Last weekend I watched an episode of Travel Channel’s list-making show Food Heavens. The topic was “The Best Places to Pig Out.” The culinary hotspots featured in this particular chapter offered at least one signature dish whose mammoth size or spiciness made consuming it something of a dare, and quite frequently the subject of in-house competition. There’s the 72-ounce steak in Texas, the quadrillion-egg scramble in Seattle, the habanero-drenched chicken wings in Delaware that you have to consume in five minutes or less. If you meet that challenge you get a T-shirt and a Polaroid of your champion self on the restaurant’s “Wall of Flame,” both of which should take your mind off the next morning’s dysentery.
It reminded me of my problem with two other television shows: Travel Channel’s Man Vs. Food, and Food Network’s Outrageous Foods. Both shows follow the same rough template. Man travels to various destinations, walks into restaurant whose menu has been taken over by a dish with proportions so large it has satellites. Man decides eating mega-food offers a rare chance to display his intestinal fortitude, and determines that it needs to be eliminated for the sakes of safety and space constraints. Man attacks food, initially in a sort of shock-and-awe, frantic manner of consumption, before the reality of his military limits sets in. Each bite thereafter becomes a slow, gritty effort to weather the gap between ambition and nausea as the host winds down his pace.
After this long journey, the host hopes to successfully finish the entire dish and declare triumph. This does not always happen. When it does, the Congressional Medal of Honor ceremony is usually edited out of the final program.
I have two issues with this kind of programming. The first is perhaps obvious: It celebrates gluttony. We often confuse gluttony with love of food. They aren’t the same. Love of food is like any other love; it’s something you nurture over time, developing a taste for food’s richness, depth, and personality traits and quirks.
Gluttony, on the other hand, is more like a middle-age swingers’ retreat. You do it because you don’t have that much meaningful time left, you’ve already attained and probably misplaced any noble goals you might have aspired to as a youth, and you don’t really care what you partake in as long as there’s lots of it. Outsiders get kind of grossed out at the thought of what you’re doing, and it’s almost never something we want to actually watch, unless we’re getting paid to film it. The inherent levels of sheer carnality in both middle class orgies and hot dog eating contests are, to my mind, roughly equal.
(Speaking of hot dog eating contests – this is something I’ve often wondered: Do the grand champions of these contests have a training regimen? What could that possibly consist of? More to the point, do they have trainers? Is there some Burgess Meredith figure hulking over their shoulders, croaking in a gravelly voice, “You can do it, Rocky! Suck down those sulfites! You’re a winner!”)
But maybe even more than the gluttony angle, what bothers me about these shows is the postulation of food as an adversary. Why in the world would I want to set up a confrontation with a deep dish pizza? I wouldn’t win in the first place. I admit, if it came down to me versus a deep dish pizza, I’m screwed. I would awaken with bloodied lips, blackened eyes, and the telling welt of a heavy-duty baking dish somewhere on my person.
Maybe that’s the allure of these shows. They commemorate the spirit of human doggedness and determination. But I can’t go there. I will never be able to picture a baked Alaska as my personal Col. Kurtz, the taste of which I haven’t truly appreciated until I’ve clubbed it over the skull with a waffle cone. I cannot repurpose 125 raw oysters as the only things standing between me and significance. If I found myself in that situation, my first inclination would be to seriously reprioritize my existential strategy. Clearly my motives went haywire somewhere near the salad bar.
Buffalo wing challenges, especially, creep me out to the extreme. The only thing proven in watching collegiate boys scowl and suffer through chicken laced with maddeningly hot capsicums, with deep red sauce dribbling out of the corners of their mouths and off their chins, is that these kids would make more convincing vampires than Robert Pattinson.
Both these aspects rob food of its enjoyment. Gluttony presents food as a quantifiable asset whose value depreciates with increased consumption. Seeing food as an enemy, a great gastronomic beast that needs to be tamed by human mandibles, doesn’t serve any point whatsoever. You don’t commune with the food, as you’re supposed to do – you imagine that it’s taunting you, mocking you, maybe making some uncalled-for jokes about your mom. That’s not what our relationships with food should be about.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go kick the crap out of some asparagus.