Alton Brown: Good Eats, mad science and masculinities in the kitchen
Irina Mihalache / American University of Paris
If there is one chef on American television who has mastered the art of playing in the kitchen, his name is definitely Alton Brown. Surrounded by bulletin boards with nuggets of information about anything from coffee beans to coconut cake, dressed in Hawaiian shirts, medieval armors or scrubs and armed with oversized spoons, decorated drills and purple rubber gloves, Alton Brown is defined by his ability to switch his personalities as required by “good eats.” This tradition of Brown’s shows has gained him a place in my series of articles about men who play well in the kitchen. In Brown’s case, play represents a means to an end: to educate Americans about “good eats,” which is not an allusion to eating healthy but to cooking by the rules. And Brown’s rules revolve around the deconstruction of any meal into a series of scientific experiments, executed with playfulness and humor. In this process, I argue, Brown has forged a recognizable and comfortable genre of masculinity which builds on already popular representations of men in North American culture. What unites all these very diverse characters—spies, doctors or superheroes—is their ability to play with scientific facts in the pursuit of technique in the kitchen.
Good Eats: Science and masculinity à la table!
In Good Eats1, Brown invites his viewers to deconstruct ingredients into their smallest particles and to think of food in a global sense—as culture, history and, most importantly, science. He explained that “everything in food is science, the only subjective part is when you eat it. Culinary tradition is not always based on fact … sometimes it’s based on history, on habits.”2 His desire to understand the science behind food and to teach others to cook scientifically earned him the title of culinary hacker, geek-cook or a cross between Julia Child and MacGyver. As Brown often confessed in his shows, each dish, as simple as waffles and as complex as pad thai, has the potential of becoming “Good Eats,” but it is the process of cooking which is essential to this transformation. And this process is based on education and entertainment, or better said on exploring the boundaries between work and play. In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Brown talked about his vision for Good Eats, “We’ve got a big sign over the door which states that laughing brains are more absorbent. You cannot teach without entertaining…we always thought that if we can entertain and tell good stories, be very visually arresting, then people will soak up the information and so we loaded up.”3
Brown’s food pedagogy is based on the assumption that if one understands the scientific, “behind-the-scenes” workings of an ingredient, s/he will be freed of all fears associated with cooking. Therefore, if the act of cooking is framed as a scientific pursuit, it becomes liberated from its history of domesticity and craftiness and becomes the domain of masculine assertiveness and logics. Meanwhile, the seriousness of each scientific investigation is balanced by the visual style of the show and Brown’s performativity. In a nutshell, each episode shows how playfulness—translated as entertainment, experimentation and eccentricity—in the kitchen is a main ingredient of any dish. Therefore, to make science and education fun, Brown re-invents himself as a mélange of different masculinities recognizable to mainstream North American audiences. Brown’s masculinity rests upon the shoulders of other very familiar and rather typical images of men in North American popular culture: the mad scientist, the nutty professor, the eccentric geek, the British spy and even the superhero.
By poaching (with humor) on these popular cultural tropes, Brown forges a type of masculinity which is highly recognizable and likable. The men in Brown’s kitchen, while inspired from all walks of fictional life, are geeks at their core. Good Eats, I argue, is a prime example of how discourses about play feed into a depiction of nonchalant, confident and geeky masculinity. Therefore, I believe that Brown’s own brand of masculinity borrows heavily and unapologetically on other types of geeky masculinity which are already popular in North American culture. In this article, I will refer to the mad scientist and the geeky superhero as two such facets of Brown’s complex masculinity.
Science gone . . . mad: “Deep Space Slime (Gelatin)”4
Probably the most common of Alton Brown’s on screen personalities is that of the scientist, often the eccentric and mad kind. As Good Eats is a show about scientific experimentation, the scientific discourse is visible in Brown’s fashion, accessories, gadgets, vocabulary and settings. In “Deep Space Slime (Gelatin)”, an episode dedicated to making artisanal gelatin, Brown starts by introducing a short history of gelatin making, emphasizing with humor the cumbersome process used centuries ago to prepare the ingredient. Dressed in a white coat—a signifier of his assumed scientific personality—on top of a Hawaiian shirt—a symbol of irony and eccentricity—Brown addresses his audience in front of a camera hidden in his refrigerator, a common technique in the show. Before demonstrating the making of gelatin, the host provides his audience with a brief explanation of gelatin, in scientific terms. He states, “You see, gelatin contains specific amounts of eighteen different amino acids joined together in sequences to form polypeptide chains scientifically known as the primary structure.”5 His information is exemplified visually by props and the hands of a mysterious assistant situated behind Brown who acts out the information verbally communicated by the expert. Such moments are, according to the overall philosophy of the show, equal part entertainment and education. Assuming the persona of a knowledgeable and well informed scientist, Brown becomes credible even to the most skeptical members of the audience. However, it is the “mad” aspect which solidifies his masculinity as a playful performance. His approachable masculinity is a result of softening up the scientific discourse with just a dash of humor and entertainment.
Even waffles have their hero: “The Waffle Truth”6
All characters performed by Brown incorporate the quest for science with education through entertainment. One such example is Waffleman, a superhero whose mission is to “save common, everyday, decent folk from the soul stifling power of mediocre waffles.”7 In “The Waffle Truth” episode, the superhero, one of the icons of North American culture, is in charge of preserving the integrity of yet another culinary American icon, which is the waffle. Waffleman, dressed as a faux superhero, with a W-shaped waffle as his belt buckle, black rubber kitchen gloves and a backpack full of mediocre pancakes, is another character which doubles up as an informed scientist. When his patriotic rant about his mission as a waffle crusader ends, Waffleman eloquently explains how the “counterfeit waffle wannabes” are flooding the market and mis-informing the American folks about the art of making real waffles.8 Therefore, the mission in this episode is to educate viewers about the true and authentic waffles. Throughout the rest of the show, Brown travels from an old Dutch monastery to Paris and back to America, just like a true and very fast superhero, and tells a historically and scientifically accurate story about waffle making. Brown as Waffleman reflects the flexibility of the superhero myth in North American culture and corresponds with the pedagogy of the show to employ playful masculinity to educate about cooking.
In conclusion, Alton Brown, either as a mad scientist or the Waffleman is another celebrity chef who proves that the kitchen has been transformed into a safe space for men and the performance of masculinity. Good Eats responds to the increasing popularity of cooking among diverse communities and audiences, resulting in attempts to un-domesticate the kitchen in order to make the space appealing even for men. Alton Brown suggests one such way, which combines scientific experimentation, intelligent humor and playfulness.
1. Alton Brown via Slashfood
2. Alton Brown via Screenhead
3. Alton Brown via Abrams Books
Please feel free to comment.
- Good Eats aired for the first time on PBS in July 1998 and only after one year it was picked up by Food Network. The show ran for 14 seasons and 249 episodes and was one of the most popular cooking shows on Food Network. The last episode of Good Eats aired in February 2012. [↩]
- Hurd, R. S. (2012, June). The thermochemical joy of cooking. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.06/cooking.html
- Brown, A. (2011, Sept. 4). Alton Brown takes a final bite of Good Eats. All Things Considered, NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2011/09/03/140165889/alton-brown-takes-a-final-bite-of-good-eats. [↩]
- “Deep Space Slime (Gelatin)” is the first episode from Season 5 of Good Eats. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- “The Waffle Truth” is the ninth episode from Season 9 of Good Eats. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
As a kid, I used to wait until my parents went to sleep, turn on the TV set in my bedroom and watch Good Eats in the dark when it came on shortly after midnight. It was and will always be my favorite science/cooking show, precisely because of the qualities that you point out in Alton. There is a balance to the way that he produces dry, purely scientific or historical information and the way in which he carries himself and the way the show (visually) depicts his kitchen. As part of a generation that grew up with Bill Nye, I definitely feel like there was a period when these kinds of personalities really reworked the way this kind of content was introduced, without taking it all the way to an extreme like Mythbusters. Putting a personality like that in the kitchen really did offer a unique approach to come together, in which case “un-domesticating” is definitely a fitting term. I feel a itch to say that his style of humor and his geekiness somehow works against that masculinization, though I feel like I ought to dwell on that a bit longer before jumping to that conclusion.
Two things that were always attention-drawing to me as a kid came to mind when I was reading this article: 1) the fact that you rarely see any other figures on screen with Alton and 2) that the on-screen text/drawings (including the factoid lead-ins presented before and after commercial breaks) were always straight information (rarely including the joking tone that Alton has when speaking) and yet they never felt like a break from the tone of the show. I feel like I might have to go and rethink those two elements in light of the way you position him as a host here.
When I was a boy, the pleasure of cooking was similar to that of scientific experiments. I loved baking cakes and cookies in my childhood since you need to measure the amounts of ingredients accurately to have cakes inflated as you want as if you measure chemical materials by using flasks and test-tubes in lab. Even though I cook not only pastries but also daily meals at home today and become enjoying bricolage aspect of booking, I still fill interested in chemistry, thermodynamics, physics, and biology working in cooking. Thus, the author’s conclusion that “Alton Brown, either as a mad scientist or the Waffleman is another celebrity chef who proves that the kitchen has been transformed into a safe space for men and the performance of masculinity” is convincing for me. This is first time for me to watch Good Eats, Alton Brown’s kitchen show utilizing the images of North American popular culture such as “the mad scientist, the nutty professor, the eccentric geek, the British spy and even the superhero,” but, if I were a kid watching this program, I must be attracted to this show so much.
However, I wonder Alton Brown’s character should necessarily be associated with masculinity. I understand this show doesn’t provide typical representations of femininity such as fancy decoration, maternity, sophisticated kitchen utensils and system kitchen and female MC. But, at the same time, Alton Brown’s character is also different to the stereotypical image of masculine guy. The geeky character in his role can not be simply called masculinity. I think the gender politics in this show is too complicated to be reduced into dichotic categories of masculine and feminine.
A few years ago my mom and I were out shopping. We had just learned that my dad had lost his job and while we knew he would find another one soon, it was still a hard time. It was not until we were at the store when we got a call from my dad asking for a handle of Vodka did we even think to panic. When we got home we asked him why he needed that and his answer was “I was watching Alton Brown and he had this amazing recipe for Lemoncello!”
This is what I think about when I hear the name Alton Brown. I think about the Saturday and Sundays sitting with my dad watching the show. For some reason this show is very special to me, and it is because I got to spend time with my dad, we both enjoyed the same thing!
Now realizing how Alton Brown is breaking the stigma of men in the kitchen I realize why those moments are so special. My dad rarely enjoys watching cooking shows. Alton Brown is a one of a kind entertainer and it is because he knows how to break stereotypes. Food Network has a good variety of men and women cooks and chefs, however the women tend to bake more while the men tend to BBQ more. Even though Bobby Flay has a show where he can be seen baking, it is in a challenge and it is with his two colleagues both women.
Alton Brown shows how bringing together a variety of interests can bring in a variety of audience. Bringing together Science, Super-Heroes, comedy and food entertains a vast audience of men, women and children. My question is why are there not more shows trying to use this as an example? Another question would be does this work because it is on a smaller network? What would happen if this were to be on ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC?
I actually did not learn of the whole “men should not cook” stereotype until only a few years ago in college when one of my dorm mates was cooking a cake and another girl made fun of him. In my household, my dad was the one who always cooked when we would get home from school. This was because he worked a physical job all day and would need a lot of intake, so naturally, being a man, he couldn’t help but to make sure he would get a hefty portion and to make sure the food was to his satisfaction. My mom, on the other hand, couldn’t even cook mashed potatoes without messing it up. We’d often say she’d be cooking mashed potato soup because of how watery it would turn out. This would make her angry sometimes, but she would still refer to my dad whenever it came to making a meal.
Going back to my college dorm, I remember standing there confused when the girl was making fun of my dorm mate. I had made cakes a couple of times in my life – after all, it’s just food, so what the heck is wrong with a boy cooking it? She laughed at me too and told me that the kitchen is the women’s domain. I remember becoming even more confused – her statement seemed so backwards. I knew that women often cooked, but I never thought it was odd for a man to cook. Not only this, but she was a girl, and yet she was stereotyping her own gender while making fun of the other? I thought in this day and age we were over stereotyping.
I’ve only seen Good Eats a couple of times when I was a teenager, so I never viewed it under the context of attempting to break the stereotype of a man cooking in the kitchen. Now that I think of it in that way, though, I find it highly admirable that Food Network would attempt to put on this show to break stereotypes. I’m not sure I agree with them framing Alton Brown’s kitchen adventures under the lens of science and manliness though – that just seems to be telling audiences that it is okay for a man to cook in the kitchen as long as he is taking an interest in the food’s scientific principles. Then again, perhaps this is because our society views men in the kitchen in this way, so this is the only way they can begin to break that stereotype without turning people off or inviting criticisms from people like the girl from my college dorm. Regardless, this is a great example of a television network attempting to bend societal norms and push society forward. Perhaps Food Network is able to pull this off because they usually feature half-hour show after half-hour show, all dealing with cooking something, and thus they can experiment more and try to make the formula more entertaining and even different (a man cooking).
I’ve been watching Alton Brown cook since I was a child. I never really viewed him as breaking the mold of men in the kitchen. To give him all the credit of bringing masculinity to the kitchen is a little inaccurate when you take a look at the (older) Food Network lineup. Shows like Iron Chef had all male Iron Chefs and even Bobby Flay had his various cooking shows. As mentioned by Casey Elizabeth above, we do see Bobby Flay get help by his two female colleagues but ultimately it is Bobby Flay that is pulling all the strings and that is only on 1 show out of the 9ish he’s had. Not to mention Ace of Cakes! Where we see lots of men baking marvelous cakes using “traditional” male roles (welding, wood work, ect.) Even the new Food Network line up is composed of mainly men.
Alton Brown is a different pioneer. He doesn’t fit into the mold of what people think of when they hear masculinity. Since he doesn’t fit into really any category so easily he is able to bring in a variety of people to his show. His wacky characters and fun visuals appeal to children and his informative side appeals to home cooks. These qualities have helped in making cooking seem more accessible to someone who might find it intimidating. That’s what I see Alton Brown doing for cooking. He gives you confidence to explore the culinary field by breaking it down to it’s most simple form.