MythBusters - “Food Fables”

MythBusters - “Food Fables”

Mythbusters has been showing its age for a while now, having long since abandoned its original premise of testing the veracity of urban legends in favor of re-creating movie stunts and YouTube videos, building ambitious yet pointless contraptions, and/or just blowing stuff up. And really, that’s fine; it’s hard to fault a decade-old series for adapting and loosening its restrictions somewhat over the years. When I interviewed Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman a few years back, Adam put it thusly: “Anywhere there is a misconception about the way the physical world works, we’re finding fertile material.” That’s helpful to remember when presented with “myths” like, say, whether the toilet bomb from Lethal Weapon 2 would actually work.

And anyway, Mythbusters has always been more about the journey than the destination—or, in scientific-method terms, it’s about the experiment, not the confirmation. That approach puts it in league with another one of the giants of television edu-tainment, one that puts a similar emphasis on the process over the result: Alton Brown’s Peabody-winning Food Network show Good Eats, which has been using techniques similar to those of Mythbusters—although generally lower-budget versions—to dig into the science of food for even longer, since way back in 1999. Technically, Good Eats ended its run earlier this year, but you wouldn’t know it from how often its 240-plus episodes rerun on Food Network, and Alton Brown is still a regular presence on the channel’s other programs, and anywhere else his gastro-professor (gastrofessor?) character is needed.

Considering their simpatico approaches and collective nerd cachet, it’s kind of amazing it took this long for Brown to hook up with the Mythbusters, especially considering he fanboyed all over them back in 2005 with the Good Eats episode “Myth Smashers.” Perhaps the existence of that episode—and really, the entire run of Good Eats—is why “Food Fables” leans more toward latter-day Mythbusters science gimmickry than Good Eats-esque food instruction, with Alton, Adam, and Jamie tackling two “who would do that?”-style myths (“Can you cook a meal under the hood of a car?” and “Can you make instant popcorn using a scary steampunk-looking contraption from China?”), and the Build Team handling two “uh, sure, we can call that a myth if you want”-style myths (“Does turkey make you sleepy?” and the particularly ridiculous “What tastes like chicken?”).

There’s a timely Thanksgiving peg to the first myth in each of these pairings, which also happen to be the two strongest segments of the episode. Sure, no one’s ever going to want to cook an entire meal under the hood of the car during the drive to Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s a fun way to frame the very impractical undertaking. As Jamie puts it, “The attempt is interesting… if it’s possible, we’re gonna do it,” which is basically a rephrasing of the latter-day Mythbusters motto Adam mentioned above. Alton really gets into the “why the hell not” spirit, pondering with a straight face the best car for the job (an old hunk of Detroit steel with at least a V8 engine) and poking around for food stash points within the crowded engine compartment.

They take an ostensibly scientific approach to the process, first using thermocouples to measure the different heat points under the hood as the three of them drive, with police escort, to the country. It seems like the kind of thing the could be measured by jacking up the car and letting the engine run, but as it turns out, going outside M6 turns up some important results, namely that the engine components get much hotter when the car’s not in motion, due to the lack of air running under the hood. (Hey, that looks suspiciously like a piece of useful information that could be helpful outside the context of cooking a meal with your car!) With data in hand, Alton plans the menu he’s going to stuff into the various nooks and crannies of this old Caddy.

It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity to have Alton Brown on your show and not have him offer up some real food know-how, but hey, those slo-mo shots in the other segments of the Build Team looking tired gotta go somewhere, I guess. (Seriously, Grant, oof.) At the very least, Alton should have been given the opportunity to pontificate once more on his favorite cause de cuisine as he brines the turkey he’s about to shove under the catalytic converter, but alas, he’s mostly stuck in the role of TV chef-presenter as he lays out the meal, a classic Thanksgiving spread with a couple of surprises. (Confit-style turkey legs in olive oil and thyme? Brussels sprouts and blue cheese? Oh Alton, you scamp.) Following another long drive to a picturesque mansion in the country, the resulting meal seems well-cooked enough to avoid any detours down Food Poisoning Lane, but everything has a distinctly watery, par-boiled look to it. Especially the turkey, which looks moist and probably tastes great, but a crispy brown skin would play a lot better under those bright TV lights.

But it still looks a hell of a lot better than the “protein paste” that serves as a turkey stand-in on the Build Team’s tryptophan test. The Build Team segments of Mythbusters can be very hit-or-miss, especially when they’re not, you know, building anything. (This can be true of Adam and Jamie’s segments too, but to a lesser extent.) This one mostly makes up for its overall pointlessness with an elegant, if small-scale, experiment design: Serve the carnivorous members of the Build Team, Tory and Grant, three meals—one high-calorie Thanksgiving meal with turkey, one high-calorie meal with a tryptophan-free turkey substitute, and a lower-calorie meal with turkey—then measure their tiredness by having them test their reflexes via a Whack-A-Mythbuster arcade game. Yes, this is mostly an excuse for the Build Team to clown around, with Tory and Grant mowing down piles of food and wailing on the Whack-A-Mythbuster machine in slow-mo, and Kari mugging as she torments them with protein paste. But the results—it’s not the turkey, but rather the gluttony, that causes tiredness—seem legit, if somewhat of a no-brainer to anyone who’s felt sleepy after a turkey-free big meal, i.e. everyone.

The Build Team’s second myth is even more of a no-brainer, and to say the methods used to test it are suspect is putting it mildly. The falseness of the axiom “tastes like chicken” should be readily apparent to any carnivore worth their salt, which is perhaps why vegetarian Kari seems to be the mastermind behind this one. But as much fun as Kari seems to be having foisting rattlesnake, frog, squab, and other white-meat chicken stand-ins upon her teammates, the falseness of this premise is apparent well before Tori points it out: Texture is as big a component of taste as flavor is, and both Tori and Grant were able to guess pretty accurately because of it. (Though the fact that Grant incorrectly identified chicken as not-chicken should invalidate all his responses, no?) Unfortunately, the Build Team’s solution is as ill-conceived as it is disgusting: Grinding the various meats into patties will provide a somewhat more uniform texture, sure, but—and perhaps Alton could have made his way over to this side of the episode to point this out—even when ground up, a meat’s fat content and general make-up is going to have an effect on its cooked texture. The only way to make this experiment somewhat sound would be to somehow distill each meat to pure flavor; but then we would have been denied—wait, no, I mean spared the sight of Tory and Grant retching meat-paste into buckets. This is far from the first time the MythBusters gang has gagged on camera, but it’s rarely been in service of an experiment so roundly inane.

Similarly inane, but on the opposite end of the visual-appeal spectrum, is the short interlude wherein Jamie, Adam, and Alton use a scary-looking pressurized device to make “instant” popcorn, which actually takes 10 and a half minutes to pressurize before exploding into a gorgeous hi-def, slo-mo plume of popcorn. It certainly looks cool, but the burnt, rice-puff-like kernels scattered all over the floor of Jamie’s workshop—which I’m sure is spotlessly clean, but still—are far less appealing than the stuff Alton makes in 100 seconds using a big metal bowl and burner. This stone-simple technique may not be the most gimmicky or visually exciting element to come out of this crossover event, but unlike pretty much everything else in this entertaining yet contrived episode, it’s actually useful information.

Stray observations:

  • There seemed to be more POV shots in this episode than usual; I wonder if that’s an homage to Good Eats and its many oven/fridge/cupboard cameras.
  • Thank God Alton recently lost all that weight, or he never would have fit into that “A.B.” bin Jamie keeps him in.
  • “Come out to the coast; we’ll have a few laughs.” Looks like Alton just watched Die Hard.
  • Yes, Alton enclosed all the food inside sealed metal containers, but even still, that better have been one really clean engine.
  • Hey, is that watery gravy? Nope, it’s an impromptu soup course! Barf.
  • Seriously, I’ve eaten rattlesnake, frog, and pretty much every other meat Tori and Grant were subjected to—often in sausage form at Chicago’s famed Hot Doug’s—and they’re nowhere near as weird-tasting as they were making them out to be. Babies.
  • Both the episode description and the introduction make mention of a fifth mini-myth, whether you can cook a lasagna in a dishwasher. (Ah yes, the age-old question…) It wasn’t in the episode proper, but it’s up on Discovery’s website as a web exclusive.
  • As previously reported, Mythbusters is planning a Breaking Bad-themed episode later this season. Is there interest among you readers for us to cover that episode as well?