I'm Just Here for the Food by Alton Brown. One of the surest signs that I'm aging is that I've actually started watching some of those old-people cable channels. The Food Network, for example-- I still don't get the whole Emeril Lagasse thing, but while it may brand me a geezer to say it, they run some good stuff.
Well, OK, they have two good shows, and one of them (Iron Chef) is enjoyable mostly for camp value. The other, though, is Good Eats, one of the rare shows that manages to be both entertaining and informative. This book is host Alton Brown's foray into cookbook writing.
Of course, if it were just a cookbook, it wouldn't make it onto the book log. In much the same way that if Good Eats were just a cooking show, it wouldn't make it into the regular viewing rotation. The book, like the show, is as much about the why of cooking as the how, which explains its appeal. It's sort of a cross between Julia Child and BoingBoing:
I am sitting here in a 28-foot Ambassador-class Airstream trailer. Constructed of shiny clean aluminum in 1978, its curvy interior, overhead storage, and pop-out tables epitomize modern design. I am typing on a Macintosh G4 Titanium Powerbook, which is roving through my MP3 collection like a digital whirling dervish. When I need to speak to someone, which isn't very often since the G4 is wirelessly connected to the Web through a device in the house, I do so on a Nokia cell phone capable of trading files with my Palm V, which I really should replace since it's so 1999. When I need a break, I torture my dog by tracing designs on the wall with the mini-laser pointer on my key chain. Soon, though, I will go outside and set a fire in a contraption that looks like Sputnik, and cook a piece of cow. The point is: I am a modern guy but the cooking I enjoy the most is the kind that's been around the longest-- over fire.
He goes on from there to describe the chemistry and physics of fire, the history of barbecue, how to light charcoal, what the best kind of grill to use is, how to convert a Weber charcoal grill into a blast furnace, how to use ice cubes to find the ideal temperature for grilling, and, oh yeah, how to grill a really good steak. Other sections describe the chemical reactions involved in frying, the physics of heat transfer in roasting, and why braising gives such good results.
The book alternates very readable sections on food science with extremely geeky sections on food gadgetry, and funny stories about odd ways of cooking things There are also a fair number of recipes mixed in, from old favorites like shrimp scampi and chicken piccata to improbable-seeming creations like pork chops breaded with salt-and-vinegar potato chips.
We haven't tested all the recipes in the book, by any means, but the recipes we have tried are very good indeed. And even beyond that, his explanation of the basics of cooking is wonderful. Even if you're not likely to re-wire an electric fry pan for finer temperature control, or roast chicken inside a giant terra-cotta planter from Home Depot, this book is an excellent guide to how to get great-tasting food with nothing more than meat, heat, and kosher salt.
(Originally posted on The Library of Babel.)