There's a case to be made that the downfall of western civilization is currently being documented, and that documentation is reality television.
One thousand years from now, it wouldn't be all that shocking if a professor teaching a Late American History class pops in a few tapes of "Honey Boo Boo," "Real Housewives" and "Jersey Shore," as evidence of where it all started to go wrong. But an even worse offender than that trio of depravity, one that actually may symbolize the sad state of our craven culture more succinctly and directly, is Food Network's former title "Man vs. Food."
For the uninitiated, the show followed Adam Richman as he traveled the country in search of the latest "food challenge" to put his body through. For instance, season three's premiere found Richman heading to San Diego's Broken Yolk Cafe to eat their "12-egg omelet filled with sautéed onions, mushrooms, and shredded American cheese, and topped with chili and more shredded cheese... 1½ pounds of hash browns and two large buttermilk biscuits." In order to "win" the challenge, Richman needed to finish that meal -- something that could easily feed an entire village -- in under one hour. He did it.
On January 27th of 2012, Richman retired from the show, ending the run of the series. (While he didn't explicitly give a reason why, the smart money's on him getting a letter of concern from his cardiologist.) But the damage was already done. While food challenges and competitive eating contests have been lingering in the margins of society for awhile now, the show normalized that kind of activity to the point where there are more than ever. The message from the show to restaurateurs was simple: Give customers an unhealthy and unnatural amount of food, publicity will follow.
And it has. In a culture that promotes "huge" over "healthy," news coverage of eateries that participate in these food challenges is rampant. And because of this, I tend to keep this space free and clear of mention of food challenges. But there's one that's taking place in Japan that, for once, actually is promoting something positive in the AYCE realm.
The challenge comes courtesy of a restaurant in Sapporo, Japan, which makes their customers sign an agreement before attempting to eat their "tsukko meshi" dish (a bowl of rice piled high with as much salmon roe as you want). The catch, though, isn't that customers sign a waiver clearing the restaurant from heart attacks, or that they can use their face on a mug, or some nonsense like that. The agreement is that if the customer fails to finish the meal, they have to pay a fine:
According to the explanation in the menu, the working conditions for fishermen are harsh and so dangerous that it's not unknown for lives to be lost. To show our gratitude and appreciation for the food they provide, it is forbidden to leave even one grain of rice in your bowl. Customers who do not finish their tsukko meshi must give a donation.
This is a brilliant act, but perhaps not for the reason you expect.
If you'd ever eaten at a buffet, where plates and plates of uneaten food are piled into trash cans, there's certainly a desire to see those overzealous gluttons be punished, especially when half of the world's food being trashed. But that's not the big thing going on here.
Instead, the brilliance of the challenge is where the fine is going to: A fund to assist the fisherman making the meal possible. This is an act by the restaurant owner to force his customers into knowing where their food is coming from. That it's coming from real people putting their lives in real danger. In fact, the owner even goes beyond the challenge, making his staff train on a fishing boat before coming to work at his place. That way, they're more able to inform customer about the food's origin.
This, then, is the big take-away lesson from this food challenge. It's important not because it's a case where customers are actually getting fined for not finishing their meal. It's important because it's actually an effective attempt to educate customers about where their food is coming from. And that kind of knowledge is much more valuable than a T-shirt that reads, "I ate the whole thing!"