In a previous post I gave a shout-out to the then-upcoming Food Network miniseries Feasting On Asphalt (starring Alton Brown and his production crew riding tricked-out motorcycles across the USA). Westward Ho is a blog about California and the West (as I see them through my NYC-tinted lens), and a little more than half of Feasting takes place west of St. Louis, so I feel it's appropriate to give a rundown on what I've seen so far (although the first two episodes focus on the Southeast and Mid-South and Midwest, the second installment does leave us a bit west of the start of the Mother Road, Route 66, the gateway drug to Manifest Destiny). The show eventually ends up in Los Angeles, which I'll definitely cover.
Two episodes in, Feasting is the best travel special (or series) the Food Network has done (and they do a lot). It's got Alton's trademark historical bent and pursuit of deep knowledge, but the editing and camerawork is less frenetic and kidlike than Good Eats.
It's very charming -- the premise is that he wants to travel the "old" roads of the United States, the pre-interstate ones, and look for the last vestiges of that kind of road food -- and he goes from the typical soul-food places and lovingly restored railroad-car diners (getting that out of the way in the first episode) to scenes where he's munching on just-picked kudzu and zooming the camera into bee-infested honey trees. He samples the vending machine coffee at an Indiana Greyhound station (it's awful, he says) and talks about vended food and Automats, and eats canned cling peaches and cottage cheese with bluehairs at a YWCA tea room (it's great, he says) to track the development of dining options for ladies traveling alone. There's a whole segment on how Duncan Hines, well before he started the cake-mix juggernaut, was the inventor and lone food-service critic of the AAA-style hospitality guide -- any restaurant listed in Hines' guide bore his personal stamp of quality assurance. Alton holds up a tattered book called Adventures In Good Eating, and doesn't bother to point out an obvious connection. But there's a sense of pure joy that he's got this link to America's forgotten past right there in his hands. He's like Huell Howser that way. (The obsessive-compulsive Marc Summers would just flash a fake smile and go wash his hands at the end of the take.)
Alton's honest, too: If he doesn't like something he tries, he'll tell us, even if it's not in the presence of the person who prepared it. I loved his theory on why foods like fried brain sandwiches have survived in tiny ethnic enclaves of the USA while never managing to imperialize the rest of the country -- it may be an acquired taste to broader American audiences, but it's a beloved staple of that culture's culture (in this case, Germany), and they're probably proud to hold on to a tradition that n00bz don't wanna get with.
I admit that I cheered when Alton went to Ted Drewes (the custard stand in St. Louis, along the eastern edge of the former Route 66); I insisted on stopping there when a friend and I road-tripped cross-country last year, and the custard was indeed pretty revelatory. Alton says that when he announced his plans for Feasting on Asphalt on the Food Network's website, he got hundreds of letters beseeching him to check the shop out. But Ted Drewes ALWAYS gets talked about on these Food Network things, and if AB had known that, maybe he would have kept going, in search of something more blue-highway and obscurantist. Seriously though, that's great custard, and you sorta have to bring up Rte. 66 on shows like these.
Downsides: As on Good Eats and the play-by-play of Iron Chef America, Alton has a nasty habit of saying "culinary" and "very very" too many times in one episode. (Some TV-forum dwellers have criticized him for all the "uh"s that pepper his sentences, but I LOVE that; it gives the narration an off-the-cuff, professorial feel, like he's mulling over his words rather than merely reading cue cards.)
Another negative, which I think was more of a problem in the first episode than the second, is his somewhat rockist insistence that this early 20C road cuisine is "real" American food -- e.g., denigrating one of his stops for now serving tuna niçoise and Starbucks coffee instead of sticking to its roots as a homespun, owner-operated, shining beacon of cheap, reliable sustenance. But he has a point when he says that if your restaurant is exceptionally good at one thing, it shouldn't stray too far from that basic concept -- it's just good business sense, and virtually all of our most beloved fast-food establishments became famous for adhering to this rule.