Over the last 15 years, the America ‘brand’ has been severely tarnished – sometimes as a result of the actions of its politicians and business leaders, but also by oh-so-superior Europeans who hate the fact that large parts of their own populations have the temerity to enjoy such gauche things as blockbuster movies and hamburgers. Residents of the old world who find it hard to reconcile their predictable dislike of the world’s biggest democracy with their love of minced beef discs in sesame seed buns neatly swerve this conundrum by spending 15 quid on burger and chips at middle-class fast food joints like Byron and GBK.
God knows then what they make of Man v. Food, the Travel Channel's homage to everything the uptight European hates about American cuisine. In it, the host – a jovial Brooklynite called Adam Richman – ventures to far-flung places around the country in search that town’s most famous dish or eating challenge. Every week it’s the same shtick:
“Hi, I’m Adam Richman. This week we're at Bobby's in Minneapolis-St Paul, home of the quadruple-chilli-Bobby-burger, and I’m on a mission to see if I can get my fill of the biggest meal in the twin cities.”
Richman, who eats like a bulimic in a toilet showroom, then a) meets the owner b) goes into the kitchen and gazes lovingly at the ribs or burgers/tastes the spice mix and c) chats to locals who are chowing down on slabs of dead animal which look like they’ve been scooped off the field at Agincourt.
Then, and this is the show’s money shot, he takes the restaurant's eating challenge – normally a vast sandwich crammed with incalculable amounts of meat, cheese, chilli… and more meat. With fries. Surrounded by cheering diners, he proceeds to eat it, quickly at first, then as the sheer enormity of the task hits him, with dogged resignation. This man never gives up. Think of Ali versus Foreman, the champ soaking up the punishment without a moan, and you’re somewhere in the right ball park. It is wonderful television.
Occasionally – very occasionally – Richman is defeated, usually by something containing gallons of coagulating cheese. And it hurts. But there are no excuses, just an admission he wasn’t up to the task. We're with him when he fails, we know he's given it all and we love him more for it.
America is a country built on hope and possibility – and Man v. Food is dripping with both. Not only do we learn about the food that feeds the country – and believe me, those pit masters at barbecue restaurants are every bit as skilled and passionate as the most do-gooding, organic cook over here – but we witness that joyful American spirit in action. What other country could invent something so delicious and utterly bonkers as ‘chicken-fried bacon’?
At a time when so many of us love nothing more than judging the eating habits of (white, working class) people who love mini-kievs and Findus crispy pancakes (both of which I utterly adore), it’s refreshing to find a programme that celebrates food for the joyful experience it should be. There is no guilt here, just dedication by restaurant owners and chefs to create food that tantalises every pleasure-sensitive bud on their diners' tongues.
If this programme was made here, the host would ironically eat the grub, while the director cut in shots of suitably ugly/old/pale people eating FOOD WHICH IS BAD FOR THEM AND WE PRETEND NOT TO LIKE, so the viewers can indulge in that favourite of British pastimes: laughing at the lower orders.
Richman is the polar opposite to that. A New Yorker with “years of experience in the restaurant trade”, he undoubtedly knows his 30-day aged ribeye from his artisanal-made loaf made by lesbian dwarves in Williamsburg. But on his odyssey, he never judges the food of Main Street America and more importantly, the people who enjoy eating it.
He loves it all, and I love Man v. Food.