Extreme degrees and delight: Brown brings down the house

Published June 2, 2007 in the Midland (MI) Daily News

Beth Medley Bellor

    As the time for the opening evening of the Matrix:Midland Festival approached, the parking lot was packed and people flowed into the Midland Center for the Arts, with quite a few carrying books under their arms and others stopping at the sale table inside. Anyone who wondered how many fans the Food Network’s Alton Brown had could stop.

    The auditorium was very nearly full, and Brown seemed impressed as he peered out. “Wow. Who’s manning the town?”

    He said his interest in cooking began as a way to impress women, starting with his mother and aunts, meandering through some ill-fated college attempts and resting now on a 7-year-old girl. He asked for a show of hands of dads with girls.

    “I have taken it upon myself in the last year to amaze my daughter and her friends,” he said. That of course would lead to the world of candy, upon which kids would spend thousands of dollars a day if they could, he said – including his daughter, who claims to have a regular stomach and a sugar stomach.

    Brown was exactly as one would expect from the “Good Eats” show he writes and hosts, quick with the banter and tossing off facts and references as he went. Early on he took away a video camera and briefly shut it in the refrigerator, then admired the way the pots made different sounds on the cooktop burners – “It’s like the Blue Man Group.”

    Shortly afterward the cameraman lost part of his gear and Brown scolded him, saying, “You be more careful in the kitchen” and stuffing the pack back in the man’s pocket.

    He turned back and pointed to the pocket. “Bam,” he said, to a roar.

    “Actually, legally I can’t say that,” he said. “It’s copyrighted.”

    A sugar mixture was in need of vanilla, and he refused to use a knife to split the vanilla bean, turning instead to a bean frencher – “It is NOT a unitasker,” he insisted – then pondered selling the tools online. He tucked the one he had just used aside, saying he would list it on eBay – and his mother would buy it.

    A quick survey of the number of scientists in the audience and some chalkboard work led to a drawing linking glucose and fructose. “Disaccharides,” several in the audience shouted before Brown could make it that far, and he tossed his chalk into the air. The discussion continued, but the battle was on. “So then you all know, certainly, because you were just sitting at your centrifuge this afternoon,” he began at one point.

    Candy comes down to the percentage of sucrose in syrup, he explained, and because measuring this was difficult without a laboratory, the ball stages of candymaking were developed. The mixtures were to reach 300 degrees, 240 degrees and 170 degrees – not even a syrup – and would make completely different candies.

    The 240-degree mixture was poured into gelatin in a mixer and turned on for 15 minutes. When it was done and poured out into a pan, he swapped it for one that had set for hours and set about turning it out of the pan.

    At least, that was the plan. First he objected to the white board offered by his assistant, Tammy Cook, who travels with him and develops and tests all the recipes for “Good Eats.” No one would be able to see the white candy on the white board, he said.

    Instead, Brown turned the candy out onto the black stage floor. At least, he tried. Several failed attempts led to his peeling the mixture out of the pan, dropping it onto the floor and cutting it into squares. He tossed many of the homemade marshmallows into the crowd, but it was hard because they kept sticking to his hand.

    Undaunted, he turned to the next mixture, listing as he went. “Red food coloring. Overcooked sugar solution,” he said, noting it wasn’t supposed to be brown, and wouldn’t have been had the marshmallows cooperated.

    No matter. A whisk with the end cut off did its work, and he whipped the mixture back and forth across the backs of two chairs, spinning barely visible threads of fairy floss – cotton candy. The audience was charmed by the nearly magical presentation.

    “I guarantee you, you show up to your daughter’s kindergarten class doing this, there ain’t no following that,” Brown said.

    Now it was time for the 170-degree mixture, which was for ice cream. There was fat content and its effect on crystallization to be considered, sure. But that wasn’t the coolest part.

    “I’m intrinsically lazy,” Brown announced, plunking his pot of dairy ingredients at the front of the stage. “I do however have a deep abiding love of ice cream. And I have access to liquid nitrogen.”

    A cheer went up as his assistant poured in two quarts. “This is about controlling crystals with temperature, it’s not about having fun with chemicals,” he chided.

    Again, there was a small hiccup. As the mixtures first were crafted there was a difference of opinion about the sugar needs, and too much went into the ice cream mixture. This of course meant more liquid nitrogen was needed, and the cloud spilled over the edge of the stage.

    “I can’t feel anything from my waist down,” he said. But they kept pouring because the mixture had to freeze and, he said, it’s not like they could take the rest of the liquid nitrogen back on the plane.

    A suitable soft-serve mixture finally resulted. And leftover liquid nitrogen? It was poured onto a marshmallow, which then was thrown down and broken on the floor. “Do you dare me?” Brown asked before popping a piece into his mouth. Then he turned to look at his work.

    “Look at the stage. I trashed the place,” he said, laughing.

    No one cared. He rocked the place.

Extra content published at www.ourmidland.com:

    People were invited to scream out questions during Brown’s presentation, and occasionally obliged. They certainly weren’t shy about showing their feelings at any point.

    Candy comes in two types, he said early on, chocolate and sugar – but there would be no chocolate tonight. The audience responded with a despondent “Ohh,” and Brown hung his head. “Enjoy the festival. I’ll send Hall and Oates out early,” he said.

    Conversation – it truly felt like conversation – was wide-ranging and off the cuff, and his onstage assistant scolded him at one point for talking about bathrooms and food at the same time.

    “They’re scientists. They like cause and effect,” he protested. “Where else can you read all those scientific journals?”

    Science was in heavy play during the evening, with talk about enzymes, proteins and forcing particles between sucrose molecules to keep crystals from forming. Brown was pleased finally to stump his audience with a question – What is the difference between light and dark corn syrup? – and did a small dance of glee before noting that dark corn syrup has a small amount of molasses, and therefore some acidity.

    As he stirred the 240-degree syrup into gelatin, he called it his napalm, to a few more “Ohhs” from the audience. He might not have gotten the Dow Chemical connection but explained his reference: “This stuff sticks to you, you cry.”

    He definitely picked up on the connection to sponsor Dow Corning, though, when an audience member asked why he was using an oiled metal spatula to scrape a mixture out of a metal bowl. He quickly grabbed another spatula, had his assistant spray it behind his back, and sang the praises of his new silicone spatula, and gosh who makes this wonderful stuff, he would just have to buy lots of stock on Monday.

    The mixture needed to chill before using, so he did a swapout in the refrigerator, to applause. He chided the audience for being so pleased about a swapout 40 minutes into the show. Emeril Lagasse lives off swapouts, he pointed out, dishing on fellow Food Network stars to people’s delight. So does Rachael Ray, he said, but then it’s like this, as he stuck out his rear to full effect.

    “I’m gonna lose my jo-ob,” he sang.

    When the liquid nitrogen ice cream making didn’t go quite as planned, Brown warned the people in the front row to stand up if they felt lightheaded. No, really; the gas is heavy and would displace regular air low to the ground. He performed a mock faint himself for effect.

    An invitation to ask questions at microphones stationed at both sides of the auditorium led to growing lines, more than half children, prompting Brown to wonder when their bedtimes were. He was generally polite, but felt free to ask, for example, if the woman with the glucose allergy had seen a doctor or been self-diagnosed.

    Some of the questions:


    • From a 14-year-old boy recalling that Brown began cooking to impress women: “What was the recipe that worked best?”

    Actually, he had a meal one, a meal two and “the closer,” he said. Fish works well, he said, particularly recommending sole au gratin florentine.

    “Many of the leftover ingredients could be used for breakfast,” he said slyly. “Never worked.”

    • Can honey be used in candy? Yes, but it can’t be substituted in regular recipes because it crystallizes differently; recipes specifically for honey are needed.

    • “You seem to dis regular salt,” a girl told him, asking what makes kosher salt, well, kosher?

    Koshering salt has to be able to cling to something to draw out blood, so the size and shape of the flakes are different, he said. “I like working with it because you can pinch it and hold onto it.”

    • Is there a fast way to make ice cream if you don’t have access to liquid nitrogen?

    “Do you have a younger brother? Smaller monkey, perhaps?”

    To speed the process somewhat, he suggested making sure the base is as cold as possible. He puts his in the freezer for a couple of hours.

    • This led to a question about dry ice. Brown said he has taken an ice cream machine and thrown in pieces of dry ice, but it had a carbonizing effect. “It was like Zot ice cream.”


    • Is another book coming out soon? Yes, in early 2008. He is writing a book based on the “Feasting on Asphalt” Mississippi River tour that will air beginning in August, and it will include 14 recipes.

    • What is his favorite color and how does it play into a hobby? That would be the egg yolk yellow BMW motorcycle that shows up in said river tour.

    • Does Brown have any training in acting? Yes, a college degree in theater, he said, adding he has performed Shakespeare on two continents.

    • Is there any food he just can’t stand? No, but he did have a bad experience with curried lamb eyes. “I was OK with the eye, until I got the lens stuck between my teeth.”


    • Has Brown ever subbed out a food before eating it on the show? Yes, in the soup on the show devoted to oysters, because he has an oyster intolerance.

    • Is “Elton” on “Good Eats” really his nephew? Nope, an actor named John. Brown doesn’t have a sister, even. But daughter Zoe does appear in some upcoming episodes.

    • Has he made mistakes? Of course, he said, often with sauces, such as some “nasty marinades” and “positively wretched salad dressings.”

    • Any fires? “I’ve had grease fires, I’ve had butter fires, I’ve had alcohol fires. I’ve burned them all.”

    • Who is his best friend on the Food Network? He thought hard and said he had to be careful about his answer.

    “I would call Bobby Flay and Mario Batale friends,” he decided. “And I would say they’re the best cooks on the network. But that’s just me.”

    • On “Iron Chef America,” for which Brown provides commentary, is Jeffrey Steingarten as much of a jerk as he seems? And do the Iron Chefs ever get upset at the judges’ comments?

    Brown said Steingarten is one of the best food writers he knows, and sometimes he is frank but he is a very nice person. As for the chefs, they have long careers and didn’t get where they are by becoming unhinged over a critic’s comments.

    • What was his funniest moment on air? Well, he’s really not the best judge.

    “I have a bad sense of humor that has to be monitored by others,” he said.

    His wife is president of the company and can watch taping on a monitor in her office down the hall, he said. Occasionally the door bursts open during taping and it’s her shouting, “NO!”

    • Have there been any emergencies? 911 only has been called twice, he said – no, make that once; the other time they just drove very quickly.

    An ambulance was called when a giant brass diving helmet fell on a camera operator’s head in an Atlanta seafood restaurant.

    Brown was the injured party in an early chocolate episode called “The Art of Darkness.” In the scene where he is sitting on bags of beans in a San Francisco chocolate factory, the reason he is seen only in profile – and why the person he’s talking to keeps shooting him sidelong glances – is because there is blood running down the other side of his face and he keeps trying to lick it away. He ran into a garage door and the resulting cut was held together with duct tape during taping.


    • What is his favorite food to prepare? His favorite part about working in a kitchen?

    “My favorite part of working in a professional kitchen is having other people to wash,” he said.

    He enjoys cooking, doing a lot of it at home. Eggs in particular he finds magical.

    Cooks should have the same rule as doctors, he noted: Do no harm.

    • What is Brown’s favorite “Good Eats” episode? He doesn’t have one now, but until a couple of years ago this would have been his answer: “We did a show that was all about garlic that was seen through the eyes of a vampire.”

    • What was his favorite food on last summer’s “Feasting on Asphalt” four-part series?

    At Ted’s Flatbread in Colorado, a dish called the Tourist Killer – Navajo flatbread “with like four Coney Island hot dogs stacked on it. It was so wrong.”

    • What is his favorite grilled food? Marinated skirt steak, cooked right on the coals for 2 minutes on each side, then wrapped in foil for 20 minutes so the connective tissue breaks down.

    • What is his favorite costume he has worn on the air? The suicide flower.

    Another is coming, though, as Brown realized the spinach show hasn’t aired yet. “When that comes on, you want to see that.” Watch for Popeye.

    • What is his favorite prop? “Oh. The giant squid arm.”

    The only reason to keep doing squid recipes, he said, is to amortize the cost of the prop. He expects to be buried in it.

    • What is his favorite candy? That was a stumper. “I’m a user,” he admitted. “A really good caramel is hard to beat.”

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