The television show ‘Man v. Food’, first screened in 2008, has become popular on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise more recently to the programmes ‘Man v. Food Nation’ and ‘Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America’. The basic concept is simple: the host, Adam Richman, travels across the U.S. sampling the food of different cafés and restaurants, finishing each episode by attempting to complete a food challenge based around either quantity or spiciness (or both). Typical challenges include eating a 72 oz. steak and consuming 180 oysters in 60 minutes.
The show gives us an interesting insight into the infantilising effect of American food. The food included in the show is typically American: hot-dogs, burgers, chicken wings and pizzas feature heavily. This is food which is eaten from the hands, without knife and fork; it is messy, often impossible to consume without falling apart and covering the diner’s hands and face. Such food returns us to an infantile state, allowing us to revel in a form of consumption which rejects social etiquette. The excessive nature of the food is part of this. The enormous burgers and steaks reactivate primal desires which are normally repressed: they promise to fulfil our desire in the same way as the breast holds out to the young child the possibility of re-unification with the (m)other to whom it is attached.
According to Melanie Klein, though, the breast has two sides. The hungry infant divides it into the opposing forms of the ‘good breast’ and the ‘bad breast’. The good breast is the breast that feeds us, offering fulfilment, while the bad breast is what emerges when the child expects to find the breast but doesn’t. As a result, the breast comes to be conceived as monstrous, an enemy to be attacked and destroyed. This interplay between good breast and bad breast is revisited in every episode of ‘Man v. Food’. The enormous meal, as the object of desire, stands in for the good breast, but it also appears before us as something monstrous which must be vanquished. This is why its consumption is staged as a contest. Every time the show concludes with either ‘Man Wins’ or ‘Food Wins’: either the breast has been subdued or it has rejected us. In this relationship, though, no result can be definitive; we are always compelled to repeat the drama again in the next episode and the next challenge.