Poor Alton Brown

(Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)


I have traveled to many parts of this country and, years ago, to many places beyond our borders. The cuisine of South Louisiana and New Orleans is so famous that wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve come across restaurants that purport to serve “Cajun” and/or “Creole” food.

Sometimes those restaurants are run by folks from South Louisiana and sometimes those restaurants do a really good job of replicating our food. I’ve had passable jambalya in Chicago and reasonably good red beans and rice in New York. I’m sure that with the widespread availability of our local charcuterie those restaurants are better than ever. But there’s an exception. I have never had a decent poor boy more than about 100 miles from New Orleans.

What got me thinking about this was an episode of the show “Good Eats” that aired in September of this year.

When the show first aired, host Alton Brown was a breath of fresh air. He approached cooking from the perspective of a scientist and he was irreverent and funny in a “dad joke” sort of way. I liked that his show was actually about cooking, too. Most of the other shows on the food network at the time were more “lifestyle” shows and while I’m sure I could use advice where my lifestyle is concerned I don’t need that advice from Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, Giada De Laurentiis or, God help us all, Paula Deen.

But I lost my appreciation for Brown’s show after a few seasons. Brown was doing the same sort of schtick that Christopher Kimball used to do on America’s Test Kitchen, in which the bow-tied dweeb would set up a straw man argument about how your grandmother’s pot roast recipe was terrible, and here’s how it should be done. After a few seasons Brown ended up in the same position – trying to re-engineer recipes that didn’t need re-engineering and using increasingly elaborate props to support his arguments.

Then I learned that Brown followed an ascetic diet and didn’t eat the things he was “cooking” on the television. Say what you want about Paula Deen, but she eats what she cooks.

But now he’s back and eating food again and there was an episode that aired in September titled “Rich Little Poor Boy.” In that episode the Georgia native pretends he can make a poor boy.

Here is what he did right: he recognizes that the bread is important. He recognizes that oysters are important to an oyster poor boy.

Here is part of what he did wrong; I say “part of” because I don’t have the energy to really break down all of what he gets wrong from a culinary or cultural perspective:

He suggests you find a Vietnamese bakery to substitute for French bread, and that is a good suggestion except that the banh mi loaves he uses in the episode are clearly deficient in that they are so soft. He splits them lengthwise and tears out some of the middle and then toasts them and they still look like something that was made to host a cheese steak and even then the kind of host that not only makes you take your shoes off when you come in but also steals your shoes.

My guess is that what passes for “banh mi” loaves in most of the country (or at least Atlanta) are essentially “hoagie” rolls and if you are reading this you do not need me to tell you that you cannot make a poor boy on a hoagie roll. In New Orleans, banh mi loaves are pretty damn close to French bread, and a totally acceptable substitute if you for some reason can’t get the real stuff.

The next issue I have involves his recipe for slaw, the ingredients for which include sumac, garlic powder and dried parsley and while I can forgive adding sumac to a poor boy recipe for the love of Bea Arthur there is no excuse for the dried parsley because dried parsley is an abomination.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you cannot find fresh parsley, you will go without parsley. There is no reason for you to ever use dried parsley and anyone who tells you differently is a fool. (See also dried cilantro and basil.)

I can’t find too much to criticize where his frying of the oysters is concerned, except that he bought some tiny little oysters and spent way too much effort marinating them in buttermilk and a whole bunch of other stuff. I like oysters, so I like to taste oyster and thus I don’t marinate my oysters in anything before I fry them. I limit seasonings to salt and if I’m feeling frisky a little ground pepper. You do what you want, but if you’re frying oysters for a poor boy you should anticipate that you will have a lot of other seasonings in the finished product, and season each individual component accordingly.

Where Brown lost me completely is when he “constructed” the poor boy. He slapped some of the nutmeg/sumac slaw onto a hoagie roll and then added a half dozen of the tiniest fried oysters you’ve ever seen onto it and called it done.

Brown did not make a poor boy or anything like a poor boy. It looked like it might be good if you’d never had properly fried oysters, but it wasn’t a poor boy. It sure as well wasn’t an improvement on a fried oyster poor boy.

Ultimately though, it’s not like we can expect him to actually understand our food in more than a superficial way. How many oyster poor boys do you think he’s had? Three? Four? I’ve had hundreds over the last 20 years. You’ve probably had just as many if not more. It’s not a competition; what it means is that we have context for what a fried oyster poor boy should be. He doesn’t, and thus he made a slaw to serve with tiny fried oysters on a hoagie roll.

Better him than me, I guess. Now I want some oysters…



Categories: Haute Plates