The Pursuit of Meaning in Man v. Food
There comes a time in most people’s lives when they must finally sink into the mire of existential confrontation. As much as they might prefer it to be otherwise, the ineffable becomes the inevitable. Some achieve certainty at the end of their quest for meaning through discovery of faith or, inversely, the complete abdication of faith.
However, for others, the further they push into their questioning—of self, of the universe, of the existence of divine power and the possibility of feeling connected to said deity or deities—they come to doubt more and more that answers will ever present themselves. At that point, their ability to cope with ambiguity rises to paramount importance in their repertoire of life skills.
I place myself in this camp of doubters, but I still want to live a decent, ethical life regardless of my lack of belief in universal moral standards. I try every day to improve my strategies for coping with the ambiguity that I believe underlies all of my existence. In so doing, I seek meaning in connections to loved ones. I seek fulfillment in pursuing an agenda of fairness, justice, and equality. And sometimes, I seek psychological as well as physical sustenance in heaping mounds of delicious fatty foods.
In this way, I see Adam Richman, the host of the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, as my kindred spirit. It must be so—otherwise, I can think of no good reason why I love this show as much as I do. For those who haven’t seen Man v. Food, I’d like to describe the show’s basic premise, using this week’s season premiere as the template. Maybe I can arrive at a deeper understanding of my own affinity for the show in the process.
In the episode, Adam travels to San Antonio, where he tours and eats in three renowned local restaurants. The first, Lulu’s Bakery and Cafe, offers a full menu but is best known for its 3.5-pound cinnamon rolls. Yep, a pastry that weighs more than a Chihuahua. Ay, dios mio. At the second eatery, Big Lou’s Pizza, patrons can order a 42-inch pizza called the “Big Lou.” This monster weighs 30 pounds. Let’s say you split one of these things 10 ways. That still means that when you emerge from the bathroom the next morning and say, “Jeez, I feel three pounds lighter,” you won’t be exaggerating.
And finally, as in every episode, Adam wraps up his visit to San Antonio with a food challenge. Usually, he tackles a quantity challenge—can he eat 200 oysters or a five-pound hamburger and live to tell the tale. But at Chunky’s Burgers, Richman faces down the Four Horseman Challenge. It’s an otherwise normal-looking burger that’s loaded down with jalapeño, habañero, serrano, and the truly terrifying “Ghost Chili” peppers. He must eat the fiery concoction within 25 minutes and then wait another five minutes after he finishes before easing the overwhelming pain with milk and ice cream. After the first bite of the burger, Adam looks like he’s dying of a stab wound to the gut. He’s sweating, writhing, and beginning to question the choices that led him to where he is. But somehow, he finishes the damn thing and manages to wait the required five minutes before downing an entire glass of milk.
I must confess—when he reached the goal (only the fourth person to ever do so), I actually cheered. In the episode and the show in general, Richman’s a funny, charismatic guy, and it’s fun to watch him go to a new city each week and talk about the food that makes it distinctive and cool. Richman reminds us that, at minimum, every city has friendly people and local food traditions to offer. You don’t need to go to New York or Paris to have unique, memorable outings. That’s another thing I really like about the show—Adam comes across as respectful of every place’s local flavors, whether he’s in a town of ten million or a hundred thousand.
I also love the bit in every episode where he goes back to the kitchen and tries to get the owner or chef to reveal secret recipes and techniques. They never do, of course, but we at least get to see Adam’s true enjoyment of the food, the people who make it, and their methods. Plus, he always analyzes basic, down-home food as though it were gourmet. Every recipe offers a “rich interplay” of flavor, sweetness, and spiciness. Every cooking technique “really seals in the juices” and gets the food to a “perfect golden brown.” The meat always “falls off the bone.” Seriously, you could make a drinking game out of the way he repeats food-critic clichés, but I love every one of them.
So now I’m beginning to understand a little more why I like Man v. Food so much. Above all, it’s a fun, entertaining show about people who care deeply about food and local culture. Somewhere, perhaps underneath a big gob of melted cheese and bacon bits, there’s real meaning in that.