Few sayings ring truer than the chorus of Bruce Springsteen's "57 channels (and nothin' on)." As if to demonstrate television's inability to grasp the concept that more is often less, we've recently witnessed an explosion of programs that fuse cooking with reality television, including a slew of contrived chef talent search shows like Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," Food Network's "Chopped," and Bravo's "Top Chef." Unlike the popular (and often quite good) "Iron Chef America," the only meaningful ingredient in these programs is manufactured drama. You can almost hear the bumper now: "Somebody's gonna cry tonight, and it ain't from the onions!"
These kitchen cum "American Idol" shows are now having to make room for an growing list of food-travel programs. Not that this is anything new. "Forty Dollars a Day" helped launch the prattling chipmunk empire of Rachael Ray, and the irascible and versatile Anthony Bourdain has brought feasting on the obscure to television for almost a decade. But now if you are not content with Bourdain's exotic locales, you can always stay tuned to the Travel Channel and catch Andrew Zimmern ingesting deep-fried tarantulas or perhaps pickled emu beaks, all while cooing, "...ooh. Wow. I mean, it's so... so... like what you would not expect." His program is a little like watching "Fear Factor" without the put-on screaming.
Yet few shows deliver more colon wrenching excess than the Travel Channel's newest hit, "Man vs Food." It's what you might expect if you combined a hairier version of Zimmern with Johnny Knoxville from MTV's "Jackass." The show's host, Adam Richman, visits everyday fare hotspots around the country and then sets about doing something ludicrous like attempting to eat fifteen dozen oysters in an hour or a dish of curry so hot that even the restaurant's chef wears goggles during its preparation. Anyone who has paid attention to the billboards while driving along Interstate 40 through Amarillo probably understands the creative genius that inspired this show. You guessed it, one of Richman's earliest stops was at the Big Texan Steak Ranch where he takes "the restaurant's legendary 72-ounce steak challenge." According to the show's website, it remains the most popular episode.
Like "Jackass," Richman has inspired adoring imitators. Who can argue that these budding media stars aren't on to something?
I mentioned "Man vs Food" to a few of my students in class today, and several gave it a hearty endorsement. This left me confident of the Travel Channel's ability to sell advertising space for domestic beer and AXE body spray. But I can't help but feel that somewhere in a darkened apartment a self-conscious calorie counter sits on the couch weeping as he watches Richman gack down a nine pound pistrami sandwich and tries not to think about the grim stack of Lean Cuisines lurking in his freezer.
One wonders what culinary frontiers Richman will cross in future episodes. Perhaps he'll eat five pounds of spicy crawfish boil and then use the restroom without first washing his hands. Maybe it'll be an eating contest with Takeru Kobayashi, who we used to see obscenely stuffing Nathan's hot dogs down his gullet. No doubt it will be scintilating. Cable television would deliver no less.