Family, Feasting, Asphalt and Inspiration — Or, Me and Mr. Brown

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Whether inspiration comes from a friend, the Internet, a book, a movie or a TV show, don’t waste too much time questioning the source. Just grab it and be on your way.

Ultimately, the roots of why I'm a food writer harken back to having young children to feed, no idea how to cook and fixing that situation. 

Growing up, my family was composed of strong, independent, busy people who each survived their own set of traumas. Cooking wasn't of utmost importance, but the values passed on instead served me well in other ways: practical skills, intelligence, assertiveness, emotional strength and a staunch work ethic. I was loved, but that wasn't expressed by regularly baking cookies. That said, the spread of dozens of homemade Spritzgebäck, chocolate chip, snickerdoodle and peanut butter cookies at Christmas made up for lost time. No one I know makes divinity or old-fashioned peanut butter fudge like my grandmother did during the holidays.

By the time I got married (the first time), the extent of my cooking abilities was reheating frozen food and making a pretty mean American-Italian style meat sauce. That's not why that marriage was short-lived, but it certainly didn't help. 

When I remarried five years later, I realized two things. First, my new husband Chuck's small but satisfying repertoire of dishes was better than mine. Second, it was long past time for me to start doing a better job of feeding my family. We were young and broke and going out to eat frequently just wasn’t in the budget. It had to happen at home. 

The timing of that realization and determination to do better was fortuitous. It was the early days of Food Network and America was enthralled by the stylish cooking channel. (That was before it became more of a food-based game show channel. These days, the actual cooking shows air on the obviously named Cooking Channel.)

Not all the TV instructors were a good match for where I was in my food education. Mario Batali’s traditional Italian ingredients were unfamiliar and confusing. Emeril Lagasse was good, but hearing the same jokes over and over got real old, real fast. (“Hey, we’re really cookin’ over here.” “I don't like one-sided tasting food.”) There seemed to come a point near the end when even he wasn’t enjoying his show.

Bobby Flay seemed like a brash know-it-all and grated on my nerves, although I changed my mind somewhat once I learned he’d worked his way up even after being a high school dropout. Rachael Ray’s enthusiasm was contagious, but I was never able to actually make her “30-minute meals” in 30 minutes, and felt betrayed.

Alton Brown, though. Brown was my guy. He was smart and understood the importance of visuals. In his show, Good Eats, he taught with charts, graphs, skits, humor and belching yeast puppets. He made learning not only fun but inevitable.

The most important lessons were about procedure. Understanding the science behind why foods behaved a particular way, depending on the cooking method, was applicable not just to the ingredient featured in the episode, but to a wide range of similar items. If you knew how to sear a steak, chances were you’d do a good job with a thick pork chop, too. Knowing how to quick-pickle carrots meant not looking up a separate recipe for radishes.

The first installment of Brown’s travel series, "Feasting on Asphalt," first aired in 2006. He and some companions traveled by motorcycle across the United States from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, to Hawthorne, California. Well, Brown traveled mostly by motorcycle. The bike skidded on a gravel road in Indian Springs, Nevada, and Brown broke his collarbone. He had to travel by car the rest of the journey.

The point was to showcase independent restaurant owners whose establishments were on old highways. As the national interstate system grew, travelers tended to pass by these old, historic places.

The follow-up series, "Feasting on Asphalt 2 — The River Run," aired a year later. This time, Brown and his crew traveled up the Mississippi River. They started at the southern tip of Louisiana in Venice where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico through hundreds of tributaries that crisscross the eroding shore. They traveled northward until reaching the end of the mighty river that T.S. Eliot called the Strong Brown God. 

Because Brown’s journey up the Mississippi started so close to home, Chuck and I realized there was nothing stopping us from following his path — or at least part of it. We weren’t going to ride motorcycles, but loaded up our children and ourselves into our white Nissan Pathfinder (which is still running and in good condition to this day — God bless that car) and hit the road when we were both able to get a week off from work.

Our first meal was breakfast at T-Coon’s in Lafayette. We drank cups of Mellow Gold coffee and feasted on omelettes stuffed with crawfish étouffée. We skipped the trip south to Venice and picked up Brown’s trail at Mulatte’s in New Orleans. It was rather expensive, so our family split orders of fried alligator, gumbo and bread pudding. Afterward, we headed north to Bailey’s in LaPlace. To this day, we still make trips to LaPlace to stock up on andouille (or beg friends passing through to bring some back to us). It is perfect for gumbo.

We enjoyed the peace and beauty of Natchez, Mississippi. We ate a box of decadent doughnuts and apple fritters from a drive-through simply called The Donut Shop and drove up scenic Natchez Trace. 

Arthur Davis, known as Mr. D. to his customers, sang to us as we ate juicy, crispy-fried chicken at the Old Country Store in Lorman, Mississippi, just as he had to Brown. We were in heaven.

There were only two parts of the trip that didn’t work out so well. One was in Greenville, Mississippi — a significant part of the Tamale Trail. Just because of timing, we ended up there on Sunday and everything was closed.

Because we had to go back to our jobs — and didn't have a network-sponsored budget — our last Feasting-inspired stop was in Memphis. I still can’t say I understand the allure of barbecue spaghetti, or that I like Memphis-style barbecue better than Texas-style, but at least I can say I tried it at Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue. Our final Feasting on Asphalt-inspired stop was for cherry milkshakes at Wiles-Smith Drugs, an old-fashioned drug store with a lunch counter. (Sadly, it closed in 2014. Owner Charlie Smith decided he was ready to retire after 52 years — especially after the store was robbed a few times.) 

We were running out of time, so we took the most efficient route home. We did stop and spend a day mucking around in the dirt at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas. We didn’t find a diamond, but it was great fun nonetheless.

Our drive through Shreveport, Louisiana, was the only other bad part of our journey, and worse than missing out on Southern-style tamales. Someone threw a brick at our SUV as we were driving. Fortunately, it hit the roof, not a window. It left a big dent, but at least we were all okay.

About five years ago, not too long after I started writing professionally, we had the opportunity to meet Alton Brown in person. It was a book-signing event for Good Eats 3, the last book in the series that recapped the television show. When it was our turn, I said, “Thank you for making me believe I could cook.” Brown looked at me intently. “You can cook!” he emphasized. “I know I can!” I replied, “thanks to you.” We turned for a photo and he gave my shoulder a squeeze.

These days, my career is also centered around food. Not every day is grand. People think it’s all wine-ing and dining, and forget that the words don’t magically appear of their own accord. Some days, though, I get to interview some of the great teachers I admire — Anthony Bourdain, Rick Bayless and, yes, Alton Brown. In advance of last year’s Edible Inevitable Tour, I wasn’t able to speak with Brown by phone, but I was able to email a list of questions — and he answered.

It's okay for inspiration to come from someone you don't actually know via the pages of a book or a television screen. The most important part is not where it comes from, but to find it in the first place and pursue measurable steps to a goal, whether it requires miles on an odometer or words on a page. 

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