Food is good to think with. Of course, all humans have to eat to survive but food is also a key indicator of cultural differences and cultural change. Everyone eats, but cultures vary widely in what and how. So food becomes ritualised, a bonding mechanism, a way of expressing cultural hierarchies, in short, a symbol. Food enables us to think about what cultures value, and how they are changing. If Creative Advertisers need an exemplary topic to chew on (sorry!), this is it.
Our second-year Creative Advertising students went to some lengths to experience food rituals for themselves and engage in some primary research. One of the most arresting topics was competitive eating. Students Jade Andrews, Emily Collins and Christina Wornum for their Women v. Food project braved a local restaurant’s offer: ‘Eat your way through a giant pile of burgers and chips and you get your photo in their hall of fame!’ Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the girls failed the challenge.
What they did succeed in, however, was generating plenty of ideas. Does this hark back to earlier times? The earliest times when there was competition for food? Competitive eating contests in America – where the current popular sport appears to have originated – itself had its roots in pie-eating competitions in county fairs. But why is competitive eating popular now? In terms of TV entertainment we can see how food has become associated with the competitive elements in reality TV programming, not just Man v Food, the popular US show, but a range of other programmes such as those featuring celebrity chefs.
It’s easier to think about the more strictly commercial reasons for competitive eating than the cultural ones. Competitions attract custom to restaurants, branded sponsorship deals, groups of increasingly well-known eating champions, and high entertainment value. That part is not so hard to understand. It’s developed commercial and media momentum.
But what if we try to explain it from a cultural angle? After all we live in ‘foodie times’ ever questing after the exotic, authentic and adventurous in our cuisine. We disparage waste. We have diet-awareness thrust upon us. On the other hand, as Jade, Emily and Christine pointed out, actually tasting and savouring real food is on the decline through grazing habits in contemporary family life and a continuous supply, no longer seasonally-based, of any type of food from all over the world.
Perhaps competitive eating is a symptom of that decline. Perhaps competitors appeal to us because they are ordinary people who just have this rather odd but special talent. Potentially anyone could do it and become a ‘sports’ champion without all the training needed for athletic prowess– and many are encouraged to try. Journalists examining the issue emphasise the sheer sickening horror and pain of the binge experience. And there seems to be an assumption that competitive eating won’t take off here in the UK, at least not to the same extent as in the US, that somehow British culture with its traditions of restraint will prove resistant. Of course, from the restaurants’ point of view, there are obvious advantages (at least, restaurants with a certain type of clientele in mind presumably.) So watch this space!
Whether you fancy your chances of winning a competition or not, you might enjoy watching this short film of the girls’ heroic efforts. Bon appetit!