Meatpaper eight

The Repulsion Will be Televised
On why we watch men eating meat

by Chris Ying
illustration by Katherine Streeter

JULY, 2009

A QUARTER OF THE WAY INTO CHASING AMY, Holden (Ben Affleck) and Banky (Jason Lee), two comic book writer-artists, are at the train station, headed on a two-day trip to a comics convention. On the train station floor, Banky unzips his dufflebag and produces a fat stack of nudie mags, to which Holden remarks, aghast:

Oh my God, who are you? Larry Fucking Flynt? What are you going to do with all those? ...

BANKY: Variety’s the spice of life. I like a wide selection. Sometimes I’m in the mood for nasty closeups. Sometimes I like ’em arty and airbrushed. Sometimes it’s a spread brown eye kind of night…

… and so forth. It’s a joke about how many types of porno there are. There are many, of course, and there are many avenues through which we procure them.

But the infinite fetishism that the porn industry caters to is only one manifestation of a general media oversaturation that has also produced a tangentially related — but probably more appropriate for this publication — phenomenon of television programming.

Currently populating a large part of the Travel Channel lineup are the following shows:

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations
Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern
Man v. Food
Dhani Tackles the Globe

All of these flagship shows — save Dhani, which we’ll get to — abide by a similar formula. Specifically, unattractive men eating unattractive meat.1 To wit: Bourdain, a lanky, weathered poplar of a man dines on feces-laden warthog colon in Namibia. Zimmern — squat, bald, and dressed in budget safari — eats wallaby tail in Australia. Adam Richman of Man v. Food travels America locking horns with various restaurants that reward people who can finish Brobdingnagian bowls of ramen or 7-pound breakfast burritos. He’s sort of neolithic in appearance.2

Each show appeals to one of two distinct forms of fascination: voyeurism or surrogacy. Voyeurism is
the same attraction that spawned reality television, shock jockery, talk shows, rubbernecking, and raunchy porn. Surrogacy, or vicariousness, appeals to would-be gastrotourists, who, upon hearing their preferred travel host declare that Malaysian torpedo soup is “hmm… not bad,” bubble over with jealousy at the prospect of slurping down their own steaming bowl of ox dong.3

Neither voyeurism nor surrogacy has anything todo with our relationship to food. That relationship is
a simple one. Or rather, it was once a simple one. Food sustains us. Food tastes good. This encourages us to continue to eat it, survive, and maintain the species. It’s the same with sex. Sex gives us pleasure, so we seek it out, produce future generations of sex-seekers, and maintain the species.

And so we kill animals and ruin personal relationships for the sake of these satisfactions. But in spite of whatever moral objections one might have, both sex and eating meat still fall within the realm of natural. Where food television and pornography come into play is from a distinctly unnatural entry point. Neither provides us with the pleasure it hints at. They elicit hunger and lust without satiation, which it would seem would make us hate them. Yet we continue to gobble up both.

And as with pornography, food television is multifarious. It’s not all still-beating cobra hearts and crispy seahorses. Over on the Food Network — the foil of the Travel Channel — the lineup includes
the following:

Giada at Home
Barefoot Contessa
30 Minute Meals
Paula’s Best Dishes
Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello
Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller
Tyler’s Ultimate
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives

Most of this Food Network lineup relies equally on our attraction to spectacle and vicariousness, but
directs itself at a different audience (again, save for one outlier in Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives). What’s for sale on the Food Network is a more chichi lifestyle than the gastro-adventure face stuffing marveled at or aspired to by Travel Channel viewers. There are no dimly lit backalley street food stands or closeups of animals in half disassembly. What there is is soft-focus photography, impeccable set design, well-groomed hosts, chicken, beef, pork, and fish — much more palatable and recognizable forms of meat.

Considered in the context of the unattractive men/unattractive meat (UM/UM) narrative, the Food
Network’s polished lineup gives us a clearer view of the equation. There’s an inverse proportion, it seems, between one’s level of attractiveness — or at least TV presentability — and the attractiveness of the meat one is required to eat onscreen. So if

A is a numerical measure of a TV host’s physical attractiveness, let’s say, out of 10.
And R is a numerical measure of the repulsiveness of the meat that the host must eat, also 1–10.
Then, R = 10/A.

For example: Andrew Zimmern, who probably consumes the most unattractive meat of any TV host,
is like a 1.5 physically, and the meat he eats is a 6.667 in repulsiveness. While Giada De Laurentiis, who eats a 1 in repulsive food, is then a 10 (A = 1(10); A=10) in TV presentability.4 It looks something like this:

This is all just a roundabout way of saying, the weirder-looking you are, the weirder the food you have to eat. The two outliers I mentioned — Dhani and Diners — serve to make the case. Dhani Jones, a dapper NFL linebacker who designs bowties on the side, trots around from country to country learning about and competing in various national sports. While in country, he’ll eat the
local food. But where Bourdain and Zimmern force smiles as they consume swallow’s nests and insect larvae, Dhani fusses and moans when presented with unfamiliar durian or frog’s legs. He’ll stick out his tongue for the teensiest taste before fleeing. But he’s a football player and he’s good looking; we don’t expect him to be eating the nasties.

And then there’s Guy Fieri, who hosts Diners, Drive- Ins and Dives. He’s not prim and comforting like the Barefoot Contessa, nor fratboy-ish and hunky like Tyler Florence. He looks like an acid-washed porcupine, and for this he travels around the country gobbling up greasyspoon burgers and enchiladas. He’s like a 1.75 in looks, and eats a 5.7 in gross food.

* * *

Niche marketing isn’t news, nor is the fact that less attractive people have to perform more ridiculous acts than hot people to get on TV. But there are ramifications of UM/UM programming.

The fetishization of exotic foods eventually leads to the importing of dishes and nonnative food products, which creates a sort of disruption of cultural — and biological — ecology. You can see it for yourself whenever you set foot into a sushi joint in Indiana.

And long before Whole Foods starts selling frozen turtle meat pies, there remains the fact that these hosts are expending energy and resources marching into obscure locales so that they might sample some local critter. From time to time, animals are killed onscreen, and the producers play up their host’s cavalier lack of squeamishness. If the complaint about porn is that women are treated like meat, then the problem with UM/UM television is that meat is treated like meat.

Still, is there really a hierarchy of nobility when it comes to killing and consuming animals? Does
the impoverished family that first killed and ate the horrifying, trilobyte-looking horseshoe crab have more right to do so than the aging TV personality who does so for a living?

In all honesty, we can’t really blame television for overfishing, or for lousy, overpriced renditions of street food in upscale restaurants. Nor can we blame TV for aspiring housewives lusting after organic home gardens and Hamptons beach houses. It’d be like blaming porn for teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. It’s all just entertainment. And at the end of the day, food television, like porn, is irrevocably and essentially unsatisfying. They keep turning us on, but we keep
watching, mouths watering and agape in horror.


1. It’s of course unfair of me to categorically declare these men to be unattractive. I mean only to say that they’re not Adonises. They’re regular Joes: aging, overweight, malshaped, and disproportionate
just like any of the rest of us layfolk.

2.Filling out the rest of the daily Travel Channel schedule are shows like these:

Extreme Pig Outs
Steak Paradise: A Second Helping
Extreme Fast Food
Ice Cream Paradise
Deep-Fried Paradise

They fall into a different category than the flagship shows, as they don’t generally have a host. Still, they have the same contentious will-testing, gut-busting relationship with food, and are therefore
worth mentioning.

3. I’m not sure which is foremost, voyeurism or surrogacy. My personal interest falls into the latter category, but from time to time I will linger on Bizarre Foods and shout to whomever is in the room
(or to no one at all), “You’ve got to see this. You’ve got to see this.”

4 I also like to think that there’s a secret numerical constant that TV execs abide by when greenlighting a show. On our 1–10 scale, that constant is 10. So, A × R = 10. If our hypothetical TV host is a 2.1 in attractiveness, and we’ve got him going around the world eating macaroons and tea sandwiches, we’ve got to bring the repulsive level of his food to 4.76 before that show gets off the ground.

Chris Ying is an editor at McSweeney's, a former cook, and sometimes blogger. He is also an editor of this magazine.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eight.