In this two-part series Eitan Kensky takes a sharp look at food travel shows and the evolution of Adam Richman’s popular show “Man vs. Food.” Read Part 1 here.
One of the most striking elements of “Man vs. Food” was the way it flattened all ethnicities into generic American challenges. The idea of de-emphasizing difference made it rare, if not unique among food shows. Both of Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern’s shows were built around the idea of eating local and indigenous cuisines that most American’s find disgusting, such as unborn chicken eggs, squirrel and calf (testicles) — especially when the exotic locations Zimmern traveled to were in America, like the Gulf Coast, or the immigrant neighborhoods of New York and Los Angeles. “Man vs. Food,” however, didn’t exoticize ethnic foods or treat them as an other to be discovered; rather ethnic restaurants were just another way to experience over-sized, over-seasoned, or over-spiced American portions.
This approach was especially prominent during the first season when Richman visited Katz’s Deli in New York. The show went out of its way to not make reference to Katz’s Jewish origins. None of the patrons interviewed appeared to be Jewish and Richman treated Katz’s only as a general New York institution that serves very meaty sandwiches. There were, it’s true, a few codes for Jewishness in the presentation. Richman’s mother came to share the food with him, and he referred to her as the person who first introduced him to Deli, but he left out why she introduced him to it in the first place. His mother worried that his upcoming challenge would be “unhealthy,” making shtick out of the stereotype of the over-protective Jewish mother, but it backfires. Given the toxic spiciness of the food Richman is going to ingest later that night, the Brick Lane Curry House’s spicy p’haal, allegedly the world’s hottest curry, she isn’t so much the over-protective Jewish mother as the voice of reason. Nonetheless, it was striking that a 21st century food show didn’t mention that Deli is a Jewish food par excellence, and Richman’s mother presumably took him to delis as part of his heritage.