FOR ALTON BROWN, it all started with a chicken. At a family meal in a New York City restaurant, his then-5-year-old daughter ordered the half roast chicken.
"When it arrived, she looked at the chicken, then looked up at me and said 'Chicken is chicken.' She was just now putting this together," the Food Network personality recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, (expletive). What's gonna happen now?'" Brown explained to his daughter that someone had raised the chicken and killed it so that she could eat it.
"It really set me on a strange course," says Brown. "I realized that we're so disconnected from our food — where it lives or grows, how it dies, how it's processed. None of us in this culture are really living sustainably." Best known for his quirky, science-y cooking show "Good Eats" and as the host of "Iron Chef America," Brown is now using his celebrity chef notoriety to draw attention to issues of sustainability.
"After nine years at the Food Network, hopefully I've got some credibility and leverage," he says. "It shouldn't ALL be fluffy holiday stuff — it shouldn't ALL be butter, for God's sake. Food in this country now, it's what sex was in the '70s. It's our last decadent act."
The Food Network's popularity, which is often credited with igniting America's obsession with celebrity chefs and food, has helped to make Alton Brown a household name. But Brown fears he may have unwittingly been a
"I've struggled with weight all my life, and probably always will. But I was on my most recent book tour I was shocked by the number of overweight families," he says. "People would come up to me and say, 'Oh, we love the Food Network.' Well, no (expletive); did you eat the TV? There's only four of you and you can't ride in an elevator together. I'll probably make fat people angry, but we need, as a culture, to be ashamed. It's not "... healthy."
Propelled by concerns about obesity, environmental and social issues, Brown is planning a variety of shows with the Food Network on topics ranging from the future of food in the United States to the globalization of food to increasing longevity through diet.
"I think we're all yearning for balance," he says. "Not to be all Zen about it, but we're living in a way that's so unhealthy, so unlike life. There are all these questions. How do we serve and protect? How do we eat it and save it?"
Brown is now a spokesperson for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "I think the state of Alaska is doing a jam-up job," he says of the state's commitment to sustainable fishing practices. "My actual favorite eating fish is sablefish, and it's doing very well up there; it's properly managed. There are all these lists of fish — good choices and bad choices — available to us now. We have the information to make good choices. Let's make it a mission to start going to the seafood manager (at the local market) and asking for it. If you ask for it, you'll get it."
Ever the information hound, Brown is clearly passionate about the subject matter and eager to dig deeper into all the issues of eating. But he's also careful to acknowledge that he doesn't have all the answers.
"I'm not trying to give answers but instead ask questions," he says. "What will America be eating in 50 years? I don't want to preach, but if we've lost a common value system we agree on, we've lost it. We're Rome." Part of the issue, says Brown, is that sustainability is such a large, complex issue that most people are overwhelmed by profuse and conflicting information.
"When we talk about sustainability, we try to chop it up into little pieces: seafood, beef, produce, et cetera," he says. "But the truth is we're not living in a way that can continue, or should continue."
Still, despite some gloomy realities, Brown is hopeful.
"Sustainability will be the issue of our age," he says. "But not even 'sustainability' — sustainability is the question and rarely the answer. We need strategy and tactics. That's why I'm gravitating toward the idea of local. The issues of sustainability are so broad, people can't grasp it. But local people can deal with it on their own level. They can tackle issues through locality." By encouraging his audience — 770,000 daily viewers of "Good Eats" alone — to take small steps, and start asking their own questions about what they eat, he hopes the answers eventually will become clear.
Reach freelance writer Jenny Slafkosky at email@example.com.
To see Alton Brown's newest video promoting sustainable seafood -- and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute -- go to www.alaskaseafood.org/sustainability/alton.html.