Alton Brown Searches For Classic Road Food

In spring, Alton Brown (Good Eats) left what he terms the “highly manipulated” world of the Food Network kitchens to embark on a motorcycle trek across America. Feasting on Asphalt, the four-part series covering Brown’s long ride, premieres July 29 at 9pm ET/PT on Food Network. Here are his thoughts on an experience that he says changed his outlook on food and hospitality.

What made you decide to take this trip?

Alton Brown: I went out mostly because of my concern that we are losing a huge section of our American food culture, which is road food. American cuisine before the food revolution of the ’60s was almost all road food. It was diners and cafés and tearooms. … I set out to do a safari to find out what was in danger, what should be protected and [what] regional foods [are] available.

What I found out is that, in the end, there is no road food; there is only food that you find along the way. The quality of that food has a lot more to do with your willingness to interact with human beings than it has with food. I’ve developed some wacky ideas on hospitality. Our real problem is that we never eat with strangers. We’re so busy rating food and criticizing food that we’ve forgotten how to consume food with fellow human beings, which I’ve found to be the real trick of enjoying travel.

What was filming this like?

It’s a free-flow documentary, a true documentary. We didn’t know what was going to happen. For example, we did not know that in the desert outside of Las Vegas I would crash and break my collarbone and have to do the rest of the show from the back of a car. [There were] a lot of things I didn’t know.

It was a seven-man crew. It was a real challenge for me. The show I do on Food Network is highly manipulated, highly planned and highly premeditated. It has to be. This – nothing. On a day-to-day basis, it was opening the compass and saying, “We have to go west.” That made it pretty interesting.

I don’t like traveling by car very much. Modern cars are horribly boring. When you are on a motorcycle, it is all about the road. You smell the fresh-cut grass before everybody else does. You feel the texture of the road; you are one with it. It was one of the reasons I did the trip on motorcycle – because I wanted it to be difficult, to be complicated.

How long have you been riding motorcycles?

I’m new to the sport. I didn’t start until I turned 40. So, three years. I started late because I was afraid I’d kill myself.

And then you broke your collarbone.

I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was on a gravel path I would barely call a road. I had no business being there.

What prompted the route you took for the series?

Strictly serendipity. Quite often it would be determined by someone giving us a recommendation. There was no predestined route other than that I had to be in Las Vegas [for another project]. That was the only thing that was dated on the trip.

What was your most memorable moment on the trip?

In this little bitty railroad side-town in South Carolina called Estill … we stayed at this humble motel called the Palmetto Inn. It was being newly run by a young Indian family from outside of Delhi. We went into the office to check into this place and smelled curry. As the evening unfolded, we were invited back into their humble two-room apartment to cook up a batch of this woman’s curry. It was not only an extraordinary act of hospitality to let us into their lives, but [the curry was] one of the top 10 things I have put into my mouth – ever.

That’s when I started thinking of the fact that road food at its best is both unexpected and delivered with a level of hospitality which puts you in a position of having the grace to accept [it]. This is something we completely leave out of hospitality these days. We think of hospitality as a big show – a Cirque du Soleil with food – when in reality, the ultimate act of hospitality is being gracious enough to accept what is given to you gratefully. That’s what I learned above all out on the road.

I’ve come to refuse to separate the experience and setting of the meal from the food itself and I will never criticize a meal for the rest of my life. I will not lower the food to that anymore.

That was the first [memorable moment]. We literally let the woman do her own cooking show. She walked me through and she was utterly unassuming and utterly natural. … Having something like this unfold was just great.

Eventually when you are making a documentary, the documentary starts making itself. And your biggest worry becomes – don’t do any harm. That happens. You want to make it what you thought it was going to be and when it starts to become its own thing, get out of the way. That’s the risky part and also the most enjoyable part.

Did you feel people related to you because of what you were doing or who you were?

I had underestimated the celebrity factor. I thought that very few people would recognize me. In some cases, I was shocked at how readily I was recognized. … I was a little discouraged by that, so I quit bathing and grew a beard, which I haven’t shaved off yet because it is hard to shave a beard with only one arm. I thought I could conceal myself under road dust and a hat and beard. That worked some, but not nearly as well as I hoped. The width and depth of the penetration of Food Network was surprising.

Did you ever find true road food?

If I were going to take my trip as a core sample, I’d say there is no road food left. Some people will say yes, it does [exist, but] my definition of a road place is a place that makes its living because of its juxtaposition to the road. I saw one in my entire trip. All the others actually made their living off the locals. That’s just the way it is, because most restaurants can’t make it because [travelers] don’t get off the road. … That diner that used to be out on the lonely stretch of highway – very, very few left.

I’m not saying fast-food places are bad, but they are bad if you eat in them all the time. … When I go into a place that is mom and pop, the people are going to have pride because it is theirs. … I will not get hospitality from a 16-year-old in a polyester uniform at McDonald’s. … They’re vending machine people; … don’t use them to replace a singularly American experience … that is fleeting, gone almost.

What about truck stops? There are still plenty of those.

Truck stops have become as industrialized and corporatized as everything. We spent an entire day at a truck stop. The coolest thing that happened was learning about how long-distance truckers cook in their rigs.

When families travel, how can they accomplish this sort of thing?

You have to spend some time with maps and see if there is a scenic route. I’m not going to tell people to take the entire trip off the interstate, but plan one portion of the trip that goes to some little towns. Get off the interstate and take a hundred miles or so on secondary or, better yet, tertiary roads.

In the East this is difficult because just about everything east of the Mississippi is a parking lot now. You can simply move across the country by moving from one Wal-Mart parking lot to another Wal-Mart parking lot. By the way, if I’ve come to believe anything, it’s: “Show me a dying town and I’ll show you a Wal-Mart within 10 miles.” Absolutely poisoning our culture. It is a bane.

We just don’t have enough time for travel in this country, do we?

That’s true. I’ve examined this with my own family. “We’ve got the house at the beach for this many days; we’ve go to get there.”

And the kids. When I was growing up, my parents … drove me across country in 1965 – my parents and me and a grumpy old Siamese cat in a Chrysler Sedan. But back then there were no seat belts in the back seat. You didn’t strap yourself in; you laid on the back seat. … Today my daughter has to be strapped in, by law. No wonder we have the pop-down DVD player and play table, because my kid is like a space monkey, a miserable space monkey. … It’s inhumane; I wouldn’t do it to a dog. I realize the safety concerns, but how do you sightsee from a car anymore?

I hope that if this series does anything, it will get people to make that journey, to get off the interstate and go a little further. … Even more important than that is this notion of hospitality. Nothing is more important than the simple breaking of bread between people. I have found that with strangers, there is nothing more humbling than to be invited to someone’s table, or someone’s kitchen or home. That is the life-giving experience of food. … There is something in the experience that is incredibly valuable. … Restaurants are now wombs. We almost never look at a stranger and say, “Pass the potatoes.”

So I come away with a hokey message, but it is heartfelt. The experience has changed me.