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.
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.”
Travel food shows are mysteries with the host as detective. Our host takes us to a dark, unknown corner of the globe to try to discover something new and ostensibly worth eating. Rather than a crime, the emphasis is on the uncovering of the meal, and the moment of truth: was it as delicious as rumored? The host’s smile, mouth covering (with a napkin or with an open palm) and immediate urge to take another bite let us know for sure. Case closed.
These shows are also mysteries on another level: what is the best way to translate the experience of eating to a visual medium where the viewer can never taste the food? The similarities between the filmic techniques of cooking shows and those of pornography are now well-established. Cue the right music and camera angles and we’ll lust for anything, no matter how unappetizing it may otherwise be. The recent documentary “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” took a different approach, going, not always successfully, for food as magic. In comes sweet potatoes, and out, after unexplained alchemy, comes something previously unimaginable. The problem with the “Cooking in Progress” approach is that food and cooking is the opposite of alchemy. Half the fun of molecular gastronomy is learning about the processes that transform food, which the film elides to preserve our wonder at the final dish.