I recently watched an episode of Hot Ones starring host Sean Evans and featuring food phenom, Alton Brown.
For anyone not in the know, the YouTube series consists of a 30 minute or less interview while host and guest consume chicken wings of increasing heat. The heat will range from a few hundred SHU, as found in a sauce like Valentina, and going all the way up to 3,000,000+ SHU in the Hot Ones signature sauce, The Last Dab.
Why would anyone watch a show with this ridiculous premise?
Sean Evans and his team do some of the best research and interviewing not just in the world of entertainment, but I submit, in the world of journalism as well. Further, as the heat increases in the wing sauces, the guests often lose their rehearsed personas. If you want to know what someone really thinks about a topic, get them to voluntarily subject themselves to extreme pain in a public setting.
Why blog about the Alton Brown episode?
Popular wisdom often suggests that you should not meet your heroes. The idea is that every hero to ever live is just as human as you are. Humans cannot help themselves from behaving as such. We all have the capacity for good and bad and usually dabble in both. It's suggested that we don't meet our heroes, because actual humans and the idealized images we create of them never completely sync up.
Alton Brown was never a hero to me in a way that a soldier, first responder, teacher, or civil rights activist is. He was somewhat of a food hero to me, though. I always enjoyed how he seemed so eager to share his knowledge of food with the world without denigrating those who knew less than him. I'm sure all of us know an expert in a given subject that is unbearable to speak with on said subject. I never thought Alton Brown was that unbearable food expert until I saw the subject episode of Hot Ones.
Evans and team entitled the episode: Alton Brown Rigorously Reviews Spicy Wings. Unlike any other guest to attend the show, including Eddie Huang, Matty Matheson, Action Bronson, Rachael Ray, and Mario Batali, Brown proceeded to rearrange the sequence of sauces on the table during the interview and critique their qualities. I got the feeling that Brown, being a food show producer himself, thought he could show Evans how to run his show more effectively. Brown seemed spiteful that Hot Ones and Sean Evans could achieve major success with such a "lowbrow" premise.
Moments that soured my perception of Brown
Brown is a well-established food scientist who often makes use of "food hacks" as he cooks and eats. Evans asked Brown if he did anything to prepare for the heat of the wings. "I didn't laminate my tongue in beef tallow or anything like that," said Brown. Evans, as any adept host would do, then pointed out that Brown opted for half-n-half as his selected heat-reliever rather than the standard water or milk during the challenge. "I'm not stupid. Fat or alcohol are what you want to get into your mouth to help to mitigate some of the pain," said Brown.
Brown asked Evans about the Scoville level of the various sauces. Evans said that the first couple sauces should be less than 1,000 SHU. Brown quickly retorted, "I'd say 25, but that's just me."
Evans asked Brown what some regional hits and misses are across the United States. "If you really want good Buffalo chicken wings, you don't go to friggin' Buffalo," said Brown. He added, "I spent an entire day looking for a truly great Cubano in Tampa and never really got one." Note that Evans asked what was tasty and what was not regionally. Brown had nothing positive to say about any dish in any region of the United States. He did offer an interesting insight in that once a region crowns itself king of "dish x", tourist traps will inevitably ruin that dish. (See clam chowder from Pier 39 for proof)
Brown wasn't all bad during the interview. I really enjoyed his take on the pros and cons of food media. On one hand, the average diner is generally better educated about food and appreciative of good food these days compared to previous years. On the other hand, platforms like Instagram objectify a food's appearance and downplay taste, flavor, hospitality, and speaking with dining companions.
"Grocery stores depress me by and large. There's something about the music and the lighting and the things people are buying. It gets me down," said Brown when asked why he grocery shops late at night. This late night shopping also allows Brown to avoid questions from fans about food. "Why do you get depressed seeing what other people shop for?" asked Evans. "Because people buy crap and a lot of it. I worry about that stuff. I do ... There have been times in grocery stores where I've just left my cart and walked out," said Brown.
What values do American grocery stores represent?
The grocery store interchange between Evans and Brown is what really disheartened me. For years, and completely independent of the Alton Brown episode of Hot Ones, I admired grocery stores and the promise they represent to me. Trading money for fruit, Cherry Garcia, vegetables, TV dinners, pickles, Easy Cheese, meats, Oreos, Doritos, and everything else is so representative of what I love about my country.
What is it exactly that I love about grocery stores in the U.S.? Choice! Americans not only have the option to trade money for food, but we also get the opportunity to decide what food we want to eat. Let me note here that I'm aware of impoverished Americans and people living in food deserts who do not have access to the same foods a middle-class individual would. I am against poverty and believe everyone deserves to eat.
The aim of my discussion is to point out how lucky we are to open up the old internet, find a recipe that sounds good, and then go to an average grocery store to purchase the ingredients. We can buy spices from all over the world without having to wage war to eat them. We don't have to raise and butcher our own protein sources - unless we desire it. I will admit that mega-corporations often do not have the health of the consumer in mind when they create things like The Big Cheez popcorn (holy shit, it's good). There lies the great freedom that I so adore; we can nourish or degrade our bodies as we please. I cherish living in a place that does not aim to protect me from myself. In other words, Alton, get over yourself.