The Miracle of Food
A conversation with Alton Brown.
By Tonya Stoneman
Alton Brown has always been good in the kitchen, but it wasn’t until he became dissatisfied with the state of cooking shows on TV that his long-held hobby turned professional. After a decade of working as a cinematographer, Brown enrolled in the New England Culinary School with the intention of one day producing a cooking show he would enjoy watching. Since then, he’s authored cookbooks, become host of Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and until recently, starred in his own series Good Eats. He’s also the 2011 winner of the James Beard Award for Best TV Personality/Host—an honor roughly equivalent to the food world’s version of the Oscar. In Touch caught up with Brown at his home near Atlanta, where, over homegrown figs and a cup of black coffee, he shared his views on the indelible link between God, faith, and food.
In Touch: How does your faith affect you, literally and practically, when you’re in the kitchen?
Alton Brown: To me, cooking and faith and my relationship with God are all intertwined. I could not do what I do in food, around food, if I did not have the relationship that I have with God.
I believe first and foremost that God made the food. He made it delicious. So my entire approach to food in general is this: Do no harm. To me, the most honor I can do to what He created is to not mar or in any way malign the creation.
I try to honor that prayerfully. I pray, “God, don’t let me mess up the food. Let me prepare it and serve it in Your honor.” That’s my lampstand—the light that I can shine. Because He’s given me a gift to do that.
I’m not saying anyone who approaches food differently is wrong, but if I approached it differently, it would be wrong.
At its core, cooking is an act of service, an act of hospitality. But in the world of celebrity chefs and expensive cuisine, that understanding can be obscured. How do you maintain a down-to-earth outlook in your line of work?
Unfortunately, the food media, of which I’m a part, have turned chefs into rock stars. But the best chefs always remember that cooking for people is an act of service. That’s an important piece of symbolism, and you see it throughout the Bible. Many of the great miracles we see performed by Jesus are food-related—the feeding of the masses, for example. I always think about those loaves and fishes and the fact that every time I prepare a meal for people, I am, in a way, replicating that act of service.
I also think it’s important to eat with strangers. That’s something I wish Christians had a little more ingrained. We’ll go to a soup kitchen and make soup for strangers, but we won’t sit down and eat with them. This is something very peculiar.
Invite strangers to your table if you have the opportunity to do so. Then you see the real power of food, which is the ability to connect. When you have strangers at your table, and you all bow your heads and say you’re thankful for that food—man, that’s magical stuff. That’s the real power of food. Everything else is frosting.
Not that there’s anything wrong with frosting.
A lot of people today don’t take the time to eat with each other. How should food factor into the vitality of family life, and what role does it play in shaping who we become as families?
I don’t think you can overestimate food’s importance in all aspects of family life and also our relationship with God. To me, there are two different kinds of food people: there are foodies, who tend to concentrate more on what the food is and what it tastes like. And then there are those of us who tend to concentrate more on the aspects of preparation and serving.
I often say that there are two great roles of food. It keeps your body moving, because if you don’t eat, you die. The other is connecting human beings to one another, to their heritage, and certainly to God, who, as far as I’m concerned, made all the food and made it taste really great.
No one will cook as well for you as someone who loves and cares for you. That’s the food that nourishes above all, because of how and why it was produced. And so cooking for our families, cooking with our families, eating with our families—that’s hugely powerful stuff.
What’s the most important tool in your kitchen?
The table. It doesn’t matter how good you are at performing great culinary acts of artistry if there isn’t the place for communion to happen. The words “communion” and “communicate” come from the same root word: “common,” meaning “to make common, to disperse commonly.” So to me, that’s the real miracle of food. When you take away the table and the act of service at the table, everything falls apart.
The Latin word focus means “hearth,” which is the focus of the house—that’s the main place you commune with each other and with God. It all happens right there. So when you remove the family eating together—and I would say, even more importantly, families cooking together—everything starts to unravel.
When I see a family that’s all twisted up, I can almost always point to the breakdown of mealtime. Even families that sit down and eat take out have an edge on those that don’t.
We could easily survive on untasty foods—which many people do. Is it important to cook the food in a way that makes it taste wonderful?
I think it’s important to make food taste like what it is. A lot of cooking is done in the grocery store: there are bad ingredients, and there are foods that are bland. The difference between cooking a steak and salting and cooking a steak is night and day. The simple act of seasoning is really the cook’s art in a lot of ways.
Do I think that good food is better than bad food? Yeah. We could also have black-and-white sunsets. But I do think God wants us to marvel at, and enjoy, creation.
There is no virtue in making food bland. We have taste buds for a reason. We have nerves in our noses for a reason. We have brains that can sense a great many compositions. We have the limbic system that allows us to associate taste and smell with memories. If you wrote a symphony, you wouldn’t want to limit yourself to three notes. Why would you do that?
Of course, if you’re hungry, maybe any food would taste wonderful.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote, “Hunger is the best sauce in the world.” You know what? It is. To a hungry man, bland tastes just great. We forget that hunger should be a precursor to eating.
In American culture, we don’t often do that. So what’s bland to a man who hasn’t eaten in a week? Not much.
Let’s talk about turkey. I honestly can’t think of a more perfect meal than Thanksgiving dinner. What is it about this feast that makes it so delectable? Is it the combination of foods? The cranberry sauce with the meat? The dressing and gravy?
Actually, the perfect Thanksgiving meal doesn’t necessarily have turkey. There probably wasn’t turkey at the first Thanksgiving. There would have been wild fowl of some sort, or venison. But what makes the meal important today is that it’s one of the few traditionally seasonal meals we have. Americans do not eat seasonally anymore. We want everything all the time. We don’t care where it comes from or what it tastes like. This is one meal where we are typically eating things at their peak. That’s when the cranberries come in. That’s when the pumpkin comes in. The pecans have been harvested just at the end of summer/beginning of fall. Things that are seasonal tend to go well together. So if we don’t get in its way, the meal typically turns out.
So there’s no perfect meal, other than one that brings a lot of people together. Thanksgiving is important as an icon. Americans don’t have much in common with each other anymore. But at Thanksgiving, we see the real power of food—the connectivity that helps us draw together around these cultural “sacraments.” We need it because it unifies us.
Alton Brown is the author of Good Eats 3: The Later Years, available through your preferred bookseller.
Alton Brown's Famous Turkey Recipe
1 (14- to 16-pound) frozen young turkey
For the brine:
- 1 gallon vegetable stock
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1½ teaspoons allspice berries
- 1½ teaspoons chopped candied ginger
- 1 gallon heavily iced water
For the aromatics:
- 1 red apple, sliced
- ½ onion, sliced
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 cup water
- 4 sprigs rosemary
- 6 leaves sage
- canola oil
Two to three days before roasting: Begin thawing the turkey in the refrigerator or in a cooler kept at 38 degrees F. Combine the vegetable stock, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, allspice berries, and candied ginger in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve solids, and bring to a boil. Then remove the brine from heat, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate.
The night before cooking: Combine brine, water, and ice in a 5-gallon bucket. Place the thawed turkey (with innards removed) breast side down in brine. If necessary, weigh down the bird to ensure it is fully immersed. Cover, and refrigerate or set in cool area for 8 to 16 hours, turning the bird once halfway through brining.
The day of cooking: Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. Remove the bird from the brine, and rinse inside and out with cold water. Discard brine. Place the bird on a roasting rack set on a half-sheet pan, and pat dry with paper towels.
Combine the apple, onion, cinnamon stick, and cup of water in a microwave-safe dish, and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Add steeped aromatics to the turkey’s cavity along with the rosemary and sage. Tuck the wings underneath the bird, and coat the skin liberally with canola oil.
Roast the turkey on lowest level of the oven at 500 degrees F for 30 minutes. Insert a probe thermometer into thickest part of the breast, and reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Set the thermometer alarm (if available) to 161 degrees F. A 14- to 16-pound bird should require a total of 2 to 2½ hours of roasting. Let the turkey rest, loosely covered with foil or a large mixing bowl for 15 minutes before carving.