The Alton Account
Saturday, September 20, 2003
I arrive at Draeger’s Market in San Mateo. Alton Brown (AB) is scheduled to have a book signing at 5:30pm. I am expecting massive crowds. When he came to the Sur La Table in Los Gatos last year, people camped overnight to sign up for his class.
I am surprised to find plenty of parking spots in the Draeger’s garage. I make my way upstairs to the book and housewares section. There is no line of Good Eats fans. No evidence of campsites. In fact, there is not even a table set up with stacks of AB’s books.
What is going on? Will there be a book signing? I wonder around looking for a Draeger’s employee who might know the answers.
I overhear somebody asking an employee about the book signing. I join the conversation. Yes, AB is scheduled to show up at 5:30. People shouldn’t line up now; they would be in the way. Of course, they would be in the way later too, but then that’s part of the event. When should I come back? People started showing up 45 minutes early for Tyler Florence, but then he was an hour late. Why don’t you get something cool to drink and come back an hour before?
It is suggested I pre-purchase AB’s latest book, Gear For Your Kitchen, because Draeger’s is short on undamaged copies. Their last order included several books with crushed pages. I purchase a pristine copy of Gear, then I wander outside the store. It is unusually hot outside. Maybe 90 degrees F.
I return to Draeger’s. As I ride the escalator upstairs, I notice more people milling around. A table at the top of the escalator has been set up for the signing, and there is most definitely a line now. It curves around an aisle and ends next to the silverware section. I take my place at the end of the line, maybe 30 people back from the front.
I chat with the person in front of me. She attended AB’s book signing last year in Oakland. She says this signing doesn’t seem as crowded as last year’s. Perhaps they have not promoted the latest book as much.
She tells me that AB once wrote the wrong name when he signed a book. As a result, the bookstore made him purchase the book. He then decided to have his fans autograph that book while he autographed theirs.
The line has grown considerably. I am not sure where it ends anymore. It seems to curve back in on itself, then snake out into the rest of the store. The same Draeger’s employee whom I spoke with earlier is now coming around with little paper cups of water. He doesn’t want people collapsing in the heat while waiting for AB. It doesn’t seem that hot to me inside the store. I decline his offer but others are happy to accept the water.
I have been reading my copy of Gear. I discover that AB despises springform pans. He claims they leak and warp and are just generally bad. How then does he bake cheesecakes?
I hear the sound of clapping. I stand up and ask my neighbor what is going on. She saw AB - well, just the back of his head - but then he disappeared, maybe to the restroom. At least, fears of him doing a “Tyler Florence” can be dismissed.
I get my first sight of AB in the flesh! He does not look that different from his TV persona, except he has grown a scrawny beard. The beard and perhaps the lack of a make-up artist make him look a little more disheveled than usual. He is dressed much as he is on the show in non-descript brown shoes, dark gray pants, and a black Hawaiian shirt with small, gold, geometric shapes.
AB begins to speak. The Draeger’s employee tries to hush the crowd in line, many of whom can’t see AB and aren’t aware that he is speaking. Above the talking multitude, I think I hear him say hello to the fans waiting at the front of the line and ask how they’re doing. By now, people have quieted down and I can hear AB clearly. “I am a horrible speller,” he warns the crowd, whose names he’ll soon have to write down. “I’ve been known to misspell ‘Bob’.”
He then starts following the line, pausing every 20 feet or so. He greets each set of fans with a “Hi, how’re you doing?” At one point, he is standing just inches from me. I discover I am about eye level with his shirt sleeve. He continues down the length of line, beyond my field of view.
He has returned to the top of the escalator from his journey to the end of the line. He shakes the hand of the person in front of the line. The signing has begun.
I notice, to my great envy, that some fans have brought cameras. AB appears happy to take pictures with them. If there are two in a group, each takes turns being in the picture with AB will the other shoots the photo. AB typically swings his arm around the fan in the photo. If the size of a group is at least three, AB gets in between two of them and swings his arms around both, while the third takes the photo.
The line progresses. A wall full of placemats is now between me and AB. Lacking visual distractions, I try to think of what I will say to him. First, compliments come to mind: “I think you have a great show. I love how you explain the physics and chemistry of cooking. I think your writing is very creative.” Then the complaints: “Could you do simpler, quicker recipes? Your mac n’ cheese recipe took me 3 hours to make. Could you do more recipes per show? Last season, you were down to one or two recipes. Could you do more non-Western foods?” Questions also occur: “What kind of yogurt should I use in your blueberry muffin recipe – plain or vanilla? If you don’t like springform pans, how do you bake a cheesecake?”
The line progresses, and I can see AB again. There are only a half dozen people in front of me. I watch as AB shakes hands, introduces himself and asks each new fan how he or she is doing. Then, he chats with them while signing their books.
One fan asks him something I can’t hear. This causes him to roll up his left shirt sleeve. There are grayish green markings on his arm -- a tattoo of a bee! AB then comments that he “likes bees a lot.” Could it also have something to do with his nickname, “A B?”
The couple in front of me have reached the front of the line. AB greets them. The male half of the couple is wearing an Apple T-Shirt, and Apple computers become the topic of conversation. “I can’t work without them,” AB declares. “I do everything, all my writing, on them. If there’s one thing I’m fanatic about, it’s Apple computers.” The man asks AB if he would like a tour. He works at Apple and thinks it can be arranged. Another person, not in line but mysteriously sitting on a chair near the signing table, says he works for Apple too and can arrange a tour if AB is interested. He is. “I just need a name and number,” says AB. The not-in-line person gets up and disappears, presumably to arrange this tour.
It is my turn! I take a deep breath and walk a few steps towards AB. He shakes my hand with a firm, practiced grip. “Hi, I’m Alton,” he says. I introduce myself, then he asks how I’m doing. Some small talk follows. I was nervous just before my turn, but I feel mostly at ease now. AB is not very scary. In fact, he appears quite friendly.
I hand him my book and ask him to sign it for “Linda and Albert.” “Do you spell your name with an ‘i’?” “Yes.” As he signs the book, he asks what I do and where I work. I say I’m a software engineer at a startup doing security for storage area networks. This is certainly not as interesting to AB as Apple Computers.
While he is putting the finishing touches on his autograph, I tell him, “I think you have a really great show. The best show on Food Network.” He smiles and says, “Thanks, I think so too.” I had thought of all these criticisms earlier, but it didn’t seem appropriate to mention them now. I should be thanking him for autographing my book and spending time with his fans rather than giving him my 2 cents worth. I also shouldn’t take up too much time with so many people still behind me.
But I decide to quiz him on one thing. “Can I ask you a question about the book?” AB worries that he won’t be able to answer, but he says go ahead. “While I was in line, I read that you don’t like springform pans. I want to bake a cheesecake. What should I use?” He has no trouble with this question: “A 3-inch deep cake pan.” “How about sticking?” I ask. “Grease the pan and cut out a piece of parchment paper for the bottom. Use a cake round to invert the cheesecake once it is done.” “It really won’t stick?” “I’ve never had trouble.” I thank him for his advice, then I pick up my book and say goodbye to AB.
I walk around the escalator to the stairs. At last, I can see the rest of the line. It stretches along the walls of the housewares section and overflows down the stairs to the grocery area. I go down the stairs myself, happy that I got the autograph and happy with my encounter with AB.
I sit down in my car, and I open my copy of Gear to see what AB wrote:
To Linda & Albert
Never run with knives!
Good advice. But I’m still not sure I’ll bake a cheesecake in a regular cake pan!