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What’s wrong with ‘Man v. Food’? What isn’t?

Chili Dog Offense from Man v. Food
Truth in Advertising: "The Knucklehead Challenge"

Lying around in full couch tuber regalia, following the heartbreakingly tantalizing 49er game, I had the misfortune to channel-surf through the treacherous waters of Monday Night Television, only to find my mental Minnow festooned around the awful coral head of Adam Richman’s Man v. Food. As if driving past an overturned car in a highway ditch, or probing a sore inside a cheek, I sat there, glassy-eyed and I must suppose mildly brain-damaged, for perhaps 15 minutes (an amount of time that, at roughly 0.00003% of my expected life span, strikes me as too long by at least half), transfixed, seemingly incapable of averting attention from either Mr. Richman’s ham-handed narrative or the grotesque display of gustatory abuse which forms the dubious premise of the show.
This particular car-wreck happened to be an episode in Philadelphia, in which the host must face down a single, titanic cheese steak from Tony Luke’s, the sandwich in question (although to call it that is surely to insult the Earl’s good memory and proper sandwiches everywhere) weighing in at an appalling 5lbs in total, and constructed from 3lbs of meat, 1lb of American cheese, and a half-pound of fried onions, all stuffed into a 20″-long sub roll, which I suppose we’re meant to infer weighs another half-pound. This is not the foul pile of landfill masquerading as food and pictured above-right; that unfortunate distinction belongs to Parker’s Hot Dogs in Sacramento, home to yet another 5lbs of televised obscenity at the hands of said Mr Richman.  But even to debate the particulars is to offer the offer the show far more quarter than it deserves; the what he eats is irrelevant in comparison to the why.
I’ve been puzzling over what bothers me so much about the show for the last couple of days: Notwithstanding the puppy-dog eyes and smarmy winks, Mr Richman himself seems inoffensive enough, and arguably knows what he’s doing, both in front of the camera (he studied drama at Yale) and in the kitchen (he claims to be a trained sushi chef);  nor is it the quality of the food itself, as he generally chooses destinations of some culinary merit (I have nothing against his roadie-food strong suit of cheese steaks, chili dogs, and burgers), or at least so they seem prior to his blasphemous display of eating whatever it is that they make. No, I think the problem lies with the premise of the show itself, the very idea that eating – to me, an inherently pleasurable, and literally life-giving, enterprise – should be reduced to a contest between the eater and the stuff on the plate
The great writer and patron saint of food bloggers everywhere, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, once said that the “enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating… are, or can be, synonymous.” Man v. Food is predicated on nothing less than the complete moral inversion of Ms Fisher’s guiding principle – the title itself proclaims mouth and fork to be enemies – and I’m guessing that that is what chafes me like a dull razor. Food is (or at least should be) enormously enjoyable and, served in proportion to its purpose, satisfies one of the most basic conditions for life; the absence of food implies hunger and death (the millions so afflicted are a tragedy of global proportions and a blight on our collective social conscience), and food in excess implies death by means other than hunger, but death just the same (we are a nation of over-eaters, on this the data is incontrovertible). And yet here is a major television production that exists solely by virtue of our ability to transform good food into something dangerously unpleasant. Worse still, this transformation is effected by the application of quantity: What would otherwise be nourishing, or at least tasty (I’m not sure if even the finest chili dog could ever be called ‘nourishing’), becomes a threat, simply because of the sheer size of the serving.
I know, I get it, it’s all just entertainment, you don’t need to post a reply with a litany of even-worse sins; we can just stipulate that competitive eating likely fails to represent one of the clear and present dangers to civilization as we know it, and that there are any number of significantly more disturbing examples of televised programming (certainly, The Swan and anything even peripherally related to Toddlers and Tiaras would rank higher on both lists). But its relative innocuousness in relation to graver threats in no way obviates my argument with Mr Richman and his self-destructive quest for ad revenue: The fact remains that the Travel Channel, by aggrandizing gluttony for a nation of the epidemically obese, sells our collective good sense of what food can and should be right down the river.

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19 thoughts on “What’s wrong with ‘Man v. Food’? What isn’t?

  1. How about you come on down to Parkers and see the chili dog for yourself. We have 100’s of people try. We have a full line of cool dogs that can stand up against best and take them out. Come Down Bro. We are always happy to earn a few new fans. Thanks for the support and the funny lines.

    1. Hey JJ, thanks for the note and for the purveyor’s perspective. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I generally reserve the comment area for readers, but I think in fairness to Parker’s, the historical record should set straight:
      1. Chili dogs are awesome. Full stop.
      2. Parker’s, by all accounts, makes great chili dogs. (I’ve not been to the one in Sacramento, but I lived in Santa Cruz for years, and can only say good things about the family tree.)
      3. I did not in any way mean to impugn Parker’s, only the wisdom of undertaking the Knucklehead Challenge. To the contrary, I chose Parker’s as an example because they were the most ‘local’ business I could find in the Man v. Food photo gallery, and I wanted to link to a local business.
      4. I look forward to consuming your recommended dog on my next trip through Sacto!

  2. What a lot of insipid commentary. I’m qualified to give you the outsider’s perspective; in general, the rest of the world really eyes the glorification and celebration of the kind of decadent gluttony driving this show, with bewilderment and bemusement. We ask ourselves, “Why would you willingly do this to yourself?” and “Did you not learn a thing from the Romans?” – incredulously, not admiringly. I pass no judgement here other than that I couldn’t possibly fit any of those meals, was not a camel last I looked, and so fail to see the point of eating more than 4 or 5 or even 6 normal people need, in a sitting, altogether.

  3. The main problem I have with this post is that the whole argument is based on watching only 15 minutes of the show. Must have missed the first 15 minutes of the show that promotes the mom & pop diners in the same city. And like Ray stated, it’s not always about quantity eating, it’s sometimes about Adam trying to make his way through a normal sized plate of a super spicy dish like hot wings or curry.
    Plus if Scott’s main problem is that eating has turned into a contest, shouldn’t there be a paragraph or two mentioned about the demise of the Food Network that’s turned chefs in competitors and not purveyors of food. At least Man v. Food features the chefs as people and doesn’t run them out there like it’s a sporting event. To be a chef and have a show on Food Network, you have to win a contest at some point and be relegated to Sunday morning! And what about Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen? Those shows are barely about food, it’s Jersey Shore with people cooking instead of spray tanning. I’ve watched 15 minutes of each, so that makes me an expert.

  4. “Get off your high horse and discuss rather than condemning. Seriously weak, people.” You’re kidding, right? Weren’t you ridding the same horse when you wrote this mess of an article? Turds like you make a living off of taking cheap shots at others who will not stoop to your level. I do not like the show but at least I am not trying to make a buck off of it.

  5. i’m glad someone has the brains to point out how ludicrous some of these kinds of eating shows are. great post. ignore the masses who are hurling stones. they are just taking a break from their channel-surfing.

  6. It’s quite obvious that we, as a society, have lost any real association with food. It’s no longer marched past our front door to be slaughtered in town or grown in our back yards to be enjoyed at its peak or in its true season. What used to be a very social experience has been relegated to large stores on the edge of town filled with people just trying to complete the task at hand with as little social interaction as possible. Sometimes, not even a hello or thank you to the clerk who takes your money. We no longer understand where our food comes from and this allows a show like Man v. Food to entertain those who choose to continue drinking the Kool-Aid, in obnoxiously large quantities.

  7. Let me say that I have a love/hate relationship with the show. Bourdain says he feels sorry for they guy, because you can watch him literally eating himself to death through the seasons. It’s gross.
    But uh, have you ever been to a Costco? That’s our lowest-common denominator food culture. Eating mass quantities beyond human imagination. Paired with the fact that you’re pretty sure the guy’s gonna keel over from a coronary every episode, it’s good TV — whether you like it or not. It’s ratings gold.
    Scott has a particular viewpoint (not to mention that he’s NOT getting paid) that’s a good starting point for discussion. Get off your high horse and discuss rather than condemning. Seriously weak, people.

  8. So Jana, nobody should do anything that YOU think is not creative, interesting, informative or educational? Who made you the arbiter of everything?

  9. It seems to me that telling someone to turn off the tv misses the point of the critique of a truly sad and disturbing show that is not creative, interesting, informative or educational. You might as well tell someone to shut off their brain. The point that (hu)man should not be pitted against food is valid regardless of whether that contest has to do with quantity or heat or spiky cactus parts. Lastly, NO, people do not get paid to write this stuff … though I think this person should! I love this guy!

  10. Like most right wing nut jobs, David just can’t resist slamming anyone who disagrees with his hero, Glenn Beck. What the hell does MSNBC have to do with a food show on another channel. Please get a life.

  11. You apparently have not watched the show much. There are various episodes where the challenge is to eat hot food items where the quantities are not that great at all. In the future it would be nice if you did a little more research into a topic before going off on some tangent about world hunger.

  12. You don’t like the show, turn it off. That is what the remote is for. No one forces you to watch anything on TV (YET). I don’t like Chris Matthews, Kieth Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and all of the other liberal wacko’s shows so I don’t watch them, I suggest you do the same.

  13. boring.. this is great stuff. it keeps me chortling the entire night. Ruth Reichl has nothing on the humourous anectdotes that flow from this guys mind… KEEP IT UP AND HOPEFULLY YOU NEVER GET A REAL JOB!!!

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