Alton Brown: Good Eats, mad science and masculinities in the kitchen
Irina Mihalache / American University of Paris


Alton Brown

Waffle superhero

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.

Alton Brown

Alton Brown

Good Eats: Science and masculinity à la table!

In Good Eats (( 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. )), 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.” (( Hurd, R. S. (2012, June). The thermochemical joy of cooking. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.06/cooking.html
)) 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.” ((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. ))

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.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaiQFToLk5w[/youtube]

Science gone . . . mad: “Deep Space Slime (Gelatin)” ((“Deep Space Slime (Gelatin)” is the first episode from Season 5 of Good Eats. ))

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.” (( Ibid. )) 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.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKV9qKwPW3k[/youtube]

Even waffles have their hero: “The Waffle Truth” (( “The Waffle Truth” is the ninth episode from Season 9 of Good Eats. ))

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.” (( Ibid. )) 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. (( Ibid. )) 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.

Image Credits:
1. Alton Brown via Slashfood
2. Alton Brown via Screenhead
3. Alton Brown via Abrams Books

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Being Guy Fieri: The “chef-dude” and the geography of a bro kitchen
Irina Mihalache / American University of Paris

Guy Fieri

The “chef dude” Guy Fieri

If Graham Kerr, the hero of my previous FlowTV article, pieced together his on stage identity borrowing from bourgeois British masculinity, spy culture and Ivy League/”boys club” style, Guy Fieri tells a different story about masculinity, playfulness and cooking. I argued previously that the acts of cooking and being in the kitchen were made safe for men through different narratives about play. As early as the 1970s, when cooking television was in its early stages, Graham Kerr entertained North American audiences with his playful casualness, suggesting the directions which contemporary male celebrity chefs would take in their performances: entertainment, experimentation and education. Kerr’s play on playfulness in the kitchen was manifested through his culinary vocabulary, cooking gadgets and overall informality vis-à-vis the rigors of cookery. In his cooking shows, Fieri takes play to a whole new level, mixing up stories about food with a genre of masculinity based on a few basic ingredients: “rebel, clown, frat boy, chef.”. In this second article about men in the kitchen, I will enter Guy Fieri’s kitchen and show how the geography of the space and the objects in the kitchen transform a space for cooking into a space for play where even men with tattoos, 1960s red convertibles and electric guitars can feel at ease.

Guy Fieri: The dude who became a chef

Guy Fieri joined Food Network in 2007 after winning the Next Food Network Star competition. Currently, he hosts two of the most popular shows on Food Network, Guy’s Big Bite and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Guy’s Big Bite is a cooking show where Fieri teaches his male and female audiences to cook without effort while having fun at the same time. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, also known as Triple D, is a road show which takes Fieri to the underbelly of American food culture, to “greasy spoon” type whole in the wall food locales all across the United States.

In 2010, the New York Times called Fieri “the chef-dude” for his ability to bring in more male viewers than any other show on the network (( Moskin, J. (2010, August 10). Guy Fieri, chef-dude, is in the house. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/11/dining/11Fieri.html?pagewanted=all )). The word “dude” describes quite well Fieri’s performance in his kitchen, as “dude” connotes, according to Scott Kiesling, a “cool solidarity” which allows men to be close without endangering requirements for heterosexism (( Kiesling, S.F. (2004). Dude. American Speech, 79(3): 280-305, p. 283. )). Bonds of brotherhood are formed and reinforced in Fieri’s kitchen, which has been void of most signs of domesticity. In this interpretation, Fieri’s unpretentious and rowdy masculinity differs greatly from Kerr’s performance, which, while casual, was rooted in high class British-ness and displayed notes of food snobbery. On the contrary, Fieri brought the man in its most sport-cheering, meat-loving pure and raw masculinity back into the kitchen. But the man in Fieri’s kitchen, despite being purely masculine, is also friendly, playful and family-oriented. Fieri often invites some of his “bros”, with names like Gorilla, Mustard and Dirty P. to cook with him but he also cooks with his two sons and refers often to his wife. The roughness of Fieri’s style is tamed by his gentler, family-oriented side. This duality reflects the possibility that cooking can be both masculine and domestic without posing a threat to the male lifestyle.

Guy Fieri

Guy’s kitchen: The bro emporium

The dude culture performed in Fieri’s kitchen is dominated by a discourse of “play” which is translated in the geography of the kitchen. Fieri’s kitchen in Guy’s Big Bite has been un-domesticized through a geography which brings in elements of highly masculine spaces, where dudes usually hang out: the road, the bar, the arcade and the indie band stage. Fieri often starts his shows from his musical corner, set up as a mini-stage with drums, electric guitars, amps and speakers and makes his way towards the cooking area. Along the way, Fieri encounters a few other spaces which solidify the image of his kitchen as a place for playing. Throughout the show, Fieri often moves from the stove to the bar, where he prepares drinks to go along with the food or plays a quick round of bumper pool before retrieving his ingredients from the pantry. Not unlike Graham Kerr, Fieri circulates casually from one space to another, displaying ownership over his kitchen and inviting his audience to have fun while cooking. Fieri’s kitchen is a mosaic of different zones, each associated with a leisure activity such as playing music, playing bumper pool or just “chilling”. In this context, cooking, despite being the focus of the show, becomes just another playful activity to be enjoyed while hanging out with the bros.

Guy Fieri
Guy Fieri

Guy’s objects: Toys for boys

The kitchen is full of objects which reflect the identity of the host as the representative of a solid type of hegemonic masculinity rooted in “cool solidarity”, Americana and ideals of community life. On one wall, Fieri displays his collection of vintage license plates, hubcaps and grilles, an homage to American car culture. This collection of memorabilia is a signifier of Fieri’s sense of adventure and discovery, manifested in his other show, “Triple D”, where Fieri is on the road in his red convertible – a 1967 Chevy Camaro SS. The presence of car culture objects in the kitchen as reminders of Fieri’s road trips across the US further constructs the kitchen as a de-domesticized space where cooking is both a challenge or adventure and a form of recreation. Along the same lines, one of the most famous objects in Fieri’s kitchen is his refrigerator, decorated with a racing stripe vinyl sticker and autographed by the chef himself. Around the room, there are a series of grown-up toys such as a Drop-a-card pinball machine from the seventies and a bumper pool table. Even the cooking and eating gear is decorated with skulls, snake skin and flames. Regardless of such reminders of a rugged, on the road and raw masculinity, Fieri’s kitchen is a place for community and family building. Even when he cooks alone, the chef tells stories about his “bros”, which is his favorite appellative for his friends, and reminds his viewers that cooking is a social activity best shared with others.

The playful masculinity with hints of rock’n roll, bro-ness and vintage culture performed by Fieri in his shows is marked by a series of visual elements which make up the Guy Fieri brand: spiky bleached hair and goatee; tattoos, of which Fieri has 19, some of them being reproduced on his line of aprons and potholders; black sunglasses; heavy silver jewelry and wrist bands which Fieri also sells; and his heavily graphic-ed shirts.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKbKoXIASW8[/youtube]

Guy’s cooking: Food for fun

In the area designated for cooking, the act of cooking is framed as a game, as the chef plays around with the food and cooks dishes playfully named “Mac-Daddi-Roni Salad”, “No can beato this Taquito” or “Killer Inside out Burger”. In the episode titled “Pizza! Pizza!”, Fieri and his guest Stretch cook together the “le hog” pizza which contains the following ingredients: creamy garlic parmesan white sauce, beef and sausage meatballs, smoky bacon, Canadian bacon and slice ham. Cooking is made fun not only by the mixing of all sorts of meats with no concern for calorie count or fat but also by the tossing around of ingredients, the lack of accurate measuring and the discussion among the two cooks spiced up by expressions such as “Alright, Stretchanator, what’s it gonna be?”, “swine & dine meat fest”, “it’s whatever you got in the fridge” or “busting that down” in reference to chopping an onion. The casualness and lack of culinary jargon of the speech is complemented by the actions of the two cooks, such as joggling with the vegetables, piling up ingredients, dropping them on the floor, and performing hi-fives.

Guy’s Big Bite is a show which transforms the kitchen into a playground for grownups where “bros” can hang out, play music, mix cocktails and also cook, of course. The geography of the kitchen and framing of cooking as a game solidify a traditional form of casual masculinity based on the solid values of comradeship and brotherhood. At the same time, Guy Fieri is proud to reveal his domestic side. However, domesticity is not a symbol of femininity but of a new kind of masculinity which is complex and flexible. I argue that this type of masculinity is made legitimate through the discourse of play.




The chef who played too much: Performing masculinities in The Galloping Gourmet
Irina D. Mihalache / American University of Paris

Graham Kerr

Graham Kerr: international man of mystery

Also known as an “international man of mystery,” Graham Kerr was one of the first performers of masculinity in the kitchen. His very popular show The Galloping Gourmet (( The Galloping Gourmet was the first cooking show in North America filmed with an in-studio audience. The show’s main goal was not to teach people how to cook but to entertain audiences through cooking, which explains why the Christian Science Monitor called Graham Kerr “a cooking entertainer” (Collins, 107). The format of the show was innovative for the inclusion of filmed footage from Kerr’s culinary trips around the world and for showing Kerr move around from his lounge to his kitchen to his dining room. Kathleen Collins best describes Kerr’s performance: “the show opened with the snappily-dressed, British dandy of a ball of energy leaping over a tall kitchen chair while holding a full glass of wine” (p. 106). In each episode, Kerr cooked one single recipe inspired by one of his travels, which he tasted together with one lucky guest from the audience at the end of the show. )), which was broadcasted between 1969 and 1971 (( The Galloping Gourmet is now re-broadcasted on the Cooking Channel. )), sums up many of the stories about masculinity told in cooking shows today. Kerr used the kitchen space as a playground, a laboratory and classroom; he surrounded himself with objects which were associated with high class British masculinity in the seventies; and cooked in a casual and effortless manner. On the Cooking Channel website, Kerr is described as a “trailblazer” chef who “does not take himself seriously” and “delights viewers with culinary shenanigans and mishaps.” What defines Kerr as a chef is his playfulness in the kitchen, his sense of adventure and his ability to entertain while cooking.

In this first article about men in the kitchen, I will explore how the kitchen has been transformed into a legitimate stage for the performance of different discourses about masculinity by analyzing discourses of play. I start my story with Graham Kerr because I find him to be a prime example of playfulness in the kitchen. In The Galloping Gourmet, playfulness is constructed through a mix of entertainment, experimentation and education. The legacy of these narratives of play can be observed today in the kitchens of many Food Network celebrity chefs, from Guy Fieri to Alton Brown.

Graham Kerr

Graham Kerr

The kitchen as a masculine space: How cooking became play

Most of the literature which explores the social and cultural significance of the kitchen analyzes the kitchen as a gendered and domestic space. (( For works which look at kitchens as sources of women’s oppression, please see Haydon, D. (1994). The grand domestic revolution. Cambridge: MIT Press; Matrix (1984). Making space: Women and the man-made environment. London: Pluto. For more recent, cultural studies approaches to kitchens, please see Floyd, J. (2004). Coming out of the kitchen: Texts, contexts and debates. Cultural Geographies 11, 61-73. )) The introduction of masculinity into the study of kitchens and cooking happens through a revisiting of discourses around domesticity. (( For works which look at masculinity in the kitchen please see Swenson, R. (2009). Domestic divo? Televised treatments of masculinity, femininity and food. Critical Studies in Media Communication 26(1): 36-53; Gorman-Murray, A. (2008). Masculinity and the home: A critical review and conceptual framework. Australian Geographer 39(3): 367-379. Feasey, R. (2008). Masculinity and popular television. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. )) In a study of the cooking section of Playboy in the 1960s, Joanne Hollows argues that a new type of masculinity was being developed in opposition to the white suburban middle class breadwinner, who was a symbol of domesticated masculinity. The new urban cook of the sixties was performing within a new kitchen space, ridden of all symbols of domesticity, “designed for efficiency with the minimum of fuss and haus-frau labor” (Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment qtd. in Hollows, p. 145).

The process of making cooking “safe” for men included the emphasis on play and experimentation as the main difference between masculine cooking and domestic suburban cooking. While women cooked out of necessity, the new man of the 1960s cooked out of pleasure. This discourse framed the practice of cooking into a game where the man could play with the food out of self-satisfaction. In The Galloping Gourmet, Kerr’s relation with the kitchen and the food is mediated through a playful performance which I deconstructed in the following genres: play as entertainment, play as experimentation, and play as education. While all these types of play act together throughout the shows to compose the performative moments produced by Kerr, I will explain, through examples, how each form of play informs the larger construction of masculinity.

Play as entertainment: How to lard your rump
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czrj4yJm6z0[/youtube]

If Graham Kerr is first and foremost an entertainer, his playfulness comes across from his use of space as he enters the set running, shaking the hands of audience members and finally jumping over a chair, which has became his signature move. The ownership of the different spaces—the kitchen, the lounge, the dining room, even the audience seating area—within which Kerr moves during the show with grand gestures, signifies his dominant relation with the space. Despite his position of power, his gestures are friendly and playful, as he jumps, strolls, pirouettes, stumbles, (almost) falls, and wanders around. When he cooks, Kerr’s intention is to mock the rules of high gastronomy by improvising and using non-traditional tools, such as an oversized spoon or a larding needle. In the episode “Beer and Rump Pot Roast,” Kerr explains how to lard a rump by introducing a long larding needle filled with lard through the roast. Kerr makes fun of the tool he is about to use, referring to the needle as “a groovy thing”. He adds, “If you’ve got a butcher who knows how to lard a piece of meat, give him…or give me his address.” Obviously, his first attempt fails, as the needle misses the rump. He laughs, the audience laughs and Kerr attempts again, this time with success. The audience claps.

Play as experimentation: How to “orientalize” your crème brûlée
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfH1_jo4ywI[/youtube]

Kerr’s dishes, when not prepared with unusual tools, are marked by experimentation through the use of “ethnic” ingredients. While today, lychee and Saigon cinnamon are no longer unusual to our diets, in the 1970s, such ingredients were markers of experimentation and bravery in the kitchen. I believe that one other ingredient of Kerr’s masculinity in the kitchen is his sense of adventure when it comes to “spicing up” a classic recipe such as the crème brûlée. In the “Crème Brulee” episode, Kerr prepares a glaze out of lychee which he defines as “an Oriental fruit” and a “heavenly nectar”. He takes time to explain to his audience the anatomy of the lychee fruit and even asks if anyone has ever had a lychee before, to which only one hand in the audience indicates an affirmative answer. As a world traveler, Kerr brings back knowledge which he translates into different forms of experimentation. To experiment in the kitchen is a form of play which also solidifies Kerr’s masculinity.

Play as education: How (not) to measure your ingredients
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbjr_gIRyKI[/youtube]

Kerr’s kitchen also acts as a site of education where lessons are taught in a casual and humorous manner. The chef, despite his impressive culinary pedigree, often acts contrary to his rigorous training, opting for fun and innovative teaching strategies. One of the most prominent narratives throughout his shows revolves about (not) measuring. More specifically, he offers shortcuts for measuring ingredients to speed up the cooking process and to entertain his audience. For example, in the “Jambalaya” episode, he measures 8 ounces of onion in relation to the palm of his hand, which is supposed to cover entirely the vegetable. Later in the same episode, he gives a lesson in happiness. The best way to get there, he claims, is to “chuck away those measuring cups.” While stepping on some measuring cups, he yells, “I wanted to do that for years.” Giving away the ideal of precision while cooking represents another signifier of masculine power and playful casualness. While everyone understands his joke, there is something powerful and liberating in being able to cook without the constraints of culinary rigors. Kerr makes the point that his cooking is primarily for pleasure and fun and not out of necessity.

In conclusion, I explored The Galloping Gourmet as a significant cultural space where masculinity is constructed and performed through the practice of cooking. Graham Kerr embodies different renditions of masculinity through his playful performances. Entertainment, experimentation and education are all facets of a discourse of play which legitimizes the man’s new locus within the domestic kitchen. I believe that cooking shows, analyzed through their location—the kitchen—and the performance of their chefs can open up significant discussions about the presence of men in the kitchen. I will continue such conversations in my two future articles, which take a glance at two other men who play well in the kitchen—Guy Fieri and Alton Brown.

Works Cited
Hollows, J. (2002). The bachelor dinner: Masculinity, class and cooking in Playboy, 1953-1961. Continuum, 16(2): 143-155.

Image Credits:
1. Cooking Channel Blogs, “Serious Cooks, Seriously Funny”
2. Galloping Gourmet Safari
3. Screen capture by the author from the episode “Filet Van Zeetong Nerleoise” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VASO8NdEoYM.

Please feel free to comment.