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.

And yet…

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 deserveand 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.

  • erica

    Me? I just wonder how many restaurant bathrooms he has violated after filming ends. Dude can’t be keeping all that food down and not feel the repercussions every so often.

    Actually, it would have been fascinating to see him start the series at the doctor, getting a baseline of what his “normal” health is like beforehand, and then periodic stops in to see how he progressively gets worse as he eats more 12 pounds of short ribs, etc. (a la “Super Size Me”) Or alternately, show how he has to subsist on a diet solely of kale and lentils in between filming episodes to keep his body from slowly becoming absorbed by all the lard he has consumed.

    In other news, he did stop at a pizza joint right up the road from my house: Randy’s Wooster Street Pizza. Apparently he ate “The Challenger”: a 22 inch pizza stuffed with pretty much every topping in the kitchen. And he “won.” I wonder if they gave him a Hot Wheels car when he was finished, like they do to the little kids who order the kids’ meals.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      Dude pukes a lot. If you assume that the footage they show of him harfing is only a small percentage, then he pretty much loses it every time he visits a restaurant.

  • mlp

    I’m a Canadian living in France. You want a food-focused culture? This is the place. Obesity is not (yet) a problem here. North America has a convenience-based culture, and I think that makes a big difference.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      Yeah, I think that’s a good point — it’s not a “food” focus per se. It’s more like a fixation on bounty, as if every lunch at TGI Friday’s has to be served like it’s a Horn o’ Plenty.

      • JennyM

        I’m pretty sure the Horn O’ Plenty is a menu item at IHOP.

        • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

          Oh! And if it isn’t, it should be.

  • Qoheleth

    I love Alton Brown, but I have to disagree with him on the association between the rise of the celebrity chef and obesity. Celebrity chefs have only permeated the awareness of most Americans in the past five, maybe ten years. Obesity has been a growing (heh) problem in the US since long before that.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      Yeah, I wasn’t really sure where that came from — it’s not like Food Network is populated by shows focused on techniques for deep-frying ice cream… except Paula Deen’s, of course.

  • Lis

    The other thing that Alton Brown is missing (and isn’t really touched on here) is that often the challenge is not about eating a 7lb sandwich or a metric ton of breakfast burritos but about eating 4 really really spicy chicken wings, or fritters or whatever. There was one where he had to eat a burger, which wasn’t huge but was apparently so hot he had to wear latex gloves… not that this excuses any of the gluttony or huge sandwiches, but it is something different.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      My guess is that Brown’s including that sort of thing as excess of a different color. Yeah, it’s not a hamburger the size of a man’s leg, but it’s still food-as-recreation, which is part of what I suspect gets up his nose. It’s the only thing that bridges logically to his comments about celebrity chefs, to my mind.

  • Lis

    I see what you’re saying. I suppose what really irks me more than anything about this (aside from the hypocrisy you pointed out in the initial post) is that while yes, most of the places that have the “local favorite” do tend towards more comfort food/fried/not super healthy options, they are almost ALWAYS an in house made dish, that is at least made with real food and not some crap filler product found at your “local” chain…

    The other observation I have is that while I’m sure there is no shortage of giant food making places all over the country I can tell you that at least in his DC and Baltimore based episodes he ended up an hour outside of each respective city for the actual eating challenge. The Baltimore episode featured a huge steak place that was so far away I laughed that they even bothered going to B-more in the first place, and the DC challenge was at a place that was actually closer to Baltimore (which is a good hour away from DC) so, take of that what you will, but it’s not like he had an obviously easy time finding the challenges in those locations.

    • Molly

      Not sure if you live in the area and get your times based on rush hour or something, or if you just incorrectly used google maps to find directions to and from locations you’ve never been to. If you are referring to Chaps, it IS in Baltimore. It’s only about 15 minutes away from Federal Hill. Not sure where you’re getting “an hour outside of the city” from. Also, Baltimore is a county as well as a city, so he didn’t have to be stalking around the inner harbor or something for food.
      In the DC episode, the challenge wasn’t in DC, true, it was in Annapolis. But the two other restaurants he visited actually are in DC, and still not necessarily an hour away from the Annapolis location. Using Maryland/DC/Virginia as an example isn’t exactly smart, as people often lump them all together (although they seem to separate Virginia more often). Tourists seem to visit Maryland or Virginia, and end up in DC, or start in DC and branch out.

      • Lis

        Molly, I’m not sure why you’re annoyed but to respond… I’ve lived in Maryland for over 30 years. Chaps is in Baltimore, yes but it is not where he does his eating challenge, that is at Steak & Main, in North East MD, which is just outside of Elkton, or as I like to call it “May as well be Delaware”. I know everyone lumps DC/MD/VA together, but my point was simply that in 2 episodes, one in DC and one in Baltimore, they had to travel fairly long distances outside of each city to find a “HUGE FOOD” challenge sort of place. My general opinion is that Alton Brown is overreacting. All I meant in pointing out how far one had to travel in order to find one of these challenges is that they’re not super common.

  • Anne

    How sad, Sad, SAD it is that people with blogs post entries like this w/o doing all their research.
    Last year (last November to be exact) on CBS Sunday morning, Mr. Brown was interviewed and said (and yes, I’m parphasing) that he became concerned that some of the food that he was making on his show, Good Eats, was not the healthiest. He ALSO stated that HE was guilty of overindulging.
    So to write that he didn’t point a finger at anyone on the Food Network was guilty is not only erroneous, but ignorant.
    Did this writer ever watch Mr. Brown’s “Live and Let Diet ” episode, where he not only gives good information not only on what are good things to eat, but WHY they are good(unlike Jamie Oliver, who just screams and cries about people being fat).
    I wish these people would check their facts….

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      So, based on an interview a year ago, his comments from just over 2 months ago become invalid?

  • http://www.quinoaandcornchips.blogspot.com Alyssa

    I don’t agree that celebrity chefs have contributed to obesity; if anything, I think the focus on chefs and cooking has made people more aware of real food vs. processed, convenient food. Anything that encourages people to cook or know more about ingredients is good, IMHO.

    That said, I do agree that Man vs Food glorifies overeating, and is just plain disgusting. It’s basically trying to piggyback on the success of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives; but rather than be a carbon copy, they threw in the element of “competitive eating” to differentiate themselves. I love “triple D”, but stopped watching MvF because it turns my stomach. And I do think it’s about gluttony. “Indulging” means eating a decadent treat now and again. I feel that it’s “gluttony” when someone is eating to the point of vomiting.

  • Ryan

    I wish Adam Richman would keep a blog of his post-gorge poops. That has got to be some epic mac-truck like dumps. Or depending on the challenge..pure liquid spray.