Has Alton Brown Jumped the Shark?

Michael Nagrant / 02.10.08

On a Sunday morning, a few weeks ago, my wife huffily informed me we were out of pancake mix.

I said, “No problem, just throw some flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar together.”

Exasperated, she said, “Do we have to cook everything here like its 1925?”

From rendering lard to making homemade blue cheese dressing (from homemade mayo) to smoking my own meat and fish, I have a penchant for trying to get it right. Many of the cooking methods I employ, including keeping soap out of my cast iron skillet for seven years running, would be familiar to the chuck wagon set.

Still, I like a good Hot Pocket and a Laughing Cow cheese triangle once in a while. I understand indulgence and convenience. Though I wouldn’t mind if Tony Soprano whacked Sandra Lee of Food Network’s Semi-Homemade (“70% store-bought/ready-made products accompanied by 30% fresh and creative touches, allowing you to take 100% of the credit.”) wrapped her up in a cook’s apron and threw her off the George Washington bridge. Lee’s Stepford cookery routine makes Rachael Ray look like Escoffier.

Of course with the rumors of Emeril and Mario getting kicked to the curb by Food Network, the clutches of Lee and Ray may sink deeper and deeper into America’s culinary consciousness. Our last hope for salvation is the one of nerd mafia’s greatest success stories (in addition to Rivers Cuomo and Mo Rocca), Alton Brown of Good Eats.

For years Brown has been delighting and edifying the masses with a combination of schlock, science, and common sense. He’s also been a tad hardcore, building smokers out of army issue food lockers, crafting homemade rotisseries for his gas grill, and drying fresh herbs with box fans, bungee cords, and furnace filters (this one works really well).

This MacGyver shtick has certainly furthered Brown’s mythology and ensured a fanboy nation of admirers, myself among them. Then, last year he built a huge backyard distillation column/smoker pit to demonstrate how you could make your own liquid smoke. I almost threw my Kitchen Aid mixer through the television screen. I let it go, figuring it was a singular lapse in judgement

Last week, before the Super Bowl, Brown did a Buffalo wings episode, “The Wing and I”. (Yul Brynner may ressurect himself and grow a full head of hair when he hears that one) As an avid home wingmaking advocate (just say no to soggy skin delivery wings from your local pizza joint), I was psyched, figuring I’d pick up some useful pointers.

Instead, Alton Brown, convoluted what for me has been a ten minute journey to perfect wings into a four hour ordeal. Brown’s main thrust for pursuing an arduous path, is that you need a commercial deep fryer to deep fry wings right, and having such a tool at home is grounds for circuit breaker malfunction.

After making this weak argument, he removes the wing tips from two dozen chicken wings and puts them in the refrigerator for an hour to dry a bit, so he can achieve crispy skin. When they’ve dried, he procures three steamer baskets, threaded rod, and an assortment of nuts and bolts, builds a steaming rig, places the wings on the rig, and steams them for 20 minutes. Brown then cools the steamed wings in the refrigerator for another hour to rid them of excess moisture from the steaming process, and finally roasts them for another 40 minutes in a 425 degree oven before tossing the finished wings in hot sauce, garlic and butter.

If Brown’s way was the best way or the only way to achieve wings nirvana, I’d probably grit my teeth and accede to his brilliance. I wasn’t so sure. So I went through a modified version of Brown’s plan to test for myself. The one shortcut I took, was instead of breaking out the Erector set and building a steamer rig, I used Norpro Deluxe 3 piece Bamboo Steamer Set Though I certainly lost out on a Boy Scout merit badge, I also saved myself at least an hour by bypassing a drive to the home improvement store and Sur La Table to secure steamer baskets and hardware. Sure enough the wings produced by the Alton Brown treatment were crispy and good, though I thought a little lean, as most of the chicken wing fat rendered into the steaming water. Alton’s method took approximately 3.5 hours.

Then I performed my usual method and dropped a batch of wings into my Oster ODF540 deep fryer (best rated by Cook’s Illustrated), and tossed the fried wings with Frank’s red hot sauce, fresh garlic, and hot margarine. The process took about half an hour as I waited for the wings to come to room temperature before frying. Doing so ensures that super cold wings don’t drop the deep fryer oil temperature too far, which might result in a soggy or greasy fried wing. I thought these deep fried wings were better than the Alton steam, bake, and dry method.

To ensure I wasn’t just patting myself on the back, I asked four friends to blind taste test wings prepared by each method. My deep fry method wing won three to one.

I’ll allow that it’s possible that I could have somehow subconsciously sabotaged the Alton’s method batch in order to give myself an unfair advantage, but I swear to you, my heart was intent on executing his method fairly.

So with convenience and taste beating super culinary geekery by a 1985 Super Bowl margin (Bears 45 Patriots 10), I wonder if Alton is just indulging ego on this episode. I’m all for keeping it real, but Alton’s wing method is the hardcore foodie equivalent to a Rachael Ray 5 minute meal made from Key Lime Pie flavored Yoplait and frozen chicken tenders.

I’m not giving up on you, my bespectacled bro, just yet, but I implore you, Alton, for those of us who don’t have a sound stage kitchen, thousands of dollars and weeks to burn shopping for culinary solutions at Home Depot, Alton, please keep it real. You’ve been a fine representative for common sense and culinary wizardy thus far, but if you keep going down the Rube Goldberg road, Rachael, Sandra, and Paula Deen might gang up and get you kicked off their TV island. And that would totally not be yum-o!