For all his culinary joie de vivre, Alton Brown is incredibly anal retentive. Watching him micromanage a meal can zap all the fun out of cooking. Sure, his recipes usually work, but he uses flow charts and slide rules to figure out serving sizes and cookie diameters.
All this makes Brown an unlikely candidate to host a food-based travelogue. Yet there he is, pudgier than we remember him, mounting his motorcycle and heading out to explore American byways and highways. Feasting on Asphalt is a series of specials featuring Brown and a crew of six (four on bikes, three in a pickup truck). Brown makes it clear that (1) there will be no travel on major interstates, (2) there will be no eating at major chain restaurants, (3) if they can’t locate food or lodging, they will fend for themselves via camping, and most importantly, (4) there will be no whining.
As he directs that last restriction toward an unseen cameraman (whom Brown calls “an incredibly finicky eater”), we sense it applies to our guide as well. He’s been known to fret over his basic biscuit recipe as well as how to determine the freshness of fruit. “Chilling out” just doesn’t seem possible for Brown, and in order for something like Feasting on Asphalt to work, we must believe in the leisurely pace of life experienced by the passing of miles, not minutes.
At first, Brown does a bang-up job of “getting in touch” with his Southern gentility (though born in L.A., he’s spent time in Georgia). Starting his cross-country trip on the outer banks of South Carolina, he slowly drifts through the state, stopping off at a hot dog stand to dig a few franks, then traveling over to Savannah to see an authentic ’30s diner. When the spirit grabs him, he ventures into unidentifiable gourmet territory, actually attempting to snack on a bright pink pickled pig’s foot (it’s two bites, and into the trash).
Along the way, he talks to the proprietors of these out-of-the-way eateries, and laments Dwight D. Eisenhower’s approval of interstating our nation’s infrastructure. It’s more interesting, however, to hear how a soul food impresario “prayed” for a restaurant (and was eventually given a chance to run one by an understanding businessman) than to listen to Brown bemoan the loss of curb service. Large blue notebook in hand, he seems too invested in his old-timer complaints about how travel has become an edible adventure.
Thankfully, no amount of Brown’s wistfulness can corrupt a truly inspired pit stop. Take Phil Tanner’s Biscuit Place in Washington, Georgia. Run by the entire Tanner brood (since father Phil likes to head off to the local sports fields to mow the grass, free of charge) and serving nothing but mouth-watering homemade biscuits, dripping with butter and crammed with all kinds of fatty fried meats, when our host starts explaining the differences between leavened and unleavened breads, we honestly couldn’t care less. Just watching the Tanner gals mix up a mess of fresh hot heaven keeps a fussbudget like Brown at bay.
We are similarly moved when the gang stops off at Shirley’s Soul Food Café in Toccoa, Georgia. When the proprietors heap a plate full of chicken, beans, mac and cheese, collards and cobbler (with a steaming hunk of cracklin’ laced cornbread on the top), basic cuisine never looked better. Even Brown’s Q&A with the proprietress is so genuine-seeming that we don’t that how he stumbles over each query, seemingly unable to make this conversation sound as passionate as the food looks.
Indeed, when it sticks to the food, Feasting on Asphalt is endlessly inviting. As with Tony Bourdain’s visits to exotic locales, it’s an education to see how individuals at each stop celebrate mealtime. Part of the thrill in such programs is the chance to live vicariously through our gastronome guides. Yet Brown’s personality keeps busting our balloon. One moment he’s touting the pharmacy lunch counter as a turn of the century meeting place, the next he’s providing an in-depth discussion of the term ‘soda jerk’. The transitions are sloppy, coming across as random.
Still, we hope for the best. The second episode of this four-part series will see our motley motorcycle gang move into the Midwest. The third follows them through the Rockies and just on the cusp of the nomadic Southwestern U.S., while the final installment will track them through the desert, and on to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, there will be more buzzwords, more kitchenalia recollections, and dozens of commercial bumper quotations (all centering on man and his munchies). As long as the focus in on the feasting, and not on the asphalt, the pilot episode, at least, was a pleasant, even poetic, journey.