This summer, Food Network star chef Alton Brown came to my local Pittsburgh mega-market. Tickets were sold out way in advance — maybe because they were free, but more likely because Brown is a big draw and puts on a good show.
Brown may be on the road more often than he’s in his kitchen. Within the first six weeks of 2014, he’ll be in Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, Delaware and Massachusetts.
Brown’s kitchen skills, books and videos, along with his engaging personality, have earned him about $3 million. He’s encouraged thousands of Americans to pick up their spatulas and get back to making, to quote the name of Brown’s most famous show, “Good Eats.”
As I watched Brown live (he made a clam bake — great if you’re having 40 guests, but otherwise impractical), I recalled that the Food Network is responsible for my own tentative entry into the world of home cooking.
When the channel launched in 1993, I was among its first viewers. At the time, my mother was bedridden and we would idle the hours away watching the early chefs — Emeril Lagasse, David Rosengarten and Julia Child’s films from her vast PBS library. From time to time, when my mother would comment that a certain dish looked good, I’d venture into the kitchen to prepare it for her.
Eventually, I became what’s known as a “foodie.” I subscribed to numerous informative magazines and window-shopped at the upscale food stores. I’d bet that today I own more rolling pins than Brown.
As time passed, I became more passionate. I entered high-pressure baking contests, mostly at the California State and San Joaquin Valley fairs. Several of my News-Sentinel columns featured recipes that had won blue ribbons, including what has become my Christmas tradition, a mouthwatering fruitcake.
In 2002, the Smithsonian Museum transported Child’s 14-by-20-foot kitchen to Washington and displayed it. Before the exhibit opened, I sent a copy of my News-Sentinel column about Child, titled “Pardon My French” and available in the News-Sentinel archive, to the Smithsonian curator and mentioned that I would be traveling to D.C. later that month. He graciously invited me to preview the Child display while I was in town.
For months, I told anyone who would listen that I had been behind the scenes while the Smithsonian assembled the huge Child exhibit and had in my unworthy hands some of pots and pans Child cooked with.
As I watched Brown throw together clams and mussels, I realized that as devoted to the Food Network as I had been 20 years ago, today — except for Brown’s reruns — I rarely watch it. No matter what time of day I turn the Food Network on, I either see “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” or a nonsensical cooking contest.
When “Donut Showdown” and “Cupcake Wars” first aired, I had high hopes. Everyone loves donuts and cupcakes. I like to bake them for my friends and neighbors. Tips from experts would be welcome. But the shows are huge disappointments. No self-respecting donut fan will chose banana and parsnip over old-fashioned glaze. Ditto cupcakes. Spinach olive oil, a recent entry, will never replace chocolate.
I’m not the only disenchanted former viewer. According to Nielsen during the period from June 24 to Oct. 6, Food Network’s rating were down in several key markets compared to the same period in 2012.
An unsubstantiated rumor has controversial Paula Deen returning to the Food Network. I don’t think that’s the answer to the channel’s sagging ratings. If it wants to bring back an old favorite back, I recommend Gale Gand, one of the bakers who first inspired me.
Joe Guzzardi will happily share any recipe. Contact him at email@example.com.