Close Encounters
By Laura Fissinger


Man V. Food
The Bliss Of Large Bites, Reclaimed

Okay, I concede that cable television airs each episode of each series into infinity. Still, trust me — you want to set your digital recording device just to be sure: Man V. Food airs on The Travel Channel Wednesday nights, 10 p.m. E/P.  Its third season starts in early summer. In the meanwhile, you have (as close as I could tally on The Travel Channel web site) 17 episodes from the first season and twenty from the second to keep you happy.

Even I, a woman devoted to Man and the significant happy it gives, haven't seen all of the installments yet. A large pile of episodes have become favorites. A few have become a little worn. But only a few. When they're on I leave 'em, and pay attention during the (many) parts that make me smile.

Smiling and eating—now there's a hook-up I don't hear enough about anymore. In current popular culture, especially the parts geared toward women, eating has become fraught with big bad things and scores of frowny no-no's. Good reasons back a lot of this up, granted: according to some studies, around two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese.

That statistic has the power to stun.

So what's a show that seems to celebrates overeating doing, ascending to hit status on basic cable?

Adam Richman, host of Man v. Food: Suggesting a daily appreciation of the connection between food and gold-medal fun.

First of all, it doesn't celebrate overeating as a daily life choice. Man V. Food cheers for big portions ingested on occasion. What it suggests we appreciate daily is the connection between food and gold-medal fun. Surprisingly, a strong link between food and fun can help people control how much they ingest. I'm absolutely overcooked about staying slender myself. I swear, though, I feel so much more positive about chow in general because of this funny, joy-centric, food-centric travelogue. Who'd a thunk, as wry host Adam Goodman himself might say.

For those who've yet to sample Man V. Food, here's the episodic template: for every thirty-minute installment, host/resident ingester Richman visits a different city. He goes to a couple of diners or casual eating restaurants and samples their best-known specialties, talking to owners, chefs/cooks, and patrons for the local and regional angles, the history of some of the dishes, and so forth.

The editors do a lot of fast cutting, most shots held together by Richman's on-camera presence or voice-overs.  Not only does the viewer get a vicarious taste of an eating establishment's most serious temptations, we get a better sense of the city or town's personality. From Boise to Amarillo to Boston, we travel with Richman on a lot of levels.

Oh, and we eat with him, too.

The Travel Channel hit big pay dirt when Richman's agent sent him to audition for this gig in 2008. The imaginative   graduate of the Yale School of Drama's master's degree program has a natural connection to us through that camera with which certain performers are simply born. He looks at us, takes a (massive, but closed-mouth!) bite of a burger or pancakes or oysters, then looks at us again—we're right there. My mouth has watered liberally courtesy of Richman's telegenic face more than once.

Oh, about the eyes with which he looks at the camera lens, or the corned beef—they're freakishly expressive. When this show ends, Richman will get other television gigs. The eyes have it. 

The second half of most episodes features the eating challenge du jour. Richman and the producers do a lot of research, according to Richman, to find the chow challenges that are truly a part of a city's history as well as present appeal. Most locales have more than one iconic eating challenge, of course, which guarantees Man V. Food a nice, long run if Richman's digestive track can hang in there.

One of Richman's pet peeves is being misidentified as a competitive eater. He most emphatically is not, as he states in the show's opening voice-over. Eating competitions almost always center on many of one thing, like a large number of hot dogs or hard-boiled eggs; almost always, too, a large number of competitors do the contest together.

During a Man V. Food eating challenge, Richman usually sits alone at a small table loaded with an edible like a perversely large burrito, or a 72 oz. steak (Amarillo, TX.) or a plateful of uber-hot chicken wings. One challenge featured 15 dozen oysters (God bless Adam for using aphrodisiac jokes sparingly)—that was the number set. It wasn't "Hey, TV Guy, eat as many of these little slimes as you can in 20 minutes!"

After he either wins or loses a challenge—he wins over half, give or take—Richman holds a mock press conference, often wearing sunglasses or a towel over his shoulders. The questions are silly fun, allowing Richman to give some silly and funny answers, followed by a pitch for The Travel Channel's website, where his video log and a load of show information reside.

Richman wasn't only an actor when he scored this gig. The 36-year-old Brooklyn native attended Emory University in Atlanta for an International Studies degree. While there, according to TC's site, the undergrad began keeping "a food journal to document the standout food establishments he was discovering throughout the Southeastern U.S..." The food journal continued after graduation, while Richman "built a solid resume" working "from coast to coast and from the counter to the kitchen,” gaining "invaluable on-the-job experience."

When Richman and his nimble intelligence landed at Yale for the master's degree, the food journal continued. After graduation, Richman appeared on a few soaps, one Law and Order, and in a whole lot of regional theater. In a piece of predictive casting circa 2004, he portrayed a butcher who was also God on the late, lamented drama Joan of Arcadia. He continued to work in the food business and keep his journal. Finally, the Travel Channel handed him the proverbial big break.

Richman says he had no idea if he could complete food challenges or not when he accepted the job, even though he was, as he says in the show's intro, a "food fanatic...with a serious appetite.” When it became obvious that he could do the challenges very well indeed, Richman got down to the
serious business of staying healthy with a job that necessitated so much deliciousness, so many calories, the ingestion of so much perfectly fatted meat.

Richman told my jewish that he does, at a "bare minimum,” an hour of cardio every day. "For the big-quantity challenges...I do a very heavy leg and back workout, which gets my metabolism just screaming. It really helps," he explained to On the road he has oatmeal for breakfast and keeps the day's menu centered on sushi, grilled fish, greens, vegetables, legumes, sweet potatoes, "lots of fiber, and no saturated fats.” Besides saving his health, the "hungry dude" prefers to stay "attractive to the fairer sex" and look good on camera, too. "If I start looking really, really, bad, folks will start to worry about me, and they won't enjoy the show." When cravings for favorite foods like pizza surface during weeks off, he said he only has to remember the quantities of his best-loved treats he'll be packing away on the next taping trip. Temptation, ducked.

Even as a long-time vegetarian, I get vicarious thrills watching Adam swoon over the crust on a brisket or crab claws or whatever else is on an episode's menu. As he's said, the swooning is for real. It really is the taste of the food, in the challenge segment of the show, which drives him and makes such large amounts of eating possible.

Also motivating Richman and the producers is a belief that food culture and history make up a critical part of a city's pride in itself. Explained the host on the show's website: "I always say that it doesn't matter whether I win or lose, it's all about being part of the culinary folklore of a city." This kind of media attention also helps make cities more attractive to families planning vacations. Said Richman about Springfield, Illinois, the boyhood turf of Abraham Lincoln: "It has an shine a candle on a place we can take pride in is something we can cherish. Oh, and Springfield—it's just on Route 66—the original corndog is from Springfield."

Richman is a devout carnivore, spice devotee and savory-foods follower. Me, I'm a sweets babe. Once in a while, he jumps to sugar-lovers' heaven. One of those challenges, in fact, led him to his sole on-camera hurling attack to date. Fear not, newbies—Man V. Food producers put a hilariously discreet graphic right over the scene of the accident. When Richman emerged from the loo, he wore a sheepish half-smile and freshened clothing.

The edible substance that got the best of our TV hero? Milk shakes. His mistake, said the voiceover during the episode, was mixing vanilla with coffee with eggnog with mocha. Feed Richman too much starch or too much sweet dairy and that tell-all face starts wearing expressions of "if I don't stop now..." Keep your eye peeled for a rematch of Adam and the 120 Oz. Malt Milkshake Challenge at Crown Candy Kitchen in St. Louis.

Yet Richman is one of the few patrons to ever conquer the legendary Kitchen Sink Challenge at the San Francisco Creamery. I sat in front of my TV gripped by envy: Adam got to eat two gallons of ice cream plus a banana plus hot fudge and whipped cream (the real thing, of course!), with sprinkles and a cookie and a brownie plus more toppings plus—oh, I wanted that ice cream Everest!

Given what happened in St. Louis (Richman nicknamed it the St. Louis Massacre), why didn't our hero choose only one ice cream flavor? How did he win this one?

He almost didn't. Richman came close to waving his white napkin, but hung in there without flinching until the "stone fox" Creamery owner sweetly reminded him that he had to gulp down all the melted goo filling up the silver tray underneath the giant square kitchen sink dish.

He did it.

Between The Travel Channel, the Food Network and a few others, there are several solid shows aiming to spotlight and preserve the culinary individuality and history of towns and cities from Los Angeles to New York.

But no other eating/cooking/travel show stars the hungry dude with the love of sports in general (and minor league baseball in particular), the love of cooking and eating, the love of travel, and the love of town hall Saturday night guitar rock and roll.

Maybe most important—Adam Richman has the biggest appetite for laughter and joy.

Laura graphic by Laura Fissinger (

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