3 Reasons Why Alton Brown is Wrong About Man vs. Food (and 1 why he’s so right)
You know what we love the most, sometimes? The delightful, catty, zippy little feuds that erupt between celebrity chefs, largely at the prompting of the media. It happens surprisingly often, and most recently between nerd-chef guru Alton Brown and the Travel Network’s Man vs. Food.
If you’re not keeping up on your internet/food television/cross-cable gossip, here’s what we’re talking about:
“And there has got to be a correlation between food media and Americans becoming big fat pigs,” he says, “I’m not going to say Food Network’s responsible for American obesity. I’m not going to say that because of course what you put in your mouth is your own fault and your duty. But the fact that the rise of the celebrity chef has happened hand-in-hand with people becoming big fat pigs, someone’s going to reckon with that.
He also points to the Travel Channel’s popular eating challenge show “Man vs. Food” as “disgusting.” “I think it’s a sin,” he states. “That show is about gluttony, and gluttony is wrong. It’s wasteful. Think about people that are starving to death and think about that show. I think it’s an embarrassment.“
Oh, DIS! It’s worth keeping in mind that Brown is a born-again Christian, so when he invokes sin, he’s invoking sin. He isn’t using the word in the context of particularly rich chocolate that makes one feel shame for indulging, he’s saying that it’s a mortal offense that will result in one’s condemnation to Hell.
That is trash-talking, my friends.
So, when a respected television chef — on a network who’s actually aligned with food, rather than tourism — aligns your efforts with those of The Great Adversary himself, is there any more noble course than to take to Twitter? We think not.
Feel that, Alton? That was an emotionally-charged hashtag, straight from the heart.
Though we are largely ambivalent toward Richman’s deflated hero-worship, we actually find ourselves disagreeing with the esteemed Mr. Brown, his Godliness and Iron Chef hosting responsibilities notwithstanding. While there aren’t a whole lot of people who will argue that Man vs. Food is the perfect television show, we offer the following in its defense:
1. Celebrity Chefs are making people fat, but not ones on his network, maybe
Brown is careful not to directly associate Food Network chefs with Americans getting all chubby, but then he’s careful not to dis-associate his thinking from un-objecting to that, either. It’s all a bit of twirling, twirling, twirling toward an argument that says a food-focused culture has only itself to blame for being a fat one.
But, he’s not willing to say that anyone in particular is making people fat, though everyone should probably be feeling guilty about encouraging people to eat all the same. And then he goes ahead and points to a show that, y’know, isn’t on his network as a great example of that.
In other words, whaaa?
2. Feasting on Asphalt/The Waves
Brown didn’t mind a travelogue show about someone eating less-than-healthy food with a focus on local cooks and neighborhood favorites when he did it for three seasons, culminating in what amounted to a paid vacation in the Caribbean.
But we assume it wasn’t sinful when it was his show.
3. Man vs. Food is about gluttony
But is it, though? Again, we’re not saying that Man vs. Food is high entertainment or anything, but it’s pretty obviously a tourism show. It’s basically Smackdown with Bobby Flay except without the host pretending he’s better than the local chefs. Look, here’s the outline of every single Man vs. Chef ever:
- Adam Richman introduces whatever city he’s in, and outlines the “eating challenge” he’s going to endure
- Richman then visits one or two other local restaurants
- For each, Richman will describe a brief history of the restaurant, interview the owner, and speak to the locals
- For each, Richman will eat their signature food, whatever it happens to be, including interacting with the cook while it’s prepared
- Praise is heaped freely on the food, restaurant, owner, customers and everyone else in sight
- The “eating challenge” is displayed, with the same attention paid to the history of the restaurant, its importance to locals, and its menu
- There is usually some kind of painful, scripted comedy moment involving the actual employees of the restaurant
- Richman endures some kind of punishing food challenge lasting roughly 7 minutes. He does not often win.
- The end
In other words, the vast majority of each episode is mostly a guide to local restaurants in major urban markets, with a focus on what local people love to eat. It’s almost always highly caloric and terrible for you, because that’s what popular local restaurants do really well if they wish not to be wholly slaughtered by fast food chains in big cities.
That Richman endures a food challenge is really just a hook, teased throughout the episode and always delivered at the end — after all the local food is highlighted, the restaurants are featured, and everyone gets their plug. We’re okay with admitting that we’ve written down a few places that have been featured on the show, if only in the hope that one day we might see with our own eyes the unholy foods served there.
1. “Think about people starving”
Where Brown hits the mark, sanctimonious or not, is in just how perfectly Man vs. Food has captured the current direction of food culture, whether it’s eating challenges, or bacon ice cream, or KFC Double Downs. We don’t know who did it first, but there is a Don Draper-level genius at work in going from pretending bad food is wholesome to reclaiming junk eating as an indulgence you deserve — and this is where Richman’s defense ends up failing him, because that’s pretty thin gruel.
If he had perhaps stuck with the argument that his show is encouraging local business and tourism, then it’d be more or less bulletproof. But indulgence is just a synonym for guilt-free gorging, a tidy rationale that says it’s okay to eat a seven-pound sandwich because you’ll only do it once in a while.
And yeah, that would be fine, except that the by-product of Man vs. Food — aside from the fun focus on neighborhood business and fiercely loyal locals — is the never-ending litany of places who serve seven-pound sandwiches, or ten thousand calorie dinners, or bowls of wings so hot that 9/10ths of them are almost always thrown away. Watch just a little too much of his show, and you begin to get the impression that there’s no such thing as “once in a while”, which renders the concept of indulgence to be invalid.
It’s hard, not to be cute, to digest.
All of which is heady thinking for a fairly sincere, basically genuine show that isn’t even on a food-related channel. But as to whether the program is one that promotes these ideas rather than simply documenting them, we tend to believe it’s the latter.
Man vs. Food isn’t the problem, as much as Alton Brown would like to think it is. It’s not like Adam Richman is dreaming up a gigantic sandwich whose garnish is a full pot of mac ‘n’ cheese — he’s just showing up with a camera to prove such a thing exists, and probably quietly hoping to himself that he doesn’t have to eat it. For someone like Brown to tut-tut the show as encouraging that sort of thing is like complaining that Top Gear is causing global warming: it’s an easy target, but not the right one.
Man vs. Food airs Wednesdays at 9 on the Travel Network in the US, and in endless syndication in Canada. We encourage you to judge for yourself.