Never one to not have an opinion, our favourite Pete Cashmore ponders if British Food TV has lost its place and whether US food programmes really do reign?
Once upon a time, the idea of US TV food shows being better than our own would have been the stuff of a madman’s dreams. After all, as a nation, we gave the world the greatest TV chef of them all, Keith Floyd, and influence always trickles down from greatness.
But somewhere, atrophy started to set in, to the point that, it pains me to say, British food TV is generally pretty embarrassing, and occasionally downright idiotic. Once the floodgates open, it’s only a matter of time before Jamie Olivers start to get in.
Embarrassing? Really? Yes, really. Saturday Kitchen has never recovered from the loss of James Martin, who in turn has failed to transfer his magic to ITV, two birds killed with one unwelcome stone. Masterchef and The Great British Menu are more or less totally interchangeable and both insist on their trademark ridiculous pregnant pauses and bombastic soundtracks to create tension that isn’t actually there, and as a result, just look daft. The very idea of The Family Cooking Showdown, meanwhile, heaps shame upon the BBC, who simply cannot be bothered to come up with original franchises any more. And the worst of the lot are the heavy metal man-babies, The Hairy Bikers, whose presentational style is unbearably, hyperactively juvenile and, when they are touring international locales, occasionally heavily seasoned with casual racism which they seemingly fail to even recognise as being there. And then there’s Jamie Oliver, everybody’s pukka mucker, nobody’s friend.
Where did it all go wrong?
You can blame a general dumbing down of UK TV generally. Let’s face it, some of our most popular shows include The Only Way Is Essex, Mrs Brown’s Boys and The X Factor. We are, as a nation, seemingly getting stupider by the minute, at least in terms of what we want to watch. It would be nice if families throughout the UK settled down together to enjoy Black Mirror but I fear this will never happen. We’re idiots, for the most part. Soon there will be no need for food TV at all because none of us will be allowed near a hot grill for our own safety.
This still doesn’t explain the fact that US food TV is most assuredly now better than our own, since their own TV hits – Keeping Up With The Kardashians, say, or Jersey Shore, or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills – simply bring a different, glossier, none-more-bling strain of idiocy to something like TOWIE. It’s different idiocy but it’s still idiocy. It’s not like the United States is suddenly over-populated with genii demanding quality programming to stimulate their cerebrums – exhibit A being their current president. I doubt he’d watch Black Mirror either.
But US shows like Man Vs Food, Diners Drive-Ins & Dives, Man Fire Food, Cheap Eats, The Barefoot Contessa and Man Finds Food (there’s a bit of a ‘Man [something] Food’ motif in their titles, apparently) are smart, funky, funny and shot through with a genuine love of, and curiosity about, great food. And great food, moreover, that is regularly consumed by regular diners, as opposed to being sneered at by Jay Rayner or John Torode because they don’t like the colour scheme.
Man Vs Food is an interesting cove. If you judged it without really paying attention, you’d dismiss it as a jowly hymn to American gluttony – it bills itself as a search for the country’s ‘top pig-out spots’, and every episode sees host Adam Richman, or in later series Casey Webb after Richman decided to take his food hunt international with the aforementioned Man Finds Food, taking on an eating challenge that involves either comically excessive serving size, or nuclear levels of chilli-induced heat that usually score about 1,500,000 or more on the Scoville heat scale.
But you’d be doing it a huge disservice. The first half of every show – each one is set in a specific location – is devoted to finding less attritional meals prepared by chefs of genuine skill and care. They’re a salutary reminder that what might be classified as junk food doesn’t have to be junk at all. Chicago deep dish pizza, for example, is for my money the pizza pie (as opposed to the simple pizza, the ‘pie’ part is key) taken to its highest potential, so deep and decadent that the only issue with it that I can see is being able to eat it with your hands. Florida’s stone crab claws, meanwhile, are revealed to not just be great with melted garlic butter, but also 100 per cent sustainable, since, believe it or not, if you snip off a stone crab’s claw, it won’t die and a fresh claw will grow back. I mean, it’s not great if you happen to be an unlucky crab who has been de-clawed half a dozen times, that would annoy even the hardiest crustacean, but it’s an example of MVF’s attention to esoteric detail that makes it as fascinating as it is mouth-watering. Like, did you know that in Boise, Idaho, the number one local meal is the Cornish pasty? It should be noted that, if the show is to be believed, they do them REALLY badly.
Hey, not all the food is great…
I was initially resistant to Diners Drive-In & Dives, being put off by its unappetising title, the ‘middle-aged Blink 182 fan’ fashion sense of host Guy Fieri and my misguided belief that it was just a Man Vs Food-Come-Lately, but in many ways it is the superior show – just – on account of its willingness to zig-zag the States at will, and its ‘procedural’ approach to the location’s signature dishes – by which I mean, it shows you how to cook them, albeit at a breakneck pace. These segments make one realise that, though a chef may work in a diner, a drive-in or a dive, the best of them take an insane level of fastidious care in the preparation of their food, and Fieri, despite the comedy bleached hair and propensity for ‘eccentric’ sunglasses, is a successful restaurateur and is presumably well-versed in playing second fiddle to his culinary genii, so is happy to play it straight and let the chefs walk him through the process. The show’s palate is also a lot broader than Man Vs Food’s, less beholden to burgers, hot dogs, pizza and fried things, although all of those feature too. Marlin burger, anyone? Wood-fired meatballs? Deep-fried poutine fritters? It’s all here.
If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say that British food TV has become tetchy and joyless – it’s significant that our most high-profile TV chef, young Mr Oliver, has morphed into a sanctimonious campaigner against anything that might be considered remotely bad for you, our own Man Vs Sugar – at precisely the juncture that US food TV has become a celebration of indulgence, of the SPLAT! and the OOZE! and the SIZZLE! and the BURRRRRP! of eating. We need to bring that joy back, lest its absence permanently dampens our eating pleasure. Let’s start by showing those Yanks how to make a proper Cornish pasty, and then take it from there.
Man Vs Food, Diners Drive-Ins & Dives, Man Fire Food, Cheap Eats, The Barefoot Contessa and Man Finds Food can all be seen in the UK on the Food Network channel.
Who is Pete Cashmore
Pete Cashmore is a freelance writer from Wolverhampton who has written for (deep breath)
The Guardian, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Independent, Marie Claire, Grazia, Loaded, Nuts, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Arena, The Face, Channel 4, Radio 1, Ministry, Mixmag, Muzik and the Lawn Tennis Association’s in-house magazine.
He was 2017’s West Midlands Journalist Of The Year.
He has just had his first children’s story Herbert The Honking Bee published. He can be found on Twitter at @tweetcashmore