Chef Todd Fisher likes his food big, tasty, and American. In United States of Food, our sizable host embarks on a three-part national odyssey to pinpoint the most creative, delicious, and often grotesquely proportioned applications of American cuisine across the country. The result — a three-part series premiering 8 July on Discovery’s Destination America (the channel replacing the eco-inclined Planet Green) — is sometimes mouth-watering, sometimes disgusting, and too often irritating.
Each episode of United States of Food is organized around a specific ingredient common to the menu items at the establishments Fisher visits. All three focus on meats, and Sunday’s premiere is all about that guiltiest of protein pleasures — bacon. Very early in “United States of Bacon,” the series’ formula becomes very clear. Fisher, equipped with a barrel torso, frost-spiked locks, and an annoyingly forward on-camera manner, visits restaurants and bars (even, in one case, a food truck), banters with the in-house cooks as they prepare their wares, and then samples those wares and praises their enormous flavor to the rafters. These sequences are intercut with snippets of interviews with patrons enjoying the food, as well as short historical sketches of the restaurant and sometimes of the dish as well.
If this set of episodic features sounds at all familiar to you, then you’ve probably surfed past the Food Network constant Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives at some point, or perhaps you’re a fan of its endlessly repeatable recipe. Either way, Fisher is cribbing from both the “Triple D” concept and host Guy Fieri’s performance style with shameless abandon.
And so: Fisher mugs fiercely, contorting his facial features into exaggerated expression of gastronomical pleasure after each bite. He briefly sketches some of the effects of the mixed flavors, demonstrating enough expertise to quiet the doubts about his chefly bona fides that his mugging engenders. He fist-bumps and shoots the breeze with the proprietors and bacon artists, who seem uncomfortable to have him all up in their grill (in both senses of the phrase), but endure the annoyance with a view to the bump in attendance that is sure to result from being on TV. Fisher even steals a vintage Fieri-ism when he describes one especially succulent bacon concoction as being “on point.”
What “United States of Bacon” proves is that the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives formula does not necessarily transfer smoothly into someone else’s hands. Fieri is a ridiculous figure, but in a way that works for him alone. He’s a chef who’s made himself into a clown, but he’s a fine clown for his chosen gig because he has no lingering sense of dignity. Fisher, with his conservative sartorial choices and tempered coiffure, tries hard to imitate Fieri’s tone of enthusiastic gluttony but cannot quite approximate it, a failure that is due to his evident effort to be tackier than he is. Fieri is a living cartoon, while Fisher is inherently live-action, no matter how cartoonish he tries to be.
I don’t mean to imply that United States of Food is deficient only because it’s a direct rip-off of another show. Indeed, the series boasts several poor features all its own. Fisher (or his writing crew) returns to the odious term “bucket list” obsessively in describing the principles of the program’s overarching quest for flavor. Not only is this a term well past its trending date, but also, when employed in conjunction with bacon in the premiere episode, it conjures up a vision of a pail overflowing with oily pork belly strips. Even if you like the stuff (and I surely do), this is not an appetizing way to be made to think about bacon.
Neither is it helpful that some of the extraordinary menu applications of bacon are unappetizing. Fisher’s first stop is at a Michigan truck stop that serves a BLT of revolting excess: each sandwich comes with a pound of bacon, which cascades down onto the plate like a slag heap. The chef stabs a steak knife through the top bread slice, seemingly not because the cutlery will be of any use but rather to reassure apprehensive patrons that the monstrosity they are being served is no longer a living organism. Later worrisome items include a bacon milkshake and a five-pound “bomb” of ground beef and sausage wrapped in bacon, but the tone is set by the Michigan joint, which goes through an unfathomable 11,000 pounds of bacon a week during busy periods.
Surely this televised lionizing of smoked pig fat is wasteful and unhealthy and so on. But from a food conservation point of view, “United States of Bacon” may actually reap benefits. This is rehashed, reheated, red-meat television that may actually discourage viewers from consuming too much more of what they’re seeing. Like bacon, or indeed like burgers and steak, United States of Food isn’t good for you. But unlike them, it doesn’t taste very good either.