If you celebrate Christmas in any way, you might have a catalog of movies that are required viewing each year. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, White Christmas, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and Scrooged long comprised my annual winter film festival. I’m pretty rigid in my traditions, so there was never much room for variety. Sure, I’d play nice and watch a different holiday flick if you insisted, but left to my own devices, I stuck to those four.
But a few years ago, I welcomed a new addition to my routine: ‘Twas the Night Before Good Eats. Alton Brown’s hour-long Good Eats special (well, 42 minutes, when you subtract commercials) is more than an episode of a cooking show, it’s a bona fide masterpiece, packed with goofy versions of beloved holiday icons, unexpected takes on traditional dishes, and the usual cornucopia of trivia and pop culture references, all dressed up for Christmas. I watch it a few times each holiday season, and until the opening scene lights up my television for the first time in late November or early December, it feels like something’s missing. I never thought Food Network programming would become such an important part of my life, but here we are.
Good Eats premiered on Chicago’s PBS affiliate in 1998, and Food Network picked it up a year later. Brown, a cinematographer and video director, stood out because he wasn’t a celebrity chef like Emeril Lagasse or Mario Batali, who became household names by walking through their recipes on the Food Network in the mid-1990s, back when America was only beginning to awake from its freezer-aisle, chain-restaurant stupor and the format for culinary television was simple: Do what Julia Child did.
With his background in the film industry and a degree from the New England Culinary Institute, Brown made the kitchen more approachable with comical visual aids and recurring characters, like W, a parody of Q from the James Bond universe and an antagonistic expert in kitchen gadgets. Most importantly, Brown was a regular(ish) guy who liked Monty Python antics, puns, and alliteration, and if some regular guy could cook these things, so could the viewer. An early example of nerdiness being accepted as a good thing — he wore glasses, had a chalkboard in his kitchen, and used tools like kitchen scales and probe thermometers — he made it easy for fans to form an emotional connection, and Good Eats naturally became comfort television.
‘Twas the Night Before Good Eats is the show at its best. Brown produced a few hour-long specials, but his 2009 Christmas episode is overloaded with the storytelling, terrible-but-wonderful acting, education, and camp that defined the show. It loosely follows the plot of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Brown navigating a fever dream and encountering various supernatural gourmands.
There’s St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children who served as the inspiration for Santa Claus, explaining that the holiday was originally a solstice celebration. The spirit of Charles Dickens implores Brown to serve a Christmas goose fit for the Cratchit family, only to fall into a depression when the host suggests duck instead because Americans don’t eat geese. (“This is America; Goose sat behind Maverick.”) Wild-eyed Uncle Sam arrives to shill for oysters, “the most American holiday food of all time.” (Did you know oyster pie was the centerpiece of a Southern holiday table before turkey’s rise in popularity?) And a bubbly, domineering Sugarplum Fairy beats on Brown while he prepares her namesake dessert.
Brown isn’t old enough to be my father, but the arsenal of dad jokes and dated references that reveal his own fandoms are good for at least a couple of eye rolls in any Good Eats episode. That’s no different here, but there are genuine laugh-out-loud moments because Brown’s sense of humor, which has the subtlety of a rock crashing through a window (something that actually happens in this show), is on full display. Brown is a believer in the idea that a bad or obvious joke greatly amplified becomes genuinely funny, and he’s usually right. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen ‘Twas the Night Before Good Eats, but I still chuckle every time I watch it and the Sugarplum Fairy tortures Brown until he cries out safe words like “petunia” and “poinsettia.”
The special’s production values, an extension of the show’s high-low (or low-high?) approach, only elevate it. Standard trivia cards that send a typical Good Eats episode into commercial, with their oh-so-1999 fonts and graphics, are replaced by gussied up, seasonal versions, while the jarring Good Eats theme song is augmented with a cheery jing-a-ling and, in some instances, swapped out entirely for instrumental Christmas tunes. It all feels cozy and comforting, and it’s much better than queuing up a yule log on Netflix.
While the deranged Christmas humor is what makes ‘Twas the Night Before Good Eats a classic, in the end, it is a cooking show, and the recipes are excellent. Brown’s wassail, a hot tipple of ale and madeira that dates back to medieval England, would be a hit at any holiday party on a cold winter night; the spatchcocked duck, dry-aged in the refrigerator, results in juicy meat and crispy skin; and his cornbread-oyster dressing is the real deal. I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, and my wife is from Pensacola, Florida, and Brown’s version of the dish brings our families’ traditions together. Degrees of difficulty throughout the show vary — the wassail and sugarplums are a cinch, while butterflying large poultry is an advanced task — but as Brown has done with so many cooking methods over the course of 244 Good Eats episodes, he makes it all look doable.
With ‘Twas the Night Before Good Eats, Brown has created essential Christmastime entertainment. Even someone who has no interest in amateur chefdom can enjoy the show’s antics — they might come away with kitchen knowledge that can be put to good use anyway. Whether you want to impress your friends and family with a holiday feast or you just need an excuse to hide out in the galley and avoid socializing at all cost, Brown is here to give your holiday a boost. He’ll be here next year, too, and the year after that, and all the ones to come as well, because ‘Twas the Night Before Good Eats isn’t going anywhere.
Highly Recommended is Eater's periodic column of endorsement for things we and our contributors love, and that we think you might want to love, too.
Chris Fuhrmeister is the editor of Eater Atlanta.