but "True Brew" showed me how to make java that both wakes me up and leaves my taste buds intact.
6: Pot roast. In "A Chuck for Chuck," we meet Chuck, a clueless fellow played by Daniel Pettrow who frequently appears and is educated by Alton. The foil-wrapped, aromatic-laden chuck roast made here isn't your mom's pot roast ... it's better.
5: Fried chicken. I spent the better part of 10 years trying to perfect my fried chicken recipe, trying everything from self-rising flour (disastrous) to various seasoning mixtures in pursuit of perfection. In one half-hour episode, "Fry Hard II: The Chicken," Alton tossed out most of what I'd learned and showed me the error of my ways. I haven't made bad chicken since ... which my cardiologist is not happy about.
4: Roast turkey. "Romancing the Bird," the first "Good Eats" Thanksgiving episode, is perhaps the most-cited by fans and non-fans alike as being where Alton truly staked out his territory as a culinary revolutionary. With statements like, "Stuffing is evil," he sent legions of us scurrying for vegetable broth, peppercorns and spices to brine our birds, and aromatics to put inside the body cavities. A lot of us also learned that our ovens were, indeed, capable of reaching 500 degrees. This is where the Briners nickname began.
3: Chocolate-chip cookies. "Three Chips for Sister Marsha" was, for me, the point at which I became a kitchen science nut. Starting with the basic Toll House cookie recipe, Alton brings the science to make three different styles of cookie: the Thin, the Chewy and the Puffy. The explanation of how fats and proteins work to bring about the different end results, explaining for example the difference between using melted or softened butter or bread vs. all-purpose flour, was eye-opening.
2: Biscuits. Again, we have a simple food that for many people has become something bought premade or, at best, made from a mix. With help from his real-life grandmother, Mae Skelton, Brown brought the science and the craft together to show how even the most fumble-fingered baker could make good biscuits.
1: Steak. This is a purely personal choice. I spent years paying good money for steak in restaurants that almost always disappointed me on some level. In the very first "Good Eats" episode, "Steak Your Claim," Brown showed how using good beef, minimal seasoning and an insanely hot cast-iron skillet could prevent me from ever wasting another dime on restaurant steak.
There are dozens of other great moments and episodes, and everyone's got their favorites. I would be remiss if I didn't mention two of the greatest "stunt" innovations the show debuted over the years: the drill-aided pepper grinder and the exhaust-pipe Weber grill. With the first, Alton attached a power drill to the mechanism of a pepper mill in order to coat an entire salmon flank. With the second, he attached a length of exhaust pipe to one vent of a Weber kettle grill and stuck a hair dryer in it to create a blast-furnace effect. I have seen both done in countless videos with often hilarious results.